what to do with a decommissioned military site set nearly in the center of a major city? sell it off because the land is so valuable, or turn it into a public resource? in what ways might sound studies enter into such a conversation?

recently, a group of architects and culture workers of all sorts have been meeting and working at what was the air force central command in taipei on a project that calls itself “negative space collective village.” i’m not so sure what exactly the name of this group means except that it hopes to think about the roles that architectural negative space–that is open space in between or encompassed by buildings–might play in civic culture. now the work has produced some experimental architectural space but has also created a forum for interdisciplinary work on place, including people who work in sound studies

on 7 july, the collective held one of its international forums on “habitat matters.” among the various discussions of what habitat might mean in taipei and how to create better habitat through landscape design, education, and insurgent public spaces, taiwan-based poet tsai wan-shuen and sound artist yannick dauby invited the audience to wander through their recent sound installation work, which focuses on taipei’s beitou district.

the beitou district is best known for its hot springs and role in taiwanese language films of the 1950s and 1960s. it’s a place of complex geology and history, including that of austronesian peoples who have left toponyms and other clues to their continued presence in the landscape

tsai and dauby’s work alternates between a wide range of sounds–including those of modern transportation infrastructure, such as the MTR; the sound of water flowing through the landscape; fauna, such as dauby’s beloved tree frogs–and tsai’s narration. the piece also includes large sections of recorded interviews

most wonderful in the piece was the dialogue between tsai’s narration and dauby’s recordings of geologic forces in action. the piece lets us listen closely to hotsprings and thus to the meeting point between water and tectonic forces. it’s a sonic feeling for taipei to which we rarely attend, even as we take the MTR up to Shihpai or New Beitou for a soak

the narration serves to bring the listener more closely into touch with the sound sources, which sometimes need a bit of interpretation, and generally gives the work a narrative structure. in contrast with much of dauby’s other work, the piece is much less a piece of experimental music than it is of ethnographic documentation and reflection. hearing it inside of one of the former air force command’s dormitory buildings, the piece both brings one outside of the TAF space and causes reflection upon it: cleverly, one of the interview sections concerns life in hastily partitioned warehouses that became housing in the early KMT period (1950s). Audiences are left to think about space and to question about it critically: what does it mean to be in a city shaped by water, with water flowing all around and underneath it, but unable to hear its movement in the landscape? how have the design choices taken by a government whose interests from the 1950s through the 1970s had to do with regaining power in China shaped our lives in Taiwan today?

space radar map of taipei basin and surrounding area. NASA

as a work on habitat matters, the piece forces us out of our usual habits of listening to think about the material quality of this particular habitat, situated geologically and historically in a sometimes awkward place. the piece suggests to me that sound studies and sound installation art, by changing our habits of attention in this way, might foreground some of the constituent features of place in order for us to develop a different stance toward the urban environment