The sonic barricades of Minsk

Be the first to favourite this.

Pavel Niakhayeu created Political Soundwalks as an audio-essay to document what Minsk sounded like during the political protests of 2020-2021. His field recordings provide a starting point for a discussion on the multifaceted role of sound in claiming the urban and political space.

The soundwalk is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Sound Walk September Awards 2021. Here, Pavel discusses his work in the broader context of the protests in Belarus.

Its roads and parks are perfectly manicured without a hint of trash or graffiti. There is no road rage nor voracious car-honking. Traffic doesn’t clog the wide lanes, and people don’t raise their voices. Civilians are courteous, and most spend their Sundays at church, having sought a deeper spiritual meaning after the crash of communism almost three decades ago.

This ridiculously stereotypical description of Minsk was published by Fox News in April 2020. Just a month later the presidential elections campaign started and Minsk and other Belarusian cities sounded quite different. Cars honked incessantly and blocked the streets to stop the riot police vehicles. People raised their long suppressed voices. And since August, instead of churches (or rather markets and malls) they have been going to demonstrations demanding their stolen voices back. 

When the brutal crushing of post-election protests started, I stopped making my own music. Instead I started recording the sounds of the protests in Minsk. Flashbang grenades explosions that rumbled through the city and muffled the endless drone of honking cars were shocking, and the first impulse was just to capture, to document what we were hearing, to somehow manage this shock by recording.  

Soon I created a SoundCloud account to share a few audio-pieces that documented the acoustic dimension of the protests, the war of sounds and clash of ideologies. I named this archival project Political Soundwalks, but the recordings were not quite like Hildegard Westerkamp’s idea of what a soundwalk is.
And, many of these walks were outright dangerous.

In the next few months I was taking my recorder (or perhaps the recorder was taking me) to the streets, to capture the atmosphere of the city that no longer was silent, to record the joyous roar of the peaceful demonstrators claiming and re-animating the urban space with various forms of creative expression and resistance, to collect evidence of police action beyond the confines of the law, and to sample state propaganda. 

When DIY concerts in the residential neighbourhoods, poetry readings and theatre plays, started to happen at the end of August, I was recording the unique atmosphere of these events that have turned the city into a huge open-air festival of art. I also managed to record a few more dramatic events – like the mourning over Raman Bandarenka murdered by the pro-state vigilante or the people resisting the destruction of his memorial. 

I did not have any particular plans for these recordings – it certainly wasn’t a planned research or an art project, but something that just happened to me, to all of us. No one knew how the events would unwrap. But as the material accumulated, it demanded reflection and analysis. As I was walking, talking to people and thinking about it all, making short notes about the events and sounds, certain insights came to me. 

I was asked to write an academic article about the sound and music of the protests and planned to include a few audio-fragments. But despite several attempts to write a scholarly account on the events, I failed. Partly this failure was due to the difficulty of integrating my recordings and ‘field notes’, short spontaneous impressionist commentaries, into academic writing. And, I also wanted, somehow, to render the immediacy and corporeality of the sonic experiences. As I mention in my recent article on the role of music and sound in the protests:

Many of our sound and music experiences in the last year and a half couldn’t be captured on video or an mp3 – they were too physical: You’re tired after a 10km march, but suddenly hear samba drums – and you instantly forget about [your] aching legs and throat that’s sore from shouting. Your column retreats after the enforcers explode a few flashbang grenades and block the bridge – and girls sing a Brutto song that feels totally differently than at a beer-rock festival. You sing in a randomly gathered choir at someone’s yard – and your body is filled with a tumultuous cocktail of sadness, fear and anger, but also care, love, and admiration for the people you meet. And when this cocktail is shaken and filtered by artful musicians – it makes intensely memorable experiences. The voices and noises of thousands of people during the marches were a source of energy and hope. And DIY concerts in the residential courtyards were among the most beautiful and poignant experiences of 2020.

