Common wealth?

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Unless you’ve been in a total media blackout for the last million years, you’ll have noticed that Glasgow, where I work, is currently hosting the Commonwealth games.

Yes, sport is now actually happening, after months of interminable anticipatory hype, non-news coverage of some baton or other being shipped and helicoptered around the planet, and a run of controversies, gaffes and cock-ups of the sort that now come as standard with sporting mega-events.

Photo: Steve Spiers Photography, Creative Commons

On the whole, the mainstream media seem to think that the competition is the main thing, and that with the athletes up and running we all ought to focus our attention on that. But I’m finding myself pulled in the opposite direction: the games themselves, whilst arguably entertaining, are proving less interesting than the clunking apparatus of event management, urban change and media coverage that surrounds them.

We would like to thank customers for their patience and understanding

For a start, let’s take the all-too-predictable ticketing fiasco that unfolded a few months ago. Official vendor Ticketmaster, having engineered a world record 11-day website shutdown during ticket sales for the 2012 London Olympics, this time round appeared to have learned an important lesson: if you’re the sole provider of an in-demand commodity, it doesn’t matter how rubbish your delivery systems are, people will still sit around for days on end, clicking themselves into carpal tunnel syndrome, until they are finally allowed to hand over wads of dosh. The games showcase the extremes of human endurance, and it was breathtaking to see the digital hardships punters suffered to win the right to watch some people moving quite fast. One person reportedly spent 31 hours in an online queue.

Screen grabs from the ticketmaster website. Source: BBC

So the games began with the casual cynicism of modern capitalism in full swing, the public being ripped off with impunity yet again. Ticketmaster is a US-based multinational, and whether or not it is technically a monopoly within US law, it certainly looks like a monopoly from a practical point of view. The firm’s business model is based on securing exclusive deals with high profile venues and promoters, enabling it to charge sizeable booking fees without fear of being undercut by competitors.

In the context of the games, Ticketmaster’s technical ineptitude and lazy dominance is thrown into sharp relief by the figure of the gold-medal athlete, an individual striving for total excellence in a fiercely competitive field. In contrast to the dedication and flair of these outstanding individuals, here we have a company whose supposed mastery of tickets involves it being comprehensively, serially incapable of administering seating for large sporting events. The company’s success has been built not on selling tickets as such, but rather on selling electronic allocations of seats, which amounts to co-ordinating the on-off status of lots of tiny switches inside some computer hardware. In a world of everyday technological marvels, these lumbering chumps managed – again – to screw up a basic data handling task; sizeable, to be sure, but clearly within the bounds of possibility in an age of routine big data processing.

My explanation is that they simply had no incentive to do anything else. Why bother improving your software if the cash will still come rolling in regardless? The company’s choice of the suffix ‘master’ is perhaps appropriate after all. The word can mean ‘expert’, but it can also mean ‘controller’, or, as a verb, to dominate, grasp or commandeer.

Regeneration and displacement

Meanwhile, on the ground in Glasgow, away from the podiums and the pundits, the medals and the moments of glory, grim realities have been unfolding for some time now. To recognise this is not to dismiss the achievements of the athletes, or to take anything away from sport as a form of popular culture, or to suggest that there are no benefits to Glasgow from hosting the games. Rather it is to question the manner in which sporting events are increasingly being harnessed as drivers of unjust urban change, particularly for those who live where new sporting facilities are built.

The Jaconelli family, for example, had been in their Dalmarnock home for over 30 years when the Glasgow 2014 organisers decided to knock it down to clear space for the athlete’s village. The family were served with a compulsory purchase order, offered compensation worth a third of the value of their property, and, when they refused, forcibly evicted in the middle of the night by a mass of police officers. Such heavyhanded tactics and flagrant disregard for the lives of ordinary people are directly at odds with the principles of the Commonwealth Charter, such as human rights and respect for human dignity.

The Jaconelli family and supporters, resisting eviction. Photo from gamesmonitor2014.org

As Jack Jaconelli was overheard to say during the eviction: “All this so arseholes can run about in shorts for two weeks” (source: here). There is nothing intrinsic to sports events that requires the reckless destruction of people’s homes. Architect Malcolm Fraser points out that the Jaconelli’s tenement block could easily have been incorporated into the new development were there a will to do so. The problem is that, despite the rhetoric of community engagement and legacy, the priorities appear to lie elsewhere.

As my colleague Neil Gray has argued, sporting mega-events have become an opportunity for a small number of corporations, property developers and land owners to make a tonne of money under the guise of regeneration, with local benefits often being marginal by comparison. Some of the figures for land sales in Glasgow are eye-watering. Neil writes that

“The most controversial deal was with Charles Price, the Mayfair developer, who bought property on the projected Games Village site for around £8 million in 2005-06, then sold it to the City Council for £17 million in 2008”.

