‘Miss are you an architect? What’s sound got to do with architecture?’: National Media Museum Listening Devices Workshops

I have recently been working with the architect Lara Karady, designing and building wearable listening devices that explore our connection to listening, and the way in which we experience our spatial environment through sound. In this blog post I talk about the workshops that we gave to key stage two and three children, and adults at the National Media Museum in Bradford. For more context on this post, read my last one about listening devices here.

The workshops were part of the National Media Museum’s Make Some Noise festival, a week long exploration of sound, with a multitude of stalls which engaged visitors with sound in diverse ways. Our workshops were spread over three sessions on three days. The first two of these were with school children and the last was with adults. The key stage two and three workshop sessions were particularly challenging as we saw fifteen children every ten minutes over a period of roughly four hours each time. The adults ‘Lates’ event was much more relaxed, there was no defined structure and people could come and go as they pleased.

There were multiple challenges associated with designing and executing the workshops. First was the question of how much to constrain and how much to structure: How the listening devices were activated was as important as the devices themselves, but the devices were created to allow people to explore their approaches to listening and sound, so we couldn’t be too prescriptive with the way in which we structured their engagement. On the other hand, there was the risk that if there was no structure at all then people wouldn’t understand the goals of the workshops and therefore the engagement would be null. We wanted to create an ideal situation where people were free to explore the devices, but could be guided in their possibilities.

For the key stage two and three children we created a two-minute presentation in which we explained the inspiration behind the devices and how the devices were created to explore our listening. We then guided their attention to a projection of open questions that we had prepared to get them thinking about the devices (see below). When the workshops were in play, Lara and I made sure that the devices were rotating between the children and asked questions to challenge the way they were thinking about what they were experiencing. This approach kept the children interested but also allowed them freedom in the way in which they engaged with the devices.

Questions for website

The second challenge was designing workshops for two demographics who we predicted would engage differently with the listening devices. As the adults event was more of a stall and less of a workshop, we simply decided to leave a slide with pictures of the military listening devices, along with the open questions that we had prepared to allow people to make their own connections. I would answer any questions that they might have and guide and challenge interaction with the devices as necessary. This guidance ended up being important to both children and adults. A series of simple games which were created intuitively from the questions helped both children and adults to interact with the devices.

The third challenge was how best to document reactions to, and interactions with, the devices. We decided to capture in the moment reactions and that the best way to do this would be using a recording device to ask questions and capture responses. We also documented the day with pictures. Before I reflect on the workshops, I’ll share some quotes that I transcribed from the recordings of the schools workshops:

‘make it louder […] it goes low and high’ / ‘it goes different’ / ‘I’ve got big ears’ / ‘it goes low and high’ / ‘mr big ears!’ / ‘they make the nose louder’ / ‘your voice changes’ / ‘I can hear you more better, so it’s clearer’ / ‘can hear you behind me because it’s not facing’ / ‘Aisha, let me get a picture of you with giant ears’ / ‘these are just focusing normal sound ’ / ‘I could hear you a long way away but when you come forward it gets louder and then lower and then louder’ / ‘no, just normal’ / ‘make it louder’ / ‘it expands how far you can hear’ / ‘it feels like a really big vibration’ / ‘sounds like a cave again’ / ‘it’s getting low’ / ‘can here it in one ear’ / ‘it [the sound goes and comes]’ / ‘sounds like you’re talking underwater.’ / ‘it sounds quiet over here but that stuff over here sounds louder’ / *spins around* ‘yeah it all changes’ / ‘they suck up the sound like a hoover’ / ‘it [the sound] bounces everywhere’  / ‘it’s like the ocean’ / ‘it’s like an alien’ / ‘it’s moving’ / ‘weird’ / ‘it’s really echoey’ / ‘a bit blocked out, the low and the high notes’ / ‘it sounds really airy like a cave’ / / ‘muffled’ / ‘it feels like I’m hearing aliens from space’ / ‘echoey’ / ‘it feels like I’m in space […] it’s all airy and stuff.’ / ‘what?’ / *taking them off in order to hear me* / ‘don’t know […] let sound’ / *trying to take them off* / ‘really quiet and you can’t hear anything’ / ‘it’s a little bit tighter’

Key Stage Two and Three

Key stage two and three children’s first experiences of the listening devices was seeing them laid out on the stall. The ability to examine them visually seemed important in prefacing the sonic experience of them. There seemed to be an intrigue as soon as the children saw them, and it seemed as if connections were being made between how they looked and how they might sound.

As soo as they tried them on, the children seemed to instantly engage with the way that the devices changed their perception of sound. There was a broad sense of amusement mixed with bewilderment, as if they found this sonic experience novel. This made me wonder if this kind of experience of sound or listening might have been new to them. The devices seemed to make some children slow down and think.

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Engagement with the devices varied with age: younger children were much more ready to unquestioningly immerse themselves in an exploration of the devices, whilst older (year nine and above) teenagers seemed more self aware and less willing to participate. It is my inkling that this was due to a sense of self awareness which manifested into an unwillingness to look silly or be experimental, therefore inhibiting their ability to engage. 

