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Soundwalking on the Edges: Sound, Safety and Privilege in São Paulo, Brazil

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. To read the series from the beginning click here. Today, Paola Cossermelli Messina revisits the São Paolo of her youth.  —JS


When at home in São Paulo, Brazil, I rarely walk to where I’m going. In a city plagued by mobility issues, a private car is the most efficient way of getting around. Other factors in opting out of public transportation include the limited reach of the subway system, overcrowdedness on buses, sexual harassment of women on public transport going unpunished, and price hikes that lead to no infrastructural improvements. The 2013 protests in Brazil, the largest demonstration in two decades, were initially set off by increased ticket prices for the bus, train, and metro, and later encompassed additional concerns such as corruption and police brutality.

Having spent most of my childhood and all of my high school years (between 1987 and 2005) in São Paulo, I find myself looking back at my sensory experience of the city as one mediated by fear, segregation, and vigilance. I have become interested in Vincent Adrisani’s (2015) idea of sonic citizenship—ordinary, everyday auditory interactions and experiences through which presence in and claim over public spaces is asserted. Consequently, I recorded the following soundwalks on two specific routes to engage with what were once-familiar surroundings as a “sonic citizen.” These soundwalks made me revisit fears and privileges from my life as a queer, white/POC, expatriate/immigrant on the edges of color, as I walked through a microcosm of São Paulo, recording the urban soundscapes that enveloped my day-to-day.

Looking up Rua Juquiá on December 29th, 2018. Images by author

The audio clips included in this essay were sampled from a morning walk between my former high school and home in the Zona Oeste (Western Region), and also from a brief walk on Avenida Paulista. This is a bustling, iconic avenue at the top of one of the steepest hills in the city, located at the crux of the Western, Central and Southern regions of São Paulo. Where one soundwalk ends is merely a ten minute walk from where the other begins. These are physically close, but sonically contrasting, public spaces, both of which are significant to my experiences in the city. 

Rua Juquiá is a tree-lined street with walled-off houses and, in my memory, filled to the brim with cars as early as seven in the morning. My school was the only non-residential building on that street. During the day, personal security guards and drivers would find a place to park and nap until the final school bell rang. I recall making a bee line from my mother’s car to the school gate, motivated by word-of-mouth tales of “sequestros relâmpagos” (literally translated to “lightning kidnappings”). Young people going to private schools were said to be the focus of these kidnappings, in which they would be picked off the street by kidnappers and held for ransom. There was one occurrence of this while I was a student at that school. 

With these stories in mind (and sometimes also in my dreams), a sensory engagement with my surroundings was often limited in time and scope, as I moved cautiously between interiors –  private vehicles, school, thirty-story buildings towering high above the streets, and shopping centers patrolled by armed guards. At night as I laid down to sleep, the sounds of trucks straining to make their way up the steep slope of my street and motorcycle exhaust pipes blasting echoed in lively conversation with each other.

The relationship between my privilege and racial identity were, at that time, quite different from how it would come to be in the United States. Being of mixed Middle Eastern and European descent in Brazil is an identifier of whiteness and, more often than not, an indicator of a comfortable living situation. My school uniform with its red blazer and dark grey skirt, the uncommonly green neighborhood where most of my daily routines took place, and the double-gated apartment building I lived in, were all indicators of my status.

Identifying as queer is the only aspect that overlaps the boundaries between Brazil and the United States, where I currently reside. In both nations, the expression of this identifier is mediated by different levels of fear of violence—not of violence like the one I feared in Brazil, but violence nonetheless. Throughout my youth, it lurked beneath the surface of my consciousness, compounding the fear I already carried in my body. In the U.S., the compounding factors are my mixed racial features and immigration status (or as the USCIS dubs us ‘aliens’). In the eyes of all major institutions of this country, I am a person of color. As such, the soundwalk in São Paulo also became an experiment in juxtaposing these varying experiences at the intersection of privilege, queerness, and race. 

In listening to the soundwalk clips below, I find that the absence of people’s voices and sounds, rather than the presence of supposed ‘dangerous people’, per se, is the most disconcerting thing. Though nature sounds predominate in the clips from this walk, they seem to exist in a cement vacuum.

The front entrance to my middle school and high school on Rua Juquiá.

On the morning of December 29th, 2018, there were only a few parked cars and hardly any people on the street. I looked up at the wall obstructing my school from view. These were initially put up at some point during my senior year in 2005, but have been given added height recently, with cameras like bulbous black eyes surveilling the streets from every one of its angles. On Rua Jacupiranga, perpendicular to Rua Juquiá, there is a new addition – a set of ‘city cameras’, curiously placed at eye level. This is hardly what Jane Jacobs meant by “eyes on the street” and their contribution to a feeling of safety in public spaces. In this case, the eyes are cameras and the listening experiences within these spaces are subsequently fractured into the reassured and criminalized. As Robin Sheriff (2000) observed, “silence demands collaboration” and is “both a consequence and an index of an unequal distribution of power.” Although Sheriff was referencing the silence around the discussion of racism in Brazil, I can see a connection with the street level silence.

