Bulgaria 2015: Parkour Lite and other Material Goodies

July 27, 2015 Posted by Milena D

IMG_7292Back in 2011, when I attended WFAE in Corfu, Greece, I remember talking to one of the attendees about her research. It had something to do with cultural constructions of embodiment related to the built environment, which of course always reflects the ideology of time and that particular society. E.g. I remember her saying that in Germany, the quest for minimalism and order with very flat surfaces, glossy materials and rectangular edges create a very particular type of upright embodiment – posture, specifically. In contrast, Mediterranean cultures tend to be characterised by uneven surfaces, different road materials and tiles, hills, more embellished architectural details and built structures. In Bulgaria this time I’ve really noticed how the roads require a lot more effort to walk on, it’s a bit of a full-body experience because you have to dodge holes in the ground, unevenly laid-out tiles, exposed concrete blocks, duck parked cars, mud dried up in weird shapes and mounds, steps and curbs of different height, to say nothing of crossing the road. You would literally be hard-pressed to find even and consistent materials, even road pavements, symmetry or clean proportions. It’s like the physical world is in various forms of decay and either it was never quite proper to begin with, or being in various forms of decay has become the normalized state of things. New things are built, no doubt, and better than I ever have seen before, with specially-ordered European tiles and blocks and wood, and marble. Actually old marble, quite popular in certain periods of time, has really stood the test of time and remained one of the lesser decayed objects in space.

IMG_7578Basically much of walking in Varna is like hiking, and my guess is that people’s posture and embodiment has evolved and developed around navigating this environment of parkour lite – physical obstacles, weeds, garbage, parked vehicles, trees and bushes. And this isn’t in the outskirts of town – this is right around the corner from very central neighbourhoods including the Centre. If I were to speculate – though I admit I am having a hard time noticing such subtle differences, the posture of Bulgarians is a bit hunched-over, possibly due to engaging the whole body in walking through and over and around material structures. Unrelated to embodiment, but somehow related to this discussion of physical space and how it is culturally configured and experienced (at a less than conscious level no doubt) is just the general visual surroundings. Similarly to the roads, I think of the visualscape as the opposite of German minimalism, but also the opposite of European baroque. There is a nary a thing in place or in coherent style with each other in the general cityscape. You’d be hard-pressed to find a row of cars that are parked in relative right angles to each other. Even buildings are perched on weird angles and corners, architectural styles not really matching anything in the vicinity. It’s kind of a collage of mismatched objects, colours and materials, like one of those roadside restaurants you walk into where the owners have the singing fish on the wall and knick-knacks from all their years (and eras) of travel and operations. Since the ‘beautifying of the environment’ initiatives that so characterized the period of Communism went off the rails in the early 1990s, the ‘unclaimed’ spaces of cityscape, the publicly-owned bits of road and land, have remained utterly uncared for and barely maintained, in complete disarray. I remember initiatives in my childhood when we got together as neighbourhood teams and performed ‘actions’ to clean up, beautify and generally maintain our shared spaces in between residential apartment buildings. Communism was generally responsible for a clean look and feel, sensible modernist realism. Aristotelian in ideology, the motto was – order in the environment is order in society – and by extension, emotional and psychic order inside each individual.

ParkourPublic space, unclaimed as it is, is in this way sharply delineated from private space, where individual tastes and material resources shine in the careful, stylish designs of private homes, cafes, restaurants and other commercial establishments. There is a great variety of materials again, in contrast to the fairly standard materials featured in the sensible design of North America (the West coast in particular): custom marble and tiles, planks, chairs, decorations, accessories, art and designer artistic furniture. In the same cafe/bar, across a broken down underpass, right by my grandparents’ place, one can see at least four different types of entire designer ecosystems, developed and complete with requisite materials, ambience, down to the last detail including patio furniture outside; and inside – private booths with red leather couches, matching tables and private television sets. Even the ashtrays on every table are unique and stylish – never seen two of the same kind at any of the establishments I’ve been in. In Varna there is almost a kind of competition for cafe/bars to outdo each other in the absolutely ridiculous, pompous seating and decoration design. Incredible harmony of style, really an art experience more than a culinary one. Special mention goes to these two – Bar de Rouge at the gates of the Marine Garden (right) with its giant multicolour plastic thrones; and one of the new establishments by Horisont (Akacii) next to a brand new centre for sport and cultural events. But there are many others, beautiful gems scattered in an ocean of dust and dirt, and finding them is like an escape from reality that maybe people here need more than the more advanced western nations.

