When is a map not a map?

I took a trip to Sheffield today, mostly to see an old friend, but also to visit Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map at the Millennium Gallery. This exhibition was put together by Chris Watson, a founder member of the legendary Cabaret Voltaire, but with a subsequent career as a sound recordist, specialising in natural history. I was intrigued by the idea of a sound map, and was interested to see how sounds could be placed in a geographical context. As the exhibition blurb says,

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and travelling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city.

Unfortunately, I must have misunderstood, as the exhibition is not a map in any sense that I’m aware of. It was interesting, and I would have stayed to listen to the whole work if I didn’t have a bored child with me who wasn’t having any of it (though he did raise a smile when the terraces of Bramall Lane started to reverberate to the sound of Seven Nation Army). The gallery was dimly lit, with projections showing black and white images of the city (though with no explanation or location). In the centre of the room were four couches set facing each other; other benches were placed along the walls, and cushions were on the floor, to give different perspectives of the work.

While we were there, we heard church bells, birdsong, a woodpecker tapping at a tree, various industrial sounds, football chants, etc., but they were just sounds, coming from nowhere (or from everywhere, depending on whereabouts in the gallery you sat). There was no sense of where these sounds were located, where they belonged. I know I’m probably being a square who’s trying to find meaning and force an explanation onto something, but that’s not the point. I’m quite happy to enjoy this piece as a sound installation, or a sound collage, or a soundscape (as the guy lying on the couch with his eyes closed clearly was. Unless he was asleep), but it’s not a map. To me a map shows the relationship between items, rather than randomly serving them up without explanation.

That said, I would love to see it again, or maybe get a podcast and while away those long train journeys listening to “an affectionate portrait of a city that the 19th century writer John Ruskin called ‘a dirty picture in a golden frame.’“.

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About randomactsofcartography
I'm a software product engineer and map nerd. Although I work in GIS, I prefer paper maps to Google maps, vinyl to mp3s, box brownies to digital cameras, FM to DAB, etc., etc. Pass me my pipe and slippers.

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