Intimacy Sound Geography

A creative inquiry into the use of sound to explore the intimacy of shared geography

~view digital installation~

I experience visual overwhelm. I avoid news media to evade the incessant horrific or generic images depicting various states of human existence of people I will never meet. If I am open to the images offered, I struggle with the knowledge that they represent the image-makers’ subjectivity as much as the visual subject’s reality. If I numb myself to the images there is no meaningful reception of the information offered. Even images of everyday life, of those of us who live in non-active-warzones and participate in the mundaneness of westernized capitalism, become uninteresting in their incessant volume.

There is a distance between image and audience, and in that distance resides apathy, overwhelm and disconnection. In the article “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” (PDF) Alexander R. Galloway, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, explores the challenges of (in)adequate visual representation for both complex data (like war crimes, military strategy) and the systems of power that create and shape data (the internet, visual regimes). He suggests the plethora of contemporary visual representation, particularly in digital form as generated by computers, has essentially resulted in one singular generic image, which in turn can represent nothing meaningful. This brings us to a crisis of representation wherein significant events occur in the world that would be valuable to investigate and understand, but we lack a method of representation that affects us, that moves us to respond. In search of meaningful engagement, my instinct is to leave the field of view of complex data, and zoom in close to the individual personal experiences of those who comprise social statistics. To be moved, I want to feel a personal connection with another human, to sense intimacy and relatedness that often need time to develop. Personal interaction with others places me within the rich and varied human experience, among those with whom I share this time and space.

Over the course of 2016 I have had interactions with three particular friends, all of whom are refugees or immigrants to Canada, that have moved me deeply. Our shared experiences have enriched my appreciation for each of them as individuals, for their countries of origin, for the refugee/immigrant experience overall, and for the location of Vancouver, Canada where I have chosen to stay and where they have chosen to settle. These personal interactions have all occurred within the larger context of migration and settlement that our news media frames in un-relatable national proportions. I am interested in means of personal engagement with complex, challenging ideas; the kind that, according to Galloway, are often done a disservice by big data visualization. Intimacy Sound Geography is my online audio installation that resides at The shape of the project is inspired by Galloway’s call for a poetic response to the impotence of visual culture. I have chosen the aesthetic medium of sound as an alternative to the dominance of Visual. The content of the project addresses my interactions with these three refugee/immigrant friends, and the locations of their geography and mine with them. The elements of the project (intimacy, sound, geography) form the inquiry with which I have approached the challenge of representing these experiences in a meaningful way. To guide my inquiry and creative process I consulted voices from the fields of psychology, geography, philosophy, art practice and theory, media and cultural studies, science and poetry to explore the intersections of emotional intimacy, the sensuality of listening, and the location of geography. Intimacy is the instigation, Intimacy and Geography are the content, and Sound is the medium.

The something to be expressed

Galloway defines ‘data’ as the something to be expressed before it takes form as in-formation.

“Etymology provides some basic guidance. The Latin ‘data’, a participle in the neuter, means literally ‘the things having been given’. Or in short form one might render the term more elegantly as ‘the givens’. French preserves this double meaning nicely by calling data the données. As natural gift, as empirical trace, data are not simply measurements or recorded facts, they are also in some sense ontologically raw, not so much thrown into the world, but left over, bare, remaining after the tide of being recedes.” (Galloway, 87. Italics added)

The ‘the things having been given’ that my online installation, Intimacy Sound Geography, explores are intimate experiences of shared geography that I have had with three new Canadians residing in Vancouver, BC. Galloway’s definition of data resonates with the state I found myself in, in the cumulative aftermath of these three interactions. I felt that I had been gifted these experiences; I felt emotionally raw and bare; and I carried psychic residue long after the essential interactions had occurred. This sense of unsettledness, of being rearranged, is the impetus for me to make art. I need to do something with the energy, to respond in a way that allows me to go deeper into my experience, and by turning toward the unsettledness, move through it to clearer understanding or a sense of peace. The three friends and the engagements they invited me to are as follows –

