2005 “The Political Listening of Urban Sounds”

The Political Listening of Urban Sounds Text / Zhang Anding (sound artist)

In one of my texts titled Inaudible Cities, I suggested a way of recreating our private maps of urban soundscape and rebuilding the connection between sound, culture, community and the city through the practice of “sound walking”.

Listening, however, is more than that. It’s not going to automatically become a conscious and independent behaviour or the tool to re-establish the relationship between an individual and the city. Listening is a symmetrical game: at one side, it holds respect and understanding of the current sonic environment of the city; at the other, it remains critical. This is, above all, a collapse of the hegemony of listening aesthetics. It advocates a sound-oriented approach: open your ears, re-evaluate the hierarchical order hidden in your listening habits. The order is not only about the coming and going of all kinds of sounds, but also the value system that they define.

Nowadays, hearing is already the principal sense that is captured within the reproduction mechanism of urban soundscape. The act of this capture is merely a link in the process of the reshaping of urban spaces by capital and political power. The question of how is individual listening tamed and fitted into the framework of governance should be placed into the context of Michel Foucault’s modern political discourse about body politics.

Nowadays, listening is not only about music, it’s a critical tool, because sounds manifest the justice of a city. We’ll start our reading from the basic spatial structure (in terms of both physical and residential) of the city: the birthplace of urban soundscape.

Urban Soundscape Shaped by Capital

For many, the strongest impression left by the sonic environment of Guangzhou boils down to one word: restless. Others argue that the appropriate word should be “grassroots brouhaha”. Ask a pro-Guangzhou person, and he / she will tell you that all these disturbance can only mark the memorable fact that this is a multicultural, embracing city, the brouhaha is the evidence of its energy, which, on some level, serves as the therapy for the possible maladies of modern cities as a result of rational planning of the political power. After all, all urban plannings are about the redistribution of spaces and resources within the city.

The restless is a result of the diversity of space: business districts, residential areas and streets, all tightly cling to each other. This is indeed an aggregation of high decibel sounds. But this sort of sonic environment had found their way of fitting into the city.

The traditional urban planning theory tends to divide the functional spaces in a city based on the needs of the transportation system. This kind of thinking, according to the Frenchman H. Lefebvre, is a mere technical imagination of a “pure” urban space, one that lacks political reflection. The cities which employ such a division generate various automatically pigeon-holed soundscape, for instance, the torrent of traffic noise as a result of the long distance between main avenues and the residential areas; or the lifeless silence between the skyscrapers in the business district at night.

Fortunately, this kind of pureness is hard to find in Guangzhou, whose grassroots vitality (a result of the diversity) should be largely attributed to the vitality of capital. Here’s a city surrounded by hills and permeated by water, one with a relatively small urban area. The money-making impulse of its citizens in the past twenty years has rapidly changed the physical as well as residential structure of the city. The urban redevelopment by the government, which has been carried out ruthlessly in other cities of China, is much less visible here. Not that there isn’t a top-down city planning in Guangzhou, but the capital is much more vehement and efficient an agent in changing a city’s structure than planning.

Compared to other cities of China, the urban demolition in Guangzhou is indeed mild. According to the European leftists’ urban planning theory, breakneck-speed demolition and the accompanied slogans prove but one thing: that the city space has been completely incorporated into the capital recycling and commercial production of the society, that the priority of the marriage of capital and political power can hardly hold the living needs from the grassroots.

The planning and positioning of many of the cities in China – embodied in slogans such as “international metropolis”, “central city”, and the derivative ones “industrial planning”, “readjusting of urban layout” and “regional re-functioning” – reflect the ambition of reshaping and fitting them into the glamourous landscape of globalization. It’s a self-explanatory ideology, but this kind of slogan-ish practice has never been fully pushed forward in Guangzhou, whose image nowadays doesn’t really meet the standards of an international metropolis. This, however, justifies the city’s development, which is based on the spontaneous needs of its residents, without being easily overruled by the rational design of political power.

