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.
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.’
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
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.
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
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
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
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
outcome that one would anticipate to emerge. It seems that increasingly
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
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.
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.
Cities, I do not necessarily come up with any
but rather find them out there in the fabric of the urban space. I work with
performative and material constraints rather than linguistic. In
terms of the space,
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
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.
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
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?
Extract from Inaudible Cities (below) featured in Recording Life In Sound (SARU 2019).
Jacek Smolicki (b.1982, Kraków) is a cross-media artist, designer, researcher and “walker” who works at the intersection of aesthetics, technology, memory, and everyday life. He explores how transformations of communication, recording, and computing technologies have been affecting aesthetic, material, performative, and ethical aspects of archiving and memory practices, historically and at the present moment. In his design and art practice, besides engaging with existing archives and heritage, Smolicki develops new techniques for experiencing, documenting, remembering, and para-archiving human and other-than- human environments. In parallel to these activities, for the last several years he has been committed systematic experimentation with various recording techniques and technologies leads to a construction of a multifaceted para-archive of contemporary everyday life, culture, and environment (On-Going Project). One such practice is the archiving of one-minute field recordings executed every day since July 2010. He has exhibited, presented his works, performed, soundwalked, and gave workshops internationally (e.g. Madrid, Moscow, Helsinki, Stockholm, San Francisco, Budapest, Vienna, Sarajevo) to a set of documentary practices in which a systematic experimentation with various recording techniques and technologies leads to a construction of a multifaceted para-archive of contemporary everyday life, culture, and environment (On-Going Project). One such practice is the archiving of one-minute field recordings executed every day since July 2010. He has exhibited, presented his works, performed, soundwalked, and gave workshops internationally (e.g. Madrid, Moscow, Helsinki, Stockholm, San Francisco, Budapest, Vienna, Sarajevo)
Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or
stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long
ago picked out.
(Georges Perec; Species of Spaces; 1974)
On a rainy day in Oxford more than ten years ago Felicity Ford and
Paul Whitty set up a project with the aim of recording everyday life in
sound – to resist the overwhelming tide of visual images of the everyday
and to meet it with the abundant soundings of vending machines,
luggage carousels, toasters, escalators, boilers, garden sheds, wheeled
luggage. We followed the writer Georges Perec’s instruction to exhaust
the subject, not to be satisfied with a cursory glance, not to be satisfied
to have identified what we already knew – what we had already heard –
but to look again or in our case to listen, to keep listening, to listen long
after it would probably have been more sensible to stop. That project
was Sound Diaries.
This project celebrates ten years of Sound Diaries with contributions from twelve artists who responded to our open call;
We are interested in everyday sounds and sounding contexts from cutlery drawers to bus stops to self-
service checkouts. Projects can take many forms but should focus on documentary recording of everyday
Sound Diaries expands awareness of the roles of sound and listening in
daily life. The project explores the cultural and communal significance
of sounds and forms a research base for projects executed both locally
and Internationally, in Beijing, Brussels, Tallinn, Cumbria and rural
We have invited twelve artists to create new projects and you can hear the artists present their work on July 13th 2019 at The Jam Factory in Oxford. Admission is free and all are welcome.
Here’s the programme:
11:00 – 11:20 Richard BentleySweep
11.25 – 11.45 Hannah Dargavel-LeafeConduit
11.50 – 12:10 Kathryn ToveyWalking with another
12.45- 13.05 Aisling DavisUisce
13.10 -13.30 Jacek SmolickiInaudible Cities
14:10 – 14:30 Atilio DoresteMuffled Sounds
14.35 – 14.55 Beth Shearsby
15.00 -15.20 Lucía HinojosaForgetting 1993
15.45- 16.05 Fi.OnaSoundStamps
16.10 – 16.30 James GreenSounding 24h
16.35 – 16.55 Marlo De Laraaural investigation of everyday britain
We had an amazing response to our Open Call with many fantastic and innovative project proposals – thanks to everyone who responded. The successful artists are:
Lucía Hinojosa Gaxiola
Marlo De Lara
Fiona AR Patten
The successful Artists visited audiograft festival in March to introduce and discuss their projects and we are looking forward to welcoming them back in July to present their work and to launch the SARU publication celebrating ten years of the Sound Diaries project.
Watch this space for more information about our event in July and the publication!