Curating Everyday Life: Approaches to Documenting Everyday Soundscapes

Milena Droumeva

Abstract


In the last decade, the cell phone’s transformation from a tool for mobile telephony into a multi-modal, computational “smart” media device has engendered a new kind of emplacement, and the ubiquity of technological mediation into the everyday settings of urban life. With it, a new kind of media literacy has become necessary for participation in the networked social publics (Ito; Jenkins et al.). Increasingly, the way we experience our physical environments, make sense of immediate events, and form impressions is through the lens of the camera and through the ear of the microphone, framed by the mediating possibilities of smartphones. Adopting these practices as a kind of new media “grammar” (Burn 29)—a multi-modal language for public and interpersonal communication—offers new perspectives for thinking about the way in which mobile computing technologies allow us to explore our environments and produce new types of cultural knowledge.  

Living in the Social Multiverse

Many of us are concerned about new cultural practices that communication technologies bring about. In her now classic TED talk “Connected but alone?” Sherry Turkle talks about the world of instant communication as having the illusion of control through which we micromanage our immersion in mobile media and split virtual-physical presence. According to Turkle, what we fear is, on the one hand, being caught unprepared in a spontaneous event and, on the other hand, missing out or not documenting or recording events—a phenomenon that Abha Dawesar calls living in the “digital now.” There is, at the same time, a growing number of ways in which mobile computing devices connect us to new dimensions of everyday life and everyday experience: geo-locative services and augmented reality, convergent media and instantaneous participation in the social web. These technological capabilities arguably shift the nature of presence and set the stage for mobile users to communicate the flow of their everyday life through digital storytelling and media production. 

According to a Digital Insights survey on social media trends (Bennett), more than 500 million tweets are sent per day and 5 Vines tweeted every second; 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; more than 20 billion photos have been shared on Instagram to date; and close to 7 million people actively produce and publish content using social blogging platforms. There are more than 1 billion smartphones in the US alone, and most social media platforms are primarily accessed using mobile devices.

The question is: how do we understand the enormity of these statistics as a coherent new media phenomenon and as a predominant form of media production and cultural participation? More importantly, how do mobile technologies re-mediate the way we see, hear, and perceive our surrounding evironment as part of the cultural circuit of capturing, sharing, and communicating with and through media artefacts? Such questions have furnished communication theory even before McLuhan’s famous tagline “the medium is the message”. Much of the discourse around communication technology and the senses has been marked by distinctions between “orality” and “literacy” understood as forms of collective consciousness engendered by technological shifts. Leveraging Jonathan Sterne’s critique of this “audio-visual litany”, an exploration of convergent multi-modal technologies allows us to focus instead on practices and techniques of use, considered as both perceptual and cultural constructs that reflect and inform social life. Here in particular, a focus on sound—or aurality—can help provide a fresh new entry point into studying technology and culture.

The phenomenon of everyday photography is already well conceptualised as a cultural expression and a practice connected with identity construction and interpersonal communication (Pink, Visual). Much more rarely do we study the act of capturing information using mobile media devices as a multi-sensory practice that entails perceptual techniques as well as aesthetic considerations, and as something that in turn informs our unmediated sensory experience.  

Daisuke and Ito argue that—in contrast to hobbyist high-quality photographers—users of camera phones redefine the materiality of urban surroundings as “picture-worthy” (or not) and elevate the “mundane into a photographic object.” Indeed, whereas traditionally recordings and photographs hold institutional legitimacy as reliable archival references, the proliferation of portable smart technologies has transformed user-generated content into the gold standard for authentically representing the everyday. Given that visual approaches to studying these phenomena are well underway, this project takes a sound studies perspective, focusing on mediated aural practices in order to explore the way people make sense of their everyday acoustic environments using mobile media. Curation, in this sense, is a metaphor for everyday media production, illuminated by the practice of listening with mobile technology.

