I wrote this paper on Christina Kubisch and her electrical walks back in grad school. Reading through it again, I think the “finding narrative” section perhaps needs a revamp. That being said, I did a decent amount of research on both Kubisch’s work and the foundations of sound walks in general, so I thought it was worth posting. Enjoy!
Electrical Walks and the Living Narratives of Cities
In her electrical walks, Christina Kubisch provides walkers with a pair of headphones and asks them to explore the city. The headphones are not normal headphones. These headphones plug into the stories of the city. They are custom made headphones that convert the electromagnetic fields given off by any electronic device into sounds. Each walker explores the city, making choices and discovering the hidden sounds of the city. Each electrical walk produces a personal mix of the city created by the walker, who plays both spectator and artist in the context of the walk. By participating in the project, each walker is exposed to and asked to express the stories of the city in whatever way they deem fit. What, if any, meaning is behind these electrical walks? What does the living, breathing narrative of the city sound like?
This paper is divided into several sections. Since these electrical walks are a deviation from the more traditional soundwalks, the first section takes a look at the basic purpose and theory behind them. The second part gives a history of how Kubisch’s work as well as how she developed her electrical walks and describes what the experience is like. The next section defines these electrical walks in the context of participatory art and explains how the walkers can manipulate the sounds and how and why this makes this participatory. Finally, the last section will put everything together and attempt to answer questions of narrative and meaning related to the electrical walks.
The term soundwalk was coined in 1970 by a group of members of the World Soundscape Project, which was led by R. Murray Schafer (McCartney, para 1). Schafer himself also came up with the more common term soundscape, which refers to “…sounds that describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place” (Lomax para. 1). At its most basic definition, a soundwalk is the act of walking and listening to a mobile soundscape. Walkers explore different spaces with a focus on moving and listening to the sounds that are around them.
Westerkamp (para. 1) defines soundwalking as “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment.” There are no hard rules for a soundwalk. One can engage in a soundwalk with the sole purpose of walking and listening to the sounds. Soundwalks can also take place when running errands or going on a jog. Soundwalks can take place in urban or suburban areas, inside or outside. They can be done by a single individual or in groups of people. The emphasis is simply paying close to attention to the sonic aspects of any environment.
The soundwalker can influence or dialogue with the sounds they hear but it is important to keep in mind that while these results are interactive, they are also usually rather subtle. Aside from moving to an area or altering the speed at which they walk, the walker can influence the sounds by interacting with the environment. The walker may try to replicate birdcalls and hope to engage a bird in conversation or scream in certain areas and play with their own echoes (Westerkamp para. 53-55).
While the focus of soundwalking is on listening, there is also the possibility of sharing these sounds. Before the invention of lighter and more portable recording devices, mobile audio recording was difficult (McCartney para. 15). This has since changed and now when most people have a recording device on their cell phones, sharing soundwalks is easier than ever. A quick search for “soundwalk” on Amazon reveals that more and more people and sharing their soundwalks with the world.
Why listen? What is the point of paying close attention to the sounds that exist in different space? The average person is constantly bombarded with sounds and one tactic that is used to cope with them is to simply ignore the sounds that are not deemed important Westerkamp states (para. 3) that, “Unless we listen with attention, there is a danger that some of the more delicate and quiet sounds may pass unnoticed by numbed ears and among the many mechanized voices of modern soundscapes and may eventually disappear entirely.”
McCartney sees an even deeper meaning in soundwalking. According to her:
“Soundwalking can be situated in relation to long-standing artistic, philosophical and political concepts that theorize through the practice of walking, such as haiku poets’ use of daily walks as a creative structure, writing about the figure of the flaneur and the situationist concept of the dérive, as well as the approaches of conceptual artists, such as those in the Fluxus movement.” (para 3)
So, soundwalking is about listening closely to sounds that are normally ignored. It is about paying attention to the sounds people are surrounded by and the objects and spaces that they come from. The act of simply walking and listening can be linked to different areas of art, politics, and philosophy.
The Advent of Electrical Walks
Christina Kubisch began her work with electrical sounds in the late ‘70s. Her studies had revolved around painting, as well as musical composition. She played the piano and the flute. While studying electronic music at the Conservatory in Milan she found the classes to be too conventional. Finding herself more interested in “electrical things” than her current courses, Kubisch decided to enroll in Milan’s Technical Institute (Cox 1).
