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The lingering buzz of police helicopters patrolling the neighborhood fills the quotidian soundscape of the Los Angeles State Historic Park (LASHP), reminding visitors of the park’s status as one of the many targets of the LAPD’s surveillance network. Across the city, the sound of these hovering machines has simply become another part of daily life. Score for Here (2022), the site-specific sonic experience installed in the park by Los Angeles-based Argentinian artist Jimena Sarno, intervenes in this militarized soundscape. The sound piece, commissioned and presented by Clockshop, is based on a graphic score that Sarno designed using the blueprints of the park, mapping a series of sounds onto its different geographical locations. Score for Here is interactive and adaptable, allowing its audience to compose and listen to sound in real-time as they traverse the park, different routes yielding different experiences.
Using a free phone application, visitors engage with the work by walking through the park’s meandering paths. Their place in the park is identified by geolocation—a process that digitally identifies the geographic location of a given user—triggering different audio, including modified field recordings and sound samples. Interestingly, Score for Here repurposes geolocative technology, which generates data that is vulnerable to surveillance and abuse, as an impromptu compositional principle used to provoke divergences in paths and alter the visitors’ sense of direction. Still, where contemporary sound art practices using digital interfaces have mostly attempted to engage with emerging tech trends such as data sonification, AI-driven music, or ambisonics, Sarno downplays the novelty of the tech used in the work, choosing instead to use it to reflect on contested cartographies like those of the park. As a result, Score for Here evokes not only the latent layers of the park’s past in relation to zoning and urban planning, but also the layers of displacement, wherein many subjects of Los Angeles’ spatial planning are cut off and silenced.
Located on Tongva land delineated by waves of migration and rapid real estate development, in Score for Here, Sarno treats the LASHP as a contested site. Situated on the edge of Chinatown just north of El Pueblo, the park marks the space where many racial and ethnic groups first arrived in the city. The installation includes sounds donated by members of these communities, who have shaped Los Angeles: the Armenian folk song, “Groung,” sung by Zabelle Panosian, blends with a sound recording of the L.A.-based Chinese artist Coffee Kang in which she strokes a collection of decades-old bed sheets belonging to her grandmother.1 By asking her collaborators to send audio pieces that signify their experience of belonging, Sarno harnesses sound’s ability, mostly through voice, to expose hidden personal, sociological, and historical facts. Collaged together, cut, and modified by Sarno using granular synthesis, these collected sounds amplify the stories of migration and the layers of displacement that already resonate within the park’s geography.
Instead of presenting a finalized artwork made available for immediate consumption, Score for Here provides, as the press release puts it, “a morphing proposition, a catalyst for speculation and potential transformation.”2 Through the real-time breakdown and recomposition of the collected sound samples, which are activated by each sound element’s trigger zone in the real landscape of the park—each track poetically associated with a physical location—the work continues to reshape itself and grow. As visitors navigate the park, the sound piece invites them into the process of reckoning with the arduous subject of who gets to occupy space. While this sonic intervention will remain available on-site indefinitely, the work embraces the ephemeral nature of its medium: its sounds unfold through the air, leaving only a memory (and may never again line up to create the same composition). As I wandered around, fragments of testimonies and sounds from local community members interacted, poignantly evoking locations both near and far: turning a corner, the sound of crickets resonated from my phone’s speaker. Recorded by sound artist Una Lee in the garden of her mother’s house in South Korea, their chirps subsided as I walked, followed by the words of a poem recited in Farsi by artist Shima Tajbakhsh’s grandmother. Bridging between sounds that explore different intergenerational legacies, the work collapses separate experiences of displacement, if for an instant.
The sonic turn in contemporary artistic practices—spearheaded by artists such as John Cage, Bill Fontana, and Max Neuhaus in the ’60s—has increasingly demonstrated that visuals do not stand to exclusively dictate our understanding of the arts. However, the voices of white North American and European cis men still dominate sound art practices. Epitomizing our times’ reductive technological determinism, contemporary sound works often engage with tech fads and techno-utopias. Refreshingly, in Sarno’s Score for Here, the technological infrastructure undergirding the work takes a backseat, enabling Sarno to turn her gaze to real spatial and local concerns, interrogating the political, cultural, and corporeal reverberation of our auditory perceptions without being reductive or pamphleteering. Still, her use of geolocative tech is an intentional one. By using the technology to interlock history, memory, and site, Score for Here offers its audience a new sonic encounter with the park and, if only for one stroll, pushes against the background noise (both literal and metaphorical) of surveillance helicopters. Sarno subverts a technology often used as part of a larger surveillance network to her own ends by presenting a soundscape ripe with stories of diversity and resilience. Rather than turn away from the darker realities of our contemporary world to imagine a more equitable utopian future, Sarno has reconfigured the present so that it reflects on itself by redirecting the possibilities of surveillance technology to carve out a space for belonging.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 29.