In another deal, £5.1million was paid to former Rangers owner David Murray’s company, for land the company bought a few years before for £375,000 (reported in this BBC news article). Set against these shocking transfers of public finance into private hands, the modest provision of so-called affordable housing in the games redevelopment looks like a token concession rather than a genuine attempt to improve the living conditions of east end residents.

Add to all of this the demolition of a disabled people’s day care centre to make way for a Commonwealth Games bus park, and the erection of an 8-foot security fence lined with CCTV cameras segregating the athlete’s village from surrounding homes, and it is hardly surprising that local people feel excluded, a sense “that the games are not for ordinary people in the east end to be part of or enjoy” (source: here).

The tearing down of modernist buildings

This sickly mix of aspirational urban cleansing, wrecking-ball regeneration and local disenfranchisement came to a head in the games organisers’ crown-jewel fuckup: a failed plan to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony.

The Red Road flats. Photo: Graeme Maclean, Creative Commons

A set of high-rise tower blocks built as social housing in the 1960s, Red Road is an iconic landmark with some of the tallest buildings in the city. The flats were due to be demolished anyway; the aim of turning their toppling into a live spectacle was to make

“a bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people…An estimated television audience of 1.5 billion people around the world will also bear witness as the 30-storey blocks fall spectacularly to the ground, transforming the city’s skyline forever. And, while this will serve as an unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future and changing for the better, it is also intended to serve as a respectful recognition and celebration of the role the Red Road flats have played in shaping the lives of thousands of city families for whom these flats have simply been home over five decades.” (Glasgow 2014 press release)

This beyond-satire piece of opportunism was an idea whose boldness, at least, deserves some acknowledgement in an age of watered down committee-consensus decision-making. Unfortunately, it was boldness firing in exactly the wrong direction. A tidal wave of public outrage sank the whole thing within days. Objections surged in from all angles.

Many Glasgow residents disagreed that the plans were a ‘respectful recognition and celebration’, pointing out that the flats had been people’s homes, and that making entertainment out of their destruction was crass and insensitive. Claims that the event would be managed “in a sensitive manner” looked ridiculous in the face of the obvious brutality of dynamiting five enormous skyscrapers. For some people, an act of mass destruction seemed an overly negative way to start the event. Serious concerns for the wellbeing of nearby residents were raised. That one block housing asylum seekers was to be left standing also provoked heated debate about social exclusion.

A petition gathered over 17000 signatures, local politicians and architectural groups queued up to voice their opposition, and before long the organisers abandoned the whole idea, with a carefully-worded statement from the Chief Executive citing security and safety concerns as the deciding factor. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine quite where a live video feed of collapsing monoliths would have fitted into the opening ceremony’s kitschy mix of tartan tat, national cliches, gay kissing, imperialist pomp and celebrity-fronted charity appeal.

Legacy?

Academic commentary suggests that the Red Road episode was simply the latest expression of deeper, longer political currents: the relentless privatisation of housing across the UK, and attempts to break with an unglamorous industrial past, re-branding cities as aspirational places for leisure and culture. For Neil Gray, this is about erasing “all traces of progressive modernist social housing through disinvestment and demolition in order to maintain the ideology of private home ownership” (his incisive article here is well worth a read). Likewise, Fraser MacDonald argues that this impulse “to detonate our towering achievements” is not only about destroying buildings, but about destroying the very ideals that they express – the notion of housing as public good rather than private property, as social service rather than investment opportunity. Demolition as spectacle, writes Gerry Mooney, “somehow manages to cue to a wide audience that it is waste of time and money to try and provide council housing for working-class people. It always ends up in failure.”

But there is also something else going on here. The Red Road opening ceremony plan, whilst breathtakingly ill-conceived, had the effect of flushing out strongly-held sentiments about social housing and urban renewal. The proposal acted as a catalyst for public discussion, albeit brief, about the legacy of post-war modernism, and the question of what to do with the imposing physical structures it has left behind. Some of the online debates, in comments on the BBC’s news pages for example, were witty and revealing.

BBC red road comments

It is often said that tower blocks and brutalist architecture more generally are hated by the general public, who see them as concrete monstrosities. What the Red Road episode showed was that in fact they are highly contested. These buildings retain a power to elicit passionate feelings, of loathing and love and everything in between. There is something about modernist architecture that continues to fascinate, to activate imaginations, to exert a magnetic pull, or to repel, repulse, annoy and disgust.

