Sound walks as contemporary art practice

Irena Pivka and Brane Zorman are cofounders of Cona institute for contemporary art processing in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They are gallery curators at Steklenik, a gallery for sound, bioacoustics and art in the space of Tivoli Greenhouse in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and manage the ongoing international project radioCona with a focus on FM as the gallery space.

Their work, Sandbox, a meditative experience in wakefulness training and encouragement to critically thinking about our experience in and (re)evaluation of the surrounding environment, is shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards. Sandbox was produced by the Ljudmila Institute for the festival Is it Working.

Irena and Brane were guests at a walk · listen · café, where they discussed their work. Below, an excerpt of their presentation.

Walking as the principle of analogue coordination of mind and movement, as a political act, is used today – more than ever – to implicitly express our view on the evaluation of time. Going places on foot is a waste, yet simultaneously a gift of time. Claiming time to move whereby remaining one own’s metronome.

In exploring the landscape through sound, it is impossible to ignore the sound generated by omnipresent human and his activities. Although we might find it disturbing, or even want to avoid it – its acknowledgement takes us straight to the core of a particular place. Romanticizing landscape under a false notion of being “natural” has long been ancient history. Most of Europe’s geography is a cultural landscape that has been formed and transformed by deliberate human intervention. In Slovenia, of what has been left pristine, we have a very small area of primeval forest preserved and protected since 1892.

What is our point? The landscape exploration is always – more or less – associated with the study of human impacts – through his interventions and activities – on a particular ecosystem. Regardless of whether space as such gives the impression of an urban development or exploitation, or of an abandoned and degraded area.

As stated at the beginning, walking is a primary activity in the exploration of a particular place. A sound walk employs walking as an “instrument” for listening and sensibilization to fully experience the landscape while simultaneously perceiving its changes. These are dynamic relations of incomplete and evolving landscapes, entrenched in the natural and primarily capital and cultural interventions.

Soundwalk-based location performances

Art performances that we create both for adults and younger population, are based on the soundwalks in a pre-determined location. In most cases, we want to relate the work process that we perform as active listeners of a soundscape, to the story of the place and offer it in the form of intimate, individual, and performative art practice.

A sound walk, that is, a walk with a focus on listening, implies sensitivity to listening to the environment. Wakefulness. You are listening to the surrounding space here and now. You are present here and now. Walking, that is moving through the location, moving with a focus on listening. Such practice of active listening helps you literally to immerse in the place, and to better understand its genius loci. Active presence and focus on the location through listening is an extremely valuable experience.

The participants experience the narrative of locative performances through the intersection of fictitious and actual space. Wearing headphones, they listen to the narrative of a soundscape composition while walking through the actual place. Now and then, the soundscape of the location itself penetrates to the participant, and its sounds become part of the composition. The space around becomes a scenography, and we – both in the role of lead actors and viewers – explore it. Sensibilization, sensitivity to sound and space, and the holistic perception of the landscape are essential to this process. We deal with a highly interesting format which constitutes new possibilities in the fields of narrative, sound, and space.

Landscape listening and its temporal dimension

Transposition

In our performances, we also use the techniques of transposing the actual sound of a landscape and listening to this sound in the same landscape but at a different time, making it a more subtle experience. We find the transposition of sounds a particularly important element of sound walk-based location performances because it sharpens the ear of an attentive audience to the landscape’s origin and its dynamic processes. We strive to make our works – performative geolocation sound walks – primarily a genuine experience of the place and the landscape’s story.

Listening in progress

Years ago, we conducted a sound research in Tivoli City Park in Ljubljana. We walked about 20-minute long pre-determined route and recorded its soundscape in two diametrically opposite solar seasons – in summer and in winter. The sounds of the same place were recorded while walking the same route at the summer and winter solstice, at the same time of the day, during nautical twilight. The audience would later listen to the winter soundscape in summer, that is in summer solstice, and the recording of the summer walk in winter. Listening to the acoustics change of the same location, of the same route traversed, was fascinating.
But what is the reason behind this acoustics changes. It is the plants, trees, leaves which, depending on the season and, consequently, their presence or absence, either absorb or allow the sound of the city to flow freely. It is the states of water in the park in winter and in summer. A frozen lake, the largest natural membrane, that vibrates.

Echowalk by Irena Pivka (April 2020, commissioned for Sound Camp)

The format and the tools

So far, all our geolocation soundwalks were created to be enjoyed by individual participants, which makes them a very personal experience. At the beginning of the walk, the audience is provided headphones and a phone with application, after which they individually walk along the marked route.

