May 11, 2013 § 5 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.”
May 1, 2013 § 5 Comments
At the time of this conversation with Signe Lidén about her ‘Writings’ (an installation commissioned by the RESONANCE network, that premiered at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, as part of the Festival’s Sounding City sound art program), the space that would come to host the work, on the Buda tower’s ground floor, had nothing in it and still was little other than a hole, a cave, a cavity in the former brewery building: a floor, a ceiling, three concrete walls and a fourth one, made of glass. With words and gestures Signe tried to evoke an image of how that ‘cave’ would look like in a few weeks time. Not an easy task. But in this case it was an appropriate one. For holes, cavities, caves – ‘things’ that are both nothing and not nothing – are key elements in Signe’s work.
“Holes are a fascinating phenomenon. They consist of nothing, they are nothing in themselves,” Signe explained. “Holes are always defined in terms of their surroundings. Holes are matter-less. We perceive them because of the matter that surrounds them. And it is in this sense that a hole nevertheless is not a no-thing; it is not nothing. This is part of what I’m trying to come to grips with. I try to understand what this not nothing is. A hole has more in common with a material object than something abstract like, for example, a concept. Holes are localized, they are somewhere in space and time. A hole has dimensions, a form and a whereabout.”
“Throughout history holes and caves have functioned as time capsules. The earliest works of art were made and found in caves. But also these days works of art are being created in caves. Caves have always been places for religious and magic rituals. Because they offer protection. But also due to their acoustics, which transforms the sound of voices. And of instruments. Because of the way in which holes and cavities filter sound, I very often choose these types of places. In different holes sound has different qualities; it gives the surrounding another kind of layer, or the feeling of really being in that place.”
Holes are time capsules… This also refers to the fact that many important archives are kept at a safe distance from the turmoil of our big cities, where bits and pieces of our culture are stowed away, hidden indeed, in ‘holes’ and in ‘caves’. During much of the Second World War, for example, Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch was kept safe in a limestone cave not far from Maastricht. Also the Voyager Golden Records spring to mind, that in 1977 were put in a spacecraft and sent off into space, which, of course, is the ultimate hole…
Over the past couple of years, Signe was inspired by a number of rather special ones of these manmade time capsules. Like the Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, sort of a botanical Noah’s Ark halfway between Norway and the North pole, where the seeds of as many as possible food crops are being preserved. And Onkalo, a repository for nuclear waste, which is currently being built, deep underground, on an island in the southeast of Finland. Or the Temples of Humankind in Damanhur, Italy, a ‘new age’ complex of caves and tunnels, hand-dug between 1978 and 1991 and filled with murals, sculptures, mosaic and strained glass with motifs and structures inspired by religious and occult societies from all over the world, dedicated to the divine in man and the preservation of spirituality. “I find that very special,” said Signe, “for how do you preserve spirituality? Pictures of these Temples of Humankind show some sort of a spatial choreography, in which all imaginable religious and spiritual images collide, in a kind of mega-kitsch ballet. But the question continues to fascinate me: how could one preserve intangible things for the future?”
Signe’s most recent source of inspiration is a mysterious Archive of Invisibility and Lost Knowledge (she doesn’t know its actual name, and invented this one herself), located in the vicinity of Yangshuo, China. It is dedicated to the storage and systematization of knowledge about traditional crafts, literature and art, that was lost during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). “As with the Temples of Humankind also here I asked myself: how would you do that? How do you save knowledge that has gone extinct? It is no longer there. So is it written in books? Is it in drawings, maybe? Are there still traces? I have been trying to figure it out, but it is very difficult to get information. I sent a number of mails, but didn’t get any answers. So the question remains: can you keep the knowledge of a craft without keeping the objects that it produced? Can you keep what surrounds a thing, without keeping the thing itself? Is it possible to preserve the aura of a work of art, without the actual work?”
Then the thing or the work of art becomes a hole itself…
“Yes, without the thing one would say that there no longer is any material memory. You disconnect memory from matter. If you make something, then there is the thing that you make. But there is also the ritual of the making. The thing corresponds to the technical part of its making; the ritual corresponds to the non-technical part. Does the non-technical part maybe generate as much material memory as the technical part? But then how can you preserve that kind of knowledge, which is not pronounced, but experienced knowledge? Knowledge that relates to ritual, to a practice? Who or what creates the aura of a work? This is the starting point for my Resonance installation. ‘Writings’ wants to be a work about material memory, without creating something that is specifically material. Its focus is on the process, and the process is something without an end. What is being created, remains unfinished forever. It opens up a field of continuous molding, without a final result. It is the idea of inscriptions as a ritual. But also as something auditive. What you hear is part of the things that happen. And visitors will obtain an auditory access to the interior space of the things they are looking at. But for this they will have to move to smaller, separate, spaces within the space.
Do I make myself clear? Do you understand what I mean? “
Could you describe the installation as you now envision it?
“The space in the Buda tower is particularly suitable for this work. Long and narrow, and with a large glass wall. Outside, in the small garden that you can see through the windows, I want to do an archaeological exhumation. In the garden’s soil there must be a lot of things that come from the old brewery. The result of this exhumation of course is a hole, a dug out space, that you can see from the inside, through the glass wall. Inside I will make piles with the sand and soil that I dig up outside. On the ceiling of the space there will be an electromechanical construction, with chains driven by gears of different sizes, which will cause movement in different directions and of different durations. This time aspect is very important. The mechanism will drive circular plates, from which sticks are dangling down. The sticks touch the sand piles. Via their movement they will shape the piles; a shaping that, at the same time, is a writing. They inscribe, they make inscriptions, leave traces. I will put (contact) microphones onto the sticks. The signals from these microphones are sent to boxes attached to the walls. There will be four of them. In one of the boxes there will be a score, with drawn patterns, similar to the patterns that the sticks will be drawing in the sand. Via loudspeakers in the other boxes you will be able to hear the intimate sounds, the sounding interior, of the inscriptions that the sticks are making.”
Is the score pre-made, or is it drawn as part of the process?
“In a way both are the case. I already drew the score, but there’s also the play of light and shadow, that continuously will give rise to new constellations.”
The moving, writing and wired sticks are the heart of the installation.
“The sticks are tapping sticks, that are sort of scanning the piles of sand and soil. You can think of them as blind man’s sticks: – ‘I am a blindfolded person walking within a landscape where I attempt to resonate everything I come across with a tapping stick. And at the same time I am a deaf person walking on the same road, trying to understand which language the landscape is speaking’ – . It is a thinking, an understanding, a grasping through listening; and then analyzing the absorbing complexity of the landscape that surrounds us. I also mean the cultural and social landscape. This image of a blindfolded person is closely related to my phonographic practice. I do a great many recordings, and I connect them to an awareness, a sensibility of places; or of surroundings and things; of the places within things. All this is quite essential for the work. Gaining knowledge through abstract listening, or gaining abstract knowledge, through the sensing-knowing-understanding part of the brain, through listening to sound and its resonance in matter. This is material memory, which is one of the most important, interwoven, concepts that I find useful for talking about my work. It is a concept that is directly linked to ‘Writings’.”
Did you ever have, or tried, to find your way blindfolded? With a blind man’s stick?
“Yes I did! As a kid I went to school blindfolded. Almost every day. A friend picked me up at home, and the game I played was that I still was so tired that it was necessary for me to continue sleeping on my way to school. My friend made this possible by guiding me. He held my arm and led me with instructions like ‘step up, step down’, et cetera. And I could hear him, for I was not really sleeping, of course. But there was no light entering my eyes. Later I also often used a blind man’s stick as a way to investigate the resonances of a spot or a space. It is a great way to get to know the acoustics of a space.”
In all of your earlier works field recordings play a crucial role. In works inside you integrated recordings made outside, in a different place and time. You are not going to do this in ‘Writings’. All of the sounds will be generated by the installation itself. There is an outside (the hole in the garden) that you can see from the inside, and an inside that you can see from the outisde, like two poles; like a negative and a positive. But once inside, the work is entirely self-contained. It is a closed system…
“It is indeed for the first time that I create a space in which everything is related to one spot and happens at this spot. As such, ‘Writings’ combines in a very direct way the two sides of my practice as an artist. That is pretty exciting, en I am very curious to find how it will work out. Because, of course, I haven’t seen it. Yet…”
[This conversation with Signe Lidén took place on March 27th, 2013.
The technical realization of the work, during the first three weeks of April 2013, will be done by Signe in collaboration with her Norwegian colleague Roar Sletteland.]
Four weeks later, in Kortrijk…
What ‘Writings’ looked and sounded like, and what had become the material form of that what Signe had imagined and described in our earlier conversation, I found out four weeks later, on April 21st, 2013, at the opening of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk’s Sounding City.
The space in the Buda tower was filled with the low rumble and clanking sounds of the mechanics of the installation, very present, but not too loud or obtrusive. The windows were covered with tracing paper, permitting the light to fall through, but not giving visitors a chance to look out, thus isolating the work from the rest of the world. It felt like stepping into an abandoned factory hall (which I guess are fine examples of contemporary manmade caves and which, in a way, in this former brewery building, it indeed was), where a number of machines had been left working, indulging themselves in a mechanical routine, the purpose of which had been forgotten a long time ago. Six limbed sticks were being moved around by the three circular plates on the ceiling, hitting and thus, though ever so slightly, re-shaping the piles of soil below them on the floor, that, for some reason, had been left there, and by the contingency of their material substance and form now were commanding their proper tracing, for ever and ever. The amplified sounds of the sticks’ hittings and tracings could be heard inside the two pairs boxes, as through a ‘sonic microscope’. One pair of boxes was facing the brick wall of the room. The second pair faced the covered window, combining the sounds with the sight of ‘writings’, the tracings of Signe’s score (pictures of which are illustrating our conversation above), making it reminiscent of what – in Dutch – is called a kijkdoos.
‘Writings’ in Kortrijk turned out to be, in sights and sound, an atmospheric, but also a rather hermetic work, impregnated by a sense of ‘formality’ and ‘philosophy’ that seems to be teasing the visitors, asking for a sudden flash of insight, an illumination, on their part, to make sights and sounds fall into place. “Yes, it is strange,” Signe said. “Several times during these weeks of creating ‘Writings’, together with my collaborator Roar Sletteland, it felt as if nature took us by surprise. I think it is the strangest piece I ever made…”
April 14, 2013 § 4 Comments
by Joost Fonteyne
Tourist offices will make any effort to seduce people to visit their cities or regions. The key word is experience. Visiting a city needs added value, we have to feel the city. Hip tools such as tablets and smartphones are thrown in to make it happen. In this context also soundwalks have been discovered. Equiped with smart tools, visitors are sent into the city. Just have a look at soundwalk.com to get the idea. Then take e.g. the walk in romantic Paris Saint Germain des Pres. To quote the website: ‘Virginie Ledoyen saunders through the streets once walked by the likes of Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert and Sartre. These wandering ghosts of French poetry lure around here, creating a dreamy atmosphere as she enlightens us with the richness of Saint Germain des Pres. Strolling the streets aimlessly at first, the young beauty is captivated by the aura of a young man…’ Through the app you become part of a cinematic, augmented reality. You boldly go where fellow app-owners have gone before.
It’s all nicely wrapped up in an ‘infotainment’ package. The apps are made in a professional way and artists collaborate to make your visit unforgettable. Apparently creative entrepreneurs do good business. Soundwalk.com lists already 32 different soundwalks on their website. And they are not the only providers who make money with these touristic apps.
From 2013 onwards, Flanders Festival Kortrijk in Belgium starts a collection of soundwalks for the City of Kortrijk. Also these walks will be quite an experience. And made by artists who will guide people through the city. We start with two walks and in the next years we will add new projects to the collection.
So what’s the difference?
Well, we will not make money with it. But most important, the starting point is the production, presentation and promotion of art projects, the work of interesting sound artists and composers.
Some people are rather sceptic and raise questions. Are soundwalks sound art? Is the effort worthwhile when ‘deep listening’ as a practice is vanishing?