Perhaps it is the boldness of their designs, the confidence they project against all the odds, the lost ideologies they embody, their monumental presence, their shameless masculinism and muscularity, or the way that they evoke the recent past through material form. The desire to blow up such buildings as a spectator sport could be seen as a tacit admission of their intrinsic power. Put it this way: it is unlikely that, in fifty years time, anyone will want to dynamite the bland low-rise housing of the Glasgow athletes’ village as part of a public spectacle. It would be a damp squib.

The emotive force of modernist architecture can be felt elsewhere too: in the scathing polemics of commentators such as Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades; in the campaigns to save Preston bus station from demolition by the local council; in the refurbishment of the Apollo Pavillion in Peterlee; in the skaters resisting their removal from the concrete undercrofts of London’s Royal Festival Hall; in community opposition to the demolition of the Heygate estate in London; and in the work I’ve been involved with helping arts organisation NVA to reinvent the ruins of St. Peter’s College in Cardross.

In such sites, local residents often get actively involved – not necessarily in large numbers, not always in agreement with one another, and not always with success in achieving their aims, but certainly with passion. These contested sites also have a tendency to attract artists and creative projects – sometimes working with conflicts, sometimes intensifying them or provoking resistances, but either way usually inciting lively responses. Red Road itself has given rise to a remarkable array of arts and cultural works over the years, such as the drawings, photographs, videos and writings collected on the Red Road Flats website.

A ‘dialectogram’ drawing of the Red Road concierge station, by artist Mitch Miller.

To sum up, modernist architecture seems to have a capacity for concentrating and intensifying energies, generating sparks of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is powerful. It can help to galvanise resistance to the profiteering cycle of demolition and gentrification. It might also help in developing alternative and more equitable forms of urban renewal, involving maintenance and repair rather than demolition, for example, the provision of amenities for local people, and the creation of spaces to support inventive cultural activities – forms of common wealth that could be genuinely transformative.

Environmental sound and urban space: the BE OPEN sound portal

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As part of my research on the relations between sound and space, over the last year I’ve experienced several works of environmental sound art and design – site-specific installations, performances, audio walks and so on. Many of them have been in cities, raising questions about how sound functions in urban spaces.

One example that sparked off some thinking was the BE OPEN sound portal, mentioned in one of my previous posts. I thought I’d air some more of my thoughts about it here.

Black secret technology

The BE OPEN Sound Portal was a black monolithic circular structure, containing a state-of-the-art, full frequency, nine-channel surround sound system, and with space for around 20-30 people to gather inside. BE OPEN is a philanthropic foundation describing itself as a ‘creative think tank’, and run by a super-rich Russian businesswoman called Elena Baturina. The portal was designed by multinational engineering firm Arup, and originally installed in Trafalgar Square in 2012 with a programme of works by sound artists and musicians such as Squarepusher and Jana Winderen.

The portal was later relocated for a stint outside the Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2013, where it was used for sonic experiments by artists and students. Some of these students invited me to the opening night of their work, so I went along. It’s fair to say that the world of billionaire foreign patrons and global engineering corporations is unfamiliar territory for most environmental sound artists. No one quite seemed to know what to make of the whole thing.

Outside the BE OPEN Sound Portal

Outside the BE OPEN Sound Portal

Prestige public art

Arriving at the grand entrance of the Chelsea college, we were signed in and ushered through to a luxuriously wood paneled, plush carpeted room, to be plied with free wine and dainty, lengthily-titled canapés. In some cases it took longer for the impeccably-dressed waiting staff to tell us the names of these little morsels than it did to eat them.”Excuse me sir, would you like a feta and black olive tapenade crostini with caramelised onion and green pea veloute?” ”Ooh, thanks!” CHOMP. Gone.

The college website boasts that it is “one of London’s most prestigious art and design institutions”, and the event had that kind of vibe – aspirational, over-excited, lots of rubber-necking, climaxing in a congratulatory speech by a Russian man from BE OPEN. All of this fuss made it pretty clear that the Sound Portal was what Hall and Robertson (2001) describe as a prestige public art project, dressed to impress; art being used to make urban space and institutions more cool, hip and exciting.

Eventually, half cut on free booze, we wandered outside and into the installation.

Inside the Sound Portal: Angus Carlyle and sound art students

Inside the Sound Portal: Angus Carlyle and sound art students

Excluding noise – and bringing it back in again

The portal’s jet black exterior and pure white interior were reportedly inspired by the futuristic aesthetics of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A literal science-fiction, the portal shut out the exterior sounds of urban space, such as traffic noise, with acoustic baffles. This was a purified listening space, a highly controllable audio-bubble designed to allow artists free reign to manipulate the sonic space.