It was while studying there that she happened upon a device that would eventually lead to the idea of electrical walks. According to Kubisch:
“One day I bought a telephone amplifier, a little cube that you could put next to your telephone so that you could hear it without having the receiver in your hand. The cube was switched on, and when I came into the laboratory, it started to make really strange sounds in my handbag. I took it out and asked my professor what was going on. He explained to me that there were coils in this little cube, and that they picked up some of the machines in the room. It was like a flash in my mind. It was exactly at the time when I wanted to get away from performance and start producing installations.” (Cox 1)
Kubisch’s first sound installations involved people carrying these cubes around pre-constructed wires that had sounds running through them. Essentially, all these cubes did was amplify the sounds coming through the wires via the process of magnetic induction. The cubes themselves were not comfortable to carry and the sounds themselves were not that clear. To improve the installation Kubisch went to a headphone factory in Italy and asked them if it was possible to build headphones with the components of the cubes included. The new headphones were more comfortable, produced better sounds, and could amplify sounds over longer distances. These new headphones were used for her next installation pieces. After a few years, the headphones were damaged or stolen and Kubisch lost interest in the installations. She packed up the headphones and moved on to other things (Cox 1-2).
Almost a decade later a sponsor gave her money to build another installation. This installation took place in 1999 at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. When she put on the headphones this time she heard several strange sounds: the headphones were picking up the electromagnetic fields that surrounded her. She had the epiphany that she no longer needed to provide sounds for her installations, as sounds already existed in the electricity. She created a new set of headphones that were sensitive to electricity and would amplify the sounds she once tried to suppress in previous installations (Cox 2).
Kubisch explains how these even newer headphones work:
“Every current in an electrical conductor—for example a wire or a cable—generates an electromagnetic field. These currents can be “musical,” like the signals running through loudspeaker cables; or they can come from electrical activity in the infrastructures of buildings or cities. The magnetic component of these fields is picked up by the sensor coils in the headphones. And, after amplification, these signals are made audible by the little speaker systems in the headphones. So if there’s an electromagnetic field (say, an underground cable) and another one nearby (say, the headphones), the fields pick up each other. The sound jumps through the air from one to the other.” (Cox 2)
What do electromagnetic fields sound like? Examples of the sounds recorded can be found on Kubisch’s website, as well as YouTube (embedded above). The best comparison can be made to loops taken from minimal electro songs. Christoph Cox (3) makes the connection between the electromagnetic sounds and bands like PanSonic and Alva Noto. It is not too far of a stretch to hear early Soft Cell or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in the sounds, as well. Yes, the secret sounds of electronics sound very similar to the minimal electronica coming from the post-punk era of music.
Different electronic devices produce different electrical fields and thus different devices produce a unique sound. Each individual device produces a different set of tones and rhythms that are particular to them. These headphones allow the walker to hear the song of almost any electric device. Not only small objects like cell phones or cash machines, but also very large objects like train systems. Almost any and every electrical device is included.
With the knowledge that any electronic device will give off a specific sound, Kubisch moves her work from installations to the streets with her electrical walks. Kubisch typically investigates the city area first and finds the area with the most interesting sounds. She then maps these areas. This is used as a guide for the electrical walkers, getting them used to how the headphones work. For example, that sometimes you need to get very close to certain objects in order to hear the sounds (Cox 4-5).
Armed with the maps and a familiarity with the headphones, the walkers are encouraged to explore the city and its secret sounds on their own (Cox 5). Every step they take or turn of the head they make can dramatically change the sounds they are hearing. They now experience the city and its spaces through the sounds of electromagnetic fields.
Kubisch herself has explored Germany, England, France, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Spain, Japan, and the United States with her headphones. Electrical walks that allow others to use the headphones have taken place in Bremen, New York, and London (Cox 1). Since different cities have different kinds of large-scale electrical systems and its people use their electronic devices differently, the overall sounds heard from different cities can differ greatly. When asked about this phenomenon Kubisch explains:
“In Bremen, there’s a tram system that you hear all over the city, even when you’re not near it. It’s a kind of basic drone that’s very present. And in Madrid, a really persistent sound is that of the mobile phones that people carry around. You don’t hear people talking, of course. But you hear when they dial—that moment when the information is being transported. It’s a sort of short chirp: dip, da-rip, da-rip, da-rip, something like that. You hear that every moment, sometimes in duos or trios, because, in Madrid, everyone lives with their phones. In Taiwan the sounds are very aesthetic. Maybe they have a new technology that’s already very sophisticated. In Paris you have some very heavy sounds, like in the train stations, where there is so much interrupted current. Train stations in general are very full, heavy, and dusty with sound. In the short time when I walked in New York, the sound came from everywhere, and a lot of it from underground. It was incredibly dense. Even a short movement of my head made big changes in the sound. There are some places that are always interesting, places where there is money: banks, shops, people working. In residential areas, you mostly find low sounds, not so many rhythms. And then there are surprising places where you don’t know what is happening.” (Cox 4)
While the electrical walks themselves are the focus on this paper, Kubisch also makes more traditional art through the use of the headphones. She has recorded different electrical walks she has taken and released them on CD or as digital downloads. One of the CDs Magnetic Flights chronicles her trip through an airport consists of only two tracks. The first details her journey from the airport to the plane and the second is of her traveling on the airplane itself.
