Monday, 13 February 2012

Sonic Wallpapers Update Feb 2012

We're really enjoying working with sound artist Felicity Ford on our Sonic Wallpapers project. Felicity has blogged about the process quite a bit already, but we decided it was time for an update here too. She had so much to say about the project that we couldn't fit it all in one post. This the first part of the interview:

RL: You were interviewing people for a week at the end of last year; how did that go and what did you make of interviewees' responses?
FF: How people feel about wallpaper is quite personal, and I wanted the interviews to have that informal nature of discussions about decorating which people have in their own homes. For this reason we decided that I would interview people already known to me so that they would feel relaxed enough to share their real views on the wallpapers. We also decided that some people would come in pairs so that I could try and capture the specific dynamics of two people arguing about a wallpaper design! One fear I had was that some of the wallpaper samples would be so outside of what people are used to looking at that they wouldn't be able to say much about them, but in fact this didn't happen at all. Instead, everyone went into a lot of depth about what I showed them from the MoDA collection, and everyone commented on how inspiring it was to look through such a varied and unusual selection.

RL:You spent most of January listening through and editing guest responses to MoDA wallpapers; was that straightforward? Were there many surprises?
FF: I had over 9 hours of interview material in the end, and these long, rambling conversations had to be pulled into some kind of order, so it was a time-consuming process and it took a while to listen through to everything. I decided the most efficient thing would be to match up all the comments relating to individual designs, and - through that process - to start understanding which wallpaper samples contained the most interesting potential for making sound pieces. I now have a massive audio file which has twenty sections in it, each one relating to one of the samples which has made it into the final shortlist!

The most surprising aspect of the interviews is which wallpaper samples evoke the richest responses. Some designs which seem at first glance to be quite unremarkable stimulate very interesting conversations, whereas some of the more outlandish designs which catch your eye have almost the opposite effect. Listening through to the audio, I realised we all have a tendency to look at a piece of wallpaper and build a narrative around it; very rarely did anyone discuss paper purely in terms of its design or formal qualities. I was also surprised by how evocative everyone found the smaller samples - particularly the ones with a faded, vintage appearance. Nearly everyone commented that such wallpaper pieces were hard to think of as samples for a room, because they seem a bit like an artefact - or a trace - from someone else's life, and not at all like a page in a fresh sample book.

RL: Shortlisting MoDA wallpapers – what was thinking behind reducing the number of wallpapers from 50 to 20?
FF: This was entirely led by the sound-editing process. Wallpaper pieces which only generated a couple of comments were culled because I want the sound pieces to offer several perspectives on each design. I also culled wallpaper samples which hadn't really provoked discussions which I could imagine recording sounds for. It's very important to me that there is a strong relationship between the sounds and the wallpaper; where I couldn't see how to build this, I rejected a wallpaper.
This process was not straightforward, and some of the designs which I personally love from a visual perspective were reluctantly expelled from the shortlist, because there just wasn't enough usable interview material to work with. I was also sad that one design (see image below) featuring many nails printed on it didn't make it, as I had been looking forward to recording the sounds of scattering nails on the floor after one interviewee commented that the design made him think of this! On the other hand, some of the wallpaper samples which I wasn't initially thrilled about working with have become much more interesting to me, because of the things people have said about them.

Tacks designed by Alan Shillingford
Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (BADDA 4755, 4756, 4757)

This project is all about exploring the MoDA wallpaper collection through sound, and what people said about the wallpaper samples really had to lead the selection process. Listening to other people's perspectives on the wallpaper samples made me see them differently, and I hope that this will be true for people who hear the Sonic Wallpaper pieces at the end of this project.

RL: Once you had edited the responses and culled the papers the next stage was to match everyday sounds – have you started this process?
FF: At the moment I am making lists of sounds which need to be recorded to best animate the things said in interviews. I love lists of sounds; I think they are very evocative, and the more I reflect on a list of sounds, the clearer I become about where I need to go to actually record what I can hear in my head. One sound-list associated with a wallpaper design so far reads:
  • thorns - perhaps the sound of teasels? "sparkly" "spiny"
  • twigs snapping underfoot
  • the sound of wind in pine trees
  • the specific dead air of a closely-planted wood
  • peeling bark off a birch tree - just that very thin layer
  • air, the slight tinkle of a dog-collar jangling

...so you'll see it's quite specific, and I need to consider quite carefully what sorts of places might yield up some of these sounds, and to look at maps so that I don't end up going to a woodland area which is right beside a motorway, for instance, because in that case the sound of cars would dominate and not conjure up the imaginary world inspired by this particular wallpaper design at all! All the interviews refer to earlier periods in history in one way or another - because of the historic quality of MoDA's wallpaper collection. I think the process of recording sounds needs to be in accord with this. If someone talks about a wallpaper reminding them of an old, Victorian house, the sounds which follow should evoke that period, and the acoustics of a space which is not kitted out with 21st century technology (photocopiers, electric kettles, mobile phones etc.).

As you can see Felicity has been very busy. Catch the second half of the interview with Felicity next week. For more info about the project go to Felicity's Sonic Wallpapers blog.

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