Features | Jericho

Jericho / V :: Fresh Sound, No Preservatives

By Joel Elliott | 14 May 2012

Sometimes, walking these streets I feel like the whole city might collapse. Someone, somewhere, must have forgot to double-bolt something, to erect a load-bearing pillar, and–everything being connected through multiple arteries—it will all fall like dominoes, from the top of Victoria Peak on down, bamboo scaffolding and glass spraying in all directions. At one point, I’m sure of it: an apocalyptic pounding that shakes street signs several blocks away, at regular intervals every few seconds. When I finally reach the point I realize it’s just the laying of a foundation for another skyscraper. A young girl walks by holding her mother’s hand: when the pounding hits I expect her to cover her ears or cower, but she shows no sign that she even notices. You can get used to anything.

Continually under construction everywhere, Hong Kong challenges every pre-conception I have, as a rural-born Canadian, of how many people you can fit in one space without descending into dismal poverty. History is full of huddled masses, but to live comfortably in perpetual instability is a different challenge, achieved mainly by building up. It might be an impossible dream—like the architects of the Tower of Babel, “lest we be scattered abroad across the face of the Earth.” But even after a few days of being here I too can occasionally forget the kind of low, collective tinnitus that rings at almost every corner of the north part of the island.

Good or bad, noise covers up other noise. I’m wandering around the Graham St. wet market, which has existed in some form since the Qing Dynasty began to view its own demise by the British Navy in the First Opium War. It’s still a lively place: freshly-sliced fish lying split on wooden slabs, hearts still beating; second-hand shops’ cluttered shelves, streams of paper lanterns hanging over your head; bunches of bok choi stacked four-feet high; racks of meat and butchers with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths. It is a place with its own ecosystem and life cycle; fittingly, if you head east of here towards Central and the ferry piers you’ll find decadence and luxury watches, while if you head west (and up) towards Hollywood Rd. and Cat St. you’ll find rows of shops selling funeral decorations, postcards with old cigarette ads and Mao bric-a-brac, and temples where they make incense offerings for unclaimed ancestors.

Perhaps it would be fitting to its colonial past to call it “Dickensian”: a kind of proto-cinematic feeling of everything flowing the way it is supposed to, of controlled, dynamic and magical chaos. Sound is vital to this feeling: young men hawking vegetables loud enough to be heard a half-block away, sidewalks being hosed down, Cantonese mixing with Filipino and English, fish splashing water out of nearly-overflowing tanks, butchers’ cleavers slamming down on tables as carts wheel by just a few feet away…all surrounded by the hovering drone of construction which lends an anxious fervor to the otherwise easy pace of commercial activity here.

I’m here with Cedric Maridet, a Hong Kong-based sound artist specializing in both gallery installations and field recordings that explore social and cultural boundaries, history and transformation. He’s also a teacher who often takes his students on soundwalks through the city: “If we had to think about a particular politics of sound…the first step [would be] making people more aware of what’s going on and what could be desirable in terms of designing soundscapes for the city.”

Armed with binaural mics mounted on a headset, he is driven by his own curiosity through the streets while I follow him. It is both an immense technical challenge (armed as I am with just a DSLR and monopod, trying to weave my way through throngs of shoppers) and probably an odd sight for passers-by. A documentary shoot in a crowded street usually has some utilitarian purpose: instead he is just listening, and I’m watching him listen. At one point we enter a cramped shop that seems to have nobody manning it; at the back of the long corridor the hush is a radical contrast to the streets just outside. Maridet begins to rifle through some old slides that look like family holiday snapshots. It is a poignant moment where the public life outside spills into a moment that seems too private to be for sale.

This is Maridet’s domain, whose sound pieces create a dynamic sense of space even through headphones. In one piece, “Filipina Heterotopia,” he interviews local Filipino domestic workers then records the spaces in which they gather on Sundays when they have the day off, mixing the sound with the traffic and other noises recorded throughout the week. “I was interested in the change of space, and how the space is defined through sound…and this idea of re-appropriation of space. The rules change.”

In many cases, these places throughout Central are already private property: but the womens’ occupation radically transforms their uses. While not intended as a political provocation, it doesn’t seem coincidental that three years after he completed the piece, one of the recording areas–by the HSBC Building in Exchange Square–became the site for Occupy Central, which when I was there had outlasted most of the other global Occupy movements by months. In retrospect, the words of one of the Filipinas are prescient: “They cannot invade this place.”

