Soundscape as material

Public art is generally associated with the visual arts. We think spontaneously of the many sculptures that are present in our parks and public buildings due to application of the Government of Quebec’s Politique d’intégration des arts à l’architecture et à l’environnement. Photography also comes to mind: for a number of years, through its Plan large project, Quartier éphémère presented works by contemporary photographers on unoccupied billboards. The fiercely emotional confrontation among dogs in Carlos and Jason Sanchez’s Natural Selection (2005) must have surprised more than one driver entering Montreal via the Bonaventure Expressway in the fall of 2006. Nevertheless, public art – or maybe we should call it art in the public space to avoid the constraints of the institutionalized definition – may take a myriad of forms. Previously in this column, my colleague Aseman Sabet has evoked the rich potential of performative and ephemeral art to stimulate innovation in public art practices. Here, I propose a reflection on sound material. Could perceiving artworks in the public space through sounds help to refresh how we regard the city and enrich the language of public art?

In 1977, R. Murray Schafer defined the notion of soundscape in his book The Soundscape: “The sonic environment…. The term may refer to actual environments, or to abstract constructions such as musical compositions and tape montages, particularly when considered as an environment.”1 Schafer’s soundscape includes a wide variety of sounds, from nature – wind, rain, snow – humans – shouting, breathing, singing – and mechanical devices – cars, helicopters, percussion drills. Advocating for greater education of the ear and a more highly developed auditory culture in a society dominated by vision, he writes, poetically, “The universal concert is always in progress, and seats in the auditorium are free.”2

Around the same time as Schafer’s works, Max Neuhaus was carrying out pioneering work that contributed to the recognition of sound as a medium within the field of contemporary art. Primarily a contemporary music performer, Neuhaus developed a parallel art practice, creating sound installations particularly for the public space. He was convinced that sense of place is based on what we hear as well as what we see, and he explored the potential of sound to transform the perception of our environment. From 1966 to 1976, he designed a series of fifteen “sound walks” in which he invited people to go for a walk outside the concert hall and become attentive to the daily sounds of the city.

Sound walks have since been integrated into the art practices of many contemporary artists, Janet Cardiff being one of the most prominent. Since the end of the 1960s, organizations have been created to explore the soundscape by gathering the sounds and voices of the city. For instance, Bruxelles nous appartient – Brussel behoort ons toe (BNA-BBOT), founded in 1999, is devoted to the “sound memory” of the city of Brussels. Its activities include collecting numerous oral accounts by the city’s residents. Together, these individual stories (re)construct the shared history of the area as it has been inhabited and experienced. The accounts BNA-BBOT has collected are archived in a database along with a compilation of sounds of the city. All of these soundtracks are made available to the community, and artists can use them as creative material.

In collaboration with BNA-BBOT, and at the invitation of the contemporary art centre WIELS, Italian artist collective ZimmerFrei produced the work W —composed of seven sound walks, three sound and visual installations and a book—in 2013. The work provided access to the history of the former Belgian brewery Wielemans-Ceuppens, today converted into a cultural and creative hub of which WIELS is a part. BNA-BBOT had conducted twenty interviews with residents of the neighbourhood, former workers at the brewery, and new workers at the art centre, and ZimmerFrei transformed this material to compose an affective landscape in which the act of remembering and the act of creating mutually enrich each other.

How BNA-BBOT positions itself offers insight into what sound can contribute to public art. Two founding principles define the organization’s activities: the radical nature of sound and the act of speaking as event. The first is a response to the dominance of the written and the visual in the documentary world and in Western society. By returning sound to its rightful place, the organization is promoting the idea that “being interested in what people say is not solely to be interested in what is said (or not said) but also in the ways in which the said or unsaid speaks (or does not speak).”3 In keeping with this idea, the interviews are not transcribed because this process would flatten the speech, deprive it of its accent, rhythm, intensity—in short, its uniqueness. Sound material may also make visible the invisible, bringing into history social groups and individuals who have less mastery of writing, images and the conventions that govern their circulation. The second principle, which extends the first, states the intention “to participate in a reflection on the conditions of belonging to what is usually called ‘history.’ A reflection on the criteria for inclusion in this history as it is written and transmitted necessarily includes a reflection on its criteria and procedures of exclusion.”4 For instance, BNA-BBOT considers speech itself as a historical event, thus returning daily speech and local history to their former glory.

Closer to us, in Montreal, the new-media collective Audiotopie also produces audioguides for urban tours in which ambient sounds are highlighted. The components assembled for the audioguides are heterogeneous, including excerpts from interviews, field recordings, electro-acoustic compositions, narration and so on. Similar to the ZimmerFrei project, Audiotopie’s creations are often positioned where the social and the artistic intersect. Produced in collaboration with Conscience urbaine and Action des femmes handicapées, Accessibilité universelle (2010) explores how public space is organized and shared. Through the experiences of nine women with disabilities, the work raises awareness about the daily challenges of universal access and the importance of designing user-friendly public spaces. As early as 1977, from his perspective as a scholar on the subject, Schafer posited that the study and transformation of the soundscape are situated at the border between human sciences and art.

But audioguides are not the only means of revealing and reconstructing the soundscape. In the summer of 2013, fulfilling a commission from Centre Avatar, artists Sabin Hudon and Catherine Béchard installed twenty listening devices in the streets of Quebec City to compose the artwork L’oreille [é]tendue (2013). Each listening device, an ear trumpet installed at head level at strategic locations, isolates one sound layer from the group of superimposed sound layers normally heard simultaneously in the urban space. By drawing listeners’ attention to sounds that are sometimes unexpected, even though constantly present, the artwork invited people to be more aware of their immediate environment. The soundscape of the city was the star of this intervention, alongside unique events that mark the life of the city.

In this brief overview of art practices in which the sound is used as medium, it appears that sound can effectively help enrich the language of public art by integrating into it, among other things, an identity element of the city that is often ignored. This identity element however is powerful in its capacity to reveal invisible spaces and quickly forgotten stories. The reflection BNA-BBOT offers on the selection processes that forge history opens the door to new avenues for preserving memory. It proposes to promote memories of the people, flagrantly absent from official accounts – and, moreover, to do so with the greatest respect for the uniqueness of each individual. It seems to me that this celebration of inhabitants of the city and their daily life, the life of public spaces beyond their physicality, has a rightful place in the field of public art. Furthermore, as Schafer rightly emphasized, although we can close our eyes, we cannot close our ears.5

Translated by Käthe Roth


Josianne Poirier has a master’s degree in urban studies from the Institut national de la recherche scientifique and is currently a doctoral student in art history at the Université de Montréal. Her main interest is the relationship among art, culture and urban space, and her work addresses themes such as public art and cultural neighbourhoods. Her current research involves symbolic and aesthetic uses of light in the public spaces of the contemporary city.


  1. R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1994), pp. 274–75. This book incorporates Schafer’s The New Soundscape (1969) and The Tuning of the World (1977).
  2. Ibid., p. 206.
  3., consulted March 17, 2014 (our translation).
  4., consulted March 17, 2014 (our translation).
  5. R. Murray Schafer, op. cit., p. 11.