Artist in Residence at Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics

by Caitlin

Queens College Hall

The Salon in Queens College Hall

Four days at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in Arts Humanities and Social Sciences seminal sound event, and there is a humdrum of both melody and dissonance resounding within my dendrites.

Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics was a three day conference convened by Ely Rosenblum and Anija Dokter, both PhD candidates at the University of Cambridge. I was there as a participant, as artist in residence exhibiting Sanctuary and also presenting an overview of my work. Little did I know of the intrepid trek that lay ahead.

Listening to Sanctuary

Participant listening to Sanctuary

All presentations amassed into one orb of connected thought. There were moments of defined conceptual solidity, and one of these was a starting point for framing sound studies, which to my enjoyment was presented at the end. In Professor Steven Conner’s closing lecture, Acousmania, he acknowledged that many formative documents and theories in sound studies are drawn from a wider range of fields. These include history, law, literary criticism, psychology, psychoanalysis, architecture, ethology, anthropology and philosophy, media and technology. Although he listed these different disciplines, he also noted are they are not so different from one another. I guess his point being that the use of sound as a research tool, method of communication or otherwise is a complimentary thread that runs through a range of disciplines not so different from one another.


Another key notion was that sound studies itself is a relatively nascent practice, and that it is clearly not simply based around experiences to do with the perception surrounding the creation of and response to sound. There were a few key ideas of the historical context of sound studies that stuck out for me. Firstly was the idea that sound is a response it’s culturally dominant sibling; vision. As Conner stated

“In particular, sound and hearing have been construed as locked in a sibling rivalry with vision. If sound studies has been strongly impelled by the horizon of a kind of sonorous utopia, it is because of the antiocularcentric squint documented by Martin Jay (1994), which attributes every kind of ill to the hypertrophy of vision. These various psychosocial maladies include: the fixation on the idea of the centred self, as static ‘point of view’, the subordination of women (through the ‘male gaze’), the depredation of nature in the age of the world-picture, and the reduction of processes to objects and qualities to quantities.”

Art has been dominated by the gaze, and that act of beholding, which tellingly in old English means to keep. Sound however has very little to do with keeping, and everything to do with experiencing. While on the topic of looking, it has been suggested that there are at least eight starting points for the twentieth-centaury revival or revisiting of the gaze (Elkins, 2002). These include Jean Paul Satre’s theory of seeing as being seen and Jacques Lacan’s elaboration of Satre and Merlau- Ponty. However we are not here to necessarily re-visit the gaze, but ask what does sound have that sight doesn’t? Well, according to Jonathan Sterne it is subjective not objective, temporal not fixed, emotive not logical and perhaps most importantly, sound has not yet been culturally capitalised in as much a way as contemporary art and the act of looking. The term Aucousmania, deliberately indicates a suggestion that sound, the experience of sound, the act of listening, the choice to communicate sonically is perhaps even, slightly mad. As Conner states

“If sound studies involves this kind of regulated mania, it does not exist wholly unaware of the fact that mania itself may tend to express itself through sound, as though there were something manic, a touch of sacred craziness, about sound as such.”

If sound induces altered states, is it so surprising that my feelings of stimulation, elation and degrees of incoherence are a direct response from three days of sonic sojourns. Anyway. Onwards. Down the rabbit hole. Into the night. From where I was standing, on the sane side of sound, some strong ribbons of practice & theory stood out. All strands billowing in the breeze, were very relevant to my area of research that will be the cornerstone of my upcoming practice based PhD. Below I briefly cover the key themes that resounded with me most significantly.

Participant listening to Sanctuary

Participant listening to Sanctuary

Sensory Ethnography

Since the 1990’s many researchers have been involved with the rethinking of ethnography. There have been several layers of re-examining ethnography as embodied, visual, digital, sensory, gendered and more. There are ever emerging ways to effectively collect data, helping to produce knowledge of the set field of investigation, but historically the ethnographic research has been documented in text, text and more text (Burrel, 2013). Ethnographers of various disciplinary backgrounds including ethnomusicology and anthropology have elaborated on the value of extending their intellectual scrutiny to include the sensoria. In particular, Paul Stoller. He claims that sensorial narratives in ethnography found in earlier writing, for instance by Malinowski, have been overshadowed in the analytical prose in problem-oriented ethnography. He suggests a close engagement with the senses of taste, smell, hearing, and sight – a privileged mode of inquiry in European societies – to make our ethnographic accounts “more faithful to the realities of the field.” (Stoller 2011)

