Sound art as an imposition? Thoughts from ‘Listening for the City’ at The LAB


Beyond Noise and Silence: Listening for the City’ just concluded in Dublin: a two-part event focused on ‘exploring how the city’s sound environment might be used by artists, architects, and urban designers to activate experimental architectures, urban experiences, and new forms of public space‘.  It was a commendable move from Dublin City Council Arts Office to use as a starting point the introduction of Sven Anderson‘s upcoming commissioned  project ‘MAP: Manual for Acoustic Planning’ and to mark this occasion by turning it into a larger, inclusive occasion to discuss themes often neglected locally.

As an artist who has completed a public art commission in a rural, fairly remote setting, I was very much looking forward to hearing of the experiences of those who had worked in a completely different context: what challenges we encountered were the same, and what was different?  (Plus, on a personal note: fitted with a 9-month pregnancy bump, I was particularly delighted to have this on my doorstep and not have to sigh over another symposium I was missing over in the UK or the US.  We need more of these DCC, if you’re listening.)

The symposium took place in The LAB’s Studio 1 on Foley St. and it was great to see artists of all disciplines attending – from performance artists to video makers, once more proving how sound art provides inspiration and evokes interest from far beyond our (relatively) small community of local practitioners.

The event took place over the course of the afternoon, starting a little over 2pm and concluding at 6.30, with a coffee break halfway through.  The goal for the day was to consider ‘sound art practices in relation to the urban environment and public space from various curatorial, artistic, commissioning, and logistical perspectives, sharing both practical and more discursive insights from different levels of practice involving sound and the public’.  To this end, 3 artists were invited to present their work and discuss their experience in relation to commissioned works for urban environments: Dennis McNulty, María Andueza Olmedo and Aisling Prior.  The latter was unable to attend, and replaced at the last minute by the Liaison Officer for the Ultra-red  ‘The Debt’ project, which took place in the dual locations of Ballymun in Dublin and Pico Alison in Los Angeles back in 2003-2009.  It is fair to say that the last minute replacement did cause some issues in relation to this particular presentation- unlike the others, there was no video or audio support to illustrate the project, just a box set of archive material sitting forlornly on the desk, and an inevitably tentative first-time chat between curator and speaker. All the same, it was great to hear first hand insights on a project which came across as hugely ambitious,  yet plagued by some seriously complex issues of both logistical and emotional nature. The afternoon was then wrapped up by a presentation by Sven Anderson, with details of the process and ideas behind his upcoming commission in Dublin city.

Personally I found this as well as the presentation by María Andueza Olmedo as the most interesting of the day- for the nature of the works involved but particularly as they raised important questions in relation to whether sound art can ever be considered as ‘imposing’ on the general public when located in open, public spaces – essentially the old ‘you can shut your eyes but you can’t  your ears’ debate, which is endlessly fascinating.

Presentation by María Olmedo

This came across first in María’s presentation of her curatorial work Augmented Spatiality which took place in the Hökarängen area of Stockholm- and in particular through the work by Norwegian artist Trond Lossius, The Derivative.





The aim of the work was to see the metro station ‘as a gate, port or entrance to the local neighbourhoods‘ and provide passengers, passing through on the platform, with a flavour of what they might expect as they exit the station and wander into the neighbourhood.  This was achieved by shaping field recordings collected locally into rarefied, subtle soundscapes reflecting local culture and sounds from the specific area and playing these back from speakers located above and all along the platform.  Marìa candidly talked us through the challenges of navigating the Swedish administration in putting the project together, and introduced the concept of having to negotiate ‘power’ and ‘authority’, and ultimately learning to allow what at first sight are ‘obstacles’ to inform the work as much as the original creative idea.

I found this work particularly interesting/ problematic, as while other works in the same Augmented Spatiality required the audience (to a greater or lesser extent) to choose to be present – by attending an event, picking up a pair of headphones, stopping at the threshold of a vacant shop window- in this instance sound was just, well, there.  All the time.  6am to midnight, to be precise.  Great, if – like us writing and reading this- you are into it.  But think about it for a minute:  you are a daily commuter, don’t particularly know this is going on, and suddenly new sound waves are present, whether you like it or not.

