Conference Report: Invisible Places, Sounding Cities, Viseu, Portugal, July 11-20

By Theresa Harada

Figure 1. Viseu, Grao Vasco Museum, July 14, 2014, 2pm.

Figure 1. Viseu, Grao Vasco Museum, July 14, 2014, 2pm.

The conference of Invisible Places was held at the Escola Superior De Educacoe de Viseu and co-incided with the Sounding Cities program of Jardins Efemeros. This meant for around two weeks this historic city 150 kilometres inland from coastal Porto, was overrun with a diverse range of scholars, musicians, artists and performers who were all in one way or anther interested in sound as a medium. The city positively buzzed with music held in many of the attractive inner city parks where residents lolled in cafes alongside fountains, eating ice-cream and drinking wine and coffee in the warm evenings. Later, the narrow cobblestoned lanes of the historic centre of town hosted electrifying rock and jazz bands until 4 am, the streets were jam packed with market stalls and people dancing, drinking and eating.

Figure 2. Street stall, Adro da Se, Viseu, July 19, 2014, 11 pm.

Figure 2. Street stall, Adro da Se, Viseu, July 19, 2014, 11 pm.

Alongside the city festivals, there were many installations and events around the city where artists and sound producers demonstrated different perspectives on how sound helped to create connections with places and ideas. Among these were the ‘listening room’, ear-cleaning workshops, sound walks, performances, concerts and interactive workshops. The Mesa Project suspended 10 tables above city alleyways. The tables all played a sound recording that helped to relocate the suspended table in another context, for example the sounds of playing table tennis, the sounds of students at school, a jewellers work table etc. While the installation was well advertised around the town, and a talking point for conference goers, the reaction from local residents seemed rather minimal. The tables were perhaps secondary to the obvious band of foreigners who had descended on the city.

Figure 3. The Mesa Project, Viseu, July 15, 2014, 11 am.

Figure 3. The Mesa Project, Viseu, July 15, 2014, 11 am.

I took part in the ‘Good Vibrations Acoustic Cartography tour’ with Johan Deidrick from New York. Armed with an army style box to house our equipment, five of us rambled the city streets at night making sound recordings using a variety of devices: hydro-phones, probes and smooth surface detectors while simultaneously uploading them on a gps app developed for the tour. The local police circled suspiciously as we recorded the sounds of the fountain in the middle of town at midnight- a group of scruffy out-of-towners recording the soundscape of the city.

The conference itself had three key-note speakers who presented different theoretical and practical approaches to sound. From a theoretical point of view Jean-Paul Thibaud spoke of the importance of sonic ambiances and atmospheres in how we encounter everyday life. He encouraged more attention to the ‘little nothings’ that occur at the edge of our sensory periphery. Sound and vibration he posited ‘impregnated’ the body. While most had no problem acknowledging that sound passes through the materiality of the body, Thibaud’s use of this rather gendered term had the feminists a bit hot under the collar. The second key note however, Salome Voegelin presented an acoustic performance which echoed impressively around the gymnastic hall where we were gathered. Salome ‘sang a square’, ‘talked a circle’ and gave several readings which drew on the power of sound to create meaning. Pacing out across the floor, Salome used tones and pitches of voice to define an area as square. This was a performative piece that was open for interpretation, yet the general feeling in the room was that the affective resonances of voice and sound had a kind of spell binding effect which kept everyone sitting on the edge of their seats. Brandon La Belle was the final keynote and his address also reflected on the power of sound to connect or disconnect people from social and material spaces. Brandon argued that sound has the power to draw our attention to difference, and can create new opportunities for thinking about how we encounter difference in relation to everyday life.

Figure 4. My presentation, Escola Superior De Educacao De Viseu, July 18, 2014.

Figure 4. My presentation, Escola Superior De Educacao De Viseu, July 18, 2014.

Alongside the keynotes, there were a host of presentations that addressed such topics as the satellite signals from Saturn, the power of the sound of the police radio, complaints about air-conditioning and dog barking in New York, food operas, sound art community projects in South America, housing projects in Australia and my own about driving sounds and identity. Notable presentations were from Leah Barclay and Toby Gifford and their recordings of natural sounds from various nature reserves and national parks in the USA. Most impressive was their use of websites to disseminate information and to create community engagement with these projects. We are hoping that we will see them soon in Wollongong. Dr Sue McCauley, despite technical difficulties presented a synopsis of her work with the Vietnamese community in Melbourne and how sound had been used to provide an interactive work that captured the meanings of home for this group. Dr Anja Kanngieser spoke of a politics of listening in her presentation of the work she has carried out in the industrial areas of peri-urban India. She talked about the subjective meanings of sound that help define what is meant by noise. The presentations all stimulated cross-disciplinary sharing of ideas and despite the different approaches to sound, it seemed that many were willing to go beyond their perceptual boundaries.

So this takes me to Chaingi airport, loitering for many hours on my way home from the conference, where I was drawn to the sounds of trickling water and the soothing sounds of a waterfall. I pass the ‘rainforest lounge’ where all of the furniture is green and I can hear languid birdsong. In amongst myriads of tropical flowering orchids and gigantic ceramic orchid sculptures, a school of carp splash their tails and agitate the artificial pond. I sit back and muse on the power of sound to evoke physiological and psychological affects. Inspired by the work of Professor Gordon Waitt and Dr Michelle Duffy and their work on sound, and buoyed by the mulit-disciplinary perspectives that I encountered in Viseu, I contemplate the exciting possibilities for using sound in my current and future projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *