This post has been coming for six months. I created this study in the summer of 2014 and I felt that it was so successful as an ethnographic methodology and experiential, inductive form of inquiry that I presented about it at the 2014 Social Science and Humanities Congress, at a special session called “The Digital Gymnasium”. What I like about it the most is that it developed as a totally organic activity. Here I was, cat-sitting in Yaletown for a friend of mine, and with the beautiful weather and being so close to the Sea wall I kept going out and enjoying the neighbourhood. Now these days I usually get into an intensive process of audio recording + decibel readings + notes and observations when I travel somewhere different than my usual surroundings. It’s hard to maintain a constant attentiveness and interested – not so much in listening – but in carefully documenting the surrounding soundscape (a topic that I dedicated an upcoming entry at the CASE blog series). But seeing as I was now staying at Yaletown, a place I don’t spend that much time in, but a staple of a neighbourhood in Vancouver anyway, I decided to treat it as a ‘foreign’ place and go around recording and documenting sound, seeing what might emerge from being attentive to the soundscape. As I’ve mentioned before, I think of these media vignettes as ‘sensory postcards’ of a place, that together, as a digital archive, sort of reveal something bigger, holistic, more than the sum of its parts about the community, geographical place and its culture.
The specific apps I used to create sensory postcards include Faber Acoustical’s app dB, a Recorder app, audio-photo apps Picle and Speakingphoto as well as social podcasting apps soundloud and audioboo. The dB app listens silently through the mic input, and displays a running decibel level. Picle uses a photograph and overlays 10 seconds of sound onto a picture. Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay and is in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare the recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience, and in particular, the way the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘sailboat’ postcard view on offer).
This first example is literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open patio restaurant, a lot of music and people talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the Sea wall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Here’s what they sound like. Notice how crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels. And yet even for the ‘quiet’ one, we’re still in the high 60s, not exactly the serenity one would expect.
Now my personal view is that this perceptual convergence I’m experiencing in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less of an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetical, rather than purely functional and logistic sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are always ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the ‘mood’ or atmosphere of each image. Here is another example just from around the corner, where a grocery story (Urban Fair) overlooks the Roundhouse courtyard. Notice that once again we have an almost 10 decibel difference.
The expected irony of course is that the supermarket is way noisier than the outside, even though the area is fairly busy with local and distant traffic. And speaking of traffic, staying at my friend’s place near the Sea wall but a few blocks away from the water – boy was it loud! Here, for comparison we have a kind of ‘urban’ playground’ across from the Roundhouse, and the soundscape leaking into an 8th floor apartment a few short blocks away.