Narges was my student in the Film Arts program at Langara College. Her family is originally from Afghanistan. During the final month of her film program, she came across a competition[1] asking filmmakers to produce a short ‘call to action’ that encourages Canadians to take tangible action on the current refugee crisis. Narges wanted to direct a submission film and she asked if I would produce it for her. Over several weeks we engaged in the intimacy that is inherent in effective creative collaboration. The narrative of the short film highlights personal stories of refugees who have come to Canada for each of the reasons listed by UNHCR[2], which are: “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” (UNHCR, 10) In choosing the stories to showcase, Narges revealed pieces of her own story of arriving in Canada as a girl with her family, the first night she slept on Canadian soil, the warm welcome she received from the immigration officials, and the ongoing novelty of participating in democratic activities like voting or choosing education. Recording her voice for the narration track was the most confronting aspect of making the film. Narges speaks softly, with the tentative voice of someone who is accustomed to being overruled. Expressing the earnest words we had written together, into a microphone in a quiet room, she had difficulty drawing deep breath to make a convincing sound. Listening to the playback of her recorded voice filled her with self-consciousness and doubt. She heard her own tentativeness, her emotion, her desire to reach out and connect with an unknown listener, and the vulnerability of speaking heartfelt intentions. We spent an afternoon together recording the narration track, and then she opted to re-record herself in privacy after I had left.

The second instance involved Shawk, my classmate in the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Simon Fraser University (SFU) where we are both students. She is originally from Iraq and I value learning with and from her over the year that we spent in seminars together. We often debriefed our thoughts on the walk home from evening classes, departing the SFU Harbour Centre campus, heading south along Granville Street, and then stood for another 45 minutes talking until we parted ways. She continued southward over the Granville Street Bridge while I headed west along Davie Street. Shawk was compelled to connect with the many Syrian families who continue to arrive in Vancouver, and she partnered with another new-to-Vancouver Iraqi artist to produce a summer photography school for Syrian children[3]. She invited me to contribute curation expertise in helping the young photographers select their favourite prints to enlarge for the exhibit that culminated their workshops. Her motivation for the labour-intensive initiative was to provide these children, whom the media have framed as ‘victims of war’, with a fresh platform to design their own identities. By putting cameras in their hands and encouraging them to discuss whatever they wanted, she was also claiming her own right to be a fully complex human being in a world that has opinions and presumptions about those who inhabit brown-skinned bodies. I spent many hours with Shawk discussing her reasons for producing the workshop, which were deeply motivated by her own desire for freedom of voice and creative expression. I also spent a delightful afternoon with the children who had captured photographic images of their new homes, the city, their families and playmates. The photography lessons naturally led to creative play and we (they) spent equal time dancing, singing, laughing, climbing, twirling, playing piano, examining shoes, taking more pictures, mugging for the camera and generally enjoying the world around us. These children were unselfconscious and affectionate. They had no hesitation putting their arms around each other or me, and holding hands while they played. At the gallery opening, once they realized that they and their photographs were the centre of attention, the children took command of the space and performed for themselves and the guests by grabbing hands to focus attention, and sharing spontaneous hugs of delight and friendship. Their intimacy was natural, fluid, and whole-bodied. Shawk and I have spent many follow-up hours discussing how the children’s behaviour offers a barometer for our own authentic self-expressions.

