Sound for airports: Washdown time again

In Oslo's glittering new Gardermoen airport, Anna Karin Rynander's sound sculpture installations merge with the needs of travellers, offering an aural washdown, for the tired and weary. These Sound-Showers also suggest a routeway into reimagining sustainable transport for both new media art and soundscaping communities.

For the first-time arrivee, Oslo's Gardermoen airport is an overwhelming experience. Initial surprise as you peer out of the plane's windows at the long gantry of lit-up glass-cased buildings, is overtaken by astonishment once you find yourself inside. The swish escalators, and monumental concrete pillars; the central atrium with its high, high ceiling, and the hi-tech information screens, all give off an impression of Nordic public building modernism, updated for the twenty-first century. What is particularly noticeable though, (and such a contrast to the ramshackle updatings of British airports) is the ubiquitous use of wood; from the massive girders, and office wall cladding, to the laminate flooring. The airport has been one of Europe's largest building projects of the nineties, yet it remains hardly known outside Scandinavia. To complement an entirely new building complex, the airport instigated a public art programme. Of the various differing pieces from sculpture, to the multi-coloured fabric piece reaching up into the central concourse's roof, the most commented upon pieces are the new media installations, known as Sound-Showers.

Sited unobtrusively round different parts of the airport, the Sound-Showers sit waiting for people to enter their 'focus centres'. Thereupon the person triggers sensors, which start up the installation, and as they stand there, the wash-down from quiet, slightly eery, whispering voices begins. Stand under the shower, and soft, intimate voices begin to massage you: "The future is sound", followed disquietingly by "The machine is my friend" and a few moments later a phonetic "uh uh uh uh..." ripples inside the head. Inside, the showers are a slightly disconcerting experience, hearing the voices as if from inside your cranium.

These very intimate voice-sounds range from whispered voices to babies, in both English and Norwegian. The intimacy contrasts poignantly with the authority of the terminal's flight departure and arrivals announcer. Any of the 2 million people who use the airport annually could take a Sound-Shower, and although it's a very direct experience for the public, it does not disturb the rest of the airport. The Sound-Showers' existence in the downtime space of a building is a surprise: another world inside the sound of airports.

Sound-Showers are the creation of the Swedish born sound-artist, Anna Karin Rynander, who in the last ten years, has engaged in a variety of intriguing sound based artworks which have been explicitly related to the different forms of travel, mainly in Norway, where she spent her student days.

Lillestrom Station
Pictures coutesy of Anna Karin Rynander

These works, part way between installation, new media and public art, also contribute to the well being of the passing traveller and are part of the small, though expanding, activity of artists testing public spaces, and specifically transit spaces, as an arena for experimentation. Together they convey one of the principle concerns of the new media artist; exploring the new spatialities engendered by the technology. Explorations, no doubt, inspired by many an art college new-media course. And at Gardermoen, Rynander's Sound-Showers feel like a foretaste of how new media might be integrated into a possible future transport infrastructure. An airport, however attractive its design, is perhaps not an obvious place to go looking for the beginnings of an aesthetic that fuses new media with acoustic ecology: a hybridising which could encourage a different sensibility towards travelling, indeed, be supportive of sustainable and ecologically-aware travel. But Sound-Showers are in no way restricted to use only in airport lounges, they could form a representative part of a new media repertoire underscoring a futuristic sustainable transport agenda; one which not only seeks to change travelling patterns, but is also sensitive to, and aiming to transform, the present day aural environment.

For if the present day outdoors acoustic environment is considered, it has been the sound transformations which have occurred around travel which are, by definition, the most far reaching. Today, the most ubiquitous outside sound is that of car wheels on tarmac. This is quickly followed by other vehicles, and next by the soundworlds, which emanate from trains and airplanes. Indeed the automobile engine has been blamed for submerging an entire strata of soundworlds from the natural world, which humans have been aurally interacting with for thousands of years, (until very recent times). Anecdotally, people state that in Britain today, because of the extensiveness of the road network, there are very few places to be found in the natural world where people can hear birdsong, without the interfering sound backdrop of road vehicles.

Picture coutesy of Anna Karin Rynander
Is this an argument for different modes of travelling? That is, are there forms of travelling, which are more sensitive to preserving and remaking convivial sound ecologies around us?

