Making Sense – Intersensory workshop (RE/Lab)

December 1, 2015 Posted by Milena D

A month ago @multisensorymel (Melanie McBride) and myself improvised a small-scale intersensory workshop out of Ryerson’s RE/Lab (Responsive Ecologies Lab) with the support of lab director Jason Nolan, as well as Daniel Harley and several RA colleagues. A combined blog post is still forthcoming, but I wanted to take the opportunity to start jotting down some initial impressions of the experience. So the idea, for me, was to 1) try and combine more than one sensory modality as an inquiry entrypoint, and 2) try and incorporate a ‘making’ aspect in the workshop as a meaningful way of transforming participants’ sensory experience.

There really are a multitude of ways to go about engaging with sound in ‘real’ or non-real time that lend themselves to various forms of sensory attention in the moment. I have less personal experience but do love the idea of ‘sonic graphs’ which entails logging sonic events, textures and ambiences through an often ad-hoc notation system. Sonic graphs would be done at a stationary position either at intervals of time, or for a particular duration. Soundwalks on the other hand, are silent walks that focus on walking and movement and experiencing sound while moving. A sound map (the second image) representing different sonic features of a community or area is another way of engaging with sonic environments. A sound map would be typically something one draws from a stationary position or after a listening experience, and the idea there is to capture something more general about the soundscape – the prominence of different sounds and where they originate in the soundscape (acoustic profiles), the timbral and textural qualities of different sound sources, and the relationships between different sounds relative to the listening subject.

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I’ve experienced many types of soundwalks that others have led and each person, naturally, has a different approach to them. Over the years, some trusty guidelines for doing soundwalks have accumulated for me:

  • silence. when you’re speaking you’re not listening, and it’s very hard for someone who isn’t very experienced with soundwalking to switch between modes of aural attention and other attention: because we use sound (speech) to communicate and use our ears for other contextual and practical information our brains literally process sonic information in two different areas of the auditory cortex, making it very difficult cognitively to switch back and forth.
  • pacing. movement is very much linked to sensory perception and processing of sensory info – that has been pointed out by many, and the thing that makes a difference in my experience of soundwalking is slowing down from a purposeful fast walking pace (which puts our senses on a level of ‘functional’ everyday routine) to a contemplative pace that makes our sensory system sort of restart, ‘clean the cache’ so to speak and introduce some novelty in perceiving (similarly to the model of ‘deep listening’ developed by Pauline Oliveros)
  • resetting. in general our perceptual apparatus is predicated on detecting differences against a constant, which, in the case of sound, allows us the evolutionary possibility to become habituated to all sorts of urban noise, household hums and drones and the like. So a ‘refreshing’ or re-setting of our listening strategy is always a necessary part of a soundscape awareness exercise.
  • contrast. In soundwalks one approach that helps with resetting our listening sensibilities is organizing a route around contrasting sonic spaces: areas of quiet followed by noisy street, outside-inside contrasts, monotone-type soundscapes vs. timbrally/spectrally rich soundscapes, and near-far sonic experiences: e.g. leading a group close to a sound source and then away, experiencing the acoustic profiles of prominent or interesting sounds in a given environment.
  • sociality. a soundwalk of one doesn’t really work that well. There is a kind of magic that happens when a sizeable group of people move through space together without soundmaking: we stand out in a different way, but it also de-normalizes typical sociality because instead of discussing things as they happen we must stay present and reflect privately, together.
  • post-discussion. As John Dewey states, we don’t learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on our experiences. Well, that’s debatable, as I would say we do learn something from just experience. For a soundwalk to have its proper impact, however, a group discussion after the experience is very important as it allows folks to share and compare impressions and work out-loud the experience of being a listener in this novel way.

Eatons Smell/Soundwalk (Nov 9, 2015)
The soundwalk into Eatons centre certainly contained excellent examples of contrast, e.g. between the acoustically dry underpass from the metro line to the centre, to the vast open reverberant space of the Eatons atrium full of sounds and music spilling out from every shop against the constant keynote of the fountain in the centre. What always fascinates me about malls is the negotiation (or lack thereof – implied mutual acceptance) between public and private space that can be felt so tangibly in the sonic realm – while the common areas are semi-public, they are overflown with music that signifies private commercial efforts designed for a particular brand identity and customer experience. At the same time the space itself, in its very architecture of high domes, glass and aluminum, is designed to create a sound field of masking of human sounds. Instead of being able to segregate conversations, the space creates a soundscape of one never-ending hubbub of voices, shuffling objects, echoing footsteps; I want to think of this phenomenon as having a certain rhythm, but it’s easier to think of it as a texture. The water feature, one of the only intentional sonic designs is intended to ‘equalize’ and further mask individual sounds with its wide frequency spectrum. Almost makes me want to look into the history of the ‘water feature’ as an element that has been introduced in city design, but also as a marker of wealth, style and class in private real estate. I find it a bit laughable because the sound is kind of lost in the midst of all the noise that is bouncing off all the glass domes, and all the competing music spilling out into the atrium. I certainly have never been able to sit by a mall fountain and suspend my disbelief about where I am and imagine I’m sitting by a bubbling brook in the forest. I do, however, think that the space design of malls is – whether intentionally, or unintentionally – designed to create a soundfield that de-emphasizes individual experience, hiding individual sounds inside the field, matching the mall’s purpose as an anonymous commercial space, and not the village square of personalized exchanges. At the same time, the constant dynamism of ‘anonymous’ indeterminate noise fits the mall’s character as a vibrant, happening space of commerce, socialization and the ‘right’ kind of lifestyle. Short clip:

In terms of smells, some interesting things I learned from Mel was that the rubbery, industrial smell in sports shops like Foot Locker is actually off-gassing from the production and materials used in lower-end versus higher end shoes, clothes, etc. A similar off-gassing from fabric colouring and polyester would be found in department clothes stores. By contrast high-end clothes shops (symbolically located on the upper, quieter floors) smelled like coffee and nice tobacco, fresh linen and dried fruit. Basically like natural fibers and materials. Very interesting to explore the private-public spaces in that way, through smell, and sound at the same time. Smellscapes were much more contained and intense in my view, I’d say more subliminal as symbolic experiences. The atrium smelled very much like lots of people, contained air and around the fountain – vaguely like minerals and chlorine.

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