The third interaction was with Pedro, my former colleague who is originally from Brazil. He has been in Canada for the better part of ten years, and has gradually worked his way through the multi-phased process of applying for permanent Canadian citizenship. In the final stages of application, he received a letter from Citizenship and Immigration Canada with news that Canadian citizenship might be denied due to the potential cost for the Canadian Government of providing health care to manage his HIV positivity. For most of his residency in Canada, Pedro’s employer has provided extended health care benefits that cover the expense of his antiretroviral therapy. He is otherwise healthy. His wife and son are un-infected, and he lives a fully engaged life with a challenging career that contributes leadership to social wellbeing and environmental stewardship on a global scale. He chose immigration to Canada because the international reputation of this country provides him access to resources and trust that are essential to his work. Pedro’s challenge was to demonstrate that the value of his contribution to this country outweighs the potential cost of keeping him here. He reached out to a variety of friends and colleagues to ask for letters of support that articulate his importance to his community and to his vocation, and that vouch for his long-term employability. In this process he has been obliged to disclose his HIV positivity to people with whom there were previously conscientious boundaries between professional and personal engagement. Pedro disclosed his health condition to me, and asked if I would write a letter of support as a former colleague. He also asked me to help write the letter in his own voice that tells the story of who he is in the world and why he deserves to be a Canadian citizen. The vulnerability of his request, and insight into the courage and conviction required for Pedro to continue living the life he has built here over the past decade, still take my breath away.

The online installation uses sound prints of voices and places to compose a series of interactions within a defined geographic region. The Google map is not an aesthetic representation of the stories; instead it provides non-linear navigation among audio experiences that occurred in geographic locations. On this map where sound is foremost, the geographies with silent pins indicate places where meetings were scheduled but didn’t occur. On a few occasions, the quality of our desired interactions didn’t match the initially selected location, and we chose to keep moving until we found a more suitable environment. These mini-migrations emulated our conversations about choosing home, finding geographies that feel appropriate to the types of experiences we want to have. In the same vein, the birthplaces of Narges, Shawk and Pedro are marked with silent pins to indicate the origins of their trajectories as locations that are unsuitable for whom each of them wants to be in the present and into the future. Below the map we can listen to the voices of Narges, Shawk and Pedro tell their version of their stories. We can also hear some of the voices of friends who wrote letters of support for Pedro’s citizenship application.

Intimacy as sound

To understand intimacy and its relationship with vulnerability, I first turned to psychology. In a short article titled “Intimacy” for Jung Atlanta, Stephen Howard writes,

The word intimate comes to us from the Latin intima, signifying the deepest, most internal part of something. In medicine, the intima is the inner lining of the arteries, the tunica interna or inner coat. This joins with the endocardium, the inner lining of the heart. The intimate layer is the most profound and the most tender. … To be intimate is to uncover one’s insides, to present oneself from the exposed and unprotected gut. In the act of intimacy we reveal our hearts and our viscera. (Howard, 6)

The inner part of the self that Narges, Shawk and Pedro each revealed is the desire to be valued, to have a voice, and to have one’s choice of geography (home) be respected by the government and the individual people of a nation. As women, Narges and Shawk are both acutely aware of the opportunity to live a fully engaged life that is available to them in Canada compared to restrictions imposed on their gender in their countries of birth. As women of colour, they are also aware that Canada’s cultural climate is more welcoming than that of other countries where refugees are accepted but still more likely to experience the emotional violence of socialized racism. Each of Narges, Shawk and Pedro have asked for help – in their long journeys to arrive in Canada from Afghanistan, Iraq and Brazil respectively, and in the projects they initiated in 2016 to create a short film, a photography show, and a citizenship campaign. To ask for help, as each of these three did in order to accomplish their intentions, is ‘to present oneself from the exposed and unprotected gut’ as someone who needs to be helped. When I ask for help, I reach from the ‘inner lining of the heart’ out into the world and claim a version of myself – one that requires your participation. The vulnerability comes from relying on all of the individuals who are required to help make this transformation possible. To place myself in the care of others leaves me exposed to any number of possible outcomes – wanted and unwanted. In the TED talk, “Listening to Shame,” vulnerability researcher Brené Brown challenges the commonly held idea that vulnerability is synonymous with weakness.

Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. I have come to the belief that … vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. To be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest. … Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. (Brown)

Brown and Howard both use languge of exposing the inner self in order to be truly seen (received), as fundamental to intimacy and vulnerability. The sequence of interconnected events involved in asking for help (request made, response given, activity performed), and the dynamic exchange of reaching outwards and being taken in to create a new changed state, parallels the experience of interpreting audio waves within our bodies as sound. In her poetic scientific exploration of our sensual perception of the world, “A Natural History of the Senses”, Diane Ackerman writes about our physiology.