Given that sound artists are one of the few constituencies who might be attuned by temperament and profession, to inspire the rest of us to change our perceptions of how we relate to our surrounding aural environment, they might well be tempted to draw wider communities into an awareness of experiencing - the wider, wilder soundworlds which we inhabit.

In the larger frame, sound artists make-up an intriguing if disjointed alliance with the convergent territory of new media. Sound is part of the digital palette, which new media artists play with, and use as part of their repertoire. And new media - which is also about communication between places, if not the physical journeying between them - is increasingly part of the repertoire of public space art, of which a particular and increasingly popular variant is focussed around travelling and transit spaces. New media and sound artists aren't, on the whole, interested in sustainability issues. They are, after all, artists. But for those inspired by acoustic ecology and soundscapes, placing environmental transport in the equation is one way, of at the very least, thinking about the real world connection between one aspect of the sound environment and our mode of travel.

Even if there is not a profusion of examples of how this synergy might evolve, a few examples are beginning to surface internationally where new media artists, using the different media at their disposal, are experimenting in new media art specifically for the travelling public. It seems to me that if this was pursued further, it could be possible to develop a completely transformed travelling culture, of delight. New media installation can potentially be applied to any context, including transport infrastructures; be it cycle networks, walkways, bus transit routes, or the energy-eating car culture. If one dreams of significantly fewer cars on the road, rather than the actual reality of increasing numbers, the alternative travel infrastructure needs to be as psychologically attractive as possible, a counter-move to the addictive quality of the automobile. Sound artists could be amongst those to address this dynamic possibility. One part of a contingent end-game could even be a 'resurfacing' of the soundworlds long drowned-out by the world of roads and the machines which ride them.

Picture coutesy of Anna Karin Rynander
Anna Karin Rynander is among this new hybrid of new media artists, whose work also falls tangentially, though she would say incidentally, within the pale of sound ecology and environmental issues. She has been fortunate in utilising a specific highly visible transit site - Oslo's new Gardermoen airport. "I think that these specific Sound-Showers are made for Gardermoen", states Rynander. "To take a sound-shower is to experience the whole setting; this magnificent airport, in many ways, with a lot of big glass walls, which allow you to see both the Norwegian countryside and the airplanes, while you yourself walk into the focus-circle and listen to soft whispering voices. What you see and what's in your thoughts at the time, influence how you experience the sound. And of course there is a contrast between the soft sound and the powerful airplanes you can see through the glass in the piers. But the sound in the piers is quite soft and low, the sound from the airplanes doesn't reach you. But with the imagination reminiscences of the sound can reach you, you see the airplanes. So there is a contrast."

This isn't, of course, to say that either Gardermoen or air travel is part of the sustainable travel remit, or that Rynander is particularly interested in the slant with which I have infused the possible application of new media: a futuristic sustainable travel scenario. But Rynander's work enables the mind to muse on such applications in a variety of scenarios.

Rynander, and co-artist and engineer Per-Olof Sandberg, with whom she worked on the technical side of the project, have been contacted about further development of the concept: "As they are, the ISRS's - the technical software - are customised for Gardermoen. In other places they'd need redesign, re-engineering and new sounds. The main success factor was teamwork. I can imagine a Sound-Shower factory where the Sound-Showers' basic concept is adapted and integrated with different locations and environments". These could include, Rynander readily accepts, designs for both different transit, and built environments, as well as "softer", contexts, which could be around ecodesign principles, "...if it was required, and if it's the right place for ecodesign, though it does need to follow the basic technical requirements of the Sound-Shower concept."

Prior to her becoming involved in Gardermoen, Rynander had carried out several other new media art experiments which tangentially dovetail into the transport frame, including Traffic Zone and Birdmachines. Of these, the latter light-heartedly utilised sensor technology to release bird song, at a busy Oslo crossroads, when the lights were red. Waiting car-drivers and passengers were suddenly serenaded by singing birds; surprised people looked around trying to figure out where the birds were, before realising the joke. From a certain acoustic ecological perspective, such a new media piece highlights our distance from the natural world - and from birdsong - that it needs to be piped to the travelling perspective, even if it shows with playful ingenuity how sensor-based new media can be placed within the traffic-flow infrastructure. It could well be read as a critique of noise pollution and of traffic's destruction of the older pre-motor vehicle acoustic ecology, or indeed, the severance of the "on-the-move" culture from the natural world. Or it can be seen as bringing (or exploring) the aural ecology of the natural worlds closer to the noise ecology of the motorised world. Rynander, however, isn't particularly interested in such apprehensions of the piece, but goes along with the notion that there has been, and is, a continuing deterioration of the soundscape/acoustic ecology environment. "I think it is likely to change for the worse. It's becoming easier to send out messages and sound from which someone can make money. On the other hand maybe some new technology can lower the noise-levels of cars, trains, airplanes, computers, machines etc. Let's hope man finds out that messages are better read in silence than together with noise, so, money could work for silence. Silence should be offered too."

