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Archive for the ‘Sensory History’ Category

The Arts section of this past Sunday’s Boston Globe brought me an article by Jeremy Eichler about composer Tod Machover and his newest commission, A Toronto Symphony. If you’re not familiar with Machover’s work, he has spent his career developing technology that pushes the boundaries of both music making and music composition, and he currently directs the Opera of the Future group at MIT.

For A Toronto Symphony Machover asked Torontonians to collaborate with him in creating a piece that would truly capture their experience of the city. As Eichler writes, “He wanted to write a symphony not for the city of Toronto by with the city of Toronto, a piece of music that would ultimately be about Toronto in a way that was granular, participatory, and reflective of an urban landscape in all of its component parts.” There’s an excellent 22-minute video at the ideacity website of Machover explaining the Toronto project when it launched. The symphony has eight parts:

  1. OVERTURE: the city wakes
  2. CITY SOUNDS: based on crowd-sourced, recorded sounds of Toronto (listen to some of these sounds via Soundcloud here and here)
  3. CITY STORIES: people’s stories of the city, made into music and woven together
  4. IMAGINING THE CITY: “a memory of Toronto when one is far far away”
  5. IN THE CITY: a collage of on-the-ground moments throughout the city’s neighborhoods
  6. CITY SOARING: the birds-eye view of Toronto
  7. TORONTO DANCES: “a big dance party, a kind of ‘Song to Toronto'”
  8. THE CITY SLEEPS: rocking the city to sleep

Machover posted a series of calls for various forms of participation on the project website, took part in local festivals, and worked with school children, musicians, and individuals from all over the city, not only to identify what Toronto sounds like but also to shape the actual musical composition. His team from MIT developed a group of new applications (best accessed via Google Chrome), including Media Scores, Constellation, and City Soaring, that allow people to play around with and modify Machover’s core Toronto composition using graphic tools–colors, shapes, lines–such that no musical training is necessary to participate. I spent a little time with these tools today and particularly liked Constellation. It felt like a glorious experiment in synesthesia.

In the Globe article Machover makes this point about the collaborative nature of A Toronto Symphony: “If it feels in the end like basically my piece no matter what, or like a mash-up of other people’s stuff that I facilitated, I think that would be less satisfying. But if it’s something that couldn’t have been made without each other, it will feel really good.” This project, and this quote, speak volumes to me about the current work of city museums. I want them to be like Tod Machover: using their expertise to bring out the best in each of us and illuminate our collective experience of the city; doing it through participation, interdisciplinary learning, and new tools that help us see the city in a different light.

The piece debuts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on March 9 in Roy Thomson Hall as part of the New Creations Festival. Put it on your calendar. Meanwhile, apparently two other cities have already approached Machover about further city symphony collaborations. Maybe one of them is yours?

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I know posts have been a little thin on this blog over the past few months. One of the reasons is that I’ve been working on two other projects that I’m now ready to share with my CityStories readers.

The first is an exhibition that came out of a fellowship I had in fall 2011 at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (JNBC) at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I was at JNBC to continue my research on city museums, but while I was there I also worked with five JNBC graduate students to develop an exhibition about what it means to live in Providence, drawing from the field of psychogeography for our methodology.

Pyschogeography isn’t exactly a household word. Loosely defined, it involves mapping abstract concepts like emotion, sensory experiences, and personal meaning, in contrast to our traditional concept of mapping physical elements—roads, landmarks,  topography. I had been grappling a lot with the disconnect between what city museums think is worth knowing and preserving about their cities, on one hand, and what city residents know and preserve as living, breathing “archives,” walking around their cities each day, on the other. The exhibition was an experiment to see what it would be like to create a city collection where the emotional, sensory, and personal experiences of residents command center stage. After this project I am further convinced that city museums should be incorporating psychogeography into their ongoing work. The exhibition, You Are Here: Archiving Providence in the Present, is documented here.

The second project is a little more personal, but still strongly tied to my professional practice. I’ve been developing a blog for my five-year-old cousin Thomas, who wants to be an explorer when he grows up. I post photos from cities I have visited as part of my research, and I challenge Thomas to figure out the location of each photo. When he solves one, he and his mom report on how he did it, which gets posted on the blog. It’s called Thomas Sees the World.

