Urban Soundmaps

Urban Soundmaps

Over the past decade, a great deal of sound mapping projects in the cities have emerged along with a growing scholarly and artistic interest in the relation between sound and urban experiences with a feat of communication technologies. Locative media devices made the audience participatory sound mapping possible. Most of projects use Google Maps API, which provides free service for non-commercial purpose websites, for a platform of sharing recorded sounds. On the map, the locations in which recordings are taken place have a signpost, showing the connection of place and sound in a visual way.

Capturing distinctive sounds in cities, the exhibitions try to materialize the everyday urban life in a sonorous form, rather than in a visible form that has been dominant for a long time. It is interesting to see how sounds become materialized on virtual spaces by digital recording and preservation and mediate urban experiences based on certain places. Also, they provide a totally different form of embodied experience compare to listening to audio CDs of sound archiving. Audiences become participants in the process, manifesting the characteristics of the urban spaces defined by sounds that they experience in everyday life.

I examine three sound mapping projects designed to foster participatory experience. Although they aim to invite audiences’ participation and makes exhibitions collaborative, rather than controlled, the ways in which audience’s level of participation varies according to the curators/artists’ design of the space. Even depending on the same map application, curators/artists make different choices in terms of framing, tagging, mixing, etc. in order to crystallize their concepts and ideas on urban sounds and urban experience.


1. Sound-seeker http://www.nysoundmap.org/

Sound-seeker is a map based participatory sound recording project in New York City area since 2006. It’s a part of NYSoundmap project of The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology (NYSAE). According to their statement, the project aims to “[reach] across the city’s geographic, economic, educational, cultural and racial divides,” which eventually constitutes “a historical record and a subjective representation of the city” by recording and sharing sounds via the internet. The structure of this project is quiet simple. Participants can record sounds and submit them via email and mail CD or minidisk. The map presents where the sounds are recorded. Simply clicking on one of the pins on the map, audiences can listen to the sound. Recorded sounds are varied. Many individuals, including the artists who participated in the project, recorded sounds which might have special resonance in them. Listening to each sound itself could be a meaningful experience.

However, their map setting as satellite by default seems problematic because the ways in which satellite based map is not automatically in sync with the time when the sound was recorded. Although it’s interesting to see the visual image of place, the audience should be reminded that the satellite images have taken at a different time. Otherwise, it might give incorrect information and could affect how one receives the sound.

NYSAE’s objective, an integration of city’s geographic, economic, educational, cultural and racial divides through recording and listening to sounds, fails to provide logical explanations and significance of various sounds for its own purpose. In what ways does a sound recording capture such aspects at the first place? What sorts of sounds deliver a representative value of the city? I think they need to contexualize their work with more developed and a better setting for such exhibition they intended; otherwise it might appear an open platform archive (with low participation), contrary to its own purpose of an exhibition.

2. Soundcities (www.soundcities.com)

Different from Sound-Seeker, a collaboration-based work, Soundcities is developed mostly by one artist, a.k.a. Stanza. Although the project also is designed to invite public participation for archiving sounds, much of listed recordings have already done by him. Organized by one artist with a clear direction, the exhibition maintains consistency. Stanza recorded sounds in many different cities, trying to define representative sounds of each city and culture for 12 years. According to the instruction on the website, Soundcities is the first online open source sound map (2000) and sound database (2004) of cities. It is an independent online exhibition and does not have external funding or connection to institutions.
Stanza mentions that the project aims to “create an aural experience that evokes place,” exploring “how the sounds reflect [cities’] identities and re-impose characteristics back onto the location or environment” based on the inert musical compositions of sounds. He recorded laughing, talking, street music, etc. at almost every cities so that this project provides the archives of everyday life sounds from various cities, illustrating distinctive cultural identities. On the other hand, the musical composition of urban sounds is tagged into the following categories: ambient, rhythm, beat, boredom, noisy etc.
Overall, the exhibition organized well along with the artist’s intention of recording urban sounds. Also, by establishing the exhibition first with artists’ works and then opening to the audiences to be participated in, consistency of the exhibition could remain afterwards. This project shows a good example of a Net Art, which an artist works as a curator for the sake of the exhibition.

3. sound@media – Seoul sound map (http://som.saii.or.kr/campaign) + YOU.MIX.POEM (http://som.saii.or.kr/ymp/)

Sound@Media is a “webzine/on-line project featuring audio culture and sound artistic practices in Seoul, initiated by Saii, funded by Seoul Foundation of Arts and Culture.” They launched a Seoul sound map project as a “campaign,” with its aim to bring attention to sounds in mundane life and build up an open source sound archive in Seoul, 2010. The way of sound mapping is pretty similar to other projects. What is distinctive of their project is that they provide listings of various urban sounds on which a new sound project is based.

YOU.MIX.POEM project, drawing from mundane background sounds of Seoul Soundmap provides a great example of participatory sound arts. YOU.MIX.POEM composes of two different sections – recorded poetry and background sounds from Seoul Soundmap is designed to invite anyone to utilize with these resources and create their own work. The curators of YOU.MIX.POEM developed poetry readings in different voices (gender, age). Curators, in collaboration with web designers, utilize a popular form of time-based editing applications so that one can easily get access to the application for mixing. The objective of this project, featured in their website introduction, is to bring gift economy with no cost as well as to foster opportunities for lay people audience to take part in sound art and share one another for free, thereby celebrating digital age.

Shown in their website, numerous people have participated and listed their new creative sound artwork. They do not just blast fanfares of digital age but more importantly provide detailed guidance and examples so that one can actively engage in the concrete, accessible, and fun creative ideas for participatory sound artworks. Thus, Sound@Media truly becomes an exemplary Net art what Christiane Paul (2006, 85) describes “a space for exchange, a collaborative creation and presentation that is transparent and flexible”.

Paul, Christiane, 2006 “Flexible contexts, democratic filtering and computer-aided curating: Models for online curatorial practice”, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5.

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