Sunday, March 20, 2011

Week 10: Guest Lecture

Ximena Alarcon presenting at Visiones Sonoras organised by the CMMAS in Morelia – México. Image from the Sounding Underground blog.

This week Ximena Alarcon will be sharing her expertise with us. Ximena has prepared an interview for a community radio station in Devon (England) with Ariane Delaunois. It's a very detailed explanation of Ximena's Sounding Underground project.

Abstract of Sounding Underground:

Sounding Underground
year of production: 2009
used technology (software etc): Flash CS4 Actionscript 3.0
required plug-ins: Flash Player 9 or 10

Short work description

Sounding Underground is a virtual environment that invites users to interact with the soundscapes of three underground public transport systems: London, Paris and México City. Commuters’ memories and imaginations are represented in sounds and images that have been selected by volunteer commuters through an ethnographic process. These sounds are assembled in a sound score that acts as a multimedia user’s interface. The score contains sonic features unique to each metro distributed into: Entrance, Tickets, Corridors, Platform, and Carriage, correspond to the identifiable spaces recognised by any commuter, as well as some shared sonic spaces: Amplified Voice, Steps, Doors, Trains Arriving. Each metro has a unique space: Paris (air sounds), Mexico (street vendors), and London (announcements). This environment allows commuters, through interactive options, to experience a process of listening and remembering, provoking the expression of an aural urban collective memory, through the narrative of an underground journey.


Each category contains a sequence of sounds that can be triggered by the user. S/he is invited to interact at his/her own rhythm and to feel free to navigate the spaces. In the interaction, sounds overlap both within categories and spaces, creating a sonic texture derived from the humans and the machines’ counterpoint of daily life.

In the graphic interface, each category contains a sequence of images. Although they change each time the user triggers a sound, they may not be directly associated with the sounds. They are close-up pictures of the textures from the metro spaces. Most are abstract images allowing one to focus attention on the sounds, which resembles the activity of wandering (as if lost in thought). The graphic spaces overlap to create the feeling of being in a common space that changes because of the movement of sound in space and not because of its graphic structure: the latter is fixed, and serves both as a score and as a user interface.

Sounding Underground also invites you to write memories in text, produced by listening. These memories are being published randomly in the "Listening and Remembering" page.
Sounding Underground is the result of a practice-led research project studied commuter’s perceptions towards their daily life soundscape in underground public transport systems, taking the case studies of Paris and México City as counterparts of the London Underground. Sixteen commuters in Mexico, and sixteen in Paris, contributed to the creation of the environment, and their experiences were linked to the original project in London, in which twenty-four volunteers participated.

Linking urban soundscapes through commuters’ memories invites us to acknowledge symbolic, social, economic and political issues of mobility in contemporary cities, from their perspective. This approach strives to make commuters contributors in the creation of these environments, and furthermore performers (as non-musicians) and narrators of their commuting experience. 

Before listening to the interview, "play" with Sounding Underground.

NOTE: the audio files are available in BlackBoard, there's a link from the home page.

The questions that are covered:

1. From start to now (and future project). How did the art piece
(materially) took form?
2. How is the experience on the ethnographic aspect? on the
interdisciplinary aspect?
3. As a sound artist has the experience changed you and your sound
4. How was it as a sound specialist?
5. How was your artistic journey? Are you happy of the form it took
and what further development do you want the project to take?
6. How did you choose the cities you located the project?
7. How do the locations link to your life?
8. How was your own experience of sound when you travelled?
9. How rich was the inter relation between participants and you?
10. What interested you in collective memory, interactivity, in the
link between people and technology?
11. What have you understood of the reflective potential of
respondents? Are you satisfied of the experience representation of
your participants?
12. Are you reworking on your installations?
13. What will be your next direction/step after this research?

Please post any questions to Ximena here as she'll be checking back and will add her responses in the comments.


  1. This was an interesting experience. I have travelled on the underground and the sounds were familiar or at a minimum evoked memories or recollections of what it was like to navigate through the underground system.
    I kept expecting to hear a narrative to start - to hear a voice that was telling a story of the what was happening to them or what they were thinking when the individual was travelling the underground space. As I was listening to the different stations I felt that there was 'millions' of untold individual stories and memories that I wanted to hear. Rather than the collective memory- I was fascinated with the potential of the individual stories that I wanted to hear. Who were they, where were they going, home, work, vacation, grief, solitude - I would agree that the acoustic environment is very powerful.

  2. This is a very exciting project. I came across this project last year and have added my own few comments on travelling underground in London. The sounds and expressions bring back nostalgia of sorts. I observe people while I take these trains. The revisit of underground through this project brought back some memories: a plain cloth police officer at the exit in one of the stations in London; a group of pickpocketers in Rome; the musicians on the platforms of New York.

