Next week I will be traveling to Seoul to unveil a sound installation I have designed for the 2019 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. The project is titled City of Sound | City of Dust and presents five stereo channels of field recordings I made at Burning Man in 2010. The sounds of bicycles, generators, fire organs, and the persistent drone of the party metropolis are diffused through five acrylic panels organized on a radial grid, echoing the layout of Black Rock City. An aerial image of the festival is laminated onto a circular steel plate at the center of the installation, providing the visual reference for the city’s form and geographic context for the sound.
Under the umbrella of the Biennale theme “Collective City“, I propose that a city is a construction of sound. Following this logic, what the city is and how it affects us becomes a much more malleable thing. If a city is a construct of sound, then a city could be shut out with the right amount of noise cancellation. If a city is a construct of sound, then one might overlay a desired city on top of what is given. A city of sound can be oppressive, full of relentless traffic and unmitigated noise pollution, or it can be collectively generated from the bottom up as a space of inclusion with a balance of loud and quiet.
Since Black Rock City is a temporary city, existing only for a few weeks in the desert and leaving no trace, it is an ideal sample to consider this concept of a city as a construct of sound. The city contains streets and blocks but is completely transparent from a sound perspective. I wrote about many of these qualities after my visit to Burning Man in 2010, and the experience has stayed with me as I walk the “permanent” streets and blocks of the San Francisco Bay area where I live. What lessons can be learned from a place where sound reigns supreme and proliferates through the air unchecked by physical barriers?
My objective with this installation at the Biennale is to challenge participants to think about sound as a force to be harnessed and as a material to be designed. Specifically the installation creates a tension between repellant sounds i.e. generators with more subtle sounds such as the temple on fire– a kind of hushed noise which creates a space for people to share. How can we shape the sonic environment in order to produce a stronger collective sense of place, one which is inclusive and permits meaningful communication between citizens? What are the means for assimilating sounds like noisy generators into a desirable soundscape?
Greater attention to sound in the public sphere will grow demand for designers to tackle issues related to aural health and positive soundscaping. How can we look at unwanted “noise” and shape the conversation to become instead about desired sounds. One aspect of Black Rock City that is unusual and likely not shared with other cities is the prevalence of dust storms whipping in suddenly down a street. Among the sounds presented in the installation, I have interlaced a series of harmonics extracted from recordings I made of dust storms. Every city will have its unwanted and uncomfortable sonic experiences, in which our bodies may feel assaulted. Part of the task of a sound designer is to acknowledge these experiences and search for a thread which makes them not only bearable but desirable.
In order to distill the wide range of sounds I organized my recordings into five themes : Movement, Place, Self, Time and Community. Each of these themes contains a set of sounds which build up the metropolis. I propose that every city is built with sound categorized by these five themes.
Our experience of the city is constructed by how we move through it. Is it a walkable city, densely built with ample sidewalks? Or is the city understood only through the isolating space of the automobile? The experience of the walkable city can be overwhelming sonically. The experience of the automobile city on the other hand can be controlled (within the car itself, at least). The open soundscape encountered by walking and using public transit creates opportunity for a more communal city, as our ears are more open to communication and wayfinding.
Sound can positively shape the identity of places, but unwanted sound can erode the qualities which make a place enjoyable or unique. We might identify particular places for unique sounds which are found there, such as a “fire organ” blasting flames from metal pipes which produce musical notes. Desirable sounds for some may be noise pollution for others, rendering a place uncomfortable, unhealthy, or altogether unlivable.
Many cities struggle to provide the amenity of quiet space outside of the dwelling (and even within the dwelling itself). Buildings like libraries, churches and temples are important partly for this reason, to create a sanctuary of a quiet environment amidst the din of traffic. Park space, especially expansive spaces with trees and trails also offer opportunities to escape the relentless sound of the city.
The rhythm of gathering, interacting, celebrating, conducting business, and making collective decisions forms the backbone of a city. The ringing of bells from clocktowers historically marked the passage of time, allowing individuals to synchronize their own clocks and remain aligned with other residents in a city. What happens to a city when the governing order of time is altered, or altogether made irrelevant?
Black Rock City is pumping 24 hours a day for 7 days straight. The sun rises and sets but otherwise there is little reminder of the passage of time. Knowing what time of day it is seldom carries relevance. The importance of meeting people is not diminished in Black Rock City, so in lieu of carrying a watch, time is marked by sonic events.
Fireworks provide both the visual cue to gather and watch, and the sonic cue to meet as a group. Other events such as the burning of the temple are marked by the lack of sound, demonstrating a collective reverence for the moment. Residents listen for events along a city block. Sound penetrates city blocks to inform residents that something new is beginning.
Just as the urgency of meetings and movement in a typical city can inflict stress, the lack of order in the timescape of Black Rock City can induce stress and exhaustion. Many art installations located on the Playa are designed as a respite from the city, often including pillows and lounging areas for weary festival goers. The parks and museums and libraries in the cities we inhabit the rest of the year have a similar function: to allow time to disperse, thicken, or disappear altogether.
Sound creates touch at a distance, producing the bonds which form a community. A voice, a song, a train announcement, a store’s jingle, even–these sounds can elicit an emotional response which helps to bring us together. At the same time sound can form a wall or a disconnect, dividing us. Case in point: the proliferation of headphones and ear buds on public transportation, on the streets, and in many public spaces where people would otherwise be more present and aware.
At Black Rock City people dance to the same beat and gravitate toward events by listening for sonic cues. Art installations create a sense of awareness of the body in space, also joining others who may be viewing a piece of art together. Work crews will call out for volunteers, building a community in the analog space of the streets and intersections. The art cars with raucous amplified music generate a mobile community of people both on the car and following along on foot. These are the ways that sound links people together, and that bond is the city itself. The city would be nothing without the communal ties formed by vibration carried on molecules of air.