What the hell am I doing?

by Caitlin

Look I’m doing a practice as research PhD. It’s starting to emerge, I’m not sure how, but it is.


Some of  my work. “In Your Face the Longest Light” @ Theastre Gates’ Sanctum Installation. November 2015


Sonified States; the role of interactive urban sound installations as a means of affecting social transformation.


Through practice led research I aim to produce major new sound-art installations for public spaces that communicate personal experiences of access to affordable homes for low-income groups.

My research aims to explore and understand the social and relational effect of public sound installations, located within urban environments. Specifically, Sonified States uses multi-sensory sound ethnography as a means of exploring experiences of home and access to housing amongst low-income communities within Bristol.

Research Question

To achieve this research aim, I will be working to answer the following question.

What is the role of multi sensory, sonic installations located in public, urban places and their effect on transformative social experience?

 Sub Questions include

  • Can a sonic ethnography of home, experienced by low-income groups in Bristol achieve positive social transformation in terms of social identity, and practical access to affordable homes?
  • How do participatory sound installations situated in public spaces impact social interaction and behaviour before, during, and after the installation?

Contribution to Knowledge

My contribution to knowledge at a doctoral level will be to the fields of Art as Social Practice, Urban Sociology, Ethnography and Sensory Aesthetics. I will be building on the work of Claire Bishop who has asked important questions of relational art, in particular asking that the quality of relations set up through social art practices are examined, and scrutinised (Bishop, 2004). She also questions the notion that all dialogue facilitated through art as social practice is democratic, something assumed by Bourriard in Relational Aesthetics (Bourriard, 1998). Using an ethnographic and action research approach, Sonified States will examine definitions of, and access to home within the context of the personal, and public city. I expect my work to contribute to the following discourses;

  • Sensory Ethnography
  • Sensory Aesthetics
  • Relational Aesthetics
  • Art as Social Practice
  • Experiential Design in Urban Planning
  • Urban Ambiance
  • Site Specific Installation Art

Urban ambiance and sensory aesthetics are particularly central to my research. Both use different frameworks to discuss and define the materiality of urban site and the importance of a sensory vocabulary for the everyday. Both disciplines fall under the wider category of urban sociology, an area deeply covered by Richard Sennet. Through Sonified States, I will be contributing to his work on bodily experiences of the urban, outlined in Flesh and Stone (Sennet, 1994) and his work on pleasure and cooperation, presented in Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. (Sennet 2012). Furthermore, my interest in accessing and documenting the lived experiences of low income Bristol citizens, and their relationship to home and their experience of it, will contribute to the work of sensory ethnographer Sarah Pink, who argues that the senses are central to understanding cultural meaning. Meanwhile, Sonified States will expand on ideas from the field of Sensory Studies, which uses the complete senses as a framework for cultural studies (Ong, 1991).


The Expanding City

Within the UK, new research (Ideate, 2015) concludes that almost half (47%) of Britain’s adult population believe that cities will become more important to the UK economy, the same number of people believe that cities will become less liveable over the next 50 years.

 This is not just a UK issue. Today, 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66% by 2050 (UN, 2014). Over the past 15 years, the number of mega cities has almost tripled. In 1990, there were ten “mega-cities”, while in 2014, 28 mega-cities were identified, home to 453 million people or about 12 per cent of the world’s urban dwellers.

With over half the global population living in cities, and that number set to increase, the design and development of healthy, fair and affordable future cities should not be relegated to the professional practice of town planners, politicians, architects and economists alone. Urban policy and it’s physical manifestation should include artists, designers and creative industries.

The Political Landscape

Sonified States is rooted in the broader political landscape of urban geographies, sociology, and health and wellbeing indices within the context of cities and their citizens. Committed to exploring these issues, Sonified States uses ethnographic research methods to examine the lived experience of social inequity within the city, while exploring the role of multi sensory, sound installations to encourage access to social welfare, and facilitate social cohesion.

Within this context, my research will draw on works such as the Spirit Level; Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Picket, Wilkinson, 2010) and Social Determinants of Health (Marmot, 2005), The Health Gap (Marmot, 2015) and Social Justice and the City; Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation (Harvey, 2009). Considering health and housing are choices that reflect power structures in action, I will also refer to the work of Foucault, in particular texts including Discipline and Punish (1977), Madness and Civilisation (2001) and Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (2002).

Listening Back

The hierarchy of senses has favoured the act of sight (Bull and Black, 2003, Pg.1), yet knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision (Smith, 2003). In his book, Reason and Resonance; A history of modern aurality (2014), Viet Erlmann argues that sight is the first sense in the West, with the remaining senses, listed as second-class sensory citizens. Since the 1980’s, there has been a wave of interest in understanding the role of senses beyond sight, and their impact on cultural studies, and in particular anthropology and history (Howes, 2013).

