Loud Cell Phones and Videoed Choreographies as Modes of Engaging the City through Listening

Next week we will present a paper at the conference Poeticizing the Urban Apparatus: Scenes of Innovation, exploring the role of the shared agency between people and digital technologies in the shaping of contemporary urban public spaces, through the description and analysis of two emerging digitally mediated music practices: playing music aloud on cell-phones and videoed choreographies performed in urban public spaces.

This ethnography addresses modes of engaging the city through listening. Besides it entails listening to how people listen to music and sounds, to how they listen to other people’s listening, and to how these different sounds and ways of listening contribute to the configuration of spaces. Public spaces that are sound spaces as well. Listening is an embodied activity, therefore listening to ways of listening entails paying attention to enactments as gestures, movements, resonances and situations.  Not only listening to those who are playing music or dancing, but trying as well to listen and see how they are listening as well, and how the sound space, the listening situation, is produced. Any musical activity is a sort of listening, listening is always an enactment of the heard. Sometimes we can grasp this enactment in forms of performance-listening, as in the dance, other times this is an invisble enactment, but hearing and listening are always part of the sound creation, in this particular case, are part as well of the making of a sound space, which is also an urban public space.

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The first practice studied is a particular use of cell-phones as portable sound technologies consisting in playing tunes loud, when being on our own or with other people, using public transport, strolling in a Mall, walking on the streets, or sitting in a park or a square. This is an example of ambient intimacy as personal comfort provided by the phone when being in the move; of the multi-sensuous relationship between people and devices, and of personalization as a form of mutual stylization. These aspects are also characteristic of music listening and consumption, converging in this particular practice of lo-fi music listening. This form of mobile listening, which is part of a long history of how sound fidelity is sacrificed to portability, has been described as “sodecasting”. As it is far from being welcomed by everyone, often found very annoying. It involves some defiance in public interaction and territoriality tactics, which elicits controversies and generates online and offline debate. The conflicts between this practice of music listening and the unwritten norms (and sometimes written too) of public behaviors has given rise to several initiatives: Facebook groups in different languages, claims to local authorities asking for the ban of this cell phone use in public transports, as it happened in London in 2006, online calls for the organization of collective complaints to the public transport companies in Madrid, creation of collectives such as the Spanish MEMPEC, public transports campaigns advising users not to play music loud, etc.  It is interesting to note that in these debates people consider disturbing not only being forced to listen to loud music but also the bad quality of the sound, the music style and the attitude of the mobile owners.  Judging by most of the opinions and accounts found in the Web this practice is generally perceived as typical of the “other”, “this is not my music”. However online presence of these controversies seem to be fading away as this practice seems to be less frequent in public transports, whilst it remains very present in parks, squares and streets.

The second case of our paper is the videoed performances, as flash-mobs or lip-dubs, composing an emerging global genre of amateur videos, produced by different collective initiatives (fan tributes, protests, family rituals, military rituals, etc.), where several people gather in a public place to dance a choreography, sing and sometimes play music instruments as well. These are multimedia collaborations articulating online and offline contacts and activities. Usually the calls to participate are made through social media, as the exchange of information and in some case online tutorials as well, this is, short video clips where some of the participants show how to perform the choreography. In some cases the participants gather for rehearsal before the final performance, which will be filmed, uploaded, posted, shared, viewed, heard and commented online. These public performances mobilize participants’ different abilities and skills. They reveal potentialities of spaces: new meanings, possibilities and uses, beyond current uses and norms, as in the example of the lip-dub choreography of the Lady Gaga’s song “Alejandro” performed in the Plaza de Oriente in Madrid, a place used to host a very different kind of performances: religious, political and institutional.


The innovative character of these uses of public urban spaces is revealed, for instance, by the puzzlement of local officials when people organizing a fan tribute flash mob to get Lady Gaga’s attention in Madrid in 2010 tried to get information about the need of public permissions.

Bodies and their display are central in these performances that shape urban public spaces as networked spaces as well, which become spaces of empowering exhibitionism. This is, forms of visibility and presence that produce empowerment. Koskela describes it for people, especially women, displaying their everyday life through their Webcams. Against the view that the power is in the eye of the observer, empowerment is experienced by those who catch the attention of others and free themselves of the self-constraint linked to embarrassment.  The public display of the music we like coming out the loudspeakers of our cell-phones, which can act as a form of personalization and stylization increasing our sonic presence, can be understood as well as a form of this kind of exhibition.

