In this article, I discuss the potential of sound to construct fictional spaces and build relations between bodies using two performance installations as case studies. The first is Invisible Flock’s 105+dB, a site-specific sound work which transports crowd recordings of a soccer match to alternative geographical locations. The second is Atelier Bildraum’s Bildraum, an installation performance using live photography, architectural models, and ambient sound. By writing through these two works, I question how sound builds relations between bodies and across space as well as questioning the role of site within sound installation works.
The potential for sound to create shared space and foster relationships between bodies, objects, and the surrounding environment is evident in recent contemporary art exhibitions. For MOMA’s Soundings: A Contemporary Score, curator Barbara London, sought to create a series of “tuned environments” rather than use headphones, emphasising the potential of sound works to envelop the gallery goer. Similarly, Sam Belinafante’s Listening, aimed to capture a sense of how sound can influence attention by choreographing the visitors’ experience towards the artworks. By using motorised technology to stagger each installation, gallery goers were led by their ears. Both London’s and Belinafante’s curatorial approaches highlight the current awareness and interest in aural space and its influence on bodies, an area I aim to contribute to with this article.
Audio-based performance works consisting of narration or instructions received through headphones feature as a dominant trend within the field of theatre and performance studies. Well-known examples from the past decade include: Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Case Study B; Graeme Miller’s Linked; and Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura. The use of sound in these works offers several possibilities: the layering of fiction onto site, the intensification, or contradiction of existing atmospheres and, in most cases, the direction of audience attention. Misha Myers uses the term ‘percipient’ to articulate this mode of engagement that relies on the active attendance of the participant to their surroundings. She states that it is the participant “whose active, embodied and sensorial engagement alters and determines [an artistic] process and its outcomes” (172-23). Indeed, audio-based works provide invaluable ways of considering how the body of the audience member might be engaged, raising important issues in relation to sound, embodiment and presence. Yet the question remains, outside of individual acoustic environments, how does sound build physical relations between bodies and across space?
Within sound studies the World Soundscape Project, founded in the 1970s by R. Murray Schafer, documents the acoustic properties of cities, nature, technology and work. Collaborations between sound engineers and musicians indicated the musicality inherent in the world encouraging attunement to the acoustic characteristics of our environment. Gernot Böhme indicates the importance of personal and emotional impressions of space, experienced as atmosphere. Atmosphere, rather than being an accumulation of individual acoustic characteristics, is a total experience. In relation to sound, sensitivity to this mode of engagement is understood as a need to shift from hearing in “an instrumental sense—hearing something—into a way of taking part in the world” (221). Böhme highlights the importance of the less tangible, emotional consistency of our surrounding environment. Brandon Labelle further indicates the social potential of sound by foregrounding the emotional and psychological charges which support “event-architecture, participatory productions, and related performative aspects of space” (Acoustic Spatiality 2) these, Labelle claims enable sound to catalyse both the material world and our imaginations. Sound as felt experience and the emotional construction of space form the key focus here.
Within architectural discourse, both Juhani Pallasmaa and Peter Zumthor point to atmospheric nuances and flows of energy which can cause events to furnish the more rigid physical constructs we exist between, influencing spatial quality. However, it is sensorial experience Jean-Paul Thibaud claims, including attention to light, sound, smell and texture that informs much of how we situate ourselves, contributing to the way we imaginatively construct the world we inhabit, even if only of temporary duration. To expand on this, Thibaud locates the sensorial appreciation of site between “the lived experience of people as well as the built environment of the place” (Three Dynamics 37) hinting at the presence of energetic flows. Such insights into how relations are built between bodies and objects inform the approach taken in this article, as I focus on sensorial modes of engagement to write through my own experience as listener-spectator.
