To open the world for one’s selfor to open one’s self tothe world– both processes commence with listening. Our perception of the world “out there” begins with listening, long before we are born. The act of listening is the foundation for every type of communication and social interaction, both of which have to be learned. This is no different today than it was in Beethoven’s time – but the contemporary world is a much larger and more differentiated listening space.

How do cities on distant continents sound? How do individuals in other cultural spheres listen? Can we, with our European-trained perception, learn something from them and perhaps come to understand an increasingly globalised listening world better in its local expression as a consequence? What does Bonn really sound like nowadays?

In stereophony, as natural a reproduction of reality as possible is created through the spatial shifting of two sound sources. sonotopia – the sonic explorers aims to interpret this shift in perspective metaphorically in the scope of a multi-lateral residency project.

Project Description

With “bonn hoeren”, since 2010 the Beethovenstiftung für Kunst und Kultur der Bundesstadt Bonn (Beethoven Foundation for Art and Culture of the Federal City of Bonn) has been engaged in pioneering work in the production, presentation and mediation of sound art. In addition, since 2015 it has also been putting on an annual European competition for installation-based sound art with “bonn hoeren – sonotopia”. This prize for the promotion of young sound artists is the only one of its kind in Europe today. The yearly competition by invitation is endowed with prize money in the amount of 10,000 euros, made available for the realisation and presentation of a new sound installation in the city of Bonn. As a result, Bonn has been privileged to host and experience a series of excellent works of sound art over the past years, created by promising young European artists who have now already become firmly established in active professional art practices.

The international residency and exchange project “sonotopia – the sonic explorers” will turn former Bonn prize-winners into travelling researchers and sound art ambassadors, sending them out into the world on an artistic expedition. Three pairings of two sonotopia prize-winners each will travel to Valparaiso/Chile, Dakar/Senegal and Tehran/Iran respectively, where they will spend an entire month engaged in project and research residencies and work together locally with two young artists from the countries in question. They will be supported and guided in their efforts by local partner organisations.

Finally, on the occasion of the Beethoven jubilee year in 2020, all 12 participating sound artists will come together for a joint residency in Bonn, in order to share their experiences and interrogate and deepen their work within a new context. (postponed to 2021) Over the space of two weeks, they will occupy the district of Bonn Nord with interventions, actions and discursive formats, culminating in the presentation of the process and results of the project as a whole in the scope of a month-long exhibition hosted by Künstlerforum Bonn.

Experiences of Reality from the Perspective of Listening in Urban Spaces

A large number of studies have been conducted that treat the radical transformation of cities under the influence of globalisation (see Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett, David Harvey, among many others), yet acoustic aspects continue to be neglected in the realms of fine art, design, architecture and city planning. Back in 2010, sound artists and thinkers Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger expressed this state of affairs thusly: “Since the Renaissance, we have possessed a generally accepted visual perspective, along with a language that is capable of describing images accurately, yet in the acoustic world we still continue to lack such a perspective, indeed we lack even the words to describe the complex sound waves found in an urban environment, not to mention what these sounds do to us and what sorts of feelings they trigger. However, the fact that the science of acoustics represents an eminently important tool for the development of innovative urban practices is not least of which demonstrated by the problems of noise control in cities and the conception of sonic environments in public space. For our notion of public space is being increasingly challenged by global flows of capital as well as the privatisation of urban development. In order to avoid reducing the examination of sound exclusively to noise control purposes, it is absolutely necessary to illuminate the nature of the acoustic consequences of this social, political and aesthetic transformation and their corresponding effects on our lives and work in urban environments.”

