The body as research tool: performing urban soundscape

Part of the Atelier TM series of workshops under the Global Cities chair at Collège d’études mondiales, FMSH and in the context of Mercedes Azpilicueta’s Pernod Ricard Fellowship at Villa Vassilieff. 

Urban anthropology – any research or design practice that produces knowledge of cities through analysis of their social lives – relies on observation. The observer, through eyes, ears, microphone, camera & sketchbook, records the city. Images, sounds & texts become objects processed intellectually to build a rational account. These processes produce valuable kinds of knowledge that aid the comprehension & design of the social life of urban public spaces. But this knowledge, usually conveyed through media, is several times removed from the sensorial qualities of the social, that have their own intelligence.

This workshop draws on methods developed in the artistic practice of Mercedes Azpilicueta to explore the value to urban research of learning to perform public soundscapes. By translating into performance the affective qualities of voices, sounds, & rhythms in the urban soundscape, the artist “uses her body as field of experimentation to grasp a text spoken in a foreign language that she does not understand, but whose vitality moves her”. Following this approach, what kind of knowledge can be produced in urbanism through re-embodying, rather than describing, the ambiances of urban space? What are the roles of imagination & imitation, as opposed to ‘rational’ explanation, in the crafts of design & research?

Around 15 participants were asked to share a short text from their own work & reflect together on the way it re-interprets the urban sensorium as knowledge. Following this, the group took a guided walk & recorded Paris’ périphérique where diverse people, technologies, & functions compete acoustically. Mercedes Azpilicueta led a workshop working with these materials and the original texts to produce performative acts, leading to a collective discussion exploring the potentials and issues of performance as knowledge-making.