“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” ― Felix Mendelssohn
Staffa is a remote island situated in the Atlantic Ocean, 16.3 miles west of the Isle of Mull in Scotland. It is bizarrely shaped by hexagonally jointed basalt and instead of humans accommodates Puffins. Flocks of tourists venture to Staffa on a regular basis to experience the unique sound of Fingal‘s Cave.
An Uaimh Bhinn, the Gaelic name of this sea cave, fittingly translates to Cave of Melody. Eerie sounds escape the cave, as waves roll in and simultaneously try to find their way out after smashing into its dead end of rock and stone. Each wave creates an individual set of gurgling sounds, which come together in a hypnotic, anti-rhythmic musical piece.
German classical composer Felix Mendelssohn found himself deeply moved by the elemental performance of Fingal‘s Cave. In response to his experience and time spend on Staffa Island he created the overture The Hebrides.
From the outset and throughout music‘s history, natural habitats posed a rich source of inspiration for the development of instruments, songs and rhythms. The world‘s oldest-known instruments are flutes found in caves in the south of Germany. Fabricated from bird bone or mammoth ivory, these artifacts are approximately 42.000 years old.
”It is easy to imagine how […] we would have blown air through the hollow of wood or bone tubes to produce a broad range of resonances“, writes professional sound recordist Bernie Krause in his book The Great Animal Orchestra. While the shape of these flutes resembles reed, Krause adds that their functionality may as well been derived from nature: ”[…] five holes carved in the length of the tube generate a crude pentatonic sequence of notes […]“.
Amongst others, this acoustic spectrum reflects the (infamous) bird songs of the common potoo and the musician wren – Britain’s most common breeding bird.
Mimicry was not the only method humans used in the course of acoustic expression. Music of indigenous tribes such as the Ba‘Aka of the Dzanga-Shanga rain forest and the Yanomami of the tropical Brazilian mountains is strongly connected to the sounds of their acoustically diverse environments.
”For the Yanomami, the rhythms and melodies of rain striking vegetation and the surface of puddles are strong features of their traditional music“, explains Krause. When making music, Ba‘Aka and Yanomami react to forest rhythms, and also incorporate additional sound elements of local insects or frogs into their performances. This (formerly) close relationship was enforced by the fact that music was more than an activity of pure leisure. Acoustic information helped humans to navigate land, interpret dangerous situations or structure life patterns and spirituality.
With the building of cathedrals the symbiotic natural-human orchestra started to break down. Thick stone walls facilitate reverberation, which creates an auditory illusion of ample space. In the 14th century, that was the preferred setting for the creation of music and its performance. At the same time, these walls kept natural sounds out. The separation between human and wild musicians on a physical level entailed a fundamentally different relationship with nature.
”From the Renaissance to the present, Western culture has ardently drawn its understanding of the world from the growing influence of science,“ writes Bernie Krause and identifies this to be the turning point for things and music to come.
The wild and feral character of the environment was no longer perceived as a sophisticated system, but rather primitive, uncontrollable and thus adversarial to all scientific knowledge. Nature embodies chaos, which needs to be improved upon in a rational way. Ideals of a structured world found their way into works of art, music and the planning of parks. As a result, visitors and residents of London are free to roam the organised and well-crafted Royal Parks.
Technological progress has and continues to reform most aspects of human life – music is no exception. From amplified instruments, to professional recording studios and Auto-Tune – the intersection of technology and music remains a fruitful space for creative experimentation. With the 25 billionth song download from the iTunes store in 2013 it is fair to assume that melodies, rhythms and sounds drifted off into all kinds of directions and often enough far away from music‘s natural origin.
Besides listening to overfed iPods, human ears are challenged to make sense of alien additions to the acoustic environment. Today, the voices of waves, wind, thunder and rain co-clang with the mechanical noise of machines. A few of these noises, such as the sound of an alarm clock in the morning, help to navigate through life. Other noises have no apparent utility, but turned out to be useful over time. A roaring car engine transports information about its direction of motion and can pose a pre-visual warning system for crossing a road. Finally, there is an undisclosed amount of audio without any social or informative significance, which humans learn to ignore or spend money and effort on shielding out.
