I’m pleased to join Slow Wave with collaborator Brady Marks as facilitators for the 2019 immersive arts program (Mayne Island, BC). Follow the link for application information:
Here’s a clip about the project on CBC Radio Early Edition:
I’m an adult-life-long renter who would like to put down roots without owning a house (and who’s observed what heavy mortgages have done to home ‘owners’ trying to buy security for themselves and their families). Trying to hang on to communities we’ve built in Vancouver and the adjacent region has been desperate and at times heartbreaking, as people are priced out, sometimes gradually and sometimes with brutal evictions.
Current residents of a neighbourhood are not valued or protected at any political levels once they are priced out, because the value of the neighbourhood has somehow been captured by the real estate market, not the ecology of life in its many dimensions [touched on well by Brenna Bhandar in yesterday’s panel 500 Years of Resistance to Debt, Racism, and Empire]. They get ripped out by the roots.
Or, some hang on. A few find good deals or get on the right co-op list early enough, or have access to personal loans that help them avoid pay-day lenders to make rent and avoid eviction. Some have that negligent landlord who gets them by on cheap rent, while cockroaches scuttle behind the wallpaper. They find ways to live in rhythm (or friction) with twelve roommates. They couch surf or sleep in their cars. It baffles me that this rental system is our status quo, in a time of abundance.
To cut through the tremendous, overwhelming grasp that real estate investment and finance have on public policy and media discourse, we can dive into the stories of people who actually live in the rental zone. This project will listen to stories of renters and tenant activists and amplify their themes and intersections; hopefully, it will also explore ways to re-imagine housing norms. Maybe a challenge to private rental profiteers invites a bigger challenge to Canada’s great political lie — that there is any legal/ethical basis to the theft of land upon which deeds and tenancies are sold.
Roots in Vancouver Tenants Union
I have been volunteering with the Vancouver Tenants Union since early 2019, starting as a fly on the wall and occasional canvasser with the Real Rent Control working group. This team is helping residents and officials in BC understand vacancy control and the financially inappropriate consequences of tying a home’s rent control to the tenant (ending when the tenant leaves), rather than keeping the unit at a similar cost after the tenant leaves (or is evicted). It’s a major part of how gentrification is allowed to succeed.
I kept hearing stories of tenants experiencing extreme evictions, being displaced, or abused by landlords. In other words, suffering from the power differences between land-holders and people-who-live-on-land. At the same time, my own panic about safe and long-term housing was helped by the empowerment I felt in the presence of other tenants who were fighting back. I decided I wanted to use my other areas of interest – audio composition, creative pedagogy and co-learning – to create an audio story about tenants.
After putting out calls for collaborators within the Vancouver Tenants Union, the small group we formed included Alexander Kim and then-new members John Packman and Allison McClare, Zoe Power, and Olamide Olaniyan, who helped with transcripts, scripts, interviews and brainstorming for the project. Working off the side of our desks and meeting at my home, we produced a few short segments and prepped a lot of footage for future use, when time would permit.
I interviewed many tenants, both members of the Vancouver Tenants Union and otherwise, as well as organizers. I also took live audio footage of demonstrations and working groups. However, the capacity to process this audio — much with sensitive information and different anonymity needs — slowed down production.
Finding Support in the Arts
VIVO Media Arts Centre became a home for the project, supporting it with space, technology, training, and food, in partnership with a BC Arts Council mentorship grant and additional support from academic channels (research on creative technology uptake by Frederik Lesage at SFU). The grant gave me almost two months of space to foster this project through mentorship and support of other artists! VIVO Education Coordinator Pietro Sammarco and I reached out to local participants who might be interested in learning new audio and storytelling skills while exploring the world of rental housing.
The guest mentors in the storytelling program included rapper-poet and media educator Kim Villagante (a.k.a., Kimmortal); journalist and radio producers Alex de Boer, Madeline Taylor, and Alexander Kim; and housing organizer and advocate Kell Gerlings. As the participants formed their projects, these mentors generously shared their experience in their fields, offered inspiration, and gave practical advice for the shape of the projects.
