Posts Tagged: ‘smellscape’

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.

Bulgaria 2015: Conceptual smell/landscapes

August 10, 2015 Posted by Milena D

This is mostly just a continuation of my previous posts around the same topics – some additional smells, reflections on the built environment and landscape. Again, in order of discovery, some of the smells that have come through more clearly and that I recall from my youth are: cat feces and rotten food. Both are barely present now – it used to be that construction sites would leave piles of sand and other construction materials lying around for really long periods of time. Since the ground is far too hard and dusty, and green spaces overgrown with weeds and gnarly, prickly bushes, hoards of neighbourhood stray cats would go to the toilet in those piles of sand. I mean, cats love it, it’s lots of soft ground to turn and bury their poop. I used to associate piles of sand with the faint yet pungent smell of cat feces buried in it, and actually for a very long time I didn’t understand that sand didn’t have to smell this way. Incidentally those piles of sand was also where us kids played in. I had a friend who was quite keen on cars and we used to take our little toy model cars and build whole cities, roads and highways into the sand for our cars. Finding and removing cat poo was a normal part of the process. There is still a lot of construction but it tends to go a bit quicker and perhaps materials have changed too because I am not seeing piles of gravel, sand or other construction materials around. Which is why catching this familiar waft a few days ago was a jolt to the memory. Not that I’m bemoaning the loss of eau de catpoo.

IMG_8135IMG_8134Rotting garbage is another typical summer smell and it is once again tied to infrastructure. Garbage bins used to be these big rusted metal containers open at the top (or maybe they had flaps but no one closed them) where you’d fling your bag of garb into. When they quickly filled up (in large due to no opportunity of composting in the city) with watermelon and cantaloupe remains the bins will overflow onto the ground and start running down the street, the juices baking and decomposing in the hot sun. I remember going out on the street and barely being able to breathe in the air, it was so pungent with rotting fruit; actually organic bits rotting next to non-organic waste. And that was before the time of plastic wrappers and plastic bags. Today, the amount of open waste is greatly decreased with the introduction of self-compacting garbage bins with sliding tops. They are elevated off the ground and there are more of them in general. Plus in many neighbourhoods the city has introduced a closed-lid set of three plastic bins for garbage, plastic and paper recycling. I have to also wonder to what degree any food bits lying around are quickly consumed by urban scavengers – the many stray dogs and cats, and the ever-watchful large city birds.

What has increased in the last years is the amount of cars parked all over sidewalks, green zones and generally sideways on the streets. As a result car exhaust is felt tangibly in the air, and sidewalk tiles are broken and ripped out. Thinking about this, I’d say it is only due to the presence of many and large deciduous trees who constantly clean and rejuvenate the air that the atmosphere isn’t more polluted and exhaust and gasoline are not felt as sharply in the smellscape as they ought to. In the interest of completing the picture, like any other urban smellscape of a developing country, particularly one that gets quite hot in the summer, human body odour is a big part of the experience of being in close proximity to others. Being in close proximity is of course necessitated by other typical actions e.g. being on the bus or standing in line for something (a.n. standing in line is a particular cultural action with its own history and complex socio-cultural-political reasons). This article actually, Modern Desires in Urban Nigeria, does a great job of touching on some of the core issues around civic development, (emergent) class structure and social consciousness through a sensory perspective, taking body odour as a unit of analysis. There is indeed a generational as well as a cultural divide between those who have access to bathing regularly and those who use or overuse deodorants. Growing up I remember the explosion of aerosol sprays that young people will carry in their purses and keep reapplying throughout the heavy heat of the day. Same young people consumed now Western media and attempted to dress in an attractive ‘sexually provocative’ way (and I mean, boys and girls). This, juxtaposed to smelling the sweaty b.o. of older people on the bus and in closed spaces, overdressed in thicker layers, the undertones being the musk of unwashed bodies.

Similarly to the article, I’d point out that electricity is really expensive (still) in Bulgaria so heating a water tank was no small deal, as I well recall throughout my childhood. And another thing – you pay for water consumption – as in, you pay for the water you use, so it’s not really an option for someone less financially fortunate to even bathe in cold water regularly. Of course there is also cultural habit that separates different classes, particularly urban – rural people. The less you bathe the less you can smell yourself, the more you bathe the more you can smell others too (my own theory, but possibly, a fact). It is also possible that people’s bodies adjust in the heat to not sweat as much – I noticed, having lived in the moderate climate of British Columbia, where summer temperatures reach the heights of 25C, I am affronted by existing in humid 33C, something I don’t recall being that much of an issue before. With all that, if I were to draw a trajectory of the last twenty years strictly in terms of the presence of body odour in public places, there is a marked improvement in the overall ‘urbanization’ of the culture and much improved material situation (despite everyone’s complains) reflected in the much reduced (compared to 15-20 years ago) levels of b.o. in public space.

IMG_8038One last anecdote about smell I want to leave behind is embodied by this picture. I took it when a friend led us into an older apartment building in his home town, Silistra. I remember the smell well as the one in my own apartment building, where I grew up. For some reason I associate it with the visual appearance of these older mail boxes, possibly because spending time in that smellscape was necessitated by checking for mail. I have no idea if the wood of the boxes itself contributes to the smell but in any case, the smell is this shady, as in cool to the feel, air of concrete, stone-masonry, mold?. It’s and always has been to me both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s not a nice smell objectively, it’s slightly rotten or off, but not organic. At the same time I associate coming from the sweltering heat outside into this cool, cold-smelling shady place, the entry hallway of the building, to find comfort from the heat, going up the stairs two at a time. And now, of course part of the pleasant-ness of the smell is in the memories it brings up.

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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