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An alternative map, or how do cities sound

Allard van Hoorn is a highly creative contemporary artist from the Netherlands who makes unusual musical city maps – Urban Songlines – all over the world. In his site-specific sound installations and choreographic performances the artist translates architecture and other environmental objects that surround us into music. The following is a conversation with the artist on the subject of some Australian Aboriginal tribal customs that became a source of inspiration for his practice, the connection between public spaces and people, and how our surroundings can become music. 

Your main body of work consists of Urban Songlines, a project which now contains over 50 versions. Could you tell us a bit more about this project and its origins?

In 2009 I read Bruce Chatwin’s book called Songlines and I immediately booked a flight to Australia to learn more about the Aboriginal tradition of mapping, spiritually embodying and taking care of public spaces and the natural environment. Whilst travelling around the Australian Outback on my own in a camper van I had experiences some powerful encounters with the Aboriginals way of mapping the landscape and some understanding of their relationships with the land, and ultimately with the shared spaces we live in.

Once I came back, I instantly began making musical translations of public spaces in the cities, streets, bridges and squares where we spend so much time. I felt that there was something else to be understood about our relationships with our environment by listening to the buildings instead of just looking at or inhabiting them.

Since starting the project you’ve created Urban Songlines in many places all over the world. How do you choose the places to work with?

The project is always site-specific and always integrates local lore, myth, history, possible futures, politics and playful interpretations of place. Sometimes if a place strikes me as particularly interesting with lots of potential to translate, I design a ‘script’ or ‘scenario’ to generate the sound of it that leads me to the eventual musical interpretation. In these cases, I look for an institution that might find it interesting and with whom I could work with in order to present my musical interpretation of the place to the public. On other occasions I get invited by institutions to work with a pre-determined space and possibly a theme.

Whenever I can, I visit a site to feel out the place and to talk with local people and learn about its particular dynamics. Sometimes it’s not possible to visit a site before a performance, so I need to do extensive research that might include going on Google Earth or Street View to discover these places on a physical level.

What role does the history of a place take in your creative process?

The history of a place is always embedded in its dynamics and its DNA and therefore always plays a role, but it might be interpreted with a completely different script that talks about the contemporary aspects of an environment and how that place could be used as a conduit for expressing a critique of its present or potential future.

It seems that there are many other cultural references such as books, films and scientific facts that you use as a starting point. How do they interrelate with the places you’re working on?

Using cultural and scientific references assist my scenarios in translating a space into music. These scripts help follow a storyline that’s the actual comment on that place. We end up listening to a space or urban structure according to that newly created or adapted storyline, a series of Post-it notes that help create a mindset for the new framework.

 You use quite interesting techniques to create music for your Urban Songlines. How does this process of site-specific sound generation work?

The original inspiration behind the project was the way the Australian Aborigines sing the physical shape of their assigned piece of landscape. Tonally and in language there are many ways to create sound from urban environments and architecture. Anything that can generate a sound-profile, from a skateboarder or dancers creating sound by a touch to echolocation or measuring electromagnetic fields in walls. The objective is to create sounds that describe the shape. These sounds are the input to create music that is the actual Urban Songline.

You’re also the founder and curator of Platform of Urban Investigation in which you collaborate with musicians, dancers, architects and visual artist to investigate the urban environment. How does this research work?

Platform for Urban Investigation has always been a way to collectively research the dynamics of urban public spaces through creative collaboration. The idea is to do a kind of a job-rotation where architects have the opportunity to make music and musicians create buildings as an exercise in approaching a common understanding of living in cities in a different way. What comes out is a portrait of a city that is cross-germinated from several creative points of view.

What does public space mean to you?

Public Space is a common place for living, playing, working and loving. We spend a large percentage of our time in public spaces but don’t give them the same considerations as our private space, our homes, which we personalise and decorate in great detail. Our experience in public space is very personal, and by listening to a building, a square or a bridge we can create even more intimate relationships with those places in order to appropriate them as part of our own personal experience.

At this year’s Kaunas Biennial you’ll create some new Urban Songlines to some of Kaunas’ public spaces. Could you give a little clue as to how the city will sound this autumn? 

Considering the long and painful history of Kaunas, I decided to work with two very specific spaces, namely the Resurrection Church that was used as a radio factory during the Soviet occupation and an interesting but quirky in-between space measuring exactly 26 tiles and separating the old and new parts of Vienybės aikštė in front of the Vytautas the Great Military Museum. Both spaces will be connected through an idea of un-erasing history by creating sounds that allow us to re-identify our relationship with the past and possible futures when considering these spaces. In a way it has something to do with the suppression and the release of sound, a rhythm over a long period of time.

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11th Kaunas Biennial THERE AND NOT THERE: (Im)possibility of a monument

15 09 2017 – 30 11 2017

www.bienale.lt

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