Aug 27 2013

Book Blog: Pocket 2: “say, Listen”

by Ming Lin

Founded in 2008, the Hong Kong-based initiative Soundpocket examines the interstices of art, culture and life through the fluid movements of sound. Its projects include the Around Sound art festival and retreat—the third iteration held earlier this year—which invites participants to listen through a series of site-specific installations, performances and dialogues. Pocket is the project’s written corollary begun in 2010—and one of its few physical traces—where artists and collaborators reflect upon their encounters during various sonic happenings. The second edition of the journal—a small, tasteful volume of blue-gray—takes a revelatory tone, entreating the reader to step back in silence and allow sounds to emerge.

As the intentionally lower-cased “s” in the title “say, Listen” alludes, the texts and images in Pocket 2 are less about making sound than tuning in to it. And, more often than not, being able to hear something requires experiencing a profound silence first. For several of the authors—most of whom are Hong Kong-based—hearing the hums and rhythms of the city follows either travel or retreat. In Doris Lau Parry’s account of her stay at a meditation center in Illinois, for example, it is in the regulated silence of the dormitory that the distinct chattering of Cantonese commercial radio is conjured. Similarly, Edwin Lo recalls the contrast of Hong Kong’s bustling train stations to the serene silence of those in Braunschweig, Germany.

In other cases, the ability to hear or the quality of hearing is revealed as political and networked. Our access to sound is governed by technology and those in control of it, as well as a hierarchy of senses that determines how we perceive our surroundings. Wong Chun Kok, a cultural critic and activist, traces the evolution of high-fidelity recording to Nazi Germany where, following the Allies’ victory in World War II, an American engineer purportedly found Germany’s record and playback technology so superior that he had it imported to the United States. From this moment, Wong proves, scientists and music recorder merchants have conspired, dictating for all what “good listening” entails.  Refuting this domination of the sense, he offers the story of the Evelyn Glennie, the “world’s first fulltime percussionist,” who in her deafness has developed the ability to listen with her feet through vibrations in the floor. “One does not only use the ears to listen,” is Wong’s ultimate dictum.

Photographs interpolated within the text also promote the mutual constituency of sound and silence. There is a pronounced absence in these snapshots, which for the most part contain banal and unassuming subject matter. A dearth of figures, leave the mind grasping—absence is in this case tantamount to silence. The images demand imagined sound in order to be completed. Absence allows one to discover what is already there.

In as much as it is devoted to sound, Soundpocket is also concerned with preserving and articulating the multifaceted nature of Hong Kong’s history and culture. An essential component of the quotidian, sounds are among the most difficult phenomena to preserve. The introductory paragraphs to Pocket 2 profess: “words can never replace sounds. But they may be able to generate conditions for certain ways of listening.” Sound is a way to speak about the past—its ambiguity and elusive nature leaving just the right amount of room for interpretation.  While the contents of Pocket 2 denote ways of listening, they also teach the art of silence. It is only in memory that things can truly exist as they used to be.

Pocket 2: “say, Listen” edited by Yeung Yang. Published by Soundpocket, 2013.