Selected work for the Spatial Sound Institute’s Composing Sonic Futures project.
Original Accompanying Essay:
Listening to Lost Utopias explores time as non-linear and amorphous, gesturing towards utopia both as a future always in waiting and as a space elsewhere, impossible to find, even a “no-place”. It probes the contradictions and troubling aspects of utopia (such as the question of whose vision of utopia propagates and at what cost), while simultaneously acknowledging its attractive power.
A remote point in the Kufra District of the Libyan Desert acts as the inspiration and the nexus for these explorations. At this point, on the sound-sharing platform Freesound.org, I have found 128 audio files geotagged to the exact same coordinates in the global sound map browser. Oddly, the sounds have no audible connection to the place where they have been tagged. They range from city street field recordings to radio broadcasts to drum hits to film sound effects, and much more. From contacting the contributors, I have learned that the audio files come from an array of places all over the world – Thunder Bay, Ciudad del Este, Pretoria, New York City, Zagreb, etc. But how the files ended up geotagged in the middle of the desert remains obscure.
In order to probe this point in the desert, I have researched historical cartographic practices and desert expeditions from the early part of the 20th century, when the Libyan desert still appeared as a mostly blank space on European maps. Drawn by notions of lost oases, European explorers fantasized about what might be waiting for them in the future in the vast tracts of sand, and through their voyages they increasingly mapped the territory. In doing so, a colonial mindset instrumentalized local knowledges, forcing space and time into the framework of Western cartography. The alleged blankness of unmapped areas acted both as a canvas for fantastic imaginings and as a justification for territorial claims. Given such a history, how might the remote point on the Freesound sound map, where audio files from all over the world are piled on top of each other, both reference and complicate notions of utopia?
As a response, in an era of hyper-mediated space and place, I offer a sonic fiction of the famous lost oasis of Zerzura. This mythic place was the impetus for many desert explorations, and for the founding of the “Zerzura Club” in 1930, though its location has yet to be uncovered. As a provocation, I suggest that the point on the Freesound.org global sound map might indicate Zerzura, and that the sounds tagged there might constitute its soundscape. Rather than a literal imagining of this mythic place, however, Listening to Lost Utopias creates a spatial and temporal warping.
The piece is composed by using every one of the 128 audio files tagged at the remote point in the desert and transforming them using sampling instruments I created in the SuperCollider application. Through granular synthesis and playback speed modulations, I play through all 128 files in a matter of seconds while at the same time I draw out fraction-of-a-second samples from individual files to a potentially infinite length. The ebb and flow of sounds is partly determined by the metadata (such as the time and date when the files were originally uploaded) attached to them on the Freesound platform. Working with these audio files from places all over the world and carrying out extreme temporal transformations, I create a sonic utopia in the literal sense – a “no-place”, an impossible place – but one that is based on the precisely indicated geolocation data for the files.
This “sonic utopia” brings modern-day GPS technology and its purported precision into dialogue with the unknown location of Zerzura and historical attempts to find it. It questions how utopia provokes the search for the unattainable – or the non-existent – whether that is a dreamed of elsewhere or a future (or past) time. It asks how this kind of searching might continue to operate and with what effects. If European explorers in the past were imagining something of a utopian fantasy in their projected discovery of Zerzura, then how does such a past continue to exist in our imagined futures? How do we hear it echoing forward? And what problems might it raise? I’m thinking particularly of the frameworks, presumptions, idealizations, and constrained perspectives that we might inherit and carry with us – how do they limit our understandings of utopia and the future?
In working with this accidental collection of sounds, the idea of utopia, and the history of exploration and cartographic practice in the Libyan Desert, I find myself asking these questions and others. I ask about my own position in relation to these sounds and this region of the world, as someone whose only knowledge of the area comes from English and French language texts, maps, and media – someone whose perspective is already shaped by the history of colonialism that I seek to critique.
I ask how this point in the desert and the geolocated audio files might be used to consider issues of spatial and temporal justice. Whose imaginings of the future propagate? And in what places? What other imaginings might they silence? Is the future a blank space, ripe for fantasy, like the desert was for European explorers? Or is there something already there? Is it already full of sounds? If it is a blank space, who claims it is so? If it is full of sounds, what are those sounds? Do they exist on their own terms, or are they projections? If they are projections, whose projections are they? Mine? Yours? Theirs? Ours?
Listening to Lost Utopias is best understood as an attempt to compose a set of unanswered questions about how a sonic future is imaginable and what tensions this imagination might involve. I refer to it as the soundscape of Zerzura to be provocative. But it is more accurately a soundscape of the questions and problems that the hunt for Zerzura represents.
*Note: Listening to Lost Utopias is a new two-channel work based on the audio files and research involved in my 8 channel sound installation Sounding Desert Utopias.
Many thanks to the Freesound.org audio file contributors, and to the Spatial Sound Institute.