The development of anthropology of the senses was initially inspired by a desire to explore under-investigated non-visual modes of experience. Since then, key texts on sound studies and indeed sensory studies have emerged. They include In Sites of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear Vol. 2. (LaBelle, Martinho, 2011), Discord: The Story of Noise (Goldsmith, 2012) Hearing cultures : essays on sound, listening, and modernity (Carter, 2004), The Sound Studies Reader (Sterne, 2012) and Noise; A Human History of Sound and Listening (Hendy, 2013). Running thorough these publications, is an assertion of the importance of sound and aurality in social and relational terms. In his book The Third Ear (1992) Joachim-Ernst Berendt asserts that human experience can only be fully accounted for through “a democracy of the senses” (Berendt, 1985, pg 32). It is through a multi sensory, auditory lens I intend to design and discover Sonified States; investigating the importance of sound and aurality in influencing the social transformation of housing within public and private spheres.

Art as Social Practice


Thomas Hirschorn’s Gramsci Monument (2013),  Forest Houses, New York.

Art as Social Practice is a relatively new term, which was coined in 2005, with the introduction of a course specialising in the area of practice entitled Social Practice MFA at California College of the Arts. (Atkins, 2013). However, it needs to be noted that socially orientated arts practice has been happening since the 1960’s, but only recently has there been a cementing of terms that formally acknowledge the existence, impact and role of socially informed art.

 Critic Claire Bishop defines art as social practice is a stream of participatory art that tends to display a strong sociological and political bent, often in an effort to draw attention to social ills and conditions. There are many definitions of art as social practice, but there are some agreements on key features. It is generally agreed, that art as social practice is a medium that focuses on social engagement, inviting collaboration with individuals, communities, and institutions in the creation of participatory art (Miranda, 2014).

Through measuring the social impact of documentary sound-art installations, Sonified States will contribute to debates about relational art, authorship, influence and cultural impact presented by Claire Bishop (among others) in her essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (2004). My work will also contribute to ideas laid out by Claire Doherty in publications including Participation (2006) and Contemporary Art; from studio to situation (2004). In these publications Doherty discusses site as material, and the idea of site as a space of social, economic and political processes instead of a set geographical place. An important contribution to such discussions, relevant to my research, have been made by Curator Miwon Kwon. She suggests that artists and curators have become informed by a growing array of disciplines (including anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, psychology, natural and cultural histories, architecture and urbanism, political theory and philosophy), she argues that our understanding of site has shifted from a fixed, physical location to somewhere or something constituted through a variety of lens including social, economic, cultural and political processes (Kwon, 2002). Subsequently, the term site-specific has been replaced with a range of alternative idioms such as context-specific, site-oriented, site-responsive and socially engaged.

 Urban Ambiance


Is this how Urban Ambiance feels?

Jean-Paul Thibaud, a researcher whose work spans visual sociology, urban planning, aesthetics, and cultural studies outlines three dynamics of urban ambiance in his chapter The three dynamics of urban ambiances, which is published in Brandon LaBlessers In Sites of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear (2011). In this book, LaBlesser suggests that ambiance can be defined as a time-space qualified from a sensory point of view. Ambiance relates to the sensing and feeling of a place. Each ambiance involves a specific mood expressed in the material presence of things and embodied in the way of being of city dwellers.

When talking about urban ambiance, references are made explicitly to the materiality of site, and how specific spaces, forms, objects and material help construct meaning within a particular location. When looking at urban ambiance, focus is given to the language of the city and densely populated space. There are many ways of expressing the symbolism of materiality and location. The idea and experience of urban ambiances relates to ideas articulated by Doherty and Kwon, outlined above. The idea of site as feeling, sensation and relation provides a central framework for my research, when exploring the sonification of public space, and how sound conveys ambiance, but also it’s potential to amplify, make visible and further describe and transform places and social relations.

 Site-Specific Installation Art

The term installation art is problematic, as it has been misused, and confused. In the book Installation Art, Claire Bishop argues that the freedom at which the term installation has been used almost precludes it from having any meaning (Bishop, 2005). However, if we look beyond the misnomers of both terms, and interrogate what the terms can mean specifically, both have a lot to do with urban ambiance, site, multi-sensorality, and the language of embodiment. Installation art is a considered set of components that are conceptualised and presented to be considered and experience in totality. The reading of installation art, is not to do with a reading of individual artworks, but instead the relationship between the artworks, the space, the architecture, temperature, and materiality of the complete space. Bishop States “Installation art creates a singular totality, that the viewer physically enters, and insists you regard it as single totality” (Bishop; 2005, Pg.2). Meanwhile, in her book From Margin to Centre; The Spaces of Installation Art (1999) Riess attempt to provide a tighter set of definitions of installation art. One of them she argues is the popular idea that installation art is in someway dependent on the viewer/participant to complete the work.

Incorporating the idea of a physical totality and participation as a tenant of my creative output and research, my research will draw on contemporary definitions of installation art and site specifity, in part, outlined above. To ensure contemporary terms are fit for purpose, I will be working on summarising current thought and definitions of participatory installation art, while discussing critiques of the role of installation art in making measurable and effective contributions to social change.

Sensory Aesthetics



Still from Leviathan (2014), a sensory film coming from Sensory Ethnography Lab. 


