22 Sep 2010

visible city #2 : visible listening

arriving in Melbourne to participate in an artist residency called Visible City, my first thought, of course, is sound - whether I can close the eye and activate the audible city. Accordingly, I begin making field recordings while roaming around on the city's public transport system. Trams are iconic in Melbourne, and have their own distinct social spatiality. They are spaces where a heightened attention to territory and etiquette is compressed as an alert tension, and this is not simply tactile, but multi-sensory - on trams, you do not really look at other people. Glances are furtive, perhaps curious, often couched in a deliberate blurring of specificity, a deferred blind-spot. The tautness of the space immediately draws me into thinking through the relation of the aural and the visible in the city's mythogeographical fabric - at the same time as focusing on their audible soundscape I am drawn perhaps even more to the the stark and silent surfaces of a very visible listening-culture present in these spaces - the creation of bounded personal spatial zones - small private rooms - via ipods and other personal audio.

I find myself starting to take photographs of people lost in their own private, publicly silent listening worlds. The faces of listening become fascinating : the escape into a moment of drift and timelessness outside the metronomic durational boundedness of the journey signposted by intercom announcements, the closed eyes, the meditative staring out of windows, the coldness and insularity with brief glimmers of private reverie (a guarded smile, a slow blink), the walling of privacy as a form of blurring of presentness within a specific and distinctly awkward social space, the faustian bargain (seen as a necessary, if uncertainly agreed-to sacrifice) of which becomes the creation of a distinctly vulnerable human presence via the deliberate blocking of one of the human senses, a situation which does as much to heighten small anxieties as it does to temporarily relieve them.

These faces are a blank index of mysterious, highly personal inner spaces. One is drawn to ask - what are these people listening to, as they utilise technology to override the city's own sounds, and soundtrack its images as a silent film, with their own choice of music? And how can the city be understood to exist now, as it flows by on the ebbs and tides of these thousands of soundtracks, as a thin wafer of fleeting, insubstantial images?

I am so aware of my own placing within such a compressed and potent visual space, transgressively collecting people-as-images, with a device whose function is more obviously recognisable than the Zoom recorder I am using to gather the audible anthroscape. The tiny fraction of time before a person realises I am pointing a lens at them is not always the one that is captured. Sometimes in these photos the subject has already become aware of the viewer, and has turned to confront us, breaking the fiction of objective observational space as they break their reverie and level a stare of wary attention. Both they and I/you cannot escape the eye, the city's incessant visuality, or the knowledge that the city may not be a screen, but that we can't help but treat it as one. It is in that moment of confrontation that we discover the walls and limits of the city's other spaces, those that are normally known only as invisible interpersonal architecture, the ones hidden in plain sight.

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