JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Steve Peters, for example, over the course of twelve months made 24 hours of recordings in the eastern foothills of the Monzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The 24-hour cycle is thus stretched out and embedded within the organizing cycle of the year. Using small contact microphones (Peters calls them “the sonic equivalent to microscopes”) and other magical devices of recording and amplification, he captured such events as wind whistling through cholla cactus; the shrieking of harvesting ants; the calls and flights of nighthawks, jays, and other beings; stalks of grass blowing fitfully against a wire fence; a passing train — aural evidence of the sentient world. Peters eventually edited down each hour of the 24 to about five minutes and compressed the whole into 74-minutes of CD time, referencing two diurnal cycles. Deliberately “nonmusical,” Peters’ work stands as aural evidence of space and time — traces of daily, seasonal, and yearly cycles.[25][open notes in new window]

Of singular importance is his attitude toward such work. As LaBelle notes about the work of acoustic ecology more generally, the work recuperates a dream of “harmonic plenitude” between self and world, but does so by virtue of alienation from what one most longs for. Peters calls his recordings “crude artifacts,” made to “encourage others to slow down, be quiet, and listen deeply to the voices of whatever places they may visit or inhabit.” He has also composed poems from his recordings and etched these onto benches distributed throughout the landscape at the various sites of his listening experiments.

“This project is a record of some of those events etched into plastic or paper and stone, an admittedly crazy but sincere attempt to insert them into one collective memoir,”

he says, describing a project less about “documentation” and more about “memorialization.” Running throughout this work is a river of melancholy, as though proper, deep, ecstatic listening might make us continuous with all time, space, and being:

“It is my hope that they [the benches] can act as bridges across time and consciousness, that someone sitting on them might have an experience similar to mine. … The act of listening [is] the real work.”[26]

The work also presumes an alienated, modern listener who needs to be restored to sonorous plenitude.

Thanks to acoustic ecologists, we have an expanding vocabulary for talking about sound — as something “information rich,” defining communities spatially (by how far the sound travels, the dominant institutions and bodies contributing to the sound) and temporally (through daily, seasonal cycles and rituals). Thanks to them we now talk about keynotes, a musical term referring to the fundamental tonality, or tonal center, to which all other pitches within an environment are related, a sort of drone that functions at a low level, like an electrical hum. Thanks to them we pay closer attention to sound signals, or noises that stand out from the ambient background, the figure emerging from ground. Usually designed to convey information, sound signals — like whistles, bells, sirens, horns — are any sound that conveys useful information to the listener, from doors closing to an unexpected footfall to the police bull horn or crack of a rifle. We refer now to soundmarks, a term derived from landmarks, which refers to the capacity for certain, repeatable sounds to result in strong associations built up over the years, associations often personal and deep seated as well as collective, triggers for memory that reanimate the past. Because of their work, we now think of sound’s ability to convey an image of what we might call the environmental character of a place. Barry Truax explains, 

“The sound arriving at the ear is the analogue of the current state of the physical environment because as the [sound] wave travels, it is charged by each interaction with the environment” — “by topography, the presence or absence of vegetation, prevailing winds and climate, or, if indoors, the reverberant quality of the space. . .” [27]

For these reasons and multiple others (which time prevents me from exploring here), one has much to learn from acoustic ecologists. And yet, despite my indebtedness to and reliance on their work, I find it radically incomplete as a model for audio documentary work on place. Missing, for one thing, is a sustained acknowledgment of the role of stories in producing places, the role of narrative in literally conjuring place into being — place, “where things gather.” And so I turn to recent work in cultural geography and anthropology (particularly as informed by literary criticism) for additional approaches.

While acoustic ecology is invested deeply in the real, in notions of place as literal ground, some geographers dare to claim, as Patricia Price does in Dry Land, that there is no such thing as “place qua place.” For Price and for many others working this vein (including myself), place is a

“layered, shifting reality that is constituted, lived, and contested, in part, through narrative.”

Calling place “a processual, polyvocal, always-becoming entity,” Price notes that

“the same physical site may be dreamed, ignored, appropriated, or simply lived differently by different individuals or groups simultaneously.”