The silence that this incredibly visible form of surveillance imposes, and the replacement of human bodies with vehicles warrants the question: who and where are the “sonic citizens” of these streets? The only other people outside, besides me, were a few construction workers, shoveling bits of cement into a bin and security guards standing outside walled-off houses. They watched me for a brief moment, concluding soon enough that I was no threat to the houses they were employed to protect. The heightened level of security on the street made me wonder if I was going to be questioned by them, but sure enough, I was deemed unthreatening. 

City cameras at eye level on Rua Jacupiranga, perpendicular to Rua Juquiá

On Rua Juquiá and in the neighborhood of my childhood home, about a seven-minute drive away, the bem-te-vi is heard above everything else. The surrounding neighborhood, known as Jardins (‘gardens’), is one of the greenest in the city, yet only the birds seem to be voicing their presence and delight. The name of this species of bird (which translates to “I see you well”) is an onomatopoeia for what their cries sound like. I can’t help but think of them as true sonic citizens of these streets. That citizenship practices have to do with the less powerful establishing their presence in a public space is an idea echoed by Saskia Sassen (2006) and others quoted by Vincent Adrisani (2015). The bem-te-vi, the construction workers and I, as a listener, were momentarily engaged in this practice, though questions such as, “Why are you here?” and “Do you want to know why I am here?” remained between the human participants.



As I ventured further away from my school, the baseline hum of traffic slowly shifted into the background. Up until this point, I had my recording equipment – a Zoom H6 and Rode NTG 2 shotgun microphone – hidden in my bag in order to draw less attention to myself. This is certainly a decision informed by the same fear that would make me hurry from the car to the school gate. As a consequence of this, in the audio clips there may be a light, rhythmic thudding from the microphone hitting the inside of my tote bag. 

(A map of my two soundwalk routes – in green, the path from my former school and home; in red, a brief walk on Avenida Paulista.


I decided to record a second soundwalk roughly twenty minutes from my school to present dichotomous soundscapes and ways of living, in proximity. Avenida Paulista is a nearly two mile long avenue with ample sidewalks, modelled on those in Manhattan. It used to be more of a dividing line between different sides of São Paulo. When I was growing up and even now, I know that if I take Rua Augusta towards Baixo Augusta (‘low’ Augusta), I’ll find LGBTQ friendly bars and clubs. I remember driving by them with my parents when I was a teenager; there was an implied danger there, too, though it was never uttered out loud like the kidnapping stories.

Though during the day it is a hub for office workers, on the night I recorded this soundwalk the air was buzzing with voices, live music, skateboard decks grating on cement, and street vendors announcing their wares. The abundance of human sounds is clearly in stark contrast to Rua Juquiá, but there is an increase in the sheer number and variety of sounds, too. The surveillance that before stood out like a sore thumb – at eye level and identified with signs – is quite inconspicuous on this soundwalk. Generally, police presence is high on Avenida Paulista – in contrast to the privately hired security on Rua Juquiá’s and that of other wealthy, residential streets. 

As a walker and listener, it is clear that the second soundwalk presented a wealth of opportunities to engage as a sonic citizen, while the first – as it was in the past – remained complicated by fear, vigilance, and a vacuum of human activity. I contend that when sonic citizenship is articulated it is, in turn, reflected back to the listener. This exchange is what makes it so valuable on both the level of the community and individual. It made me wonder if having walked Avenida Paulista and its offshoots more often in my youth would have lessened fears and brought me closer to embracing certain aspects of my identity sooner. 

Instead, I find parts of myself are sonically engaged in one part of the world and others someplace else. If future soundwalks bridge those gaps in the future, I will be able to listen back to these recordings as the first steps I took in that direction. 

Featured image: “são paolo” by Flickr user Samuel Loo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Paola Cossermelli Messina is a sound designer and audio engineer with research interests that fall in the intersections between music, politics and gender. As Project Manager of Sound Thinking NYC, a program of the CUNY-Creative Arts Team, she has recently gained interest in ties between her work in music and technology to initiatives in education. She holds a B.A. in Music and Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. in Media Studies from The New School, with a specialization in sound. Her Master’s thesis on the oral histories of Iranian women musicians received an award from the Middle East Studies Association and was later presented and published by Yale University. For the past 5 years, she has also worked as a Producer and Editor of the Arab Studies Institute podcast Status Hour.