The final pieces are produced by Maddi Dellplain, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Helena Krobath, Susan Lu, Tiffany Muñoz, Melissa Roach, Victoria Spooner, Yijia Zhang. They incorporate the participants’ own experience with footage from tenant and organizer interviews. The pieces range in genre, including: documentary, audio essay, soundscape, oral history, radio drama, and so on.
The stories will be shared at a reception at VIVO Media Arts Centre on Sept 13, and will appear later on various local radio shows. Here is the event link
Note: Going forward, transcripts and audio-visual accessibility will be provided by VTU member Allison McClare and other volunteers. The podcast will continue on a volunteer basis, with much footage to still be used and new stories to record. Please contact the VTU if you’re interested in becoming a member/volunteering.
I am pleased to start a spring residency at MAC’s studio, located at Co-op Radio in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. During the residency, I will be exploring the presence and imaginary dimensions of the CN Rail yard along the Powell Street corridor. My response to colonial steam projects–often romanticized for charm or vilified for noise–will be based in imaginaries of ‘queer utopian science fiction’. Will update as time goes on and look forward to sharing in May, 2019!
I’ve been meaning to sit down and compose some thoughts from this summer’s project with Elizabeth Ellis, who invited me to collaborate on a place-based listening project in Strathcona. We ended up creating the print publication ‘Meet me in Listening’ and hosting a soundwalk of the same name. I’ll post my reflections when possible, but for now also see Elizabeth’s post on the topic. You can read more here
Check it out – my piece “I dreamt this was my home” is in New Adventures in Sound Art’s “off the path” compilation (link above). The piece is an abstract narrative and spatial exploration of colonially-produced forest nature parks in the Fraser Valley and the roadways surrounding them. Much of my understanding has also been colonially-produced, and I approach place and memory with intent to illuminate stories hiding in plain sights (through sound) and re-tangle meanings and connections in my story.
The full playlist can be found here:
While in Montreal, I collaborated on a project investigating urban space and ‘situated nostalgia’ by way of sound. With my colleagues, Danica Evering, Leticia Trandafir and Felix Norton-Barsalou, and our supervisor Professor Owen Chapman, we explored a neighbourhood that had been restructured to symbolize Jean Drapeau’s ‘world city’ project of cosmopolitan progress.
Such a space, a failed one as I saw it, was the Montreal Olympic Stadium. Over several weeks, we mapped and explored the grounds, discussed literature on spatial experience, experimented with locative tools, and prepared electroacoustic compositions to share with a team of residents, sound artists, and researchers exploring their own site in Morecambe, UK (part of a long-distance soundmapping collaboration called Echoes and Reflections: A co-located soundmapping venture between Morecambe and Montreal, programmed by the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University).
Both Morecambe seashore and Montreal Olympic Stadium had aimed, and failed, to be tourist hot spots in the past. Now we were investigating the nostalgic aura of these sites.
I joined forces with Danica Evering as field partners, creating an imaginative playground of the grounds through a series of mental explorations, acoustic experiments, and bodily repetitions of the site. Grappling less directly with nostalgia at first, I wondered why the cement complex inspired feelings of awe in me, despite my increasing knowledge of its logistical failure and social grotesqueness. I noted the wasteful energy that powered the massive, empty building and heard voices echoing from bare cement where nothing living thrived, despite the complex’s (categorically separated) botanical gardens and biosphere, and its slogan, L’Espace pour la vie, Space for Life.
Still, I observed my sense of force from the tower (for example, against the clouds or blocking the sun) and my simple satisfaction at the curve of a ramp. I found my storytelling instincts hanging in the geometries of the space, beside the layered meta-narratives and messages installed by the city (tattered banners asking us to ignite the flame, stacks of bus shelters and bike stands glimpsed through tinted basement windows, yellow caution tape, a leaf scuttling or pigeons fluttering improbably amplified in dark recesses of underground garages, the slyness of reconfigurable barrier systems popping up in new places).
Disregarding the wishes of residents, the stadium designers first approached space in geometric and symbolic terms, manifesting imagery despite a massive failure of engineering with the stadium roof (even as its leaning tower was proudly touted as superior, lean-wise, to Pisa). Since then, it has never turned a profit and remains a well-cited case of municipal fiscal incompetence.
