Speaking Back to Our Spaces: The Rhetoric of Social Soundscaping

Kati Fargo Ahern, Jordan Frith

Abstract


Speaking Back to Our Spaces: The Rhetoric of Social Soundscaping

Kati Fargo Ahern & Jordan Frith

Published in Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion, Issue 9: Sonic Rhetorics

 

Artist Statement: In this project we are exploring the rhetorical potential of a new movement toward “social soundscaping” in which people are able to contribute, share, “prune,” and listen to geo-located sounds in specific spaces. Geo-locating has to do with individuals being able to upload sounds, text, or images via an application or interface, and tag them to a specific location using their device’s gps. We are interested in how geo-locating sounds in soundscapes give us rhetorical opportunities to “speak back” to our spaces.

 

{} = slide change in Prezi.

 

Social Soundscaping Slide

 

In this project we are going to explore a way of using sound that has to do with people contributing, geo-locating, sharing, and modifying sounds uploaded and tagged to specific public spaces –

 

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Social soundscaping.

 

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On October 23, 2012 the Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The Search for Sweet Sounds that Sell,” which described a number of corporations’ past, present, and future concerns with product sounds.

 

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For instance, Snapple has long traded on its own distinctive “pop” indicating freshness, quality, and safety.

 

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Additionally, the Wall Street Journal noted that the consequence of sound is no longer insubstantial for items like feminine products or chip wrappers

that should make no sound at all.

This warning follows a 2010 announcement that FritoLay had decided to mostly “scrap” its eco-friendly packaging of SunChips {}

 

because the bag was described (and harped on) by consumers as “too noisy.”

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This attention is not new if we recall (as the Wall Street Journal does) other products that have traded on sound in the past, such as the “snap, crackle, pop” of Rice Krispies or the “plop-plop-fizz-fizz” of Alka Seltzer.

 

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However, what does seem to have changed is the explicit attention to sound design—where consumers and designers are both able to speak about the sounds that are desirable for different products, for different reasons, and for different audiences.

 

[Crackling bag]

 

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It’s important to note how these corporations may be increasingly intentional in the ways they shape our shared soundscapes. However, what interests us more is what we can do to “speak back to our spaces.” What resistance or replacement of soundscapes is possible through mobile technology?

 

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The idea that we live in a sound rich environment is certainly not new. Although Kiezer has noted in his book “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want” that not much compares with the decibel level of things like airplanes, as many sound historians have shown—

 

{} people have complained about sounds since pre-industrial times {}

 

when noise pollution could be found in the form of church and village bells.

 

[Additive sound—bell, two bells, industrial noise to fade out]

 

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So why is this important??

For the longest time we have had three choices for how to deal with shared soundscapes—

{} turn to the reification of silence with noise pollution laws, {}

retreat into the private soundscapes of headphones and iPods {}

or “drown out the problem” by replacing the sounds of spaces publically with our own sounds through boom boxes, cell phone chatter, or megaphones. {}

 

However, what we are beginning to see is a fourth alternative—social soundscaping. In social soundscaping multiple users are able to contribute sounds to spaces by geo-locating or tagging them in a specific space using a device, interface, and GPS.

 

{} Through geo-tagging, these sounds are then attached to a location and can appear on a map. Then other users can access the sounds through a network and listen to them through headphones. In this way, many different people can access alternate soundscapes that are shared, contributed to, and altered socially, but listened to individually.

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Earlier examples of social soundscaping have included projects like “Urban Tapestries” and “Rider Spoke,” which have focused on enabling people to geo-tag stories in spaces that other users may then listen to. For example, Rider Spoke asks participants to go to an out of the way part of the city and record some of their intimate memories. Other participants can then access these stories as they move to that physical location where the memory was recorded. {} However, other listeners are not able to alter the stories once they are contributed. Listeners can add new stories, but existing ones cannot be modified.

 

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One project that brings together the ability of many listeners to socially contribute and access nonverbal sounds with the ability to modify is Tactical Sound Garden, which is the best current example of what we mean by “social soundscaping technology”

 

Tactical Sound Garden allows users to “plant” sounds, access them within the physical space, and even “prune” sounds that have already been planted by other users by adjusting parameters (like volume or brightness.) [pause]

 

[have bell sound change in volume three times—loud, softer, very soft.]

 

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Mark Shepard and the Tactical Sound Garden designers describe the project as follows:

 

“It draws on the culture of urban community gardening to posit a participatory environment where new spatial practices for social interaction within technologically mediated environments can be explored and evaluated.” (“Intro”).

