"How can acoustic ethnography, soundscape studies, and audio storytelling be integrated to deliver an ethnographic analysis of an aspect of social and cultural life?"
Our two-month project documented the acoustic environment of a 100-year-old neighborhood suffering from noise pollution. In the form of a mobile website, it considers the life journey of Granny M, our research subject, and the noise problem she is currently facing.
Through making a sound-enriched project, we aim to address two kinds of relationship: that between Granny as an individual and social progression as an irresistible force; and the relationship between Granny and ourselves.
By chance, we visited a 100-year-old neighborhood near Baoshan Station(宝山地铁站) in Shanghai. Granny M. was one of the many residents who complained about the noise pollutions to us, but she was the only one that invited us to visit her home, which lied right next to the railway station. We were astonished by her living condition, and deeply moved by her personal stories.
Since the government had never made any constructive improvement for the residents there, we decided to appeal to the general public by recreating Granny M’s story, as well as the soundscape in that area.
Sound and Data Collection
The main data collected and used for our project are in-depth interviews, in which Granny M told us about her life and experiences, and the sound we recorded in the neighborhood. Admittedly, the quality of the interviews turned out to be unsatisfying. When we chatted casually, Granny M. vividly described to us many intriguing moments in her early life, but we could not include them into our project because they were captured as part of the ambient sound we recorded.
Therefore, we set up an interview with Granny M. at school and recorded it with Blue Yeti. Unfortunately, Granny M. seemed to feel nervous and many interesting materials were lost when she talked. Technology-wise, the echo in the room also reduced the sound quality. When we went back with a shotgun mic to interview Granny M. for a second time (third time to Granny M.), it was already too much repetition for her, and thus she either sounded unnatural or largely reduced the content. We would definitely redo the interviews if given a second chance, perhaps experimenting with a lavalier mic in an environment where Granny M. is more comfortable.
However, as Roland Barthes points out, in interviews we lose part of the social life (, which we intend to investigate) as interviewees are situated in an isolated, unfamiliar context (qdt. in Bull and Back 5). In our case, the idea of an interview itself, let along any technology we might use, could easily intervene in Granny M.’s normal pace of living and thinking. We are aware that no technology could solve our problems completely, but we are surely open to more experiments in the future to find a better, if never the best, way of conducting interviews.
Ambient sound of the neighborhood is another kind of data we collected. Initially, our problem was that Granny M. would always stay by our side and kept talking. Here we had an experience similar to that of an ethnographer who conducts participant observation. It was only during the last several rounds of recording, when Granny M. became used to our presence and felt comfortable enough to leave us alone, did we obtain sound sources that were relatively ideal.
The relationship between Granny and the society, as well as the ambient sound that social progression has brought to her, manifests an unequal power hierarchy. In order to understand the social background of Granny M’s life and the noise problem she has, our research was in general on contemporary Chinese history and in particular on the history of places and constructions that Granny mentioned.
For example, we learnt about the Third Front Construction Movement (Sanxian Jianshe 三线建设) in early 1960s as a result of worsened Sino-Soviet relations, which ignited Granny’s desire to join the army and later sent her to a munitions factory in the city of Ji’an. Battling groups (Zhandou xiaozu 战斗小组) were formed during the he Cultural Revolution (1966-76), where Granny M. and Grandpa met.
We also reviewed the more recent history of China’s economic reform and rapid urbanization, as a result of which, Granny M.’s factory was shut down in the 1990s and Metro Line 3 & 4 started running above her shelter in the 2000s. As we learnt more about Granny M.’s life, an irony stood out that Granny M. was and still is such a patriotic person. Always positively and enthusiastically responding to social changes, she devoted her best years to developing the country, yet the train (Shanghai Metro), as an achievement of socio-economic development, ended up being her nightmare.
Since the motif of the train also featured Granny M.’s early years, such as when she took the train to Ji’an, we decided to use the train as a thread to connect the two sides of her life and thus to amply the irony. At the same time, the disturbing sound of the train helps to foreground the power hierarchy, where Granny M. is the vulnerable. If “songs are powerful forms of authority because you cannot argue with them,” even more so is the noise generated by the train (qdt. in Bull and Back).
Bringing all the data together to convey a consistent and compelling message has been an effort demanding but intriguing task for us. Regarding the visuals, we had many experiments (e.g. drawing, lining up old photos, or juxtaposing Granny M.’s pictures with propaganda posters, etc.), but finally decided that the combination of photographs with graphics was the most affective and effective way.
It helps create a space for all the information to gather in order to form a coherent narrative; it can influence the emotions of the audience as we manage the styles of the pictures; and it helps protect the confidentiality of our subject without compromising her particularity.
We conducted 5 separate user testings, and recorded all of them to analyze the attention span of the audience, as well as hearing their feedback on the acoustic and visual experience.
There were several major feedbacks:
1) The portion of Granny M.’s personal story was too long, that it distracted the audience attention from the noise pollution.
2) There was no cue for the end of one section.
3) There was no instruction for the audience to stop and listen to the soundscape, and there was no cue that this sound clip was over.
4) Some readers did not know they should slide the post when they first landed.
In terms of sound clips, principal changes we have made during the process of product include that
1) we took out our own narration so that the listening experience is more in alignment with the situation where we sit and listen to Granny telling her story
2) we shortened each clip considering the limited attention span of phone browsers. On the overall organization, we greatly condensed the first section in the final version. This was to balance Granny’s past experiences with her current problem; especially we want to avoid losing the audience’s attention before they even begin the second section.
We aim to create a project that is engaged with real social issues and that continues to evolve. We improved and finalized our project according to critiques before submitting it. Whereas, in a longer timespan, we foresee our next steps in at least three directions. First, with the same story and issue, we will appeal to a wider audience by translating and reproducing the entire project into English. Second, we will elaborate on the noise pollution, going beyond a qualitative characterization of the overall situation to quantitative analysis of the noise itself and its impact on Granny’s health. Third, we expect to expand the scope and hopefully the influence of our project by looking for more cases of noise pollution in present-day Shanghai. Aware of the “singularity of experience,” rather than generalization, we seek to build a profile of personal stories and distinctive experiences of noises.
We ended up not only creating an engaging project but also building a close relationship with Granny M. More precious to us than the product itself is the lesson we learned to always be patient with, be open to, and be serious about the process of discoveries.