Soundwalking in Vancouver, 2020. Notes and Tones
In February 2020, I relocated to Vancouver, Canada, to spend
several months at the School of Communication of Simon Fraser University and its Sonic Research Studio. Besides my work on the history of soundscape studies,
I plan to keep up my humble explorations of diverse sites through listening, soundwalking, impromptu field recording sessions,
and also more carefully planned excursions. What follows below is a selection of field notes and sound recordings from these
explorations. The titles of individual entries often come from words, instructions, sentences, or, for example, bench inscriptions accidently stumbled upon in the
nearest vicinity to the places where I did the recordings. Visual graphs below the written reflections are simplified depictions of the walks as recorded by a GPS device.
My stay in Canada is part of a three-year international post-doctoral artistic research project funded by the Swedish Research Council. This self-initiated project focuses on the history, the present and the future of field recording and soundwalking practices. The main imperative is to explore the potential of the aforementioned practices to challenge the ways we perceive, inhabit, document, and care for our environments. Building on some of my previous work, one idea is to develop what at the moment I like to call practices of transversal listening, field recording and soundwalking. They attend to the aural as a specific force that traverses environmental, cultural, political and technological dimensions of our existences, across time and space.
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A soundscape composition combining my field recordings of Vancouver soundmarks in which echoes of imperial and colonial power can still be heard
(Naval cannon firing at Brockton Point, Heritage Horns at noon, fog horns from cargo ships,
Gastown steam clock, train wheels on Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, and a train steam whistle).
The moving always puts the static at risk. Regular presence and movement through and on the land are way more powerful techniques of marking the
territory and signaling one's identity than the installment of any stable mark, monument, or landmark.
Differently put, the power embedded in the act of landmarking exceeds that of the landmarks.
The process of reenacting the landmarking, even if only symbolically, creates a more durable impression
(from the Latin impress meaning to press in as in making an imprint) than a material
artifact which is often left unattended. Similarly, dismantling the landmark is
more powerful than the absence that this act produces. One wonders what significance and effect could an engagement in continuous,
sustained dismantling have?
At the end of the 19th century, in their pursuit of control over the territories of today's British Columbia, colonizers deprived indigenous people of their right to engage in their traditional rituals that they cultivated here for centuries. Not only sacred events were banned (for example potlatch, a ceremonial feast celebrating friendship and gratitude through giving away an array of gifts to members of other tribes and communities), but also individual and collective art and craft practices. During that period, many artifacts and ceremonial objects were confiscated and stored in museum collections. Only in the middle of the 20th century, the right to perform craftsmanship was restored. The Canadian government did it to encourage First Nation to engage in trade and sale of their cultural services and objects. (In other words, the freedom of art and craft practice was not returned as to restore the sense of community, identity, and bond with the land, but for economical purposes). However, the legalization of craftsmanship was not followed by the legalization of rituals and sacred ceremonies. Performative events were continuously forbidden; it was a strategic decision precisely because of the colonizers' awareness that dynamic events have potential to unsettle colonial structures because they require active presence of bodies in space (See Selena Couture's Against the Current and Into the Light, 2020).
While static artifacts are mute, the performance's requirement of living bodies in space entails presence of sounds and soundscapes that these living bodies generate (intentionally and involuntarily). Thus, sound-making (and sound-marking) has a similarly unsettling power and can cause a threat to the imposed stability. The awareness of this inherent power of a performative action was also reflected in the very way that the colonizers themselves organized the management of the land. Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of that has been the Canadian Pacific Railway (of which construction in Vancouver - the railway's western terminus - led to the erosion and displacement of local people and their cultural/natural practices). From that perspective, CPR is no longer just a static infrastructure imposed on the land to facilitate mobility of the settlers. It is a performative action, an array of regularly activated secular rituals in which the act of seizing the the land is reproduced with and in every ride, every clutter of the train wheels, every puff of steam evacuated from the train's smokestack, and every signal of the train's steam whistle upon the train's departure or arrival. The role of sound in this rhythmical invocation of the superior order is quite self-explanatory.
The Canadian Pacific Railway is just one example of many other cases in which specific orchestration of time and action systematically restores the once imposed order (or systematically reminds about it). I write this entry while sitting by the seawall near Sunset beach in Vancouver. Looking into the far horizon of the Burrard Inlet, I can hear a fog horn from one of many cargo ships stationing at the bay. Primarily a communication signal (and for some a romatic soundmark characterizing coastal environments), the sound of the fog horn can as well be seen (or rather heard) as a performative display of authority and control over the waters.
Responding to the recent wave of dismantling statues and landmarks of colonial and imperial significance, one can ask whether (and how) similar measures can or should be applied to soundmarks that originated in unjust times or/and ones in which oppressive regimes persistently echo.
June 10, 2020. Sunset Beach, Sea Wall.
Dawn chorus at the Totem Poles in Stanley Park
Paws of a black bear clasp tightly around a thin waist of a human being.
Nearby, an eagle sits comfortably on the head of a monster.
His white, sharp teeth and huge, angry eyes do not seem to make any impression on the eagle.
It might be that the eagle's claws, deeply cut into the scalp of the monster, make it reveal its teeth involuntarily.
Perhaps, it is this sharp pain that makes this presumably peaceful creature appear to us now as a demon of sorts.
Humans, monsters, animals coalesce in dramatic and fantastical depictions. It does not seem to matter who is who.
The realms of the animalistic, the human, and the monstrous are irreversibly entwined with each other.
They borrow from one another. What I am witnessing is not a depiction that through a spontaneous act of creativity at some random point in time bound
these human and more-than-human entities together. Rather, these careful depictions are manifestations and
gateways to worldviews and ways of living cultivated in this part of the world for hundreds, even thousands of years.
One of the totem poles among which I am now witnessing the ever more intense dawn chorus is crowned by a head of a thunderbird, a mythical, supernatural being of power and strength. It is believed that the flapping of its giant wings can produce a rumbling sound, as powerful as thunder. The wooden thunderbird, however, remains calm, almost quiet. But not entirely. There is a hole in its head. From time to time I can hear a very delicate chirping that seems to be coming out of it. Indeed, a starling is circulating between the hole in the thunderbird's head and the woods nearby. The interval between its arrivals and departures are very regular. Whenever it comes back, a choir of fledglings resounds in the wooden head, leaking out softly into the nearest surrounding. In this culminating point of the dawn chorus, it is quite surprising how easy it comes to detect these micro-signals of hunger and satisfaction.
Alongside the rising of the local birds' hunger and libido, there is another awakening taking place not too far. With every minute I can hear more and more details of sonic byproducts coming in from the North Vancouver shore and Vancouver bay. The din intensifies. Occasionally sprinkled with high pitch squeaks, the deep industrial tones create a strange bedrock for the high-frequency soundscape made by the birds. It is captivating how the time of the dawn chorus and its growing intensity corresponds with the inescapable rise of the industrial production at the harbor. These two realms fill in, or rather constitute the acoustic spectrum by occupying its opposite ends; they're bound to each other while simultaneously pulling apart. I am sitting there on my own for a long time witnessing this aural manifestation of the nature-culture complex. Listening to the chirping of hungry fledglings awaiting their breakfast in the head of the wooden thunderbird while accompanied by the simultaneous yawning and wheezing of the harbor, makes me perplexed. Long after departing from the site, its soundscape reverberates bitter-sweetly. In it echoes both happiness and suffering that this land has been a witness to. Despite at once overwhelming and enchanting intensity of the local soundscape, there are cavities in its substance through which silence radiates. The chirping of the starlings who found their new home in the Totem Pole furnishes this absence left behind years ago by those who were strategically dispossessed of their homes. It is as if that totem pole kept persistently enacting the kind of hospitality towards the other-than-human actors (but also humans), that characterized communities who had cultivated and took care of this land until the white men's interruption.
