Q&A : Jacek Smolicki

page from a forthcoming publication on soundwalking
dawn chorus at the totem pole sites – Vancouver
image from a forthcoming publication on transversal listening
image from a forthcoming publication on transversal listening
from the current exploration of intertidal zones in Vancouver
inaudible cities #1
inaudible cities #2
inaudible cities #3
inaudible cities #4
notes for a forthcoming publication on transversal listening
one minute of silence

Lucia Hinojosa: Within your practice there’s an element of self-tracking, an impulse to gather the dialectics of invisible traces and how they might outline the interrelation with other presences. I am curious if you feel that there’s a dichotomy or a collision within this desire, because on one hand you’re trying to produce an archive by recording these personal, impermanent drifts, but at the same time there’s also a desire to fuse yourself, your individuality, with the landscape or cityscape you’re exploring, like a fantasy of disappearance. How do you perceive this dual, almost opposed, desire or action through your soundwalks and their resulting archives?

Jacek Smolicki: I believe that there is no archive without a subject (or subjects) that commenced it. Similarly, there is an element of dichotomy and a certain paradox in any practice that is based on documenting, gathering traces and archiving. Any collection, any archive and any inventory is biased. Consequently, in telling us what its architects and historians wanted us to hear, if carefully scrutinized, every archive would also point out that which they intended to conceal. In other words, the more objective, concrete, and clear the archive’s aspiration is to reflect the reality, the more suspicious its content and the wider the territory it neglects.  In every archive that strives towards permanence and truth there is a vast potential of a counter-archival force and action.

It is interesting to look at how archives were perceived in the 19th century, for example. They were believed to be repositories of time itself where the sedimentation of history happens somehow naturally, without any curating force. This vision of the archive as a site that generates an objective record of time was heavily contested upon the arrival of other than textual technologies of record, especially those concerned with moving image and sound. With the increasing access to such technologies and thanks to their decreasing size and portability, it became possible to destabilize, complicate and diffuse dominant narratives by generating a multiplicity of records of the everyday, mundane, and generic. Events that would not normally make it to the archive, could all of a sudden gain status of documents. The concept of the value of documents and their historical weight was greatly transformed.

I have been interested in those moments when technologies enable diverse subjectivities to contest the archive and thus write themselves into history in there own terms, whether through those very archives, or even better by composing alternative ones, in parallel to those official, institutional and colonial. I find special interest in the role of various art practitioners in this context, including activists, amateurs, partisans, dissidents, and various other clandestine, insubordinate and tactically operating individuals. By deploying recording technologies on the ground level – at the margins and peripheries of attention – they create accounts of alternative significance and value precisely because of their explicitly subjective charge. This recognition, radical incorporation and reflective acknowledgment of the role of one’s subjectivity in the act of archiving is, I believe, an important way to make archiving significant and, perhaps, the only way to save it as a meaningful cultural practice, despite its often dark origins and histories. We need a plurality of archival subjects, aesthetics, epistemologies, poetics and techniques as opposed to, or aside from heavy, monumental, centralized and artificially unifying memory institutions and their professionally trained agents and bureaucrats.

Several years ago in my PhD project I ventured into the current techno-cultural moment asking about such para-archival potentialities of contemporary technologies of capture. The inspiration was the abundance of numerous self-tracking technologies, gadgets, wearable and smartphones continuously micro-archiving our everyday lives whether we want it or not. Today we know all too well that the digital traces we construct and leave behind via our at once friendly and insidious technologies amass to vast digital archives which primarily benefit tech corporations and their private and state allies.  The premise (and promise) of self-expression and empowerment that producers of dominant personal technologies (especially those fully reliant on connectivity) repetitively convey, is underlain by a dark reality of quantifying and calculating mechanisms.

I like to speculate that the imperial or colonial archive of the past has today transformed into an ubiquitously distributed corporate archiving apparatus. Our continuously active devices constitute its units. But instead of losing energy on tactically crippling this ongoing archivization of digital data through various spontaneous acts of subversion (as was the case of early tactical media practitioners), I prefer to critically embrace the state of inescapibility from digital culture, its technologies, and all that this state entails.  This allows me to rectify that saved energy towards questioning and reconceptualizing the ways I incorporate and use these micro-archival technologies in my everyday life, including GPS devices and audio recorders that I use during my soundwalks. To put it as a question: how can the state of permanent surveillance, tracking and archiving be used towards other goals, orientations and visions?

