Shared Sounds


Excerpt from JuneJuly - New York Subway.

If someone asks you to picture a crowd, maybe you visualize a packed stadium, or a protest march. But these privileged sites bias the crowd at its exceptional form, at its limit or breaking point: the crowd as spectacle. Rather than think of the crowd as spectacle, we have observed the crowd of the everyday. The everyday crowd and the exceptional crowd are different. Visually, they are similar: many bodies in close proximity. But they don’t sound the same. The exceptional crowd sounds as loud as it looks. But the everyday crowd sounds mild, controlled, more or less even-tempered.  

The disconnect between optics and sonics is not limited to crowds. Given the human predilection for the visual, it’s likely that we have an incomplete and impoverished understanding of the crowd. As a corrective, we have recorded and visualized the sound of crowds in order to see them the way we hear them: diffuse, simultaneous, fluid, ephemeral, uncoordinated, disjointed, uneven, pulsing, vibrating.  

Our field recordings are taken on four different commutes. Each commute occurs in a different geography and on a different mode of transit. The audio is processed and visualized as a color. The louder the audio source, the more saturated the color. The color’s hue shifts with time. The result is a sonic montage. Abstract but legible, the visualization not only calls into question how we perceive crowds, but also tells us something about our uneasy (and sometimes all too easy) relationship to the term public. 

The crowd is public. Architects talk a lot about “the public,” but what, where, who, and when the public was, is, or becomes remains a point of contestation . We are told that the public is multiple and heterogeneous, an “empty signifier,” a “discursive object,” difficult to define and hard to locate. Perhaps one of the reasons we can never identify the public is that it cannot be seen? In other words, when we look for public we are looking for something that resists visualization. Like sound, the public is diffuse, simultaneous, fluid, ephemeral, uncoordinated, disjointed, uneven, pulsing, vibrating. Our tendency for the visual prevents us from knowing things that don’t present themselves in the way we have come to see them: explicitly, semiotically, in narrative terms with clearly defined beginnings and endings. Listening gives us another way in. This is an attempt to see things the way we hear them.