From many years of experience as a sound recordist in the field, Bernie Krause makes an educated guess that human-made sounds intrude more than 80 to 90 percent of the world‘s habitats. With that in mind, does our contemporary sonic environment, including inherent and evolved acoustic elements, concord? Does it form the beautiful unity in variety as proposed by Mendelssohn? Or is it out of sync?
I live in the London Borough of Wandsworth, more precisely under the flight path serving the southern runway of Heathrow Airport. That means I am exposed to noise from all types of aircraft engines on average every 90 seconds. Slightly less frequent at night between 0.00 AM to 4.30 AM. Aircrafts and helicopters pass directly over my house and backyard, creating noise levels of 65 decibel, often rising up to 80 decibel. These values are based on personal observations, using a regular clock and the smartphone application SPLnFFT Noise Meter.
Sound levels of said extend bear various health risks and compromise the quality of life through sleep disturbance. They can affect (cognitive) task performance and are primary matter for annoyance responses in residential areas. While the properties (time of day, amount, source) play a decisive role, the World Health Organization identifies noise above 50 decibels to be generally disturbing.
Estimations are difficult and qualifying research is scarce, however,there is evidence that noise can influence social behaviour. Based on personal experience I can confirm that the sound of aircraft engines keeps me from sitting in my backyard, thus messes with my engagement in recreational activities. Yet, I am not the only one prone to acoustic-induced behaviour change.
Aberystwyth University conducts an annual Nestbox Survey, which revealed that ”[b]irds seem to sing at a higher pitch (frequency) the higher the level of background noise - presumably so that they can be heard above all the racket.“
Apart from adapting their singing voice, birds developed a second strategy to make themselves heard in urban settings: nocturnal singing. Vocalisation during night-time allows animals to take advantage of quieter conditions with fewer competitive sounds.
One of the core thoughts behind this thesis revolves around the notion that acoustic environments either support or impair the exchange of information between living beings.
On the one hand, speech intelligibility of conversations between humans stands and falls with the level of background noise. On the other hand, animals too struggle to communicate through cacophony. They are accustomed to an evolved, well-matched sonic spectrum where each species keeps to its particular niche. An adjustment of behavioural patterns might be the only solution to avoid noise. Otherwise, animals face severe, even lethal consequences.
Birds, mostly males, sing for multiple reasons. Foremost to distinguish themselves through their signature song and to claim territory during mating season. Deteriorating acoustic conditions of habitats, implicate difficulties for males to attract plumed ladies. At the same time, females struggle to identify corresponding partners.
Claiming territory and mating are not the only motivations for distinctive acoustic behaviour of animals. Some toothed whales, as well as the snapping shrimp use targeted sound to stun their prey. Spadefoot-toads gather in groups and engage in synchronous choruses. With all of the toads croaking together, predators such as foxes and owls struggle to locate one single toad.
”If the pulsating, rhythmic structure is lost, however, and individuals become noticeable when trying to recoup their place in the chorus, all hell can break loose“, reports Bernie Krause. An aircraft passing over spadefoot-toad terrain can cause these moments of acoustic chaos. Apparently their survival is closely linked to the ability to vocalise themselves clearly.
”[W]hile a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, a natural soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”― Bernie Krause.
This quote illustrates the core thought behind the book The Great Animal Orchestra, in which Bernie Krause introduces the novel conceptual framework of Soundscape Ecology and explains the related interaction between geophony, biophony and anthrophony.
The term geophony includes geophysical sounds, i.e. wind or rain. Biophony refers to sounds created by animals that live in wild places and anthrophony refers to all human-made acoustics, including noise caused by machines. These three form a soundscape, which can describe ”[…]the acoustical characteristics of an area that reflect natural processes.“
Lincoln Meadow is a strip of public forest land in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1988 Bernie Krause obtained permission to record the soundscape of the area. Afterwards, the same forest was put through a selective logging operation. The two images on the next page show spectrograms of the area before and after the completed procedure. For a better understanding: spectrograms displays three dimensions of sound; time on the x axis; frequency on the y axis and intensity or amplitude via a color code.