For some academics and professionals sound art relates to the interaction between sound and space and takes ‘installation art’ as a point of departure. This point of view is e.g. deeply rooted in the German tradition of Klangkunst. Personally, this question seems less important. Sound art and consequently soundwalks were revealed to me through musicians who experimented with the boundaries of music. Artists who take music – or let’s call it organised sounds – to another dimension. Out of this grew numerous exhibitions and performances. And a rather childlike definition of sound art: art that makes sound. Not an attempt to make a stirr or to evoke cheap discussion, but a way to not isolate the genre. A way to allow artists who work with sound in a relevant way to be ‘part of the game’.
The loss of the ‘deep listening’-tradition is indeed problematic. But let’s elaborate. Is it not a problem of concentration in general? We can easily make an analogy to e.g. ‘deep looking’. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts (New York) found out that the average time visitors watch one painting is 17 seconds. It is even worse in the Louvre (Paris). Leonardo de Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ is worth an average look of 15 seconds per visitor. Of course the enormity of paintings in display does not help. But still, we are talking about exceptional historical world heritage.
We are told that we live in a world that sends us thousands of visual stimuli per day. But we hardly hear about the equal amount of auditive stimuli. And even no one seems aware anymore of the auditive quality of her or his direct environment. Maybe, just like Steve Roden in his latest exhibition in Singuhr – Hoergalerie (July/August 2012, Berlin), we should do more 4’33”-practice (in reference to John Cage’s so often wrongly called ‘silent’ piece). Becoming aware of what our lives sounds like.
Already, more then a century ago the question about sound awareness was raised. With the industrial revolution from the end of the 19th century onward, our sonic environment has changed drastically. Factories and machinery and its noise were new phenomena. Even to the point where noise pollution and noise itself became a source of inspiration for artists and composers. Next to the experiments of the avant-garde, scientists studied acoustics, psycho-acoustics, techniques of recording and sound analysis. We learned that eye and ear are well connected to perceive our surrounding world. But still today the auditive is underestimated, hence the proverb ‘to see is to believe’. Already in 1916 futurist Luigi Russolo stated that when looking at a landscape painting we miss an important – if not the most important – component: the sound of the landscape.
And this is precisely the point where soundwalks can be helpful. Artists who invest in soundwalks – of course also a relation between sound and space – invite the audience to ‘deep listening’. Each in their own way they use techniques to provide a context for listening, to discover sonic environments. This can be done by filtering sounds, being silent and listening, using compositions with city sounds, via the use of ‘artefacts’, adding comments to the sonic environment or narrative elements.
In 1974 soundwalk-pioneer Hildegard Westerkamp defined it as following: ‘A soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment… The intention of soundwalk is listening. Soundwalks can take place in the mall, at the doctor’s office, down a neighbourhood street or at the bus stop. The focus on listening can make this a meditative activity (…)’.
With this quote we plunge in the history of soundwalk. The text ‘Soundwalking: creating moving environmental sound narratives’ by Dr. Andra McCartney (draft for a publication in ‘The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies’ by Dr. Andra McCartney, Associate Professor, Communication Studies, Concordia University Montréal) is strongly recommended. She brings us to the first use of the term by the World Soundscape Project, under the leadership of composer R. Murray Schafer. Hildegard Westerkamp was a member of this research project that expressed a strong concern about noise pollution. Interestingly enough, her text touches the historical practice of ‘listening while walking (…), as well as practices of walking meditation, in which attention to listening figures prominently’. In the prolongation of this more philosopical approach, it is worthwile to investigate the work of J.F. Augoyard at Cresson (Centre de Recherche sur l’espace sonore et l’environment urbain) founded in 1979. Their research includes ‘acoustic architecture, urban acoustics, anthropology of space, sonic environment, urban sociology, and theories of architectural and urban ambiances. Auguyard is a philosopher and musicologist (…) His doctoral dissertation (…) is a methodogical and theoretical consideration of ways of walking in an urban environment’.
