A Market of Sounds: Exchanging Ideas Between Sound Art and Ethnography
“I have endless memories that are worth more than reality.”
The Power of Sound
Sound is powerful. It is the glue that connects and coordinates all the senses. It has the capability of invoking memories and emotions. The amount of control we impose upon it, creates unspoken sociability rules, warns and entertains us. It resonates within every environment we dwell into, no matter how quiet.
Sounds are essentially vibrations that not only need a medium through which they can be conveyed (be it air, liquid or matter) (Rowe, 1965), but also suitable receptive organs, in order to exist. Therefore it would be no exaggeration to state that complete absence of sound equals a vacuum and consequently, absence of life.
Art and Anthropology bear a similar interconnectedness: it is impossible to create an ethnographic paper without using some basic writing techniques that will ensure the cohesion of the end text, much like it is impossible to create art without having -even inadvertently- interpreted a certain social context (Bourdieu & Johnson, 1992).
In this article, I would like to discuss how we can connect anthropology with sound theory, by using a very specific empirical register: a marketplace.
The Sound of A Marketplace
I chose to use the marketplace of my hometown (Thessaloniki, Greece) as an empirical field in which I would like to develop my thoughts. It was always a part of the city that fascinated me for a number of reasons and I believe that it is an ideal point of departure when we try to explore the nuances of aural ethnography.
Built inside a complex and crowded arcade, the Kapani open market was for the better part of the 20th century, the central and most crowded marketplace of Thessaloniki. Today supermarkets and department stores have taken away most of the consumers but some still prefer the Kapani because the prices are very low and they can find high quality bio products. For me, as a cultural analyst (or a plain old hipster) an old-time open market like is far more than that.
The Kapani market is surprisingly untouched by time, with people bartering, arguing about politics or simply browsing through the wares. By entering the arcade, the researcher/artist is engulfed in what I could only describe as a “sensory overload”: The colours are vibrant and ever changing, continuously stimulating the eyes and the smells of spices are prevalent in a very diverse collection of essences that vary depending on ones place in the market. The yelling of merchants who advertise their goods, the hum of people chatting over the food counters and the music playing by the speakers of fast food restaurants in the background is like a musical composition in itself.
It would be no lie to say that the Kapani still holds some of the influence that the Ottoman Empire left in the city upon its collapse, and still resembles more of a middle-Eastern bazaar, rather than a regular European open market. A heterotopic space (Foucault, 2002), in which past time rules still apply, largely untouched by the times that are changing.
The senses are much more valuable analytically and artistically as an integrated and flexible network but also because arguments over the hierarchy of the senses are always also arguments over the cultural and political agendas (Erlmann, 2004). Instead, what I wish for, is to use both the theoretical knowledge I gained as a cultural analyst and also my artistic “instincts”, in an attempt to turn the marketplace into a “trading place” for ideas concerning how cultural analysts can benefit from sound art theories by using the proverbial ethnographic ear (Clifford & Marcus, 2011) and also investigate whether sound artists can produce legitimate (by the somewhat rigid academic standards) ethnographic reports through their work.
I will attempt to do so by drawing inspiration from Sound and Non-representational theories, trying to construct a sound topography of this particular empirical register, to act as a quasi tour guide for the readers. Whilst the 20th century was indeed, the peak of the visual culture, trying to fight modern western thought by denouncing vision and suggesting the ear as the main sensory organ, is far too simplistic and does not hold much theoretical vigour (Erlmann, 2004).
It is important to note that the point of this article is not to enter a naïve -and ultimately unnecessary- “sound-beats-other-senses” debate. After all, as a sound artist myself, I have experienced that senses can not exist independently from each other and sound art has a certain visual merit to it whether it is complimented by video/photo art or not (Iliffe, 2003).
However, due to necessary limitations that apply to the nature of this essay, I will try to focus on the constant “trade” between the creative process and the methodological tools (hence the use of the marketplace both as a point of departure, but also as a metaphor.
Even the greatest and most interesting fieldwork material can be hampered by bad storytelling and lack of imagination. It is what makes for the quintessence of the fascination inherent in qualitative ethnologic research: our findings are not quantifiable and there is no way of verifying an objective truth.
The process in which we -as ethnologists- interpret the cultural stimuli and form our own conclusions is more akin to the arts rather than science and therefore it makes sense -and it may indeed be valuable if we could “fill the gap” between anthropological research and artistic value. Nigel Thrift speaks about a
“…wild conceptuality which is attuned to the moment but always goes beyond it, which always works against cultural gravity, so to speak. This improvisatory virtuality provides an opportunity for an unsettled politics of advocacy which watch(es) the world, listening for what escapes explanation by science, law and other established discourses (Thrift, 2008).”
In that sense, sound, in all its ephemerality, fills every space with meaning and resonance, waiting for us to capture it. I can see that the market is just another busy hub of the city centre which, even though looks a little bit out of place lying between modern buildings and busy roads (especially for younger people and people coming from other countries), seems more or less mundane.
When trying to hear it though, a completely different narrative is set in motion: by setting up my mic in different places all over the market, the essence of a past century was being captured. The interplay between keynote sounds and sound marks was shifting (Schafer, 1994), revealing all the different cultural implications while also offering a unique basis for further sonic experimentation.
Sound capturing opened a portal of possibilities for both my ethnographic and artistic pursues, mainly because I had in mind that the cacophonous combination of every sound, every nuance and every little voice I heard, was a progression of unique and unrepeatable chords that would never be performed again.