IMG_7573  Akacii

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Bulgaria 2015: Conceptual Smellscapes

July 21, 2015 Posted by Milena D

I’ll just start by saying my holiday in Bulgaria this time is greatly enriched by a new awareness of smell, and a more informed, dedicated attention to soundscapes. A more mature sensory ethnographic sensibility. @multisensorymel ’s point that smellscapes can be thought of as ‘conceptual’ has given me some food for thought. But for now, before I draw conclusions or ‘see’ patterns, I need to just list some smells and initial impressions before I forget them completely.

The first thing that struck me arriving at the Sofia airport was the heat and smell of bodies tightly packed in dense lineups at passport control. There isn’t much space for ‘personal space’ in this culture so I had to adapt – this time paying attention – to being in such close proximity of people. It’s not that people don’t wash or use deodorant. It’s just that it’s so hot, those things inevitably fail to mask human sweat and body odour. Antiperspirant commercials were made for the moderate western climate where air-conditioned spaces contain much of people’s daily movements and interactions. The second thing that struck me was the unbearable stench in the airport toilets. I realized, I think for the first time, that this is a problem of plumbing and not (just) of inadequate cleaning. There is something in the original infrastructure of sewage and water pipes that has corroded the inside of plumbing to the point where there is this heavy, sharp, stinging smell of urine/acid. The cold tile or marble floors are mostly clean, the ceramic toilet seats are new (I certainly remember what the old ones looked like) yet the smell is there. Much more faintly the same smell can be experienced in a variety of establishments including all the toilet rooms in private homes. Toilet rooms is precisely what people have and I do wonder if certain infrastructural decisions were made a long time ago on the assumption that bathrooms (i.e. shower rooms) are separate spaces altogether from toilet rooms. When I strain my memory I do remember the same acrid smell protruding through the heaps of cleaning product and air fresheners that we always had in our washroom. Definitely plumbing and insulation.

Stepping outside the airport, a pleasant surprise was the freshness of the air, the sense of open space, light, unpolluted atmosphere, which is ridiculous because it’s quite polluted there, and there certainly isn’t the same culture of ‘non-pollution’ that I’m used to thinking of in north america. Also, no humidity. I think that really helps with the way the air and the heat felt. Started noticing a lot of the sideawalks inside residential neighbourhoods are large slabs of stone and smaller pebble-stone octagons, with dry dirt powder in between, all crooked and torn up in places. Asphalt small roads are full of holes where water and other debris accumulate; both cars and pedestrians are used to the extra effort to physically navigate the difficult terrain.

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Another reason for the general air quality and smellscape / sensory atmosphere is the wide variety and general abundance of deciduous trees that not only clean but perfume the air with their flower buds and leaves (much smellier I think then their evergreen counterparts). It is not in fact uncommon to have tons of fruit trees all over town, including on small residential streets, left over from pre-communist times when houses had their own vegetable gardens, fruit trees and bushes. This makes the air, particularly in Varna, sweet and fragrant, yet fresh from the salty sea breeze. However, fruit fallen to the ground rots in the sun so there is also a prevailing spoiled fruit scent, soaked into the heated pavements. There is an overall ‘clean dusty’ smell if that makes sense. Because the sidewalk materials are so hard and non-porous, in the absence of frequent rain the earth in between tiles and stones dries and loses the smell of moist soil that I associate with Vancouver’s rainy climate.

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The air is further fragrant from the many sidewalk produce stands where warm scent of vegetables and ripe (but not overripe) fruit mix into a kind of soft, earthy, sweet aroma. If I were to draw this in colour, it would be rich, sand yellow, terracotta orange, with hues of light blue. Come to think of it, that’s how I would draw the entire smellscape of Varna, with the earthy fragrance of trees and the salty breeze of the sea air.

One last moment to share. I don’t know if it’s just been that long that I’ve been away, or just I haven’t been as aware of the smellscape of home, but when I made my usual pilgrimage to my childhood beach this year (“Officer’s beach, Akacii”) I had a moment, right here – I stopped to take a picture. It’s the bottom of the marine garden walkway before the stairs that descend down to the beach. It’s the moment where the general smell-ambience of green-leaf deciduous trees was pierced sharply but pleasantly by a fresh salty sunny smell of the Black sea below. It’s hard to explain – influx of memories that almost physically grabbed me, realization of how much different the salty water smell is from that I’ve come to experience on the Pacific northwest. It was an emotional high note, the smell felt like it pierced me right through the heart, and I stood, right here, weeping a little, trying not to look too odd. This was the moment of ‘coming back home’, wave of nostalgia just washing over me, surprising me with how much I miss this place.