Dr. McCartney guides us through the history via listening walks by Gregg Walgstaff, blind walks by Francisco López, electrical walks by Christina Kubisch, the sound pilgrimage of Olivier Schroer, the shadow walks of Viv Corringham, the audio walks by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller and finally – the starting point of this text – soundwalk.com.
Strange enough her text does not mention the LISTEN-project by Max Neuhaus. From 1966 until 1976 he organised some 15 listening walks in Canada and the United States. In the context of the work of Gregg Walgstaff, Mc Cartney defines listening walks as ‘led by a guide with the intention of encouraging active listening among a wide audience to the surrounding sound environment’. Max Neuhaus’s approach was simular, but different. Het did not add sound to the environment, but unless others he did not have a sound ecology point of departure: ‘As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sound into the concert hall (…) I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside – a demonstration in situ?’ (Max Neuhaus, Listen – 1988, 1990, 2004). In this context he should be added to the historic gallery.
But let me take you through a personal history of soundwalks.
Here are four examples of influential projects:
In 2005 the exhibition ‘Her Noise’ was organised in London (South London Gallery and Goethe Institut London, 10 November – 18 December 2005, by Electra Productions). It presented the work of female sound artists and musicians, a.o. two ‘electrical’ works by Christina Kubisch. One of them was the ‘Electrical Walk London’. Kubisch develops these walks since 2003 as a result of her research on electromagnetic induction as a sound source for her sound installations since the 1970’s. These sounds emerge by the interaction between magnetic fields, such as electrical wires traversing space in which sounds circulates or selfmade headphones with magnetic coils. In her walks you are equipped with one of these headphones. The headphones respond to the electrical fields in the city environment. Or you could say, they unveil hidden sounds. Experiencing this for the first time is quite a treat. A map suggests listening spots chosen by the artist: ATM’s, shops security panels or tubular lights to give a few examples. Each of them has a specific sound, ranging from respectively white noise, to heavy noise and a string-like sustained sound. The fun begins when you take time to explore it yourself. London – but also Kortrijk where it was presented for the first time in 2007 – has a lot of deep listening to offer. To be continued from April 2013 onwards.
plan b are Dan Belasco Rogers and Sophia New, who got to know each other in the British theatre company Reckless Sleepers. Not unimportant to understand their work. Dan Belasco Rogers’s strong interest in sound was presented through performance, while Sophia had a strong performance background. This explains the more narrative and performative context of their projects. Peninsula Voices is a sonic walk through the spaces of the Greenwich peninsula area, London. It talks about the huge transformation of this area through personal journeys of the participants, sounds and comments added by plan b. These form a new map, with sound as guide. The GPS-software triggers the sound: entering a certain spot will distribute the connected sound through headphones. For a few hours you are drawn into the history and the present of this London borough: an abstract narration in a non-linear way. From the rise and fall of the East Greenwich Gas Works with its gas holders to the construction of the much debated Millennium Dome.
A similar project was produced by arts centre Buda Kortrijk for the area known as Buda Island under the title Into the Light of the Night (plan b in collaboration with the great Belgian field recording artist Els Viaene).
In the summer of 2008 the Japanese artist Akio Suzuki realised for the Singuhr – Hoergalerie his oto-date in Berlin. oto-date is a series of works in which Suzuki only uses the existing sound of different cities. His walk is very close to the soundwalk definition of Hildegard Westerkamp: ‘…any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment…’. In the case of Suzuki we need to add: perceive the environment. The 72 years old artist makes ‘audiovisual slices’ of the city. He creates points of listening and points of – literally – view. On chosen spots he paints ears that resemble feet on the ground. By using these positions you enter his world. Two examples make it clear. Suzuki lets you face the edge of a house. With your left eye you look to the street left to you, with your right eye to the street on your right. The same ‘split’ happens in your ears. Next situation: Suzuki offers a close view in front of a tree trunk. Your left eye looks into a street with a tower at its end, your right eye is focussing on the trunk. Again the same dichotomy happens to your ears. This project seems so simple, yet it is so precise. The perception the environment becomes totally different. Regardless if you live around the corner and you have already walked there many times or if you visit the neighbourhood for the first time.