The site of the Totem Poles is a highly heterotopic and contested zone. Everything one encounters at once belongs here and remains displaced. The totem display was created by early settlers (see Selena Couture's Against the Current and into the Light and Jean Barman' Stanley Park's Secrets). The Art, Historical, and Scientific Association in Vancouver came up with an idea of a replica of an 'Indian' village so that the white audience could enjoy it as part of their recreational visit to Stanley Park. The following was reported by the local newspaper, Vancouver Daily World on June 9, 1923:
"In order that future generations may have some concrete example of the types of Indian villages a start will be made next year on the construction of a replica fitted with the traditional totem poles and other relics and curios".
This statement does not only reveal a discriminatory tone of the colonizers towards cultural practices and objects of First Nations but also anticipates a prospect of the complete disappearance of indigenous culture which would only benefit the white communities. By erecting such questionable sites, white colonizers were able to construct and circulate a picture of themselves as guardians of the indigenous culture, watering down their responsibility for facilitating this disappearance in the first place. The project was eventually abandoned after the intervention of a Squamish activist Andy Paull. However, the poles remained. They were relocated a bit further away from where the replica village was planned. Regardless of the difficult history of the totem display to large extent orchestrated by white colonizers, for the First Nation Communities, the site is continuously an important manifestation of their deep attachment to the land and culture they developed and cultivated here for centuries. (This was confirmed by Candace Campo, an anthropologist and a school educator who takes care of the strong presence of indigenous perspective on the history of the park, and with whom I will get a chance to take a walk in the park several weeks later).
Depending on the angle one takes to look from and listen to the surroundings and their history, the totem display at Stanley Park might tell a different story. At once, the site signifies and speaks about the historical presence of indigenous communities and their erosion engineered by white colonizers, their visions, and businesses. While revealing the power of white settlers and their control over the way that the native people have been (re)presented and their traditions communicated to the audience, the site simultaneously reflects and carries on the resistance of these communities to the colonial practices of displacement and dispossession.
Upon my first visit there, early in the morning while sitting by the poles without anyone around me, I am fascinated by the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of these cultural artifacts. I am looking at a tree log and simultaneously an archive of a culture once subjected to erasure. The activity of birds, especially the starlings nesting in the head of the blackbird, reminds me that with its intrinsically organic dimension, the wooden pole is continuously a member of the natural world. Its transfer into the realm of human symbols, rites, and customs does not remove it from the customs of nature. It only equips it with another dimension. This observation will become even clearer after my later meeting with Candace who will tell me about the life cycle of totem poles. Towards the end of its lifespan, as she will explain, a totem pole is returned to the environment so its body can become a site for the germination of new organisms and plants. This becoming of a nursing log for new organisms is one of several phases and metamorphoses that a tree goes into its life. In trees rest spirits of the deceased ones. Just as those trees go through various phases and incarnations so do the spirits that inhabit them. The Matter and the spirit require and receive similar respect.
Upon another visit to the totem display, I approach them as at once spirits, trees, sacred artifacts, and natural-cultural archives. I think of how their wooden bodies store traces of their genealogy and the natural history of the environments in which they emerged. I think of their rings, stored deep in their bodies. They make storage, a chest of that environmental knowledge while the vertical organization of the pole constitutes an inventory of human wisdom and belief. I think of the balance between natural and cultural memory, and how nature, transformed in various ways, is often deployed as a carrier for human memory. I try to think about the opposite scenario where humans become carriers of nature's memory. Or differently put, a situation where human and more-than-human beings collaborate on a balanced, symbiotic, and synergetic form of planetary memory.
I learn that several of those totem poles were donations from indigenous craftsmen and craftswomen (many of those poles were carved by women). I think about soundscapes as specific forms of legacy and heritage. I wonder what would it mean to replicate a soundscape and then donate it.
I think of the starling as a tactical practitioner taking advantage of safety that this protected area of totem display provides. I think of the totem poles' openness towards natural appropriation versus its righteous resistance to cultural appropriation.
I think of a soundscape in terms of an incomplete acoustic zone open for tactical appropriation. I wonder what happens when a symbolically charged artifact, such as a totem pole, enters a new context and whether it is prepared to accept a new aural configuration that surrounds it? What emerges from that encounter? I think here of Hildegard Westerkamp's article written in response to the placement of totem poles in the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia. They were placed there without any consideration of the soundscapes that originally surrounded them, (or rather with which they had a symbiotic bond). I have been thinking about the idea of accompanying these displaced cultural artifacts with the recordings of sites they originally belonged to (or similar soundscapes reproduced in a studio environment), finding it on one hand appealing and on the other controversial, as it would only mask a larger, underlying problem. I believe that the absence of original soundscape that used to accompany the totem poles in the museum is something that should actually be preserved (even amplified, metaphorically speaking) rather than populated, filled by a reconstructed soundscape, its mere replica. This absence of the aural foregrounds random sounds of the museum such as its infrastructural buzzes and noises. Consequently, instead of being artificially masked, the noises articulate the artificiality of the display contesting the museum's aspiration to authentically represent what its agents gathered over the years. The soundscape is hence more appropriate in a way that is in tune with the dynamics that often govern museums and cultural heritage collections and which is to being something in without thinking of the context, or depleting it radically. Instead of replicating and imitating original context (and giving justice to the display by providing contextual information in the form of a soundscape), the random, noisy soundscape articulates the displacement and dispossession mechanisms underlying many archiving and museum practices. In other words, the clash of the 'native' soundscape of the museum and the cultural artifacts gathered (violently) or acquired from native communities, expresses the subjugation of local culture to the superior, curatorial force of another culture. I believe that this mechanism should be critically embraced rather than solved (especially today when the museum tries to critically reassess their history and practices). Working with sound (or rather silence) could be one way to aid that kind of work. Leaning towards artificially achieved, fake harmony should be resisted and instead, disharmony revealed and critically acknowledged.
Sitting there below the totem poles, I think of the use of wood as a transmitter of cultural meanings. I think of how in Western, highly technologized cultures, a wooden log receives, at the most, a function of a utility or telecommunication pole. I think of how here the natural verticality of a tree is respected in the way that the story that is transmitted through its artful transposition into a totem pole is to be read. Conversely, the role of a wooden log mechanically engineered into a utility pole is reduced to a servant in a horizontally distributed network of electricity and telecommunication cables.
May 8, 2020. Totem Poles, Stanley Park.
An unexpected and quite eerie soundscape near Deadman's Island resulting from dissonant noises of a road truck and a lawn tractor.
Recorded with a pair of wearable binaural microphones and edited with a low pass filter.
In its long history, Deadman Island (Skwtsa7s in indigeneous Squamish language) has been a witness to a variety of tragic events. It was a battlefield, a native tree-burial cemetery, and smallpox and squatter settlement.
The battle took place there before the arrival of settlers. It was conducted between two rival tribes whose medicine men
around the same time traveled there to set up the stronghold of their witchcraft and magic.
After several months of fights, about two hundred people were killed.
The site was used as a tree-burial cemetery. Placing dead bodies or coffins on trees instead of burying them in the ground used to be common among some of the First Nation people in North America. During the smallpox outbreak between 1888 and 1892, those who got ill were sent to the isle for quarantine. Those who did not recover were buried there. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the island was subject to a dispute between private investors who intended to clear it out of trees and some civic officers who saw it as an integral part of the Stanley Park. In 1944 it was eventually turned into a naval center. In the 2000s, one of the First Nation communities
claimed the right to the land. However, control over the island has remained in the hands of the Department of National Defence and for many years,
it has been inaccessible to a regular visitor.
While taking my walk there, I was not aware of the details of the island's turbulent history. Similarly, I was not aware that access is not permitted. My expectations were contradicted. My destination was not reached. Additionally, the soundscape I expected to encounter in the vicinity of the island was far from what I imagined. Instead of silence, water splashing against the rocks and wind restlessly wheezing, I was surrounded by an uncountable array of clanking halyards (ropes used for raising and lowering a sail on a sailing boat) mixed with an omnipresent dissonance caused by only slightly competitive frequencies of a lawn tractor and a tuck operating nearby. At first, it felt as though this unexpected soundscape was profaning the one I had imagined to characterize this site. But soon, strangely enough, those unfitting and mismatched sounds opened up a particular connection with the island despite not being able to set my foot on it. The low din of engines combined with a cascade of bell-like dings of the boat masts created at once a shamanic and eerie atmosphere that invoked the thoughts of those who perished on the island. For some minutes, I pondered this strange situation in which sounds whose sources had nothing to do with the history and legacy of the island, became its intimate stewards and storytellers.
