Coactive Walking (2006-7)

One of the side projects of The Temporary Institute, in addition to installation of the grid in nadine and to the weekly walks, was the development of an MP3 walking guide for the area around the nadine arts laboratories. This article acts a manual for this audio guide and contextualizes it within the residence of The Temporary Institute.

An audio guide as a score

coactive walkingBefore the TI started and as the institute was developing in nadine’s workspaces, thought was given to how the project could be turned outwards. The first idea was to create an alternative walking guide in the form of ‘scores’. In this walking guide, the walkers would be conceived as the performers of a composition rather than the trail walkers. Originally, these scores were in text form but ultimately an auditive form was opted for: an MP3 audio guide consisting of audio recordings of walks, accompanied by a voice that gives minimalist descriptions to these recordings and, every now and then, provides short commentaries. As concerns the routes, these can be made up by the walker or the walker can literally follow or join pre-composed routes. Walking along or together with the audio guide has been called ‘Coactive Walking’.

instructions audio guide and map

Coactive Walking

The concept of Coactive Walking is simple: a walker walks through a street while listening to the recorded audio image on an audio player of an earlier walk through that same street.

The audio guide includes audio recordings for 76 walks through as many street parts. These recordings were made with in-ear (binaural) microphones that generate a realistic stereo image. As a result, it becomes possible for the walkers to get their bearings in the recording and follow the recorded walk fairly accurately. Orientation points for this are the side of the road (the traffic passes by on the left or on the right), the walking position between two intersections (cars that can be heard turning into the street, passing by and disappearing again) and a wide range of local, visually traceable sounds: intersections, gates that might open, glass bins, parking lots, entries and exits, street acoustics, speed bumps, bushes, shops, etc. The recordings are accompanied by a voice that, through minimal remarks, focuses the attention on these reference points in the surroundings and that, with each track, names the date and time of day of the recording that is being walked.

The walker ensures that the sound balance between the recording and the real street sound is such that the two can be completely blended into one. Therefore, there is a preference for earpieces or open headsets. In the sound blend, there is a blurring of the line between the presence of actual sound and the one which once rang out in situ. Walking the recording in situ intensifies the realism and its credibility. At the same time, it elevates the street to a theatre décor for the imagination of the walker.

The territory

The concept was first tested in the area surrounding nadine’s art laboratory in Ixelles (Elsene) (Brussels). The walking area was demarcated by three large traffic arteries and a connecting street: avenue Louise (Louisalaan), avenue de la Toison d’Or (Guldenvlieslaan), chaussée d’Ixelles (Elsensesteenweg) and rue de la Croix/rue du Beau Site (Kruisstraat-Welgelegenstraat). The streets within this area form a grid of which the most important characteristic is that they are almost all one-way streets. The streets within typically have a residential function although large establishments also have a place here. The surrounding avenues have a shopping and leisure function, each with a very pronounced identity. There are also shopping malls and two metro stations in the area. Geographically, the area can be described as a tilted plane with avenue Louise (Louisalaan) as the lower line and chaussée d’Ixelles (Elsensesteenweg) as the upper line.

Recording and editing strategy

Over a few weeks and at various times recordings were made within this grid of streets. In addition, two routes were distinguished: recordings of separate ‘street parts’, or the shortest continuous street part between two street corners, and continuous recordings of main or connecting streets. Each of these recordings were dated and time-stamped. At least two recordings were made for most of the street (parts), but ultimately for each of the street parts only one recording was selected, with attention being paid to the necessary variation in times, days of the week, weather conditions and sound events. The recordings take place at a regular walking pace. Walking and recording was done in the same direction as the flow of traffic. The recordings are in high MP3 quality, in such a way that it is possible to listen to the guide on most commercial audio players.

Sound experience

Predominant in the audio image is the car driving past. However familiar the sound, and however similar the cars driving by might sound in the various streets, by its dynamics and locatability (approaching or disappearing) it is one of the most powerful actors that blurs the borders between audible reality and recording. It is precisely this blurring that during the walk prompts a continuous feedback on the perception of reality. The effect is to raise the awareness of the routine and usually unconscious association with familiar sound signals (like spontaneously paying attention to oncoming cars).

Where the individual car on the inside streets plays an important role in directing the attention to the local and the relationship to it, the sounds of the traffic in the large outer avenues as more of an anonymous mass sound. Through the rising of the sound events in a constant stream of sound, these avenues can be considered ‘sound walls’ for the walking district, although they differ from each other significantly.

