Editor’s Note: This article was originally published using our spatialized interactive tool. The reader was able to move the segments of text and video around the frame and play them simultaneously.
Listening to the so-called Anthropocene is about learning how to listen, how to go beyond the presumed self-evidence of sound. Learning means adjusting sensing surfaces to the waves that reach them. It is a cross-modal practice that requires cultivated forms of sensing that refuse the essentialization of the sensorium (Ballestero 2019). Listening surfaces extend across bodies and organs, they go well beyond the ear. Learning to listen invites us to unsettle the clarity of what we know without presuming that the solution is to know more. Listening is always a form of silencing. And listening in the midst of environmental decline is more than a practice of plucking pre-existing sounds to populate visions of how epochal shifts and catastrophic events look like.
In this short experiment, we invite you to consider non-normative forms of listening. We go against the grain by holding in abeyance implicit associations between sound and meaning. We avoid sounds that affirm what we already know or anticipate finding. Instead, we shift the onus from sounds that convey meaning, to the labor of listening that is required by vibratory forms embedded in unruly weather, intensified extraction, unequal burdens, and extinction. We imagine a listener that cannot decode sounds immediately because those sounds do not allow immediate identification with companion images.
To us, those are the sounds of the Anthropocene. Or, put differently, those are the listeners of the so-called Anthropocene and this is the labor that it requires of them/us. We learn to listen from other listeners and sound makers. Marina Peterson’s work on Atmospheric Sensibilities (2017), for instance, invites us to consider the purported ephemerality of sound, a property that constitutes sound as something that is exhausted at the moment it has fulfilled its existence. She asks us to consider such ephemerality as its potential, as its capacity to proliferate and endure in time through inventive forms of repetition (317). As she notes, the point of thinking about ephemerality is not to settle on a sound ontology, but to chart sonic practices and with them, and for our purposes, forms of listening that attend to embodied work and semiotic expectation. In her book Listening to Images, Tina Campt (2017) also invites us to listen differently, not by attending to the ephemeral but instead by directing our attention to “felt sound,” the low frequencies that require intention to be apprehended. She asks us to dwell in hums, in that which is often felt through vibrations, infrasounds that escape us if we do not learn to listen for them. It is through these infrasounds that we can listen to images.
This listening practice is particularly crucial for images designed to erase any sonic trace. Campt is referring to the police mugshots of black people in the United States and is asking us to listen for the life that wants to be silenced but rebels and endures in those images. In this experiment, we follow Peterson and Campt’s lead. We dwell in the solid potential of ephemerality. We activate our bodies, seeking the infrasounds that might teach us how to listen to the Anthropocene otherwise. We invite you to join us on a brief path, learning how to listen, refusing obsolete partitions between the natural and the artificial, attending to the distribution of sonic labor, and pushing against the thoughts that rush to explain-away what things are.
Our experiment is grounded, or better yet, undergrounded on a collective process. In 2019, we both took part in a design workshop on Underground Spatialities. One of us as an instructor, the other as a graduate student. The studio produced a large scale, ephemeral installation querying underground spaces. In that project, we set out to find a different starting point from the inherited euro-centric and capitalist assumptions that mold our ideas about the form, purpose, and future of underground space. Sound was one of the dimensions we explored during the fieldwork we did in a cave, a tunnel, and a cistern. For this contribution to Sensate, we mostly went into our personal fieldwork archives and pulled some of the materials we had individually recorded. Next, we transformed them into audiovisual pods. These pods are composed of sound, visuals, moving images, and in some instances, a bit of text to make us stop and think. They are self-contained, and yet, they are also structured by the joint labor that went into their production, by the other pods that surround them, and by the history of their making. Individually, in subgroups, or as a collection, these pods are attempts to learn to listen otherwise. Moments in which the subsurface is dissonant, contradictory, and not just an extension of what happens above the surface, although never completely severed from it. We offer these pods as a fan of possibilities.
You are now at the vertex of this fan. To begin with, we propose two trajectories. Each one offers a group of pods to hop on. One trajectory moves left to right, the other moves downwards. Each is an experiment in dialogic listening, a schizophonic adventure in learning how to listen with image and sound as one blurs into the other. We invite you to attune your perceptions to these sensations and sounds in order to listen to the images and visualize the sounds. If you are feeling playful, you can reorganize the pods, creating new spatial arrangements. Refresh the page, and you will be back at the vertex, the loop is infinite, a fantasy of returning to origin.
Ballestero, Andrea. 2019. “Touching with Light, or, How Texture Recasts the Sensing of Underground Water.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 44(5): 762-785.
Campt, Tina. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kim, Jihyun (Composer). “Glissando for Subterranean Drape.” Recorded September 26, 2020. Wave file.
Peterson, Marina. 2017. “Atmospheric Sensibilities: Noise, Annoyance, and Indefinite Urbanism.” Social Text 35(2 (131)): 69-90.
Zaytseva, Arina. “Shadow Looks Like a Man.” Recorded February 16, 2019. Underground Spatialities Studio footage. Mov file.