Bernie Krause, (1988, 1989), Lincoln Meadow before and after Selective Logging
Upon his return one year later Krause recalls ”[he] was delighted to see that little seemed to have changed.” Yet, his sound recording soon painted a different acoustic picture. The voice of the meadow had changed completely. Gone was the previous density of bird songs and gone was the richness in the chorus from diverse other creatures.
He concludes: ”To the easily deceived human eye – or through the lens of a still or video camera – the site even now appears wild and unchanged from the narrow perspective of the meadow. […] Still photography lends itself beautifully to the close-up shots of single animals absent the complex communities they need in order to thrive, and is thus a kind of tolerated distortion.”
Soundscapes carry an additional, acoustic layer of knowledge about a landscape. It takes attentive listeners to decipher the data and its meaning. Consequently, reports on the health or state of any environment are only complete if prevailing sounds are taken into consideration. Rachel Carson was first to articulate the idea of an inextricable link between nature‘s sounds and the quality of habitats. In 1962, she published the book Silent Spring, which explained this phenomenon and brought it to a wider audience.
On the south bank of the River Thames in the London Borough of Wandsworth, lies a green space that goes by the name of Battersea Park. Amongst other things, its 200 acres accommodate one peace pagoda, war memorial, children‘s zoo and events center. Visitors are able to exercise on artificial sports tracks or fields, row a boat on the lake, sit on a bench by the fountains or wander through one of the themed gardens. Furthermore, Battersea Park is home to miscellaneous wildlife including mammals, fish and a variety of birds, such as Robin, Greenfinch, Wren and Great tit, as well as a healthy Heron population. The vegetation is a vibrant mix of domestic and foreign plants, plus a few reasonably old trees.
Prior to the first formation of the park, (then) Battersea fields consisted of fertile marsh land and was a popular place for fighting duels. When it first opened to the public in 1854, it was noted for its horticultural displays. Thereafter, the park underwent several transformative developments. As part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, a large part of the area alongside the river was appropriated to the construction of the Festival Pleasure Gardens, which were turned into a permanent attraction entertaining visitors until it closed in 1974. Since 1986 the management, restoration and upgrading of the garden is in the hands of Wandsworth Council and contingent on financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Today, Battersea Park is a Grade II listed Historic Park and Garden by English Heritage.
While looking into the past of Battersea Park may be of historic interest, one important circumstance remains unexpressed in all of the reviewed sources: Battersea Park too lies under the flight path serving the southern runway of Heathrow Airport.
The current period of human history is often referred to as the Information Age, albeit, basic vocabulary used within the field of Information Technology and its related research area Information Systems seems to cause general confusion. The following passage offers a selective overview and brief definitions of its most common and relevant terms: data, capta, information and meaning.
Data represent all objective facts existing in the universe,that could be measured, collected and processed by human beings or automated systems.
Capta are data that have been captured, which means someone selected and categorised them as relevant. ”This process is generally simply a matter choosing to pay attention to particular facts“, write Peter Checkwell and Sue Holwell, authors of the book Information, Systems and Information Systems.
Information presents itself in abundant ways. The only universally valid statement across all types of information would be that they are in a state of flux. However, the following contemplation underlines an important thought for the course of this paper: ”Information is that which results when some human mental activity (observation, analysis) is successfully applied to data to reveal its meaning or significance.“
Lastly, meaning describes the transformation of information by adding context. An intrinsic process, deeply correlated to learning and knowledge, that helps individuals to make sense of their surrounding.
”By some accounts the world’s information is doubling every two years. This impressive if unprovable fact has got many people wondering: what to do with it?“ remarks sustainable design wunderkind John Thackara and points to a potential pitfall of generally rhapsodical approach to data, especially big data.