This characteristic is also evident in the realm of business. The governmental design hadn’t changed much of the urban commercial network, no matter it’s Shangxiajiu or the Beijing Road walking streets. One’s not likely to experience a soundscape similar to those of the business streets in Beijing or Shanghai even in the central business district of Tianhe (footnote 1). There are no reverb-friendly spaces or aptly-dense cluster of customers here, only down-to-earth trading. Hand-clapping in front of the shops – a method often used by modest little stores to capture the attention of passersby, a soundscape easily heard in secondary cities – finds its way into the air of the busy commercial area of Guangzhou. And there’s the second-hand markets of Dashatou, where the mixture of second-hand Mandarin and second-hand English is commonplace. By bringing home inexpensive used appliances from China, African merchants are witnessing a classic moment in the link of global trading together with Guangzhou.

The Sound History of Migrants

The diversity of urban spaces in Guangzhou coincide with its number of migrants. The low cost of life and the role as the world factory has resulted in another sonic characteristic of the city: the diversity of accents.

People from all over the country have brought all kinds of accents with them. Together with the rapid process of urbanization, they have invented the largest sound toy of Guangzhou: Urban Villages. The distance between the buildings in the villages – which are built by locals on their own farmland – are often within a palm’s reach. Each Urban Village is an independent eco-system, within which you’ll see daily lives, commercial activities and grassroots order, in another word, the spontaneous aggregation of various context in the most limited space. Similarly, it’s not easy to find so many densely-aggregated migrants of marginal professions in other cities: flower-hawking kids, beggars (many of them already use electronic devices), pirate vendors, motor-cabbies, prostitutes, etc. And the curbside barbecue stands, which constitute the prominent tune in the nighttime soundscape of Guangzhou, are mostly if not completely migrants-dominated.

While living a hard-knock life in the cracks of the city, these migrants have altered Guangzhou’s sound environment with their own sonic identities. Such a scenario, however, is the embarrassing embodiment of the city’s justice: on one hand, the residents are bestowed with right of survival; on the other, they are suffering from inequality and the absence of urban planning.

Fortunately, the sound history that migrants created is being documented. Armed with microphones, local sound artists have recorded down the complex urban soundscape. This year in June, two of them – Zhong Minjie and Lin Zhiying – released a double-album called Suspended Spectacles. The album presents a morphing urban sonic space which is constantly reconstructing itself.

This kind of endeavour had started as early as last December, when 21floor – a Guangzhou-based open collective of which the two artists are members – organized a performance called Sonic Brouhaha at Gin Yan Club on Shamian Island. The performance was focused on the multiple structure of the physical, psychological and cultural dimension of urban spaces, and was implemented in a novel fashion: people with various social roles and status (public servant, professional, peasant, student, artist, worker, media worker) were invited to a typical karaoke suite – a generic internal space in the city, therefore turning the space into a miniature landscape of the city. The artists’ intention was obvious: through documenting the sound in a city, they interfered with / sampled / extended the urban space by means of sound and video, released the concentrated urban vitality within the entertaining brouhaha of the karaoke space, restored the lost locality and encouraged the subject to rethink the notion of survival.

These are only the action from the artists. Guangzhou is changing, no one knows how long will the complex but vital urban soundscape last. Nowadays the heavy industry is being rapidly developed, the capital-dominated nature of it will have absolute demand of the redistribution of urban spaces and resources. In the urban plan for the future, Guangzhou will try to extend to newer districts while maintaining itself as an “ecological city that is suitable for both living and working”.

Perhaps the residents, like locusts, will eat away their own city and the last remaining power for their ears. The city has never learnt to hide itself, it keeps its body open, grows arbitrarily, and screams.

(Originally published on the op-ed page of 21st Century Business Herald, Sep 4, 2006)

(Translated by Lawrence R.Y. Li.)

Footnote 1: A district of Guangzhou crammed with office buildings and malls.