Since the sounds themselves already sound like the kinds loops used in songs, Kubisch has also taken to making compositions from them. According to the liner notes, these sounds are taken raw and not manipulated by any means. She simply takes these raw sounds and mixes them together into something closer to a traditional song or musical composition. Five of these compositions were released on her album Invisible/Inaudible: 5 Electrical Walks.
Does Kubisch have plans to expand her electrical walks? When asked about ways she would like to expand her electrical walk project, she says that she would like to make a map of different cities and different continents. The idea would be to map areas where electromagnetic fields exist and where there are currently and how they are expanding. She sees this work as a kind of social research (Cox 5).
Electrical Walks as Participatory Art
There is no doubt the electrical walks themselves are nothing without the walkers to participate and interact with the environment. Does this alone make the electrical walk a participatory art piece? What exactly is participatory art?
For a succinct definition of participatory art, David Novitz (155) defines it as, “…art forms that cannot adequately be appreciated, and cannot function properly, unless the viewer is physically present in the artwork itself or a performance of it, and, while there, participates in certain activities that arise out of and are required by these works.”
In his book Participatory Art Gustaf Almenberg comes up with a ten-point manifesto that lists criteria for a work to be considered participatory (9-11). This section of the paper will look at Kubisch’s electrical walks in the context of some of Almenberg’s points in hopes of making clearer the definition of participatory art, how it works in the given example of the electrical walks, and in which ways they themselves may be considered participatory.
Almenberg states that “Participatory art is about exploring, within’ an aesthetic context, the many emotional facets of the creative moment as such and one’s own creativity; as opposed to solely contemplating other people’s creative moments and creativity” (9). The electrical walks place all aspects of the creative moment in the hands (ears) of the walker. While provided with general guidelines and instructions the spectator becomes the artist as the walkers take control of the sounds they hear. The walker can change the sounds they are hearing by moving to a different area, changing the proximity to the electromagnetic field or fields they are currently experiencing, or simply turning their heads. This transforms the role of passive listener to artist, to participant, to musician, to producer.
“Participatory art consists, technically speaking, of a number of parts/elements/forms/ which the “spectator” can (re)arrange, (re)assemble, or (re)combine into whatever whole the spectator finds interesting-aesthetically or otherwise” (Almenberg 10). The parts/elements/forms that the walker can arrange as they see fit are the sounds. The individual notes they produce, the rhythms they combine to create, the sum of their parts, and the number of sounds they experience at once. Sounds are changed based on the proximity to an object and the speed at which the walker hears the sounds depend upon the speed at which they walk.
“Participatory art changes the role of the spectator dramatically- from a relatively passive role of contemplating in front of an object and/or “contemplating the work of art in one’s mind,” to a distinctly more active role; not only in the sense that the spectator gets physically involved, but in particular also in that the spectator has to make strategic choices for the full work of art to come into being” (Almenberg 10). It is the act of the spectator participating that brings the electrical walk into existence in the first place. This piece only comes into being by the spectator accepting the headphones, waking, listening, exploring, and making choices. Each walk is a personal mix and without a person, there is no mix. This is dramatically different from listening to a work that is pre-recorded or even a live concert. One can stop listening or skip the track or change to another station, but that does not change the work itself.
While the criteria for a work to be considered a participatory piece are not concrete, one would be hard-pressed to find ways in which the electrical walks are not participatory art. The piece depends on the walkers exploring on their own, the sounds they can manipulate and the choices they can make to influence the work.
Finding Narrative in Electrical Walks
Before taking a look at the narrative in Kubisch’s electrical walks, it is helpful to define what exactly narrative is. Since narrative is something that is not often talked about defining it proves extremely difficult. Some of the best scholars of narrative give rather confusion definitions. Chatman defines narrative as a “structure that is made up of narrative statements” (31). Bal defines narrative as a “corpus which should consist of all narrative texts and only those texts which are narrative” (3). Perhaps the clearest definition of narrative comes from Jason Mittell, who defines narrative as “the process of taking story material and conveying it… the act of storytelling itself that presents the story via a medium. Some aspects of narration apply to every medium, as with how story information is paced and selected, while others are unique to a particular form, such as the use of moving images and sound to communicate story to viewers” (Mittell 219).