    The use of mixed media such as sound and photos "reconnect" you with your own experience. The new forms of media allow us to deepen our experience by incorporating the sensual elements.

    I thought about the 4D movie experience at Vancouver museum. The emerging world of interaction and experience is fascinating.

  3. Many thanks Paul, and thanks for adding your comments on the site! Thanks! I am very pleased with the connections that you had with the environment. It’s wonderful that you are connecting with London, Rome and New York, even if these two last cities were not part of the project, but it suggests to me that the collective memory of the world underground commuting experience is represented by the three sonic and culturally contrasting metros (London, Mexico and Paris). Yes, Paul, this is the magic quality of these media, as you beautifully said “to deepen our experience by incorporating sensual elements”. I’d love to know more about the 4D movie experience and at some point I hope I can experience that. Thanks again for connecting with the work.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the world of Sounding Underground. My only signficant experience with underground transportation was in Vancouver 20 years ago, and this was very different than the soundscapes revealed in this project. Vancouver's Skytrain is primarily above-ground, with only a small portion of the system routed through tunnels. My memories of riding the train every day were of an altogether quieter experience than the examples presented here. I think this partly because the sound didn't echo above ground, but also because Canadians don't seem to talk very much on the train!

    One question for Ximena: One of the comments on the Listening and Remembering page indicated that the sounds left the listener with "an empty feeling" and that they felt "detached". The comment further noted that the sounds were "cold", that they sounded like "a horror movie" and that they seemed to be taken from another time. I wonder if you were surprised by these comments, as many of the other comments on the Listening and Remembering page indicate a certain human connection with fellow travelers.

  5. Hi Moose, thanks for connecting with Sounding Underground, and I am glad you have enjoyed the experience. I haven’t been in Vancouver, but for what you said, yes, being above-ground makes sounds smoother, and probably in Vancouver the transportation technology is more advanced in terms of light trains. I was reading a bit about the history of those lines and it’s relatively recent. Also, the social aspect influences a lot the environment. Some of the Mexican participants in my research who have been in Canada remember how quiet is the commuting in different cities there, which is a real contrast with the Mexican experience.
    About the comment, yes, at the beginning I was surprised. However with the time I understand these contrasting feelings in two ways: First, I believe that when you are listening to this environment you connect deeply with your soul, it’s an unconscious connection, and thus you connect with feelings that you are experiencing with your own metaphorical journey in life. If you are open to the listening experience you can be dragged by it, as probably it happened to you, and you discover many things about the social, symbolic, political, cultural aspects of the environment, but also about yourself. Second, the other issue is virtual technology: understanding of how to use it overcoming usual expectations (like avoiding interacting) and accessibility. The comment that you referred to, was written in the early stages of the work, when only the London metro existed (virtually). I used Director/Shockwave as a technology and sometimes the overlapping between the sounds wasn’t as smooth as it is now. That could explain disconnection. However feelings are very subjective, and what I hope is that regardless what shape these feelings take for individuals, this artwork helps us as a sonic catalyst of our social and individual urban daily life, in a particular time in our life. Each time you interact with it, it could bring many different feelings and experiences. Many thanks Moose again for your question and thoughts!

  6. Hi Carolyn, (each time I post this comment something happens, I'll try again :-/ sorry for the delay, it was my first response!)
    Many thanks for traveling in this virtual underground. Yes, you’re right, there are million of untold stories in the way that we usually understand narrative. But there are million of subtle micro-narratives that are told in words and sounds, and that intend to connect with the feelings of the virtual traveler, and probably to trigger some feeling or story that the virtual traveler wants to share. The excerpts that you heard were chosen by the participants in the research from their recorded journeys. In that manner, the author (myself) dissolves her role and the work is in a middle ground between documentary and performative. There is another interesting layer that is the one of biographies. I asked them “who are you when you are in the metro?” And they told their story reflecting identity with the space and created their avatar. I would like to continue this work with sonic biographies too. Here is the link to the ones who agreed having it public: (in Sounding Underground follow the link for Commuters - commuters' biographies). Sorry I had the link but it's probably the reason why e-blogger doesn't allow to post this message :-/ , it's my 7th time.
    Yes, I agree with you there are millions of stories to be told in many different ways. The underground space is overwhelming.

  7. It worked! Lesson: You cannot post links in comments in e-blogger. My apologies again Carolyn for my delay in replying to you. Thanks again for your comment!

  8. Ximena thanks so much for all your comments and for your lecture! We all enjoyed *reading* Sounding Underground.

  9. You are welcome Jess. Thanks for the invitation and thanks to all your students for insightful comments and for listening. All this is very nourishing for me.