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Flâneuse>La caminanta

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. To read the series from the beginning click here: Today, Amanda Gutiérrez  .  —JS


Flâneuse>La caminanta is a video soundwalk project, edited as a virtual reality (VR) interactive environment that I created using a 360-degree camera to document participants’ journeys. Its title emphasizes a missing word in the French and Spanish languages for women as wanderers, a gap that also represents the lack of inclusive public spaces that allow female-identifying and non-conforming bodies safe passage and co-existence. The VR environment exposes the perspective of four women of color who navigate urban landscapes in Mexico City, Abu Dhabi, Manhattan and Brooklyn. The participants selected their own locations, building from places that have a personal meaning or memory in their everyday journeys.

Walking in Lightness

This post discusses Flâneuse>La caminanta, its influences, previous iterations, and use of the methodology of the soundwalk as an intervention exposing the dangers inherent in public space for women of color.  To begin, Flâneuse>La caminanta is the virtual reality iteration of my previous film essay and photo series, Walking in Lightness.   Walking in Lightness departs from my experience walking in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The soundscapes I recorded during soundwalks became a pivotal medium for offering subtle observations of a woman’s cultural identity, recording my interactions and tracing a psychogeographic path as the camera navigates urban spaces.

The sonic component of Walking in Lightness reflects my subjective experiences of recognizing sonic signifiers such as the Spanish language, music genres and what Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter call “auditory icons” (“Ancient Acoustic Spaces,” The Sound Studies Reader, 187).  Auditory icons are sonic events that contain special symbolic meaning not present on the sound wave but reconstructed through cultural codes. While walking in these places, my recognition of the visibility and invisibility of cultural interpretations can be perceived inside the multicultural neighborhood of Sunset Park, where Muslim, Latino, and Chinese populations share the space.

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Walking in Lightness’s soundwalks functioned as an anthropological tool where they indicated how my engagements with space are personal, often amplifying dissonances in the acoustic journeys when my embodied memories surfaced past associations with the sonic landscapes I traversed. I recorded each soundscape was recorded with binaural headphones. The sound was a vast fabric of cultural codes such as the popular music from the immigrant neighbors, the chants from a mosque, the voices of the men talking at us, which allowed me to reflect upon my embodied sound in the public space, through my conversations, breathing, and my disposable 35mm camera’s sounds.

I used the camera to compile images of placemaking marks such as stores using speakers in the sidewalk to attract their clientele, the sound of the paletas cart, adds of Mexican norteño bands, associating them with the sound landmarks that I found “readable” or familiar, such as conversations in Spanish, either by passing or my own interaction with street vendors, the radio tuned in a Latino station.  While developing the project, I decided to use the images in the installation, so I learned the photo print process in the darkroom of the International Center of Photography, ultimately deciding on silver print techniques because of the indexical materiality and the elaborated manipulation of light in the 35 mm film printing process. This allowed me to have a meditative experience about the memory of sound and the connection with still images.

The long evenings and very exhausting printing process in the darkroom opened an introspective process confronting my role as an artist/ethnographer and challenging me to reckon with my own reasons for immigration to the United States. I had been living in Chicago, Illinois and currently in Brooklyn, New York since 2002, exploring the relationship of placemaking in the Mexican neighborhoods of Pilsen and Sunset Park. My reflections opened up for me the issue of the systematic gender violence present in Mexico as well in other countries, where women’s rights are still in an even more precarious condition than the U.S.  I then used the photo prints as the materials of the cutout animations for the visual accompaniment to Walking in Lightness, and they symbolize my personal and intimate reflections of sensing the vulnerability—and the normalizing of—gender violence as a woman of color in U.S. public space.

Photo of the exhibition the of the solo exhibition, Walking in Lightness at The Camera Club of New York in Baxter Street Gallery, Manhattan, New York.

Where the Flâneuse walks

Flâneur: from the French noun flâneur, means “stroller,” “lounger,” “saunterer,” or “loafer.” The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th-century France, an imaginary character from the streets of Paris, which carried a set of rich associations such as the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street.

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842, Image via Wikipedia

The concept of the “flâneur” has been an essential figure in French writers’ novels such as Honoré de Balzac and Victor Fournel. However, Walter Benjamin defined Baudelaire as the ultimate flâneur in 1935, an individual poet that experiences and describes the modern city.  Some consider Baudelaire the creator of modern poetry since his literature describes his personal experiences in the urban context while transiting and exploring the bohemian life of a male writer in salons and intellectual circles.  Via Baudelaire, Benjamin cemented the image of the flaneûr as a bourgeois white male who can wander in the streets in late evenings and without much concern for his endless luscious time while on urban explorations.

Lauren Elkin widely explores this observation in her book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.  Elkins begins by narrating her experience of spatial isolation living in suburban New York, unable to walk on the streets without seeming odd or calling suspicious attention; later she explores Paris as a writer who links her memories with other nineteenth-century female writers, whose practice of walking represented a primordial tool but also a constant struggle with danger.