George Home-Cook uses the term listener-spectator to describe “an ongoing, intersensorial bodily engagement with the affordances of the theatrical environment” (147) and a mode of attending that privileges phenomenal engagement. Here, I occupy the position of the listener-spectator to attend to two installations, Invisible Flock’s 105+dB and Atelier Bildraum’s Bildraum. The first is a large-scale sound installation produced for Hull UK city of culture, 2017. The piece uses audio recordings from 16 shotgun microphones positioned at the periphery of Hull City’s soccer pitch during a match on 28 November 2016. The piece relocates the recordings in public space, replaying a twenty-minute edited version through 36 speakers. The second, Bildraum, is an installation performance consisting of photographer Charlotte Bouckaert, architect Steve Salembier with sound by Duncan Speakman. The piece, with a running time of 40-minutes uses architectural models, live photography, sound and lighting to explore narrative, memory, and space.
In writing through these two case studies, I aim to emphasise sensorial engagement. To do so I recognise, as Salomé Voegelin does, the limits of critical discourse to account for relations built through sound. Voegelin indicates the rift critical discourse creates between what is described and its description. In her own writing, Voegelin attempts to counteract this by using the subjective “I” to foreground the experience of a sound work as a writer-listener. Similarly, here I foreground my position as a listener-spectator and aim to evidence the criticality within the work by writing through my experience of attending thereby bringing out mood, texture, atmosphere to foreground how relations are built across space and between bodies.
105+dB Invisible Flock
January 2017, I arrive in Hull for Invisible Flock’s 105+dB programmed as part of Made in Hull, a series of cultural activities happening across the city. The piece takes place in Zebedee’s Yard, a pedestrianised area located between Princes Dock Street and Whitefriargate in the grounds of the former Trinity House School. From several streets, I can already hear a crowd. Sound, porous in its very nature, flows through the city expanding beyond its immediate geography bringing the notion of a fictional event into being. I look in pub windows to see which teams are playing, yet the visual clues defy what my ears tell me. Listening, as Labelle suggests is relational, it brings us into proximity with nearby occurrences, bodies and objects. Sound and in turn listening, by both an intended and unsuspecting public, lures bodies into proximity aurally bound by the promise of an event.
The use of sound, combined with the physical sensation implied by the surrounding architecture serves to construct us as a group of attendees to a soccer match. This is evident as I continue my approach, passing through an archway with cobbled stones underfoot. The narrow entrance rapidly fills up with bodies and objects; push chairs, wheelchairs, umbrellas, and thick winter coats bringing us into close physical contact with one another. Individuals are reduced to a sea of heads bobbing towards the bright stadium lights now visible in the distance. The title 105+dB, refers to the volume at which the sound of an individual voice is lost amongst a crowd, accordingly my experience of being at the site of the piece further echoes this theme. The physical structure of the archway combined with the volume of bodies contributes to what Pallasmaa describes as “atmospheric perception” (231), a mode of attending to experience that engages all the senses as well as time, memory and imagination. Sound here contributes to the atmosphere provoking a shift in my listening.
The importance of the listener-spectator experience is underscored by the absence of architectural structures habitually found in stadiums. The piece is staged using the bare minimum: four metal scaffolding structures on each side of the Yard support stadium lights and a high-visibility clad figure patrols the periphery. These trappings serve to evoke an essence of the original site of the recordings, the rest is furnished by the audio track played through 36 speakers situated at intervals around the space as well as the movement of other bodies. As Böhme notes: “Space is genuinely experienced by being in it, through physical presence” (179) similarly, here, it is necessary to be in the space, aurally immersed in sound and in physical proximity to other bodies moving across the Yard.
Image 1: The piece is staged using the bare minimum, the rest is furnished by the audio track and movement of bodies. Image courtesy of the artists.
The absence of visual clues draws attention to the importance of presence and mood, as Böhme claims: “By feeling our own presence, we feel the space in which we are present” (179). Listening-spectators actively contribute to the event-architecture as physical sensations build and are tangibly felt amongst those present, influenced by the dramaturgical structure of the audio recording. Sounds of jeering, applause and the referees’ whistle combine with occasional chants such as “come on city, come on city” marking a shared rhythm. Specific moments, such as the sound of a leather ball hitting a foot creates a sense of expectation amongst the crowd, and disappointed “ohhs” make a near-miss audibly palpable. Yet, more important than a singular sound event is the sustained sensation of being in a situation, a distinction Pallasmaa makes, foregrounding the “ephemeral and dynamic experiential fields” (235) offered by music, an argument I wish to consider in relation to this sound installation.