Yet the brutal shapes and spaces resonated with something subterranean for me, triggering associations. Somehow the cement diorama, awash with airplanes, further produced a dreamy stage for my contemplation. Or was my listening and dwelling practice turning this place into a stage for contemplation? Some of my responses to the architecture resonated with familiar shapes of religion (for me, imprints of the past). The orders of knowledge housed in the plaza–observatory, botanical gardens, biodome–also slid cleanly into that divinely modern configuration. Ultimately, I found myself in another familiar triangle (between historical knowledge and temporal, poetic, sensory experience) and allowed myself to turn my inquiry towards my own programmatic responses to space and narrative impulse.
Note: these reflections are being compiled from project notes. Conclusions and footnotes are being added as time permits
The Invisible Port was part of a longer exploration of the St. Lawrence and global shipping, which took place between February – May 2016 (see Flags of Convenience).
The audio piece ‘Invisible Port’ considers the Port of Montreal within a broader inquiry into how sensory experience of managed space co-relates to personal knowledge of places and resources. This project applies methods of research-creation for provoking, observing, and complicating situated knowledge. In this prototyping exercise, I find that research-creation practices using sound can effectively generate critical research leads and articulate ephemeral and affective elements of spatial experience.
Ports, like most resource and industrial operations, can be useful sites to find not only intersections and conflicts over land uses and values, but networks enabling and privileging certain flows. Activities which are considered unsafe or private, rather than public or accessible, can indicate cost-benefit dynamics that exploit inequalities in power or knowledge. The development of the port in particular reveals the work of power in global trade and local infrastructure, as well as the extent to which development of natural resources is tailored to some needs rather than others under normalized development rhetoric. At the same time, a positive image of globalization and trade may be invoked through small-market images of the port provided to tourists through the diorama of Old Port, Montreal.
In approaching fieldwork, I considered collective memory and memorial sites as constructions and points of inquiry, as discussed by Halbwachs (1992) and Massey (1995); global political economy expressed as urban design, explored by authors such as Harvey (2001); and spatial articulations of power and control, as explored by Lefebvre and Foucault (1967).
Foucault speaks of the heterotopia (1967), a place in which people can be separated from wider social conditions and feel enclosed in a utopian version of reality; this works to isolate socially unwanted forces like disease, decay, and corruption and to present idealized microcosms instead. Some examples of heterotopia Foucault describes include the museum, the prison, and the senior’s home. In this sense, a heterotopia imposes order and glosses over what has been removed from sight. Historiographers like Massey (1995) and Halbwachs (1992) argue that places constructed as memory sites work to legitimize power and define communities by establishing histories that feel continuous yet are highly constructed.
From these perspectives, I considered both the Old Port and the Port of Montreal as foils for each other. The idea that the cargo ships were missing became the basis for my piece, as I desired to viscerally sense their passage and understand their scale and the conditions on board. As a means of inquiry, I decided to experiment with ways of representing their presence aurally (which proved a large task for the scale of the project). In future iterations, this piece could be part of a podcast or a mini audio documentary; the tanker sonification without narration could also be used as a stand-alone soundtrack or musical piece.
Method and Investigative Process
My research-creation approach combined elements of soundscape, documentary research, electroacoustic composition, and crude sonification. The method was highly iterative and the creative, with research processes mutually informing each other.
First, I tried to capture the charm of the Old Port with field recordings. I found additional material through Montreal Sound Map and from the San Francisco Maritime Association audio archive. While it was not ideal for my purposes to record the world blanketed in snow, the logistics of working in the conditions—finding shelter, spending time in nearby structures to warm up, trying unsuccessfully to access the river, or hiding behind a utility barrel near the skating rink for windbreaking—allowed observations that raised questions and informed my documentary research.
Following the field recording excursion, I was interested in the fact that I could not easily access or observe the working port. However, the Port of Montreal website listed arrivals and departures, along with basic information about the ships, and I decided to represent their presence with sound. I divided the weekend of February 14, 2016 into eight sections and plotted the arrivals and departures from the port on a graph according to time, also noting their weight, flag, and distance from the last port.
