Andrew Harding, Mariana Fernandez, Hunter Kennedy
New York’s soundscape is chaotic, it is unrhythmic, it is seductive.
Our experience of New York is deeply mediated through noise. We tend to think of urban soundscapes largely as anarchic and uncontrollable but with the myriad ways that technology allows us to personalize our auditory experiences, this is increasingly less true. We constantly invest in devices to help us manage sound, from white noise machines set to sounds from back home to noise cancelling headphones that block the sounds of sirens while we sleep to headphones that allow us to personalize our soundtrack as we make our way through the city. The ways that we curate our phonic experiences in New York City not only says a lot about who we are, but are a claim to space in a city that is as unpredictable as its sounds.
This experiment was a move away from a Fordist understanding of the city, through which people experience the urban landscape collectively, toward the “post-Fordist soundscape” we live in, where users create their own urban experience through curation of their auditory space. By centering on the auditory, this project allowed us to engage directly with the interaction between people, machines, and the urban environment. We aimed to highlight the ways that technology can both isolate and help us engage more deeply with our surroundings.
But this project was not a study of urbanity. It was an exploration of the ways that sound functions as social capital within the confines of New York City. The longer we live in New York, the more its once uniquely disconcerting soundscape becomes imperceptible background noise to our busy lives, as if not taking notice of street squabbles, blaring sirens, construction noise, and impromptu performances gives you more stake in being a ‘New Yorker.’ To the ultimate New Yorker, these sounds might not only be imperceptible, but soothing. One website even offers a range of New York field recordings from different neighborhoods as “ambient background noise to listen to while you work.”
In 1974, Richard Serra and Nancy Holt created, “Boomerang”. A video art piece that employs Holt as it’s centerpiece. Serra and Holt created a sound feedback loop, wherein Holt’s own voice is looped back to her through a set of headphones. We, the viewers of this piece, can hear the reverberations of her voice through a loop, and get to observe the experience she has, ultimately revealing a disorienting feeling. This piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and is a part of Met Breuer’s exhibition, Delirious: Art and the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980.
Taking “Boomerang” and the tradition of field recordings which exploded in popularity with the mass production of portable recording equipment in the 1960s as starting points, we set out to explore how sounds that are rendered invisible on a day-to-day basis can be deeply disconcerting when taken out of context. Andrew, the subject in our piece, wore a virtual reality headset that blackened his vision and stood in a busy Chinatown street. His lack of vision aimed to heighten his sense of hearing and make him hyper-aware of sounds that would have otherwise been imperceptible. We recorded this for ten minutes.
We then found a second, much quieter, location in Little Italy. Here, Andrew wore the headset coupled with wireless headphones. The goal of the headphones was for them to cancel audio from his immediate surroundings and instead play the audio he had just heard for ten minutes in Chinatown. Andrew’s vision was completely impaired as it was in Chinatown but he knew that he was in Little Italy when he put on the headset. This project aimed to create dissonance between Andrew’s everyday perception practices of his surroundings by calling into focus the artificiality of his urban environment and the artificial means through which he experiences sound. We essentially replicated Andrew’s sensory experience in Chinatown (no vision, same audio), but found that him being physically somewhere else while he heard the Chinatown recording and the sounds he had originally listened to with his naked ear being played back to him artificially created deep discomfort.
We tend to think of sound as democratic. It is actually distinctive and discriminating. Sound has historically been and continues to be a socializing force, but we argue that technology has caused it to function not as a marker of location but as one of class, race, and gender. In “Sound Moves: iPod Culture and the Urban Experience,” Michael Bull writes that in the power of users to recreate the meaning of urban space at will, they question “the very nature of what it means to share urban space as shared social space” (251). Increasingly, we each inhabit our own realities. We aimed to show that in a world where sound, and urbanity itself, is a portable commodity, decontextualized sound can still be radical.