Unsafe Alighting into Audio / Visual Art [New Work]

Alighting: An audio visual textural exploration of the King Street bus lane in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

An Action-Research Collaboration between Christopher Healey & Ryan Price.

Running west on the north side from Mary Street to New St, the King Street dedicated bus lane is a pilot project for the City of Hamilton. Since it’s launch in October 2013 this project has proven to be a source of public debate among business owners, car drivers, transit riders and cyclists who depend on King Street to travel west.

We decided to research this sphere of public discourse through a series of investigations along the entire length of the bus lane. Our methodology consisted of walking the route with a sound recording device, identifying and collecting sounds that were specific to this routes space. Different sections of the route contained different audio environments: the ambient sounds of traffic near Dundurn Street could be defined as light (cars, mopeds, and motor bikes) and heavy traffic (trucks, buses, and tractor trailers), the audio space around Jackson Square was defined by community (sounds of pedestrians, street buskers, children and even a policeman on a horse), the space east of John, while less dense in terms of pedestrians, also contained less voracious audio characteristics in contrast to the Dundurn traffic (simply because it was only two lanes at that point).

After some reflection, our next cycle of research consisted of capturing visuals along the length of the route. What symbols, signs and textual objects could we identify that reflect public opinion and subsequent debate regarding the dedicated bus lane pilot project? To answer this, we captured visual elements of the bus lane itself: the buses, cyclists, vehicular traffic and pedestrians who all share this common space, the storefronts, both occupied and empty and in various states of upkeep, and bus lane propaganda. These images help support an overall narrative of the problematic nature of this street’s community history and uncertain future direction. For example, our research raised the question of who these businesses purporting to be suffering were actually serving — local communities or commuters from the surrounding suburbs?

Now that we had a soundscape and visual data to compare and contrast, we desired more layers to reveal greater insights into this dynamic space. We decided to seek out opinion from both those opposed to the bus lane project and those who support it.
We created another research cycle to repeat the last observation process with our sound recorder and camera while riding the bus along the dedicated transit lane. This resulted in a soundscape that we used as a baseline for the project. This research cycle acts as a constant throughout the entire work and defines the length and undergirds the textual fabric of the work.

Loosely keeping a narrative based on time, location and proximity to the bus lane we have layered our collected sets of audio and visual data into a holistic artwork that explores many of the dynamic and rich variables of this urban space. We observed from the whole of our work in the field and reflection of our collected resources that there are rhythms of traffic, conversations, and foot traffic. Using these elements of a busy urban street we reflected this repeated, familiar codes of traffic sounds and imagery into loops and staggered patterns. We also incorporated the two conversations (as well as some tertiary dialogue from ambient streetscape recordings) about two thirds into the work, giving each some prominent amplification and overlapping the two together to reflect the competing, noisy environment that this space reflects both physically and politically.

Next, we created an audio/visual work attempting to encapsulate many of the elements that define the community surrounding the bus lane, the inside of a bus, and the civic debate. The video displayed here was created as a real-time process, with both artists sharing the controls of a midi mixing controller, adjusting aspects of the source videos, such as speed, direction, zoom, contrast, saturation, and brightness, among other properties. Our manipulation of the video was done while listening to the soundtrack, making on-the-fly decisions based on the the actions of the the sound, the video, and each other’s actions.

The combination of layering and texturing gradually after establishing a normalized sound environment indicates for the audience a deliberate and composed work that leads to several perspectives which may be shared or not shared. Hopefully there are opportunities of discovery and familiarity embedded in the work for the audience. The artwork itself renders these perspectives in new ways allowing for unconsidered entry points into the issues of the dedicated bus lane pilot project. We’ve attempted to construct the work to peak in activity, noise and movement and eventually crescendo into a combination of all the elements, then concluding with the simple sounds of disembarking from the bus. Or, as the sign says, alighting safely.

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