Everyday Listening with Technology: A Case Study

The present conceptualisation of curation emerged out of a participant-driven qualitative case study focused on using mobile media to make sense of urban everyday life. The study comprised 10 participants using iPod Touches (a device equivalent to an iPhone, without the phone part) to produce daily “aural postcards” of their everyday soundscapes and sonic experiences, over the course of two to four weeks. This work was further informed by, and updates, sonic ethnography approaches nascent in the World Soundscape Project, and the field of soundscape studies more broadly.

Participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their media and technology use, in order to establish their participation in new media culture and correlate that to the documentary styles used in their aural postcards. With regard to capturing sonic material, participants were given open-ended instructions as to content and location, and encouraged to use the full capabilities of the device—that is, to record audio, video, and images, and to use any applications on the device. Specifically, I drew their attention to a recording app (Recorder) and a decibel measurement app (dB), which combines a photo with a static readout of ambient sound levels.

One way most participants described the experience of capturing sound in a collection of recordings for a period of time was as making a “digital scrapbook” or a “media diary.” Even though they had recorded individual (often unrelated) soundscapes, almost everyone felt that the final product came together as a stand-alone collection—a kind of gallery of personalised everyday experiences that participants, if anything, wished to further organise, annotate, and flesh out.

Examples of aural postcard formats used by participants: decibel photographs of everyday environments and a comparison audio recording of rain on a car roof with and without wipers (in the middle).

Working with 139 aural postcards comprising more than 250 audio files and 150 photos and videos, the first step in the analysis was to articulate approaches to media documentation in terms of format, modality, and duration as deliberate choices in conversation with dominant media forms that participants regularly consume and are familiar with. Ambient sonic recordings (audio-only) comprised a large chunk of the data, and within this category there were two approaches: the sonic highlight, a short vignette of a given soundscape with minimal or no introduction or voice-over; and the process recording, featuring the entire duration of an unfolding soundscape or event. Live commentaries, similar to the conventions set forth by radio documentaries, represented voice-over entries at the location of the sound event, sometimes stationary and often in motion as the event unfolded. Voice memos described verbal reflections, pre- or post- sound event, with no discernable ambience—that is, participants intended them to serve as reflective devices rather than as part of the event. Finally, a number of participants also used the sound level meter app, which allowed them to generate visual records of the sonic levels of a given environment or location in the form of sound level photographs.

Recording as a Way of Listening

In their community soundwalking practice, Förnstrom and Taylor refer to recording sound in everyday settings as taking world experience, mediating it through one’s body and one’s memories and translating it into approximate experience. The media artefacts generated by participants as part of this study constitute precisely such ‘approximations’ of everyday life accessed through aural experience and mediated by the technological capabilities of the iPod. Thinking of aural postcards along this technological axis, the act of documenting everyday soundscapes involves participants acting as media producers, ‘framing’ urban everyday life through a mobile documentary rubric. In the process of curating these documentaries, they have to make decisions about the significance and stylistic framing of each entry and the message they wish to communicate. 

In order to bring the scope of these curatorial decisions into dialogue with established media forms, in this work’s analysis I combine Bill Nichols’s classification of documentary modes in cinema with Karin Bijsterveld’s concept of soundscape ‘staging’ to characterise the various approaches participants took to the multi-modal curation of their everyday (sonic) experience.

In her recent book on the staging of urban soundscapes in both creative and documentary/archival media, Bijsterveld describes the representation of sound as particular ‘dramatisations’ that construct different kinds of meanings about urban space and engender different kinds of listening positions. Nichols’s articulation of cinematic documentary modes helps detail ways in which the author’s intentionality is reflected in the styling, design, and presentation of filmic narratives. Michel Chion’s discussion of cinematic listening modes further contextualises the cultural construction of listening that is a central part of both design and experience of media artefacts. The conceptual lens is especially relevant to understanding mobile curation of mediated sonic experience as a kind of mobile digital storytelling. Working across all postcards, settings, and formats, the following four themes capture some of the dominant stylistic dimensions of mobile media documentation.