After this meditative moment, I continued my walk in a different direction thinking about a relationship between soundwalking and pilgrimage.
Is soundwalking a form of pilgrimage? What are the similarities and differences between these two modes of moving through space on foot? What sets them apart and, more importantly, what brings them together? In my practice, soundwalking often has no clear aim. It has no specific destination in terms of a physical location. It draws on serendipity (unless I work with a scripted soundwalk for a specific location). In contrast to this, the dynamics of pilgrimage are constrained by a clearly defined conduct as well as points of departure and arrival.
While constituting an exemplary case of a transitory ritual (or liminal rite, using Victor Turner's terminology), pilgrimage is as much about the in-between as it is about the points that its trajectory binds together. In other words, it is a spatio-temporal zone connecting two points in time and space. Soundwalking, I believe, does not share this dependence on two moments in time and two places in space; they do not necessarily frame its essence. Instead, it appears as an act that is elusive, flexible, responsive to a sudden change of circumstances, and capable of adjusting to other events in one's life at the moment.
Despite all differences, I have always considered soundwalking as a type of ritual, a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage which is at once secular and sacred. Why so? The reason might have been my attitude to pilgrimage at large, which is to treat it as a journey that does not call for completion. A journey in which one does not seek any sense of achievement, satisfaction, gratification, or recognition in the eyes of gods. For me, pilgrimage has always been about stepping into the unknown without knowing what awaits on the other end, precisely because one does not anticipate where that end might be. The only thing that one may let himself/herself consider as the constant or outcome of the pilgrimage is the sense of transformation it enables. To paraphrase Heraclitus, the only constant in pilgrimage, is the change. And here is where I see pilgrimage and soundwalking overlapping.
Just as pilgrimage, soundwalking creates an ever-changing room of spatio-temporal conditions, circumstances, obstacles, impressions, and disturbances that reciprocally provide the soundwalker with space for reconfiguring his/her ways of relating to the world and others.
This is not to say that such a reconfiguration cannot be afforded through other approaches. One can certainly find examples of soundwalking that are highly structured and organized in the way they follow a given set of guidelines, rules, and instructions. Constraints might just as well aid transformation and oft-times they do it better than the freedom of choice does. But while open and elusive, in its very essence soundwalking appears as already quite highly constrained an activity. Stemming from an entwinement of two simple but powerful acts - walking and listening - it does not call for any additional restrictions. In this respect, soundwalking is simultaneously constrained and open-ended. Transitory and permanent. Constant and inconstant.
If there is any goal or destiny set out in soundwalking it is rather something that emerges during the process, a posteriori, rather than something being set out in advance.
There is another aspect characterizing soundwalking that might be seen as contesting its comparison to pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is commonly associated with religion. It is a specific form of practising and manifesting one's religiousness and attachment to a particular religious doctrine and group. While walking, a pilgrim dedicates his/her time to restoring his/her sense of adherence to the doctrine as well as a sense of belonging to the community that shares the same beliefs. (It would require a separate entry to inquiry if the main engine that drives the act of pilgrimage is this communal sense or whether that sense is a by-product of worshiping the divine through rituals such as pilgrimage).
Regardless of that, it's obvious that to take place, every ritual, including pilgrimage, involves a certain amount of material elements irreversibly charged with symbolic meanings (roadside shrines, temples, prayer beads, monuments, graves, etc.). In other words, to happen, rituals require specific scenographies and props. They facilitate the movement from one point to another. The dynamics of pilgrimages, just as any other rituals, are bound to human cultures and their material manifestations.
Pilgrimage is a celebration of human culture as it is expressed through religious beliefs. In contrast, soundwalking often blends the distinction between nature and culture or even foregrounds the former at the cost of the latter. Soundwalking temporarily suspends the soundwalker's reliance and maybe even dependence on cultural orders and conventions. If sight has for millennia been the principal force organizing human cultures, listening can be seen as a force that disrupts such order. Similarly, in the context of human culture of mobility being continuously improved by ever faster and more automated vehicles, walking appears as a truly deregulating force. I do not intend here to adhere or restore any picture of nature and culture as two separate realms. It is rather about showing how religious and non-religious forms of pilgrimage in their own terms attend to balancing these always already intertwined dimensions.
There is an irreducible element of worship involved in religious pilgrimage which soundwalking might be missing (unless we speak of solitary, idiosyncratic forms of pilgrimage. For example hermits have been embarking on pilgrimages seeing them as a way to find or regenerate connection with oneself and the divine. One can even discuss such acts as forms of insurgence against the established religious doctrines). But is soundwalking really freed from gestures of worship? Does not nature become in soundwalking practices a replacement of God and hence subject to worship? If soundwalking attends to nature in a merely aesthetic sense, treating it as a source of appreciation and unreflective indulgence, its transformative dimension (which as I argue here, soundwalking potentially shares with the concept of pilgrimage) becomes indeed contested. But this mechanism is similar to when a religious pilgrimage stops at being merely a tool for worshipping and adoring the power of the divine. If such is the case, I believe (!), transformation has a lower if any chance to occur. In other words, if there is no criticism, reflection, even questioning involved in thinking through our relationship with nature and the other (or the divine, in the case of a religious rite), the openness towards transformation becomes replaced by the persistence in one's conviction (which in fact might only be a poor reflection of the conviction represented by the others).
This is why I value and seek pilgrimage rituals that leave space for a sense of incompleteness. Rituals in which the horizon of their closure continuously slips. Rituals that do not restore the order (and so one's convictions), but challenge, or even disrupt it. Rituals that do not satisfy one with a sense of accomplishment but rather unsettle the very idea of completion and fulfilment. Rituals that do not make one see things clear again, but see them differently. Rituals that repeat, but each time in a disparate manner. Can soundwalking be enacted in that way?
At their core, I still believe, pilgrimage and soundwalking find resonance in how they enable transformation. However, the vectors and trajectories of those transformations are where differences persist.
May 06, 2020. Stanley Park, Deadmen Island.
Crows taking advantage of an empty public pool at Stanley Park to bathe in the shallow residue of water.
It is hard not to notice differences between how our everyday environments sounded before
and how they sound after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. One does not need any special equipment
to realize that. Increased sensory attention and openness towards the outside world might
be enough to make us more receptive. But not everyone can be attentive and open today in the same way.
The suggestions made by those who work with sound on a daily basis to start listening to our environments more carefully can be seen as primarily
resonant with those who are privileged or lucky enough to take time to listen. While some use this time to benefit from slower paces,
quieter places, and more open calendars, others struggle with the opposite; confusion, chaos, exhaustion, and noise.
I am thinking here of some of the healthcare workers in particular. In Vancouver, for example, while certainly appreciating
the gesture of solidarity performed daily by a local citizens at 7pm,
some health care workers might not necessarily applaud to that. Especially not to the noise that this gesture of solidarity generates.
The cheering to health care workers that takes place in numerous cities around the world does more to those
who cheer rather than those whom this cheering is dedicated to. Starting from a gesture of solidarity with a particular
group of people it has metamorphosed into a social ritual of collectively letting the steam off.
It is a short period in which the noise pollution - significantly reduced under the pandemic - is temporarily restored or even amplified.
Social distancing is combated by the immediacy of loud sounds generated by throats, megaphones, honks, pots, musical instruments,
and even conch-shell-horns. It is a celebration during which the informal agreement is established that noise is acceptable.
And even though some people do break off the rules, usually the noise is contained within a short time frame.
Silence can be as tiring and even oppressive as noise and noise can be as healing as silence. Externally quiet environments might amplify one's internal noises. An obvious example here would be tinnitus, a perception of noise or involuntarily ringing in the ears. My grandmother used to treat her ear-ringing (additionally amplified by long exposures to solitude) with the constant buzz of the radio in the background. It is important to remember that many of us hold on to the echoes of spaces we have been occupying and events we have gone through, whether voluntarily or not. Memory and life experience (doświadczenie in Polish, erfahrung in German) are specific forms of tinnitus that make each of us be in tune (or out of tune) with the world in our own terms. We have different sonic sensitivities, tastes, and aversions. We listen to our surroundings, just like each other, with various biases and intentions. With different degrees of harmonic resonance or dissonance.
