response by Katharina Kellermann (Pelosi)
The performative sound collections How to hear the invisible and Call to Listen as a contribution to a post_colonial culture of remembrance
Research format Performative Collection, response by Katharina Pelosi
There is a certain basic vibe. As soon as you go back into the history of colonialism and think about it in Hamburg, you can’t imagine life without this fundamental swing. That’s such a tinnitus.1
In the context of two artistic research projects, I have been dealing with sound as a medium of remembrance culture in post_colonial Hamburg. Hamburg’s urban space is full of colonial traces and references which are articulated in architecture, street names and urban planning, but remain invisible in the complexity of their historical significance and their repercussions in our social and urban present. The project How to hear the invisible – an acoustic mapping of the post_colonial memory landscape Hamburg (2017) maps the acoustic dimension of these colonial traces: What do these places sound like? What verbally mediated information do we need to decode the places and to unlock their meaning? How do they affect our present – designated via so-called auditory figures2, as motif, silence, feedback, echo and trace? How can they become audible?
Acoustic mapping along these questions was the basis for a collection of sounds (generated on location through different recording techniques), of voices that are seldom heard in the debate, and of verbal information that marks the invisible. This collection has been edited on the basis of the auditory figures as a multi-track mapping in digital space and can now be found on the website http://www.how-to-hear-the-invisible.org. By visiting this website, users can listen to Hamburg’s urban space in its colonial dimensions.
The project Call to Listen – a post_colonial resonance space deals with the Hamburg Landungsbrücken area. The site is of historical importance in Hamburg’s colonial history but has now become a central tourist destination. The starting point for a collection of acoustic materials was research about which sounds resonate in this place: Port sounds, the music of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall and the musical The Lion King, public transport, political demonstrations. This mixture of historical and contemporary material, field recordings, archive material, and samples served as a material pool for a series of listening sessions. In these listening sessions, the sound material was commented on by various experts in the form of interviews and expanded with additional footage. From the collection of sounds as well as sections of the interviews, a 30-minute soundtrack was created that can be heard on site at the Landungsbrücken. The collection thus becomes performative through multiple invitations to listen: the participating researchers share their perspective on the acoustic material through their own listening, which in turn can be listened to collectively at the Landungsbrücken. This way, the site is activated as a temporary resonance space through listening.
Both projects are thus concerned with collecting diverse sound material based on specific questions and thereby enabling a different perspective on Hamburg’s urban space and its colonial-historical references in terms of form and content. The composition of the participating interviewees also articulates a form of critique of representation, casts a critical perspective on speaker-positions especially in local debates, and shapes a different form of knowledge about the history of the city. This knowledge production is not purely academic, artistic, historical or personal, but gathers different approaches and expertise. By choosing sound as the central medium of artistic research, a critique of the politics of visibility – which is strongly influenced by colonialism – is implicitly formulated and a new form of artistic remembrance-cultural practice is proposed. Sound as a medium of artistic work and as a research perspective on the connection between remembrance culture, colonial history, and citizenship is used to develop methods for a listening mode of remembrance.
The manner of collecting is also apparent in the form of the presentation after the editing of the material: How to hear the invisible, through the invitation to combine different levels of sound on the website, places a focus on the post_conial acoustics of the city: on sounds and voices, how they affect us and transport information in a different way and how they change our perception. Call to Listen deals with listening as a practice of remembrance culture. Thus, in the first part of the soundtrack, only a soundscape-composition from the collection can be heard, while the second part only consists of language, i.e. samples from the interviews on the collection. The focus here is on different ways of listening and different listening experiences.
The processing and arrangement of the sounds for different sound set-ups (individually at home in front of the computer or collectively and site-specifically) requires different performative activations by the listeners. These practices themselves are a form of remembrance.
From what perspective do you hear?
What did you hear?
How does Hamburg sound?
What do you remember? 3
Especially when working with sound (here understood explicitly as sound that does not contain any verbal information), the question of prior knowledge and positionality among the listeners arises. Sounds are experienced, heard and contextualized in very different ways, depending on the level of knowledge about colonial history and on the individual perspective. A central challenge for the performative collection is therefore to work dramaturgically through the specific use of montage and the design of the acoustic set-ups, and thus to include listeners with less prior knowledge. Precisely because of this challenge, an exchange about what is heard must always be understood as part of the presentation as well as of the collective practice of remembrance culture. Such an exchange also enables a productive approach to the central (individualised, intuitive, and artistic) process of montage, which stands between a participatory collection of material and a collective listening experience. It is also crucial to document this step, since both the collection and the compositions that are to be activated performatively are recorded in the medium of sound itself.
Working with sound offers a change of perspective and opens up new theoretical and practical approaches of the thematic field of colonial history and culture of remembrance. The work on the material becomes not only a performative collection of sounds, but also of different perspectives, of transformations and translation processes that inscribe themselves into the projects and thus open them up to a diverse audience at various points.
Reworking and remembering is thus conceived of as a connected participatory artistic process. The practice of reworking and remembering is not only a performative form of reception of the collection, but, as in Call to Listen, it is also already part of the production of the collection. Through this procedure, diverse forms of knowledge and positioning can enter into the process. Reworking and remembering therefore do not have to be strictly academic or purely artistic, but can be based on various practices, narratives, and spatial occupations.
1 Dan Thy Nguyen, participant of the listening sessions for Call to Listen.
2 The term goes back to Brandon La Belle (Acoustic Territories. Sound Culture an Everyday Life, Page xxv), who uses it to describe how sounds operate as a form of micro-epistemology that enables us to understand the world in a specific way.
3 Questions from the evaluation of Call to Listen.
LaBelle, Brandon: Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. Continuum Books. New York, 2010.