The appeal of creating an audiowalk recording was the opportunity to represent the listener with a different perspective on the city that they inhabited: the initial concept of this project being that it would be the perspective of a homeless individual that lived on the streets of the city itself. Instead, enter Marc: a full time volunteer at The Mustard Tree, a charity that provides support to the homeless and marginalised in Manchester. From the beginning I approached this as a collaborative effort, keen to ensure that this research was predicated upon the understanding that the places we would visit and the topics of discussion were dictated by Marc as the subject: incidentally the piece is named after the phrase March took to using when signing off his emails. Marc’s interest in the canals led us on a four hour walk beginning at his place of work, The Mustard Tree, and ending in Castlefield, following the canals for nearly the entire route. His relationship with the canals began when he started working in the Ancoats area of Manchester, and its proximity to the almost hidden waterways of the city developed an intrigue that contrasted his initial feelings of mistrust. After having worked in Ancoats for four years, Marc completed a sponsored walk to raise money for emergency food parcel provision, the final leg of which followed the canals back into Manchester: fortuitously this walk took place a year ago to the day that I met Marc to discuss the prospect of a soundwalk.
Please note there are two ways of listening to this soundwalk: either by following the text and listening to tracks at strategic points; or by following the map and listening to the tracks as they took place in movement through time and space – the latter of which will allow a correlation between the structure of that which is recorded and the world it is recorded in. I shall leave this decision up to the discretion of the listener; however there is a map that details the route that we took should you need it!
It is supported on lots of tyres.
Is it a bird hide?
Photos and annotation by Marc Frobisher
While the project that I undertook falls under the category of soundwalking, there is a subtle differentiation to be made when looking at the audio tracks produced: the focus, instead of being on the soundscape of the area being walked, is on the narrative that is put together by the subject. Rather than the listener paying attention to the sounds around them and deepening their listening skills, they are being immersed in a recorded monologue that is more directive: for example on track 10 you are told “you’ve got to think of all this area here without all the bridges for the railways, and without all these buildings”. The listener is being called on to use their imagination but to a specific end, to see the area in the same way that the narrator does. Janet Cardiff likened the work that she created to museum and tourist tours, and chose instead to call her sonic art pieces audiowalks; a description that perhaps suits this piece more accurately. In response to Cardiff’s work, Schaub likened these audiowalks to “physical cinema” (Schaub 2005), in which the listener is enacting the narrative through an embodiment of the narrator’s walk, evoking a physicality and engagement with the audio that might not be present if statically listening. At points Marc is speaking directly to the listener, with either directions to ‘watch your ste’p or comments such as “can you see the stalactites there?” (track 6), which in addition to making it feel like he is accompanying you on the walk, also serves to draw you into the drama as a complicit actor. David Howes makes a distinction between embodiment and emplacement, stating that “embodiment implies an integration of mind and body, the emergent paradigm of emplacement suggests the sensuous interrelationship of body‐mind‐environment” (Howes 2005). It is this “haptic awareness” (Lorimer and Lund, 2003), or integration of all of the senses within the listeners experiential world, that allows the listener to feel a relationship between the narrative and the environment that they too find themselves in. Multi-disciplinary research group Locativeaudio uses this to their advantage, creating psychogeographical soundwalks with the express aim of exploring the city as both a museum and an instrument to understanding. When listening to track 2, several apartment blocks are pointed out to the listener, who is then told that they are used as temporary accommodation for homeless individuals. This allows the listener to reflect on the very real and close-to-home nature of street homelessness, and the problems that are associated with it that are not necessarily in the public eye, namely that the accommodation that they are often provided with is unsafe and little resembling a home.