In my encounters with sound artists and field recordists, there were some cases where professional, educated artists, designers, and field recordists would let their sound practice be steered by the search for hi-fi quality, stunning effect, and uniqueness. It seems as if they listened to their surroundings as if they were already listening to it being captured through their audio recording gear. They listen to it as if they were already looking (!) at it beaming from a sterile, minimalist black speaker in a white cube gallery. They capture the sounds as botanists used to capture flora and fauna. They sterilize what they captured, pin it down, and show off as isolated sonic phenomena.
I hate to follow the all too oft-reproduced distinction into the professional and the amateur where the former is a desirable model whereas the latter a dilatant, wanna-be, an unskilled individual. Amateur for me is primarily a lover, someone who lifts passion over rational thinking in the way he/she approaches the subject of genuine interest, someone who spends way more or way less than 10000 hours on what she/he loves (a ridiculous neo-liberal formula popularized by M.Gladwell among others), unconcerned about fitting into the arbitrarily specified contours of professionalism. It is among those ardent dilettantes that I have many times found inspiration and resonance, also when it comes to listening and recording. The amateur, or an undisciplined listener as I would prefer to call him/her, seems to be reaching out for a recorder to capture not the sound (or its source), but the moment. Just like an amateur street photographer shoots the object or event of interest in a rough manner, without an urge to isolate it from the messiness of the hereabouts, so does the undisciplined listener record the sound event with all that happens to surround and, perhaps, co-constitute its occurrence.
What made me think of the amateur field recordist is the growing abundance of sounds that pervade the online world today. The flipside of the offline world becoming quieter today is a much more noisy cybersphere. The argument that our digital culture(s) are disproportionally dominated by visual media and hence more attention is needed to sound might not hold anymore. Almost every day there is a new project being launched that has to do with the soundscapes of the pandemic. As in the Mass Observation Project in the 40s in the UK where several hundred volunteers were given a task to document everyday life, today hundreds of internauts (among them many undisciplined listeners) are being mobilized to go out and audio-document their surroundings. What do those projects tell us about the pandemic? And what do those projects tell us about ourselves? While generally appreciated and even admired, practices of recording and sharing the sounds of the pandemic have also received some critique. Some sound art practitioners pointed at the unreflective fetishization of sound and the exploitation of the serious condition we have all found ourselves in - a pursuit of visibility, benefits, and, perhaps, even fame. Voices were raised about predominantly white, Western, masculine character of those endeavors. Other strands of the critique have focused on the sonic exploitation of nature and animals (who taking advantage of the human's temporary withdrawal from public places began to reclaim them). Most radical voices have been questioning the very idea of listening to and recording nature seeing it as an obtrusive invasion into the realm that humans have already significantly devasted.
The argument regarding the invasiveness of listening to and field recording of nature (regardless of whether it takes place during the pandemic or not) is especially problematic in a way that it restores the nature/culture binary. The critique of that kind suggests that the place of a human is outside of nature and that we humans should restrain our aural perception of and participation in the environment. But besides reproducing the culture/nature divide, what in my opinion is even more problematic in this view is the tendency to victimize nature. I do not mean here that nature does not need support or to be taken care of. Rather, I think that such victimization protracts the image of a human being as a superior entity to nature, an entity that exploited it and now needs to go. Globally affected climate and the deepening environmental crisis were not caused by human actions at large but by particular processes instigated by certain groups of people in specific places. The troublesome notion of Anthropocene (of which the climate crisis is the most visible symptom) implies that the responsibility for the environmental devastation is on all humans and their activities. By implication, to portray nature as a victim of all humans is an unfair generalization. It is unfair to both nature and those people who have for hundreds of years, if not centuries, cultivated a balanced and resilient relationship with the environment (also through sound and listening practices). Thus, not every act of listening is invasive or imposing, and, I believe, the similar can be said about field recording. Not every act of recording nature is an imposing, insulting, exploitative practice. People have been listening to nature and recording it in a variety of ways for centuries (in drawings, illustrations, stories, songs, dialects, to name just a few modes). So where is the problem? Could it be located in the way that such practices are motivated, shared, circulated, and consumed?
At this moment, in my paper journal where I normally conceive of these entries during my walks, I had a section on participatory art and design and how some instances of those tend to victimize subjects they want to engage with. There have been some really good critiques of participatory art and design offered lately. Since it is not my immediate interest, I would point the reader to, for example, texts by Mahmoud Keshavarz. This is certainly not to say that there is a vacuum in terms of meaningful projects that use participation as their modus operandi. What, perhaps, makes (or might be making) participatory projects meaningful in my opinion (and again, not mine only and originally) is the recognition of power imbalance that characterizes any position that the artist/designer takes. (And again, there has already been written much about how participatory projects that enable space for friction and dissensus - through the recognition of such power imbalances - might be more productive that solution- and consensus-driven ones). My paper journal entry contained much longer elaboration on these issues. But cutting to the chase, the point was to propose that if listening to nature is a participatory practice (and I would argue that it inherently is, firstly because of the culture-nature continuum and secondly because the listener always participates in the creation of the aural situation that she might consider to be only a passive witness to), to be meaningful it needs to recognize the position from which it is being done (or from which it takes its part).
Let's go back to the amateur. It has been quite common among media studies scholars to discriminate against the media amateur or media consumer. Even though the image of a media consumer as someone passively exposed and subjugated to the power of media industries was constructed many years ago, in the context of so-called mass media (see Adorno and Horkheimer), it is still being perpetuated to discuss power relationships between those who control media (digital platforms, for example) and those who engage with them (social media users, amateur media creators, etc.). I agree that there certainly is a burning need to further scrutinize the mechanisms of platform capitalism and such, but I also believe that it should not be done at the cost of diminishing the value of an individual user and his/her subjectivity. As I demonstrated in my doctoral thesis (published under the title of Para-Archives) I am completely aware that mainstream platforms and communication tools (ever more aggressively homogenized and pulled under control of just a few large tech corporations) shape sensitivity, emotions, intentions and even visions of their users. This is what they are designed to be doing. And this is precisely why it is those platforms, corporations, and models they promote that should fall under critique, not the users. Or, at the very least, not their users only. There has been much inspiring work done to recognize the agency of an individual media user (Stuart Hall, to mention just one name). Such studies called scholars and analysts to move beyond the assumption that an average media user is inherently passive and acknowledge the diversity of motivations and intentions that drive people's engagements with media. In my writings, I suggested that the same has to be done with respect to media technologies. Today, (perhaps even more in the context of the pandemic) this multiplicity of motivations should be recognized among field recordists, both amateur and professional ones.
As mentioned earlier, on the wave of interest in capturing the effects of the pandemic, there has also been some critique launched lately. It has focused on those who engage in recording soundscapes of cities and other places affected by restrictions imposed on the use of public spaces and services. For example, one argument brought up by a rather established and renowned sound artist and field recordist was that such practices tend to fetishize soundscapes of the pandemic (especially more noticeable these days sounds of nature) and that the majority of such mapping initiatives are performed by white males who primarily seek recognition. I believe that this critique of field recording and listening is certainly valid and needed (just as a critique of field recording per se). However, to inspire and be resonant, any kind of critique needs to avoid generalization and discrimination. One can certainly argue that during the pandemic there has been an increase in field recording initiatives. But is the recording of a soundscape during the pandemic in any way more fetishistic than a field recording of a city soundscape before the outbreak? If so, is it the intensification of that kind of activity that causes the problem?
