Playing with your ears

May 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

[ david Helbich's Kortrijk Tracks. A soundwalk. ]

Louis the Sun King made a number of very strict scores for garden walks. He laid down, in Louis Quatorzian French, how precisely one should walk through his garden in Versailles. Louis walked with his entourage through that garden. And where the Sun King stopped and looked to the left, everyone stopped and looked to the left. So here’s this very complex garden, and it appears to be quite a different one when you are in this place and look to the left, or when you go a bit further and look to the left. There’s different perspectives, other details, other things… This kind of let’s say: absolutism, is something I love to play with. It is the composer, the artist, who decides when and where you will have this, or maybe rather that, experience.”

“The second of my Kortrijk Tracks is called The Garden. It is a track for the Houtmarkt. Which is a square that is called the ‘wood market’, but in fact is just a parking lot. There I put to use Guy Debord’s situationist technique to find your way somewhere, relying on a map from a very different place. Like stubbornly consulting the map of Paris while walking through a German forest. I project part of one of Louis the Great’s garden maps onto that parking lot and ask the users of the guide to move over the Houtmarkt along those lines, as precisely as possible. As a result, already at the outset the audio guide’s absolutism gets undermined. Because the situation there will not allow you to do so, at least not exactly. The place is full of cars. So you are forced to make your own decisions. “

“There is, of course, a touch of irony: ‘this Houtmarkt must have been such a sweet little square, and now they turned it into a parking lot’ … But a parking lot has its own kind of beauty, with its geometrical play of drawn white lines, delimiting the paths and spaces where cars are allowed to ride and stand.”

Which gives it a certain very formal quality.

“Exactly. It is like a score for the movement of cars. And drivers adapt themselves. They might simply ignore the lines. But they hardly ever do. They all stick to the choreography.”

David Helbich was born in Berlin in the early 1970s, and has been living and working in Brussels for more than ten years. Starting out as a composer (he studied composition with Daan Manneke in Amsterdam, and in Freiburg with Matthias Spahlinger), David soon manifested himself also as an installation and performance artist, as a choreographer and as a conceptual artist, while his main field of action gradually moved into public space. All of these interests and disciplines converge in Kortrijk Tracks, an audio guide commissioned by the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk and the RESONANCE Network.

“I started writing for air guitar. This means that as a composer, I left out the instrument. I wrote the piece for a guitar player, but it actually put me right in the middle of movement theater (bewegingstheater) and gave me a link to Fluxus, which I have always felt strongly attracted to. At the same time I remained attached to contemporary music, and in practice I ended up somewhere in between. So I asked myself: what if you would really compose these performative actions, instead of just developing them from movement? What if you’d write them down as scores? So I continued to be a composer, but left out the instruments. Somewhat later I started to do performance theater, with sound and movements. I worked with a dancer, and I let the audience move around: ‘Have a look at her here, and then go have a look at me there’… I was still composing, arranging things in time, putting them in a certain order. But what actually excited me most, was the movement of the audience. As a result, I left out more and more material. All that music. All those media… I was fed up. I didn’t want them anymore. I had already stopped using instruments, and now I also no longer wanted video beamers, no more slides, no loud speakers … I wanted nothing but an empty space, but then had to reflect upon what there was left for me to do. So I walked around with people in a theater. I continued to think of this as composition, because I still strictly organized things. But ultimately this was more about us being our own material, which is something you will also find at the heart of my audio guide. Then finally, at some point, I said to myself: ‘Hey David, you are still working inside a theater! Why not get rid of the theater as well?’ So I stepped outside…”

Like but few others David is aware of the rich history of his field. Between October 2006 and January 2007, he organised in Brussels a series of 12 Walks, each of which related to a different concept taken from the history of walking in the arts.

“What especially mattered to me in the context of those walks, and which also is central to my Kortrijk Tracks, is that you have to be aware that, in a manner of speaking, ‘you never walk alone’. Whatever form you choose, you are never alone with your medium, with your form, with your content. You are always part of this immensely complex world. So you have to find out how much of that world you want to let in, and to which extent you want to lock yourself out in order to do your art. That complex world is the outside, but it also includes the audience. And the agreement – I like to call it a ‘conspiracy’ – to get involved in … well, yeah, in a work of art. In what I sometimes call ‘the offer’. The word ‘soundwalk’ of course is deceptive. For it always is also a walk-walk and a visual walk, it is a traffic walk, an architecture walk and an urbanism walk. And it is a social walk, as in general you will be with a group of people. So you are walking next to who? And how is the group moving?”

A couple of years ago in Brooklyn I participated in a soundwalk where the participants were led through the streets blindfolded.

“I myself have worked with earplugs. Because the more you are shielding off your ears, the more you will be focusing on your hearing. And obviously also when blindfolded you are not walking by your ears alone.”

Touch becomes very important. We were going hand in hand, like a little train.