I believe this is primarily a question of an existential nature, and art has much to offer in terms of addressing it. There has been disproportionately too little attention given to durational and existential aspects and consequences of our everyday uses and abuses of technologies. In that sense, my para-archival activities (which I call simply the On-Going Project) in which I have for more than a decade selectively attended to the ever growing excess of capturing and tracking technologies to generate an account of everyday life in the post digital context (as experienced by someone implicated in it), should be most of all  seen as an existential project, an attempt to configure (or reconfigure) a subjective position not against but in relation to the techno-cultural situation we live in. Although I produce and reflect on these traces systematically, their archival aspect (the ‘unknown weight’ as Paula Amad would say) is nevertheless something yet to be verified and assessed by the future. The para-archiving, as the very term suggests, happens parallel to something else, namely, the currents of everyday life woven with inventively and critically negotiated companionship of capturing technologies. As Bernard Stiegler once noted: ”negotiation does not mean renouncing or adapting. It is neither a matter of adapting nor resisting: it is a matter of inventing”.

Lucia Hinojosa: I feel that time is used as a medium in your work. There’s an interest of projecting into the past through an emotional archival resonance, present in Memory Folds and other projects, but there’s also a commitment to listening that’s embedded in your routine, like in your ongoing piece where you record a sound for one minute every day. I perceive this little exercise as a reminder of being in the present. Do you think it is possible to—through listening as a medium of attention and perceptual expansion—empty oneself in certain moments of deep awareness, in order to be immanent with the intricacies of the space you’re in, almost like becoming part of the space’s conditions, becoming this other which is not just your own body?

Jacek Smolicki: This daily exercise of recording one minute of sound, which i call Minuting, is part of the On-Going Project, the para-archival initiative I talked about while answering your previous question. It’s a good example of that two-fold approach to the use of recording technologies where the existential (or personal) aspect meets the archival (public if you will). On the one hand this simple commitment to the daily recording practice, which I have maintained for the last 10 years, keeps me motivated to pay attention to soundscapes at large. The awareness that at some point during the day I am compelled to pull out my recorder and press the red button for at least 60 seconds helps me maintain my attention. Less now, but certainly some years ago, I perceived this ritual as an act of stubbornly defying the dominance of visual approach to our environments in the way we experience and document them.

When it comes to achieving some state of immanence or a feeling of becoming one with the place, I am not sure if I would see this as something that motivates my practice. There has been much written and done about the immersiveness of listening and soundwalking and how these acts can anchor one’s perception in the very moment. What I like about this kind of approach is that there is not any finite outcome that one would anticipate to emerge. It seems that increasingly today, artistic and aesthetic practices are expected to be productive in some way. They need to generate something (a change, for example), otherwise they are not justifiable. So in that sense, it is nice to resort to such an ‘unproductive’ immersion as a resistance technique. On the other hand, however, this immersion through sound in the present moment may lead to a certain passivity and credulity. It may impede one’s ability to critically evaluate the soundscape that one decides to immerse herself/himself in. For example, it is easy to find peace and gain pleasure from the sounds of Alpine cowbells, enjoy the sense of being immersed in their unique harmonies. But behind this aesthetic appreciation, there is another kind of story that those sounds tell. While pleasing to us, for the cows who are forced to wear those bells continuously with no break, the same sounds are oppressive and traumatizing. There have been studies done that demonstrate some devastating effects not only on the cow’s hearing abilities but also on the quality of their milk which decreases because of anxiety that those bells instigate. Many other sounds that we tend to appreciate because of their aesthetic and harmonic qualities might in fact have similarly troubling depth.

In this last decade of my regular practice of soundwalking and recording, I have been learning to attend to listening as not only a gateway to a deeper sense of the present moment but more importantly a specific mode of allowing to situate that present moment (and one’s position in it) in the context of a longer time-span, even deep time. Thus, in each soundscape of the here and now I try to hear the echoes of the then and there. To me, sounds and soundscapes are not ephemeral phenomena that innocently appear at the given moment and then vanish instantly. They have their extensions (often problematic) in the past and they extend (often dubiously) into the future.  I like to approach that which we hear today as being impregnated with the echoes of the past. By implication, today’s sounds will reverberate in the soundscapes to come. I like refer to the practice of that kind of sonic sensitivity in terms of transversal listening. I am currently working on an experimental book and an audio essay about that kind of listening that I hope can also be inspiring to others.