      •  The chaussée d’Ixelles (Elsensesteenweg) with its many traffic lights, shops and narrow passageway provides a very busy and varied soundscape. Rather than a monotonous stream of sound there is a constant accumulation of sound impressions in which the sources of sound remain traceable. The effect of the sound mass is achieved here by the speed of alternation as a result of which the attention is caught only very briefly by one sound signal and a listening attitude is created that ‘emulsifies in the bustle’. The chaussée d’Ixelles (Elsensesteenweg) also turns out to be a ‘honking road’ and, as such, is recognizable at a great distance in the inner streets.
      • In the avenue de la Toison d’Or (Guldenvlieslaan) pedestrians, voices and footsteps dominate against the backdrop of a traffic artery further on (although the traffic in tracks 12 to 16 is audibly closer to the sidewalk). The broad footpath – or rather boulevard – and the leisure functions here provide for a multi-layered and perspectival sound image in which human voices and footsteps play an important role. The avenue de la Toison d’Or (Guldenvlieslaan) is also the only section in the walking area that has two metro stops (Louise and Porte de Namur). This metro section is also included in the audio guide (track 8-16, including escalators, waiting for and getting on and off the metro). A decision was taken to offer this metro recording for the walker following the aboveground route or otherwise the aboveground recording for a possible metro ride.
      • The avenue Louise (Louisalaan), finally, because of its constant stream of traffic, can be considered a sound beacon in which the sound of the traffic effectively coagulates into continual noise. The traffic here surfaces from a tunnel and disappears underground again a bit further on. At the loudest point there is a pedestrian tunnel. This loudest point can be approached via the Lange Haag Straat, a parallel street that starts at a higher point and slowly descends to avenue Louise (Louisalaan), which it flows into. Walking down this street has the effect of a slow crescendo (listen to track 36-39). In the second section (in the direction of place Louise (Louisaplein)) the many pedestrians walking in and out of shopping malls prevail. Unlike the avenue de la Toison d’Or (Guldenvlieslaan), the footpath is very narrow here resulting in a narrowed sound perspective and flashes of voices and conversations brushing past the right or left ear continuously.

Other, temporary sound beacons are formed by street, façade and construction works that can be heard from a distance and that you approach or move away from in the inner streets. Angle grinders, electricity generators and the shouts of construction workers make up an acoustic memory of local transformations that took place during the recording period in the walking area.

It can be said of some streets that they have unique acoustics because of their layout and development (e.g. rue du Prince Royal (Koninklijke Prinsstraat)).

Apart from the sound image that can be more or less called typical for each street, the recordings are populated by numerous coincidental meetings: pedestrians, children playing, people on the phone, braking cyclists, even the occasional lost walker asking the coactive walker for directions. It is these unexpected meetings that give the audio guide a surprisingly social dimension.

Coactive Walking versus The Temporary Institute

The development of the audio guide was done simultaneously with the development of the Temporary Institute in nadine. Since this project can be considered a spin-off of the TI, it is worthwhile to work out the extent to which the context of the TI had a decisive impact on the development of its concept and design.

Walks 1-12

The most remarkable link with the TI projects are the weekly ‘walks’ that were organized every Tuesday afternoon by the ‘Mobility Department’, more specifically also the soundwalk on 12 December 2006 with guest curator Guy De Bièvre through the centre of Brussels and the ‘shuffle-walk’ on 10 January 2007 with Jamila al-Khwarizm (martaque). Conceptually, the parallel is found not only in the fact that both projects took place walking and listening in the open air of Brussels, but also in a common starting point in which the ‘tourist objective’ of the city tour can be reflected by the city, as it were, to the walking itself.

In both projects, not only is the walk the most suitable means by which to explore the city, but the layout of the city is also played as a means to put themes to certain aspects of walking. In the weekly walks, routes were drawn up in which the city décor would draw the walker’s gaze back to it, to the physical activity of walking, to his or her situatedness, to the duration of the walk, to the walking objective or to the route opportunities offered by the city fabric.

As an analogy, the audio guide can be construed as a guide that not only leads to or past a certain place, but, using the surroundings, provides a walk performed and recorded one time only as a score to be performed. In this case, this means that the score (the recorded walk) does not assume a specific street as a route to be taken, but rather one that follows an individual’s actual walk, one situated in time, down that street.

Grid

From a formal point of view, there also seems to be a parallel between the audio guide and the installation of the grid in nadine. The street plan that was used in the audio guide can be interpreted as a network in which each line has an identical value. Only the position of the individual in that grid or that network offers the possibility of a perspective. In that respect, there is no compulsory narrative present that is enclosed in the grid or the network itself. Only the individual, physical movements in and throughout the network turns the network into an environment of possible perspectives, experiences or stories.