I never had the occasion to experience a walk by Janet Cardiff myself. But this book totally hooked me up. ‘The Walk Book’ is ‘stricto senso’ an art book. It remembers several art projects – immersive walks – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller presented in different cities, a.o. ‘Her Long Black Hair’ for Central Park, New York. This publication is a book, a cd, text of the walks, texts about the walks, drawings and inserted photographs. Of course you do not get the real stuff, but Cardiff makes it happen while you are sitting at your table and you listen to her voice, giving instructions to browse the book in a non-linear way. From the moment you hear her voice a mental soundwalk is commencing: ‘Do your headphones on. You won’t get the full effect of the audio unless you do. This is the right ear. And this is the left ear. (…) I’m in Berlin right now, sitting on my coach with the walk book in front of me on the table. Maybe the book is also on your coffee table. Open it up. Turn to page 233. I took this picture of an arrow the other day. I don’t know why it was in the park, directing me as I walked, pointing at things. Like stones and trees. I’m gonna go back there today and see if it’s still there. Now turn to the last page in the book. (Sneezes) Excuse me. I used to collect these types of photographs from detective magazines (…) Put the book down now and go over to your window (…) I woke up really early this morning, this is what it sounded like then. Sit down again, I want to show you something else in the book. Turn to page 121 (…) I want you to walk with me…’ (The Walk Book, Janet Cardiff – cd, track 1). Please do, I can only recommend it.
These four projects do work with ‘deep listening’. You need to reserve time to discover them. No hurry. These are not projects that have the ambition to promote a city or a region. They grew out of a necessity of artist and their artistic pratice. They do not have a commercial goal. These projects are reflections, contradictions, comments, raised questions, different points of listening, of view in relation to space, in case the city environment. Please continue dear artists. Doing so is a stimulant to not be superficial, to go deeper. To listen deeper. To look deeper. It’s a pleasure to concentrate on your propositions on our daily environment.
On Sunday 21 April 2013 the first two soundwalks for the new collection of sound walks for the city of Kortrijk will be premiered. Christina Kubisch did an update on her ‘Electrical Walk Kortrijk 2007′. The city went through a tremendous change. Blocks of houses were demolished since her first visit in 2007. They made place for a completely new commercial centre. Curious to hear how she will deal with this.
The Brussels based artist David Helbich presents ‘Kortrijk Tracks’. It started 2012 with his installation ‘Public Sound: Kortrijk-Jerusalem’ for last year’s edition of Sounding City. The sounds of two totally different cities merged in a field recording composition and was distributed at the entrance gate of the Kortrijk beguinage. For ‘Kortrijk Tracks’ Helbich prepares several tracks, field recording compositions, for different places in the city. These will form a spiral on the city map. A spiral that leads you out of town, or inverse, that brings you from the outskirts to the centre. To be continued.
Oh yes, these walks will be available in a permanent way from 21 April 2013 onwards. They will be made available to the audience via … the tourist office. I guess nobody’s perfect.
April 9, 2011 § 9 Comments
Skyping with Maia Urstad. A conversation about radio on our private globe-spanning channel…
A couple of days ago I sat in my Parisian bedroom, looking out on a busy avenue with a nervous traffic rushing towards the Place de la Nation and back again. There I talked with Maia Urstad a Norvegian artist, who meanwhile, at that very same moment, was in her Bergen studio, overlooking the calm water surface of a small harbor.
Maia Urstad is one of the artists that, as part of the European sound art network Resonance, produce a new sound work for the Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk, Belgium, which takes place next month, from May 5th until May 22nd. As communication technology, its fate and its ‘ruins’, are topics central to Maia’s work, it was in hindsight rather appropriate to have this conversation over Skype, which these days is one of the main ubiquitous technologies used, not only to privately talk with people all over the globe, but also to transmit lectures and performances from one place to another, as nearby or as far away as one wishes. With its blurry images, failing connections, freezes and drops in the sound transmission, it comes with a pretty lo-fi feel. It is a bit like having your own home-built radio transmitter and receiver, and a frequency that allows you to broadcast to whoever you allow to listen in. We are all ‘radio amateurs’ these days, without even knowing…
The (idea of) radio is pivotal in a still growing number of Maia Urstad’s works, reflecting her fascination with radio as an object, as a technology, as a source of sounds and as a means for globe-spanning communication. Reflecting a fascination also for how radio somehow seems to manage to survive current technological changes that follow one another in ever more rapid succession.