Environmental sound artists, however, tend to have a different approach to acoustic designers: less interested in eliminating noise and more concerned with understanding sound in context. For example, one of the installed works, Strata, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart, used field recordings of London to bring the sonic detritus of the city, excluded by the portal’s design, back into earshot. One memorable element was a recording of the raucous hawking calls of cockney traders at a flower market. In the portal, these sounds seemed tongue-in-cheek, gently poking fun at its purist design. Highlighting the contrast between lively, bawdy, working class London and the elite, rarefied space of the Chelsea College, Strata traced a line from the accumulated wealth of a Russian billionaire (global markets) to the everyday trading tactics of a flower seller (local markets). The portal felt like a massive audio toy - technically impressive, over-the-top, even ridiculous, but fun to play with and to listen in.

In this case, environmental audio performed what Rendell (2006) terms critical spatial practice. The portal’s design was an abstract space conceived by acoustic engineers, purged of noise, attempting to offer full control over all sonic variables. But in the hands of sound artists, other practices came into play, reworking the space, playing with it, mucking it up. This kind of art takes the multi-layered, chaotic, vibrantly messy quality of urban space as its starting point, and adds to it, intensifies it, amplifies it. And artists were not only beings messing things up here. Chancing to look upwards, I saw that the pristine sheen of the portal had been spoiled by bird shit spattered onto the skylight. This, in the end, is what urban space is like – rough, uncontrollable, dirty, noisy, showing little respect for the intentions of designers and artists.

Not quite so prestige...bird turds on the Sound Portal's roof

Not quite so prestige…bird turds on the Sound Portal’s roof

Pulling space apart

Another work, Sounding the Portal, by Tansy Spinks, Emanuele Cendron and Sunil Chandy, unleashed an unholy chorus of groaning, creaking and screeching. These sounds were made by variably tensioned steel cables (a nod towards Arup’s methods of bridge construction), stretched across the interior of the portal and activated by bowing. The performance was recorded and then played back insitu, the portal resonating with the sound of its own playing.

Where Strata brought the outside inside, Sounding the Portal folded the inside back on itself, creating a sense of the space being pulled apart. Squealing and squeaking, the composition had a raw, hand-made quality that rubbed against the sleek interior, noisily evoking material fabric in a space whose materials were black-boxed and whited-out, hidden by smooth architecture and acoustic transparency. The portal began to feel flimsy. I imagined its fabric being torn open, starting to auto-destruct, collapsing in on itself.

Tansy later told me that her original intention was to stretch the cables over the top of the whole structure, but this plan was ditched as the portal turned out to be less solid than it looked. It might have begun to collapse for real, and the artists were told in no uncertain terms that this was not an option. Tansy also wanted to perform the piece live, but this too was ruled out for bureaucratic reasons.

Such compromises attest to the limits of art’s abilities to contest and rework urban space, and the conflicts that can arise between art and design. Strata inserted its critique into the operation of the portal, playing with its surround sound system, but Tansy’s initial ideas were clearly too oppositional. Confronted by the portal’s institutional framework, she had to negotiate a more compliant solution.

The research reported on here was generously funded by an AHRC fellowship.

Some thoughts about listening

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As part of my AHRC fellowship about audio methods and sonic environments, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. Angus Carlyle and Cathy lane from CRiSAP have an edited book on the topic about to come out soon, ‘On Listening’, to which I’ve contributed a chapter, so I thought I’d rattle out a few of my ideas here.

Listening as practice

The more I work on environmental sound art, the more I’m convinced that what makes it interesting when it works well is a combination of both representation (an echo of another space and time, a there-and-then) and elements of performance, of practice (something happening in the present, here-and-now). Both are important. Thinking about the performative and practice aspects, listening is fundamental. It’s the most basic practice in sound art, the activity from which work begins and with which it ends. Here’s sound artist Mark Peter Wright sharing his thoughts on the matter:

I think Mark’s right: forget about all that purist sound-as-sound stuff, listening is a multisensory, multidimensional form of attentive experience, a messy mingling of self and world. The common social-scientific, political and mass media definitions of listening are a dead loss here. Social scientists in particular have cloth ears when it comes to sound. They make much of the importance of listening to the ‘voices’ of people, but in practice they’re mainly interested in the communication of meaning, an almost anaural fixation with writable words, a “linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers” (Goodman, 2009: 82). Musical notions of listening at least acknowledge aurality, but still tend to privilege the expressive communication of human emotions. I like how sound art can open up a much more expansive sense of listening.