Artistic Research and Project Work

Unlike in Beethoven’s time, today in big cities listening is largely determined by overly complex perceptual situations, by increasing spatial concentration and decontextualisation. Alongside changes to the local social structures involved in coexistence, an alteration of the qualities of individual perception and the fundamental patterns of reception such perception is based upon can be observed as well. For this reason, the project at hand focuses on the artistic examination of locally divergent urban phenomena from a sound perspective, on their interpretation and transformation using the most diverse creative means. The adoption of another cultural vantage point serves at the same time as both foundation and catalysing element. In this regard, the project pulls in both directions: young “sonic explorers” from “central peripheral locations” when it comes to Western perception (Tehran, Dakar, Valparaiso) will be involved in the artistic project work from the very beginning, first of all in the work in local surroundings familiar to them alongside the European artists, who will in turn have a sort of “home field advantage” in the scope of the second part of the project in 2020 in Bonn. At all of the planned locations, the participants will research and react directly to local situations, or become involved in them personally through artistic interventions. The tangible results of these processes are to be sound installations, sound sculptures and sound performances in public space, in addition to reflections (in talks and workshops within the local contexts as well as in the form of an online blog) and documentations, which will be consolidated and made accessible in the scope of an exhibition planned for 2020. The experiences drawn from the joint artistic research and project work will be incorporated directly and indirectly in the project to take place in Bonn. The site for this examination is Bonn Nord, a part of the city officially categorised as a problem zone from a social point of view, and one which provides prototypical perspectives of tendencies in urban development found elsewhere around the globe. The district will be studied by two groups, each composed of 6 sound artists, and activated via sonic interventions – groups in which the “sonic explorers” will once again work together, only this time under the direction of two respected former Bonn city sound artists (Sam Auinger and Maia Urstad). Künstlerforum Bonn will serve as a central exhibition space, extended by several temporary “satellites” in the surrounding area (fabrik45, Kunstraum Kreuzung Sankt Helena, various urban public spaces, among other places).

Beethoven travelled only on rare occasions over the course of his life. Although he nurtured many travel plans, he did not manage to realise them due to the sustained armed conflicts of the age and the difficulty involved in properly assessing existing dangers. By contrast, today most Europeans take the ability to travel for granted, stays abroad have become part of our normal learning experience – rarely is this phenomena seen as a privilege any more from a Western perspective. Nevertheless, many of the world’s regions elude general attention. “sonotopia – the sonic explorers” aims to encourage young artists to explore unusual places. Particularly for young artists it is important to perceive nuances and subtle shades in an immediate and unfiltered manner. It is especially the areas on the fringes of our usual ranges of motion – whether geographic or cultural – that are interesting in this connection. This project seeks to create spaces for the gathering of experience that would be inconceivable and unrealisable within an everyday artist’s existence governed by pragmatic considerations.

„sonotopia – the sonic explorers“ invests in the next generation of creative talents – for all of the participating artists it is at once both an expedition and an experiment. The “sonic explorers” will set off in search of the unmapped regions of sound art. They will embark on enterprises in territories that will perhaps confound their expectations. Unforeseen situations, challenges and moments will provoke reactions and create new realities. The sonic explorers will gather impressions, sounds and encounters and return with even more questions…


Project Phase I: Exploring Valparaiso, Tehran and Dakar (2019-2021)

 Between 2019 and 2021, 3 groups consisting of two former sonotopia prize-winners will each spend one month pursuing a project and research residency in one of the programme’s partner cities (Valparaiso/Chile, Dakar/Senegal, Tehran/Iran). In each location, two young local artists associated with the partner organisations will be chosen to work together with the European artists. An experienced local artist will guide the work of the group as a mentor artistically and shape the process in order to ensure focus and adequate professional supervision. The respective partner hosting organisation will support the group in establishing connections within the community and to successfully integrate their activities.

The individual project process will be examined and documented in a logbook (in the form of an online blog) by all involved artists. This logbook will be accessible to the general public on a project website, though it is also intended to promote an exchange of information between the residency locations themselves (i.e. as an internal platform) and can also be extended conceptually both locally and virtually (e.g. to include radio and streaming formats, media archives, etc.).

For the duration of the project residencies in 2019, a dialogue in diverse formats (presentations, public interventions, open studios, jour fixes etc.) will serve as a catalyst for collaboration in the respective local contexts and enable the incorporation of immediate feedback from the public into the process.