Sound recording allows for the temporal dislocation of a sound from its time and place of origin but does not facilitate the ability to do the auditory equivalent of sustaining the gaze on an image for as long or as short as one desires. Thus, even though sounds can be reproduced and replayed, sound is often considered to have, by its nature, a kind of temporality that the visual may not share. This way of thinking about the temporality of sound, has often led to an essentialization of sound as ephemeral, or at least, elusive (Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa, & Porcello, 2010).
Especially in the case of the Kapani market, we can experience a very rare and exquisite phenomenon: the sounds of the past never really died. One can still hear pretty much the same things over the time, with ever so slightly changing details, like the humming of the cars in the background which has inevitably increased over the years and the different songs playing in the background.
This “failure” to keep up with the times is presenting to the sound artists/ethnographers with an opportunity to create their very own imaginary geographies. The sonic data gathered from the field, were not meant to replace my field notes or serve in any way as hard data. Drawing from the ideas of Elsewhereness (Willim, 2013), I preferred to risk losing some scientific validity in order to focus more on the sensory aspect. The sounds were retouched, manipulated and edited by me in order to convey the interpretation of the social context through my artistic vision.
“Elsewhereness can be seen as a surreal account of fieldwork practices, juxtaposing ideas about site-specificity with technological mediation and appropriation. Elsewhereness can also be seen as an alternative way to approach the boundary-work going on when fields and places are called forth through ethnography (2013).”
Such an approach can seem very estranging and confusing for most of the people still involved in de facto anthropological research. Someone could also pinpoint that it would be more scientifically valid, to just replay the captured sound with absolutely no editing from the artist/ethnographer. However this attempt to stay true to the source material is flawed for two reasons: Firstly, noise can never be reproduced. Not also is it ephemeral (although ever-resonating) by nature, but also, by capturing it, we are eliminating what makes noise, noise. Secondly, one can easily see that doing a sound ethnography is not at all different than composing a written one. The same rules still apply: Our job is not to try and recreate reality, but, surreal as it may sound, create and share our own version of it. I believe that we must be able to spur the imagination and also evoke feelings and senses.
Turning Noise Into Sound Into Music
This short essay started with the claim that “sound is powerful”. It is indeed inevitable to attempt an “ethnography of sound” and avoid using Schafer’s definition of the soundscape in any way. However, even though it is broadly used, it has many weaknesses in exploring the meaning within the intricacies that the aural field can bring forth to the ethnographer/artist. His notion of schizophonia (the principle that there is a direct schism between the original sound and the noise pollution caused by civilisation).
By treating noise as an unnatural sub-product that modern life has created (Schafer, 1994), he leaves no room for an active analysis of sound. Unsurprisingly, Schafer’s term has come under much criticism over the years. Many sound theorists like Steven Feld and Emily Thompson, offered some corrective uses of the term.
Feld suggested that we should attempt to move from schizophonia to schismogenesis. The latter is indeed a more flexible term, as it implies that schizophonia needs to be imagined processually and not as a monolithic move in the history of technology (Kelman, 2010), while Emily Thompson used the term to “frame the ways in which aesthetic and scientific concerns informed how builders and scientists approached sound and silence as both problems to overcome and ideals to pursue” (2010).
By shifting the way in which we perceive sound, Feld and Thompson allows us to be much more aware of “unwanted” noise and transforms it into an agent of meaning, rather than something that needs to be eliminated from everyday life.
White Noise is a piece of digital artwork by Andy Mercer which was uploaded on March 5th, 2011. The digital art may be…fineartamerica.com
Cultural analysis is very much about “reading between the lines”; pinpointing the complexity of the obvious in everyday mundane situations. Noise is indeed “culturally charged” and “can be associated with places, cultural distinctions with age or gender, with ideas about convenience and the rights of people (Willim, 2014).” In exploring noise, sound art can be our main methodological approach, a way to communicate nuances that couldn’t possibly be efficiently conveyed with words:
“Probes are collections of evocative tasks meant to elicit inspirational responses from people — not comprehensive information about them, but fragmentary clues about their lives and thoughts (Gaver, Boucher, Pennington, & Walker, 2004).”
In that sense, my fieldwork on the Kapani market is more of an art probe (Willim, 2013) rather than a standard ethnography.
By pure luck, it just so happened that I did my field recordings and research during the christmas holidays, a period during which the market is bustling with activity, with thousands of people visiting during the holidays. The air was filled with music, voices and city sounds, making it by definition an extremely lo-fi environment (Samuels et al., 2010), in which trying to distinguish the source of all the sounds was an impossible task. All that was left for me was to keep my ears open and indulge in the paradoxical crescendo of the city playing its atonal, non-harmonious music.
I realise that the sonic aspect of my work (still in progress) could be much more efficient if I had better equipment, but still, even this inconvenience withholds its own special meaning. As for the scientific value of my approach (although it is obviously very heavily influenced by other sound theorists and artists), it can only be measured by observing whether it succeeded in evoking an emotional response or questions from the listener.
Trying to make ethnographic research more of an experience -rather than just an emotionless absorption of information- is what we, as cultural analysts should strive for. This is surely not an easy task, because not only it requires a passion for both Art (be it visual, sonic, etc) and Anthropology, but because it also demands an audience which is ready to feel, be influenced, evoked and -in many cases- provoked.
However, it also requires a fundamental shift in the mindset of the researchers themselves. By having an artistic approach to our fieldwork and research, not only do we make ethnography accessible to anyone, but also open up a whole new channel of expression for people who -such as myself- find value in all the interesting details that people tend to ignore in their everyday journey through time and space.
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