The detail of the recording makes it possible to imagine, and almost accurately chart, the movement of the ball around the pitch. A “yeah” erupts, making it acoustically evident that a goal is scored as the sound of elation erupts through the speakers. In turn, this sensation much like Thibaud’s concept of intercorporeality, spreads amongst the bodies of the listening-spectators who fist bump, smile, clap, jeer and jump about sharing and occupying Zebedee’s Yard with physical manifestations of triumph. Through sound comes an invitation to be both physically and emotionally in the space, indicating the potential to understand, as Pallasmaa suggests, how “spaces and true architectural experiences are verbs” (231). By physically engaging with the peaks and troughs of the game, a temporary community of sorts forms.
After twenty minutes, the main lights dim creating an amber glow in the space, sound is reduced to shuffling noises as the stadium fills up, or empties out (it is impossible to tell). Accordingly, Zebedee’s Yard also begins to empty. It is unclear if I am listening to the sounds in the space around me, or those on the recording as they overlap. People turn to leave, or stand and shuffle evidencing an attitude of receptiveness towards their surrounding environment and underscoring what Thibaud describes as “tuned ambiance” where a resemblance emerges “between what is felt and what is produced” (Three Dynamics 44).
The piece, by replaying the crowd sounds of a soccer match across the space of Zebedee’s Yard, stages atmospheric perception. In the absence of further architectural structures, it is the sound of the crowd in the stadium and in turn an attention to our hearing and physical presence that constitutes the event.
Bildraum Atelier Bildraum
August 2016, I am in Edinburgh to see Bildraum. The German word “bildraum” roughly translates as image room, and specifically relates to the part of the camera where the image is constructed. Bouckaert takes high definition images live onstage that project immediately onto the screen at the back of the space. The audience see the architectural model, the taking of the photograph, the projected image and hear both pre-recorded ambient sounds by Speakman, and live music played by Salembier generating the sensation that they are inhabiting a bildraum. Here I explore how both sound and image projection can encourage the listener-spectator to construct multiple narratives of possible events and engage their spatial imagination.
Image 2: The audience see the architectural model, the taking of the photograph, the projected image and hear both live and pre-recorded sounds. Image courtesy of the artists.
In Bildraum, the combination of elements (photographic, acoustic, architectural) serve to create provocative scenes which (quite literally) build multiple spaces for potential narratives. As Bouckaert asserts, “when we speak with people after the performance, they all have a different story”. The piece always begins with a scale model of the actual space. It then evolves to show other spaces such as a ‘social’ scene located in a restaurant, a ‘relaxation’ scene featuring sun loungers, an oversize palm tree and a pool as well as a ‘domestic’ scene with a staircase to another room. The use of architectural models makes the spaces presented appear as homogenous, neutral containers yet layers of sound including footsteps, people chatting, doors opening and closing, objects dropping, and an eerie soundscape serve to expand and incite the construction of imaginative possibilities.
In relation to spatial imagination, Pallasmaa discusses the novel and our ability, when reading, to build all the settings of the story, as though they already existed in pre-formed realities. These imagined scenes are not experienced in two dimensions, as pictures, but in three dimensions and include both atmosphere and a sense of spatiality (239). Here, the clean, slick lines of the rooms, devoid of colour and personal clutter become personalised, yet also troubled through the sounds and shadows which appear in the photographs, adding ambiance and serving to highlight the pluralisation of space. As the piece progresses, these neat lines suffer disruption giving insight into the relations between bodies and across space. As Martin Heidegger notes, space and our occupation of space are not mutually exclusive but intertwined. Pallasmaa further reminds us that when we enter a space, space enters us and the experience is a reciprocal exchange and fusion of both subject and object (232).
