The Design Observer Twenty

52-Blue | (in)Fringe

Introducing (in)Fringe

Later this week, Design Observer will launch a new series of audio explorations of the Bay Area by Nick Sowers and Bryan Finoki. Nick is appearing at What Design Sounds Like this Saturday to discuss his work as an architect who incorporates sound into environments with Geoff Manaugh.


So begins a series of forays into the edges of a city. Most discussions we hear about “edges,” or “edge space” take place almost exclusively within the contexts of architecture, urban theory, geography, and art. There hasn’t been much conversation devoted to examining edge space from a sonic perspective. It's understandable. Given the way sound is naturally able to pass through material and space—an inherently political function—discerning where one sound begins and another ends can be difficult, and lead to an obscured lens—rather than a nuanced scope—for tracing audible edges sensorially. We're intrigued by what constitutes a sonic fringe physically, culturally, and experientially. Questions we’re asking include: Can the shifts in power of a place be heard, and how (if at all) should we listen to them? How can a place be defined by an edge, or a lack thereof? What do these fringes suggest about the cultural dynamics of a given place?

One aspect of sound that's so fascinating is its capacity to transgress, move through, or skip over and around edges. This doesn't mean that sound doesn’t compose—or isn’t composed by—margins. It is sound's trajectory and velocity through the built environment that can help manifest other vectors we normally might not be able to see. We like to listen for sounds that make visible what is not already evident spatially and socially. On the other hand, we recognize that the soundtrack of a place can amplify the changes that are already obvious, even to the point of obscuring those same differences. 

Put another way: edges can be as much composed by sound as erased by it.

In our forthcoming series, we will chronicle the sonic fringes of San Francisco’s many peripheral environments. While edge spaces take many forms architecturally, they also embody their own sonic signatures rooted in the full spectrum of landscape's urban, socio-economic, cultural, and (particularly interesting to us) post-military fabric. Many of these edge sites are in flux, constantly pushed and pulled by the forces of development/construction, and the lack thereof—entropy. 

No city sound is all one thing or another, nor is the city a singular sound object. A city is a mixing chamber of sounds, and so it is not possible to simply record one kind of sound – say, the diesel engine of a delivery truck – then record the environment in which this sound occurs. Rather, we understand these sounds as a sum of many parts. To try and make sense of what composes these peripheral spaces, we start with a very basic framework—a “sonic fringe” can take three possible configurations: 1) a relationship between two adjacent (potentially conflicted) sound sources, 2) the perimeters where sounds dissipate, and 3) the gradient(s) of sounds filling shared spaces. 

In addition to the geographical and spatial dimensions of sound, there is the dimension of time. Sound remains impermanent. For instance, we could contrast the audible footprints embodied in the decibel volumes of a temporary protest with the more permanent silence of a newly built condo—both speak to highly charged acoustic social spaces. Our hope is to shed light on the sounds and sonic vacancies of power, and the sounds that fill the vacuums of power someplace in between. Recording itself is, in essence, the freezing of time. 

Yet, while recording sound is a powerful way to absorb a broad spectrum of the city and to appreciate what one sound means in relation to another, we also remain cognizant of the limitations that mere listening through recording and playback provide. The framing through this mediated process challenges the more immediate selective focus of daily listening that we unconsciously deploy to negotiate priorities of signal and noise, and the cultural exchanges of sonic power that collectively result from them. Our approach is to experiment with ways of listening both through and beyond reliance on the snapshot image of a sound recorder, and hearing the more phenomenal ways sonic power is distributed across our environment.

We hope you will rejoin us on Thursday for the first of many walks through the fringes of the cultural spaces, economic divides, liminal architectural gaps, and borderzones of the Bay Area. 

Jobs | June 02