Early in Jonathan Sterne’s (2003) book The Audible Past he writes, “hearing is concerned with interiors, vision is concerned with surfaces” (p. 15). This binary is in many ways gospel in sound studies. Martin Jay (1993) has established in his work, Downcast Eyes, a similar division between observations, the ocular, and listening, the speculative (p. 85). Most other literature takes a similar perspective – the sonic interior is a main methodological praxis of sound studies. When deciphering the speculative, listening is still the first, best tool, for interpreting an interior. I wonder, what it means to extend this metaphor into space. What does it mean, interpretively, for a sound wave to ricochet through a reverb spring, to yell in a claustrophobic hallway, or to listen with headphones instead of speakers. What is the culture of the interior, and how is it heard?
One place to look is the fantastic but infrequently publicized (although it has gotten some notable press) Silophone. An abandoned grain silo in Montréal, Silophone has been wired to serve as a medium of anonymous communication, and reverberation since November 2000. It’s easy to reach too, just call 514-844-5555. After the second ring, you are patched in to Silo #5, where your words are broadcast to ricochet around the abandoned building. Contributing to a participatory soundscape where several voices contribute to an ever changing, echoing interior. Silophone is definitely art, it is intrinsically technological, certainly audible, and it is almost social.
One striking question about Silophone is what exactly it means, what are the cultural stakes of an anonymous and collective interior? Can it be read as a critique of the ambiguity of network society, the futility of translation in an increasingly global culture? As the sounds refract against the walls of the silo and compete against one another, it is hard to decipher a clear signal, let alone consider a dialect or source. Conversely, Silophone also represents the possibilities of a network commons. Even though one sound rarely emerges as dominant, this relates to the counter-hegemonic aspects of the interior. Inside, hearing privileges proximity, and quiet. The less participants, and the closer your receiver is to a speaker, the more likely you are to hear a sound. Though this is a similar to the listening politics of everyday life, it should be noted that the silo is an experiment of space; the dynamics of its audible space emulates a virtualization of voices unprecedented in non-abstract spaces.
Listening to an interior is an important way to consider the politics of specific objects and architectural configurations. It is a way to render and think through the spatial configurations of space-less phenomenon: sounds, ideology, opinions and ephemera all belong to the interior, and it is important to develop tools for discussing them in a way which is not degraded to mere speculation. Silo #5, once a hub of cacophonous conversation, is now silent, somewhat forgotten and out of vogue. Does this reflect a social shift away from telephone-mediated relations, a societal shift in the practice of hearing? Although the interior of the silo models an anonymous and semi-random collective, other interiors may model other things. What do the interiors of computers, subways or classrooms model? Further, with listening as a method, can we begin proximate our interior selves?