Inner listening: Interpreting the City

Image: Magda Stawarska-Beavan Text: Lubaina Himid

Oranienburger Straße , 2019. Photo credit: Steve Tanner .

During the past ten years Magda Stawarska-Beavan has talked to me extensively about her project to encounter and then translate the city via a combination of recorded sound, film and screen-printed image. 

I don’t believe in obscuring the path to an understanding of creative practice with layers of self-aggrandising theory and am suspicious of any moves to remove artists’ work from its potential audiences. I am very interested in serious practice being underpinned by meaningful critical thinking which should throw light on the artists intentions or ways of working. However, I have been encouraged and helped towards a greater understanding of Magda’s sound work by reading Salome Voegelin. In the chapter on Listening in her book Listening to Noise and Silence she says: 

‘Sound invites the body into experience and reciprocally makes the object physical. Listening to sound is where objectivity and subjectivity meet: in the experience of our own generative perception we produce the objectivity from our subjective and particular position of listening, which in its turn is constituted by the objectivity of the object as a prior moment of hearing, subjective and particular.’ 1

As a participant in three of Magda’s city projects, I’ve found myself having to find my way through her sonic city infrastructures aided by a blindfold. Often, it’s an extraordinary and disquieting experience. She composed the audio Manchester and then presented it to me, I realised that the sound composition annoyed me because it was both familiar and unknown, so in order to understand it, I tried very hard to translate it into being the London of my youth. Later she asked me to navigate my way through her complex sound compositions of Istanbul. As I listened, I saw with startling clarity, the crowded markets of Zanzibar Town, the sandy beaches of Blackpool and the narrowest darkest passageways in Venice. The experience of hearing the huge and varied galaxy of sounds from Istanbul, enabled and encouraged a recalling and replaying of my memories of being in places I knew well, while wandering in Istanbul without ever having been there. 

If I had been reading Voegelin at the time I might have benefited from her observations that, 

‘hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener about the heard and himself hearing it. Hearing does not offer a meta position; there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. However far its source, the sound sits in my ear. I cannot hear it if I am not immersed in its auditory object, which is not its source but sound itself. Consequently, a philosophy of sound art must have at its core the principle of sharing time and space with the object or event under consideration.’ 2

As part of my exhibition in 2019 at the New Museum in New York, Magda Stawarska-Beavan’s specially commissioned solo composition Reduce the Time Spent Holding 2019 (8 minutes) collaged, combined and collapsed the sounds and noises collected in workshops and making spaces with the sound of a voice, both authoritatively and seductively, translating a series of health and safety guidelines into self-motivated instructions for constructing a way out of trauma. Salome Voegelin tells us that, 

‘she consider(s) listening as an actual practice and as a conceptual sensibility this raises new questions for the philosophy of art in general and unsettles the perceived certainty of a visual aesthetic, without, however, proposing a dialectical position. Instead it suggests that a sonic sensibility would illuminate the unseen aspects of visuality, augmenting rather than opposing a visual philosophy.’ 3

I wondered whether Stawarska-Beavan is attempting to do something similar as she provokes in us a reaction to that which is not seen but heard, not visualised but re-remembered. Is she doing what Walter Benjamin described in the Fifteenth notice of the Berlin chronicles? 

‘All these images have I preserved. None however, would give me back the Neuer See and a few hours of my childhood in the same way as would hearing once more the rhythm with which my feet, heavy with skates, regained the familiar boardwalk after a solitary sortie over the busy ice and then stumbled past the Stollwerk automats and the more splendid one where a hen lays a bon-bon filled egg, and over the threshold behind which the anthracite oven was glowing and the bench stood where the burden of iron blades on those feet, which had still to touch solid earth ,could be savoured for a while before you decided to undo the laces.’ 4

1 Salome Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum 2010 p.14

2 Ibid p.xii

3 Ibid p.xiii

4 Walter Benjamin, The Berlin Chronicle Notices, Pilot Editions, 2015 p51

Translating the City and Curtain I, Curtain II. Invisible Narratives Exhibition, Newlyn Art Gallery, 2019. Photo credit: Steve Tanner.

LH: Let’s talk about what is at the heart of the work you do. What are you trying to find out, to change, to achieve in this long- term project in which sound is visible and where the visual has a voice. 