The most pointed realization for me while reading Elkins was that in the French and Spanish vocabulary we do not define the concept of “the walker” /“flâneur”  as a female subject   (although these terms are supposed to be gendered neutral in both languages).  However, there are other words in Spanish such as “pilgrim” that can be written as “peregrina” which functions as a referent to the female gender but also as an adjective. However the first pilgrims in the history of the Christian religion were women, such as the case of the noble Egeria, who embarked in the late 4th century in search of the Holly Places described by Saint Helene. From Mesopotamia to Syria, Constantinople to Jerusalem, Egeria narrated her impressions of her trips in the form of letters, titled Itinerarium Egeriae. She did not walk alone, however; as part of the imperial family, she walked with a court of people.

Nevertheless, Egeria’s trips were an early sign of independence and autonomy that would be taken away as women’s oppression increased with the rising power of Christian ideology. Although separated by centuries, Elkin and Egeria write from a perspective of privilege in societies where the concept of the women’s choice existed, allowing them to claim their autonomy by leaving their respective hometowns, and carrying with them the economic stability to secure their walks around the globe.

Feminicidio

In countries where gender equality remains elusive and all but nonexistent, however, it is difficult to imagine a woman wandering the streets during late evenings without being considered easy prey or a prostitute. Alternatively, an independent woman who walks alone on the streets in the late evenings in the contemporary moment represents a symbolic danger for the ruling patriarchy, a bold challenge to its power and domination.  In countries like Mexico for example, walking and habituating in public space had been steadily becoming more dangerous, since women are being assaulted, kidnaped, and killed. These violent acts defined as femicides, which are turning into a profound issue that has risen alarmingly in the last few years, not only in Mexico City but also in all of Latin America. Femicide or “feminicidio” in Spanish is the term for a gender-based hate crime perpetrated against a female-identified subject, often with a clear sign of abuse and violence whether from the victim’s closest social circle or something like the intricate networking of human trafficking or the drug war conflict. In most cases, these homicides are gruesome and violent acts, ending in deaths that involve torture, rape, and sadism.

Image by Flickr User Encuentro de Feministas, “Alerta feminista,” Fotografía: Valentina Vaccotti (CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to the statistics and reports by the UN Women initiative, fourteen of the countries with the highest numbers are from Latin America, and femcide is considered as a systematic killing phenomenon. The main issue is that these crimes are not being persecuted or have a proper investigation perpetuating endless impunity. Many perpetrators do not receive any legal consequence of their acts, turning it as a consequence that normalizes gender violence by the “machista” denial of the woman’s autonomy and therefore misogynistic reactions ending in murderous acts. Machista, comes the Spanish word “Machismo” [maˈtʃizmo]; Portuguese: [maˈʃizmu] (from Spanish and Portuguese “macho,” male), and describes the gender construction of masculinity, either as superior or entitled of power over other non-male subjects.

In 2017 in “Take five: Fighting Femicide in Latin America,” Adriana Quiñones, UN Women´s Country Representative in Guatemala testified that “In Latin America, we have a culture of high tolerance towards violence against women and girls. You see it in the media all the time—crimes against women are exhibited with very crude images and nobody seems to care about it. Violence becomes normalized; it is seen as a part of life for women.”  Images on the Internet and newspapers constantly mine the collective memory with alarmist news, turning the victim’s identity into images of bodies without a name and mundane numbers.

Mexican geophysics and activist Maria Salguero is actively searching for the name of these victims, searching for trustable newspaper sources reporting each case in order to create a dynamic map called Feminicidios en Mexico where she documents day-by-day cases of femicide. For each victim, Salguero creates data, highlighting the woman’s name, location, date, and circumstances of her death, as well as possible perpetrators reported by the local news.  Salguero’s project creates awareness of the increasing problem, which the Mexican government is trying to ignore and publicly misinform not only its population by hiding the real numbers of these crimes, but international organizations as well.

Still photograph from the digital map, Feminicidios en México by Maria Salguero.

In her online platform, Salguero uses Google Maps toward the goal of having a comprehensive and visual database that highlights and traces each case that is not always documented on the local forensic center, and therefore not reported in the National System of Public Safety in Mexico. Salguero’s use of digital cartography provides crucial information about the increasing numbers, by tagging each year from 2016 to 2018 by color. Red crosses, for example, signify those murders committed in 2018, currently the vastest color in most states of Mexico. Created as a personal initiative of Salguero,  Feminicidios en Mexico is exceptionally relevant to understanding the present and future trends of violence in each location, as well as the modus operandi of many of these femicides, exposing the general framework of the gender hate crime as an epidemic problem in Mexico.