Instead of attempting to critique field recording practices under the pandemic, it would perhaps be more productive to focus on selected cases, examples, etc. This would allow to not only avoid shortcomings but also to help diagnose the issue more specifically. Perhaps, it would also open one's perspective onto a variety of motivations and intentions that trigger people to turn to their audio recorders, down there on the ground level. One could discover that what motivates people to record soundscapes under the pandemic is frustration with the current situation, an ambition to spend time creatively, reconnect with nature (however naive it might sound to a trained, privileged sound artist), or to transcend and rectify the otherwise constraining conditions of being stuck in a lockdown. Just as with any other media practice, it is obvious that there are many more reasons for people to practice sound recording and share their outcomes than a banal self-indulgence, fetishism, and need for recognition. Or even if a sound recordist were to acknowledge his/her fetishistic attitude to the recorded sound, his/her understanding of that kind of relationship with a material object could perhap differ from the way that the critic perceives it. As a matter of fact, the term 'fetish' has been quite largely misused in the context of capitalist consumerism. It is often connected to consumption and commodification, denoting an approach to any material, consumerist good as the end in itself. The word was originally coined by Western ethnographers to describe objects of cult and worship among some African tribes. However, it seems that over the years, the fact that these objects functioned as gateways to deeper, cultural meanings and beliefs (not objects of direct worship) grew faint. If I were to pursue the view of field recordings as fetishes, I would certainly agree to see them as such gateways rather than objects of worship. I also believe that on the level of individual (or collective) engagement they indeed are no more and no less than stabilized accounts of diverse engagements with the world, regardless of how they sound, what platform they end up on and how the critical ear on the other, detached end would define them.
As a researcher, educator, and practitioner, I have always been advocating a critical approach that is based on continuous navigation between the in and out, or micro- and macro- perspectives. My advice has been to never fully buy into large-scale comfortable concepts, popular notions, and methods, especially at the beginning of one's inquiry into the subject of interest. They can certainly sit there at the back of one's head, but always ready to be contested, questioned, and reconfigured through a more detailed, inward, hands-on inspection and engagement with the case.
What I certainly see as problematic with this increase in field recording activities and the sharing of their outcomes is the way that they are circulated. There are numerous calls out there asking people to contribute with their recordings. These calls and projects intended to generate large scale sound maps, covering as wide territories as possible. While calling for contributions such projects tend to reduce listening and field recording into a quantitive process. In that sense, they follow the logic of mainstream social media platforms whose goal is typical to ensure the continuous flow of people's entries, regardless of their quality. To return to my point, instead of focusing one's critique on the listener and field recordists, what should be questioned instead is how such calls are formulated, popularized, spread, assessed, and benefitted from. We should question the templates and mainstream digital techniques (mapping, geo-tagging, sharing, liking, etc), not only the acts of listening and field recording. We should wonder what such all-encompassing projects do to the qualitative layer of often very subjective, maybe even intimate practices and meaning they might carry for those who directly engage in them. I would argue that in many cases their significance on a micro-scale becomes depleted and what remains is a floating signifier on a macro-scale. If such calls are to be continued, what I believe should be encouraged is making the thought process and reflection over that which is listened to and recorded an integral and crucial part of the very project. Moreover, listeners and field recordists (regardless of their level of expertise) should be encouraged to create their own, customized formats for disseminating their sonic encounters. I believe that similar to the way we speak, we listen to the surrounding world with different dialects and accents. While mainstream, standardized platforms tend to flatten and obscure these peculiarities, there is a need for a bigger variety of ways through which we share our acts of listening.
April 28, 2020. Stanley Park, Sea Wall, Vancouver.
Composition based on hydrophone and contact microphone recordings of an aeolian harp-like instrument built of intertidal material and triggered by the wind.
The role of instruments, whether musical, medical, or astronomical, is to support human faculties.
They are made to perform a given task, convey a story, or help perceive something from a new angle.
Instruments augment, amplify, transcend reality and rewire our sensory and cognitive habits.
They never merely transmit, unless we agree that any kind of transmission involves transformation
(similar to any kind of mediation where that which is being mediated depends heavily on the mediating device or technique).
Instruments promise to clarify what initially resides beyond human comprehension.
But while easing our connection to the world they simultaneously complicate it. They compartmentalize, categorize, and hierarchize the ways we belong to and sense our surroundings. While making us feel as if our knowledge of the world became wider, each instrument also brings about some constraints and limitations to our perception. There are biases and conceptual grooves designed (even if unintendedly) into the material structure of any instrument. While in use, instruments direct the trajectories of our thinking (voluntarily or not).
But there is something special to be said about musical instruments. While scientific instruments turn the magical, unexplained, and blurry into the seemingly real, sharp, tangible and verifiable, musical instruments, especially those developed outside of the Western music tradition, tend to do the opposite. Even those so-called classical ones, despite their often very logically and rationally organized principles and structure, can still fog our lenses as opposed to cleansing them. Can it be said that musical instruments do away with the reality that scientific instruments want us to believe in? From such a perspective, a scientific instrument becomes the means of establishing a doctrine, belief, or a myth that is then proposed (if not imposed) as truth. Conversely, musical instruments enable the suspension of this belief while opening space for other, perhaps more intuitive, indirect, idiosyncratic ways of connecting with the world. My intention in this way of perceiving instruments and their roles is not to glorify musical over scientific ones. That very dichotomy is problematic per se. Why are some instruments more trustworthy than others? Why is knowledge deriving from the use of one instrument more valuable than from the other? I think that we should try to question the assumption that the ultimate role of instruments used in scientific research or any kind of research is to arrive at clarity. Can not messiness, confusion, and disorientation be perceived as equally valuable outcomes of the appliance of scientific instruments? (Bruno Latour, John Law, and other STS scholars have certainly something important to say here).
Leaving the problematic dichotomy aside, let us agree that any instrument actively participates in producing the outcome of the action it is incorporated into. Instruments organize and co-produce our perception(s) of the world and thus the way we inhabit it. Instruments tell us the truths as much as they lie to us. While highlighting some aspects of the world, they cast a shadow onto others. Doing so, they render irrelevant the other modes of knowing. At once, they turn us into believers and infidels. Musical instruments try to infuse us with a doctrine in which in order to be appreciated sounds need to be organized. As Raymond Murray Schafer put it, we are raised in a belief that music is 'an abstract succession of notes'. It comes to existence through an act of ordering tones, distilling them to be kept away from the messy environment. We have been deceived to believe that to become music, sounds need to be captured, contained, and able to be repeated by an instrument or a record.
Abandoning instruments and turning to the environment as a source of music have had their long history. While certainly radical in the past, the act of approaching environmental, unorganized sounds as music has over the years become somewhat traditionalized. In other words, attending to nature as music has turned into a rigorous, highly organized practice, a scholarly and artistic discipline. Working with nature as a source of acoustic material involves various kinds of recording equipment. But what are those if not other types of disciplining, ordering, normalizing, perhaps even restraining instruments? (Do natural phenomena that practices like field recording, soundscape composition, ecological sound art focus on really become empowered thanks to them? Do they need to have their voice amplified?)
During my walks along the coastline revealed by low tides, I have been thinking how I can reduce the use of obtrusive recording instruments and let diverse phenomena native to those sites resound in a more vernacular way, through the materials that one can find right there and which can be orchestrated by the forces already in place. I have earlier done many experiments inspired by that kind of thinking, but it was during those walks that I started thinking of them in terms of eco-native (perhaps, 'vernatural') instruments and/ or ecoresponsive/ecoresponsible compositions, in distinction to soundscape compositions (which are made in a studio environment) . Instead of constraining nature to fit into the way our instruments of record and play operate (and the way we speak about the environment through different acoustic storytelling formats accompanied by human-made instruments), how can diverse ecosystems gain more agency so they can utter, tell stories, remain silent, or confuse us in ways that are closer to their rhythms and cadences, in ways that are self-respectful and hence not necessarily satisfactory to our human curiosity and urge to write intelligible narratives into their flows?
Surrounded by ravens, sea gulls, herons, and other beings whose names I do not know, I have been walking along low tide zones intuitively scavenging different matter that the sea leave off at the shore. I assemble these pieces into rough, makeshift instruments to be animated by the forces present at those very sites. Fishing line (or a kite string), sticks and mussel shells which I found in the nearest vicinity become the core elements of the instrument, a tidal harp of a sort. The fishing line works like a string which gets hit by mussels suspended randomly at different levels and with random distances in between. I set the instrument on a sandy patch only temporarily unoccupied by the water. The harp is doomed to disappear along with the high tide (before that I make sure to rescue the fishing line so it would not end up in the sea).