As I searched port logs for information related to my sonification scheme, I inevitably began to delve into the political economies surrounding the port. On the port’s arrival and departure chart, I could now see colonizing countries holding ports—and workers caught in the middle of ship arrests—in their former colonies, their ships flying flags of convenience to avoid liability and taxation. Searching for information about specific Port of Montreal berths, I also found debates about rail and truck infrastructure for port shipping and encountered community resistance to shipping values in the St. Lawrence.
I realized that even if I wanted to, I could not create a tanker or cargo ship sound that was arbitrary, because I am strongly invested in divestment from oil. At the same time, I did not want to simply represent the cargo ships as “bad” but to express something more evocative about the broader condition of the waterways. I realized at that point that I needed to make the sonification a piece of music. I considered aesthetics and my desire to have the listener “dwell” for a while with the ships, which might not be appealing if my sounds came across as too harsh or didactic. At the same time, I wanted to represent the industrial nature, riskiness, and weight of the freight. As enormous barges carrying toxic substances, these figures are inevitably sinister.
After experimenting, I decided to convolve my own vocal sound, a propeller audio sample (from the San Francisco Maritime Association), and a steel string to create my heavy engine sound, thus implicating myself in the process. I processed the sound digitally to represent different weights of freighters by pitch shifting and filtering the heavy engine sounds. I mixed the sounds to create something that felt like a space populated by large entities (container ships), rather than a “sonic bar graph” as I had originally intended.
Discussion and Conclusion
The creative methodology is open-ended and loose, directed by the desire to experience a place, observe the story that results, and re-break that story down to find complications. It depends on situated experience and resonance between sensory-spatial observations, personal knowledge, and documentary research. My piece could be categorized according to Chapman and Sawchuk’s (2012) explanation of “creation as research,” in which the work and play of creating lead to discovery of approaches or questions otherwise unavailable. For prototyping and generating research leads and perspectives, these methods are invaluable, but they require follow-up rigour, including re-framing, scaling, and specialized research.
In future iterations, I would develop more sophisticated sonification techniques for precision in scaling and add dimensions, such as spatialization suggesting directionality and signals relating to cargo and crew parameters. I would establish further analysis of the material-financial transactions of the port as they relate to my research questions about situated experience, off-limits spaces, and urban space narratives that shape our interactions with resources.
This project invites further inquiry into ports as symbolic and material spaces and into cargo ships as invisible infrastructure. It illustrates the power of embodied curiosity in unsettling spatial narratives, including narratives around heritage sites and resource industries.
Bruemmer, R. (Jan 2016). “Montreal Dreams of a New Life for its Old Port.” The Gazette.
Delean, P. (Mar 2015). “Montreal’s Port a vital player.” The National Post/Financial Post.
Chapman, O. and Sawchuk, K. (2012) “Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis, and ‘Family Resemblances,’” Canadian Journal of Communication 37.1: 5–26.
Foucault, M. (1967). “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” In Eds. Dehaene, and De Cauter, L. (2008). Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society. New York: Routledge.
Government of Canada. (2015). Economic Action Plan Press Release. Plus Media Solutions.
Halbwachs, M. (1992). On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harvey, D. (2001). Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. Edinburgh University Press.
Hutter, E. (2010). “Old Port of Montreal. 01.01.10.” [soundscape audio]. Montreal Soundmap [web: Montrealsoundmap.com].
McFarlane, D. (12 Feb 2014). “A River Runs Under, Along, and Through It: Montreal and the St. Lawrence Seaway Niche: Network in Canadian History & Environment” [blog post].
Massey, D. (1995). “Places and Their Pasts.” History Workshop Journal 39. pp. 182-192.
Montreal Port Authority: Company Profile. (2015). Canadian Manufacturer’s Database.
