Guillaume Logé

Geographer Sébastien Munafò asked Swann Thommen to partner with him in his research. The goal: to identify the impact of living environments (downtown, suburban and peri-urban areas of Geneva and Zurich) on leisure mobility.

Creative protocol

Swann Thommen recorded the daily trajectories of six people with different backgrounds (geographical, family and professional) for 12 hours each. He then selected, cut and edited the 720 minutes of “sound recording” for each person to create six six-minute recordings. He used the same types of diagrams as those used by Sébastien Munafò to accurately see the paths of movement, show how they are distributed (between urban, suburban and peri-urban spaces), describe them (soft mobility, motorized mobility, moments of stillness, etc.) and quantify them according to how much time was spent doing them. A chart also tells us about the sound pressure levels (dB SPL) experienced by people over the course of their day. Artistic Lab visitors are invited to click on the play button for each of sound clips while referring to the interactive maps and diagrams associated with them. This protocol (sound clips paired with visual maps) is reminiscent of approaches as varied as those of Dennis Oppenheim (1938-2011), who recorded his footsteps through Milan and then retraced his itinerary on a map of the city (A Sound Enclosed Land Area, Milano, Italy, 1969), the English company Radio Taxis (experimentation with dynamic maps: Taxi Art, 2002) and various artists and designers who use GPS and Google map technology.

From early artistic experiments to the emergence of acoustic ecology

Many researchers, designers and artists work with sound. Several years ago, the Circuits exhibition (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2012) exhibited two works by Bertille Bak (1983-), including Transport à dos d’homme (2012). Mural elements enabled visitors to focus on the sound environments of the metro lines of five European capitals, which are woven together with the music of the gypsy musicians the artist followed.

On the research side, we notably are familiar with the work of CRESSON (Centre de Recherche sur l’Espace Sonore et l’environnement urbain), which was created in Grenoble in 1979 and is in keeping with the "acoustic ecology" theorized by the Canadian Murray Schafer (1933-) in The Tuning of the World (The Soundscape) (1977). The composer describes the world as "a huge musical composition" and advocates the development of sound design for improving living conditions. Companies like SNCF pay special attention to this question. It is in this context that Julien Tardieu, a researcher at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) tested a sound signage system at Montparnasse Station in 2006.

These artistic and sound design techniques come from a tradition somewhere between audio-naturalism and composition that, before Murray Schafer’s acoustic ecology, dates back to the early decades of the 20th century. One of the pioneering achievements of the genre, Wochenende ("Week-end," 1930), by Walter Ruttmann (1887-1941), condenses a man’s itineraries and activities over a weekend into an 11 minute and 20 second-recording: so many ordinary sounds to which only editing gives new meaning.

Sound works:

Walter Ruttmann, Wochenende, 1930
Pierre Schaeffer, Etude aux chemins de fer, 1948
Justin Bennett, Cityscape (extrait), 1993-1996

This was the beginning a sound-based approaches (material and unity of composition), which was later theorized by composer Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995). Through the term "concrete music," he profoundly challenged the boundary between musical and non-musical sound starting in the late 1940s. This opened the door to field recording sound engineers, who explore spaces so as to map their acoustic dimensions, and more recently sound mapping in the form of online interactive maps. Online media libraries such as Aporee and Archipels, for example, feature works by artist Justin Bennett, whose work Edgeland (2013) was presented by the Mobile Lives Forum as part of the Vertiges et Mythes du Périurbain exhibition at the Maison Rouge in Paris in 2013.

Challenges of collaboration

Sébastien Munafò’s sociological and geographical vision prompted Swann Thommen to rethink the field recording and sound mapping processes, and to streamline them to converge with the needs of scientific investigation: it is individuals’ lives that took precedence, not the acoustic nature of spaces. Thommen thus refused to tamper with or enhance the quality of the texture of a given place. Instead he unobtrusively complied with the rhythms and temporalities of each person he followed.

Thommen’s work succeeds in representing - synthetically, concretely and physically - a day that no observer working in the field could succeed in capturing. By isolating sounds, separating them from their original context, changing their combinations, shortening their durations and allowing for repeated listening, he aims to reveal the specific characteristics that the abundance of the "natural" environment and the temporal reality of a day dissimulate or make imperceptible. He makes us understand how our culture invades and models our sound world and invites us to reflect on the sounds our societies produce and their consequences. The anthropization of Nature is also that of Nature’s acoustics. This awareness demonstrates the advantage of qualifying, quantifying and understanding the cause and effect relationships between space, lifestyle, and acoustics.

A more advanced scientific goal could result in repeating the experiment on a larger sample over a longer period and establishing strict sound arrangements. Readings of levels and standard evaluation benchmarks thus allow for calculations and the development of statistical conclusions.

Let us learn from the fact that art-design collaborations (like art-science collaborations), in order to not be limited to a purely illustrative register, must start at the conception of the project, with methods and objectives set for each one and crossover anticipated.

While the artist makes the effort to appropriate the tools and the language of science, it is up to science to make an attempt at interpreting the artist’s work using its usual tools, tools from other disciplines (history, philosophy, art theory, etc.) or by inventing new tools.

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