Hyper-listening to the City

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Walking through a city without direction and following its sounds, may uncover unknown territories of urban experience. Without a concrete navigational strategy, the listening trail might be more productive than a planned urban journey from A to B, when it comes to reconnecting with the city more intimately, heightened in a migratory context. Such a psychogeographic approach may lead us to explore contemplative listening as a strategy for coping and surviving in contemporary urban environments.

These environments are experiencing a growing sense of post-apocalyptic angst due to climate catastrophe, global warming, mass migration, pandemics, racial differences and strained with networked surveillance and state policing. Given the question of endurance and survival in these times, the subjective position, wellbeing and autonomy of a city dweller matters. This existential perspective involves the practices of walking, listening, and chronicling (e.g. writing or field recording) as the ephemeral traces of an inter-subjective interaction with the city from an artist’s contemplative distance.

The situationists, whose ideas have attracted the deep interest of urban theorists and artists, employed the concept of “psychogeography” to describe a certain experimental practice of subjective and mindful exploration of (urban) place (Sadler 1999; Coverley 2010; Self 2007). Expanding their ideas into sound studies, we can examine how acoustic geography engages mental construction of space through hyper-listening (Chattopadhyay 2012, 2013, 2017, 2021) – a listening mode explored in my practice. 

A number of my sound-based media artworks emerge from these conceptual considerations. Their artistic processes shed light on the perception of a rapidly developing and expanding city by engaging with the multilayered sounds of a temporally coalescing past and present. Many of today’s cities carry remnants of a rural past in the contemporary hyper-modernity, for example, in the architectural relics, sounds, and voices from the bygone eras. This merging of time reflects the cumulative urban ambience, in which sounds from the historical times, such as the archival sounds, blend with sounds from current urbanisation and digital convergence. Through historically aware and spatiotemporally exploratory artistic practice, this essential and characteristic composite ambience of the city can be evoked.

Discussing the resulting artworks gives the opportunity to investigate and speculate on present urban conditions in Europe and America as well as in the Global South (e.g. South Asia, Middle East, and Africa) that are still recuperating from the colonial rubbles, whilst also experiencing rapid growth, a lack of urban design and state control through surveillance. Devising an unfolding situation of the vibrant but clamorous cities from the Global South in corresponding acts of psychogeographic drifting, deterritorialised listening and field recording, a number of my artworks examine the processes of sensing an apparently chaotic and disorganised city with its multi-sensory complexity to develop an intuitive and personalised urban sound design. In European cities, on the other hand, gentrification is a matter of concern – as the process of noise abatement wipes out diverse voices and sounds from the urban atmospheres. With a lack of multiplicity in their sonic environments, such settings may alienate active listeners, who look for plurivocal and vibrant ambiences. 

My artistic practice also responds to such experiences from a migratory listening position, one in which listeners are immigrant, nomadic, itinerant and social outsiders. This is the context of urban mobility, in which I devise the term “hyper-listening” – a coingage that underscores the necessity for an itinerant listener to embrace a contemplative listening method.  As philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara suggests (1990), a propensity to listen without making immediate judgments, may potentially lead to affective engagement with the urban sonic environments that are constantly in a flux for a nomadic ear. In this context, “hyper-listening” is a concept that operates as a set of exercises and collaborative experiments that encourage listening without making immediate judgments. The idea is to engage with the surrounding environment – and those who inhabit it – through the act of meditative listening.

Here, listening attentively is an act to compassionately engage with the surrounding environment, and the bodies that cohabit this environment. This perspective challenges the normative ideas of listening as immediate meaning-making to arrive at conclusions in order to navigate the city. Rather, I underscore in my practice how hyper-listening involves the mindful aspect of the listening act as framed in the term itself in order to expand the scope of the listening to nurture an unfolding process of self-attunement to the urban environment.