What we call “sound” is really an onrushing, cresting, and withdrawing wave of air molecules that begins with the movement of any object, however large or small, and ripples out in all directions. First something has to move – a tractor, a cricket’s wings – that shakes the air molecules around it, then the molecules next to them begin trembling too, and so on. Waves of sound roll like tides to our ears, where they make the eardrum vibrate; this in turn moves three colorfully named bones (the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup), the tiniest bones in the body. Although the cavity they sit in is only about a third of an inch wide and a sixth of an inch deep, the air trapped there by blocked Eustachian tubes is what gives scuba divers and airplane passengers grief when the air pressure changes. The three bones press fluid in the inner ear against membranes, which brush tiny hairs that trigger nearby nerve cells, which telegraph messages to the brain: We hear. It may not seem like a particularly complicated route, but in practice it follows an elaborate pathway that looks something like a maniacal golf course, with curlicues, branches, roundabouts, relays, levers, hydraulics, and feedback loops. (Ackerman, 177)

This complex, collaborative hearing process that occurs within my body allows me to understand the world around me from an individualized perception. I might hear something that I cannot see, in which case I can choose to remain undecided about the sound’s origin, or I can assign meaning to the sound, which contributes to a self-defined environment. When I spend time with someone, I form meaning or choose to remain undecided about the information I gain from their words, behaviour, appearance and presence. Each interaction is a unique engagement and can confirm, contradict or complicate ideas that I have formed based on previous interactions with that same person. Howard tells us that intimacy is “the act of being fully present with the other while being fully oneself.” (Howard, 6) There is little as revealing of a person’s self as their speaking voice. The voice conveys emotion and apathy, tension and relaxation, hesitation and confidence, authenticity and manipulation through the tone, shape and resonance affected by where the voice sits in the body and where tension is held as breath carrying sound travels from interior body to exterior environment and into the listener’s ear. My voice is as unique as my fingerprint. I can hear someone familiar through a noisy crowd and follow the tone of their voice like a thread through the forest. In the digital installation Intimacy Sound Geography the identities of Narges, Shawk and Pedro are represented by their voices. Visitors can form their own opinions and assign meaning, based on the vocal imprints of these individuals, which require time to listen to. The pace, modality, comfort and emotion of each personality is conveyed as they speak about the experiences in which I was engaged with them.

Sound creates geography

“Sounds have to be located in space, identified by type, intensity and other features. There is a geographical quality to listening.” (Ackerman, 178)

The dynamic affects of air waves, molecules and bodily organs that result in hearing parallel the ongoing waves of geographic migration in which Narges, Shawk and Pedro place themselves. None of them rests as the static beneficiary of the collective generosity of those who contributed toward reaching their new countries and homes. Now located in Canada, Narges, Shawk and Pedro in turn contribute their energy to the constant incoming and settlement of refugees and immigrants who move about the planet. The body continues to receive audio frequencies and transform them into sound/understanding at the same time that the body creates sounds which become part of the environment the body inhabits and hears. Now that Narges is safely in Canada where she pursues education, she wants to remind the Canadian Government to continue accepting refugees from all parts of the world so that others may find the self-actualization that she has been granted. Shawk grows increasingly confident about speaking her opinions and experiences, and she wants to empower new young Canadian refugees to claim their own stories so they can thrive in this new homeland. Pedro wants to remain in Canada so he can continue his career, which is dedicated to improving wellbeing in impoverished communities globally. He wants his wife and son and an ongoing stream of Brazilian-Canadians to benefit from Canadian opportunities. Each of them is now an integral part of the new geography they inhabit, which forms the geography that new refugees and immigrants migrate towards. To engage with the creative and social work of each of them deepens my understanding and appreciation of who they are as individuals and as constantly evolving participants in the immigrant/refugee experience. Their voices form the soundscapes of the geographies they inhabit. I, in turn, am a part of their experiences of life in Canada and am implicated in their commitments to choose this geography for themselves.

