Towards an Active Soundmark
Owen Redmond


“Familiarity is remembering, and to be in a familiar place is to remember its familiarity through revisiting its paths” (Norman 2016, p.179).

Sounds inherent connection with memory is fundamental in an individuals understanding of the cultural, social, political and economic frameworks that they exist within. Explored heavily within the Situationist movement by theorists such as Debord, this feeling of association that one feels to a space is informed by a plethora of sensory engagement, though sounds intrinsic ability to be intrusive and inescapable solidifies its place as a major aspect in this relationship.

When discussing the work of R. Murray Schafer, Toop states that “he devised the term ‘soundmark’, a derivation of landmark, to describe ‘a community sound which is unique or possess qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community” (Toop 2004, p.60). These ‘soundmarks’ exist in many forms and contexts (train tracks, waves crashing on the shore, the internet dial up tone) and our consistent engagement invariably places them as primary sources of an individuals bond to a setting.

Through the 20th and into the 21st century, the progression towards urbanisation and development of metropolitan cities has implanted an abundance of walls and boundary lines within the segmentation of space and property.

A multitude of intentions exist for establishing these demarcations within the urban environment, one very prominent in city planning being noise abatement. The invention of materials such as Acousti-Celotex and the development of sound masking techniques to diminish commercial and industrial noise are part of a consistent trend towards a utopian style ‘silent’ city.

The functional aspect of this noise abatement is inarguable, managing the increase of sound due to urban development is considered a public health initiative. Although this process benefits public health, its existence presents issues as to what extent it should be implemented and what ramifications it may have on the experience of living in a city.
Removing integral soundmarks that derive a conscious understanding of an individuals social condition, this process detaches communities from a sense of connection that they feel to their environment and auditory reminders of the context that they exist within.

A positive consequence of noise abatement is that it has left an opportunity for sound artists to reimagine what a soundmark may be from a creative perspective. This allows for conceptual experimentation to be explored in developing artwork that dissects the material characteristics of an environment and investigates the history of the space.

An abundance of sound installations have continued to appear around the world, with artists receiving government funding to implement these in public spaces and collaborating with architects and developers within the private sector. While this allocates substantial budgeting and an ability to facilitate these works to be accomplished at a professional standard, it leaves many questions to be answered about the nature of these artworks:

  • Where are these sound installations installed?

  • Which demographics are these sound installations marketed for?

  • What are the aesthetic limitations of these sound installations?

Which demographics are these sound installations marketed for? What are the aesthetic limitations of these sound installations?

Data.scape by Ryoji Ikeda is a useful reference for analysis of these questions. Commissioned by the ICC in 2016, Data.scape exists as a set of distributed speakers and an LED Screen along the wall of a Darling Harbour promenade, which interprets and displays DNA data during the day, transitioning to universal data in the night time.

The use of this specific data in the context is something to be examined. There seems to be no correlation between the subject matter of this data and the space in which it exists, bearing no relevance to the history of this area, seemingly being used only as a reason to add a digital spectacle to the already grandiose tourist experience of exploring Darling Harbour.

Even to the extent with which this is a spectacle is questionable in comparison to other Ikeda works. Another of his pieces, Micro | Macro envelops the audience within light and sound, completely absorbing the audience in the abstraction of piece. In contrast, Data.scape’s lack of clarity in the conceptual engagement and indistinct aesthetic hold it back from creating a captivating experience. These lacking characteristics and the necessity of the piece to function within a tourist district lead to questions as to the restrictions that were set when receiving the commission brief.

The theorised limitations of this brief seem to point towards the disparity of a soundmark as it is traditionally known and what would be considered an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ soundmark when framed in a public art setting. Naturally, not all soundmarks would be considered as pleasant by the public, although this is an important aspect of them as it allows for thoughtful consideration of why they exist as they do, and what function the surrounding context of their emission plays in the world.

When a soundmark is intentionally created through public sound art, this thought process should be a serious consideration in the audiences response, although seems lacking in Data.scape among many other works in similar settings.

Nick Ryan’s installation A Living River is another point of contention. Celebrating HSBC Bank’s 15 year anniversary of the ‘Water Programme’, this installation is an interactive sound piece within the Gatwick Airport Skybridge, presenting consistently morphing field recordings of the Yangtze River to an audience as they move along a travelator.

Similarly to the Ikeda installation, the conceptual content of this piece seems devoid of any correlation to the space it finds itself in, again appearing to function as a spectacle for tourists before and after flights, acting as an entertaining engagement that occupies the non-space that is an airport.

The Yangtze River is an amazing part of the earth and its extensive history and natural beauty is something to marvel at, although it is difficult to draw an association between it and the Gatwick Airport, opening questions as to why it was chosen to be displayed in this setting and what role it plays in the space.
Its function as celebrating HSBC’s ‘Water Programme’ places it in a position to be viewed as an advertisement for this campaign, reinforcing certain agendas that may be held by the bank in keeping a positive public perception through philanthropic engagement with the arts.

In counter to this development of public sound art that is presented in a corporate context, I propose a movement towards a decentralised network of ‘sound-graffiti’ artists. Practitioners that are not exclusively critical, although address and engage the conditions of the surrounding environment when producing and implementing pieces. The work of Akio Suzuki and Max Eastley come to mind.

Suzuki’s ongoing project Oto-Date is an example of the possibilities of this idea. This work exists as a map with locations pointed out around an urban environment, and a pair of ears spray painted on the ground of these locations. Listeners can hear specific auditory phenomena or listen to the ambient noise of a certain setting. Informed by Debord’s theory of ‘Derive’ and Oliveros’ ‘Deep Listening’, this work is a simple and effective approach at engaging people with their auditory environment, allowing them to experience sound in a conscious and interpretative manner.

Eastley’s work Aeolian Circles is another example of this potential type of work, although accessed through a different approach. Located in a Berlin water tower, this piece placed wind harps on the roof of the tower that were amplified and played within the reservoirs, in tandem with various kinetic sculptures that were sounded by the wind in the building, forming a reverberant soundscape within the concentric circles of the space. Revealing the physical aspects of the tower and its surrounding location, the material characteristics of the space were considered within the planning of this piece and utilised heavily to access the outcome of the artwork.

Works like this point towards the possibility of public sound art existing as a part of the urban landscape, connecting audiences to to these spaces via creating or pointing out soundmarks of the environment, while challenging them to focus on the character of these locations and what role they play in their lives. There is a level of conscious engagement that is required when experiencing these pieces, something that is very important in that it doesn’t detract the audience from contemplating the world but captivates them to investigate and learn about it.

Sound exists around us at all time and is fundamental for our understanding of the world we live in. Acknowledging this and considering what role it plays to our experience should be done in all walks of life, especially when attempting to explore space through sound.

The opportunity to create soundmarks that are capable of amplifying and developing the feeling of an environment can allow for an evolved perspective of the world that we live in.

Reference List
Norman. K (2016). That Passing Glance from: The Routledge Companion to Sounding Art Routledge. Abingdon-on-Thames, England: Routledge

Toop, D. (2004). Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory. London, England: Serpent’s Tail.


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