Put The Needle On The Record #22: Amsterdam 28012020

The Paradiso venue in Amsterdam is a former church in the old district of southern Amsterdam. The venue is placed directly by a canal which is at its rear in the Leidseplein area near the Melkweg, with the front of the venue facing onto a busy street. I recorded a short trip from The Paradiso venue that went onto the streets and into the Leidsplein area.

The streets were busy, flowing, animated, with several modes of transport circulating simultaneously and fairly harmoniously in this area. There are tram tracks on the road, built-in cycle lanes, car and bus lanes, lanes for water drainage, as well as pedestrian areas and various crossings of these tracks. The pedestrian pavement surface was initially made of grey-worn square paving slabs laid perpendicular to the direction of travel. The slabs were all polka-dotted with flattened gum circles. Next to these, some tessellated patterns of older red-brick were visible in the areas closer to the venue that led to the canal by way of side streets. The pattern soon changed to the design of what looked like granite brick blocks in a diagonal ‘hatched’ formation. At the same time, I also came across some more traditional-looking older hatched patterns created out of the smaller red brick flooring to the left of me, near a small shopping arcade. Curiously all bricks – whether granite or red – switched from perpendicular to hatch at the same time. I wondered was it the original older bricks that set the pattern or rhythm of that area? What changed it? It happened that also some road works were taking place on the road that spanned the tram and cycle lanes with road diggers and metal fences around them. This was an obvious disruption to the rhythmic flow in this otherwise busy, fluent area.

Sounding the surface of the streets in Amsterdam. (field recording)
Multiple lanes, multiple uses and users.
Video clip of Leidsplein walk

Put The Needle On The Record #21: Bordeaux 26012019

On the first day of the European tour, we arrived at Bordeaux. Notably, the first case of Coronavirus in France was reported in Bordeaux two days before we arrived. I took the luggage bag out on the streets nearby to the venue, which was an arts/culture centre with surroundings of mostly tarmac and grass.

My experience of Bordeaux was quite rhythmic. Once on the streets, I noticed that the thick terracotta tiles create regular, repetitive patterns, but also that these are used in adaptive and creative ways. There are variations to the pattern. There is the reactive placing of the tiles in relation to positions of street lights, drain covers, driveways, etc. Someone – or a group of people – had to make these decisions as they were laying them. This contrasted to many of the broader streets in America, where large plain slabs of cheap, mass-produced concrete materials were lain with great uniformity to facilitate the large-scale movement of people. When we think about these motives and contexts for the urban environment and for its use, for its consumption by people, wider narratives begin to materialize – what are the differences between European and American cultures for example? How and why did they evolve so?

Bordeaux

Listening notes: Crossing the road you hear a run-in groove of tarmac, before going up the curb onto the streets with the thick, square, terracotta tiles. Once rolling, the unique tiled rhythm sets up and continues for most of the journey. There were variations in speed in my walking, which created variations in the intensity of sound. There are broken rhythms as we come into contact with items such as manhole covers, street repairs, larger drain covers, cracks (cracks due to weather, cracks seemingly due to the weight of heavy vehicles), etc. What is interesting is that all these features are set on, and written in, the street. These are the grooves, the document. All we have to do is reveal their sound. An experience of dragging something over it from a given start and ending point is what creates the unique ‘record’ of that time. It is putting on the needle on the record to play it. The playback is from my starting to my endpoint.

A still from the Bordeaux street journey showing the smaller tiles, stones, and their resulting patterns.

Twenty-Eight Empty Fields #25 : Memorial Playing Fields, Hanney

Recreation Grounds, Playing Fields and Village Greens have fallen silent – football isn’t happening. A twenty-eight day suspension is in place as part of measures to reduce the incidence of Covid-19. On each of the twenty-eight days I will be visiting a football pitch and recording the sounding absence of football.

Memorial Playing Fields, Hanney

Twenty-Eight Empty Fields #12 : Appleford Recreation Ground

Recreation Grounds, Playing Fields and Village Greens have fallen silent – football isn’t happening. A twenty-eight day suspension is in place as part of measures to reduce the incidence of Covid-19. On each of the twenty-eight days I will be visiting a football pitch and recording the sounding absence of football.

Appleford Recreation Ground

Twenty-Eight Empty Fields #06 : Letcombe Regis Recreation Ground

Recreation Grounds, Playing Fields and Village Greens have fallen silent – football isn’t happening. A twenty-eight day suspension is in place as part of measures to reduce the incidence of Covid-19. On each of the twenty-eight days I will be visiting a football pitch and recording the sounding absence of football.

