Hearing in Sound: Part I

Despite a flowering, of sorts, in public art practice, policy and debate, publicly situated sound works seem rare. It’s perhaps because, as noted in an earlier post, our thinking about the practices that constitute public space tend to prioritise visual experiences rather than auditory ones. For some, sound is regarded as intrusive because an auditory ecology, often significantly comprised of sounds introduced into places, is already at play. However, the previous post made clear that such a hierarchy of senses doesn’t do places justice. Thinking about and designing sound needs to be integral to our approaches to placemaking and public space.

In Brisbane, Queensland, Super Critical Mass was presented in the city’s central civic space, King George Square. This was an immersive and meditative sound installation developed by Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste and Janet McKay. Super Critical Mass develops performances composed of ‘masses’ of musicians playing identical instruments, spatialised within public places.

Featuring Brisbane Bells, the performers of many ages sounded brass bells as they slowly moved through one of Brisbane’s busiest public spaces from 5pm for an hour. The arrangements of people and sounds altered the social, temporal and acoustic experience of space. Starting from the Ann Street side of the Square, the participants slowly moved towards Adelaide Street following the patterning of the granite paving, then back. The tempo of the soundings changed during the walk, seemingly improvised, creating accidental arrangements and assemblages as paths criss-crossed and overlapped.


As a Christmas event, the installation stood in stark contrast to the seasonal urban spectacle surrounding us, inviting participation in a resonant yet slower experience. A child walks up to one of the bell ringers and asks “Canivago?” (translates as “Can I have a go?”). At the end of the working week, pedestrians rush through the Square, some oblivious to the alternative pace and sounds as they talk on phones and navigate obstacles. Others arrange themselves on seats, watching like an audience. Others move around the performers, tuning into and seeking varying intensities. Punctuating the performance, City Hall’s clock tower bell sounds every quarter hour marking time in its ordered and reliable way.

Such work invites us to experience not just sound and space, but spatialised sound, in ways that seem to align with Tim Ingold’s ideas about sound in his essay ‘Against Soundscape’. Written as a response to R. Murray Schafer’s seminal work on soundscape, Ingold argues that sound can be compared to light. It is experiential – not an ‘object of perception’. This notion of experiencing sound was at play during MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art) held last month in Hobart, Tasmania. In particular installation works by Robin Fox, Susan Phillipz, and Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann enabled very different auditory and compositional experiences that positioned the listener ‘in sound’. Ingold argues that sound is “not the object but the medium of our perception. lt is what we hear in.” There are intensities and affinities at play in this approach to sound.

Part II will explore the works presented at MONA FOMA as instances of hearing in sound.

Linda Carroli
Brisbane, Australia

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