Departing from Jean-Luc Nancy’s theory of listening (2007) and Michel Chion’s listening modes (1994), I suggest how the mindful, context-aware, and temporally nonlinear aspects of listening transcends the ontological and epistemological constraints of everyday sounds. Termed “hyper-listening,” such spatiotemporally expansive and inward facing listening approach enables registering the poetic-contemplative states of a listener.

Such listening state generates social connection and affective engagement with the urban environment by a production of historically inclusive sonic subjectivity. This sense of subjectivity draws on memory, desires and reflections that arise from situated listening in a city of many migratory others, connecting with the city by personal reveries and associations. 

It often happens that an active, sensate but itinerant listener attuned to the shifting urban environments becomes absentminded or falls into a reverie when listening to certain sounds. They can be just everyday sounds we live by in our immediate environments. We usually do not attend to them in our daily chores. Some examples of these sounds may include a distant car horn out the office window, a flush of the toilet or the early morning drones from the street cleaning car. These sonic phenomena are nothing special; they appear and evaporate in our immediate environment during a working day without leaving any trace.

However, some of these sounds induce us to elevate ourselves to some other perceptual planes perhaps not directly related to the source or place of occurrence of the sonic phenomena. This exercise tends to empower the listeners to broaden their sonic worlds expanding the immediate moment towards the context-aware subjective associations, reveries, desires and deeply embedded assumption and trauma: for example, emotionally moving memories of the passing of a loved one, or past experience of an abuse.

Thus the listener is able to relate better to his or her personal narrative, memory, wound, and longings through a therapeutic process of self-listening. This personal exposure allows them to relate better not only to themselves but also, as a consequence of this self-attunement and sonic sensitisation, to their surrounding and others as an inclusive community of fellow listeners.

Hyper-listening to the everyday urban sounds in this way opens doors into another world beyond their intended immediate meaning or object-hood. They manage to unsettle a sensitive listener in such a way that they experience an elevated state of contemplation and emancipation. It seems that these sounds are not the specific causes for becoming absentminded, enjoying a sense of poetic detachment from the immediate reality; rather, somehow, an evocative but uncertain auditory situation unfolds around a listener as the sounds are perceived. This subtle formation is the point of curiosity in my current artistic practice, particularly in my listening-driven exploratory writings. 

For example, The Nomadic Listener (Chattopadhyay 2020) is an augmented artist book based on the notion of hyper-listening, considered here as a case study for discussion.

The book is based on my artistic research on migration, contemporary urban experience and sonic alienation. It is composed of a series of texts (60 in total) stemming from psychogeographic explorations (namely walking, listening, and site-specific writing) of a number of contemporary cities developed between 2012 and 2019, spanning three continents. Each of these 60 pieces of writings is an act of attentive listening, leading to the recording of the specific urban location in sound and poetic text, attempting to attune to the sonic fluctuations of movement and the passing of events. Spread over the pages of the book, these pieces of writings conjure a collection of meditations on the minutiae of life emerging, contemplatively interwoven with my own memories, associations, desires and reflections being in the city.

Sensitive readers and listeners are brought inside a playful and malleable map of contemporary urban experiences and the autonomous assemblage of the often lonely, surprising, and random interactions found in the act of walking through a city without any fixed direction but following its sounds, like a sonic drifter by means of being an itinerant, migratory and sensitive listener.

In this mode of sonic navigation, “hyper-listening” is a useful concept and methodological entry point to understand the ways in which a city dweller may experience emancipation and relief from a tense and oppressive sonic environment of contemporary cities through a poetic engagement with it, and opening the experience up for an evocative storytelling to share with other listeners. Let me discuss one excerpt from the book as an example of my artistic practice with hyper-listening, and work through my personal narrative: 

