The Brute Power of Visual Representation

That is a fairly grandiose title for a post that might underwhelm, but I am revisiting my Audioboo recordings and listening to the sounds of the various places I have been in the last year and am now realizing that I have enough of a backlog to present a more meaningful illustration of the uniqueness of the distinctive din of place. Each place I have lived in or visited has had unique sensory elements. As perpetual tourists, we are often first struck by the visual, the landscapes, the architecture, the contrast of colors in the sky. This same visual engagement with a new place is what we use as a symbol to represent the set of experiences that constitute our engagement with that place.

A representative image or remembered set of interspersed images (like a film) is what we draw on when we remember, and sigh, thinking about some amazing trip in some far-off place so many years ago. This representative image(s) is like a cover to a photo album, an avatar, a profile image. They are often iconic attempts to aggregate the experiences into a whole. Similar to the example below, representative images from my Flickr sets that are used to aggregate the entire experience of engaging with that place. Visual representation is incredibly powerful that way. But it can be a brute force.

Sound: The Subtle Sense of Suggestion

The (most) subtle sense, in my estimation, is sound. Sound reveals the ‘pulse’ of a place in incredibly complicated ways. It rarely overpowers the other senses, but lives there in this complicated ‘context’ as influence. It influences the perception of place, it suggests liking/disliking the emerging environment, it introduces doubt or forgiveness for a bad first impression, it whispers a warming revelation of experiencing something profound. It proclaims nothing. With all these permutations of influence being enacted consciously and subconsciously, sound reveals the unique complexity of that particular place. It is the pattern in the white noise revealing a unique undergirding structure. The ambient sound of cities I refer to as its din, the persistent hum behind the scenes. Every place has it. And to understand a place, we need to understand its din.

Sound in isolation, though, can be unnerving, predatory and our minds will reject its foreignness like an invasive parasite. It doesn’t sit with our current context or conception of space. But once having seen the place (even in images or postcards or video) and then layering that visual with the rich structure of sound, we have representation. Something is revealed in that process. Listen for yourself. Before we get to that, I should include a few articles that I enjoyed that are beginning to pursue this as a research topic. Not necessarily the effect of ambient audio on memory and contextualization of place, but rather the city itself as a sensory goldmine.

Din(s): Four Countries, Three Continents, Four Auditory Environments

I thought it would be best to choose four places I have been in the last year, places with enough contrast to warrant an investigation of its din. Two are from Asia (Taiwan, Korea), one from North America (Newark, New Jersey), and one from Europe (London). All four are urban, all four were recorded in places of congregation (train stations, meeting hall, public transportation). So, hopefully the sample is revealing enough. All four are very powerful to me because I am taken there almost immediately with a much greater sense of urgency than visuals alone can do. I am confronted by that place (again), not as a whimsical flight into nostalgia but rather as an immediate, emerging environment. But once the shock of memory subsides, I am left with the din. The patterns, the bustle, the ambient noise, the pulse. It is a rich environment for observation. For me, it is personal and highly interwoven with my memories and what I was doing in these places (mostly working, but always in transit). However, I do not believe for a moment that one would have had to have been there to appreciate the unique aural signature of these places.

Newark Penn Station: Newark, New Jersey

Note: listen carefully for the old signboard changes

London Bus Number 25 near Bank Tube Station: London, UK

Note: the woman is talking to her baby, in case you were wondering why no one is responding.

Taipei Book Convention: Taipei, Taiwan

Note: notice the very subtle contrast between the din of Taipei and Seoul, which is why I strung them together here

Seoul Station: Seoul, Korea

Note: for whatever reason, the rhythms of Seoul’s train stations now relax me, as does the voice announcing the stops. Familiarity, perhaps.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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