It is “the narratives about people’s places in places [that] continuously materialize the entity we call place,” she claims, a materialization fraught with “conflicts, silences, exclusions,” in which tales are told and retold in ever shifting modes, by differently placed speakers and in ways that destabilize any unitary concept of what is. Place, in other words, serves as the mise en scene for unfolding acts of conquest and struggle, bondage and freedom, for struggles over what to remember and how, for efforts to forget, and always for an ongoing, tangled, sometimes brutally competing set of narratives about naming and belonging, exclusion and identity.[28]

Few works resist unitary notions about places and how to represent them as intelligently and passionately as Kathleen Stewart’s A Space on the Side of the Road, by her own description a “nervous, overstuffed, insistent” account of the coal-mining region of western West Virginia. The “space” in her title refers to the ruined hills and hollers, a space simultaneously emptied out and in-filled by a dense, polyvocal fabulation of memory and desire, which Stewart tracks through the stories, the endlessly proliferating performances, the tellings and retellings of the people who remain. “Space” also refers, among other things, to Stewart’s efforts to open up a new space for representation and cultural critique, a space for the excesses, or “something more,” of the human voice, and a narrative space that resists the totalizing gesture of unitary explanation, the short-circuiting impulse to get to the “gist of things” or the “quick conclusion.” In Stewart’s hands,

“These [West Virginian] hills — at once occupied, encompassed, exploited, betrayed, and deserted — become a place where the effects of capitalism and modernization pile up on the landscape as the detritus of history, and where the story of 'America' grows dense and unforgettable in re-membered ruins and pieced-together fragments.”[29]

To walk the landscape is to traverse a vast mnemonic field, where history’s effects litter the hills and hollers in tangible if enigmatic traces: the open mouths of the abandoned mines, the junked cars and refuse, the crumbling chimneys, the burned-out vacant lot where Johnny Millsap burned to death, the exposed electric wire that so blasted the body of nine-year-old Buddy Hall it blew a hole through his left his foot. In such luminous fragments and ruins — luminous because of the image that flares up in the moment of re-membering — the past returns in emblems of loss, specters of unrealized possibilities. Thus are landscapes “overstuffed with semiotic significance,” swollen and over-filled with traces of past events to be conjured, remembered, told and retold, a space pregnant with past longings and expectations,

“icons of the things that happen and the people they happen to.”[30]

Earlier, I mentioned landscape as a “meaningful crystallization of place.” It’s also, I suggest, the mediating figure between the two notions of place I’ve attempted to trace here. Its acoustic events, or soundscape, literally orient listeners in time and space, while its physical features serve not only as the backdrop for stories but as stimuli that generate infinitely more stories.[31] For how the field recordings of acoustic ecology and the densely textured, narrated social imaginary of ethnography might work together to produce not only a heightened experience of place but, I suggest, a new form of documentary practice, I turn to a work by Janet Cardiff: Her Long Black Hair, a 45-minute audio walk with photographs. The piece was commissioned by New York City’s Public Art Fund, a non-profit organization that sponsors contemporary art projects for the City’s public spaces and neighborhoods. It was developed expressly for Central Park, a two-and-one-half-mile by one-half-mile green space located in the center of Manhattan and arguably the most important public space in the United States. I don’t know that anyone would try to argue for Cardiff as a documentary artist. Nevertheless, the stunning success and the palpable limitations of her Central Park work have something to say to those of us looking for new documentary forms.

Central Park was designed with spectacle in mind. Envisioned in 1857 as a pastoral retreat from the crowded city, it was sculpted as alternative public space out of some 700 acres of largely swampy ground and engineered to embody in three dimensions what 19th century Romantic landscape painting portrayed in two. To do so, City Fathers had first to take possession of the land by eminent domain and drive out some 1,600 German, Irish, and free African-Americans who had built communities there. Laborers dynamited rocky outcrops, drained swamps, and pulled in by horse cart over 500,000 cubic feet of soil from nearby New Jersey. They sunk roads to minimize the disturbance from cross-town traffic, built artificial lakes spanned by graceful bridges, and “choreographed a sequence of prospects and vistas” for the enjoyment of park visitors. Sinuous pathways curved through the park, their uses determined by social class: a carriage circuit and bridal path for the wealthy, a footpath for the workers and the poor. Not only was the habit of promenading what David Scobey calls “a public ceremony of class affiliation and social responsibility”; it was profoundly tied to the ideological aims of park design: to exercise, as Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted wrote,

“a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and the most lawless classes of the city — an influence favorable to courtesy, self control and temperance.”