Intimate geography

Listening to sound requires a geography of intimacy. To see an image I need distance between my physical eyes and the visual offering. If something is too close to focus on, I move my body away in order to perceive it clearly. However, my body doesn’t perceive sound waves until they enter my physicality through the openings of my ears and interact with my listening mechanisms below the surface of my skin. At the same time, sound creates a geography that is formed and experienced in the moment of its perception, as sound artist, Salomé Voegelin explains in her book, “Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art”.

“Listening discovers and generates the heard. … Listening is not a receptive mode but a method of exploration, a mode of ‘walking’ through the soundscape/the sound work. What I hear is discovered, not received, and this discovery is generative, a fantasy: always different and subjective and continually, presently, now. … This is the experience of sound as temporal relationship. This ‘relationship’ is not between things but is the thing, is sound itself. … The auditory is generated in the listening practice: in listening I am in sound, there can be no gap between the heard and hearing, I either hear it or I don’t, and what I perceive is what I hear. I can perceive a distance but that is a heard distance. The distance is what I hear here, not over-there. It does not signal a separation of objects or events but is the separation as perceived phenomenon.” (Voegelin, 4-5)

In other words, my act of listening creates the experience of sound being heard. My geography in the moment when I listen contributes to what I hear, and what I hear also becomes part of the geography I inhabit in the moment that I hear it. There may be distance between a voice recorded in a geography that is different from the one in which I hear it, however in the moment of my hearing, I experience the voice as speaking here, now.

The refugees/immigrants portrayed in Sound Intimacy Geography have entered my life through shared geography. The circumstances and choices of our individual paths have led each of us to inhabit the same city of Vancouver at the same time. Our career and creative pursuits led each of us to shared physical locations within this city. Physical proximity facilitated personal intimacies, which in turn enriched the spaces we shared. Each of these location-based relationships eventually expanded to occupy other geographies, which in turn became geographies of intimacy by virtue of our being in them. The digital installation lives online. It lacks geography in that the installation is created from ephemeral code ‘residing in’ a cloud-based server. There is no physical proof of the installation’s ontology. This ephemeral digital state simultaneously renders it globally accessible, unencumbered by physical geographic borders in the same way that sound waves travel freely through the air regardless of the territory they travel. Sound travels until an ear discovers it and then sound occupies the location of the hearer. The digital installation is ephemeral until an individual discovers it through their digital viewing/listening device, and then it occupies the geography of the visitor. Intimacy Sound Geography can be visited in a bedroom, in the car, on the street, in a café, in an office, in transit, in Canada, Afghanistan, Iraq or Brazil, and as a solitary or shared experience. The listener determines the intimate geography of their engagement with the work. Physical geography can facilitate intimacy, and digital geography can facilitate intimacy across physical distance, as discussed by Professor of Geography, Gill Valentine in her article, “The Ties That Bind: Towards Geographies of Intimacy”.

The Internet, in particular, has been credited with facilitating the possibility of maintaining intimate relationships over distance and with creating a new global space for exploring and developing different intimacies. … It provides a way to be separate and together enabling connections to support intimacy in terms of: knowing (e.g. exchanging information about thoughts, activities, movements), loving (by enabling flows of feeling and emotionally binding together dislocated lovers and family members), and caring (e.g. Internet shopping for a grandparent or telephone banking for a child) for each other online. (Valentine, 2103)

Digital technology allows interactions to occur in the location of each participant, regardless of their physical proximity or distance. My interactions with Narges, Shawk and Pedro are captured in Intimacy Sound Geography through recorded sounds of the physical locations we shared. In the moment that I listen to these clips, their sound occupies the time and space of my listening, and creates a sense of connection in my present.