It is fair to assume that the sheer amount of data challenges the process to make sense of it all. Subsequently, being able to focus and make informed selections gets increasingly important. An alternative strategy could be to find innovative ways to capture data in the first place.
Usman Haque is one of the founding partners of Umbrellium, an agency for participatory products and services based in London. Their projects focus on scenarios that help citizens to make sense of their urban environment. Often resulting in a mass-participatory spectacle.
During a recent interview with The Guardian, Haque goes further into the question how to make data more meaningful. His answer is hands-on: ”One of the best ways to make data more meaningful is to make it yourself. Measure something – your body, your home, your neighbourhood – and it helps you to not only understand something about it, but more importantly it helps you to figure out the questions you want to ask and the hypotheses you want to assess.“
Being an advocate for tangible data, Usman Haque proposes to either witness the collection of data or revisit the place and time where it happened. Thereby the data consumer becomes also its collector and is thus able to capture not only the desired material but soak in ”[…] all the unspoken, ambient, implicit, informal and unrecorded metadata that datasets and visualisations strip out with their numeric authority.“
John Thackara seconds Haque‘s contemplations by suggesting to ”[c]onsider, for a start, all the things that matter, but which cannot be counted.“
Within the scope of this thesis I adhered to the same idea and planned all research accordingly. I made the conscious decision to disregard any information that could have been derived from a spreadsheet and instead used the Zoom H4n digital recorder to gather sounds of Battersea Park on my own. Based on this capta, my initial impression of the garden turned out to be an absurd sensation:
"It looked like a park, it sounded like an airport runway, sports event, construction site and kindergarden amongst other things."
Self-proclaimed data entrepreneur Chris Downs is, well, obsessed with data. In his own words he is certain that ”[T]he iconic products of the future won‘t be made of plastic or glass - they will be made of data.“
In May 2014 I was able to attend a Data Jam at the Open Data Institute in London, hosted by Chris Downs. Exploring data-driven ideas on the basis of a service design template was solid, however, Downs suggestion to use data as a material for design and his related hierarchy of possible applications held further insights.
First comes the data visualisation. A quantitative representation of data, serving the purpose of analysis.
Secondly, Downs ranks Infographics. Highlighting patterns and trends can aid viewers to process complex information. Infographics are also commonly associated with the concept of storytelling.
Lastly, data services and data products complete this sphere. They are geared towards an audience of users, not spectators and usually feature a distinct utility. Practitioners in this field endeavour to create systems or networks, that enable the potential user to consume and participate at the same time.
For the sake of completeness I propose a fourth use and enjoyment of data as a material: Data Activism.
Going on strike is probably the most conventional form of Activism. Its purpose is to challenge the status quo and (in the best case) trigger social change. The driving force behind activism does not necessarily need to be of human nature – objects or structures can address problems in the same way.
Based on this idea, the practice of Critical Design evolved. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby coined the term and relate their projects to ”[…] haute couture, concept cars, design propaganda, and visions of the future,“ with the purpose to ”[…] challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.“
Another discipline that branched out in the name of Activism is Tactical Media. Projects that fall under this discipline are concerned with the manipulation and production of technological artifact, systems and events that comment on current public affairs.
Overall, Activism, Critical Design, and Tactical Media describe disciplines that – in slight variation – intend to do the work of agonism. Agonism meaning ”[…] a condition of disagreement and confrontation – a condition of contestation and dissensus.“
Data affords promising potential as a tool for Activism, especially in combination with computing technology. As mentioned by Chris Downs, computation is a contemporary field for experimentation. There is a great number of case studies that indicate a characteristic affinity between central strategies of Critical Design and computation.
Revealing hegemony means the exposure of sovereign forces that influence society and have the ability to manipulate people‘s opinions. Writer, artist, publisher and technologist James Bridle‘s project Watching the Watcher is a picturesque example of this tactic.