Seeking a multi sensory set of representations to make as real as possible the research extracted from the field, enter sound. Acousmania. Many of the visiting participants used a sonic sensory mode of field documentation, analysis and presentation. In particular the research conducted by Dr Rupert Cox and Professor Angus Carlyle in the Mouth of the Cave and the Giant Voice – Sound, Text, and Voice in Okinawan War and Memory. What was interesting about this piece is that the aural features stemmed from a relationship to the site forged through an acoustic scientist, Kozo Hiramatsu. Hiramatsu had been working to distinguish and measure the sounds of US air force landings, flight and associated activity and their effects on the health and livelihood of Sunabe residents. The piece was presented with a focus on environmental sound recordings of the environment, of the locale. The human voice was presented visually in text, through the form of a projector, super-imposed on the live time sound broadcast. This audio-visual amalgam bought the different, yet inevitable union of the human voice to the physical environment to multi-sensory life.

Embodied Listening

Perhaps it is fair to say that embodied listening is part of the theory and experience of embodied cognition. When Descartes claimed that “there is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body” the great dual between body and mind was firmly established. However as George Lakoff and Rafeal Núñez explain:

“Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.”

Embodied cognition has a relatively short history. Its intellectual roots date back to early 20th century philosophers Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey, and it has only been studied empirically in the last few decades. One of the key figures to empirically study embodiment is University of California at Berkeley professor George Lakoff. His key publications include Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh. Metaphors We Live By was a major contribution to embodied linguistics. It illustrated how prevalent metaphors are in everyday language, and also suggested that a lot of the major tenets of western thought, including the idea that reason is conscious and passionless and that language is separate from the body aside from the organs of speech and hearing, were incorrect.

Back to Black. To listening. To stillness and movement. To embodied quietude. To Noise. To sound. To a question. Why does sound studies need embodiment? The act of listening is a very embodied one, as Alice  Clough’s research on the rhythm and sound of weaving, demonstrated nicely. And within the act of listening is the act of communication. The initiator and the receptor. When we present sound, analyse it, theorise it, we need to do so in a way that maximises embodiment. The trick here, is how to engender embodiment within an academic context. Sure, the use of the body is far more established in the art world; we can simply glance to the work of the Dadaist, and their preference for the performative over the material, or identify the Situations International’s focus on experience and embodied experiences of the city through the language of the Derive. Academia perhaps needs to break out of some of it’s text text text preference and incorporate communication disciplines that better represent a physical experience of the world, as well as acknowledging the relevant work done throughout recent art movements (Happenings, Performance Art, Interventions, Participatory Art). The medium is the message as Marshall McLuhan asserts, and if we are thinking about the multi sensory, and indeed the physicality of listening then surely we should be seeking to communicate in such a way.

Bitter Suite's multi sensory orchestra experience

Bitter Suite’s multi sensory orchestra experience

Feminist Theory and Sound

Interestingly there was  one main paper explicitly exploring sound and gender, but many more had issues of gender equality running through them. I had many conversations outside of the seminar room about feminism, equality for women and how patriarchy still runs roots through everything we do. On the train home I watched a really interesting talk by Hana Rosin who declared that the end of men had come about, and women were now taking control of many areas. For example, in 2010 women for the first time became the majority of the American workforce. Rosin presented statistics illustrating that women have also begun to dominate a lot of professions; doctors, lawyers, bankers and accountants. Meanwhile Rosin also stated that over 50% of managers in the US are now women. However, she did not cite where these figures have come from, and nonetheless even if there is an emerging force in equality, deep cultural prejudices are still very much in existence. It is a very different story in the UK. Today, in the UK women are far more economically independent and socially autonomous, representing 42% of the UK workforce and 55% of university graduates. Despite this, women are still less likely than men to be associated with leadership positions in the UK: they account for 22% of MPs and peers, 20% of university professors, 6.1% of FTSE 100 executive positions, and 3% of board chairpersons. This stark inequality is consistently reflected in pay gaps, despite the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1975. Income inequality has risen faster in the UK than any other OCED country and today women earn on average £140,000 less than men over their working careers. Abigail Player argues that although 9/10 people want to see women equally represented in leadership positions, that dominant cultural gender stereotypes need to be further researched and unpicked. Only by doing this will decades and even centuries of unconscious gender privilege be open to reworking.

