Whenever I go to a new city, the first thing I do is ride the urban transit. Beyond the practical importance of urban rail, trains are unique spaces: both time-keepers and timeless, constantly changing their geographical location while their interior remains static. Within the train car, this non-real-feeling space, there are all reaches of the city existing simultaneously. Through a set of works presented here I am working to understand and elucidate some of the ways our urban spaces develop their meanings. Drawing from the work of Pauline Oliveros, I am focusing on listening to spaces beyond the level of recognizable sounds. I am fascinated by trying to uncover the abstract compositions and moods that lie in the world around us–the systems, cycles, and processes embedded in the environment around us. I wanted to investigate artistically how these cycles and processes can be used as elements of expressivity and atmosphere in composition, and reciprocally how this composition can reify the strange beauty I find in the spaces of heterotopias.
The French social theorist Michel Foucault first codified the concept of the heterotopia in his work Of Other Spaces. He writes:
“The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place
several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that
the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole
series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very
odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space…”
Heterotopias also exist simultaneously in multiple reference frames of time. Museums and libraries are heterotopias of eternal time constantly accumulating more, while festival grounds are entirely transitory. Foucault and later Lefebvre would view this phenomenon of space with negative connotations, of undermining something about the real. However, in the 21st century, the heterotopia offers many prospects to designers, architects, and artists. This concept has fascinated and resonated with me: how can I find and capture this sense of alternate time in different realm of reality and use that to convey something expressive? I find public transit systems in particular to be a fascinating instantiation of the concept of the heterotopia, a network of points for human interaction, connecting vastly different sectors of the same city and transporting them into the same space (the railcar and the metro station). People of completely different social groups meet and interact here. This is especially true of many of the cities outside of the U.S. where the metro system serves as a space for all sectors of society (in the U.S. the use of public transit in most cities is defined very much by class). These networks are a palimpsest, reflecting the important nodes and paths through the city over the years as the cities change. Urban transit systems are strange heterotopias: the people constantly change, the geographic location changes, however, the internal environment is the same and time passes at a different rate inside and outside. Moreover, these urban systems (from a biotic viewpoint) reflect an almost organismic quality of human ecology. I wanted to capture this atmosphere and to abstract the soundspace of the railcars and metro stations into something focused more on the rhythms and and cycles of life encapsulated in these spaces.
I had the opportunity to actualize this project through the generosity of the Gindroz Prize at Carnegie Mellon University. I charted my itinerary for 118 days, covering most of Europe, with a budget of $5000 provided by the grant. I reached out to STEIM and was lucky enough to receive support from them. While at STEIM I finalized my process of data collection using contact microphones (a microphone that picks up vibrations in a solid surface) and worked with Esther Polak and Julie Dessaud regarding the details of approaching this project. The creation of the work songlines mostly involved me backpacking across the European continent for 118 days. I came packed in one backpack, with a zoom microphone and a small laptop as my only tools for creation. Getting to STEIM I realized I needed different data than that of a traditional soundscape. I realized my answer was in contact microphones. Essentially, I transformed the railcars into instruments in their own right and the rail map into the score. For each city, I recorded the entire length of the metro or tram network with a contact microphone on the window of the train car. I settled on a serial FM synthesizer because it provided the clarity in representation of the data source (and the number of inputs) combined with the strange sense of motion with timelessness that I found to be a key to my subjective experience. I then used the vibrations recorded by the contact microphone to modulate frequencies in relation to the signal data (frequency, amplitude) with the foundation frequency of each recording based on the average pitch of the metro system of that city. Each line was then layered on top of each other. Thus, cities with more urban rail lines will have more complex polyphony compared to cities with only one single line.
Each city presented its own set of challenges and inspiration. The carrier frequency is based on the primary fundamental frequency of the train cars themselves (recorded with with a Zoom portable microphone). In Amsterdam, I found I had not yet perfected my timing and found myself stranded at the ends of the line of the tram several times after the last train and had to walk back to my apartment on the other end of the city. In Paris, I did not use the contact microphone (with its conspicuousness and wires) because I did not want to worry an already paranoid city. In all of the cities, I took the chance to get out of the station at the far stops of every tram/metro line and wander around for a bit. These far reaches of the city, technically wired into the transit arteries, the heartbeat of the city, but so distant from the center in many ways.
The process of this project was distinctive for me because of how much of it was a process of passive absorption, introspection, sensing, recording, gathering without transforming, creating, writing anything besides the fragmentary notes and sketches and traces. The process of recording each line was long. The process of recording the whole project was also very long. I had to be present and embodied in the experience throughout, and this definitely highlighted to me the immersiveness of time and the expressivity in itinerancy. The process of the work itself was itinerant and surprisingly labor intensive and emotionally exhausting. I, generally, thoroughly enjoy public transit and people watching in these ordinary spaces. This process turned out to be much more than capturing data, but capturing the mood of the space and myself into the synthesis. This work is not about myself, my journey, or my process. However, because of this process and journey I feel a deep connection with this work. I feel a piece of myself and a chunk of my life encapsulated into each of these songlines. I hope the audience is entranced by these cycles of time, the sense of motion and stasis, the palimpsest of history, and the surreality I found to be encompassing in the process of making these works and I believe are hidden in the sounds and spaces of the infrastructures and environments of the built world.
After the bumps along the way, the first iteration of the work from the Amsterdam segment incorporating both my manipulated recordings with the recordings submitted by members of the public was premiered in Amsterdam at the Vondelbunker on the 18th of July 2017 with Max Kuiper = Les Horribles Travailleurs, Jacob DeRaadt = Sterile Garden, Luis A. Gonzalez = Lavas / Magmas as part of their “Psychogeographic Collaborations” tour. The final version of songlines was premiered in Pittsburgh, PA, USA at the Frame Gallery on November 5th, 2017.