‘Structures of stone have been built since time immemorial, and are still erected today,’ it says in a series of short notes on her web site. ‘Monuments will stand after us, as they have stood after our ancestors. But will the remains of our technology be understood in a hundred years or more? Will these remains be accessible when our descendants attempt to discover our everyday concerns? What do we erase as we progress?’
Indeed, what do we erase? Will a next generation have the slightest clue of what is a ‘Skype’, and how that was like? Does it matter?
“My work with portable radios actually goes back to 1996,” Maia said, smiling into the small lens of her computer’s camera in Bergen. “At that time I was working with sound in the context of experimental theatre. These were the kind of productions in which each of the makers contributes a part of equal weight: The director had one voice, the writer had one voice, I had one voice … So the sound was an integral part of the performance. I then got four radio cassette players. Because these provided a nice way to move the sound and move with the sounds that I had recorded onto cassette tapes. A bit later I was invited to Krakow for a project, where I decided to improvise with portable radios. Again, because they make it very easy to move the sound around and blend in with the actors. So I got four more radio cassette players. At the time I was working with the radio sound, but transferred onto cassette tape. because that was a nice way to make textures. So then I suddenly had eight of these radio cassette players. In 1998 I did a project in the mountains in Bergen. There I hung four radios in some trees, and I worked with these medium wave sounds, that, you know, can sound almost like birds. So I was working with space and birds and medium waves, communication…”
“I realized more and more that these machines, that then already were quickly becoming obsolete and were very easy and cheap to get, would be very interesting material for constructions. The radio’s are blocks, they are construction bricks. So I started to build with them, like the classical arch of ‘Stations’, which is a 3 meter tall portal, that I made in 1999 with some 50 cassette radios and CD players, at the Fortress Bergenhus.”
“Since then one project has been leading to another. What I began in 2004, and still continue to do, is the construction of this big wall, the ‘Sound Barrier’. It is changing all the time, but the main structure is there. I just adapt it to each new space. Also the sounds are always changing, depending for instance on whether it is a group installation or a solo installation. In constructions like ‘‘Stations’ and ‘Sound Barrier’, I use radio cassette players and CD players, with technology that makes the CD players play in a synchronized way. So I can start many of them at the same time, and use several separate layers: I can start one layer, and then another layer and then add another layer, and so on…”
“The Resonance installation that I will produce for the Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk is a continuation of these projects. I now am also very interested in the radio again, and I felt the need to dissolve…”
It somehow gives me the impression as if you just have been taking the big wall apart again. Or maybe it exploded and you captured the moment just before a part of the machines hit the ground again?
“The radio’s are floating in the air, each of them separately. I was in Kortrijk in February, to work on the piece and try out things in the space where the installation will be. It is a very interesting place, an old brewery, I believe. I like the floor, and I like the material used in the spaces. The organizers in Kortrijk collected radio’s for me, and they will continue to do so for the Festival. I actually asked for 96 of them, but for the tests in February I got 16. I believe that they even intend to put out a call on the radio in Kortrijk, to ask people to give or lend their radios…”
“But when you use so many radio’s, there are quite a few technical challenges: with noise, and interference… I would like to transmit the sounds with four short-range transmitters. But maybe four frequencies will be hard in Kortrijk. I will have to find more or less empty spots on the radio, and it’s on the FM. So. It is not completely clear that I will be able to find these. When I was there in February, there was a lot of interference and a lot of noise. And it seemed to me that the stations were very strong.
I want to use the sounds of the radio’s as textures. If there are 16 of them, then I can frame the space, if you see what I mean. But if I have very many of them, I can install them in the space so that it becomes, as it were, one texture. So you don’t walk around in it, but you just get into it. You become yourself a part of the installation.”
You want to give the impression that the radio’s are freely floating in the space. What sort of wires do you use to hang them?