How does gender equality relate to the field of sound? Lets start with the under representation of women in the field. It was difficult to find empirical evidence about numbers in sound studies broadly, but easier to get figures on women within the music industry. I will start with that. In 2011 the revered clubbing industry publication DJ Mag’s published list of top 100 DJs, it’s easy to spot the one thing missing: women. How about the lack of women in music more widely. A similar problem emerges. Performing Rights Society statistic that in 2014 showed only 14% of its members were female. So access to women within the music and sound industry is unfairly skewed. Problems are many, but a point made by many female artists in a recent BBC article was that women have to be prepared to play to sexist and sexualised stereotypes, as well as not age. Alongside that is the problem of female musicians being seen as novelty instead of norm. So yes, exploring the sexism endemic within the practice of sound art, sound experience and music is certainly worth both recognition and discussion.

One voice that explored a gendered perspective of a feature of sound, if not the practice of deigning and producing sound was Annie Goh. In Excavating Echo; Gendering Archaeoacoustics in sonic media archaeology, Goh argued that cultural notions surrounding sonic features such as the Echo are gendered due to social mythologies and cultural – linguistic histories surrounding sound, and specifically the echo.

 The contemporary definitions of echo do not stray far from a scientific, acoustic definition as a reflected sound event. Similar to “echo” in command-line code and in line with Spivak’s gendered reading of Ovid’s Echo (Spivak 1993), this dominant understanding of echo is as subservient and lacking agency. Indeed the vast majority of Western cultural references to Echo are based upon Ovid’s famous version of the story, reflecting typically androcentric values of feminine sound as unwanted and deceitful (Carson 1995). The gendered dimension of the “prized” original and its “bad” copy is also reflected in masculinist notions of creative production of the ‘new’. “

Annie Goh, Alice Clough and Anija Dokter in conversation

Annie Goh, Alice Clough and Anija Dokter in conversation

Sound as politics

Funnily enough (like the name didn’t give it away!), a key theme emerging from the conference was how sound can be used to document, respond to and disseminate political scenarios, and in particular protests. Key works presented included Tullis Rennie’s documentations of Spanish austerity protests, through a set of composed field recordings. Meanwhile, Dr E. Sirin Ozgun and Dr Meri Kyto explored how sound we a key medium of communication in organised resistance within Istanbul. Their work documented how people used urgent and immediate sonic expressions, such as the striking of pots and pans to represent political solidarity against extreme policing of protesting peoples.

Dr Samuel Llano presented The Sacred in Madrid’s Soundscape: Towards an Aural Hygiene and detailed “aural hygiene” as forms of regulation and control of soundscapes in urban spaces. He also spoke about how the permission or exhibition of noises and sounds in public spaces are a form of control of behaviour, including public political practice. There were many other presenters whose work directly related the political, including Dr Philippa Lovatt and Prof Michael Bull.

Trotting through the venn diagram of my conscious experience, I am aware that so much more seeped in during the conference than I can easily translate. I am sure that somewhere, the experience has seeded some new ideas for germination into the Spring of next year. Before walking back into already seeded projects and practice, I shall attempt to render a final reflection on a rather formative experience at Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics. In simple terms, my mind was expanded, orbited, parted and pumped full of great new ideas, and some wonderful people. In more concrete terms, the main take away was a deepening in an understanding of the multifaceted mysterious and interdisciplinary nature of Sound Studies, as well as a furthered understanding of sensory ethnography and its various applications, and how sound is, and can be very much a part of this research practice. I imagine my next written thought train will be somewhere along the lines of how this is going to inform my practice based PhD and upcoming sound experience commissions. But I shall let the frequencies oscillate some more before making any rash decisions.

A huge thank you to the wonderful organisers Ely Rosenblum and Anija Dokter (Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge)

For a full overview of the event, visit Storify here. 


Sanctuary is funded by Arts Council and Grow Wild. 

Here is the artist making some sensible comments

The artist making some sensible comments


Burrell, Jenna (2013). Persuasive Formats. Available online at

Connor, Steven (2015). Acousmania, A lecture given at Sound Studies: Art, Experience, Politics, CRASSH, Cambridge. Online at

Elkins, James (2005). Art History versus Aesthetics. New York. Routledge.

Jay, Martin (1994). Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Lakoff, George and Nunez, Rafael (2001). Where Mathematics Come From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being . Basic Books

Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Stoller, Paul. (2011). The Taste of Ethnographic Things. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.