“I find some form of minimalism to be essential. I offer but little, which makes the experience all the greater. That’s my minimalist principle. The world is chaotic, but what I offer is highly structured. In that sense I am still very much composing. Those walks were usually very strictly timed… ‘and then we go to the left, and then we are here, and then there is another group coming from that side, suddenly crossing our path’ … That’s a score. But there are no ‘offers’. Like actors that suddenly appear and do something. I will not suddenly come out and say something, or show you something… I say nothing. I show nothing. The thing is showing itself. That’s because there is a context, a framework. It makes the audio guide far more than just a piece of sound art. Above anything else, it gives you a context for very different experiences and a very varied focus on a town. And it all starts with the decision to go to the tourist office and pick up a set of headphones, an mp3 player and the book.”

The sounds that we hear in the headphones, are they sounds from Kortrijk? Or do they originate in very different places?

“I want to think of them as functional sounds. There’s a certain number of effects that I like to create. Some of the sounds are field recordings that were made at a number of different places, but there’s also recordings made in Kortrijk. This is related to a basic technique that I already usesd in the very first audio guide that I made, in 2008, together with the Belgian composer Paul Craenen. We recorded the streets in the vicinity of the art workspace (kunstenwerkplaats) in Elsene (Ixelles), with binaural microphones. The idea for the sound walk then was to have people listen to a street while they were walking in that same street, thus effectively doubling the sound scape. It’s a very simple method, but one that creates a fascinating shift.”

You are walking in the street and you hear its sounds. And simultaneously, over the headphones, you are listening to a sonic transposition in time of the very same spots in that very same street.

“You do not know whether the car that you are hearing is real. You think someone is passing by, but when you look, there’s no one there. Or the other way round: you hear somebody walking and think it’s the recording. But then suddenly a real person appears. This corresponds head on to the reduction that I am looking for: the reduction of material, the reduction of composition… You reduce all intervention. And the result no longer is a composition, because you simply are listening to that same street. But again, it is very strictly organized. I then used this principle in an audio guide for the Elsensesteenweg (Chaussée d’Ixelles). This is a busy, quite narrow and sloping street in Brussels. A lot of people get off the bus at the foot of the slope and walk to the tube station at the top. Often that will be quicker. The bus regularly gets stuck in the traffic. This struck me as a particularly funny social phenomenon that I wanted to make use of. The audio guide should, in some way or other, relate to the city. Then, pretty soon, I mix in other field recordings. First these are sounds from the neighborhood, like from inside a shop somewhere along the street. It will give you the impression that you are listening through a wall, because the basic track continues to be a recording of the street’s sounds. This confusion somehow opens up a space. As soon as you are no longer sure about what you are hearing or what you are seeing, as an artist I can do to you whatever I like. I actually prepare you to become receptive to surprises, because you are no longer sure about what is real and what is not. And then I add more exotic field recordings, from Caïro and other Arab cities, which (for example because of the Islamic prayers) have a soundscape very different from that of Brussels. So people start their walk in Elsene, and in the course of some fifteen minutes, via Caïro I lead them back to Elsene.”

It reminds me of your installation Public Sound, which was part of last year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk. There you had two loudspeakers mounted at the top of the gate of the Begijnhof, and played back recordings that were made in Nablus and Jerusalem.

“Indeed. One of the Kortrijk Tracks is based on that installation. It uses the same sound material, but in combination with a little choreography that tells you how to listen to the sounds. ‘Walk around the tree, stand still at a certain spot…’ The title of the track is Holodeck, please. You remember that? The Holodeck in Star Trek? It is no more than an empty space, but it will give you the illusion of a virtual reality. It will fool you into thinking that you are somewhere else. This also was the crux of my Public Sound installation. You find yourself standing inside this Begijnhof, but are given the impression that there’s a different city on the other side of the wall. The Beguines that used to live there always stayed within the Begijnhof’s confines. They only heard the city outside. Its sound was all they had.”

“When I started to work on the audio guide, my first idea was to limit myself to this technique of audio doubling and to pick a number of places where this technique would be the most effective. I never wanted to make one continuous walk. It’s more interesting to choose a number of different spots, and make more specific relations with the city. I even thought about sending people outside, to the outskirts. Because an audio guide has to be more than just an mp3 player with a set of headphones and a set of sounds to listen to. It should be a tool for much more than only sound art. It gives you reasons to do certain things, reasons to act. I can send someone somewhere to go. But then what should happen when he or she gets there? This I where I began to radicalize things. And because I found there was still something missing in my idea for an audio guide, I decided to accompany it with a booklet, which to each of the track adds a score, a set of instructions for performative actions at that particular spot. This is how I obtained a very close relation between the Kortrijk Tracks and the rest of my work.”