One image shows a table with several chairs neatly arranged around the outside. The distance between the chairs and the table is sufficient to imagine the presence of several bodies. The first image, though visually devoid of any living presence is layered with chattering sounds suggesting the presence of bodies. In the following image, the chairs have shifted position and there is a light haze, I envisage familiar social scenes where conversations with friends last long into the night. In the next image, one chair appears on top of the table, another lies tilted on the floor with raucous noise to accompany the image.
Despite the absence of bodies, the minimal audio-visual provocations activate my spatial imagination and serve to suggest a correlation between physical behaviour and ambiance in everyday settings. As discussed in the previous paragraph, this highlights how space is far from a disinterested, or separate container for physical relations, rather, it underscores how social energy, sound and mood can build a dynamic presence within the built environment, one that is not in isolation but indeed in dialogue with surrounding structures.
In a further scene, the seemingly fixed, stable nature of the models undergoes a sudden influx of materials as a barrage of tiny polystyrene balls appears. The image, combined with the sound suggests a large-scale disaster, or freak weather incident. The ambiguity created by the combination of sound and image indicates a hidden mobility beneath what is seen. Sound here does not announce the presence of an object, or indicate the taking place of a specific event, instead it acts as an invitation, as Voegelin notes, “not to confirm and preserve actuality but to explore possibilities” (Sonic 13). The use of sound which accompanies the image helps to underscore an exchange between the material and immaterial elements occurring within everyday life, leaving a gap for the listener-spectator to build their own narrative whilst also indicating further on goings in the depth of the visual.
Image 3: The minimal audio-visual provocations serve to activate my spatial imagination. Image courtesy of the artists.
The piece advances at a slow pace as each model is adjusted while lighting and objects are arranged. The previous image lingers on the projector screen, animated by the sound track which uses simple but evocative chords. This lulls me into an attentive, almost meditative state as I tune into and construct my own memories prompted by the spaces shown. The pace and rhythm that this establishes in Summerhall’s Old Lab creates a productive imaginative space. Böhme argues that atmosphere is a combination of both subjective and objective perceptions of space (16). Here, stimulated by the shifting arrangements Bouckaert and Salembier propose, I create short-lived geographies charting my lived experience and memories across a plurality of possible environments. As listener-spectator I am individually implicated as the producer of a series of invisible maps.
The invitation to engage with the process of the work over 40-minutes as the building and dismantling of models and objects takes place draws attention to the sensorial flows and what Voegelin denotes as a “semantic materiality” (Sonic 53), one that might penetrate our sensibility and accompany us beyond the immediate timeframe of the work itself. The timeframe and rhythm of the piece encourages me, as listener-spectator to focus on the ambient sound track, not just as sound, but to consider the material realities of the here and now, to attend to vibrational milieus which operate beyond the surface of the visible. In doing so, I become aware of constructed actualities and of sound as a medium to get me beyond what is merely presented.
The dynamic experiential potential of sound installations discussed from the perspective of a listener-spectator indicate how emotion is a key composite of spatial construction. Beyond the closed acoustic environments of audio-based performance works, aural space, physical proximity, and the importance of ambiance are foregrounded. Such intangible, ephemeral experiences can benefit from a writing practice that attends to these aesthetic concerns. By writing through both case studies from the position of listener-spectator, my lived experience of each work, manifested through attention to sensorial experience, have indicated how relations are built between bodies and across space.
In Invisible Flock´s 105+dB sound featured as a social material binding listener-spectators to each other and catalysing a fictional relation to space. Here, sound formed temporal communities bringing bodies into contact to share in constructing and further shaping the parameters of a fictional event.
In Atelier Bildraum’s Bildraum the construction of architectural models combined with ambient and live sound indicated a depth of engagement to the visual, one not confined to how things might appear on the surface. The seemingly given, stable nature of familiar environments can be questioned hinting at the presence of further layers within the vibrational or atmospheric properties operating across space that might bring new or alternative realities to the forefront.
In both, the correlation between the environment and emotional impressions of bodies that occupy it emerged as key in underscoring and engaging in a dialogue between ambiance and lived experience.
Bildraum, Atelier. Bildraum. Old Lab, Summer Hall, Edinburgh. 18 Aug. 2016.
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