Hearing Trouble: Sound Art in Post-Conflict Cities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Music Faculty


Hearing Trouble is a cross-disciplinary research project that seeks to better understand the urban environment through an examination of sound and sonic art, focusing on the particular conditions of post-conflict cities undergoing rapid and radical change. Our research will focus on Berlin and Belfast, cities that support vibrant communities of sound artists and that have similar architecture and planning cultures. In contrast to the vast majority of research projects that examine the built environment through a visual focus, our research will analyse and respond to rapidly changing cityscapes via multiple aural perspectives.

The project will be lead by a sonic arts historian/practitioner (PI), and an architect/architectural historian (Co-I), who have established a strong foundation of collaborative research through their research group Recomposing the City: Sonic Art and Urban Architectures (www.recomposingthecity.org). Hearing Trouble will be the first major international research project to emerge from this group, demonstrating the significant potential of collaborative research between sonic arts and architecture.

In the first instance, we will critically analyse sound art projects and initiatives in Berlin since 1989 that respond to the city's post-conflict conditions. Berlin is internationally recognized as a leader in sonic arts research and creation and has a rich history of sound art exhibition, education programmes, and initiatives that engage issues of the built environment. The projects we will analyse range from city-wide sound art festivals to site-specific sound installations in urban and public space. Key projects include the Tuned City festival in Berlin, and Peter Cusack's Berlin Sonic Places (2012), which brought together sound artists, planners, architects and communities in considering three major redevelopment sites in Berlin. We will further study Bonn Hoeren, an ongoing project conceived and directed by the Berlin-based curator Carsten Seiffarth in which the city of Bonn appoints a City Sound Artist each year (2010-2020). By examining archival material (i.e. project documentation and critique), and by interviewing artists, curators, arts administrators, community groups, architects/planners and audiences, we will show how sound art initiatives have affected the ways in which Berlin and Bonn are understood. Our critical analysis of different projects will emerge from combined sonic arts and architecture perspectives, presenting a unique merging of sound studies and architectural research.

Using Berlin and Bonn as sources of exemplar projects, we will then examine sound art since 1998 in Belfast, a post-conflict city with an emerging community of sound art practitioners and a growing discourse about the built environment. In Belfast we will similarly interview a wide range of practitioners and other stakeholders, including architects and city planners.

Our ultimate goal is for the research to inform the future development of Belfast, as a potential exemplar for other EU cities. Through Collaborative Workshops with architects, planners, and sound artists in Belfast, we will develop and propose new design strategies that consider sound in relation to the urban environment. Further, through Information Sessions with arts and architecture communities and city planning officials, we will show how a more nuanced understanding of the sound environment can help build better communities. These discussions and the earlier research will form the basis of an Advice Note which will give recommendations on good practice in relation to planning and sound, as well as a co-authored book, conference papers and a Web site. Hearing Trouble is proposed as Northern Ireland's planning powers are being devolved from centralised control to local authorities in 2015. Thus this research has the potential for significant and immediate impact on policy as well as its eventual repercussions in the built environment.

Planned Impact

Hearing Trouble has the potential to produce long-term societal and cultural impact through collaboration and discussion with several stakeholder groups. The main non-academic beneficiaries are: (1) those directly involved with the design and planning of cities, and 2) artists and arts communities. The general public, residents of Belfast, and business communities will also benefit from the improved quality of the built environment.

(1) The project aims to influence architects and city planners in Belfast. We will target practicing designers, professional associations and government bodies. We have existing relationships with these groups and are in a strong position to impact on their practice and decision making. They are:
-designers of the built environment: architects, urban designers, planners and landscape architects
-professional associations: Royal Society of Ulster Architects/Royal Institute of British Architects, Royal Town Planning Institute, Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and Landscape Institute
-government organisations: Belfast City Council, Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure, Dept of Social Development, Dept of Regional Development and Dept of the Environment
-heritage groups: Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society
-lobbying bodies for built environment issues: Forum for Alternative Belfast (FAB), PLACE Architecture and Built Environment Centre
-private developers

2) Hearing Trouble will also impact stakeholders in arts communities: artists, curators, festival directors, arts administrators, funding bodies, and promoters. In Belfast these include:
-contemporary arts festivals: Belfast Festival, Culture Night, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Sonorities Festival
-contemporary arts centres, galleries, and music presenters: Metropolitan Arts Centre, Ulster Museum, Golden Thread Gallery, Black Box Belfast, PS2, Moving on Music
-arts administrators and funding bodies: Arts Council of Northern Ireland, British Council
-curatorial groups that focus on contemporary art: Brown&Bri, Household Belfast
-media that promote local arts initiatives: BBC Northern Ireland, Belfast Telegraph

The cross-disciplinary impact activities outlined below will be purposefully conversational; stakeholders will be involved directly in their design and delivery.

a. Collaborative Workshops will benefit designers and artists by enhancing their knowledge and skills. They will enable designers to better understand and shape Belfast in its current phase of post-conflict development. They will also help artists by showing the potential of their practice to impact upon urban design.

b. Information Sessions for debating and disseminating Workshop outcomes will benefit both groups by showing new ways to understand and regenerate Belfast as a post-conflict city. They will also enhance the knowledge and skills of those in public organisations. Further, by bringing together two normally distinct groups, these Information Sessions will put creative practitioners and decision-makers into dialogue in ways that have never been facilitated in Belfast.

c. An Advice Note, a standard means of impacting on planning policy, will benefit the city by providing a series of distinct and concrete suggestions for future development to the new Belfast Planning Authority. Our Workshop Facilitators Forum for Alternative Belfast and PLACE Built Environment Centre have established contacts with the intended recipients, which will help ensure the Advice Note is received by the most appropriate people. The Advice Note will be rooted in our evidence-based research.

d. A co-authored book will impact professional practice in architecture, planning, and sonic arts by showing how creative design strategies can emerge from collaboration across these groups. This book will enable us to share our research findings with the original communities that contributed to the research in Berlin, Bonn and Belfast.


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