The Invisible Port (Audio, Text)

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.


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