Quiet Noise is an ethnographic film about both the presence and absence of sounds; about the sounds we choose to either hear or to block; and about being emplaced and displaced in the environment where we, as humans, are embedded through sound as a phenomenon of experience.
The film is inspired by the everyday, empirical observation of the notable amount of people making their way through the urban landscape of Vienna while having their headphones on. Likewise, when we asked people to participate in a scene, they recognised the situation we were describing: for example, the young woman handing out the leaflet and being ignored, pointed out how what we had asked her was nothing unusual, but something that happened constantly. The point of the film is not necessarily to determine why people may choose to alter their sonic environment by either blocking or diminishing the surrounding sounds, but to rather highlight the relationship between space, sound and social life. Through the use of re-enacted ethnofiction, both as a mode of representation and as a method of exploration, the film aims to represent an aspect of the urban life in Vienna in 2019 and, simultaneously, to create platform of emotional experience that the audience may reflect upon.
Ethnofiction, here, is understood as an approach that is “hard to categorise as either a film genre or as ethnographic method” (Sjöberg 2008:230). As Paul Stoller explains (Stoller 1992:143 quoted in Sjöberg 2008:230): “It is not a documentary that attempts to capture an observed reality. By the same token it is not a melodrama the filmmakers dreamed up to titillate our emotions.” Rather, it is an unorthodox way of approaching the dynamics between the filming ethnographer, the audience and the subject, which may open new spaces for anthropological inquiry. For example, the reflective discussions we had in class after watching the film were interesting precisely because our fellow students used the film to reflect both to their own personal experiences, and to the wider context of Vienna in relation to the use of headphones as individually altering the sounds or nonsounds one is exposed to.
The emphasis on the sensory experience of hearing draws from the discussions on (multi)sensory anthropology, where senses (hearing among them) are understood as crucial elements in the sense of being emplaced – or, displaced. As Tim Ingold explains, both hearing sounds and not can then be understood as affecting the human immersion in their environment: “sound, in my view, is neither mental nor material, but a phenomenon of experience – that is, of our immersion in, and commingling with, the world in which we find ourselves.” (Ingold 2007:11). This idea of immersion and emplacement further affects and complicates the relationship between space and sound. As sonic landscapes can create a sense of an effortless presence, it might be interesting to ask: What forms do sound, silence and noise take in urban geographies such as Vienna, and how might people deal or manage these differing sensory experiences?
Likewise, LaBelle (2010) considers the ideas of place and placelessness in relation to sound, arriving to the idea of noise: “in our exposure to noise and silence we in turn confront questions of place and placelessness, of domestic rootedness and urban transience … From this perspective, noise by definition is that sound which occurs where it should not.” (ibid.:47) One of the ideas we had to begin with was that of “noise pollution” – something that is familiar from, for example, governmental restrictions on sound and noise abatement acts (LaBelle 2010). This term in mind, our research question was: “How might ‘noise pollution’ alter the relationship between sound and place, and how might this ‘pollution’ be dealt with?” This question also draws from the idea of soundscapes (Schafer 1977), a topic that is discussed in Kelman’s ‘Rethinking the Soundscape’ (Kelman 2010). While the original notion of a soundscape was “lined with ideological and ecological messages about which sounds “matter” and which do not; [was] suffused with instructions about how people ought to listen; and [traced] a long dystopian history that descends from harmonious sounds of nature to the cacophonies of modern life” (ibid.:214), it still provided a useful tool that points the ethnographic gaze to the relationship between sound and place – and even more so, to the significance background “noise” that easily falls on deaf ears.
The aim of the film is not to place sounds on a moral hierarchy from ‘worse’ to ‘better,’ but to look at the relationship between sound, place and emplacement, and to offer a reflective platform to consider the idea of noise pollution. Methodologically, we did an experiment of ourselves walking in the urban space of Vienna with headphones on, blocking away the sounds of the environment, and tried to notice how that did or did not affect our sense of being in a place: were there things that we “missed” – what were those, and what effect could that have had? The film is a result of both this participatory, reflective experiment and the empirical existence of people using headphones in Vienna as they move through the city. This seemed like a fitting topic for a visual representation where no audio was allowed, and the fact that it is film further emphasises its multisensorial quest.
[text written by Venla Sunikka]
Ingold, Tim. (2007) ‘Against Soundscape.’ In: Carlyle, Angus (ed) Autumn leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice. pp. 10-13
Kelman, Ari. (2010) ‘Rethinking the Soundscpae: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Sound Studies.’ In: Senses & Society, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp. 212-234.
LaBelle, Brandon. (2010). Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life.
Sjöberg, Johannes. (2008). ‘Ethnofiction: drama as a creative research practice in ethnographic film.’ In: Journal of Media Practice, Volume 9, Number 3, pp. 229-242.