Water splashes on the jetty since the medieval times; the sound of this primordial contact between nature and culture cannot make me forget that some people didn’t keep their words to me. The unkempt city is slowly drowning – the water level is rising with each passing moment. The words that weren’t kept, the faces that turned away, the bird that never returned to the house garden – all these worldly imperfections are weighing heavily on the decks of the motorboats. The misgivings of the city-dwellers have piled up to make the dustbins at the street corners spilling over. Water is flowing through the darker corners of the city bringing up skeletons of failed marriages, unborn babies, love letters thrown away, unmade beds and pillows – all floating in the knee deep water, reborn for further speculation. People who didn’t keep their words to the city, now rushes to jump into motorboat to escape the city’s rebirth as a heartbroken wasteland. (Chattopadhyay 2020: 56) 

Written in Venice while listening to the overflowing lagoon from a jetty, this meditation imagines the future of this Italian city in the aftermath of the global warming and climate change. As widely speculated, Venice, like many other cities close to the water, will be submerged by rising sea levels within a few decades. For an attentive and sensitive listener, the listening act to such a troubled auditory situation generates evocative imaginings scribbled in a poetic form, where the real meets the surreal, and gives the stream of consciousness a narrative flow.

In a mode of audio storytelling, the field recording at the Venetian jetty traces the setting of the sensory interaction with the past, present and future of the city with many unfolding stories to be engulfed by the rising water level in darker times to come. The auditory situation of this moment unfolds through the context-aware hyper-listening that endows the listener envisaging the future of the city in a climate breakdown.  

My interest in the above-mentioned project lies in contextualising the stream of thoughts, or the personal contemplation that sounds trigger, particularly for a migratory listener. More often than not, these thoughts, when registered or written down as scribbles for retelling the experience to an empathetic listening community, appear as lyrical, touching upon certain reflective, abstract, and introspective states of the mind. My subjective-artistic position as a sensitive migratory entity, seeking urban safety, wellbeing and autonomy as well as connections, is informed and supported by this sonic intervention in a city through audio storytelling.

Such a psychogeographic approach may have led my artistic practice to self-attune my wandering ears for surviving in the contemporary European urban environments marred by systematic oppression, state surveillance and climate catastrophes. Retelling of these stories and sharing them with other city dwellers help nurture solidarity and empathy within a community of listeners as a mode of resistance and advocacy.  

References

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2020). The Nomadic Listener. Berlin: Errant Bodies Press.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2021). The Auditory Setting: Environmental Sounds in Film and Media Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2013). “Auditory situations: Notes from nowhere”. Journal of Sonic Studies 4 (Special issue: Sonic Epistemologies). 

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2017). “Hyper-listening: Praxis.” In: Mateus-Berr, R., and Reitstätter, L. (eds.), pp. 171-175. Art & Design Education in Times of Change. Conversations Across Cultures. Vienna: de Gruyter.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya (2012). “Soundhunting in a city: Chronicles of an urban field recording expedition”. Field Notes 3. Frankfurt am Main: Gruenrekorder.

Chion, Michel (1994). Audio-vision: Sound on screen. Gorbman, C. (ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Coverley, Merlin (2010). Psychogeography. Herts: Pocket Essentials.

Fiumara, Gemma Corradi (1990). The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (2007). Listening. Translated by C. Mandell. New York: Fordham University Press.

Sadler, Simon (1999). The Situationist City. London: The MIT press.

Self, Will (2007). Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury.

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an artist, media practitioner, researcher, and writer. Incorporating diverse media, such as sound, text, and moving image, Chattopadhyay produces works for large-scale installation and live performance addressing contemporary issues of climate crisis, human intervention in the environment and ecology, urbanity, migration, race and decoloniality. Chattopadhyay has received numerous fellowships, residencies and international awards. His works have been widely exhibited, performed or presented across the globe, and published by Gruenrekorder (Germany) and Touch (UK). Chattopadhyay has an expansive body of scholarly publication in the areas of media arts and aesthetics, cinema and sound studies in leading peer-reviewed journals. He is the author of three books, The Nomadic Listener (2020), The Auditory Setting (2021), and Between the Headphones (2021). Chattopadhyay holds a PhD in artistic research and sound studies from the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, and an MA in New Media from the Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University. https://budhaditya.org/

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