Listening as affective

In his writing on film sound, Michel Chion suggests a three-way typology: causal listening, in which the listener strives to determine the source of a sound; semantic listening, which involves interpreting meaning, as in listening to spoken language; and reduced listening, a term borrowed from musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, in which attention is focussed on the aesthetic qualities of sound (timbre, texture, pitch, rhythm, etc.) without reference to source, context or meaning. But this is too limited as a schema for understanding environmental sound art, which gives rise to other kinds of listening as well. How about, for example:

  • Embodied listening, that part of listening in which sounds are felt not only in the ears and head but throughout the whole body as physical vibration. Geographer Michelle Duffy has been developing this idea through what she calls a visceral conception of listening.
  • Affective listening, those elements of embodied listening that give rise to palpable affects. If brought into conscious awareness, these affects will likely be understood afterwards as emotions. Steve Goodman writes about how certain extremely low or high frequency sounds, at high amplitudes, can generate a sense of dread, fear or anxiety. Other recent work on this theme includes Anja Kanngieser’s paper about the affective geographies of voices, and Paul Simpson’s paper developing a postphenomenological account of listening, drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy. All of this is quite different to the more anthropocentric understanding of emotional listening common in music, where emotions are understood as something communicated by the performer to the audience.
  • Associative listening, in which sounds evoke imaginative associations, the listener drifting into something more akin to Proustian reverie than a search for distinct causes or meanings.
Listening in Waverley

A listening walk in Edinburgh, led by Jonathan Prior, stopping to take in the cavernous reverberations of Waverley Station.

Listening as power

It’s time to ditch the assumption, common amongst sound artists, acoustic ecologists, musicians etc., that listening is always a ‘good thing’, that more of it will make the world a ‘better place’. Listening is involved in many techniques of power, if power is understood in Foucaultian terms as simply actions that affect other actions, operating at an everyday, micro-scale (see my papers here and here). If we follow Foucault we also have to accept that power is not necessarily bad; rather it is ambivalent, a productive force full of possibilities, but also dangerous, open to abuse. Like all good things in life.

Foucault emphasised the power of sight, the ‘gaze’ and technologies of “permanent visibility” (1977: 201), but many techniques of power centre on aurality. Think of listening in processes of self-creation, as in counselling and therapy; territorial sound-making, from animal distress and warning cries to geopolitical broadcasts to sound system culture; scientific forms of listening, from stethoscopes to hospital alarms to ultrasound imaging (Tom Rice has a new book all about this); listening as part of surveillance and controlling people’s behaviour in institutions such as schools; the increasingly common addition of audio recording to CCTV technologies; the automated voice announcements of modern transport, machines incessantly telling us what to do; all the tantalising and tedious forms of capitalist sound production in marketing and advertising; the use of forensic audio in crime detection; and exercises of outright control and domination through listening, such as in espionage and military situations. That’s quite a list.

Towards collective listening

So I think it makes sense to ask the question, of any instance of listening: what work is this listening doing? What are its effects? Sometimes the listening situations offered by sound art just reproduce the tired docility of the concert hall or fine art art gallery: a passive audience, listening obediently to a revered artist. At the other end of the spectrum, home listening and headphones, while affording the comforts of privacy, can feel overly individualising, especially with internet audio. I don’t know about you but I find sitting at a computer checking out recordings on SoundCloud quite isolating after a while.

The kinds of listening I’ve been more enthused by lately have been set up to have more collective, participatory effects. There’s nothing particularly new about such approaches, and they are incredibly simple to set up. For example, Jonathan Prior recently led a listening walk around Edinburgh, taking a group of 12 people around the city centre through various sonic environments. At the end we all chatted about our responses, and all kinds of ideas and experiences came out. The walk properly reconfigured my sense of the city.

And as mentioned in my previous post, I’ve really enjoyed taking up James Wyness’s idea of the ‘soond gaitherin’ or, since I sound fake-ass trying to do a Scottish accent, the sound gathering: an informal situation where you book a room, set up a playback system with some half-decent speakers, and invite people to come along to play field recordings they’ve made, or just to listen, and have a chat about them. I find I listen more openly in a group setting, and as long as you can steer clear of it turning into a ‘guess the sound’ pub quiz round, the range of responses can be fascinating and thought provoking.

Actually giving people a chance to listen together, then to discuss and make sense of what they’ve heard: a simple, almost traditional idea, with none of the wow factor of the latest new music genre or technological invention, and yet with a quietly radical potential to reconfigure the audience/artist relationship.