MS: I am trying to find out about the complex ways in which the processes of ‘inner listening’ and ‘intimate listening’ to a soundscape of place impact on the ability to understand one’s personal relationship to a city. Does insecurity activate one’s survival instinct, make us better listeners in an unknown environment? It’s clear to me that I want to recreate the complexity of the listening process in the urban place, and this is central to the artwork and the outcome of the project. The layers of listening, the complexity of hearing and perceiving the sound, the barriers and boundaries we encounter and create are all at the core of what I do. 

You use particularly unique methods and complex processes to build your projects which then often create spaces for other voices to contribute to your compositions. Can you elaborate on this? 

Translating the City. Invisible Narratives Exhibition, Newlyn Art Gallery, 2019. Photo credit: Steve Tanner.

My projects reveal intimate glimpses of the singular urban soundscapes of places while interrogating their cultural complexities, exploring the blurred boundaries between public and private, probing the notion of physical and political borders as points of connection and signifiers of separation. Through encounters with other artists and writers and their ‘retelling’ of my audio collages, the work explores the process of ‘inner listening’. In several of my recent projects, I have allowed a city to lead me into its interior, driven by a desire to reveal, through sound and traditional print, how those who know a city well can, in dialogue with those who experience the place for the first time, offer a multi- dimensional vision. By listening to the city with the ears of someone else, I try to provoke my participant into listening to their own thoughts, and expose them through the work into the public sphere, through this process of intense listening to, in this case, the familiar everyday spaces. Through my voyeuristic investigation, I try to create a platform for the participant to expose their thoughts which they and we, can listen to again.

Bosphorus, 2017. Still from split video projection.

For instance, in East [hyphen] West; Sound Impressions of Istanbul (2015) which is a limited-edition double vinyl recording with artist’s book, introduced and edited by Dr Mat Gregory, the reader is invited to share personal reflections on Istanbul by writers, Barkin Engin, Aylin Unal and Selcuk Artut, translated by Tuna Pase and Behzat Dirker. The folio book of interwoven leaves, threaded with images of the Bosphorus, conceals fragments of re-told city soundscapes. These also became material for Translating the City (2019). In this work, I created a sound piece embedded into an ordinary worktable and some personal objects of everyday looking and listening; a lamp, a book, a box and a radio. The work features the interwoven voices of two women, Ekin Sanac, a musician from Istanbul, and yourself (Lubaina Himid), an artist who had never been there. Each woman was asked to listen to a sound composition created from recordings captured by me in Istanbul. As you both listened, the sound conjured pictures; Ekin familiar to the place, relates to the colours, smells and textures of the city, you on the other hand saw places emotionally connected to your past. The verbal responses to this complex sonic layering was then composed by me into an almost operatic exchange between two women and the city itself. This element of exchange is common in my practice. The process works like an echo, I record material from the personal perspective of an outsider in the city, create a composition from the field recordings, then from the written responses and a new spoken voice audio recording, I create a new sound composition.

Bosphorus, 2017. Still from split video projection.

As your practice has evolved during the past 13 years you’ve developed and continue to build your own multi-disciplinary vocabulary for installations, could you describe some of the ways in which audiences experience your work.

I went to Istanbul in the summer 2014, during the critical moment in which Erdogan was elected president of Turkey, to record material for East {hyphen} West Sound Impressions of Istanbul. During this extensive stay, exploring borders, I became fixated about crossing the Bosphorus in every accessible way. The Bosphorus is the strait that runs through Istanbul and connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, it splits the city into two parts but is also a connection between Europe and Asia. I crossed and re-crossed the strait by ferry, by road, by rail and on foot, under and over, recording audio-visual material which was eventually used for both the record and the book. Conscious of exploring geographical, cultural and continental borders I became aware that the peripheral border of my outer-self had become a collection point for the data. Although the vinyl record and the artists’ book was completed in 2015, I have continued to work with the research material collected during my stay.

Back in 2014, I filmed the crossing from Besiktas to Kadıköy by attaching a camera to the ferry boat. This particular piece of footage became the basis of a collaboration with the musician Joshua Horsley and later developed into my installation Seas Apart for the Casablanca Biennale in 2018. Here, two single-shot, real-time films were projected on the wall, depicting the journeys from East to West and vice versa with an 8-channel immersive audio communicating the Bosphorus as a space and place.  The composition, comprised of my original binaural and hydrophone recordings of the strait, combined with the concrete and processed sounds by Horsley, together were both objective and subjective accounts of the crossings which I had made. 

