Thursday, 26 January 2012

Sound:Site and lists

The relationship between place and sound is an important one; just think of how different Geography lessons would be if - in learning about a new country - we heard its soundscape before looking at a paper map or a floorplan of the terrain. Sounds speak of places in a very specific kind of way; you can tell at once when listening to a sound recording whether it was made in a furnished or unfurnished space; whether or not there was electrical equipment in the space at the time; and whether the space was big or small.

I am therefore excited that we have provisionally agreed that the wallpaper samples used in the Sonic Wallpaper project will not be presented all together as a static, touring exhibition, but rather dispersed around the city of London in a list of discrete locations, as framed exhibits to be displayed in places bearing some relationship to the sounds I am recording in response to them.

We hope to present the wallpapers in buildings which are linked somehow with the wallpaper interviews. Ideally, places where wallpapers will be framed and exhibited will also be the recording locations for collecting the sounds associated with this project, so that the relationships between sounds and sites will be maintained and considered from the outset.

To give an example of what I mean... in one interview, a particular wallpaper sample inspires a lovely fantasy about a dreamed-for "Writing Room". The interviewee then goes on to explore the soundworld of this room, describing a window opening to a nearby tree (where birds sing); a scratchy old inkwell and inkpen; and adventurous cats who disturb piles of parchment to dramatic, sonic effect. The interview is full of nostalgia for pre-computer times and for analogue tools; a nostalgia bought about, in part, by the faded and old-timey appearance of the wallpaper sample itself. There is also a monastic quality to the daydream inspired by this paper and the objects named in the course of the interview are simple; pens and paper, and a view to the outdoors.

In thinking about recording the sounds for this piece, I am interested in finding an environment (if it even exists today, anywhere in London) where bare floorboards, a dearth of furnishings, some creaky wood, and perhaps a clunky old casement window might be found. The sounds of an inkwell and a pen would make infinitely more sense in such a space, rather than if I recorded them in an office with thick carpets, double-glazing, and the inevitable whirring of modems, computer fans and fax machines underlying their solemn, scratchy quietness. If I could find such a place, wouldn't it be good if you could see where it was, go to that place, see the wallpaper sample which lead me - ultimately - to it, and hear the conversations and wallpaper dreams which provoked that journey?

Our method of display is still the subject of debate. We are wondering how visitors will access the sound-pieces. It is not practical to install players in each location, and so we are considering whether or not to use QR codes. If we put QR codes into the picture frames near the wallpaper samples, folks might use a smart-phone with installed bar-code-scanning-software to download the sound-pieces in situ, and hear them on their own headphones or phone speakers. We are also wondering whether or not to include a list of sounds - typed, as in the mock-up example shown above - so that some sense of the sound piece can be conveyed even if visitors have no mobile phone and software to play with. Our other idea is to create an online gallery containing all the sound pieces, so that they may be heard in advance of making a visit, or downloaded and burned onto a CD.

QR codes: what do you think? What I like is that they mean a visitor can go to see one of the wallpaper samples and download the audio piece which goes with it right there, right then. Yet there are some real disadvantages such as loading times, the expense of downloading data using a mobile network, and the fact that not everybody is familiar with this technology.

Of course, there are a lot of additional issues to work out with this mode of presentation. What if an environment which has the perfect sounds for one of the pieces has wallpaper which would clash dreadfully with the one we want to present there?

These are issues to consider as we go along, and are part and parcel of working in a site-specific way.

For now, what this approach means is that as I am going through all the interviews, I am thinking about what the relationship will be between the sounds I might record to bring the ideas discussed in the interviews alive, and about related, suitable sites where the wallpaper pieces might eventually be displayed.

I am therefore paying very close attention to the specific words which are spoken in the interviews, and am starting to make a lot of lists like this:

Yellow and white paper with spool/vase design


white pattern - slight crackle of newspaper pages turning
wicker chair - creaking
living room - old gas fire, like very 1960s or 1970s
"stands the test of time" - an old clock ticking... repetition
spools of cotton - winding and reeling - very close-mic'd

notes: the most important sound to record is going to be the clock sound; it needs to be precisely the right clock sound...
Also, I need some thread sounds and preferably to work with an accomplished weaver who can keep time and weave on a hand-loom.
This piece is all about repitition and detail and everyone notices the mathematical nature of the pattern; its rhythm, but also the fact that it is soothing; sound sources need to reflect this, and also the vintage quality of the paper... vintage technology like old clocks and old gas fires will be useful for doing this.
The tiny, detailed nature of the patterning brings to mind the specific quality of recording items from a very closeup vantage point; in sonic detail, so to speak.

sites: and

As I make these notes and lists about what sounds to record in relation to what wallpapers, I try to envision what might happen if, for example, someone is visiting the Clockmakers' Museum or the Handweavers' studio, and sees a curious piece of framed wallpaper on the wall that doesn't quite look in place. Will they ask themselves if they like the design or find it hideous? Will they notice the QR code? Will it be inviting? What will it be like to suddenly experience a little bubble of thought and sound relating to what previously looked like, well, a framed piece of wallpaper?

I also wonder if people might use an online map - in a manner a bit akin to Geocaching - to treat these wallpaper samples and the soundfiles which attend them as a kind of treasurehunt. Either way, I hope some people will get a surprise, and that little bursts of wallpaper dreams can fill dusty corners of London with the same humour and warmth and nostalgia and home-making visions which fill the interviews themselves, and which MoDA's amazing wallpaper collection inspires.


  1. I love the idea of QR Codes. I just tried yours out above, and the download was almost instantaneously (but I did have a WiFi connection, so superfast). But I also like the idea of being able to create a playlist beforehand, and then you could do a sonic wallpaper walk through London. I know you would make a beautiful map to go with it!

  2. its great that you are thinking of the different ways to re-present your material back to an audience and i love the way you will attempt to record these sounds in specific places. It all sounds brilliant.

    I'd look to use QR codes as a backup as i know you would not want to exclude anyone from hearing this extra information. Let alone the issues of bandwidth and download times in these public spaces. There is the issue of how many people have smart phones, & those that do actually use QR codes. I like the idea of joining other networks like Geocaching to post links/clues to your sounds (something i have been thinking of myself).

    The sounds need to be heard by everyone in the space and this is hard to install without expensive equipment.

  3. Thank you both for your feedback on the project. Tom - I am heartened to learn that the QR codes actually *work* for you, as well as for me.

    Joe - thank you for your comments. I am intrigued to find that someone else is looking at linking sounds with Geocaching; I think much could be done in this area to better connect sounds with sites. Like you, I believe in the ideal that "sounds need to be heard by everyone in the space" and I will certainly aim to make the sounds associated with this project as available as possible to audiences. However, in practical terms, installing speakers or playback devices at every site involved with this project is going to involve time and resources which are simply not available.

    Rather than seeing this as a negative situation or some kind of shortfall, I want to find alternative ways of disseminating sounds to audiences which don't involve installing expensive speakers and players. There must be ways of presenting sounds to audiences outside of the standard speakers/concert models!

    QR codes are one such option, but as the project grows I hope I will find others. Some ideas I'm writing about at the moment include:

    CDs and geocaching boxes (although GPS devices raise the same problems as smartphones and QR codes in terms of who has access to the technology)
    CD giveaway online resources (including downloadable audio content) to compliment the physical installation of wallpapers text descriptions available at each location
    a time-limited CDR giveaway/treasure hunt

    It's a growing list... please feel free to add to it if you have any inspiration regarding inexpensive ways of diving audio content to an audience!