Children were largely left to their own experimentation in the workshops, and Lara and I moved around and guided their interactions. We did not explain the effects of each device before they were worn, in order to see how they affected engagement and action. The devices seemed to provoke an array of actions:

Those wearing the noise protectors experienced a lack of sound. This generally seemed to manifest in pause and contemplation, or a turning inwards. The other devices, which affected directional hearing, perception of pitch, and amplification of sound / perception of distance seemed to provoke different types of outward engagement. Those who wore the fixed directional devices (below, centre) seemed to scan for sound by turning the head and moving in a circular fashion. Lara and I encouraged this by highlighting certain sound sources and asking if they could pinpoint them.

The characteristic action associated with the selective directional listening devices (above, centre) was movement of the hands, in order to scan the sound field. We encouraged groups of two or three to use these in order that people could be disconnected from a choice about what they heard.

Those who wore with the resonators remained largely still, and found their engagement through speech. The way in which the resonators picked out tones of the voice encouraged propio-centric listening.

People seemed confused as to how to engage with the ‘big ears’. These were probably the pairs of listening devices which had the biggest discrepancy between how they looked and how they sounded- some people said they didn’t experience a difference when wearing them. It was only when we separated the children by large distances and asked them to communicate that they seemed to experience an effect.    

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There was a tendency for the children to overactive the devices with shouting or loud noise. They seemed to want shock or surprise and this reflected an emphasis on immediate experience rather than contemplative listening.

It was interesting when three or more people with different devices tried to have a group conversation (see two images below). The altered experience of sound caused communication to be altered and each person became aware of the limits and enhancements of they own hearing as well as those that they conversed with. When devices were swapped around, the effects of this process deepened.

As can be seen from the quotes presented, the children tended to voice their sonic experiences using descriptive language, like metaphor and simile. The quotes represent a transmission of abstract experiential information, from the internal to the external. They are descriptions of phenomena combined with subjectivity. The reactions show the range of ways in which somebody can react to the same stimulus. Embedded within each quote is a unique approach to listening, imbued with notions of circumstance, gender, age, understanding, imagination and personality. There is an interesting gap between the acoustic description of a phenomena (i.e. what was thought to have been happening to the sound), and poetic description (‘I’m in a cave/ ‘I’m underwater’). Many quotes are comparative, showing how past or imagined experiences are used to make sense of new experiences.  As well as verbal description, facial expression was a more tacit but equally enlightening way of sensing the childrens’ experiences. These ranged from confusion to indifference to wonderment. It was particularly interesting to see when expressions of realisation took place, for example when  the ‘big ears’ were used at distance. 

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Lates

A first impression on the night of the Lates (adults) event was that the adults’ and childrens’ forms of engagement were in many ways similar. Both demographics were keen to play and keen to find out what the devices did. There seemed to be a universal attraction to the visual element and its perceived comicalness. There seemed to be a similarity in the approach to description; the adults also used metaphor and simile, and frequently compared the experienced sensation to previous experience.

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Once each group of adults had tried one pair, they seemed keen to work systematically through the others and compare the different experiences. This approach was only rarely taken by the children. Some adults discussed the devices amongst themselves, working through their effects and how they thought they might be derived. I wondered if this type of scientific discussion might act to bring the focus away from the actual experience.

Despite more of a tendency to try and explain or pick at the phenomena and the way in which the devices were designed, the adults did engage with the devices in an active and interested way. It seemed that the games and guided interactions that Lara and I had devised went further in this context and enabled a deeper understanding of the ways in which people were engaging with their listening. The adult participants were also interested in the slide containing pictures of the military listening devices, and seemed to find it useful in contextualising the inspiration behind and intention of our devices.

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In creating these devices, we were interested in exploring our connection to listening and the way in which we experience our spatial environment through sound. The devices, augment, alter or diminish aspects of hearing in order to shed some perspective on how we originally. They present a modal approach to listening, where each device investigates a certain mode of listening. When, explored together, however, they convey a more holistic picture of the ways in which perceive sound: an experiential whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

The process of trying to find the right ways of engaging people with the headsets was interesting. In planning the workshops we moved from thinking about pre-planned interaction, to simplifying these plans, to deciding on free engagement, which we be guided. The ways in which we guided engagement with the devices were in the end developed intuitively. I found asking open questions a successful method of engaging people -especially adults- as it put the onus on the wearer. It put the ball in their court, which allows them to lead the interaction. This creates space for play. They lead themselves into this space on their own terms and it is in this space that the true experiential knowledge is gained.

In the context of these workshops, the listening devices brought out a natural inclination to play and find out through doing, therefore conveying practical, embodied knowledge. My feeling is that a real connection to listening only took place after contemplative focus on and experimentation around the phenomena that is experienced through wearing the device. By a connection to listening, I mean evidence that a subject is ‘straining towards a possible meaning’ as Jean-Luc Nancy would have it. Although it is impossible to say for sure, the games or structured interaction that we delivered seemed to aid in producing glimmers of this in the form of small moments of realisation and pausing for thought. It is these glimmers that I hope to be able to extend and deepen in further collaboration with Lara.

Looking back on the workshops, it seems that the memorable element wasn’t so much what the devices did, but the possibilities for engaging with the act of listening that they opened up. They created interactions between people that were facilitated by and only possible through listening.