Since the 1930s New York City has been fighting noise. From Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s “War on Noise” to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Operation Silent Night”, an attempt to “protect the sensitive and the infirm from the ravages of urban din” has today become the systematic identification and decimation of quality of life compromising noise.

In “The War on Noise: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York”, Lilian Radovac describes the controversial methods of early noise abatement that has echoed down the years. Since the beginning of sonic sanitation, the argument to protect “vulnerable residents” most often meant the protection of “the fragile upper class” from their perceptions of the unruly urban masses.

Two distinct approaches gave way to one. This leads into a sense of the history of contested methods for noise abatement in New York City. Radovac explains this tension: The Noise Abatement Commission of 1929-1932 used technical methods to identify sources of noise and made material and design recommendations to abate it. This contrasts with later methods which framed the behavioral and technological sources of noise as the cause of urban decay. Radovac argues that this latter method has dominated the City’s approach to noise abatement through to today and that it is problematic because it has “conflated the everyday annoyances of city life with criminal acts.

Today’s noise complaints are logged through the City’s 311 system and made available to the public through NYC Open Data. A total of 191 000 noise complaints were logged by the City in 2010 and 2011.

Noise City Radio takes the location and classification of all these logged complaints and combines it with audio recordings of noise. Through the app, listeners can experience the spaces of noise compliants by tuning-in as they walk through city streets. The app uses the listener’s location to look-up nearby sound complaints, i.e. all the geotagged records that are within 100ft – anything that should be within earshot. The sound the listener hears is a mix recorded sounds from Manhattan, and field recordings that others have made documenting their environment, each sound clip matching the category of the noise complaint. The red circle on-screen changes thickness depending on the density of noise complaint records within the space that the listener traverses.

Attempt here is at a critical radio which operates on two fronts. The first draws sensorial attention to environment calling attention to underlying tension between individuals throughout the city- making the city in itself a map of disputed space. By using sound to draw attention to these contested spaces, the app itself becomes a sort of locative commentary on disputed environment, a mobile take on the 1920’s horospiel radio drama. The second questions the quality of life criteria of the city’s sonic sanitation, bring back noise as a sort of reclaimed urban artifact that has been systematically removed from the environment.

We attempt to make Noise City Radio both commentary and immersive in nature, combining the radio drama and immersive soundscape. Each noise category links to a sound of the complaint inserted back into its environment. As the user walks through space, the accompanying noises blend into the ambient space through which the person is walking. By interspersing ourselves reading the complaints, the piece at times takes itself out of immersion by reminding the user that this is a third party commentary, and lens on which a third ear is turned [or tuned] in to.

We hope this project draws attention to at least two aspects of noise management in the City:

In contested sonic spaces, urban design shares responsibility with the biological and mechanical generators of noise. That sources of noise appropriate and extend through the material environment make them all the more abhorrent – vibrating the ground, piercing through windows, amplifying against walls, and distorting. Noise possess the city, obscuring the source and even rendering it mute. The imperceptible resonance from a power station in Queens is locatable in every window that rattles. This should illustrate how the City has to flatten the dimensionality of complaints into mappable coordinates to operationalize abatement. Within this flattening are critical transformations, clearly perceived by the listener walking the street. The points of complaints don’t necessarily reflect the location or source of the noise, they pinpoint the agitated spaces, the places where people are upset.

We spent some time trying to figure out which form to remediate in this project. We selected the radio partly because it was one of the sources of the earliest complaints in New York City, but also because the idea of these locations making illegal short range transmissions gave us the impression that app could be kind receiver that picks up on these little pirate radios – the recorded traces of what once was audible. Also, the idea that someone might connect the app up to a boombox while walking down the street offers the delightful idea of the noise complaints system generating noise complaints – activist feedback through audio feedback.

By Christo de Klerk and Lara Heintz

Noise City Radio:

Track of un-cut edited audio:

Sources + Inspiration

“311 Service Requests from 2010 to Present.” NYC Open Data, n.d.

Cory, Mark E. “Sound Play: The Polyphonous Tradition of German Radio Art.” In Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1992.

Mattern, Shannon C. “Radio City: Sound, Space & The City.” Words in Space, February 15, 2011.

Radovac, Lilian. “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York.” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 15, 2011): 733–760.

Categories: Reflective Posts


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