The exploratory approach describes a methodology for representing everyday life as a flow, predominantly through ambient recordings of unfolding processes that participants referred to in the final discussion as a ‘turn it on and forget it’ approach to recording. As a stylistic method, the exploratory approach aligns most closely with Nichols’s poetic and observational documentary modes, combining a ‘window to the world’ aesthetic with minimal narration, striving to convey the ‘inner truth’ of phenomenal experience.

In terms of listening modes reflected in this approach, exploratory aural postcards most strongly engage causal listening, to use Chion’s framework of cinematic listening modes. By and large, the exploratory approach describes incidental documentaries of routine events: soundscapes that are featured as a result of greater attentiveness and investment in the sonic aspects of everyday life. The entries created using this approach reflect a process of discovering (seeing and hearing) the ordinary as extra-ordinary; re-experiencing sometimes mundane and routine places and activities with a fresh perspective; and actively exploring hidden characteristics, nuances of meaning, and significance. For instance, in the following example, one participant explores a new neighborhood while on a work errand:

The narrative approach to creating aural postcards stages sound as a springboard for recollecting memories and storytelling through reflecting on associations with other soundscapes, environments, and interactions. Rather than highlighting place, routine, or sound itself, this methodology constructs sound as a window into the identity and inner life of the recordist, mobilising most strongly a semantic listening mode through association and narrative around sound’s meaning in context (Chion 28). This approach combines a subjective narrative development with a participatory aesthetic that draws the listener into the unfolding story. This approach is also performative, in that it stages sound as a deeply subjective experience and approaches the narrative from a personally significant perspective. Most often this type of sound staging was curated using voice memo narratives about a particular sonic experience in conjunction with an ambient sonic highlight, or as a live commentary. Recollections typically emerged from incidental encounters, or in the midst of other observations about sound. In the following example a participant reminisces about the sound of wind, which, interestingly, she did not record:

Today I have been listening to the wind. It’s really rainy and windy outside today and it was reminding me how much I like the sound of wind. And you know when I was growing up on the wide prairies, we sure had a lot of wind and sometimes I kind of miss the sound of it… (Participant 1) 

The aesthetic approach describes instances where the creation of aural postcards was motivated by a reduced listening position (Chion 29)—driven primarily by the qualities and features of the soundscape itself. This curatorial practice for staging mediated aural experience combines a largely subjective approach to documenting with an absence of traditional narrative development and an affective and evocative aesthetic. Where the exploratory documentary approach seeks to represent place, routine, environment, and context through sonic characteristics, the aesthetic approach features sound first and foremost, aiming to represent and comment on sound qualities and characteristics in a more ‘authentic’ manner. The media formats most often used in conjunction with this approach were the incidental ambient sonic highlight and the live commentary. In the following example we have the sound of coffee being made as an important domestic ritual where important auditory qualities are foregrounded:

 

That’s the sound of a stovetop percolator which I’ve been using for many years and I pretty much know exactly how long it takes to make a pot of coffee by the sound that it makes. As soon as it starts gurgling I know I have about a minute before it burns. It’s like the coffee calls and I come. (Participant 6)

The analytical approach characterises entries that stage mediated aural experience as a way of systematically and inductively investigating everyday phenomena. It is a conceptual and analytical experimental methodology employed to move towards confirming or disproving a ‘hypothesis’ or forming a theory about sonic relations developed in the course of the study. As such, this approach most strongly aligns with Chion’s semantic listening mode, with the addition of the interactive element of analytical inquiry. In this context, sound is treated as a variable to be measured, compared, researched, and theorised about in an explicit attempt to form conclusions about social relationships, personal significance, place, or function. This analytical methodology combines an explicit and critical focus to the process of documenting itself (whether it be measuring decibels or systematically attending to sonic qualities) with a distinctive analytical synthesis that presents as ‘formal discovery’ or even ‘truth.’