Work in progress: researching audio methods

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Last year I was awarded an early career research fellowship entitled “Researching sonic environments: exploring audio methodologies” by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This is taking place during 2013. I’ve been spending time with sound artists and researchers who work with environmental sound, observing what they do and thinking about its effects and functions. This all builds on a paper about using phonographic methods for geographical research that I recently published with fellow sonic geographer Jonathan Prior.

Borders-gear

The fieldwork has taken place in the UK, Brussels, Berlin and Athens, and has included doing listening walks and audio walks, attending site-specific performances, installations and an environmental sound festival, making field recordings and videos, working with audio maps, trying out different mic set ups, running environmental sound workshops, interviewing people about their work etc etc.

 

Akio Suzuki's oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013

Akio Suzuki’s oto-date listening walk, with Aki Onda, Tuned City, Brussels, 2013

So what have I actually found out? Well, loads obviously, but one of the main themes emerging is…

Decontextualising and recontextualising: making works that involve more than just sound

Field recording, the core method of environmental sound art, decontextualises sound, lifting it out of place and sending it into wider circulation: “as a listener, I hear just as much displacement as placement, just as much placelessness as place, for the extraction of sound from its environment partially wields its power by being boundless, uprooted and distinct.” (LaBelle, 2006: 211) But playback recontextualises sounds, re-placing them, and the nature of that process is crucial to how field recordings function.

To put it another way, it’s easy enough to make field recordings, but what then? Where are they going to be played back, who (if anyone) will be listening, and what kind of effects do we want the playback situation to create? This is largely a question of geography, about the kinds of social and physical spaces in which environmental audio works are presented.

If we pursue sound as sound-in-itself, to the exclusion of other aspects of life, ultimately this takes us towards an acousmatic approach which “strips sound of any visual referent, linguistic description, or direct narrative, relying instead on the qualities of sound itself, its manipulation and construction.” (LeBelle, 2006: 209). But however much context is removed – even if the audience is blindfold, a method favoured by sound artist Francisco Lopez – there is always a (multi-sensory) recontextualisation on playback. Life always involves more than just sound.

Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez concert. Image from www.bienaldegranada.com

Audience with blindfolds at a Francisco Lopez performance. Image from www.bienaldegranada.com

The recontextualisation involved in the acousmatic contemplation of pure sound is sometimes quite rarefied, arguably even bourgeois and culturally elitist: abstract electroacoustic works presented in multi-channel concerts, fine art settings such as white cube galleries, perhaps a CD or digital download for attentive home listening. This assimilation of environmental sound into the traditions of western music and fine art is likely to reinforce the conventions of those traditions, such as the idea that music is created by an individual artistic genius for the gratification of a passive audience. It’s also likely to make environmental sound inaccessible to people who don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’ with those traditions.

This will tend to create a closed loop – people interested in aestheticised sound, making aestheticised sound for (mostly) other people interested in aestheticised sound. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but its function is quite limited, providing a specific kind of stimulation for a particular minority interest group. That critique could of course be applied to this website, since realistically most readers will be those who already have some sort of interest in sound. That’s fine by me – creative and academic communities need their own spaces for discussion and exchange just like any other group – but they also need to engage with people outside those communities as well, especially when their work concerns something as radically decentred, expansive, collective and participatory as the wide world of environmental sound in which we all live.

I’m convinced that working with environmental sound has a more lively, infectious potential to enrich everyday life and ‘ordinary’ people’s (i.e. not just sound artists’ and musicians’) relationships to places and environments. That enrichment may often be quite modest and subtle, but environmental sound is pervasive, an ever-present unconscious background (Cox, 2009), so even small changes could be significant.

To get some of that potential to flow, my research suggests that environmental audio needs to be recontextualised in ways that make it more meaningful for more people - i.e. more relevant, more inviting, more connected to people’s everyday concerns, routines and spaces. Based on what I’ve observed, there are lots of ways that this can be done. I’m tempted to suggest that the more of them can be thrown into the mix, the better. For example:

  • Using sound to investigate issues that are not just about sound, but tap into a wider interest. That might be something universal like food and clothing (e.g. Felicity Ford’s work with wool), or a more specific topic such as hospitals (e.g. John Wynne’s Transplant project), international air travel (Cox and Carlyle’s Air Pressure), or even something as prosaic as hand dryers in public toilets, which soundscape composer John Drever has been researching:

Alternatively, one can work with audio in places where there are specific local issues of concern to people who live nearby, as in my work at Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary, and Peter Cusack’s recent input into urban planning in Berlin:

