Hearing There

Mix House

Considerations of the aural dimension of architectural experience are gaining prominence in contemporary architectural practice. Books like Juhani Pallasmaa's The Eyes of the Skin and Barry Blesser's Spaces Speak address the "hegemony of the eye" and turn attention to the neglected notion that "Hearing structures and articulates the experience and understanding of space"3. A strong example of these consideration in practice is a proposal titled Mix House (pictured above) coordinated by NY architect Joel Sanders in collaboration with Ben Rubin and Karen van Lengen. The primary design concern in Mix House is to address trends in modernist architecture that promoted "the use of expansive glass windows that afforded uninterrupted views of the landscape, while simultaneously applying new acoustical technologies that homogenized these interiors and compromised the aural specificity of both space and place . . . [Mix House] proposes a dwelling that rethinks and extends the modernist notion of visual transparency afforded by the ubiquitous glass window to include aural transparency as well."4 Through an innovative approach to design and acoustic technology, Mix House creates the possibility for an inhabitant of the space to extend his/her hearing beyond the confines of the residential interior to sounds emanating from the spaces seen through the windows.

[Marcel Duchamp / A Bruit Secret / 1916]

Conical Intersect and Mix House create situations of sensory extension, of expanded awareness. They affect the nature of our urban experience by restructuring not the surface but rather the depth of experience. Hearing There involves the same kind of model. Our experience of walking the city street always entails an awareness of the spaces that surround us, but generally speaking these spaces remain sonically inert. One of Marcel Duchamp's original readymades was a piece titled A Bruit Secret (With Hidden Noise, 1916). The work consists of two brass plates on a stand which contain a ball of twine. The piece was a collaboration with Walter Arensberg, whose role was to place an object inside the coiled twine without telling Duchamp what the object was. The resulting piece contains this secret, invisible element which is only present through its sounding.

The model invokes the perceptual notion of horizon. In his study of the phenomenology of sound, Don Ihde writes, "an inquiry into the auditory is also an inquiry into the invisible . . . listening makes the Invisible present in a way similar to the presence of the mute in vision"5. As our vision reveals the the character of the object in spite of its silence, our hearing reveals its character in spite of it its invisibility. In this sense Duchamp's piece is an illustrative exaggeration: any mute object implies object "with hidden noise". Conversely, most of the sounds that we hear might be though of as "with hidden light". The object is always revealed severally, and our understanding of it comes through an interplay of the senses, each complementing the description of the other.

When we are exposed to the sound of an interior space we gain both knowledge of its contents (what kinds of things it contains) and equally its form - the reverberations of the sounds give our ears detailed information about the particular shape and texture of the the space that encloses them. Walking by Schwartz's Deli I hear the character of the place in the loud clientele and the shouts of the short order cooks, and I also "hear" (though for most people there would not be a conscious recognition, but a hearing nonetheless) the lacquer of the tabletops and counters, the high ceilings, the tiled floor.

As I move along the street my ears begin to better navigate these now audible interiors. I am no longer in an isolated corridor occupied largely by engine noise, but am attendant to the modulations of the spaces that surround me.

Locative Listening

The diffusion of a locative soundscape is dependent upon a portable listening system - headphones attached to a PDA or other compact computer. In the two and a half decades since Sony marketed the first Walkman, portable listening devices have become all but ubiquitous, markedly so in urban settings. In this world of cellular telephones and ipods, mobile mediated listening is endemic to the urban lifestyle.

Technology mediates. Technology insulates. In an essay on the Walkman's role in shaping experience, Michael Bull notes that the technology has a pronounced tendency to be used in colonizing the spaces we inhabit. Listeners use the walkman to "actively re-create and re-configure the spaces of experience" and in the process "often become indifferent to the presence of others". The headphones become a kind of aesthetic armor shielding the listener from her surroundings, forcing the spaces she navigates to conform to the sounds of her choosing. Ultimately, through the mediation of the walkman, "the environment is received as a personal artifact."6 And, as the environment becomes artifact, the environment becomes malleable, becomes disposable - why should we care about the sound environment when we can so effectively insulate ourselves from it?

One challenge of Hearing There was to engage the medium and explore its potential as a means of re-establishing the kind of connected awareness that critics of the portable listening device rail against. Mark Taylor writes: "In network culture, technology is an indispensable prosthesis through which body and mind expand"7. The origin of the word prosthesis is linguistic; the addition of letters to an existing word in the formation of a new one - a means of extending language. From its linguistic meaning, the term came to signify bodily extensions, but the sense remains intact. If language is understood (in a rudimentary manner) as a tool for making connections between individual points in a network, technology is prosthesis in that it extends the breadth of language. Ian Chambers writes: "With the walkman there is simultaneously a concentration of the auditory environment and an extension of our individual bodies"8. The extension here is an extension of space - the walkman user "participates in the listening of elsewhere"9. Rather than understanding headphones as "a protective seal" or a "prophylactic" (in some of Shafer's more derogatory terminology) whose function is separation, it is possible to conceive of it as a means of extra-spatial inclusion. When the listener is immersed in the sounds of spaces that form a part of their immediate sensed environment, when the elsewhere is removed, all that remains is an attention to the listening.

Noise of the New

One immediate by-product of the expansion of aural space is an expanded awareness of diversity. The soundscape of the city street is largely homogenous. St. Laurent Boulevard is one of the most culturally diverse thoroughfares in the country, yet listening to a recording of the street alone reveals little of this richness. While we have constant visual cues as to the nature of the spaces that border the sidewalk, experiencing the sounds of these spaces imparts a sense of their substance, creates a dynamic, kinetic impression. This applies not only to the ethnic diversity revealed in the varied textures and tones of the languages spoken, but equally to the basic diversity of human activity coexisting in incredibly close quarters. Rich comparisons and juxtapositions emerge: the funeral home and the daycare, the pet store and the bluegrass bar, the Portugeuse grocer and the porn theater. On a more subtle level there is a revealing of the details that characterise the individual spaces, the varied hums and clicks that form the background noise of our daily activity.

As we begin to sense the depth and diversity of these soundworlds, as we allow our attention to rest on the details of the soundscape that are so often ignored or obscured in navigating urban space, the experience of the city is subtly transformed. It becomes more fluid, more embracing. A basic awareness of our surroundings becomes amplified as we engage with this extended sense of sonic presence. The more we hear, the more we are here.

Hearing There has been produced in part with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts. The project will be officially unveiled as part of the tenth edition of the MUTEK Festival held in Montreal May 27-31, with a continuing presentation through the month of June.