Since we are always already listening, it is difficult to achieve a sense of perspective on how we approach the act itself. If one’s perception of sound is altered or modulated through a listening device, then upon returning to the ‘norm’ of one’s naked year, one may be able to gain some understanding of the act of listening. A listening device de-familiarises the ear and brings sound to the experiential fore, thus shifting the focus away from a default visual priority and the habits of the naked ear.
The Listening Devices project is part of a wider PhD research project exploring listening in the context of the spatial environment through play. In collaboration with the architect Lara Karady, I created thirteen pairs of listening devices, each of which affords a unique acoustic framing of the world. The devices have toured the United Kingdom for events at the Tate Modern, The National Science and Media Museum, The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry and the 33rd edition of the University of the Arts London Points of Listening workshop series.
This project emerges directly out of my own PhD research into acoustic defence devices created by European military forces the early 20th century as their inspiration. To Raviv Ganchrow, the devices marked a, ‘solitary instance within much broader reconfigurations of listening occurring in the late 19th and early 20th century’, owing to the employment of an acoustic model of listening over an optic model of viewing; a rare precedence of the ear over the eye; a route to knowledge through sound rather than vision.
The listening devices, like the acoustic defence architectures, foster active listening, but aim to engage with the activity in an open-ended, exploratory way. The fact that our devices are wearable and not fixed —as the military listening devices were—means that their users’ movement and interaction defines the ways in which they are activated by, and respond to, sound.
These listening devices were designed for the Supersenses exhibiton at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. They are direct replicas of a 3D scan of the ear of a Plecotus Auritus bat, which has been resized and remodeled around the human head. The bat ear was scanned at from a collection at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. by Dr Rolf Mueller of Virginia Tech.
These devices are not designed to directly emulate the hearing of a bat, but rather foster a sense of ‘sonic empathy’ in humans which seeks to reach towards an understanding of how these animals might understand the world around them in sound. It is the intention that this process of reaching towards something which is not quite attainable encourages wearers to consider their own auditory sense, in other words, to listen to themselves listening. By connecting an acoustic shape to the human ear, which is in itself symbolic of listening, a consideration of being in the world though listening is set in motion.
With special thanks to Nick Fry at the University of Leeds School of Engineering for his design and technical expertise, without which this project would not have been possible.
 Raviv Ganchrow, ‘Perspectives on Sound-Space: The Story of Acoustic Defence’, Leonardo Music Journal, 19 (2009), 71-75, p.71.