So what you offer is much more than just the listening to tracks via a set of headphones, at selected spots in Kortrijk. There’s a number of other, very different, activities involved. Each track comes with very explicit instructions on how to listen, how to move, where to stand, what to do…

“There are nine tracks, and nine places. The walk starts at the tourist office. From there it makes a helical movement, which leads you in a number of steps to the center of the city. And each of the nine tracks tries to redefine the meaning and the potential of an audio guide.”

“Three of the tracks – one in the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end – are exercises. They are called Warm-up, Keep-warm and Cool-down. The first is meant to warm up your ears, the second to keep them warm, and the final one is kind of a finishing off. They emphasize the fact that this is all about your ears; though it remains to be seen whether that indeed always will be the case. For the Warm-up, the beginning of the walk, I composed the gestures of mounting your headphones. You carry them to a small hill in front of the tourist office. It’s a spot where you can look out over the city. There you begin by warming your ears. You’ll need both hands free, so you put the headphones down. You then bring your hands slowly closer to your ears, press you hands against them, and so on. This is of course a highly conceptual way to prepare a soundwalk, leading up to this grand gesture of: now, now it begins! You pick up the headphones, you very slowly put them on, the track starts playing … and then what you hear is the sound of hands that manipulate a set of headphones. It’ll make you very aware of the fact that you are wearing this… thing… this plastic contraption. So here I directly address the materiality of the headphones, and the idea that you have to push buttons, that you will follow instructions. In a way it explains what an audio guide is. I explain the machine, then the audio guide, and finally the situation of you walking through Kortrijk. So this makes for quite a bit of reflection and self-referral. But of course it will not always be as pure as in the first track. After having enjoyed this fine view of the city and the Begijnhof, for the second track you turn around and within seconds will find yourself in the middle of the parked cars on the Houtmarkt. Or maybe it’s the garden of the Sun King’s Versailles. And so you spiral onwards through Kortrijk, from one place to another, through a shopping mall, across the Schouwburgplein, the Grote Markt, the Begijnhof, the parking in the Magdalenastraat, the busstation… There you perform what everyone else is performing: you stand and wait. And like quite a few others that will be listening to music on their iPods, you are wearing headphones. The difference is that you are not waiting for a bus. You wait for nothing. But it is only you who knows. So in fact you are cheating. But then, well, first of all nobody cares, and second nobody will notice. You have become an integral part of that particular situation. It is an act of perfect integration.”

“I had a related experience as a young man in Paris. I was waiting for my father, who was there for work, and I had some free time to spend. I loved Paris. I was from Bremen, it was a beautiful day, there were all these people speaking a language that at the time I did not speak myself, and it was all like… Maybe you know the feeling: you are in a city that fascinates you and, especially when you are still young, you very much want to become someone who’s at home there. You almost envy all those people that know all the unspoken rules and to who all of this is nothing special. So I tried to integrate. For those couple hours I wanted to become a real Parisian. I threw my jacket over my shoulder and began to walk fast, like everyone else. I stood and wobbled impatiently at pedestrian crossings, waiting for the lights to turn green, so that I could rush over to the other side. I was in a hurry, like everyone else. I was going somewhere, and I had to get there as quickly as possible. Well, I was not going anywhere, of course, but this is how I adapted myself to the city, to the situation: this is where I am, there is where I’m going… And during these few hours in Paris, people just kept on stopping me and asking for directions. It was hilarious. Suddenly I was no longer a tourist, I was someone who belonged there, someone who knew his way around. I found myself integrated in Paris… But I was just acting. And the same holds true for the audio guide. When people are walking around wearing headphones and holding a booklet, the world for them has become a theater. But it is also a stage. And they are the actors.”

David Helbich’s Kortrijk Tracks premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, as part of Sounding City‘s RESONANCE showcase, and as part of a collection of soundwalks for the city of Kortrijk, curated by the Festival’s director Joost Fonteyne. Currently the collection comprises David’s walk and Christina Kubisch’s ‘Electrical Walk Kortrijk’. It will be extended over the coming years (also see The Art of Soundwalk).
Throughout the year, these soundwalks are made available at Kortrijk’s tourist office to visitors of the Belgian town. David will also adapt his soundwalk for a number of other European cities, where it will be presented as part of upcoming RESONANCE events.
The Kortrijk Tracks make use of ‘pretty generic locations’, and David invites everyone to try the tracks in the city of their choice. You can listen to them and download the full set on Soundcloud, or using the player below. On his web site you can download the accompanying booklet with maps, instructions and scores, as well as a brief manual on how to use the tracks with an mp3 player.
For our Dutch and Flemish readers: this month’s edition (#115) of Gonzo (Circus) Magazine comes with Klankstappen (Soundsteps): a collection of eight downloadable soundwalks in Belgium and the Netherlands, which includes the Kortrijk Tracks and a re-enactment of the first ever Dutch soundwalk. Klankstappen is accompanied by an essay in the magazine on the history and meaning of the soundwalk, written by Danae Bos.

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