My project Flâneuse>La caminanta departs from the acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the female body in the public sphere, employing technology to reflect and trace memories. It uses the concept of space and location as a reflective tool to expand the concept of “cartography” to include how women-identified subjects internalize the effects of violence against them. I use of mapping feeds to visualize the invisible, the forgotten, or the free customs that perpetuate gender violence. My artwork explores digital and analog cartography, from personal drawings of walker participants to metadata information displayed in an online map, which serves as subjective cartography.

When Buildings Speak

My work process building toward this new understanding of cartography can also be appreciated in When Buildings Speak, a piece I developed in 2016 at The Bolit Contemporary Art Center in Girona, in which residents (and myself as a guest artist) identified the relationship of tourism and displacement in the city. When Buildings Speak was embedded in a dynamic online map and displayed on the ETAC digital art catalog, which allows online users to listen to city residents’ interviews explaining their particular experiences of and critical views on the tourism culture industry. Using the most popular attraction in Girona–the the city’s medieval wall—I embedded these interviews and on-site soundscapes in an interactive map linked to personal residents’ opinions on concepts related to arts and education, urban design, city’s identity/memory, affordable housing, and culture industry.

Picture 4, left the side, Touristic Itinerary map published by the Girona City Council of the medieval section of the city.

Picture 5, on the right side, participant’s sketches of their soundwalks using the touristic maps to draw their sonic experiences.

The interviews and testimonials developed through collective soundwalks and drifts (dérives) with local participants: from middle school, high school, and college students, as well as the general public to the museum. The multiple perspectives helped the project to identify the complexity of the economic and social influence that the tourism industry has on the lives of Girona residents, as part of the Catalonia region.

Flâneuse>La caminanta

The project Flâneuse>La caminanta combines these mapping strategies, with the use of collective walks and subjective cartographies.  Here, participants and I trace normative aspects of gender violence rendered in everyday life, but especially sited in public spaces where female bodies feel unsafe and vulnerable. Flâneuse>La caminanta’s development starts with soundwalks in public spaces and documenting conversations with self-identified female collaborators, using a 360 camera and lavalier microphones. The interviews will be part of a virtual reality documentary with interactive features. It starts with a menu located in a photo darkroom as an introduction and link to each participant’s journey. The virtual reality environment was developed and produced as part of the Harvestworks AIR 2018 program in New York City.

Flâneuse>La caminanta’s virtual journey takes the user to an individual interviewee’s walk in a public space where they feel sonically unwelcome or unsafe, making use of psychogeography as a tool to navigate and to listen to the soundscapes and urban features of the location. Then, a second link takes the users to the participant’s “inner space,” the wanderlust location where participants reflect about the concept of feeling safe. The virtual environment enhances the sensorial and cultural journey of the discursive and sonic embodiment of a non-conformative body in the public space. The VR challenges the familiarity and cultural accessibility experienced in the journey while walking through public spaces in particular times and locations in the cities of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Mexico City. The virtual environment documentary reconstructs and documents it with 360 video and binaural sound. The piece’s soundtrack consists of the editing the binaural soundscapes with voice overs from the subjects.

Flâneuse>La caminanta’s representations of soundwalks amplifies the soundscape as an embodied medium of everyday life urban space that has a profound and uneven effect on our inner space. Artists and Podcasters Mala Muñoz and Diosa Femme describe this impact as “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” in a 2017 episode of their podcast series Locatora Radio produced especially for Sounding Out!’s series “Chicana Soundscapes.” In their discussion, the hosts detailed some of the most common ways of sonic harassment that they regularly experience in the public spaces of Los Angeles, living as latinx dealing with the sexual harassment in the streets and the vulnerability and precarious safeness that the city conveys, especially for women of color. The phenomenon of sonic unwelcoming for women varies from specific contexts to cultures, and from time locations and specific individuals, which makes it complicated to identify the specificity of the harassment’s exposure, perpetrator, and victim.

Still image of the interview with Zelene Pineda. Soundwalk at the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Flâneuse>La caminanta focuses on the soundscape of unwelcome, in the case of the non-conforming and self-identified female body transiting an environment designed, ruled, and surveilled by a patriarchal society. Female walkers frequently and repeatedly move through spaces where the male gaze perceives verbal harassment as a way of appreciation, a problem that turns into a cultural norm. In some Latin cultures, these forms of public speaking are accepted and normalized as communication, rather than verbal violence. Furthermore, when these behaviors are taken out of the context of their countries and perpetuated in foreign cultures where verbal harassment is a specific behavior of disrespect and political correctness, this behavior then stigmatizes the male immigrant as an ethnically-constructed threating figure for the white female body.