The shaping of urban space in general and Central Park in particular, in other words, was yet another element in exercising class discipline over “an unruly democratic polity” deeply fractured along class lines, as Scobey and others have argued. Today Central Park’s 58 miles of pathways throughout 843 acres accommodate some 25 million visitors each year.[33]

It took nearly six years for Cardiff and curator Tom Eccles to settle on Central Park as the appropriate site for Cardiff’s sound piece. Her Long Black Hair opened in the summer of 2004, marked only by a kiosk at the park entrance at 59th Street and 6th Avenue known as Artists Gate, where knowing pedestrians could exchange an i.d. for a set of headphones attached to a Discman and, guided by Cardiff’s voice in the headset, follow a flight of steps that drop away from the cacophonous city streets and down into the park below. Cardiff takes the listener along a meandering route, through a variety of settings and spaces, which ostensibly retraces the journey of a mysterious woman in red, with long black hair. At different points along the journey, Cardiff asks the listener to pull out a series of photographs of the woman, framed against different park scenes, and to match these with the current setting. While the device of pondering the photographs grants the journey momentum (Who is she? What has happened to her? Has some crime been committed?), it acts more as a heuristic to enable something else to happen. That “something else” is a powerful encounter with the landscape that forces you to exist in two “places” at once: the literal ambience of Central Park and the deeply interior “headspace” created by Cardiff’s sound script, in which ghostly, aural fragments of past events darkly color, and sometimes coincide with, what you actually see and hear outside the headset.

During the preceding year, Cardiff traced and retraced the route repeatedly, in all seasons and at all times of the day and night, making binaural recordings of different features of the soundscape (thunderstorms, cell-phone users, brass marching bands, a flock of Canadian geese, for instance). These were then rigorously edited and layered into a script composed of instructions, narrative and narrative fragments, historical references, music, and dream-like interjections.

"Sfx horns honking, siren goes by, wet streets."

"It’s just after a rain. The streets are still wet. But I think it’s stopped for a while. It’s loud here, isn’t it. When you’re in a city like New York you have to think of all the sounds like a symphony otherwise you go a bit crazy."

"Sfx horns honking, siren goes by. Collage of whistles, honking, accordion, horse."

"I have some photographs to show you. Take out the first one. No. 1 it says on the top right. It was 1965. Almost 40 years ago. Line up the image to the scene in front of us. It’s taken from where we’re sitting now. The tree is in blossom. Look at the [T]rump building back then. . . and the women’s hats. They’re all wearing them."

"Sound of marching band next to you. Then applause."

"Put the picture away. (thunder) I hope it doesn’t rain again because I want you to walk with me, to show you some other photos. Get up. Go to the right. Try to walk to the sound of my footsteps so we can stay together. Walk past the statue. . . ."

"Horse goes by to left, whinnying."

"And then down the stairs…all the way to the bottom. There’s a woman below talking on a cell phone."

"people come up talking all around you."[34]

The binaural recordings produce an intense, uncanny sensation of three-dimensional space apprehended through the ear. You duck at the sound of thunder overhead, glance in the direction of the accordion, whirl to search out the appearance of the marching band. As you descend into the park, people may or may not be mimicking what you hear in the headphones. You twist to avoid them just the same. Because the soundtrack is so carefully calibrated to what the walker might encounter along different portions of the route, one strains to locate visually what one hears. Eye and ear are in startling contest. When the two don’t meet, when the eye is unable to locate and legitimize the voice, one is tossed between a palpable experience of time past and ongoing loss. Then there is the shock when virtual and real coincide:

“Keep walking past the children’s zoo, through the next tunnel…Go past an ice cream stand on the left[,] then there’s a fork in the road here.”[35]

Calling this a powerful remaking of public space is an understatement. The effect is to unsettle any naturalized notion of time and sequence, to hear aural traces of the past in the present, and to focus on time as a deeply interiorized, layered, and subjective thing — even while you’re surrounded by evidence of its objective effects: the suffocating July heat will turn cold, the throngs of tourists will empty the park, the warm, green ponds will eventually ice over.

Obviously, there is much to discuss here, including the particular effects of binaural recording and the mediating effects of technology more generally. Moreover, despite a formidable ability to reshape our awareness of space (and time) through sound, Cardiff, in my view, touches too lightly, too secondarily, on the social and political dimensions of the site we traverse. But in lieu of a longer discussion, my point is more simply this. The technological revolution to which Kleinhans alludes might be tapped (through downloadable pieces suitable for iPod and other devices) for more immersive, site-specific work, whose success — like Cardiff’s piece — will depend upon dis-location, upon troubling the relation between seeing and hearing, and upon inviting new modalities of sensing and understanding. By shattering the habitual Cardiff stimulates a state of hyperaware presence, inward reverie, and on-going critique. Aren’t these laudable goals for audio documentary?

[Play Cardiff extract]

To Notes


To topPrint versionJC 49 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.