In using this approach, participants most often mobilised the format of short sonic highlights and follow-up voice memos. While these aural postcards typically contained sound level photographs (decibel measurement values), in some cases the inquiry and subsequent conclusions were made inductively through sustained observation of a series of soundscapes. The following example is by a participant who exclusively recorded and compared various domestic spaces in terms of sound levels, comparing and contrasting them using voice memos. This is a sound level photograph of his home computer system:

So I decided to record sitting next to my computer today just because my computer is loud, so I wanted to see exactly how loud it really was. But I kept the door closed just to be sort of fair, see how quiet it could possibly get. I think it peaked at 75 decibels, and that’s like, I looked up a decibel scale, and apparently a lawn mower is like 90 decibels. (Participant 2)

Mediated Curation as a New Media Cultural Practice?

One aspect of adopting the metaphor of ‘curation’ towards everyday media production is that it shifts the critical discourse on aesthetic expression from the realm of specialised expertise to general practice (“Everyone’s a photographer”). The act of curation is filtered through the aesthetic and technological capabilities of the smartphone, a device that has become co-constitutive of our routine sensorial encounters with the world. Revisiting McLuhan-inspired discourses on communication technologies stages the iPhone not as a device that itself shifts consciousness but as an agent in a media ecology co-constructed by the forces of use and design—a “crystallization of cultural practices” (Sterne). As such, mobile technology is continuously re-crystalised as design ‘constraints’ meet both normative and transgressive user approaches to interacting with everyday life.

The concept of ‘social curation’ already exists in commercial discourse for social web marketing (O’Connell; Allton). High-traffic, wide-integration web services such as Digg and Pinterest, as well as older portals such as Reddit, all work on the principles of arranging user-generated, web-aggregated, and re-purposed content around custom themes. From a business perspective, the notion of ‘social curation’ captures, unsurprisingly, only the surface level of consumer behaviour rather than the kinds of values and meaning that this process holds for people. In the more traditional sense, art curation involves aesthetic, pragmatic, epistemological, and communication choices about the subject of (re)presentation, including considerations such as manner of display, intended audience, and affective and phenomenal impact. In his 2012 book tracing the discourse and culture of curating, Paul O’Neill proposes that over the last few decades the role of the curator has shifted from one of arts administrator to important agent in the production of cultural experiences, an influential cultural figure in her own right, independent of artistic content (88).

Such discursive shifts in the formulation of ‘curatorship’ can easily be transposed from a specialised to a generalised context of cultural production, in which everyone with the technological means to capture, share, and frame the material and sensory content of everyday life is a curator of sorts. Each of us is an agent with a unique aesthetic and epistemological perspective, regardless of the content we curate. The entire communicative exchange is necessarily located within a nexus of new media practices as an activity that simultaneously frames a cultural construction of sensory experience and serves as a cultural production of the self.

 

To return to the question of listening and a sound studies perspective into mediated cultural practices, technology has not single-handedly changed the way we listen and attend to everyday experience, but it has certainly influenced the range and manner in which we make sense of the sensory ‘everyday’. Unlike acoustic listening, mobile digital technologies prompt us to frame sonic experience in a multi-modal and multi-medial fashion—through the microphone, through the camera, and through the interactive, analytical capabilities of the device itself. Each decision for sensory capture as a curatorial act is both epistemological and aesthetic; it implies value of personal significance and an intention to communicate meaning. The occurrences that are captured constitute impressions, highlights, significant moments, emotions, reflections, experiments, and creative efforts—very different knowledge artefacts from those produced through textual means. Framing phenomenal experience—in this case, listening—in this way is, I argue, a core characteristic of a more general type of new media literacy and sensibility: that of multi-modal documenting of sensory materialities, or the curation of everyday life.

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Keywords


digital curation; sensory ethnography; sound studies



Copyright (c) 2015 Milena Droumeva

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