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  • Special Section Introduction:Sound and the Social Organization of Space
  • Tara Rodgers (bio)

This section collects recent projects that address "the spatial relevance of sound and the sonic relevance of space" while foregrounding sound as cultural process and product [1]. The works speak to such questions as: How can cultural or natural patterns produce sounding spaces or inspire musical form? How might we read sounds and silences as indicators of social practice and implicit power structures? How do sounds affect our navigations of physical space and reverberate within the spaces of personal and cultural imagination?

Carrie Bodle's Sonification/Listening Up is a grand gesture that uses sound to connect the social space of architecture with oscillating waveform patterns in the upper atmosphere. Of particular interest to me are the social interactions that occurred around the installation's setup and presentation at I.M. Pei's Green Building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bodle negotiated with MIT to resolve public safety issues, with fabricators to construct the speaker fixtures and with a company of window cleaners to hang the speakers on the 23-story facade. While these preparations are not unusual in mounting a large-scale installation, in this case the bustle of human activity that the project catalyzed—including students playing Frisbee at the opening—became an integral part of the piece [2]. Sound animated the social space around the building, lending another performative layer to Bodle's juxtaposition of the different temporalities that characterize cyclical sound waves, the routines of human existence and the lifespan of an architectural form.

Social patterns congeal into musical structure in Matt Volla's BARTology. BARTology is a manifestation of what Jane Jacobs called "the art form of the city," or of complexity theorist John Holland's observation that "a city is a pattern in time" [3]. The project began with a series of 80 drawings documenting movements of BART commuters. From these patterns and situations, Volla derived a musical syntax and series of scores for instrumental duets [4]. While 20th-century avant-gardists like Russolo and Schaeffer embraced the "dynamism" and mechanical roar of the train, Volla instead amplifies the 21st-century social routines that occur within the spaces of public transportation—the overlaps and near misses of human contact, the fluctuant crowd energy at different hours, the loops we repeat day after day.

Sound and social aspects of space are likewise central to artist and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen's work, but in the Recording Carceral Landscapes project, it is the cultural power of silence that is most deafening. Paglen set out to explore the soundscapes of California prisons in part to seek an aural response to the visualist discourse that dominates the history of prisons. What he uncovered was the sound of a "banal uneventfulness" that reveals both the domination and silencing of the incarcerated and the disgraceful silence of a society in which prisons are a profitable industry.

The sounds captured by Paglen's Prison Infiltration and Surveillance Suit might well be meta-tagged and included in Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh's database. Indeed, the American culture that produces and perpetuates an imprisoned underclass is the same one that obsessively catalogs the sound effects of violence and death that feature prominently in Kubick and Walsh's work. In rescuing these cultural objects from their usual commercial functionality, Kubick and Walsh pull back the curtain on a typically unexplored aspect of Hollywood film production, and reveal the degree to which sound effects construct our knowledge of the "real" world. Our relationships to landscapes are in fact layered with the cinematic experiences of space that populate our imagination.

The "shifting and subjective geography" that Kubick and Walsh describe also characterizes the work of Beth Coleman and Howard Goldkrand. Beginning with their SoundLab multimedia events in the mid-1990s, Coleman and Goldkrand have conducted many experiments at the nexus of [End Page 49] sound, electronic interface and architecture. Their work evokes the intersections between our perceptions of space and our relationships to technology. The Vernacular software offered users the opportunity to mix multimedia objects in 3D virtual space and thus explore "the interface ecology in which we already exist" [5...


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pp. 49-50
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