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Soundwalk (New Brighton) New Music Series

June 19, 2015 Posted by Milena D

NewBrighton2015-3Just a quick note to comment on a soundwalk I recently attended, led by my good friend Helena Krobath. We spent over an hour in the most beautiful sunshine walking through the Wall St./ McGill area and ending up at New Broughton beach. In addition to the rich soundscape the walk was also very fragrant – sun, I find really brings out fresh greenery smells, tree bark, distant salty ocean breeze, and once we got down to the beach, very much heavy seaweed-salt water and shell sand smell. (but don’t ask me to describe shell sand smell, I just feel like I could smell it) The soundscape in this area has a fascinating history, of which I only know that once it was a fisherman’s ghetto of Asian migrants (Korean?) and in general the area has stayed vastly industrial, with big cargo ferries and oil tankers rolling in and out, refueling, loading, unloading. While the oceanview nature of the region has overwhelmingly moved it in the direction of gentrification pushing real estate prices up (check out Avant: the newest in East Van oceanfront living), the soundscape remains saturated with the rumble of harbour machinery, freight elevators, constant roar of cargo trucks, the passage of cargo trains and the clanking of switching tracks, squealing brakes, and nearby Memorial Ironworkers’ Bridge (Second Narrows) commuter traffic.

I definitely still love soundwalking, but especially in groups, I catch myself paying attention to many other sensory elements besides sound, even more so than sound. It’s an opportunity for introspection more than anything. Similarly to a soundwalk I went to in Queen Elizabeth Park last summer I was remembering a lot of childhood memories – climbing trees, playing in bushes and ditches, exploring the abandoned weed-ridden areas hidden behind and away from residential areas. So much joy and adventure and sense of discovery playing in abandoned construction sites, wooded areas and ditches, boarded up houses, etc. This neighbourhood with its combination of (now) fancy houses and the very industrial harbour reminds me of my childhood. The smell of the wild bushes that ran alongside most of the walk were very strong memory triggers. Walking in a large group of people is not really a novelty for me (hasn’t been for a while) but at this point *not recording* is a novelty so I do find myself being less of a dedicated, intentional listener, and more simply letting sensory experience flood into memories and into stream of consciousness and introspection. To re-answer the crux of all questions, it’s not that sound presents a massively different and unique view of the world, it’s that intentionally tuning into one sense provides an opportunity to open all senses in a different way – it creates a different framework for perception, than the one we habitually use, which is primarily informed by semiotic shortcuts, that is, a cerebral, conceptual and culturally-informed way of encountering the world. And to me this is the key part – listening, yes – but why! Just to unlearn passive behaviours – no, that has never been good enough for me.

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“Why There Will Never Be Instagram for Audio”

April 13, 2015 Posted by Milena D

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 11.12.36 AMIn this guest blog post on the CASE (Canadian Association for Sound Ecology) blog I talk about soundwalking, recording and the wider context of media curation, everyday photography and social networks.

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Sound Study: Yaletown (Part 2)

March 13, 2015 Posted by Milena D

After a longer hiatus than anticipated comes the second installment in my Yaletown sound study. Where we left off things in the last post, I started out recording without a specific idea and ended up making some interesting comparisons between sound environments in close proximity to one another, as well as observations about how the visual and sonic surroundings sort of coalesce in my perceptual (and culturally informed) sensibilities.

Pushing beyond these initial observations I began walking down the Sea wall, listening. I want to take a moment to comment on the fact that I’ve never been a ‘recordist’ in the sense that a lot of acoustic ecologists (those that record anyway) have a tendency to record continuous long stretches of their soundwalking experience. To me, recording, while accentuating certain sonic characteristics, kind of detracts from the holistic experience of listening for me. So I don’t tend to record unless there is *really* something I want to be recording. Sure enough, as I walked and listened, staring as usual into the alley-side town homes and condos I was struck by the presence of something I hadn’t noticed before – water features at every building. Different types of fountains, artificial creeks and waterfalls adorned every single multi-million dollar condo along the Sea wall. For the first time I was struck by the juxtaposition of natural water (oceanside) a few feet away from a gated water feature; water features being a luxury only a place like Canada can afford, which, for now, possesses unlimited water resources. Still, why would the residents need their own water feature when their property is ‘oceanside’ for starters, is beyond me. This is when an interesting idea occurred to me – survey the different water features in surrounding areas and see whether the type of water technology and soundscape is related to the (assumed) property value of each building. Once again i used SpeakingPhoto to record short vignettes of water features. The following is a compilation of these that illustrates some of the variety and configurations.

Still not sure whether or in what way precisely water feature soundscapes correlated to property values but in short it did appear that the buildings directly on the Sea wall (so most expensive) had the most elaborate, extensive, fastest running water features. Alternately, a big building a block away had only a contained fountain basin shared with a large courtyard. Another block away was a large building complex which shared an artificial waterfall with rather slow-falling water that barely masked the constant traffic noise, however provided a visual reference for its proximity to the ocean, even though the ocean wasn’t visible from there. Another building, similarly located, contained a small bubbling fountain right by the front door as if to simply tip off its hat to the expectation that a building in this part of town *must* have a water feature.