Bridle searches online satellite maps for images of military surveillance drones and re-publishes them in a publicly available Flickr set. ”Watching the Watchers is part of a wider body of work, exploring the presence and impact of military drones. By rendering them visible, Bridle renders their operation and politics legible, and thus open to intervention.“
An alternative intervention lies in the concept of extension. ”Extensions […] leverage the capacity for transcoding: they access data from one application or service and pass it to another to produce a new functionality.“
Oil Standard is a web browser plug-in by interdisciplinary designer Michael Mandiberg. It converts U.S Dollars into their corresponding value in crude oil. Monetary amounts on any given website are thus replaced with a (fluctuating) new currency in real-time.
Natural Fuse is a fusion of power socket and plant. The system sets off expended electricity against the ability of plants to store carbon. The fate of the plant is in the hands of users and their handling of available energy. Natural Fuse provides a playground to explore issues surrounding carbon and hopes to transfer knowledge about responsible energy consumption.
Haque‘s project draws on the tactic of Ubiquitous Computing or ubicomp for short. ”In its most basic form, ubicomp is about embedding computation into everyday objects, thereby enabling those objects to sense, process, and respond to the actions of others and the surrounding. When these objects are networked together, they are able to share data among each other, resulting in systems and environments of aware and responsive objects – and making computation ever-present.“
For the purpose of creating the practical part of this thesis, I used experiential data – acoustic information hunted and recorded in Battersea Park – as a material.
Once again Battersea Park faced refurbishment. In a break from history, this time acoustic information took center stage in all development plans. Ultimately, Battersea Park emerged as Battersea Concert Park. Instead of a venue or building, this novel type of concert hall relies on existing structures of the garden. Stages and artists appear on their own device throughout the park. A continuous program, depending on season, weather and the goodwill of players from geophony, biophony and anthrophony can be enjoyed all year round. Battersea Concert Park encourages visitors to listen to the soundscape of the area.
While the idea is a theoretical concept, the sounds of the park are real. Declaring the naturally occurring acoustic environment to be deliberately composed and adding the context of a concert hall can work as a cognitive hearing aid for humans. In this way, the project endeavours to provide a tool that helps to process rather than ignore noise. Listening creates additional knowledge, in this case, the revelation that the visual and acoustic properties of Battersea Park are internally inconsistent. In further consideration this thesis stresses the significance of soundscapes for the practice of urban planning and advocates an integral approach.
Representation of recorded sounds from several spots in Battersea Park, in the format of ten individual, one minute audio tracks available via a Soundcloud playlist.
Telling the story of where and when to hear particular sounds of the Battersea Concert Park. Communicated though a map, which also serves the purpose of a program for (approximate) timings of sessions. Available as a free download from the Battersea Concert Park website.
The official website of Battersea Concert Park. Users have the option to listen to the Summer Program 2014, explore the venue online or download and print the corresponding map. Furthermore, visitors can ask and read frequently heard questions or find guidelines on how to open a concert park.
As mentioned previously, environmental noise can interfere with communication. In order to create and preserve integrated living conditions for humans, animals and plants alike, acoustics play an important role.
Noise can pose a threat to wildlife, therefore this issue needs to find a place in discussions on nature conservancy, alongside (more popular) topics such as habitat loss or poaching. Researching the relationship between sound and the environment can be summed up under the fairly young discipline of Acoustic Ecology – sometimes referred to as Soundscape Ecology „The Science of Sound in the Landscape.“
Unique sounds of nature made their way into various fields of interest. Researchers, scientists, artists, musicians and others investigate or integrate them in their work. Today, Acoustic Ecology can be found on the agenda of University courses and international symposiums or bring together a world-wide network of associated organisations under the name of The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE).
The WFAE pursues a series of educational, scientific and cultural goals, including research and distribution of information, deepening understanding of sounds and their meaning, as well as protecting silent places.
In March 2011 the American Institute of Biological Science (AIBS) presented a paper on Soundscape Ecology with the intention to establish a consistent rationale of the topic. It constitutes a suitable basis for future research and application. A necessary undertaking, say its authors, since ”[…] soundscapes are our auditory link to nature.“
This headline shares the title of a symposium and art exhibition dedicated to sound, urbanism and sense of place. The city of Viseu (Portugal) hosted the event as part of ”[…] their promoting policies of cultural awareness, urbanism and sustainability.”