Using hydrophones and contact microphones, I record the interaction of wind and waves with the instrument. The wind strokes the strings making them and the shells vibrate. I can hear them only in the nearest vicinity. Powered by my recorder, the microphones amplify the effect (additionally, in the composition presented above I use few rather simple techniques such as pitch shifting and time stretching which allow me to expand the frequency range). After assembling the instrument and listening to it, I realize that principles that guide the way this instrument works do not differ that much from other human-engineered instruments used in more predictable contexts. I ask myself whether the instrument gets to be really embraced and used by natural forces or does it merely use them in an 'instrumental' way? How important is that distinction? I realize that the piece above still seems to be closer to the category of soundscape rather than ecoresponsive composition, a type of responsible sound-making practice I proposed earlier. To truly engage in ecoresponsive composing, I believe, one would need to eliminate the phase of editing of the recorded material and its post-production. Ecoresponsive composition would be hence that which happens and stays at the site where one feels inclined to manifest or cultivate relationship with nature through sound. Ultimately, the ecoresponsive composition/performance is still something primarily oriented toward human ears. But, perhaps, ears that are more integrally and consiously embedded in local natures and their rhythms.
April 12, 2020. Stanley Park, Sea Wall, Vancouver.
Hydrophone recording of a small tidal pool
I approach a little puddle, one of numerous gifts left by waves returning now to their mother ocean.
It's a time of low tide. The usually short patch of the beach stretches now quite far ahead and the edge between
the water and the sand becomes quite blurred, almost monomorphous. I hear it more than I see it.
My eyes do not need to look for it; a flock of seagulls excitedly scavenge at the forefront,
benefiting from the plethora of sea creatures who did not get to catch their last wave home.
I am somewhere between this elusive border and the beginning of the beach marked by a human-made reinforcement;
between nature and culture. Never fully here or there. Or at both ends at the same time. As always. As we all are.
All elements of the landscape seem quite repetitive and uniform. Only initially though. With every step closer, each piece of rock reveals its uniqueness. On each stone, there is a radically different arrangement of life forms. Discrete constellations of mussels cover the roofs of the rocks sticking out of the tidal pools. There is, nevertheless, something, some force binding all these elements together. It does not belong to nature nor culture, but those belong in it.
The soundscape is unswayed, sprinkled only by the squealing of seagulls and occasional splashes of water. I look down and dip a hydrophone in one of the pools. I have my headphones on. While looking at barnacles and spotting a limpet, and a couple of little crabs, I hear almost nothing. The underwater soundscape muffles the sound from above the surface. At least at the beginning, it does not seem to have any distinct features. But while hydrophones are often described in terms of non-invasive technologies for monitoring the underwater life, especially in large sea pools, they certainly have a more disruptive effect in small scale aquatic realms such as a tidal pool. Even though I inserted them quite gently, they remain an alien element that freeze the underwater dynamics for several minutes. Only after the underwater life returns to its balance, I can start hearing its rhythms. Or at least emphatize, perhaps in a very dilettant way, with the energy of the underwater life as it is being mediated through my microphone and audio recorder.
In the fall of 1786, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Venice. His letters from that trip express his deep interest in the landscape that surrounds the city. Of special interest to him were lagoons, wetlands and shallow islands - results of the ebbs and flows of the Adriatic sea. The same forces, long time ago gave rise the land upon which Venice was erected:
"The lagunes are the work of old nature. First of all, the land and tide, the ebb and flow, working against one another, and then the gradual sinking of the primal waters, were, together, the causes why, at the upper end of the Adriatic, we find a pretty extensive range of marshes, which, covered by the flood-tide, are partly left bare by the ebb. Art took possession of the highest spots; and thus arose Venice, formed out of a group of a hundred isles and surrounded by hundreds more".
Besides literary work and appreciation of nature (appropriated by the German Nazis who used Goethe's literary tropes, for example an oak tree, to spread their nationalist agenda), Goethe was fascinated with rocks and minerals and the ways their structure results from the working of planetary or even inter-planetary forces. His work was informed by scientific as much as aesthetic/artistic interests; Intuition played a leading role in his investigation, opposing an increasing rationalization and pursuit of objectivity in understanding the world. His direct, sensory encounters with various environments strongly inspired the shaping of his world view and literary work.
One of his contributions to sciences and art which stemmed from such direct observations of natural phenomena was the concept of 'Urphänomen', or 'Primal Phenomenon'. Goethe suggested that there exists a key phenomenon to which all associated effects can be attributed. In other words, there is a certain force, or set of forces and processes that are intrinsic to organisms and which orchestrate all secondary phenomena, for example, behavioral patterns and rhythms of those organisms. Primal phenomenon establishes basic conditions and those conditions subsequently give rise to a given being who is at once a reflection of these conditions (in a way that it is constrained, dependent and bound to their dynamics) and a manifestation of this primal phenomenon.
In their recent study of behavioral patterns among intertidal species, and particularly crabs, Peter W. Barlow from the University of Bristol suggested that Goethe's concept might be a more productive and insightful way of approaching biosemiosis than any other theoretical concept. (As Goethe famously announced: "search nothing beyond phenomena, they themselves are the theory"). Biosemiosis points to the biological depth of all human and non-human realms. It suggests that all living organisms communicate and that human culture is only one local expression of that phenomenon. Human culture and techniques which it is sustained through (such as ways of communicating, sending signals, etc.), are inseparable from the biological depth underlying all organic and non-organic matter. Informed by Goethe's idea, the concept of Biosemiosis very clearly speaks to other recent concepts, theories, and worldviews that oppose the culture/nature divide. Besides Gaia hypothesis and older views on biospheres and their interdependencies such as those proposed by Vladimir Vernadsky in the 1920s, I am thinking here of Haraway's notion of culturenature and Bernard Stiegler's discussions of the always inherently intertwined trajectories of biological and cultural, or more precisely biological and technical evolutions. But even more, I direct my thoughts to numerous indigenous worldviews (including those represented by First Nation communities of British Columbia) which for centuries have been aware of these mutual interplays without naming them.
All living organisms communicate, send and receive signals in an ongoing search for energy. Again, human culture and techniques it consists in, is just one, local expression of that phenomenon. To a greater or lesser degree, all cultures depend on and simultaneously reflect something primal. While science denotes this primal something as one thing, art and philosophy as another thing, and indigenous worldviews even differently, without even naming it, there is an intriguing unity emerging between all of them which can not be ignored.
Lunisolar movements of water, or simply put tides, are good examples of primal phenomena. By implication, organisms that emerge and occupy the so-called intertidal zones, are organic manifestations of constraints and affordances that tides generate. Barlow exemplifies this by discussing how after being taken out of their native environments and put in a lab, crabs continuously follow the lunisolar rhythm. Wondering whether the behavior of the crabs derives from the learned pattern stored in their memory, or whether it is encoded deeply in their genes, he concludes that the biological rhythms "are not manufactured within the respective organisms", (which is to say they are not like memories), "but seem more likely to be inherent to them, manifesting compliance with the rhythmic orbital motions of Earth and Moon around the Sun expressed in the gravimetric tide".
It is fascinating to think of a little tidal pool and the actors inhabiting its body as an earthly microcosm governed by forces from beyond our planetary scope. Forces that we all are connected by, despite our technologically aided attempts to overcome them.
Geothite is one of the most durable chemical compounds on Earth. It is also one of the most thermodynamically stable iron oxyhydroxides. Named after J.W. von Goethe, it can be found in the teeth of an intertidal limpet. It makes their teeth hard enough not only to scrape the algae off the rock surface but also to facilitate movement. Whether the sound I could hear via my hydrophone came from the barnacles or limpets scarping off the algae does not matter now. Just as the shapes, behaviors, and roles of those organisms reflect the dynamics of the lunisolar tidal variations so is this sound I heard at the tidal pool their aural manifestations.
April 8, 2020. Stanley Park, Sea Wall, Vancouver.