Temporality of sound

The elements required for ‘listening to discover and generate the heard’ are time and attention. The same amount of time is required to hear a sound as for the sound to be generated. Sound can’t be truncated. Voices unfold meaning, emotion and personality over a duration, and the listener isn’t privy to the complete communication until the voice stops expressing. Locations generate sound in ongoing time/space as bodies and atmosphere travel through them. Sound is never complete. Hearing is an ongoing engagement. Recorded sound fills the space in which it is heard, and then the space is full of the dynamic sounds that came before and emerge after the recording has ended. The listener’s geography is perpetually generated. Hearing occurs through the listener’s attention to available sounds, just as intimacy occurs through the attention I pay to someone who offers their ‘true self’. We walk past each other daily, share buses, sidewalks, classrooms and cashier lineups, however “closeness is not the same as intimacy… I may be close with someone without disclosing myself in an intimate way.” (Howard, 6) Intimacy occurs when my true self is both offered and received. Vogelin’s observations about the ‘nowness’ of hearing sound also apply to knowing a person: “What I hear is discovered … and this discovery is generative, a fantasy: always different and subjective and continually, presently, now.” (Voglin, 4) Intimacy requires an ongoing discovery of the person standing in front of me. People are not static entities who can be fully known in any amount of time. The moment we stop discovering each other is the moment when true listening ceases.

Exploring the intimacy of shared geography with Sound

I built Intimacy Sound Geography in order to be in relationship with my awe at the vulnerability and determination of friends who all invited me into deeper understanding of their immigration and refugee experiences. By revisiting the locations of our interactions, and repeatedly listening to their voices and the sounds of the spaces we shared, I feel closer to understanding how to engage with each of them into our shared futures. Nothing is settled. I return to the eternal insight that true understanding of others requires perpetual flexibility and openness to change. An image is a decisive portrait that holds the subject to the moment in which the image was captured. Recorded sound is also a finite medium, but it contains a broader swatch of the subject’s persona and reminds us of dynamic temporality.

Hearing does not offer a meta-position; there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. However far its source, the sound sits in my ear. I cannot hear it if I am not immersed in its auditory object, which is not its source but sound itself. Consequently, a philosophy of sound art must have at its core the principle of sharing time and space with the object or event under consideration. (Voegelin, xii)

Sound is an affective medium for appreciating the personal experiences that make up international circumstances like mass migration and the experience of refugees, from an egalitarian perspective. Voices can humanize concepts when I have numbed myself to images. A speaker’s foreign accent might indicate ‘otherness’ to me as a listener, but through the accent I hear their determination to be understood, emotion, intelligence and vulnerability, which all engage my compassion. Because I hear their voice in the ‘now’ of my intimate geography, I understand we are connected; that we do share time and space, and their wellbeing affects my wellbeing. Galloway mourns,

“There is one game in town: a positivistic dominant of reductive, systemic efficiency and expediency. Offering a counter-aesthetic in the face of such systematicity is the first step toward building a poetics for it, a language of representability adequate to it.” (Galloway, 100)

Listening to sound can pull us out of the ‘efficiency and expediency’ of reductive systems. Listening asks us to slow down, pay attention, be entered, connect viscerally. I suggest that the seed of response to Galloway’s desire for a counter-aesthetic is already present in his request. He asks for ‘poetics’ and a ‘language’ of representability. His words propose rhythm and sound – lively auditory elements that are counter to a static aesthetic representation of dynamic humanity. Representation need not be in crisis. Artists are well suited to redesign ways of perceiving the world and drawing attention to the humanity and beauty in circumstances that might seem impenetrable. Offering sound that sits in the ear of an audience is a deeply affective medium to engage intimately with those who are ready to listen.

[1] The Radcliffe Foundation, in collaboration with the Vancouver International Film Festival, launched a competition urging filmmakers to produce a ‘call to action’ short film that educates, inspires, engages, and empowers Canadians to take tangible action on the refugee crisis.

[2] “Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status” published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

[3] Capturing Our Stories: An Exhibition of Syrian Children’s Photography was sponsored by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement in partnership with the S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Moving Ahead Program (MAP).