Letcombe Regis Recreation Ground

Q&A : Jacek Smolicki to Marlo De Lara

Lola

Every day new footage arrives depicting another colonial statue being dismantled, broken into pieces or dragged along the streets to be eventually drowned in the water. Highly dramaturgic ways in which these acts of dismantling colonial landmarks happen proves that performativity and radical interventionism do not need to emerge as forms of artistic responsiveness. As an artist who has worked extensively with the issues of representation, identity, racial injustice and postcolonialism, where do you see the place of an artist and how do you perceive the role of arts in this current moment?

In the most traditional sense, I believe the artist holds an incredible capacity and potency for defamiliarization. As discussed by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, this ‘making strange’ is central, particularly within social art practices and public art. While the artist is not the only empowered or positioned to make ways to intervene or question a status quo, actions often can be momentary and the dissenting protesters make their mark through documentation and witness. Deeply moving works often are indeed seen as such, not by over directing the viewer with its vision, but rather by giving pause to automated and normalized responses. The desensitization to lived realities is often times ruptured merely by reframing sensory cues. What has become acceptable such as institutional racism or supremacist and misogynist public policy is transposed to hopefully something questionable, once something becomes framed as a work of art. Again, this can be complicated by an artist intention but I personally take the position that there is room outside the originating frame, an afterlife, that can be just as powerful.

In your artistic and scholarly practice you’ve often been relying on autobiographical material.

In ‘Spaces of Making’ you revisit your childhood memories and personal journals to give them new meaning. I wonder what functions and impact might artistically and more specifically sonically approached autobiography have today, in the context of the struggle for decolonization of not only our institutions, public spaces, archives but also public life and the way it gets expressed through/in sounds and soundscapes?

In that piece, I capitalized on what is often perceived as a denarrativized sensory field, the aural. Sound is just sound. The stories and judgements we put upon sound are created by those who manipulate or stage it in order to do so. I reviewed my personal story and amplified its presence in order to see if indeed childhood story can both simultaneously be distracted and enhanced by sounding. In this moment of rebellion and revolution, I think we are all acutely aware of enforced silence in our home habitats caused by stay-in-shelter orders as well as the swell in Black voices that previously were disregarded or made to disappear. It is the extremities between the silence of empty motorways and the inescapability of the chants of “Defund the Police” with cars honking horns in solidarity. In these ways, sound-based storytelling has become the going rate, if you look at post-production choices of audiovisual essays and the decentering of diegetic elements within narrative works of previously invisibilised folx. In short, right now everyone is turning up the volume. Because gatekeepers of those controls are being questioned. So, the public sphere and the norms of injustice are well served by the focalizing what is heard in and around living in this moment.

Stuck Tape

Defining yourself as at once an activist, artist, and academic, how do you perceive relations between these roles today and do you believe that each of these activities should have a space on their own, or rather blend and cross-feed with one another?

I think there is an intellectual and creative violence in categorization that binds one only to recognizable social functions. We are all holistic beings and yet when we speak, we often require external qualifiers to hear a message. If I comment on a current event, often it is those signifiers of ‘activist’ and ‘academic’ that give my words traction. But in reality, often I am just articulating as a human moving through space who is feeling and thinking in real time. That alone should be valid enough. But it does not even register unless I say my qualifiers. As Hannah Arrendt once responded in an interview about her own identification: ‘if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.’ Identity is assumed in relation to the political activity, ‘not as one’s personal identity, or a generic identification, but as a mode of struggle.’

Distal Bodies 46.1dBSPL (LAeq)

Woodcote Village Green

Location: Village Green, Woodcote, Oxfordshire, UK

Date: 20th September 2020

Time: 08:58 – 09:13

Weather: Sunny intervals and a gentle breeze

Temperature: 15oC

Average Sound Level: 46.1dBSPL (LAeq)

Woodcote Village Green

Distal Bodies 48.6dBSPL (LAeq)

Woodcote Village Green

Location: Village Green, Woodcote, Oxfordshire, UK

Date: 19th September 2020

Time: 08:58 – 09:13

Weather: Sunny, and a moderate breeze

Temperature: 15oC

Average Sound Level: 48.6dBSPL (LAeq)

Woodcote Village Green

Q&A : Lucia Hinojosa to 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

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?

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.

inaudible cities #4

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”.

notes for a forthcoming publication on transversal listening

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?

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.

one minute of silence

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?

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

Distal Bodies 53.6dBSPL (LAeq)

Woodcote Village Green

Location: Village Green, Woodcote, Oxfordshire, UK

Date: 18th September 2020

Time: 08:57 – 09:12

Weather: Sunny, with a moderate breeze

Temperature: 15oC

Average Sound Level: 53.6dBSPL (LAeq)

Woodcote Village Green