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Like the metaphor of the public, urban garden, in which multiple people contribute and attend to the space, Tactical Sound Garden makes soundscaping into a community project. What excited us about the rhetorical prospect of Tactical Sound Garden, is that participants can be both listeners and contributors, and the sound garden is dynamic and can be altered by other individuals.

 

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Also, unlike verbal, story-focused sound projects, Tactical Sound Garden makes nonverbal sounds into a “public good” and a nonverbal sonic dialogue.

 

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When it comes to sounds we don’t like, our most common recourse has been to replace existing soundscapes with listening through headphones—whether that means listening to Rihanna or humpback whales. However, choosing to listen to humpback whales has often had more to do with individual preference and aesthetics than rhetorical potential.

 

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The Tactical Sound Garden provides us with a rhetorical potential to “speak back” to spaces. Through contributing, sharing, and pruning, Tactical Sound Garden allows nonverbal sounds to gain rhetorical presence.

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Chaim Perelman has described “presence” as a strategy that prevents certain things from being neglected (p.35).

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Perelman states that “The techniques of presentation which create presence are above all essential when it is a question of evoking realities that are distant in time and space” (p. 35).

 

The concept of Presence is important to our notion of social soundscaping.

 

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Let’s say that our public sound garden—the site of our social soundscaping  - is a space with numerous uses—{} like Moore Square in downtown Raleigh.

 

{} Like many urban spaces, Moore Square includes a variety of sounds that are already present in the environment. Film-makers would call these sounds “diagetic” because they match actions in the scene. Planting diagetic sounds could double the sounds already heard in physical space and thus draw our attention to those sounds.

 

[Traffic/crowd sound to fade out]

 

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However, if we heeded Perelman’s second statement, we might also consider “planting” a

sound that might otherwise be distant from Moore Square—or in film-making language an “extra-diagetic” sound, one that wouldn’t typically occur within the scene. What could sounds of screams or carnival music say about the social space of Moore Square? Or, to build on this idea of presence making the distant near, what would it be like to hear the soundscape of Moore Square dislocated in time?

 

{} Like many urban, downtown spaces, Moore Square is a significantly different place during the business week, weekends, and Friday and Saturday nights.  During the week, it is a place of commerce, filled with the sounds of people walking, outdoor dining, automobile traffic. However, during weekend, the soundscape of Moore Square is often quiet, reflective.

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And then during weekend nights the space is yet again transformed with the sounds of people drinking on patios and rooftops, waiting in line for bars, hailing cabs well into the night.

What would it be like to hear the sounds of Moore Square on a Friday night while standing in the

{}

 

relatively empty park on a Saturday afternoon?  [pause—light crowd sound, drinks/ice clinking, guitar strumming to fade out]

 

Or to walk past bar goers on a Saturday night while listening to a

 

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socially produced soundgarden of what Moore square sounds like during a business lunch?

 

[louder lunch crowd sounds, plates and glasses clinking]

 

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What can these types of social soundscapes reveal about a place? All of these examples give shape to how Perelman’s concept of “Presence” applies to social soundscaping.

 

{}Through these social productions of sounds, participants would be able to make present that which may be distant in space or time, contributing to new ways of experiencing Moore Square as a dynamic auditory space. Furthermore, because other individuals are able to dialogically “prune” sounds that have been planted, or plant different sounds these presences can be modified and dynamic over time. In this way social soundscaping allows individuals the

 

{} ability to make present ideas that critique, praise, or persuade other listeners about the “truths” of the space that is being soundscaped.

 

And in addition to nonverbal sounds, users are able to upload optional verbal messages that accompany acts of “pruning.”

 

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This act of social soundscaping is ultimately different from simply replacing the sounds of a space with different sounds, because it is social, negotiated, and dynamic. We would need to develop a language for soundscaping a place together.

 

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Because the mobile technology (and the practice of geo-locating sounds) is still relatively new, it is still unclear what practices people may perpetuate as rhetorical uses for social soundscaping. However, even in the case of Moore Sq. the ability to plan sounds within or dislocated from the current space allows presence to work differently –either doubling the physical presence of sound or making distant locations or times present.

 

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In either case, it is up to us to develop a language for speaking back to our spaces. Social soundscaping gives us the opportunity to speak back in a shared sense. It gives us a chance to intervene in the sounds we experience, rather than simply turning up the volume of our own, private soundscape.

 

[peaceful water and bird chirping sound, melds into light beep fades into “pop-like” radio static, and then fade out]

 

 

 


Keywords


Sound Studies, Auditory Rhetoric, soundscape, Mobile Media, Geotagging