AIBS‘s paper on Soundscape Ecology and the Invisible Places symposium represent the root for the line of thought that justifies the place of this thesis within the sustainability agenda.
Beginning with the notion that ”[…] soundscapes can influence human well-being“, and also learning that ”[n]atural and unique soundscapes have many associated human ideals, such as cultural, sense of place, recreational, therapeutic, educational, research, artistic, and aesthetic values.“
For the purpose of this project I consider the impact of environmental noise on the sense of place vitally important.
„We know that the prevalence of noise or sounds that do not convey any social significance and are a disturbance of the quality of life, reduces the ability to identify with the place we inhabit. It is therefore urgent to think about the acoustical problems societies are facing today and integrate that thinking in urban planning, architecture and management of public space, because the idea we have of ourselves, our personal awareness and the relationships we build in the external world, are inextricably linked to a space.
We all exist somewhere. And personal identity also relates to this,“ reads the introductory text from the website of the Invisible Places symposium.
I can infer that noise does not only impair the communication amongst similar species but also between humans and their environments. As a result I found a strong connection to a theory by Karl Marx‘s, which has been introduced by John Bellamy Foster and picked up by John Thackara as: The Metabolic Rift
”[T]he alienation between humans and nature that has opened up with the growth of the modern economy.“
Consequences of this separation are a lack of empathy for intricate, complex natural systems and their exploitation exempt guilty conscience. Sensing the qualitative condition of local surroundings falls victim to obsolescence and carelessness. The same applies to our ability to assess known and unknown risks resulting from global challenges. Attentive listening poses an alternative approach to the current focus on visual aesthetics and can activate people‘s re-engagement with their environment.
Governments and companies already use data to analyse trends, come to decisions about complex problems or new ventures. Likewise, data proved to be a potent material for Activism. Its undefined properties leave room for experimentation and the prospect to create systems that enable users to interact with data in real or speculative contexts is inspiring.
"It looks like art, it is Critical Design."
I assume, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby would say that Battersea Concert Park ”[…] is definitely not art. It might borrow heavily from art in terms of methods and approaches but that‘s it. […] Critical Design needs to be closer to the everyday, that‘s where its power to disturb comes from.“
In derogation from this statement the aim of this project is a voluntary change of mind, not disturbance. Since the acoustic environment is disturbed already, the focus is on (re-)establishing care and empathy for mother nature.
Practitioners from the Critical Design discipline are prone to walk on the verge between legal and illegal activities. To fly-poster being one of the harmless undertakings, which will most likely not result in any attention from National Security Departments.
However, it leads to the question whether or not to collaborate with authorities relevant to the cause. For the purpose of Battersea Concert Park, official institutions such as Wandsworth Council and the Friends of Battersea Park could turn out to be powerful allies. Attempts to get in touch are not always rewarded with a response and building successful social structures is time intensive – especially since these depend on a principal ability to reach consensus.
From the outset Critical Design questions the status quo by addressing issues of social and cultural nature. How can one convince decision makers from public sectors or governmental institutions for a cause, and simultaneously step on their toes and mess with their responsibilities?
Reaching the right audience is equally challenging. Providing a platform for debate is fair enough. Beyond that, how can critical designers leave the security of their own community and produce more than intellectual mischief?
Maybe it is a matter of letting go of the idea that there is such a thing as an audience. Every individual person is involved in shaping the world, more or less actively. The wicked task is to identify relevant stakeholders, get in touch and interact on an eye to eye level.
„I‘m optimistic, because I feel that I have to be,“ states Usman Haque during his closing keynote at ThingsCon in Berlin. Thus he dissociates himself from (often) dystopian scenarios involved in Critical Design.
In a similar approach, this thesis advocates an experience based, alternative route to make sense of the environment. Prospectively, this project aspires to connect with researchers, scientist and enthusiasts from the field of Acoustic Ecology, although or precisely because it emerged from a designer‘s point of view.