A five minute recording of Vancouver residents cheering for healthcare workers and the same recording time stretched 25%
March 27, 2020. Pacific Street, Vancouver.
Listen to the entire recording
I am queuing to do grocery shopping at a local store in West End where I just moved today with my family.
As in many other stores these days, I am obliged to follow public health safety guidelines. Before getting
into the store I need to wait in a queue keeping a distance of 2 meters from other fellow queuers.
The shop owners taped green stripes to the surface of the sidewalk indicating, quite explicitly,
the measure we need to take in order to impede the virus. There are about twenty people before me
and the estimated time of waiting is approximately 10-15 minutes. Harsh safety measures expressed through this
controlled distribution of bodies in space seem to dissuade people from speaking to each other which queuing
in normal circumstances would only facilitate.
There is only one person in the line, a man equipped with a strong, settled voice, who decides to break the silence making all the others involuntarily eavesdrop on what he has to say. I reach for my recorder with an intention to capture this experience in entirety, for however long it will take me to get in. With binaural microphones in my ears amplifying the local soundscape, my thoughts drift away. I think of this situation as the slowest soundwalk I have ever gone for. Transcending the boredom through this simple act of amplified listening, I find myself to be an actor in an unintended endurance art piece.
My impeded pilgrimage for food makes me recall numerous pieces by artist and activists who for various reasons and in different circumstances resorted to time as their primary medium of expression and resistance. But even more than artists and performers who, having a choice, set constraints upon themselves out of their free will, my thoughts seek kinship with those who had to confront constraints forcefully imposed on them. I think of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, waiting in imperceptible, bureaucratically and politically emphemeralized lines to have their basic sense of belonging and dignity restored.
With an awareness of my privilige, I am standing in a line to a shop offering once an unimaginable abundance of stuff, much of which we have over the years been programmed to desire and rely on while in fact not really in need for. My memory sends me back to my childhood in Poland and the harsh reality of communism where queuing for basic products was one of the main activities occupying a good portion of one's everyday life. I think of privileged Parisian students whom I saw a couple of years ago holding on to a Soviet Union flag while protesting violently against globalization. I think of how today in the constantly accelerating world we might need queues to realize that there are no quick simple solutions nor panacea-like ideologies. That there are no easy fixes that can be achieved through a top-down application of an all-encompassing ideological grid. I am thinking of how such practices as degrowing, decelerating, patient waiting need to organically germinate and replace those rootless and hence better predisposed to expand: prime delivery, instantaneity, effortlessness and technologically automated smartness. I think of how walking and soundwalking, despite implying movement, transience and even progress, can aid in developing at the very least a nucleus of roots and thus a restored sense of connection and responsibility.
Immersed in the mundane soundscape of Davie Street, having paid my dues of standing in line, I am about to enter the store. But just before I do it, I start hearing something unusual. In one instance, the mundane is gone. What initially sounds like sparse and hardly localizable voices, in short time amasses to an ever thicker symphony of clapping, cheering, shouting and singing. I try to look up and match the sounds with the source, but the long shop canopy blocks the view. Finally, I see them. Hundreds of people, some on their balconies while others sticking their heads out of little windows that sprinkle blocks of apartments nearby, unite in an outpour of sympathy and optimism. No flags, no symbols, no slogans. The coincidental synchrony of this with my stepping into the store makes me feel like my waiting has been awarded and fully worth the wait. At home I will read that this public enthusiasm is a ritual that organically emerged among downtown residents allowing them to maintain a sense of solidarity in this difficult time. Taking place every evening at 7pm, this sonically special moment originated as a gesture of gratitude to all healthcare workers involved in the fight against the virus. It does seem like in states of emergency people need communal and personal rituals more than at any other time.
March 24, 2020. Davie Street, Vancouver.
recorded via H2a Aquarian hydrophone and processed in WINPOD 2.0.4, a granular synthesis generator by C.Rolfe
A man in a leather jacket drives by on his motorcycle and parks it only few meters from where I just sat down to listen to the bay. He greets me with a smile and
immediately gets down to his business. After taking his large backpack off his shoulders, he pulls out long modules of his fishing line and starts assembling them very carefully.
I ask what types of fish one can catch here at the park bay. All kinds, he says smiling in an even more friendly way.
It is his first attempt to fishing, he explains further. I look at him enjoying his complete commitment and attention paid to the task.
There is him, his fishing line over which he seems to have full control, and a massive, invisible realm underneath the surface that his bait just made it through, almost inaudibly.
I walk down towards the water and while still observing him with the corner of my eye diligently pursuing his task, I pull out my sound recorder and hydrophone.
I attach the latter to the former and take few extra steps towards the shore. I throw the hydrophone into the water and in only few seconds my ears establish connection with
the underwater soundscape.
What I initially hear are very delicate splashes of water against a continuous, mid-frequency hum. When I press the headphones closer to my ears as to avoid sounds coming from around me, I can hear an even lower hum. All these, it's easy to guess, come from engines of ships currently parked or crossing the bay. But besides that, I can also hear cars and trucks making it through the bridge nearby. This connection with the underwater side-effect of cargo shipping industry helps sharpen the perception of its predominance above the surface. Among some of the ships that make it to the recording is one with the word ATLAS printed on its side. It looks empty and is being escorted towards the mouth of the ocean by a couple of smaller boats. Against the whale-like body of the tanker, they look like minnows. Has the tanker just accomplished its mission and is set to return where it came from? Back at home I search for more information about it. Its full name is Mitera Marigo; Atlas is the name of a shipping company that owns this crude oil tanker, which is how these kinds of ships are professionally being referred to.
Crude oil tankers are ships designed to transport oil or its products. Some more online search on a special website that tracks movements of all ships in the Vancouver bay area yields an array of Marigo's arrival and destination points. It is set to eventually arrive in Tianjin Xingang, China on April 8. Its previous stop before reaching Vancouver was Rodeo, California. Some more research connects the tanker to Phillips 66, the American multinational energy company involved in the trade of petroleum and its refining (they control one of the refineries in Rodeo). I deduce that the vessel must have just recently stationed and dropped off its oily load at one of the refineries located at the coast nearby New Brighton Park, Burnaby Refinery or Parkland Refining Ltd.
Phillips 66 has recently been involved in the controversial construction of Dakota Access Pipeline which not only had a big impact on the environment but also violently disrupted the sites sacred to indigeneous communities in the US. The movement of the tanker, although slow and seemingly uneventful is an extention of this violent cut, in this case through territories native to acquatic fauna. Listening to this movement enables one to sense this cut in a much more visceral way than by just looking. What adds to that feeling is a realization that many of the acquatic life forms communicate via and sense their environments via acoustic waves and hydrodynamic vibrations. This humble act of listening becomes a gateway to complex economic and political relationships that span the entire world and while improving lives of some, devastate other ones.
Already complex identity of Mitera Marigo who belongs to ATLAS while in the service of Phillips 66 becomes even more complicated after realizing that the vessel is registered under the Liberian flag. This practice, called 'the flag of convenience', is quite common among the players on the shipping market. By registering cargo vessels in distant countries such as Liberia or Panama, companies avoid tax regulations and skip the minimum wage estimations for the work performed on the ships which would be required in their home countries. Liberia has been historically bound to the US. It was established by American Colonization Society who believed that black people would have better conditions for independence in Africa than in the US (a controversial idea which has also been interpreted as in fact an extension of slavery and racism wrapped in an empty rhetoric of what we would today call humanitarianism). Today, bluntly speaking, Liberia is used by countries like the US to generate new form of exploitation, if not slavery. About 4400 vessels are registered in Liberia which makes for 14% of global shipping. With a population of about 5 million people, Liberia has one of the largest seagoing fleets in the world.