Montreal Port Authority Communications Department. (2013). Reinventing the Port: Port of Montreal Annual Report 2012. (https://www.portmontreal.com/files/PDF/publications/2013-05-06_rapport-annuel-2012-en.pdf)
Port of Montreal, Arrivals and Departures [web resources]. http://www.portmontreal.com/pmgeo/navires.do?action=gethtml&type=arr&lang=en&ord=datearrivee&date=twodaysago
“Port of Montreal’s Good Neighbourhood Committee Takes Stock of its First Year.” (Jan 2016). Canada News Wire.
San Francisco National Maritime Park Association. Digital Collection: Historic Naval Sound and Video. http://www.maritime.org/sound/
Tatjana Kulkarni (Mar 2015). “Morgan Stanley: Infrastructure Partners sells Montreal Gateway Terminal.” The Deal Pipeline [trade news].
Transport Canada. (2016). Transport of Dangerous Goods (TDG) Regulations.
Government of Canada (https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/tdg/clear-part2-339.htm)
“Quebec Consortium Buys Port of Montreal Terminal Operator.” (Mar 2015). The Telegraph-Journal New Brunswick.
Van Praet, N. (2015). “Shipping: Montreal’s biggest container facility sold.” The Globe and Mail.
[See the Montreal project here]
Returning to Vancouver after the stadium fieldwork in Montreal, I continued to think about how shapes and symbols of Montreal Olympic Stadium told a story—a forceful story—and how listening and attending to my embodied presence changed space and knowledge viscerally for me. I connect this also to an investigative urge that desires information about the past, which dramatically illuminates the stories written in my imagination and my understandings of why things are where they are, including boundaries and access priorities.
Collaborator Danica Evering and I had taken similar approaches to the Olympic Stadium project, wandering through its grounds recursively and exploratively, playing with the all-too-ready analogies to spaceships and futures past, as its tower jutted among drifting clouds. We considered how our own bodies and voices interacted with the site, making noise and singing. Who was there, who wasn’t? The space was partitioned on one of our visits for a pop-up playground (you can hear the PA system in the audio composition). We mostly heard the vast, buzzing energy waste that filled what had just been a neighbourhood–and land of the Kanien’kehá:ka for much longer before that.
My neighbourhood in Vancouver tells me a quieter story than the plaza in Montreal. It’s a story of gentrification, of course. It resembles the Olympic Stadium—and other shifts in tenure—in the way ownership of space can be lost collectively and unwillingly. Of course, this is the story underlying Canada as a project at its roots of colonialism.
Another similarity for me was in listening for energy flow. There, it manifests in the humming of the massive Olympic building, and here, in the form of port industry and highways that hem the neighbourhood with flows of transit outwashing the ocean.
But there are differences. While exploring the stadium grounds in Montreal —designed to be iconic yet neutral for tourists, like an elegant space-port—I was open to magnificence, even while critical. Here—a slap of paint calling it ‘Port Town’ and houses crumbling to be replaced with fancy eateries—I recoil from public space faintly. I noticed after struggling to find housing security over years that I feel disconnected and even hopeless about the possibility of entangling some where in a symbiotic, long-term way. East Vancouver has been my long-time backyard, yet it’s hard to call the place ‘home’ because rental housing is so insecure. The new property owners ate our figs. Is it like that everywhere? The irony of these observations does not escape me, either, knowing that this soil is bound to the rights and histories of others.
I find one antidote to alienation has been friendship, which tethers people between sites, along with their knowledge and memories, and creates something secure and hybrid, something able to shift. It was through alienation and friendship that I revisited the fieldwork I did with Danica in Montreal and the continued exchange of situation we’ve shared in our correspondence. Looking back on time from different places, we recast the past and link our current situations.
Summary: The montage was meant to be played in headphones while wandering the neighbourhood, a collective tour which we hosted publicly thanks to Vancouver New Music and the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective on April 29, 2018. To invite strangers into a personal and alien experience of space and time means to engage them in creative nonfiction. We mashed Danica’s original composition of Montreal Olympic Stadium with my recent field recordings of the Powell Street port and rail area, along with reflections. While we move with the track, we draw attention back and forth from the location of our bodies, memory, and imagination. Our minds and narratives wander. Maybe our guests also feel dislocated and a bit uneasy, joining us here. We end the walk without headphones, regrounding ourselves in the neighbourhood.