With the qualification that, in the case of Coactive Walking, there is a continuous possibility of interference between the uniquely audio-recorded walks and the time-variable, local walking perspectives. The decision not to embed single recordings in a narrative construction was a point for discussion during the preparation. Eventually, the choice for 76 independent walking fragments was inspired by the idea that in the absence of a narrative compulsion, interferences with the local reality can continue to play a vital role and that way stimulate the walker’s imagination. Walking with or walking together has a narrative force in and of itself that risks ending up in the background if the walker only interprets the street as the décor for a pre-composed radio play.

Precisely because the continuous possibility of sonorous interferences, Coactive Walking offers a perspective of the same street that is always unique.

Formalisms

The idea of a grid could only be implemented through a suggestion of completeness and uniformity: in a quasi-absurd urge of radical uniformization, gridlines were drawn straight through floors and doors. A similar aim is expressed in making available separate recordings for the smallest street part in the walking area, independent of its sonorous quality. This radical formalism was strengthened even more by uniformly labelling the recordings with a number, a date and a day of the week. Analogous to this, each gridline was given a number or label.

Coincidental, contingent sound events are permanently linked to a precise location and time and at the same time these random recordings are made available without being restricted in time (in nadine, there is always an MP3 audio guide available for candidate walkers). With this, the recording gets a normative power. The (sonorous) identity of a street part can be determined by fairly stable, environment-related factors – like the presence of traffic lights or a tunnel – but also coincidental meetings in a street that may as well have taken place in another street part.

Floating

Most TI projects were characterized by holding on to apparently univocal formalisms and clear procedures. Weekly walks, postings with uniform letter heads and cover pages. Institutional departments, cubes, white gridlines, numbered streets and a clearly delineated street network.

In contrast, there is the uncertain and polysemous reception of the TI actions or of the walks with the audio guide. On the one hand, the line or street part, as a piece of a suggestive uniformity, appears to acquire a fetish quality. Precisely that quality, conversely, attributes a form of aesthetic autonomy or object value to the whole, in casu the included street network. Only in its suggestion of completeness was the grid in nadine able to ‘float’ in space and in this way arrive at a kind of spatial detachment. Walking with the audio guide can also be described as a ‘floating’ experience – the first users frequently used ‘surreal’ to describe it. Still, the detachment in the case of the audio guide is rather of a suggestive nature since the recorded and effectively present sounds have the tendency to blend together or to drown each other out rather than to stand out against each other at the sonorous surface itself. The voice that speaks the date and time at the beginning of each recording plays a crucial part in this suggestion: it accompanies the walker on his or her journey and names and embodies the company of a previous walk. Yet, in that respect, the voice has no clear status. It is not the voice of the walker at the moment of the walk. The voice instead sounds like the commentator or the encoder than as the reporter of the walk. On the other hand, the sparse interventions during the walk (‘cross the street’ or ‘watch out for the cyclist’) give the voice the status of accompanying guide that points out events in the recording that may or may not correspond to the present reality. As such, the listener/walker is prompted to continuous distinction and interpretation.

Monotonous fullness

The expression of a quasi-compulsive uniformization, paradoxically enough, brought to expression a hands-on creative process. One could not walk around in the grid without imagining the ladders that must have been continuously moved through space to tighten the cables. The tension of the cable (and the gradual ‘sagging’ of the grid) made the labour required to escape gravity tangible. Making the grid appear, at the same time, was also overcoming a repetitive labour process. A similar creation process is expressed in the formal shape of the audio guide. Over the period of a few weeks, following a strict procedure (always in the direction of the flow of traffic, starting and ending on each corner), recordings were made of each street within a previously determined street grid in the area around nadine. The rigorous and monotonous creation process is in stark contrast with the polysemous and unpredictable way ‘Coactive Walking’ works. Most users of the audio guide would prefer to opt for a short, predetermined route through the street network rather than haphazardly zapping through the street grid (something that is made explicitly possible in the concept). Their introduction to the audio guide will therefore be very fragmented and incomplete. That does not prevent this experience – if only from the narrative power of ‘coactive walking’ – from being at the same time so full and coercive that the call for discovering other possible perspectives disappear into the background. A situation that is obviously confirmed by the lack of pre-composed tension arcs (see paragraph ‘grid’).

One can therefore speak of the development of an aesthetic and poetic ambiguity when, only from the suggestion of a radically and logically implemented formalism, on the one hand strict and monotonous procedures come to expression of which on the other hand the consequences lead to fragmentary, local but nevertheless ‘full’ experiences.

The search for such poetic paradox can be understood to be a possible answer to the artistic question of purpose and existence of the audio guide and, by extension, the Temporary Institute. Both the TI and the audio guide appear to be determined by a paradigm in which openness in the reception is forced by assuming a closeness or blocking its way in order to tempt the observer or listener to participate from there.

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