In Casablanca, I suspended, at differing distances apart from one another, large and intricately made paper cut-outs which disrupted the projection; as a result of this sculptural placing a precise and complete shadow of the entire Mediterranean basin was revealed on the wall. 

This became a starting point for my experimentation with projecting onto objects and working with paper structures. Since then, I have projected moving images from a piccolo projector hidden in a lamp onto a page of an open book on the desk in Translating the City (2019).  At present, I am showing a video installation in Vienna’s MAG3 gallery, in which I am projecting two split screen moving images onto a long printed paper scroll and a large drawing on paper. I think about my experiments with moving image more as installation than film. In the same way that sound changes the ambience of a space and subsequently the way we then read a location, I feel my projections should be more sculptural and specifically designed to alter the experience of the space. 

Could you begin to tell me more about the wider context in which your work around the city is positioned and perhaps some of the influences which have impacted on your practice? Certainly, Inner Listening and the sound of place are key drivers but the impact of borders, migrations and the void left by absent communities is also very important.

Reading Pauline Oliveros with her deep listening practice made me realise how through meditative techniques, we can focus on listening to the environment in a multifaceted way, changing our listening practices, and listening with our bodies as much as our ears. Oliveros also points out how our experiences can actually change the way we hear: 

‘Physicists can measure acoustics and pressure waves. Psychologists must measure the experience of the listener. Thus, neither discipline can solve auditory perception.

Sound pressure patterns assist hearing but cultural history and experience influences  listening’

On the other hand, artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan becomes an ‘earwitness’ drawing on forensic testimonies which can be used later as evidence in a court of law. His practice illustrates clearly that listening itself can be a forensic process; recalling the structure of sounds from memory. My priority is not to document place but to give a listener the possibility of experiencing my relationship to a location in the period that the recording took place. I am drawn to liminal places, thresholds and the feeling of being suspended in between.

Curtain II: Burgtheater, 2016.

The experience of spending my childhood years living in Communist Poland and especially during the period of Martial Law (1981-83), when it was almost impossible to leave the country, made me very aware of political borders and their restrictive impact on the movement of citizens.  Subsequently, living outside the country of my birth for more than half of my life, but still being asked on a regular basis ‘where I am from’, often makes me question my sense of belonging to a place, but this also gives me the power to investigate from a peripheral position. These experiences drove me to work on projects such as Krakow to Venice in 12 hours, when I travelled across the borderless (Schengen) part of Europe, crossing in and out of what was once the Iron Curtain. Later, I was to travel to Istanbul where the geographical border of the Bosphorus water felt to me more like a connection point than a division.

Within the unknown city structure itself, I often find myself standing in theatre foyers or in cafes, listening to other peoples’ conversations, echoing on the surface of shiny polished stone floors, or gently absorbed by soft carpets. I can hear the colour of these voices, the intonation, the pitch and the rhythm of the speech, but cannot grasp the content. Maybe not knowing makes me a better listener to those spaces. I find myself both feeling and exploring the barrier, the threshold, over which I am hovering, not grasping, not knowing, unable to get into the visceral essence of the place. 

Your projects emerge quite gradually but are often conceived simultaneously, developing through connecting with places and people who offer a perspective counter to your own – what are you working on now?  

My current project involves two very different cities which are connected by a similar history. Whilst in these cities I investigate the ‘absent’ communities, through a process of walking and collaborative recording, photography, film and conversation about memory and place. In each city, I will be working with an artist or musician who knows it well.

Using a combination of binaural and ambisonic microphones, I will try to capture the contemporary soundscape of those places with the void sound of missing communities. I will then embark on the beginnings of a long-lasting, multilayered conversation in each of these locations, with the architecture, the inhabitants, the music, the visitors, and the everyday sounds of each city. I want to understand how you can hear the subtlety of languages which are no longer spoken and convey the impact of architectural details and graphics that have lost their original function but are the only evidence of once vibrant communities; key contributors to the economy and culture. Can a void be filled visually and aurally by the family memories of contemporary cultural activists or is it the stranger who through ‘aimless wandering’ reactivates the lost rituals and ceremonies of the everyday?

Hopefully, the resulting installation will trigger audiences to reflect and listen to their own memories of place, perhaps asking questions about their unexplained relationships to cities they think they know well, and have lived in all their lives, or those that they are drawn to without really knowing why.