Belarusian philosophers, historians, anthropologists, sociologists are discussing the near impossibility of an ‘objective’ academic writing about the political events in Belarus when you took part in the events on various levels. You cannot just be an impartial / remote observer when your friends and colleagues get arrested and tortured for just expressing their political views or simply walking in the streets at ‘the wrong time, wrong place’. When you are  both a researcher and a citizen protesting against the injustice, it may enrich your ‘scholarly’ understanding of the events but adds personal biases and puts limitations, it also makes you refuse to discuss certain issues. So we are looking for other ways of writing and narrating.

When I saw the Call for Participation of the Walking as a Question conference I knew I wanted to apply. The topic of ‘(sound)walking’ allowed me to focus on a relatively narrow aspect of the whole story, how walking in the streets at ‘the wrong time / wrong place’, and that the very act of coming out of your house is a political act that can have dramatic consequences in today’s Belarus. This also allowed me to filter through this lens all the audio-materials, notes, and thoughts I had accumulated.

The audio paper format felt like the ideal way to present this unplanned research organically, it let me comment directly on what I’ve heard, to illustrate what I was talking about, and what you hear when listening to the paper

This was my first audio-paper, so I needed to find a way to do it. I decided not to listen to too many examples in order not to limit my intuitive grasp of the format. While writing the script I discovered I couldn’t work on a laptop as there was so much I wanted to talk about and I was lost in endless possibilities to correct and develop the text, and turn and expand any phrase or paragraph in any direction. Seeing dozens of half dead drafts paralysed me until I found a working process. 

I had bought a block of A4 drawing paper and felt-tip pens for my 5 year old niece. And it turned out that handwriting was the solution. I could put the computer aside, write a page and record it with a dictaphone straight away, experimenting with how the text ‘tastes’ when pronounced and listened to. Then another page and another 10-15 minutes of recording. Then making rough edits in Ableton Live (where I do everything from music to interview transcribing). Then adding the field recordings, then writing more texts for them, and so on and so on. 

Initially the audio-paper was about 45 minutes, like one side of a cassette tape, but the time limit was 20 minutes. So I strived for 23.34 which is a very symbolic number in Belarus now, as it’s the number of the Administrative Offences Code article according to which tens of thousands of people were imprisoned.
I kept cutting, re-recording and cutting again, simplifying the ‘academically-sounding’ phrases, deleting the excessive details (and I guess I cut away too many breaths). But about 30 minutes was the shortest I could get it.

This script writing, recording and editing was stressful; Contrary to my expectations, I was not desensitised by the repeated listens of some ‘audio scenes’. Even now, a year after the loudest months in Belarus’ recent history it is difficult to re-listen to these sounds, and hard to believe that the city sounded that way. I didn’t intend to artificially dramatise the events or to re-traumatize anyone, so I had to warn the listeners that these recordings may trigger unexpected emotional reactions.
We’re accustomed to a barrage of photos, videos and texts, but the ‘bare’ audio stirred memory more than images. Some of my friends couldn’t listen to it from start to finish; the effect of audio was emotionally intense. Others said it allowed them to reintegrate some experiences and to release the pressure with tears.

At first I intended to make a Belarusian-language version too for the wider local audience, but I still don’t feel I can do it. A foreign language gives a certain distance, wraps the emotions in a transparent bubble-wrap, making them less painful. 

My narration ends at the moment when the visible and audible protests were mostly crushed. People continue to make themselves heard, but mostly the city is back to its usual soundscape now. Only this relative silence now is charged, loaded and heavy, and can burst any moment again.

I must note that this is not a soundwalk or an audio-guide about Minsk in a strict sense, as you can’t just put on your headphones and follow the route as you listen. Even though the narrative mostly follows the chronology of events, from August till December 2020, the sounds, spaces, and moments in time are sometimes grouped by topic rather than placed on a linear timeline or a city map.