The soundscape is recorded using the binaural microphones. Binaural headsets, which include a full pair of headphones and a microphone, are an amazing tool. A fascinating activity of listening to the space, amplifying spatial sound – possibly a convenient tool to inspire sensitivity to listening. It is worth noting that deep listening as a form of receptive and active listening is a skill close to oblivion. This technological tool just might be able to reaffirm the sonic awareness of space.

In terms of the soundscape composition, the appropriately dosed intensity of the sound wave produced by the headphones is of essence, in the view of anticipating and taking account of the intensity of the actual surrounding sound. Audio files are triggered by GPS locations. Every soundscape composition is usually a mosaic of about 30 or more location points, and the arrangement of audio files constitutes the soundscape’s dramaturgy. What makes a sound performance a unique personal and individual experience is not only the act of “solo” walking but random developments in the surrounding experienced by the individuals on the site.

Metal Pole Woodpeckers by Brane Zorman (April 2020, commissioned for Sound Camp)

Sandbox

The process of creation and the desire for it to be reflected in the performance

Our most recent performative sound walk, Sandbox … before expiration, premiered in September 2020 in Ljubljana.

We describe Sandbox as a meditative experience, a training in mindfulness and encouragement to critically think about our experience and (re)evaluation of the surrounding environment.

In this work, we explored a degraded area in Ljubljana, along the tracks at the central railway station, which has been waiting to be redeveloped for over a decade. Located downtown, void of content, surrounded by construction fence and prepared for urban renewal at some point in the future.

When we first visited the location which we had passed by countless times, we realised we did not really know it at all. It is a strip of land along the tracks which indicates a possible way in its own right, while at the same time unfolding a view of the capital from a completely different, new perspective. The horizon that opens up is yet to be discovered. View of the newly built skyscrapers, of the city centre that cannot be captured elsewhere, while simultaneously inviting a step to leave the city behind. Because of the inability to dialogue and the conflicting political and capital interests, it is in a state of suspension. Waiting, this degraded area has been reclaimed and repopulated by plants. Indeed, it clearly exhibits the concept of the third landscape as defined by Gilles Clément. This strip of land along the tracks fully engenders botanical diversity and the immense power of nature which cannot be witnessed elsewhere.

Lockdown

Sandbox was created during the first lockdown when a stop was put to public life, wiping away a thick layer of the cover-all and incessant noise, the omnipresence of which truly hit us only in its absence. Produced by traffic and machinery, the overwhelming noise that we grew accustomed to, to the point of non-perception, faded away. The void and quiet emerging from the epidemic finally made it possible to hear what we normally don’t.

We wanted to illustrate the creation process of the work. It involves deep listening to the space and sound mapping of the landscape, thereby perceiving the space in a very special situation. We wanted to translate intense perception and listening to space that we experienced in the work process during quarantine into the ‘end product’. The awareness that the performance will most likely be launched into a completely different post-quarantine soundscape made it even more challenging.

Landscape – a story

Sandbox is not a story about a human and humankind but rather about a humanless world; a grounded universe that evolves in our absence, about flora and fauna and their parallel existence, here all the time, present and mindful, but fully perceived only when human arrogance subsides.

Zala Dobovšek, Tretji tir: neopazna utopija sredi mesta (Third Track: The Invisible Utopia Downtown)

In Sandbox, we explore a narrow space locally. If expanded, however, this space may serve as a simulation of potential development of events on a larger scale, possibly anticipating the future of landscape in general, of our planet and its disconnect between human and nature. In such a case, a small cell in the context of the Sandbox can become representative of a broader region, possibly even the entire planet; a space that is – in the absence of economic and political dialogue – perfectly capable of producing a new landscape itself. Both on large and small scale, this will mother a new cycle; life being regenerated without human supervision and “almighty will”. Such space, this inability of dialogue, such state of landscape can actually be viewed as potential. Nature will regenerate, plants have the power. A space abandoned and degraded holds within its own power and poetics. Everything is alright.

Sandbox… before expiration by Irena Pivka, Brane Zorman (September 2020)

Irena and Brane’s review of Sandbox is the eighth in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards talking about their work.

Translated from the Slovenian by Melita Silič.

Irena Pivka

Irena Pivka

Slovenia

Irena Pivka is an artist, producer, architect and scenographer. In recent years she has primarily focused on artworks that shed light on the connection between place, sound, map and digital tools. She focuses her developing artistic expressions on the prep...

Brane Zorman

Brane Zorman

Slovenia

Brane Zorman is a composer, sound and intermedia artist, sound manipulator, producer and curator. Besides composing for the theatre, intermedia and dance, he is focused on developing different strategies, techniques, dynamic and interactive models in his w...

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