Some thoughts on the use of Soundwalking in the Warwick Bar development project

This group work from a basic interest in the significance of sound in space. He discusses ‘logos’ – and our ocular society.

He introduces a project called ‘swash’ a 24 channel spatialised soundscape that was shown in Torquay, and later remixed into an electro-acoustic performance. Other projects they have been involved with include the Churchill Galleries, The Imperial War Museum, Out of Scale, White Out, White Noise, a sound observatory, a device for magnifying the surrounding soundscape, 49 Pallasma, The Eyes of the Skin. As such there basic concern is that of multi-sensory architecture.

He then goes on to describe a project more in depth. The Audible city, Birmingham, Rebranding the East of the City. The site of the project is located in a network of canals, and still remains a rich habitat for wildlife. The economic and development pressures determined that the areas was to be redeveloped sooner or later, and so this group decided to become involved, in this problematic project, with the hope that their concerns with the audible would enhance the project’s development outcomes. Pretty soon in the project they found that their role was not one of producing creative work per se, but rather as a consultant, a position of ‘being there’ and taking part in the meetings that occurred as the project was being planned.

“We would go into a meeting, and they would be discussing how to shave 10 million off the budget. We would show some pictures, then they would continue with their discussions of the budget”.

Bill Fontana has a residency as part if the urban redevelopment. St Martin’s Bells. A sonic mapping project, and deliberate attempt to use soundmarks as a means of creating identity. It is here that sound is being considered as part of the built environment.

The particular site of Liminal’s work was an old banana warehouse, which had also been used as a gun testing site, both of these roles defined by the area’s proximity to the industrial canal transportation.

In an interesting tangent perhaps from the urban planning and high level economic development and board room politics of the preceding part of the presentation, the focus now shifts to the creative outcomes that were produced as a result of the companies’ involvement with the project, namely a headphone based soundwalk. He discusses walking as creative practice, and the importance of this activity, as a research tool in developing a creative response to the locality, and to the concerns of the project leaders. He goes further to incorporate his conceptions of walking with its relation to architecture, and argues that the first architecture were menhirs, built to mark significant locations in early humanity’s travels through a hostile environment. As such they were “places in between, nomadic marks, based in movement”.

In a move perhaps slightly surprising, he moves discussion towards the practices of Dadaist, Surrealist and Letterist artists of the twentieth century ; surprising only because of the ease with which these anti-establishment radicals, are cited with relation to a purely capitalist project of urban redevelopment. However, his interest in the work of such artists, lies in their attempts to break down barriers between art and life, and perhaps such contemporary projects such as this one, mark and inevitable, and perhaps depressing, confluence of art and artists on the one hand, and capital and capitalists, on the other.

He then goes on to cite the work of Janet Cardiff and Hildegard Westerkamp, as influential on his practice and articulates the value of walking as practice for a sound artist involved in such a project as important in two major ways:

1)The way that such a walk is done by a sound artists, is very different to the way that the same route would be experienced by a planner or an architect. The direct concern with and sensitivity to sound highlights sound’s importance, which may reside outside the common frameworks available to urban developers.

2)The activity of walking involved a great deal of audio documentation (field recordings, interviews). For all the hyperbole surrounding the redevelopment, in actuality, this site is under threat (not least by the developers themselves). The activity of documenting the sound environment, fell to the artists, in a ironic moment of complicity.

However, these recordings intended to form the basis of the headphone-based soundwalk, provided the artists with some clear proposals they were able to present to the planners.

playback > >

A cacophony of steel working.

Metal bashing.
“I’ll stop it right there”.

Key points that came from the artists, via interviews with local inhabitants, and field recording included:

1) The mapping of sound levels in the area.
2) Acoustic design – the conception that the designed space could be acoustically zoned.
3) Creation of an archive of sounds that are disappearing from the area.
4) Biological sound design. The introduction of animal and plant species with definite sonic characteristics.
5) Bill Fontana’s conception of sound orientation.
6) The suggestion of an artistic intervention in the area, five years from the present time, once the development has become established.

In conclusion, he describes the value in the group’s involvement in the project, most important was the raising the agenda of sound within the built environment.

“If as much attention was given to sound as to windows and artificial light, then what effect would this have upon a visitor’s experience of space?”

“What is the role of an artist in public art?”

As a postscript, and in response to this question, he describes his experience during this project. Very rapidly he decided his role was should not be one of subservience to the developers, planners or architects; his role was not one simply of spin and an attractive looking (and sounding) plug-in to the project, but rather a position enabling a different perspective on the project’s possible outcomes.