Both practices can be considered examples of what French musicologist Peter Szendy calls sharing and signing a listening, the possibility of “signing” our listening that stands on the ability to identify and sign a sound event that can be shared. For instance, any interpretation of a musical piece is a signed listening. Szendy points out that musical reception technologies –phonograph, recording and digitalization- have facilitated this possibility of signing and sharing what we have listened to. In our examples dancing is considered a way of listening where the whole body takes part responding to the vibratory nature of sound. This full body listening contributes in this case to shape urban spaces, when through the dance unexplored potentialities are found and shared online afterwards, creating the opportunity for new listening and resonances. In these cases signing a listening can be a way of signing a space as well, of marking, fleetingly, a territory within the city.

In both cases, we can find different types and degrees of listening attention that can elicit forms of dancing, singing, humming. Those who carry the phones and make the choice of playing music move through different levels of attention to the music, and people in the surroundings as well: friends, fellow commuters, other pedestrians. These practices bring forth the heterogeneity of positions, views, ways of listening and moods perceived. In the case of the videoed performances, there are a multiplicity of online and offline listening situations: previous listening of the rehearsals and the tutorials, participantd and bystanders during the public performace, and  further viewing and listening by Internet users afforded by the online display of the recordings.

Loud cell-phones produce particular forms of music listening that can be considered a contemporary digital version of Eric Satie’s notion of “furniture music”, as music that creates a background for other activities, instead of being the focus of attention. Different tunes can become furniture music when they are part of particular listening settings. In this case these music practices provided musical furniture for public places and activities and contribute to create the mood, the atmosphere of a particular place, during a particular time. So these practices reveal a particular form of ambient music, not because the sounds and musical parameters of the tunes coming out of cell phones loudspeakers correspond to the kind of music labeled like this by Eric Satie or Brian Eno, but because of the kind of listening enacted and the ability to accommodate different levels of listening attention.

This music practice can be considered then a kind of disruptive ambient music, susceptible of eliciting controversies and territorial conflicts around what is a suitable and expected public behavior, revealing the inherent contentious politics of the urban public spaces, made of plural and divergent concerns, tastes and sensitivities. Digital inscriptions help to visibilize the existing conflictive dynamics deriving from the heterogeneity of uses, practices, tastes and views that have to accommodate and dwell the public producing different ways of spacing. These complex and controversial public performances, articulate public and private beyond well-known modes of mobile privatization. Private forms of music listening reinforce your invisibility and modulate your presence by giving you a private structure of time to set against public time, on your own, inconspicuous, with music that no one else can hear, either at home or through the earplugs of mp3 players. As Evan Eisenberg points out recorded music can fulfill a role of interior design of time, as it takes the listeners to another time and to another rhythms, those of the music and the recording. Therefore music listening can be a way of paving the day with sculpted blocks of time. The metaphor of interior design refers to mixing art with profane things and making it answer to daily life needs, as the banality of furniture music that provides a rhythmic accompaniment to the arrhythmia of everyday chores.

But listening to music aloud as in the boom boxes of the past or with the cell-phone loudspeakers today modulate your presence in a different way, increasing your visibility, or better said with a term related not to the eye and the view, but to the hearing: your sonic presence. Music listening, from boxes, walkmans or mobile phones allow people to enjoy themselves and focus on the music instead of fulfilling social conventions or worrying about their performance of acting like and among strangers. Though when the music is loud, it is not always that easy not to worry about one’s public performance.

These playful digitally mediated practices and the mixed feelings elicited, online and offline, contribute to shape the public and the urban highlighting the networked character of contemporary urban localities and the shared agency with mobile devices regarding:

  • The mood of a particular place
  • The way we act as strangers
  • How public presence is modulated, how our sonic presence can be augmented
  • The expectations about what can happen when we are in a public place, and what is appropriated.
  • The strategies to create and sustain personal and shared territories of a certain security and comfort. This is personal but not private: encounters, occasions to share, to sing and dance.

Ephemeral sound spaces are configured within the city through shared listening, signed by the different public performances of those involved. They mobilize several mediations (digital devices, social networks and sharing sites, choreographies, etc.) and remediations, not only of different media but of meanings and practices as well. Engaging the city as forms of acting/behaving in public, using public spaces, making public and making oneself public.

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Una respuesta a Loud Cell Phones and Videoed Choreographies as Modes of Engaging the City through Listening

  1. amparo lasén dijo:

    Artistic and collective project in Madrid Semilla Boombox https://vimeo.com/71276291 as an example of mobile listening

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