As an immigrant women of color I have experienced sexual harassment commonly and openly in both New York City and Chicago, in neighborhoods where culturally speaking this verbal communication remains accepted as part of the culture. However, in my listening it is unclear to me whether the men performing this form of harassment center their sexual expressions on women of color–to whom the cultural meaning of these words is acutely understood—or if these expressions prevail as part of the toxic masculinity that links the US to global spaces, modes of violence and oppression over all women in general, yet still most strikingly to women of color. The state disbelieves—with double doubt!–women of color, who are often punished after expressing their concerns or claiming their rights after they experience the trauma and transgression of a sexual assault. It is also evident that the human rights of people of color are of the lowest priority, with women of color being the most vulnerable.  Racial targeting conveys negative connotations and signifiers.

It is essential to create an in-depth study of these female experiences of the language of harassment. We must use theories of intersectionality to understand the depth of the systematic patriarchy imposed in our social systems via political decisions. We should not center the issues of gender violence on one particular form and population, especially if they are male people of color and/or immigrants, who can quickly turn into an ethnic target and the face of the foreigner threat of the host nation. Furthermore, there are other ways women are harassed that are not necessarily related to being catcalled in the streets such as men presuming the privilege of addressing women who are alone in spaces such as bars, coffee shops, restaurants, assuming that they are always readily available to start a conversation with a stranger (and often to assume women must be gracious, kind, and even excited and perpetually “smiling” in return). While unsolicited conversations are equally a transgression of space—and an expression of male entitlement–many men in western cultures find intrusiveness socially acceptable and non-violent despite the fact that they can lead to coercion and other cases of violence in rape culture. Our interrogations of gender violence in public space, then, should be broad and open to understanding systematic methods of gender control and violence present in different contexts and cultures simultaneously.

Flâneuse>La caminanta. Walis Johnson in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

This systematic oppression shaping the soundscapes of the unwelcome are also amplified by elements of industrial noise pollution from public housing of working-class families living near the most noise-polluted spaces: airports, for example, and aging infrastructures such as the elevated train system in New York City, which reaches high sound spectrum levels affecting the human ear permanently but also resulting in high blood pressure and body stress. In the gendered sonic realm, we layer into the unwelcoming soundscape the messages of unsolicited sexual gestures, police harassment, car honks, screams, angry drivers pointing out the masculine gender-entitlement to the space, and sounds that sonically cross the boundaries of female and non-conforming subjects in order to construct them as a weak, inferior, outcast, and/or sexualized pedestrian. Silence—or blocking the sound through headphones—Is a solution that many of us take as an option. Even if nothing is playing, just by the fact that our ears are not publicly exposed, protects us from the sonic violence polluting the public soundscapes.

Flâneuse>La caminanta, brings together multiple modalities and mediums of which the virtual reality is only one component. Since 2018, I collaborated with the artist Walis Johnson to create the multidisciplinary project, The Brooklyn League of Women Walkers with the goal of having an intersectional conversations with women of color from diverse ethnicities, ages, cultures, using the walk as analytical tool in a collective conversation. During the walks we approach ideas of how can we claim and adapt the public space as a safe place for everyone. First we develop a brief circle where participants can identify themselves, and then we bring a few questions of what being vulnerable and empowered in the public space means for each person. Then we embark the walk with the group, first tuning our ears, in which I make use of Deep Listening exercises from Pauline Oliveiros. Then we walk to key places that can highlight these facts and we embrace the conversation in the space.

My soundwalks embrace the conversations among participants, since the exercise of walking is also a vehicle of spontaneous reflections that emerge while we are experiencing the spatial navigation. After the walk we return to the space to create subjective maps of their personal experience, highlighting what could be done to improve those spaces, such as a pedestrian walk along a community garden, a school yard, a bike path instead of toll cars lots, a common place where you as a women walking in the night can shelter, etc. These ideas made us reflect that the sexual harassment can be tackled far more from call back to harassers, but develop a culture of common safeness where the city itself provides with spaces of shelter and mutual care. Developing a feminist city implies an inclusive conversation where multiple perspectives are taken in consideration through their own spatial experience.

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The Flâneuse>La caminanta, is now exhibited as the Beta version of the VR documentary at The 2019 New York electronic Art Festival organized by Harvestworks and showcase in Governors Island in New York. The second iteration will take in consideration the performative aspects of the VR documentary. In this newer version, the sound and video montage explores the point of view of three women through the cinematic walk side conversations. The sound dialogue emphasizes their spatial memories and their experience of mobility in public and private spaces while speculative maps render a metaphor of their migratory path. The VR performance will incorporate a collaborative work of female artists working with sonic explorations and choreographic gestures, in collaboration with two female musicians who will explore the multiple possibilities of the interpretation of the meaning dialogue. The performance will be presented at the culture venue in Manhattan, La Nacional, as part of the Female Migrations art program, organized by Se Habla Español collective. Musician Cecilia Lopez will curate the second iteration to be presented at an experimental sound music festival at Roulette music venue in Brooklyn.