In addition, intensive co-ordination with the local activities of the respective partners leads us to expect a broad and interested audience and promises to contribute to a further dissemination of local experiences through the planned publically accessible forums, exhibitions and publications.

The choice of locations has been made in conscious contrast to Central-European and Western perspectives. Totally different urban situations and cultural conditions as well as very specific local issues will generate a series of important thematic fields. Both globally and locally relevant social and ecological lines of inquiry, such as city and population growth and concentration, climate change, segregation/gentrification and globalisation, will open interesting perspectives for potential working approaches.

The residencies will result in site-specific sound art works inTehran, Dakar and Valparaiso, which may be of an installation-like, interventionist, collaborative or processual nature. In close co-operation with the project partners, the works will be presented publically, considered critically and discussed within the local context. The documentation of the process, of the works themselves and the local engagement is as such itself an important element of the project.

Project Phase II: A Shift in Perspective – Beethoven’s 250th Birthday, Bonn 2020 (postponed to 2021)

“Ludwig van Beethoven is considered to be the most frequently played classical composer – and he was a radical artist who continually reinvented himself, one who expanded the boundaries of music and questioned society. All around the world, he has continued to inspire us into the present day.” So reads the official greeting from the Beethoven Jubilee Society. For almost a decade now, the bonn hoerenproject of the Beethovenstiftung für Kunst und Kultur der Bundesstadt Bonn (Beethoven Foundation for Art and Culture of the Federal City of Bonn) has embodied this sort of radiant energy in an impressive manner while continually supporting new artistic work in a constant examination of issues related to urban, social, societal and aesthetic development.

What role does Beethoven play for young artists from other cultural milieus in the era of globalisation and cultural standardisation? Our sonic explorers will pursue this question as well. The project intends very consciously not only “to go out into the world” to research, but to extend an invitation of its own as well. In an opposite motion to the exploration of the unknown, the phase one process is to be mirrored and brought back to Bonn. For this reason, on the occasion of Beethoven’s 250thbirthday year in 2020 the young artists from the partner cities will be invited to Bonn to do a project residency. Together with their European counterparts, they will work for two weeks in the city, continuing and intensifying the discourses begun at home. In so doing, they will study Bonn’s sound world together with their European colleagues, in the scope of diverse experiments, interventions and actions.

Of course, the urban sound world of Bonn was an entirely different one during Beethoven’s childhood and youth in the late 18th century. Not only was the pre-industrial city a different one from an acoustic perspective – the perception of sound at the time was also even more significantly influenced by a value system informed by Christian morality that elevated “silence” above all else, one in which the “loud” was associated with the “bad” (i.e. with the unbearable, polyphonic chaos of Babel, the noise of Hell, the profane…) and silence on the other hand with the “good” (contemplation, reverence, obediance…).

How does it sound in today’s Bonn, and how does one listen there for that matter? Do we hear or listen differently than was the case in Beethoven’s day? How has the perception of sound changed historically? What is the sound of a Western European city in the 21st century? What role does acoustic perception play in this age of multi-medial overstimulation? Can the city be understood and designed differently in its architectonic and social structure through listening intently? What insight can we gain from the study of historical sound realities and their artistic interpretation? Can we learn from the experiences of the listening worlds of other cultural regions?

The groups will have experienced mentors to guide them in these and other lines of inquiry. Their presence will ensure focus and adequate expert supervision. All four residency projects (Tehran, Valparaiso, Dakar, Bonn) will be treated in a final exhibition. In addition to displaying the resulting works, this exhibition will document the working process, the individual working methods of the artists and partner organisations and the particularities of the respective local contexts while reflecting on the results of the realised co-operations from both perspectives.

The Künstlerforum Bonn and various public spaces in Bonn Nord will serve as the primary exhibition venues in the city in July 2021.

© Carsten Seiffarth / Carsten Stabenow, 2019
on behalf of Beethovenstiftung für Kunst und Kultur der Bundesstadt Bonn