Spelling out the invisible social wall

Owing to the curious lay-out of the town it is quite possible for someone to live for years in Manchester and to travel daily to and from his work without ever seeing a working-class quarter or coming into contact with an artisan. He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct … To such an extent has the convenience of the rich been considered in the planning of Manchester that these plutocrats can travel from their houses to their places of business in the centre of the town by the shortest routes, which run entirely through working-class districts, without even realizing how close they are to the misery and filth which lie on both sides of the road.

Friedrich Engels

Stockholm is an extremely beautiful city. The buildings are well kept, beautiful, old. Everything is clean and in good order. Streets are clean. And the water! There is water everywhere, and contrary to Copenhagen, the old city is including the sea to an extent to which you find yourself always looking across water, when looking at the beautiful architecture.

Stockholm – a beautiful city with an amazing mix of see and city, Capital of Scandinavia, or just another urban area in the Global North with strong but invisible social walls

In central Stockholm you get the idea that people in Sweden all just happen to own (at least) a yacht.

By the end of my 6 days stay in Stockholm, I wanted to find a flee market, so I checked The Visual Guide to Stockholm. Thumbing through this book, my impression of Stockholm as a place for only very beautiful houses where only people with (at least) a yacht live were completely reaffirmed. It mentioned a flee market in a place called Skärholmen. Supposedly the only place in Stockholm, where people go when they want to go to a flee market.

I asked a woman in the street if she knew about this flee market. She actually grew up in that place, she told me, but hadn’t been to the place in 10 years. I clumsily tried to get out of her what kind of neighbourhood it was, asking if it was a residential area, urban, or where only old people lived. She didn’t really get my point, but stated that it was a ‘mixed’ area. So I went there.

The trip in the subway launched a totally new experience with the city. First: the sounds. From a soundscape with birds, boats, ferrys, waves etc. I entered this gloomy ugly soundscape of the subterranean. There are excuses for the sounds that the trains, lifts, escalators etc make (although we know that where there is a prestigious market for things, – a lot of money is spend in designing the incidental sounds that our products make). These sounds can be ugly and you can accept it because you know that when the train stops it needs to use breaks. And the train is heavy, so of cause it makes a loud annoying sound. But the intentional sounds !!!!  – the sounds that are created in order to signal things to the users, like ‘the doors are closing’, and the way the pre-recorded voices announcing the name of the next station. These sounds do not necessarily need to be ugly, impersonal, depressing. Then there is the visual side.  There are many shades of yellow. But why use THIS yellow for the places you must put your hands in the train!

Arriving at the station where the flee market is, the sound of corvids met me, and the sight of people that probably do not own a yacht (or anything else).

Fleemarket in suburbian Stockholm

If this was a movie people would think, you don’t have to overdo things that much! The flee market was in the basement of a mart-like construction by the underground station. Large tubes running in the low ceiling and non-yacht-owners sitting each at his/her stand, immobile, looking out in the air. It took me some time and the purchase of an old hunting horn for my son, to get used to the quite heavy atmosphere of the place. There were light moments of people small talking and laughing, but it seemed that most of the people didn’t consider the flee market spirit interesting as such, and were more in it for the money so to say. The woman I had asked in central Stockholm about the flee market hadn’t been back to her place of birth in ten years, – a connexion?

My experiences in Stockholm, although in general on the positive side (which probably had to do with the purpose of my visit, – I was there for a workshop, and not for collecting bottles), inspired to reflection on the relation between how many yachts you own, and how much right you have for beautiful sound and sights.This is of course quite banal, but Stockholm does a pretty good job spelling it out. As if it was meant to be so, I stumbled upon this book at the Moderna Museet, from which I have the initial quotation:

this is my diy copy of the image of the front page

As it shows, this book is extremely inspiring. I have always avoided these kinds of texts because I thought that these questions were for architects and designers and not for sound artists. How wrong I was!! Questions about the urban space are extremely important for all of us!! Not least when it comes to sound. First of all there is the question about the soundscape itself. It certainly makes sense to question the way sound meets us in our public space. And then there is the general fact that public space is the only place of encounters of people of all kinds, and therefore a potential place of interchange between different ways of living and seeing life.

The space-time vector converges to zero in urban space; every point can become a focal point that attracts all, a priviliged place upon which everything converges.

Henri Lefebvre according to Christian Schmid

Quotations: Lefebvre on the living disorder of the street.

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