Featured Image: Still image from the Flâneuse>La caminanta, video teaser.

Born in Mexico City, Amanda Gutiérrez completed her graduate studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, specializing in Performance and New Media. In Mexico, she completed her undergraduate studies in Stage Design at the INBA/ENAT. For twelve years, she has worked in the field of performance and sound art, fusing the two disciplines in installation projects. Among her video series is A brief history of fictions, which consists of four projects performed under the same methodology and work strategies from documentary and performance. This series has won two awards: The Fellowship Competition 2007 and CAAP 2008, and was selected as a finalist for the national award Artadia Art Chicago 2009. Gutiérrez has had artist residencies at CMM (Multimedia Center) in Mexico City, Mexico (2001), ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe, Germany (2002), and Artist Village in Taipei, Taiwan (2009). She has also received scholarships from the Artist Residencies Program 2009 FONCA-BANFF Centre and the prize-EMARE EMAN at the residency FACT Liverpool.

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Hearing Change in the Chocolate City:  Soundwalking as Black Feminist Method

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. Today, Allie Martin kicks off the series with a powerful reframing of the soundwalk as a black feminist methodology.  —JS


In July 2018 I visited Oxford, Mississippi for the first time, to attend a workshop on conducting oral histories.  Upon walking with a friend back to our accommodations on the University of Mississippi campus, we heard a voice calling to us from far away, up a hill somewhere.  It was a catcalling voice—that much I definitely recognized—but I also felt sure that I heard the word “nigger.”  My friend, who is also a black woman, heard the taunting sounds of the voice but not that word specifically.  Herein lies one of the difficulties of black womanhood: I was unable to distinguish which of my two most prominent identity markers (blackness and womanhood) the speaker was using to harm me in that moment.  I found it ironic that I came to Mississippi to learn best practices for listening to people’s stories, but could not hear my own story, could not say for sure what had happened to me.

In the time since that visit, I have come to embrace the speculative sonic ephemerality of black womanhood and utilize it on my soundwalks.  Soundwalks are a popular method for understanding the everyday sonic life of a place.  Reminiscent of Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” soundwalks offer the kind of embodied experience missing from other more static soundscape recordings. I argue here that soundwalks can operate as black feminist method, precisely because they allow me to center the complex, incomplete sonorities of black womanhood, and they are enough in their incompleteness.  One of our foremost thinkers on black feminism, Patricia Hill Collins, has argued that black women’s knowledge is subjugated (1990).  I understand this to mean that my knowledge is tainted somehow, too specialized or not specialized enough, and not considered fit for application by a broader audience.  Soundwalks as method, though, rely on my own subjugated knowledge.  What did I hear?  Black feminism centers and humanizes black women, and I utilize soundwalks to humanize myself in a soundscape that would otherwise disregard my sonic perceptions in favor of white hearing as the default standard of sound.

I began soundwalking in Washington, DC as a part of my dissertation project, which explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in the city. Gentrification is often considered in visual terms, meaning that a neighborhood is considered gentrified because new coffeeshops, bike lanes, and dog parks make it “look” different from what was once there.  I recognize these new additions as important markers of gentrification, but what do they sound like?  And what do these sonic markers reveal about the sonorities of race?

Rowhouses in the Shaw neighborhood, image by author

I have taken up the sonic exploration of gentrification, drawing inspiration from Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line and Regina Bradley’s exploration of the criminalization of black sound.  As SO! writer and ethnic studies scholar Marlén Rios Hernandez has noted in her work on racial and spatial shifts in early punk in 1970s Los Angeles, it is crucial to work on “delinking gentrification as exclusively spatial and analyzing it as also a sonic force of expulsion.”  Having spent time researching the auralities of gentrification in DC, I understand it to be a process that silences poor and marginalized populations while amplifying the concerns of those privileged enough to have the ear of the DC Council and developers.  Gentrification displaces musicians and music genres, while increasing tensions around music and noise in “public” space.  More than these changes, though, gentrification changes the soundscape of the city.

My soundwalks focus on the Shaw neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of DC, part of the fastest gentrifying zip code in the country. Before the explosion of development, Shaw was a cultural hub of black DC, only blocks away from the U Street Corridor, formerly known as Black Broadway.  From Pearl Bailey to James Brown, prominent black entertainers frequented the neighborhood because they were unable to perform in or have accommodations in other areas of the city.  As the neighborhood shifts and transforms, the soundscapes grow louder with new nightclubs and quieter due to increased reporting of noise violations.  The neighborhood diversifies in terms of languages, increases in siren whoops, and new sounds appear, such as the beep of a dockless scooter.  Shaw has seen a concomitant increase in property values, community gardens, and bars; a Whole Foods is set to open in the neighborhood by 2020.