Drafting: Since the walk, I’ve re-edited the track to improve the script (trimming several lines), adjust volume levels, and incorporate feedback. After valuable feedback, I added drama to the beginning of the track and heightened moments throughout. Most notable additions are samples of the same rail line (I’ve worked with it in other projects), which were taken further east via cellphone recording. (They also seemed fitting, as Soundcloud had auto-played some of this footage after the soundwalk file ended, according to one participant).
Mixing/Headphones: About mixing, I’m always learning after the deadline about pitfalls of scaling. The timeline was a few weeks, but refining levels for a group walk is difficult when a site’s activity is variable (trains one day, but not the next, and so on). Timing when to boost soft bits proved tricky and unpredictable, so next time I would reconsider whether to try to manage this. We also offered over-the-ear headphones, which most attendees refused, wanting more bleed-through from the present environment.
This raised some interesting questions for me: first of all, would I mix differently expecting earbuds to be preferred? And more importantly, was there a familiar perception of how an electroacoustic walk would work (i.e., blending with the environment vs an exercise in masking or challenging its soundtrack) and would it be useful to discuss this in advance of a walk?
Playback: There was a similar balance to consider between control and flexibility when it came to playback device. Having participants use smart phones was accessible in the sense that the organization didn’t have mp3 players for large groups, so it meant more people could attend. We tried to also make it easy for people without smart phones by offering to procure gear on request. However, using the phone meant that participants might have different preferences (downloading vs streaming) which might affect playback details (pop-up ads, different start/buffering delays, or auto-play settings).
April 29: About twelve of us left from Triumph Street in front of the uncharacteristically subdued Parallel 49 (a quickly expanding watering hole whose brewery floodlights and odours dominate the block). We wandered the fish packing alleys, where the smell of rank fish corpses coincided with Danica’s audio narration asking if we heard the ocean. We walked through a parking lot perpendicular to the rail line, watching the tracks from the fence before following the traffic artery of Powell Street east. At Semlin we veered left into Cambridge Park, where we settled into a park space overlooking the grain loaders and port facilities from the slope. At that point, the recording ended, and we continued without headphones through the quiet neighbourhoods of Hastings Sunrise north, making a loop back to the starting point.
The weather was damp and grey, following several days of unexpectedly warm sunshine. The patios were now empty and parks unattended in the gloom. The world had a socked-in, “morning after” feeling. Not only did the digital mix feel strangely hollow at points in relation to this calm, the acoustic portion of the walk felt uneventful to my senses, compared with the practice runs. I realized the extent to which the virtual presence of weekday sounds coloured my expectation for this Sunday, despite my own explicit note on the stark contrast between working and recreation hours that could be observed in this locale.
I also reflected on my expectations around “delivering” a soundwalk, particularly my first effort at incorporating a recording. I felt that I was failing to deliver features where I felt the sharp contrast between the present emptiness and the ‘ghosts’ of sounds that had joined me on previous excursions.
Despite the stillness, it was encouraging that all participants lingered at the end of the walk to discuss and debrief. Much of the feedback included sharing moments of sharp sensation or surprised expectation. Some participants also commented on the presence of sadness in the track. I felt the sad tone was echoed by the weather rather than running counterpoint to an active neighbourhood scene that I’m used to encountering here. It’s worth noting that the composition and testing period took place in brighter weather; in a strange way, this atmospheric underscoring made the confessional aspect of the audio composition more vulnerable for me. Noticing this discomfort is helping me articulate how I hope to include personal and fantastic elements in the way I study space and place.
The Fraser Valley ice storm knocked out power to thousands of homes in December and January 2017/18. I was visiting my parents in Mission, where our street spent 3 days without power, thanks to branches falling under their icy weight on the above-ground power line system.
The experience made me think about my entanglement with energy and communication infrastructure and how far from sustainable most systems are. At the same time, with the full weight and will of consumerism shifting over, local sustainable systems (not to mention quality of life) could be established as norms. This brief city-wide shut-down gave me opportunity to consider local planning in different ways.
All said, the storm created some spectacular and strange formations and textures.