How Cities and Memory built a soundboard of global unrest
We talk to the creator of the collaborative sound project mapping protest sounds worldwide
In today’s climate, when a Bristolian millionaire and an ex-city ‘man of the people’ can hoodwink the UK into leaving the EU, where Donald Trump sits in the White House maniacally flexing his muscles at North Korea, and where young black men are murdered with sickening regularity, the sounds of protest ring louder than at any other time in recent memory. People march in opposition to the bloodshed in Syria. They campaign for a woman’s right to the control of her body in Ireland. They call for the end to an austerity that leaves the most vulnerable to die. They demand the release of prisoners of conscience in places like Turkey and Sri Lanka.
All the same, much of this can get lost in the relentless pace of today’s news cycle, and with new issues cropping up so frequently, voices are forgotten or drowned out. Cities and Memory’s Protest and Politics project aims to address this.
Cities and Memories is a global collaborative project to record the sounds of the world’s cities and invite reaction and interpretation to them. The global sound map is dotted with field recordings of sacred spaces, underground stations and the general thrum of cities worldwide, accompanied by an artist’s re-imagining of that recording that imbues them with a more personal meaning or memory. Some are remixed by the field recordists themselves, some by other sound artists that may come from the other side of the world.
For Protest and Politics, the creator of Cities and Memory, Stuart Fowkes, collected recordings and remixes of the sounds of political protest, some of his own making, to map the dissent being expressed across the globe. We caught up with him to tell us about the project’s creation and aims.
Hi Stuart, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell me a bit about the origins of this particular project?
Looking around the world over the last couple of years there seems to be an increasing amount of protest going on that are achieving global prominence. Going back to the financial crash, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter and then obviously the protests surrounding Brexit here in the UK and Trump in the US. It feels like the world is filled with dissent and protest. I think there’s something very interesting about that.
I was at a protest back in March of this year, the Unite for Europe march. Being in that mass of people united around the same cause made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The sound, thinking: ‘there’s something in this.’
So it was the sound at that protest that was the main catalyst?
I think so. The sound of a protest, when you’re in its midst is very powerful. You don’t get it from watching the news. A lot of the time we experience a protest second or third hand. You’re so removed from it, it just looks like a vast body of people; you might as well be looking at a festival. But when you’re in the mix it’s extremely powerful and sound is a huge part of that.
Going through these recordings, there’s a lot of repetition, not just in one recording but across very many. Was this a deliberate attempt to drive these messages home?
Yeah, I find the similarities fascinating. If you look at the Trump protests for example, the 12 or 13 across the project, you will hear exactly the chants. ‘No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA’ and ‘Trump grabs pussy, we grab back’. Obviously through social media and TV these chants are spread across the nation, so you get a real sense that 50% of the entire USA is united around this one cause. On the other side, every single protest has its own defining emotion and characteristic. For example, the Unite for EU protest that I was at was kind of melancholic, because while ostensibly people were there to celebrate being part of the EU, there was this real sadness that we were on our way out.
Others still are just pure anger. Some of the anti-ISIS protests are borne out of people needing to get together and make themselves heard, even though the protests themselves are unlikely to actually achieve anything.
It’s interesting you mention this melancholic side to the EU protest. Your track Brexit Means Brexit is a particularly forlorn remix. Were you trying to draw out as much of that feeling?
Yeah. What’s interesting about the remixes is that they allow the person remixing them to bring their own memories, their own experience to bear on that recording. No two artists will approach the same field recording in the same way. When I’ve sent out field recordings that I’ve made and given them to other artists, I’m always amazed at what they take from it. For that one in particular it was a good excuse for me to exorcise some of the things I’ve been feeling about the EU referendum and get them out through sound.
Were you also trying to give these protest an extra permanence? It’s so easy for these things to disappear.
Yeah. Doing a field recording of a cityscape or birdsong is very beautiful and has its place, and we’ve done quite a bit of it for the project. But recording a protest is freezing a historical moment in time.
One of the other remixes that I did was around the Trump’s ‘grab them by the pussy’ comments. I feel that particular soundbite has become, not exactly trite but worn, and the power has really faded. People almost forget that that’s what the sitting president of the USA actually said, so I wanted to lay over it a Steve Reich-style looping of the chant in defiance of that, and then contrast it with Trump actually saying the line over and over again. That is a sort of microcosm of the project if you like. Trying to underline something so that you can’t forget what some of the protests have been about.
Given there were so many contributors to this, did you go looking for any in particular?
It’s a general callout. One of the things I love about cities and memories is that in every aspect it’s a project that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. I think that’s fascinating what the internet has enabled in terms of digital art and collaborative projects and the like. I’ve already got a network from previous projects of a few hundred people so a lot of it came from there. But then the word spread and everyone from academics, musicians and ordinary people who recorded a protest on their iPhone got in touch. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.
I would have loved to have more from less represented parts of the world: there was nothing from Africa for example. Part of that is self-selecting because there are fewer people who do field recording in Africa, and also the networks through which this spread just didn’t get there. So I do have regrets that it’s not truly global. But it was really exciting that I would be sitting at home and I would get an email every couple of days from South Korea, Buenos Aires, New Delhi or Budapest.
There are much fewer pro-trump or anti EU recordings. Would you have preferred there to be more that you don’t agree with?
For me the project is completely open in every way. It’s naturally quite self-selective because, in my experience, the majority of people who are interested in field recording tend to be quite left-leaning. Naturally the protests I was sent reflected that. But I would have loved to have had more from the other side too. There’s a few that are really unpleasant in there. The National Front protest in London, the anti-Muslim protest in New York and counter-protest. This is the complete opposite of what I believe in but you shouldn’t only read things you agree with. It’s important to be exposed to stuff that you can react against that you find shocking.
Lastly, how does this compare with previous projects Cities and Memory has undertaken?
It’s been more of an emotional one. The last one was sacred spaces, and while some of them were very beautiful and moving, this has got a real fire to it. You’re hearing people’s lives and fundamental beliefs being expressed. I think if you look on every protest as an expression of freedom or an expression of a desire for freedom, then actually this project takes on a new context. It’s like a sonic expression of freedom. It’s about people saying, “I have the right to freedom of speech and I’m going to express that.” I want to celebrate that fact.
For the full Protest and Politics project and a complete list of contributors, head over to Cities and Memory