But to address your question more directly, I think that listening can help empty oneself of deep awareness of place and time as much as it can help deepen that awareness. Similarly, listening can help us better recognize and compose our subjectivity as much as it can help destabilize it, even temporarily abandon it if we, for example, decide to listen from the standpoint of the Other, for example an Alpine cow.

Lucia Hinojosa:Inaudible Cities, the project you developed for Sound Diaries in 2019, inspired by Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, explores the peripheries of Stockholm through audio-visual field recordings. I like how you transform Calvino’s literary idea into a sound translation, but your soundwalks and recording techniques are also inspired by the writing methods of the Oulipo group. How do you think these self-imposed instructions are present in the process of the project and in the resulting performance?

Jacek Smolicki: I have always been fascinated by the idea of constraints as a trigger for inventiveness. Not only in the context of the arts, but also, or perhaps even primarily, in response to difficulties encountered in one’s everyday life. I do not exactly know where this interest comes from, but the history of my homeland and the part of Europe it is located in can certainly be seen as one source. Firstly German nazis and after them the communist regime forced several generations to operate within very harsh constraints. Oftentimes the only way to survive in these oppressive systems was through tactically and inventively subverting those limitations. To make use of limited resources in a most efficient way, one often had to resort to creativity. (Btw. such concepts as DIY and urban gardening, celebrated today as counter-capitalist practices emerged much earlier in other parts of the world precisely because of limitations, poverty and constraints, not excess as is the case of capitalist, Western Europe). While reading works of Georges Perec, a son of Polish Jews who emigrated to France, what stroke me was the way he worked through his and his family’s identity and traumatic past by voluntarily self-imposing a set of constraints and limitations (and in doing so,  poetically re-articulated those constraints that were forcefully imposed on his family and community). Strangely enough, it feels as if it was not really the content of his writing alone but these very constraints and stylistic limitations that actually constituted the depth of his work.

In Inaudible Cities, I do not necessarily come up with any specific constraints, but rather find them out there in the fabric of the urban space. I work with spatio-temporal or performative and material constraints rather than linguistic. In terms of the space, the map of the Stockholm’s underground and more specifically its 13 end stations became the project’s leading constraint. In terms of time, building on this number of end stations I allow myself to spend maximum 130 minutes on exploring the vicinity of each one. The time of my journey back home I usually spend on penning down some thoughts that later constitute the textual layer of the otherwise primarily audio-visual account.

While not conceiving of any specific linguistic or writing methods, I like to approach the act of walking as a particular kind of writing the space and in the space. Here I find connection with Michel de Certeau who famuously compared writing to walking. Words to him were absent signifiers of the act of speech. Similarly, traces of walks only refer to the absence of what was passed by and experienced through that very act. One could venture to extend this thought by saying that field recordings refer to the absences of what was listened to at the moment of making them. Walking and listening are essential beacuse it is in the act of walking that space is generated and in the act of listening that the soundscapes emerge. Traces that these acts produce are only of secondary significance (again what we have here can be seen as another instance of the existence-archive complex mentioned earlier). Thus, the accounts of life on the peripheries of a city that the project generates are in some way inaudible. But not the peripheries themselves. Perhaps, in order to experience their sonic complexity one would have to personally embark on a journey and while walking, write his/her own account. This is why I have been currently thinking of another format for communicating the project. Instead of (or alongside) my recorded accounts, I would like to activate the reader to perform his/her own exploration of peripheries. This could be achieved through, for example, a series of instructions which would in turn link the project’s textual layer back to the Oulipo’s tradition of constrained writing and instructing.

Regarding the idea of constraints being informative to the way that the project is performed, I usually try to stick to the instrumentarium  that accompanied me during my explorations (meaning the recording devices and microphones). Additionally, during my walks, I collect some debris, trash and organic matter which I later use in the performance as to invoke the soundscape that these items were originally implicated in. I see it as a form of an expanded field recording. In other words, instead of presenting the soundscape of the given periphery by merely collaging my field recordings from it, I reconstruct its fragments by working with acoustic qualities of materials I had picked up at those sites.  Whether this is a form of working with constraints might be questionable, but it certainly helps me limit my reliance on recorded material which in projects of that is often the easiest way to go. The idea of translating the project into a set of instructions will certainly affect its performativity. In fact, each enactment of these instructions will lend itself to be considered as a unique performance of the piece.  Returning to the beginning of our conversation, what if instead of documents, archives hosted instructions?

recording 3159 from the minuting project
Jacek Smolicki
soundwalk New York 29092019
soundwalk Vancouver 06052020
soundwalk Romanmotier & Vallorbe 05110218
tidal instrument #1