In recent years there has been a growing interest in the social construction and discussion of the senses. International research groups set up to research the role of sensory experience and intelligence include the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, The Nottingham Sensory Studies Network (NSSN) and the International Ambiance Network.

Historically, the role of the senses in the production and appreciation of art has been neglected, due in large part to the long-standing dictum in Western culture and philosophy that the “lower” senses cannot be media of aesthetic experience, as outlined in Immanuel Kants, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, and Rudolf Arnheim’s, Visual Thinking. It has been argued that although the senses have been present, and important to popular culture, they have played a cultural role in dividing higher and lower class sensory experience and identities. For Example, Pierre Bourdieu, in Distinction (1979) and Anthony Synnott in The Body Social (1993) argue that visceral and bodily sensations have been heavily associated with manual labour, poverty and survival, and thus has been relegated to the day to day and excluded from the high arts.

Following the formative work of Beyond the Aesthetic Gaze (Concordia University, 1997 – 2001) sensory aesthetics has become a rapidly emerging field. Key figures in the field include academics and researchers such as Constance Classen, a cultural historian specializing in the history of the senses; David Howes, Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, Montreal; Michael Bull, Professor of Sound Studies, with a research expertise in sensory experiences and methodologies at The University of Sussex. This field of research and practice is key to Sonified States, and provides relevant contexts for my research as I start to contribute to work demonstrating the importance of engaging auditory and bodily senses instead of the optical senses within the context of a sensual city.

Research Methodology; a summary

Practice as Research

 My chosen PhD model is practice as research. Following this method, I will produce the following; multi modal doctoral thesis, comprising of a written thesis of 40,000 words and an exhibition of a new series of artworks. Outputs will include a series of shorter essays of between 6,000 and 10,000 words, and a catalogue of practice based work.

In order to account for the complexities of my project, I have broken my research down into two key research strands; Sensory Ethnography of Home and The Sonified City.

On a practical level, I will be selecting three main groups of subjects, consisting of ten participants per group. Group one, falls under the sensory ethnography of home, where I will use participant observation and ethnographic approaches to gather insight to experiences of home among low-income groups in Bristol.

The second and third group will provide insight and understanding into the impact of sonic art experiences situated with public spaces. The second group will be observed and questioned prior, during and after the sound installation exploring home has been installed. The third group will be randomly selected members of the public, who will be invited to respond to a semi-structured survey, so I can collate and analyse their responses to the installation of the sound experience.

Sensory Ethnography of Home (Strand One)

To gather a range of perspectives and voices responding to questions regarding access to affordable homes for Bristol citizens with low income (group 1), my methodology will draw on the key principles outlined by Martyn Denscombe in his chapter on Ethnography (Denscombe, 2013, Pg.80). For example, I will gather the lived experiences of ten subjects by spending time in the field, sharing the lives of the subjects, documenting and analysing their routine and mundane actions, and taking a holistic and interlinking approach to developing and constructing a cultural understanding of my subjects relationship to housing.

As a means of gathering new data within this area, I will record a multi sensory set of lived experiences within the context of home, including affordability, space, security, heat, identity and community. I will incorporate methods such as sensory ethnography (Pink, 2015), and specifically auditory processes including self-recordings and sonic observations. To situate sensory ethnography in current research frameworks, I refer to Pink’s assertion that sensory research demonstrates how the senses form an avenue of ‘knowing’ (Pink, 2009) that both organizes social life and contributes toward how social actors relate to urbanity through sensory interpretations. Further to this is the idea, Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes that sensation occupies the centre of human perception (Pink, 2009). Building on this, I am interested in incorporating the bodily, and specifically the auditory experiences of the researcher and the researched into Sonified States, to facilitate ‘greater phenomenological sensibility to ethnography’ (Kusenbach, 2003, Pg. 455).

The Sonified City (Strand Two)

The second, yet simultaneous part of my research is grounded in my artistic practice. Through the creation of new sound installations, I intend to document and assess the social effect of embodied and sonic considerations of access to home, in personal, public and political contexts. Building on this approach, through my art practice I will examine the idea of the sensuous city as a way to illustrate the social significance of sensations in space and place (Low, 2015, pg. 296).

To examine and understand the social effect of documentary based site-specific sound installations, I will work with two focus groups of 10 people (following a 2016 pilot study) over a period of 6 months. With group one, I will explore and assess the perceived social impact of my installations on social relationships and interactions within the chosen site before, during and after the installation. I will do this using a range of methods, including conducting a baseline survey of interpretation of the value of site before the installation. This will provide useful indicators to assess the social and relational improvements or limitations created by the installation, and allow for evaluation process to take place.

With group two, I will explore the perceived impact of the installation on the day-to-day use of the chosen installation site. This research will take the form of regular surveys, conversations and observations made by myself and the selected group of ten participants. To support this method, I will draw on ethnographic and phenomenological research methods to understand the experiences of site, location and social interaction of focus groups before, during and after the sound installation has been installed. Additionally, I will refer to theories of action research as a means to locate myself as a participant as well as a practitioner, to account for my influence on the responses given by participants (Boutilier et al, 1997).


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