In any case, I’m presenting these approaches and observations as a kind of methodology for using mobile tools to conduct sensory ethnographies of place and culture; to probe lived, everyday experience, urban design, built environment and culturally-informed perceptions and assumptions.

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Sound Study: Yaletown (Part 1)

January 14, 2015 Posted by Milena D

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.

 

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Sound Study: Olympic Village

November 11, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So in the past six months I’ve been thinking about the concept of sound study as something more than a ‘postcard’, a sustained exploration of the geographical, sensory, cultural and social environment through the channel of listening. At the same time understanding that listening is always connected to the other senses and to the social experience of being in place.

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Sensory Postcard: Ghost Train 2014

November 4, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Following last year’s Ghost train ride, I went again this year, and this time I was prepared to record. Last year’s entry is special to me, because it was really one of the first experiences that made me reframe my entries from ‘aural’ to ‘sensory’ postcards. There was something about riding on that tiny rickety train, on real tracks, through the foggy night forest of Stanley Park, stacked up against other people, and surrounded by mechanical props as well as live actors, that made that experience particularly multi-sensory. And coming to expect these impressions, I set out to record them this year, as well as just pay more structured attention to them. Here is a shorter vignette version of the ghost train experience this year, themed “Mother Goose”. On a side note, I think the funding for this year’s festival was severely cut as there were about 1/10th of the amount of props and actors pulling this together. And here is a longer audio recording in Audioboo of a section that was particularly eerie where the train goes over the little lake. You can almost hear the fogginess of the night forest, the echoes and reflections off the water coming from multiple installation sites in the vicinity. Plus the foreground audience reactions and rhythmical tacking of the train itself.

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Sensory Postcard: Galiano Island

October 20, 2014 Posted by Milena D

So once again, it was the time of my annual pilgrimage to Galiano Island, where I spent two weeks with one dog, two cats, and one girlfriend (one of the weeks). I have listened, thought and written about this before (including at the Acoustic Ecology journal), so nothing new…but this time around I had some new thoughts, because I spent even more time outside sitting with my thoughts, while the dog rolled around in the wet sand. This is something I hardly do any more, but used to do a lot when I walked my dog in my childhood – walk silently with my thoughts and experience the surrounding environment.

2014-09-27 13.22.44One obvious delight about the house where I stayed on Galiano was of course the massive expanse of acoustic horizon, the fresh air that I was really appreciating this time, and just all kinds of little bits of material things – weird field spider webs in the morning, crisp smell of morning dew, grass, pine trees. I also love the resident crows that make their daily circles at dusk sort of chatting (quarreling?) back and forth to each other. I’ve actually gotten to be really fascinated with crows lately…they are super intelligent, and I always feel like their behaviour and language is just beyond my understanding but so close I can tell it is intelligent and meaningful. It’s hard to describe how us humans as intelligent beings can recognize (or think we can recognize) and tell apart meaningful exchange from instinct-driven behaviour?…

Anyway, this post was meant to be a tribute to the materiality of existance, finding joy and awakening in smelling, feeling, listening, seeing beauty and life in nature, in its serenity and chaos. I love to just sit an observe small areas like tidepools, or ant-hills, everything has a place, and it’s a microcosm within the social construction we call ‘culture’ – as if, delusionally, we are the only ones here, or the only ones who matter.

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Sensory Postcard: Five Elements

September 6, 2014 Posted by Milena D

Just another observation of the clash of visual and sonic contexts that makes me realize how much I (we) am driven by the visual atmosphere of specific environments and that actually clashes with the holistic sensory experience of being there. I went to this favourite Vietnamese joint intending to chill, have lunch and do some writing in the (what I thought would be) relaxing atmosphere of weekday mellowness. The building, which for years used to be Tony’s – an italian deli – has high ceilings and being on the corner, is airy and spacious. A bit of a departure from typical Vietnamese restaurants, which are the opposite of airy and spacious – crammed, stuffy, richly odorous and loud. So because of the other sensory factors – air, space, visual minimalism, lack of crowdedness, I sort of assumed also a relaxing and quiet place to work. As soon as I actually pulled out my computer, my auditory sense sort of awakened and I realized it was SO far from quiet there! In addition to noisy construction jackhammer happening right on the opposite corner of this place, they had an industrial fan running by the back door, a few tables away from me, and the refrigerator housing a selection of gelato was whirring on the other side. The result was a kind of white noise droning cacophony completely not conducive to working. So there we go, it’s like sometimes some of our sense hoodwink the others and only when/if we come up to the necessity of particular environment, do we come into fuller awareness.

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