In Greek mythology Atlas was a titan who gets defeated and sentenced to hold forever the celestial sphere, an imaginary surface spanning and connecting all celestial objects and entities. The noise of ATLAS, whose frequencies I fished out from the Vancouver Harbour through my hydrophone, spans a whole plethora of noises from seemingly unrelated sites. It does so in a metaphorical way at the very least. This crude oil tanker is an atlas of the world bound by the dynamics of capitalist interests. It interweaves, moves along with and redistributes bits and pieces of often very distant realms. They would most probably stay apart if it were not for the fact that this increasingly automated fragmentation of the world and its interest-driven, careless stitching is an inevitable prerequiste to capitalism. Just like Atlas with the celestial sphere above its head, we have been stuck with its long-term consequences for quite some time.
I look back at the fisherman. He keeps standing patiently in the same exact spot, udisturbingly committed to his activity and unaware of the noisy reality I just relieved my ears from. Would I dare to disturb his tranquility?
March 18, 2020. New Brighton Park, Vancouver.
outside / inside
The hum of ventilation shafts. Buzzing lights, fridges and vending machines. Squeaking carts pushed slowly by janitors. Sporadic conversations through mobile phones
in sparsely populated corridors where only few students persist on getting educated despite the advice given by the school's director to avoid in-person interaction.
Mundane infrastructure that quietly maintains the rhythm of the university on a day to day basis has now been granted the leading role, at least within the venue's sonic choreography.
The background becomes the foreground. Affected by the outbreak of Covid-19, premises of Simon Fraser University (just like numeorus other educational institutions) turned into its antithesis.
The grounded circulation of knowledge has been impeded by the prospect of the virus circulation. (We are certainly witnessing an avalanche of various formats for virtual education though, in my opinion,
nothing can compete with face-to-face learning/teaching, not necesseraliy in an institutional context).
And while this state of emergency hardly allows for thinking of anything else than
potential consequences on multiple levels of our lives, it is good to think of how it might
let us demfamiliarize ourselves with habits and conducts that we have long been taking for granted.
Also when it comes to sonic conditions of our public and private everyday environments.
Stripped off their usual timbre by this pandemic situation, what can such naked spaces
tell us about ourselves?
March 16, 2020. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby Campus.
While taking a walk with my daughter, I sat on a simple wooden bench overlooking the lake. The bench had a metal plaque announcing that it is has been
dedicated to the memory of Fatima Rego. After coming back home I searched online to find out who she was. Internet does not forget.
I found the text of eulogy written by her family to accompany her burial ceremony. She was loved and will forever be missed. While walking around the lake I kept thinking
about how we commemorate the deceased by erecting or constructing various visible marks. But what about constructing and dedicating
the audible marks and soundscapes instead? From that angle the little plaque on the bench could work as an invitation to dedicate to someone's memory one's
intimate act of listening to what is audibly present there - a soundscape that in some way might resonate with the personality of the one whose life is being commemorated.
The soundscape of Trout Lake is quite fascinating at this moment of the year. Wetlands that surround it make home to a variety of birds and waterfowl.
According to another search, this time on ebird.org, there are about 160 species that benefit from the lake throughout the year.
In certain moments it feels impossible to distinguish individual bird songs that reach one's ear as they all
coalesce into an extremely thick web of dialects, signals, and calls. Against this beautiful cacophony, the background
soundscape comprises suspiciously harmonic and rhythmicized wheezes of trains approaching and departing from the station nearby.
This co-existence of the natural and industrial is very striking here.
The richness of life and its sonic reverberation at the lake is possible thanks to the efforts of local authorities to re-establish wetland areas around the lake.
This makes one think of how (increasingly so) so-called natural environments are in fact post-industrial (re-)constructions supervised by humans who took their lesson
from their questionable actions in the past. In some sense, such places appear as memorial sites in which present soundscapes
are echoes of their gone predecessors. While walking around the lake I kept wondering what soundscapes will commemorate
the ultimate loss of many bird species endangered today by the human-caused biodiversity crisis?
March 12, 2020. Trout Lake, Vancouver.
After becoming a violator, I sat on the beach and listened to the
sea for a little while. The sound of waves splashing gently against a myriad of pebbles and shells that make for the fabric of the beach was undetachable from the
low hum of the industrial infrastructure located by the coast nearby. Nevertheless, there was a high degree and sense of coherence to how the place sounded and appeared visually.
This was, however, only until the railway right behind me - before almost imperceptible - became animated
by a long array of cargo wagons dragged slowly by an electric locomotive. I was stubbornly staring
at the mountains on the opposite side of the bay while listening to a totally incompatible soundtrack, with its metallic litany of squeaks and whimpers.
March 09, 2020. Confederation Park, Vancouver.
Spanish Banks Beach has long been known for its low tide flats. Massive stretches of sandy land are regularly exposed during low tides and then covered
back during high ones. I arrived here without prior knowledge of the times during which the tide is low. I could only imagine its stunning effect. This
phenomenon - perhaps the most spectacular expression of the ageless bondage of the Earth with the moon - is a mother to another intriguing situation known as slack water. It is the moment when
the low tide is lowest and the water almost completely undisturbed. It is a very brief instance of equilibrium, a balance between two forces, one pushing the waters
towards the land and the other pulling them back into the depths of the ocean. This stagnation benefits numerous species who gather
at the flats to scavenge on what the
sea happened to spit out or purge. While gulls might constitute the most frequent beneficiaries of this process, Spanish Banks have also witnessed other, more unexpected
guests taking advantage of the easy prey, such as bald eagles.
Changes of the tides create conditions for destruction and regeneration. They make certain lives
come to an end while calling new ones to emerge. Slack water (or alternatively dead water) is a state in which arguably most vulnerable ocean life forms become
turned into sea food, or at the very least, a prospect of an easy source of nutrients for the local scavengers.
Organic and inorganic matter is what these tidal flats have to offer. Plastic debris coalesce with calcium, magnesium and copper iron compiled in oyster and crab shells.
Among this plethora of tidal refuse, I spotted a number of small pieces of driftwood. Their edges were rounded by waves and they carry numerous scars made by wood worms.
Some of these worm holes cut across their entire body. Where do these pieces come from and how did they end up on the beach?
Did they originate from already infected and weakened trees or are they result of extensive logging which British Columbia has been known for?
While trying to mic up one of these unusual formations to symbolically hear their story
(by sliding small electret microphones into the little worm holes), I was approached by a woman who was walking her dog
along the beach. She asked whether I plan on keeping the wooden boulder. Otherwise, she would take it to her garden and use it as a home for pollinators.
These little tunnels, she explained, make for perfect nests for bees which here, as in many other places, have been drastically declining in number.
We both agreed that this naturally (an unintentionally) shaped micro-habitat feels much more cozy and inhabitable than many mechanically created 'designerly' hives one can today
buy in various design stores. If we were bees, would not have a problem with choosing between these two kinds. After completing my recording, I handed the bee nest-in-the-making to her while finding another
one to take back with me. It was somehow reassuring to think of these purgatory movements of the ocean as ultimately generative gestures and that the
wooden remnants of deadly infected trees will become sites of resilience and regeneration. Hopefully.
Sitting there and listening to the sea from the perspective of the driftwood, I could only imagine how this sites sounds like (or actually barely sounds)
during the period of slack water. At the moment the waves were prominent. The edge of the beach is not straight. It consists of several little bays, a set of delicate curves.
Waves that approach do not splash at once but in slightly delayed turns. Gentle repetitions. The second becomes an echo of the first, the third of the second...
March 6, 2020. Spanish Banks Beach, Vancouver.
New Brighton Park is a waterfront park in Vancouver / Hastings Sunrise district facing the North Shore Mountains on the opposite side of the bay.
The history of this site dates back to 1865 and it is here where, apparently, Vancouver began.
Despite being still, the bay does not feel calm from this vantage point. There is a lot of industrial production going on.
Its most notifiable by-product is a continuous, low-frequency hum
that fills up the soundscape. At the rear, the park is enclosed by railway which, similarly, results in a low hum. The immediate proximity of water
only amplifies the dominance of this whir creating a feeling of being surrounded if not possesed by its force.
But inside this persistent sonic bracket there resides a completely different, much more delicate soundscape,
one created by birds. The wetlands, including tidal marsches that the city helps to reconstitute here, create a habitat for waterfowl and
small song birds which occasionally remind visitors that the high frequency range is still out there.
February 28, 2020. Confederation Park, Vancouver.