And now the Graham St. Market is slated for destruction. The Urban Renewal Authority, which plans to erect skyscrapers on the spot and shift what remains of the market indoors, has attempted to reach out to locals in an effort to gain approval for the redevelopment but, quite understandably, has garnered a lot of backlash. As a large cargo van passes just a few inches away, he gestures towards the main street around which most of the vendors circulate. “The way we see and hear [the sounds] now are going to be changed quite a lot. Many of the sounds of the social fabric will move out and disappear.” In “Back into the Ether,” he takes some of the voices from the market and spreads their frequencies across time, creating a haunting spectral effect that thins them out, leaving only aural shadows. Their original shapes are hard to perceive, distorted by layers of calcification: voices call across the stereo field and go unanswered.

Now a seemingly boundless co-existence of varied uses, the indoor market would presumably make the space both more constricted and private (malls have security guards, opening and closing hours, etc.). Moreover the very idea of uprooting and re-locating a complex historical neighbourhood suggests a deterioration of those intangible qualities that root a place to its own history, of which sound may be the most primary. It’s impossible to fake or re-create the sonic characteristics of a neighbourhood, so tied are they to accidents and contingencies.

I’m only a visitor here so it’s not my place to determine what is valuable—though a sticker placed over a downtown photograph showing the (unbelievably branded) skyline and a blinding fireworks show read “Where Has my Dream City Gone?” The indications of a more international shift dangle like low-hanging fruit: from public to private space, from streets as destinations to streets as thoroughfares, from individual businesses to corporate conglomerates, from fresh and locally grown food to preservatives and mass production.

All of which can be heard as well as seen. In Seoul, where I’m currently living, while traditional markets have been maintained, major retail outlets have begun to adopt the energy and density of the classic hawkers with a shot of adrenaline. In touristy shopping districts like Myeong Dong, rows and rows of cell-phone and cosmetic shops blast Muzak and force their employees to bark out deals to passers-by. Overstaffed major supermarkets are as crowded with these people as they are with shoppers. The problem is not their aggressiveness (a bazaar or souq in the Middle East would put them to shame), but the deafening sound of their collective voices (appropriately, they no longer rely solely on their own voice, but shout through cheap PA’s) and the new significance they take on. Traditionally, touts represented a healthy sense of competition between individual store owners: now, like most aspects of late capitalism, they have ballooned from something dynamic and flexible to a stringent, sterile and monolithic din.

Still, the sound artists I meet in Hong Kong seem to have adopted a more zen-like attitude. Maridet’s work as a teacher and artist involves a number of soundwalks whose main goal is listening, which comes with a certain amount of quiet acceptance if not approval. He rejects R. Murray Schafer’s prescriptive approach to sound: “The idea of natural vs. urban…or noisy [vs.] quiet…I find irrelevant. To me what is interesting is the pleasure of listening to all kinds of sounds.” We stand several stories above the market where the bustle of the street is replaced by the continuing construction and a steady stream of air conditioning units. “I can relate to this sound in good and bad ways, depending on how I listen to it.”

Maridet is an advisor for Soundpocket, an organization devoted to advancing sound art in Hong Kong. Their work is split between field recordings and (its perfect inverse) sound as architecture, and typically takes place outside of the gallery: re-purposed abandoned houses in the outlying districts or public places downtown. Its mandate embraces ephemerality, which complicates the idea of the preservation of sound. Its founder, Yang Yeong, even views the organization itself in these terms: when I ask her what her plans are for the future she tells me “I hope we can close down very soon. Because that would be an indication that people’s ears are alive.” But her thoughts on sound preservation itself are worth quoting in full:

“If you asked me about this two years ago, I would have said ‘Yes, there are endangered sounds and we must record them. I was living just ten minutes from the market and I felt a great sense of loss when it was announced that the market would be demolished, because I grew up in that area. The very fact that you walk home and the landscape around you…it’s a very different experience to be walking through empty streets. But…we cannot preserve sounds by getting recordings of them, because every sound is specific…it’s not just a sound, but it’s a sounding out of the space, and the sounding out of the environment. So there’s no way we can preserve anything.”

Active preservation of sounds can seem both futile and frantic: trying to contain something that by its nature is in constant flux. Although, if anything, the Urban Renewal Authority’s plans to create “Hong Kong’s first ‘old-shop street’ resembling historic open markets” seems to carry more of that futility than those who want the site to develop and shift of its own accord, without outside interference. The reconstitution of a place as an “historic site” doesn’t bridge the connection to history, but in effect severs it, especially when it’s done in order to keep that history from interfering with “development.” Only those who see history as a dead thing with no connection to the present or future–or sometimes, a threat—feel the need to put it behind glass.

For Yeong, preservation is important mostly in terms of memory and sustainability. “What’s more important is to stimulate interest and encourage understanding of every moment of listening, this orientation, this sensitivity, that I think everybody has the potential to have.” Maridet, who finds himself constantly learning new things from his students, agrees.

“Everyone is a specialist, in terms of listening.”