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Posted by on Jan 18, 2012

The contradictions of ambient audio: flip sides of a protest in Mapo, Seoul from the 23rd floor

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I posted a few weeks ago on the use of Audioboo for ambient cityscape audio, capturing and geolocating audio clips from various parts of the city. Specifically, I was posting about Seoul, the same landscape I am discussing here. When I first got here (1998-2006), I was enamored by the protest culture. Koreans take to the streets quite often and despite what my intuition was telling me, it never felt that threatening. I would walk close to these protests (even if they were directly protesting American involvement in this or that) and listen in. The sights perplexed me more than the sounds which were passionate, but orderly. I never recorded much back then, either in audio or photography, as I didn’t have the technology.

So, how does one know anger from cohesion? Disruption from togetherness? When does an act of definace become an act of violence? What does a protest even sound like? How does hearing a protest orient the listener to the Seoul landscape? It does, in ways that sheer imagery cannot.

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In Korea’s case, protests are rarely conflated with violence, disruption (except traffic), but they are loud. Protests have occasionally involved the odd Molotov cocktail (at least they did much more when I first got here), but those times have faded. Much more common is the ubiquitous man standing on the truck with a loudspeaker leading deceptively aggressive chants in chorus with protestors. As he has been all day outside my window. Hence this post. First come the sounds of definace and then sounds of emotional camaraderie, of togetherness.

What this post does, in the next two audio clips, is establish that to know something is to embrace a contradiction, to understand that some things can be one thing and their opposite simultaneously. First, we have the protest; then we have the chorus singing, recorded mere seconds apart. The unifying audio element is the constancy of the traffic, a hum and occasional beep from the belly of this composition. A reminder that the city will win by simply never ceasing.

Defiance

Emotional Camaraderie

With that song, my knowing Korean protest culture was spun right around. The song is old, hokey even, but has an emotional, cultural resonance. It feels like what you sing when you protest. It harkens back to a Korea of the 1960s, unifying generations in resistance. It reminds everyone of the Saemaeul Movement (새마을) (yes, I know it is a protest and not a government sponsored agricultural betterment campaign, but this is cultural nostalgia, people). However much it is about resistance and overcoming great obstacles, it is soft, gentle even. It is a study in contrast to what they are protesting, yet fulfills the conditions of protest camaraderie quite well.

If this doesn’t sound like all that much when you listen, please bear in mind that I am on the 23rd floor of a very large building and, as you can tell from the picture, the protestors were nowhere in sight. In fact, they were two blocks behind my building. So, loud indeed and organized and disruptive and together. And a whole sort of other contradictions. And that is Seoul to me, a cohesive host of contradictions that makes for one wonderful sensory mess. We first learn with our ears, not unlike a baby, which is exactly what we are when we enter a foreign environment. And this is Seoul for the ears.

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