In response to the point that another layer is being added to the acoustic environment and the work might be, in effect, to get rid of, or balance the first layer, for example; traffic sounds, rather than simply adding a new layer to enhance the mess the first layer has made, Rynander concedes: '"What's a point. If it was possible to get rid of the first layer, that would be an interesting idea. Silence is good. But I also think that by adding sound it could make you hear exciting things in noise."

For Rynander, the interesting thing about the Birdmachines was how they were integrated into the whole traffic-system and became a part of it - both visually and technically. 'When the traffic stopped for the red lights, the birds started to sing like machines. The people in the cars reacted by opening windows and smiling at each other. As a distant viewer of this installation you could see how it made the mechanism of the traffic-crossing more visible and emphasised the traffic machinery; the phenomenon of a mass of cars arriving, stopping, waiting, starting, and leaving again in a continuous stream. The whole traffic-cross became scenography to the art installation. I liked that.'

The last of the three pieces, Traffic Zone, connects to each of the others, in that it appears to be the inverse of the proto-Sound-Showers, yet also counterparting Birdmachines. Rather than refreshing people in a stressful built environment a la Sound-Showers, Traffic Zone introduced stress and unease; traffic sound recorded alongside a highway, and drawn moving along an infinite line via a designed computer programme - into a gallery context which initially had a relaxed feel.

"Although it isn't the main thing when you entered the circle you were surrounded by sound, you stepped into the mass of sound, the sound-sculpture. By stepping into the circle you changed the place, and the place changed back again when you stepped out of the circle. Inside the circle, the sound moved around you in an infinite-eight-formation. Outside the circle, if somebody else was inside the circle, it was just noise with no direction. It also felt as if it was a very authoritative installation. Something about power. The noise ruled the place, and the visitor could trigger it. And I also think silence was an important part of the installation. The two different materials and states. Although in a way it did critique noise pollution, it was also about the naughty child who wants to make noise; the joy when people tested out the thing."

All three of these pieces, though most visibly Sound-Showers, (particularly to seasoned Northern travellers) integrate a way of interfacing sensor-based sound media with travel. They also point to how sound itself travels via the conduit of new media. New media means new spatialities. It also means the uncovering of hitherto impossible places. Given the Internet, possible real-time sound-links between one place and another, "remote soundshowers", as it were, are entirely feasible. Rynander observes, 'Yes, I have thought of that. It could work. If you can add something interesting by doing so.' This would suggest there are contexts where this could work and where it couldn't: Are there wrong sounds for right places, and right sounds for wrong places? It depends on what you want. If you want a relaxing experience and you put sound x into context y and the experience isn't relaxing - It doesn't work. If you put sound x into context z it could work. It's like colour. One sound could work differently in different contexts. I believe in testing. You may get something else'.

In a world where the cultural economy of noise is increasing exponentially, this planet is ever louder at the end of every day. Could it be that the chatter of machine-babble will become unbearable as the volume surpasses certain human limits? Already with daily noise pollution at fever pitch, any relationship with silence comes across as irrelevant. It seems that for many, particularly highly urbanised populations, the return to natural sound is all but impossible. In such a context, any way forward shall, even if by default, fall to sound designers, so that the built environment will become an opportunity for tinting and high-lighting new, probably unnatural soundworlds. The now submerged aged tones of nature's aural world, is a place to hold on to, and soundscapers can help in this. Uncovering a way where both the natural and the unnatural tinted sound ecologies can co-exist, at ease, and in consonance with the other, is the immediate challenge for these sound communities, as it is for communities wider afield.


Listen here to the Sound-Showers Anna Karin Rynander

A version of this piece also appears in Fourth Door Review 5