“I want them to float, but on the other hand, of course everybody knows that they are hanging from the ceiling… The first thing one does when one wants something to look invisible is use fish string. But I think that is not really working. It is also too elastic, so that after a while the radio’s are hitting the floor. So, you see, I do not know yet. I tried out a few different possibilities, but I haven’t decided yet. If the wire is too thin, then it will not carry the radio. And if it’s too thick, it takes the energy away from the radio. So it’s a fine balance, you know.
Another interesting technical problem to be solved is how to provide the electrical power for all of these little machines. I would like to work with batteries, but that will not be very practical, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it would probably mean that during the period of the Festival someone would need to turn on every radio every day, and maybe also change batteries over time. With wires for the electricity it will be possible to switch all of them on and off at once. But it also means that we will have to solve an interesting visual problem. There is always this negotiation between what is visual, what is not visual, what is main, what is accessory, and what is practical, what is needed in the installation. “
“The title of the piece is ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai …’, which is inspired by the thought bubbles that are so often used in comic books. For the sound part, I am collecting many details about the time and the place, as they are being transmitted continuously by radio stations all over the world. Announcements like: ‘Es ist drieundzwanzig Uhr in Deutschland’, ‘Cinco de la Manana en Madrid’, ‘Het is nu middernacht’, and so on. I collect such announcements when I am travelling, but that is not always easy, especially when you don’t know the language, and are not quite sure what exactly is being said. So there are some blank spots… but if I like the voice, I can use it anyway. These messages I want to put together with other radio-specific sounds, in a polyphonic sonic image. Like a phonogram of a 24-hour cycle on the air. All of this I will have to develop and clarify when I am in Kortrijk to continue my research and the development, during the month before the opening of the installation on May 7th.”
“I can’t really start composing before I am Kortrijk, because I will have to consider what material there is already. All the Beyoncé and who knows other music… and I have to see for the volumes. As I said before, I work very much with layer upon layer upon layer upon layer upon layer. I work with textures, with background, with foreground… It still is not very clear to me how the composition will sound in the end. Though the idea now is more or less articulated, in a way, the sound is not there yet. At other times I started with the material. Maybe that is easier. But this time I started with the idea.
The way I see it now (but that still might change) is that there will be no frame. You will not be able to go around the installation, you will have to go into it, and become surrounded by the sound.
In fact, it will be around your ankles. I mean, the radio’s do not hang at ear height. I want to have them close to the floor, so that, acoustically, you won’t have your ear towards the radio.”
I like a lot the idea to built the installation with radio’s that are collected locally, that come from within and around Kortrijk.
Maia laughs. “Yes. Maybe we will empty Kortrijk of its portable radio’s. So then people will have to listen on the internet. I had an interesting experience this autumn, when I was in Brasil. I was doing a workshop with a group of artists. I asked them to bring a radio, and in my mind they would come carrying something. And then they popped in, but nobody carried anything at all. so I asked: ‘Oh, you didn’t bring your radio?’ But they said, ‘yes! sure we did!’ And of course, they had the radio on their cell phones, or computers.”
You will agree that listening to the radio on the web or on your iPhone (where you simply will ‘click’ to chose and listen to one among a range of available channels) is a very different experience from roaming through the ether turning the dial of your radio, with new voices and other music crackling in and out of ‘focus’…
“Yes, it is! But maybe that is also sort of a generation thing. My kids do listen to the radio, but I don’t think they turn the dial to search for channels. They simply pick the station that they want to listen to. They don’t search in the same way. I think that has something to do with memory. But I still think they have a memory for radio as well, it ‘s just a little bit different. It is true that things are changing…”
Do you listen yourself to the radio at home, Maia?
“Oh, actually I do. Yes, I listen to the radio. To a real radio. There is this one station left in Norway that has a lot of topics, that often before I didn’t even know that I would be interested in. So yes, I like to switch on the radio, and listen to that station.
I actually always envied friends of mine, who are also artists, but who can listen to the radio all the time when they’re working. I cannot do that. I cannot listen to the radio when I am working with all those radio’s that diffuse my sounds…”