Occasionally an installation artist myself, I did not intend to use these recordings in an artwork. I used some samples in a soundtrack for the video-art piece by a Belarusian-Canadian artist Anna Zhyn, but in general I don’t feel comfortable aestheticizing and exploiting this topic too much. I feel it’s unethical to (symbolically) capitalise on these materials and experiences and to decontextualize these recordings. But I don’t think this archive belongs to me only and I’m ready to share some sounds with other artists and researchers.
A couple of film-makers approached me for using the recordings for documentary and feature films but nothing has came out of it yet (which is good maybe – films seem too artificial to me).  My colleague Ben Cope aired the protest atmospheres in his radio show and the audio-paper was also aired at Belarus related conferences, both offline and online. So the sounds got their own life well beyond their ephemeral being.

This work became not only the best way to tell a part of the story and to convey my own experience, but also has become valuable teaching material for my students at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university that works in exile in Lithuania since 2004. It allowed me to introduce the audio-paper format into my teaching, alongside podcasts, radio pieces, sound collages, and music mixes. Using this piece that I know inside out as an example I can discuss the process, advantages and limitations of the format.  

Pavel’s reflection is the tenth in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards talking about their work.

Pavel Niakhayeu

Pavel Niakhayeu

Belarus

I'm Pavel Niakhayeu (aka Pavel Ambiont, Nieviadomy Artyst) - an electronic musician, A/V artist and researcher from Belarus. I work at the Department of Social Sciences at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, LT) where I teach a course on Sound, Mu...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Also check out

Post
Writing Home

14 Dec, 2021

Where is your home? Is it your birthplace? Is it the place you share with your family? Lydia Kennaway muses over the meaning of 'home' in anticipation of our upcoming writing competition.

Post
Documenting the history, hopes, and community ties that wove together Black Portland

27 Dec, 2021

Darrell Grant's Come Sunday is a walk through Portland's inner-northeast neighborhoods, which were once home to over 200 Black churches. It was commissioned by Third Angle New Music, which has a focus on creating a "soundtrack for our time".

Post
Off the wall

20 Dec, 2021

Green Croft Arts created a soundwalk set along Hadrian's Wall. Director Amanda Drago discusses the piece's background.

Post
Announcing the winners of the Sound Walk September Awards 2021

17 Jan, 2022

Not only have we made it into 2022, we are also very pleased to announce the winners and honourable mentions of the Sound Walk September Awards 2021.

Post
But what do our more-than-human cohabitants have to say for themselves?

13 Dec, 2021

Lore of the Wild invites you to hear stories, songs and sounds from non-human inhabitants of Lesnes, an area of ancient woodland in southeast London.

Post
Where are we when we walk?

9 Dec, 2021

Where are we when we walk? Are we here, in this place that our feet move through, or are we somewhere else, lost in thoughts and memories of other times and places?

Post
Uncovering the history of a high street

16 Dec, 2021

Jez Riley French’s sound walk Breet Velvit Ake (‘Bright Velvet Wander’ in the Yorkshire dialect) evokes Whitefriargate’s history using a range of hidden, overlooked or usually inaudible sounds from the street.

Post
Class, childhood, and place, in Bristol

2 Dec, 2021

Inspired by Proust’s idea that true recollection can only occur after a period of forgetting, Cliff Andrade returns to his former Bristol home after 20 years, and walks from there to his current home.

Post
New
Submit your work for SWS22

3 May, 2022

Time's moving fast. Submit your work for Sound Walk September 2022, now.

Post
Pruning Thoreau

29 Nov, 2021

With a direction out there – readwalking with thoreau, Emmanuelle Waeckerle a French, London-based, artist, has created a multimedia interpretation of Henry David Thoreau's text Walking.

Post
New
Open call for sound walk art residency in Catalonia

10 May, 2022

Contemporary Art Center Nau Côclea is opening a call for an art residency in Camallera (Catalonia), in the frame of Sound Walk September 2022, in collaboration with walk · listen · create. We invite artists, writers and researchers to apply for a residency of 2 weeks, from September 26th to October 9th 2022.

Post
Walking Home shortlist published in an illustrated chapbook

11 Mar, 2022

Announcing the publication of WALKING (2022) (see feature image) ISBN 978-1-912960-95-8, the illustrated anthology of poetry and prose that includes the shortlisted pieces in the "Walking Home" writing competition. €4.99+p&p