  • Using a mix of media, adding spoken commentary, text, still images, video or dance alongside environmental audio to thicken up the experience, activate a mix of senses, furnish contextual details, tell stories.
  • Presenting environmental audio in public spaces through installations, audio walks and performances. There are many things to consider here, but maybe the most important is how people are already using particular public spaces, and how to work with that. For example Noel Lobley, who works on the Pitt Rivers Reel to Real project has been taking ethnomusicology recordings out of the archive and into the communities in which they were recorded. In one case this involved hiring a donkey cart, loading it with a sound system and riding through South African townships playing Xhosa music.
  • Bringing people together for sociable gatherings, collective listening and convivial discussion around environmental audio. Fundamental to field recording, acoustic ecology and soundscapes is the idea that we are always in the midst of a vast, uncontrollable world of sound, immersed amongst many different sounding bodies. The seclusion of galleries, concert spaces and individual home listening to websites or CDs seems at odds with that. Here’s James Wyness explaining his idea for ‘soond gaitherins’:

  • Mixing different ways of working with and thinking about sound. Carsten Stabenow told me that one of the most important aspects of the Tuned City festival he runs is how it mixes people from different backgrounds – sound artists, scientists, cultural theorists, architects etc. This involves inviting people with different perspectives on sound onto relatively neutral ground, and allowing them to hang out, eat, drink, walk and talk together:

  • Subverting playback spaces. If environmental audio work is being presented in traditional gallery or concert situations, this can be done in ways that playfully critique or subvert their restrictive spatial and social conventions. Jonathan Prior has created an alternative audio walk for the Scottish National Gallery that cheekily détournes its exhibits. For example, visitors are instructed to stop before an oil painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ, and hear snippets of an interview with celebrity magician David Blaine talking about one of his painful endurance stunts. I witnessed another example in a soundscape work, ‘Strata’, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart from the London College of Communication. The piece was made for the BE OPEN ‘sound portal’, an unreconstructedly modernist surround sound playback environment created by engineers working for Arup, temporarily located in a public space in London, and deliberately designed to shut out the sounds of the city outside. The following clip starts with one of the field recordings used – the lively calls of a hawker at a London flower market, recorded by Sophie Mallett – followed by Sophie explaining how they used this to bring the messy sounds of London back into the purified space of the sound portal.

The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter

The interior of the BE OPEN sound portal. Photo by Bonnie Alter.

There’ll be more updates here as the research progresses. Thanks to everyone who has participated in the research so far. And thanks especially to the AHRC for funding the fellowship. It’s proving to be an invaluable opportunity to deepen my thinking and practice in environmental audio, and has also helped me to build working relationships and friendships with others in this field.

Digital surveillance and digital memory

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Over the last week or so, the mainstream media here in the UK have been gorging themselves on a string of shock horror stories about communications surveillance by western intelligence agencies. Personally, I’ve been a bit baffled by all the fuss. It seems to me that monitoring, storing and sharing information are intrinsic to the very nature of digital communication, so it’s no surprise to find governments tapping into that for their own ends. What else did we expect?

They key thing is memory. Computers are often characterized as calculating machines, but to hold the results of those calculations computers need memory. And as the capacity of computers to calculate has increased in power and shrunk in size and cost, so has their capacity to remember. Media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst argues that digital technologies are characterized by processes of micro-memory. Even when humans experience computers as working in real time, in fact packets of data are being rapidly sent in and out of little chunks of memory with names like ‘buffers’ and ‘caches’. Across a longer time frame, digital devices store data in ROM chips, flash memory, hard drives and so on. Digital technologies are therefore intrinsically archival. Their basic architecture involves the capacity to hold onto information.

Diagram of a video decoder, used for the playback of MPEG-2 videos. Note the many blocks of memory involved.

Diagram of a video decoder, used for the playback of MPEG-2 videos. Note the many blocks of memory involved.

If digital machines are constantly remembering, and we use them for communication, then it is inevitable that what we communicate is going to be remembered – whether for a few milliseconds, a few hours, for 30 days (as with GCHQ) or much longer. Since digital communication requires the networking of machines, the possibilities for circulating this stored data are endless, both legal and illegal, from routine monitoring and data harvesting to snooping, hacking and data theft.

Digital memory is nothing new. The Prophet VS from 1986 had 96 waveforms stored in its ROM, and space to store a further 32 user edited waveforms.

Digital memory is nothing new. This Prophet VS synthesizer from 1986 has the capacity to store 32 user-edited waveforms. The key differences between this and modern devices are that (a) waveform data aren’t personal and (b) the machine’s networking abilities are very limited (it uses MIDI sample dumps, which are pretty clunky).

