Echoes of the Past – Poetic expression as research method

Morten Breinbjerg
An echo machine is proposed to serve as an interface to the past by capturing resonating echoes.

The pre-radar listening device for detecting approaching airplanes that can be seen in the picture inspires this machine. Operating the machine will enable the user to listen to the soundscape of the city and to capture auditory fragments relating to everyday life. The user will, for instance, hear stories told by local legendary figures, hear legal judgements being delivered at court, overhear gossip being told at the city well, and more. The machine will be able to be rotated 180 degrees in order to control the direction of listening and also there will be a zoom function allowing the user to “move” into the soundscape. Technically the machine is connected to a game engine in which the soundscape has been organised.

The idea of building a machine that brings us back to the past by pretending to capture resonating echoes is a poetic expression that seems incompatible with traditional research methods. However, as Michel Serres writes in his book Genesis, in which he reflects upon the concept and the phenomenology of sound, an echo is the first instigation of order, since the echo is a repetition that through redundancy leads to a rhythm (108). The idea of resonating echoes immediately makes one start reflecting on the forgotten soundscape: What did it sound like? What were the dominating sounds in the past urban context, and how different was it in comparison to today’s soundscape? In short, the idea of resonating echoes urges us to start figuring out the auditory organization of the past. Although the effort seems incompatible with a truthful presentation due to the fact that there are no sounds to listen to, as the historical sounds have long been silenced, the silence of the past is what makes you listen in the first place, since silence is exactly the concentrated moment of listening.

The ‘poetic expression’ or the ‘artistic experiment’ is a method of understanding that transgresses apparently incompatible categories, we believe, and which in research may help to reflect the subject matter at hand. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes in Poetics of Space, with a reference to Baudelaire who called certain Goya lithographs “vast pictures in miniature”: ” The poet has shown us that large is not incompatible with small” (171). As a miniature the expression of the poet leads us from perception (the empirical: the image, the poem, the sound/music) into a larger world of imagination: a world beyond incompatibilities in which the unspeakable is spoken, silence is heard, and the invisible visualized. To put it differently, the poetic expression (whether in the form of an interface, an art installation or a poem) is a method for dissolving and reflecting incompatibilities between sound and silence, past and present, truth and fiction.

The echo machine will be part of a festival on the 18th century in the city of Aarhus, Denmark, March 2012.

Works cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. Print.

Serres, Michael. Genese. Copenhagen: Gyldendal. 1998. Print.


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