Often when people walk the city they are enveloped in their own thoughts and feelings, a continual stream of consciousness going through their minds; rarely are we thinking about our own subjectivity and the fact that ours might be a unique outlook on life. By providing the listener with a narrative to embody, the ‘instrument to their understanding’ also becomes the self of another, which is particularly interesting when you consider the interactions with the environment and others that inhabit that environment. When Marc and I met a canal boat in Piccadilly Basin, he was keen to stop and talk to them, enquiring about their dog (track 7): this same canal boat will probably not be present for the listener, however the conversation will be held in memorandum to bring the attention of the audience to those characters and aspects of the city that they might otherwise ignore. Walking through places with another person’s monologue playing to you shifts the focus away from your own values and places the emphasis on another’s reaction to the space around you. To this end, my research was conducted in the style of an informal interview (in fact it more closely resembled a subject-led conversation), in order to enable Marc’s thoughts to come as reactions to his surroundings; surroundings which would in turn be affecting the listener as they followed the same route at a later date. In this sense what is being played to the listener can be understood as an example of Baudrillard’s simulacrum: one person’s understanding of reality which is no more real than the reality itself, but which becomes truth in its own right. It is imposed over the same environment that the listener is walking through, providing a layer of understanding and interpretation that may closely resemble the listener’s but which is distinct enough to act as a punctum (in Barthes’ sense of the word) – something which disturbs the listener into thinking about their surroundings in a different way.
Photos and annotation by Marc Frobisher
Initially I had wanted to record the walk using binaural microphones, in order to represent the audio as if it was being spoken directly to the listener, by using 3D stereo sound to replicate the surroundings and the physical set up of my own ears, however due to equipment issues this was not possible. However, the very fact that the sound recording is being listened to through headphones makes it a personal experience (Janet Cardiff, 2005), and one which still brings another’s reality to the foreground. Having said this, the very fact that it is so intimate can be misleading: having no visual markers and very little in the way of personal introduction, this sound piece is difficult to analyse in terms of the subjectivity and personal background of the individual speaking. For example Marc talks about homelessness at several points during the walk (tracks 2, 8 and 9), in direct relation to his surroundings, however at no point during the recording is it explicitly explained that he has not been homeless himself, but is simply in regular contact with those who are, which would explain his preoccupation with it. Whether the listener gets the same depth of understanding as they would have done had he experienced homelessness first hand is a question for further research into the topic, however an insight into this alternative way of inhabiting the city is still being presented. Perhaps if this project were to be expanded, it would benefit from a number of perspectives on the same areas of the city being recorded and juxtaposed with one another, in order to provide more of a dialogue with which to open up deeper understandings of the effect of place on an individual.
The very movement through the space as a flaneur affected the outcome of the interview - whereas Marc had the preconception that he wanted to talk about the history of the canals, this discourse was interrupted and interspersed with musings on art, wildlife, architecture and anthropological research, to name but a few topics. This fluidity of conversation, demonstrably caused by the process of movement through space, is largely reflected in the audiowalk that I have produced, however I had to make some critical choices which narrowed the scope of his narrative in some ways. Having spoken to Marc beforehand about going on a walk around the city, he had gone away and done some research of his own into the history of the canals, in order to be able to provide me with some insight into why they hold his interest. When it came to the final editing process, I reluctantly cut much of this material out of the piece (although on track 6 a conversation about helping others diverts into a history lesson on Engels and the slums of Salford), as I felt that it contained less anthropological merit and would create more of a museum-piece feel. Although the tracks are presented as self-contained excerpts of the interview, I was keen that when listened to in linear, chronological order they should form a loose narrative structure that replicated the way that the conversation flowed. I also wanted to maintain some location markers, so that those that are familiar with the Manchester canals are able to recognise areas when listening to the tracks independently of the environment in which they were recorded: whether these were explicit pointers: “that’s Piccadilly Basin” (track 7); or symbolic references, for example the Gay Village being represented by “that rainbow flag” (also track 7).
At the end of this experimentation with soundwalking, I came to the conclusion that not only was the recorded audio soundtrack a way of presenting ethnography to the listener in a more engaging manner, but it was a valid and informative method of research in and of itself. This is partly evidenced by the ease with which Marc was able to talk to me about his battle with alcoholism (tracks 1, 6 and 11), but also the interesting topics of conversation that came up in reaction to the environment we were walking through. For example while looking upon the apartment blocks in New Islington (track 3), he made the seemingly innocuous association between two concepts: the affluence of the “upperclass” area; and the assumption that although “it would be really, really nice to think that in the summer all the residents would come out and they would have spontaneous, alfresco parties”, it is not likely to happen, perhaps suggesting that he believes there is less of a sense of community in this part of Manchester. It seemed as if his memory of place and recognition of different elements within the environment prompted a more colourful and engaged interview; as an anthropologist I rarely needed to ask questions, but instead I let him dictate his own story.