The other issue that is important to address is that when narrative is discussed, it is generally concerned with mediums other than music. This creates a particularly interesting problem when looking at Kubisch’s electrical walks where the end result is a kind of abstract song. How does one begin to find narrative in music?
The most obvious answer is to look at the sounds produced during the electrical walks in terms of a traditional narrative analysis. In his essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” Barthes breaks down narrative into its small parts, diving them into classes and putting them into hierarchies (79-124).
Would it not make sense to apply Barthes’ analysis if narrative to the electrical walks? While Barthes essay has contributed greatly to how we look at larger narratives in films, pictures, the written word, etc… it does not lend itself to use with music especially. Novak states that “in narrative theory, musical elements are regarded as events, plots, characters, responses, oppositions, resolutions, and references, to name some of the possibilities” (26).
So, to apply a traditional narrative analysis to a musical piece one would need to convert and looked at the different elements of music in terms of other mediums that works with this more traditional approach. While this approach is taken by some music theorists, it seems to be a bit of a stretch is not suited for the electrical walks as a whole. Nattiez says that “music is not a narrative and that any description of its formal structures in terms of narrativity is nothing but superfluous metaphor (257). Not only does the medium of music present a problem for narrative analysis, but also the sounds produced from the electrical walks themselves are not structured like a typical composition. While the walker controls the sounds, without extreme knowledge of the headphones and how they react to certain objects within’ certain spaces in certain ways, the exact songs produced are more or less random and constantly changing and not likely to be reproduced. Each walk and song produced in random and different. Furthermore, unlike other types of art, the focus of participatory art pieces is creativity itself, not narrative (10).
Kubisch herself says that her interest in the project in dually invested in the aesthetic properties of the electrical walks, as well as how they bring attention to the electrical devices that society is now surrounded by (Cox 3). When asked about this Kubisch replies:
“… I’m somewhere between. I have always been critical toward the way that people deal with technology and have made many pieces about the relationships between nature and technology. But I never point a finger and say “This is bad” or “This is good.” I’m more interested in having people recognize what’s around them by doing it themselves. I could tell everyone that I think it’s bad. But that wouldn’t be an experience. It would just be didactic. On the other hand, this stuff is very fascinating as well. I mean, we love computers. We know that it’s bad to sit in front of them for hours and hours; but we still love them. So we arrive at the middle of these two worlds—the real world and the continuing substitution of real experience by a technological experience that replaces much of what counted as experience in former times. I’m not nostalgic; but, of course, I am worried about how these fields around us are increasing.”
It is in the context of this recognition or awareness that gives a clue as to where the narrative of the electrical walks can be found. At the heart of them, the electrical walks draw attention to electrical fields that people so often ignore by altering the way the walker experiences them. By turning them into sound it is impossible to ignore the fact that they are everywhere. The electrical walks are about the sounds themselves. In which way can the narrative be applied to the project as a whole?
At its most basic level, narrative is divided into two parts: story and discourse. Story deals with the content, including characters, plot, and setting. Discourse is the way in which the content is expressed. For example, the events of a story come together to form a plot through discourse, thus, both are dependent on each other (Chatman 26). Story is the what and the discourse is the how.
The sounds or “songs” produced by the electrical walks do not easily lend themselves to a traditional narrative analysis for the reasons discussed above, especially in a participatory art piece that is about more than the sounds or combination of sounds. However, if one looks broadly at the project as a whole it is plain to see that the narrative of the project does not lie wholly within’ the output of sounds.
The story of the electrical walks are the electrical magnetic fields themselves, the objects that generate them, the spaces they occupy. These stories live above and below, inside and out, some static, some moving, large and small, always within’ reach, but are mostly invisible. The electrical fields are the what of the narrative.
The discourse then is the sounds produced by the headphones. The sounds are the way in which the story is presented. They allow the invisible stories of the objects and spaces to be heard by the walker. The sounds are the how of the narrative.
The narrator in this instance is the walker as it is he who has sole control over which way the story of the narrative is expressed. The different ways in which the walker may alter the discourse, the sounds, of the narrative have been previously discussed. In this role, the walker is not only spectator and artist, but also narrator and naratee.
Based on the tradition of sound walks, Christina Kubisch’s electrical walks invite the walker to hear and explore the secret stories of the city that live as electromagnetic fields. These stories are told through the sounds converted from the headphones. As a participatory piece, the walker becomes a narrator as he chooses which way these sounds are to be expressed. It is in this way that electrical walks reveal the hidden, living narrative of a city.
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