[The recording here is of a soundscape at 7th street and Florida Avenue NW, a busy intersection at the north edge of Shaw.  Recorded on a mid-September afternoon, you can hear go-go music (DC’s indigenous subgenre of funk), engines idling, and the whoop of a siren.  In the past two months, this intersection has become a battleground for cultural erasure, as artists, activists, and councilmembers attempt to legitimize the go-go music that has been playing in the area since 1995.]

During the day, Shaw oscillates between a quiet neighborhood and a busy city space.  Traffic, horns, and sirens are frequent, yet so are the sounds of children at recess and old men chatting outside on their stoops or outside of corner stores.

Conducting soundwalks as a black woman in this gentrifying neighborhood is a curious space to tarry in.  I am in some ways an outsider as a non-resident, mindful of who and what I record at any given moment because part of what makes gentrification such a tense and terrifying process is the lack of control that residents (particularly renters) have regarding their futures, and often their presence too.  I am also an insider, a black woman in this space where being a black woman is not (yet) anything out of the ordinary.  In fact, as the months went on, more of my recordings feature me speaking to people on the street, some I had come to know and some still strangers to me.

One of my favorite interactions on a soundwalk came early on, in late February of 2018.  I was running late for an interview, listening intently to what was going around me, when I walked past a black man, seemingly in his 30s, on a narrow sidewalk.  The exchange went something like this:

Man: Whoa, whoa, why you running up on people?

Me: My bad, my bad!

Man: It’s okay.  Hey sis, you know how to make grits?

Me: [laughing], Nah, I don’t know how to make grits.

Man: What about pancakes?

Me: Yeah, I can make some pancakes.

Man: Ayyyee, I’m tryna get some breakfast!!

Me: I don’t know about all that!

The exchange, not quite a catcall but not quite comfortable either, consistently faded in volume, because during the entire time we spoke, I continued to walk away from him.  I was in a position of wanting to speak, because I know the politics of being an outsider in a gentrifying neighborhood and not greeting folks as you walk by.  However, I also know the dangers of being a black woman walking alone, and so I negotiated a lighthearted exchange while making my way to my destination.  My soundwalks, then, act as a sonic record of gentrifying space as well as my attempts to keep myself safe.

Shaw from a rooftop perspective, Image by author

These moments also inform the contours of my dissertation project on hearing gentrification in DC.  The larger project involves passive acoustic recording in the same neighborhood, a methodology that entails creating a large amount of short soundscape recordings over a long period of time.  Understanding both my soundwalks and passive acoustic recording as black feminist method allows for the consideration of multiple sonic perspectives of the neighborhood, rather than one record.  When once describing passive acoustic recording to a colleague at a digital humanities workshop, they celebrated the idea that I would be able to “objectively” hear what was occurring in the neighborhood, instead of relying only on pieced together accounts from community members.

However, just as black feminist thought amplifies my “tainted” knowledge, it also mutes the authoritative “objective” knowledge of a rooftop recorder.  The sounds of the stationary recorder placed on a rooftop at 7th and Florida are as partial and positioned as the recordings of my footsteps as I move around the neighborhood.  As I continue to walk, be it through the unfamiliarity of Mississippi or my hometown DC, I do so with the reassurance that what I hear is enough.

Featured Image: Shaw From Above, by author.

Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.  Her dissertation project explores the musical and sonic dimensions of gentrification in Washington, DC, using a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and soundscape recordings.  Originally from the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, she received her BAs in music performance and audio production from American University.  

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On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One)

I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.

The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.

PLACE /

Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence

On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.

Falling Stars as Observed From the Balloon, Travels in Air by James Glaisher, 1871

The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”

Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.”  Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to theroar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”

L’exploration de l’air, In Histoire des ballons et des aÇronauts cÇläbres, 1887

The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”

The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.

Circular View From the Balloon in Airopaidia by Thomas Baldwin, 1786

The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earthbelow, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.

Balloon Prospect, In Airopaidia, Thomas Baldwin, 1786

Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” andinfinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound of human suffering coming from beneath.

By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fearandexpressions of applausethat advanced the dominant colonial narrative.

Ascent of a Balloon in the Presence of the Court of Charles IV by Antonio Carnicero, 1783

Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experiencewith the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”

Travels in the Air, James Glaisher, 1871

PROBE /

I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985

The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.

Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” andpolitics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.

“Travels in the Air” by James Glaisher, 1871

During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.

In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Sky Kiss by Jim McWilliams, above the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 1976, Kaldor Public Art Project 5, Photo by Karry Dundas

Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.

Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).

Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.

Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.

Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016

Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.

It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”

The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.

 

Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city. 

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