The blog happened organically. Thomas was working on one of Andrew Sullivan’s “View from Your Window” challenges, but it was really hard. I offered to send him a few of my own photos that I had screened to make sure they contained enough visual clues. Thomas attacked these photos with an overwhelming eagerness to learn, and I was fascinated by his thought process, which almost never conformed to my expectations. After four or five of these challenges yielded such rich responses from Thomas, his mom and I decided to try a blog. We are developing a small but devoted following, and this game is bringing us all a lot of joy. I think about cities—and the differences between them—all the time, but I have never thought about them quite this way before. I am learning all sorts of new things as I look at cities through Thomas’s eyes. Take a look at the blog and you’ll see what I mean.

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Photo by Geff Rossi via flickr

Last week one of my students, Madeline Karp, told me about her family’s visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. She was particularly struck by the Hall of Birds, which she described as a long hallway lined with glass cases displaying the bird collection, some stuffed in poses and some displayed more as specimens, flat on their backs. One case was filled with comparisons: birds from popular culture (Tweety, Opus from Bloom County) next to their counterparts from the natural world. Here’s the photo she took of Toucan Sam:

Photo by Madeline Karp

According to Madeline, there was a lot of intense birdness in the Hall of Birds. It was maybe even a little disturbing if you weren’t used to seeing bird specimens flat on their backs like that. The experience led her mother to comment that it looked like the exhibition had been made either for or by cats.

I was thinking about Madeline’s story the next morning while I was walking my friends’ German wirehaired pointer. I was imagining cats roaming the Hall of Birds, noses pressed to the cases, and a team of cat curators making decisions about the most tantalizing specimens to display (maybe throw in some fish for variety, and open the window shades to make plenty of sunny spots on the floor).

Meanwhile, here I am walking the dog, and she’s investigating every nook and cranny of the neighborhood streets with the kind of enthusiasm and detail that I wish every city resident would display. And it hit me: cats don’t get out in the city all that much, but dogs certainly do. Has any museum ever done an exhibition depicting their city from a four-legged point of view? The urban history of things dogs care about: hydrants, parks, smelly things, leash laws, dogcatchers. Historic photographs taken from two feet off the ground. I would give a nice tasty chew toy to see that, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

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Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson's Anxiety Map via Flickr/kthread

I’m a fan of the urban planner Charles Landry and his concept of the creative city. I just started his book The Art of City Making and came across this passage:

Our sensory landscape is shrinking precisely at the moment when it should be broadening. Sensory manipulation is distancing us from our cities and we are losing our visceral knowledge of them. We have forgotten how to understand the smells of the city, to listen to its noises, to grasp the messages its look sends out and to be aware of its materials.

I was reminded of Landry when I came across a link to a contemporary art exhibition currently showing at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in NYC. It’s called You Are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York City. (more…)

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Hester Street, Lower East Side, 1902, Library of Congress

The other day I stumbled upon a great little program called Food(ography), hosted by the delightful Mo Rocca. The particular episode I was watching (still airing a handful of times on the Cooking Channel throughout September) was about street food, and it investigated various carts/trucks in cities throughout the US. I’m something of a foodie, and I love Mo Rocca, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to watch this show. But I wasn’t expecting it to have anything to do with my work until suddenly culinary historian Jane Ziegelman pops on the screen, on location at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC. (more…)

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Sniff, Sniff

I spent Sunday afternoon at Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art museum. There was a lot to love there. One installation in particular, by Hilda Kozári, was appropriate for this blog. It’s called Air. Kozari created three acrylic bubbles, each representing a different city: Helsinki, Budapest, Paris. She worked with Parisian perfume designer Bertrand Duchaufour to develop a scent for each city, which is then piped into the bubbles. You stand underneath and take in the smell. Film footage is projected onto the acrylic, creating ghost-like images that you can barely discern to go along with the wafting aroma. Kozári seemed to be making the point that sometimes we need our eyes to take a back seat and let our other senses lead. (more…)

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