Just think of all the personal data passing through phone companies, internet service providers, online shops, online banks. Now think of all the people along the way who could access it, whether legally or otherwise – call centre workers, IT technicians, communications engineers, account managers. It’s inconceivable that such complex pipelines, carrying such massive flows, would not be leaky. In the case of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, their very business models depend on harvesting and selling on data from customers to advertisers. When you use Google’s search engine, they are gathering data from you just as much as you are from them. Intelligence services holding emails for 30 days is just the tip of the iceberg.

Through this little socket go all my phone calls, emails, Tweets, web pages, web searches...

Through this little socket go all my phone calls, emails, tweets, blog posts, web pages, web searches…

Of course there are all sorts of measures that can be used to restrict this information storage and circulation. GCHQ seem to be placing a lot of faith in laws and their employees’ obedience to them, claiming that they never actually access any of the stored data without a warrant. (This raises all sorts of questions: do they really think all of their employees always comply with this? If it is machines that have snooped on you, not humans, has your privacy been invaded or not? And if these machines are part of the organization, doesn’t the information stored within them count as knowledge within the organization?) As well as data protection laws, there are also restrictive technological systems such as secure servers, encryption systems, firewalls and so on. But all such protective measures involve choking the processes of remembering and exchange that are the life blood of digital communication. The failure of such measures, either occasionally or routinely, therefore seems inevitable.

So I’m skeptical about the value of building stronger regulatory systems to maintain privacy in digital communications. The capacity to siphon off and hold onto information is so intrinsic to digital technologies that looking to regulation seems almost like a denial of how these systems operate. Given the vastness and complexity of the infrastructures involved, effective regulation would probably involve swathes of new law, policing, enforcement, new technologies, heavy-handed discipline, and surveillance of the surveyors – which surely just returns us to the original problem.

This isn’t to say that regulation and restriction can’t be useful in many situations. I’m quite happy to keep the firewall in my home router turned on. But we’re likely to be disappointed if we place all of our faith in restrictive, bureaucratic, technocratic laws and systems to protect our privacy. Instead, I suggest we need to accept that information storage and exchange are intrinsic to digital communication technologies, and act accordingly.

Diagram of a circuit-level firewall. A useful tool, but we can't trust such devices to protect our privacy. Copyright Cisco Systems Inc.

Diagram of a circuit-level firewall. A useful tool, but we can’t trust such devices to protect our privacy. Image Copyright Cisco Systems Inc.

The example of peer-to-peer file sharing of music offers a useful point of comparison. It’s a case in which there has been an enormous amount of digital data shared without permission, and a lot of consternation about the illegality and possible negative effects of that sharing. So it has some similarities with the current debate about surveillance. Record companies and some recording artists have made a big fuss about file sharing, wringing their hands, arguing for more enforcement of copyright laws and the shutting down of web services, trying to implement copy protection systems and so on, but people continue to share music illegally on a massive scale. Restrictive policing has had some success, with networks such as Napster being sued and forced to close, internet service providers sending out warning letters and limiting bandwidth for ‘persistent offenders’, and the prosecution of small numbers of individuals. But these efforts amount to damage limitation, and are hardly inspiring. Is this the kind of thing we want more of? Meanwhile, musicians are beginning to accept the reality of file sharing – whether they like it or not – and find new ways to make a living that depend less on the sale of recordings.

Similarly, whether we like it or not, I think we need to accept that, with networked digital communication technology, monitoring and sharing of personal data is an ever-present possibility. We can’t enjoy easy access to the internet without allowing the internet access to us. In most cases, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will give a toss about the banal stuff we chuck through these channels on a daily basis, so most of it will probably disappear without trace. But we might do well to maintain an awareness that interception is probably quite easy for anyone who is sufficiently motivated – whether a government agency, a global corporation or an individual, whether acting within or without the law. And the chances are we would never know it had happened.

don't share it-1

If we really want to keep information out of these networks, it’s simple enough to do: we just need to make sure we don’t include it in any form of electronic communication. Don’t tweet it, don’t email it, don’t put it on Facebook (even with their privacy settings enabled) and don’t talk about it on the phone. Maybe coping with the reality of digital communication will involve dividing our information roughly into two camps. On the one hand, we’ll have information that we are willing to allow (albeit grudgingly) into the digital domain to be copied, stored, sold, exchanged, scooped or snooped; stuff that might be personal, but ultimately isn’t all that sensitive or critical. On the other hand, we’ll have information that we absolutely do want kept private, which we will learn to keep out of the digital domain entirely. Perhaps in years to come, older forms of communication such as letters and face-to-face conversations will be re-valued for the degree of privacy they afford, a bit like the way that the ritual of playing vinyl records has become more precious in a world full of MP3s.