Risky engagements: some thoughts on geography and art

I’m uploading some audio clips from a recent presentation I gave at an event on ‘Risky engagements: encounters between science, art and public health’. This took place at the University of Manchester and the Whitworth Art Gallery, 5th-6th January 2012, and was organised by Kozo Hiramatsu of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, anthropologist Rupert Cox, and sound artist Angus Carlyle.

AngusAtWhitworth.JPG

 

The event was designed to spark discussion of the issues raised by Angus and Rupert’s Air Pressure project, currently installed at the Whitworth. An immersive video and multi-channel audio work, it centres on a site in Japan where the runway of an international airport has been built right beside a traditional organic farm. Two farming families refuse to move, despite pressure from the authorities to re-locate, and the intense noise at the site. The exhibition is on until the 12th of February and is well worth a visit.

 

JSPS.JPG

 

I presented some thoughts about about art-geography collaborations, of which there have been an increasing number in recent years. I spoke about a project I’m just starting, The Invisible College, a collaboration with public artists NVA (more on that soon; for now see NVA’s website). I also made some more general comments about four issues that seem to come up when academics and artists work together. These are:

1. Epistemology
[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ArtGeogEpistemology.mp3|titles=Epistemology]

2. Evaluation
[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ArtGeogEvaluation.mp3|titles=Evaluation]
(I would add to this that in my view, the lack of established criteria for this is a good thing; the resulting sense of uncertainty seems productive and useful.)

3. Politics
[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ArtGeogPolitics.mp3|titles=ArtGeogPolitics]
(Below is the image I refer to in this, from the Office of Experiments website)


4. Publics
[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ArtGeogPublics.mp3|titles=ArtGeogPublics]

 

The other contributions spun together a vast array of approaches and topics. From the Japanese side, there was a talk about noise around the airport from an acoustics and health perspective, and presentations about Minamata disease, the history and politics of a radiation poisoning incident caused by US nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, and the Fukushima disaster. The UK presenters covered the future of waste (including some stuff about a Finnish project to build a permanent nuclear waste storage facility that will be sealed for 100,000 years), collaborations between arctic scientists and artists, a wonderful story weaving together the September 11th attacks and HIV, John Wynne presenting his work with sound in a transplant hospital, and Peter Cusack airing some recordings from the zone of exclusion in Chernobyl, and some wicked drone action from shipping in the Thames estuary.

So, a mind-expandingly diverse melting pot of ideas. Thanks to Rupert and Angus for the invite, and to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for funding such an interesting event..

Sound, space and power in a primary school

I’ve just had a paper published in Social and Cultural Geography based on my PhD research in a primary school. It’s all about how sound is used in the exercise of power in schools. It’s part of a special issue on spaces of education. If you have access to the journal, you can download it here.

I had another paper in Surveillance and Society last year that is a bit broader but also has some stuff about sonic surveillance. That journal is free to access, and you can get my paper here.

This is all pretty cool as these are my first academic publications touching on questions of sound. The research was just conventional ethnography – no audio recordings sadly. However, I did go on to make a short film called Seven Primary School Spaces in 2008 where the sound was a major focus. Check it out:

I’ll be showing this film at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference this year in a session on ‘Moving Geographies: Film and Video as Research Method’ which is being organised by Katherine Brickell, Bradley L. Garrett and Jessica Jacobs from Royal Holloway..

Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions

I’ve had an abstract accepted to a workshop on ‘Geography and the New Empirics’. My title is “Some unanswerably large but nonetheless pressing questions about ‘audio-visual’ methodologies.” At the moment I like deliberately pedantic titles. Here’s the abstract:

Empirics – audio-visual methods

And a link to the workshop website:

http://www.scgrg.org/geography-and-the-new-empirics/

It takes place at UCL and the RGS in London on 20th-21st January 2011. It’s being organised by Harriet Hawkins and some other geographers.

I’ll be using my presentation as an opportunity to open up some debate around questions like: what is the status of audio-visual media in research? How can audio-visual media function in a research context? How are audio-visual media, such as digital video and audio, different to written text – given that text is clearly visual and, arguably, also aural (since reading requires a voice of some kind)? These concerns have been nagging me more and more as I’ve been working with audio media over the last couple of years. I’m becoming convinced that, if people like me want to use audio-visual media and have this recognised as a legitimate way of ‘doing’ academic research, we’re going to need to address these kinds of questions much more thoroughly than has been the case thus far.

I’m particularly interested in thinking reflexively about the process of making and playing back audio and video recordings, in the same way that ethnographers have spent a lot of time thinking about what it is to produce texts for research purposes. It strikes me that there is nothing straightforward about this. When I take a mic and a recorder out into the city, record sounds, then edit the recordings, compress the files, upload them to a website or play them back in presentations…it’s all too easy to slip into believing that what I’m doing here is in some way ‘capturing’ sound so that the original experience can be ‘re-lived’ later.

I’m inclined instead to think about audio recording as a form of performance in which a whole host of elements are orchestrated together – sound vibrations, air, mics, headphones, ears, fingers, level controls, meters, eyes, silicon chips, electrons, and so on. The result is by no means a ‘captured’ sound – as though the sound had been caught like a bird and put in a cage, to be let out later. Instead what you walk away with is a trace left in some particles, be that magnetic or electrical or whatever, on tape, hard disk or flash memory. That trace can then be used later as a kind of script or score for another performance, again involving lots of different elements all working together – e.g. hard disk, computer, amplifier, speakers, air, ears. The behaviour of every element in the system affects these performances, and if one part misbehaves or breaks down the whole thing can fall apart, sometimes very beautifully.

