Project Description

Pictured: Kathleen Vaughan (Associate Professor at Concordia)  testing a Zoom H4N field recorder (close-up of hands holding a Zoom field recorder). Photo by Matthew Brooks.

Interacting with Place

By Helena Krobath  |  May 1st 2017

How do sense experiences interact with our memories, habits, and social contexts to create an idea of where we are?

My research maps together practices of knowledge transformation – sensory observation, spatial critique, and art-making – to ask how places come to be known. In doing so, I consider how metaphors shape understanding of spatial environments, and how they can be played with.

My work incorporates multi-media field practices focused on sound and listening in order to direct sensory attention in new ways which challenge ingrained assumptions. I’ve been sharing some of these techniques in the Sound Environments Workshop series (hosted by Milieux), as we experiment together with approaching sound as a “texture of reality.” These practices include prosthetic encounters (forcing shifts in perspective by filtering the senses through technology, such as microphones or lenses), juxtaposing images and sounds (i.e., creating spaces of meaning through contrast and poetic resonance), and open-ended art practices.

These practices of “listening deeply” force us to question our spatial impressions.

For example, last year I worked on a sound-based collaborative project exploring ‘situated nostalgia’ in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, organized by Dr. Owen Chapman in connection with Concordia and Lancaster University. Designed by then-Mayor Jean Drapeau and architect Roger Taillibert in the 1970s, the “Big-O” was signalled as a potent, modern cosmopolitan space for both commercial tourism and Montreal nationalist and humanist identity work.

But what did it mean to have this identity work mustered by a 175-metre tower that jutted outward at a 45° angle to form the capstone of a rolling cement landscape – besides suggesting the future under formation by a benevolent scientific patriarchy?

Although I was critical of the Big O to begin with, and planned to enter tension with its history and expression of public space values, roaming the grounds physically led me to embodied experiences that I could not so easily dismiss. Through repeated encounters, I observed not only complex spatial properties of the site, but my own experiences of space. I was able to hear energy flow in the enormous concrete diorama, ponder the act of its mass obliterating a residential area, and grapple with my own feelings of awe at the stimulating geometry of the walkway design.

At the Olympic Stadium, I approached the site as a visitor and tourist. With my thesis work, my role was different. My project engaged nature sites well-known to me in my rural hometown. There, I was an expat returning to a familiar site with new knowledge of local history and development. The local natural spaces appeared pristine, while at the same time they were being managed and presented for the public by local government and resource industry operations (hydro-electric, logging, quarrying, etc). Their organization primed visitors for a settler experience of land and public space and excluded histories and perspectives outside the settlement paradigm.  

The question driving me became how my understanding of home had ever been so in line with local narratives that I was now deeply questioning.

Pictured: Participants adjusting their gear as they depart for a soundwalk in downtown Montreal, led by Helena Krobath. Photo by Matthew Brooks.

A focus on metaphor led me to question whether, when driving the backroads, I might interpret my car as a sort of house-proxy (intimate space furnished with comforts of home), or as a mech suit, or both. I wondered how perceiving it each way affected/effected my experience of the backcountry I was driving through and shaped my relations with where I was going.

These interpretations bear on ways sensory awareness is integrated into social paradigms and place narratives. They can suggest which parts of public space are connected ecologically or seemingly kept apart, how shared space should be used, what values are prioritized, and how development can be realized. In the case of the road, the benefit of high-speed transportation became associated with the current infrastructure providing it –  which also delimited what other forms of conveyance and connectivity might be imagined.

To spread our metaphors across the floor and consider their evocation allows us to reconsider memory-work, social values, and durational themes not always identified at first reflection. Creative methodologies and sensory focus push back against grooved thoughts and archetypal structures and illuminate processes of world-creation.

Helena Krobath is a Master’s student in Media Studies at Concordia. She researches phenomenology of place and situated experience, using field recording, soundwalking, historiographical research, and art to instigate spatial critique and sensory autoethnography. Her research-creation thesis examines how rural public space interacts with settler identities in her hometown of Mission, British Columbia and considers the role of sensation in the occupation of space.

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