This was something both the creator of the work and its curator clearly were quite conscious of, as they went through great trouble liaising with the Swedish metro art department (I know. There is such a thing.) and even sourcing and installing original metro speakers for the piece, so that it would be as visually inconspicuous as possible.  To make things particularly complicated, a whole list of ‘forbidden sounds’ was even provided by the Metro authority, which they were not to use lest they may cause issues of health & safety, particularly in relation to the local visually impaired community.

The ‘forbidden sounds’

All of this understandable, of course. But more than the hoop-jumping, for me it was spotting a man sitting in the background of the platform in one of the project images, wearing headphones of his own, that triggered a few questions.

Commuting or traveling by public transport is a pretty tedious prospect no matter what way you look at it, and most of us (myself included) often retreat to a personal sonic bubble of music or podcasting, often becoming irritated if the quality of what we are listening to becomes interrupted or disrupted by surrounding events, whatever their source. Of course it’d be great to just all agree that any sound art work can (and should) bring creativity and respite to the daily  grind, adding a touch of playfulness and  levity- but is this the reality of what most commuters see it as?  Sadly, by the sounds of things, not quite.

Marìa, once again very candidly, shared some of the post-work evaluation results from a questionnaire and telephone survey conducted on location: sadly a large proportion of users of the station found the work ‘irritating/ scary’ rather than ‘relaxing/ exciting’ (18 versus 12).  Other data included 2 out of 5 not liking the project, and large chunks of interviewees not having an opinion at all, or essentially blanking things out.  For as much as this a fairly unscientific survey (someone in the audience argued that the effects of sound art on memory can often stay with the listener, effectively ‘percolating’ and coming back at a much later date- and therefore cannot be quantified; this neither much of a scientific argument, but there it is) it does introduce a huge problem for us as makers: that of respect of public sonic space versus manipulation, or, at worst, imposition.  *shudder*

Sven Anderson’s presentation, delivered brilliantly and generating some real anticipation in relation to what is to come, ended up addressing this issue too.  In brief, Sven has been working in Dublin for over a year interacting with Dublin City Council working specifically with the 14 sound monitoring stations located around the city. It is a complex and challenging project, both theoretically and technically, and is only now coming to the completion of its first part: the launch of the first listening area in Smithfield plaza, as Sven puts it ‘a difficult area with a difficult sense of place, and not much of a sense of community‘.

Sven Anderson’s presentation

This first work in the series will be ‘hosted’ within the former ‘torches’ that line the side of the square alongside the Lighthouse Cinema, and aim to effectively give a ‘voice to the metal’.  The most interesting feature of the work is that it will link in directly with the cinema itself: receiving live input whenever there is a swell of tonal music from a screening, and reproducing it (in a subtle, abstract form) as a soundscape.  Personally I am sold (he had me at ‘cinema’), but will the residents be, also?

Confronted with the trappings of whether sound art can or can’t, should or shouldn’t be allowed to be ignored, Sven has considered a number of pre-emptive solutions, including making the soundscapes as sonically unobtrusive as possible – only perceivable once the listener approaches.  He also plans to shield the speakers in the upper section of the poles so that they won’t reach the balconies located above, and most importantly he plans to conduct a full trial run with evaluation with local residents. This, I fear, will be the greatest challenge.

There is something incredibly endearing about it all when Sven doesn’t conclude his presentation with the brash and bold ‘this is going to be great!’ we’d all expect from an introductory presentation, but rather with a humble, honest and thoroughly admirable ‘this could work, or it could fail.’

To me, that is the best answer we could expect from the day to the conundrum posed by Lossius’ work: the most we can attempt as sound artists working in public spaces is to a) go to the greatest length possible to balance our creative urges with respect of the local environment and community, and b) despite our best efforts, be open for this to work, or not.

By making a work in a public space, open to uninterested or even irritable passers-by as much as to dedicated listeners, we are setting ourselves the biggest challenge of all, operating outside of the comfort zone of a white cube or a set of headphones, where the stakes are infinitely higher.  Personally this is not something I have attempted yet, and I will certainly think twice about it when that time comes.  Sven is taking on a huge challenge: he has all of my support and I hope he will get that of the art community in Dublin as well as, most importantly, that of the residents he will be interacting with.

As we have seen, on top of talent and technical know-how, bravery and humility are what is really required here, and from what I have heard so far the man is ideally fit for purpose.  Let’s hope the wind is in his favour.

The launch of Sven Anderson’s MAP is scheduled for May 8th in Wood Quay, Dublin City Council headquarters.

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