The magical feat of technology is to hide this whole process inside a black box, and to accomplish the hiding ever more effectively. Think of the shift from wax cylinder to vinyl, tape, CD and now MP3s. At each stage the process becomes more invisible, and the technology arguably less prone to failures. This makes sense if you want to sell stuff to consumers. The illusion is part of the allure. Failures – vinyl crackles, chewed up tapes, CDs skipping digital glitches – expose the process, killing the magic. So they have to minimised as far as possible.

But in research, I want to be reflexive about what it is I’m doing – I see that as an important part of the process – so I want to open up the black box(es) and think more critically about exactly what is going on. Just as electronic and experimental musicians have come to value and even fetishise glitches, hisses, crackles and other hardware malfunctions (cf. Pole, Basic Channel, Position Normal, Oval, Matmos, Phillip Jeck, William Basinsky, Autechre, Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda etc etc) maybe researchers could use such failures as openings, chinks to be prised apart to expose the workings..

Vent and drain, High School Yards

Here’s a clip of a composition I’ve produced from some field recordings. Just before Christmas last year, I was recording an air vent drone in the High School Yards, to the rear of the Institute of Geography in Edinburgh. After a few minutes I noticed a regular dripping sound coming from snow melting into a nearby drain, so I decided to relocate the mic to bring both sounds into the mix.

Vent and drain clip

I think this could be a piece of experimental music; the full 6 minute version may well get released as a Buffalo buffalo track some time in the future. But it’s also a document of a hybrid micro-geography, a record of an insitu, impromptu, more-than-human performance. We could hear this as an unintended duet between the weather and the built environment, with systems for air and water management intertwining.

Many thanks to Jonathan for the photo of the air vent.

Tech details: the recordings were made with a Rode NT4 in full Rycote windshield, and a Tascam DR100 recording at 24 bit, 44.1 kHz. Recordings were edited and EQ’d in Logic..

Can you come again next week?

A great big thanks to everyone who came to Edinburgh to the international training and networking event I organised at the start of May. For those who weren’t there, this was a week-long workshop exploring experimental audio, visual and site-specific research methods. It was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and hosted by the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh, with support from the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

'Experimenting with Geography' participants and presenters

I think it’s fair to say that overall it was a big success. There was a really positive vibe about the whole thing. Eric Laurier summed up the mood in an email sent to all the attendees the following week:

“Can you come again next week? This one has lacked crackly birdsong, vibrating balloons, soldering irons, city symphonies, anechoic chambers, autumn salmon roe, centrifuges, quarry hammers, avian corpses, men on scaffolding (well it hasn’t, but has in that storyboard way), violin-voices in the foyer, cycle rides to the Wild West and most importantly, the music of your enthusiasm.”

Louise K Wilson giving a contact mic DIY session

To flesh out to Eric’s list, some highlights included:

  • A trigger-happy Matt Rogalsky wandering about shooting a starting pistol, to record the acoustics of various spaces.
  • Louise K Wilson showing people how to build their own contact mics and hydrophones (picture above)
  • Victoria Clare Bernie exploring how storyboarding might work in the context of creative research.
  • Sans Facon inviting people to compose their own sound walks.
  • Nigel Thrift giving us a big dollop of theory in the middle of the week.
  • Perdita Phillips installing mics on the roof of the geography building to record the seagulls.
  • Tansy Spinks conducting an impromptu participatory performance on the main stairs.
  • David Paton and friends presenting audio-visual work about a disused quarry which once supplied much of the stone used in Edinburgh’s grand buildings.
  • Hilary Ramsden triangulating Ennio Morricone, a side street in Morningside, and dogs barking on the meadows.
  • Hayden Lorimer describing the early history of wildlife recording, before the invention of magnetic tape. This included such things as cables running for two miles from mics in the woods to a van full of machines which would cut sound waves into discs of heated-up wax.
  • Murray Campbell from physics showing us round the acoustics labs, and answering questions such as ‘can you make a kettle boil by shouting?’ (answer: in theory perhaps, but not in practice).
  • An evening of experimental films curated by Edinburgh-based film-maker Matt Lloyd, and an evening of experimental music courtesy of Martin Parker’s Dialogues festival.

The result was a week which one participant described on his evaluation form as “by far the most interesting and fun event I had attended in the past few years”.

Eric Laurier, Tansy Spinks and a rather severe-looking gentleman
Sound absorbers in the anechoic chamber we visited

Jonathan Prior has made an audio-visual slideshow which I think nicely captures the flow of the event:

http://12gatestothecity.com/2010/05/17/experimenting-with-geography/

More documentation is available via the project discussion board:

http://michaelgallagher.co.uk/experimental-methods-network/

Special thanks to Eric, Hayden, Jonathan and Andy Wilbur for their help and support with this project, and to the ESRC for funding it.

Can you come again next week? This one has lacked crackly birdsong, vibrating balloons, soldering irons, city symphonies, anechoic chambers, autumn salmon roe, centrifuges, quarry hammers, avian corpses, men on scaffolding (well it hasn't, but has in that storyboard way), violin-voices in the foyer, cycle rides to the Wild West and most importantly, the music of your enthusiasm.

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