Skip to main content.

Psychedelic Headphones.

Common Sounds

 Jessica Barness

Link to Project:

That’s cut-up—a juxtaposition of what’s happening outside and what you’re thinking of.

—William Burroughs (Paris Review interview, 1965)

Common Sounds is a screen-based interactive artwork combining sounds, images and user involvement in the composition of a non-linear narrative. Exploring  relationships among sampled materials from a common ‘negative space’ environment, the positive elements of sound and image are removed from their original context, cut-up, and remixed.  The interfaces focuses on what isn’t being paid attention to, juxtaposed with what can’t be ignored.

Radio airwaves—book pages being flipped—digital camera shutter clicks—jar of popcorn kernels being shaken—two people conversing—drumming fingers—a cell phone ring—an electric fan motor—video game sound effects—busy traffic at an intersection—guitar strumming—silkscreen printing activity—digital white noise—running water from a kitchen sink—shopping carts at a grocery store—a cat purring.

The design of Common Sounds began in the public sphere, capturing the above digitally with a built-in laptop microphone. In this shared space of the public realm, lines between privacy and publicity—message sender and receiver—become blurred; the freely recorded samples were those available for anyone (or no one) to hear. Photographs were taken of nondescript built environments, and screenshots of text captured on a computer screen.

The resulting sounds and graphics were cut-up, modified, and curated to present a rich and interesting collection of materials. Some retain much of their initial identity, while others appear quite different. Using the metaphor of a landscape, the interface—designed using ActionScript 3.0 in Adobe Flash—provides no written directions or instructions. Instead, the user learns to use the space heuristically. Buttons are identical to one another, requiring the user to familiarize with spatial locations and their relationships to specific sounds and images. Acting as a non-linear type of book, ‘pages’ (buttons) in Common Sounds can be turned in any sequence and ‘text’ (sounds and images) read in any order. When all buttons are activated, resulting in a cacophony of sound, the images overlap to the point of disappearing—‘white noise’ is Common Sound’s conceptual punch line.

In both design and writing, negative space shapes positive object—one does not exist without the other. Common Sounds explores this symbiotic duality with interaction and remixing, presenting a environment that invites the user to both perform a composition as well as write a narrative. Thus, “the ‘listener’ also becomes a ‘performer’” (Jordan & Miller 108)… and the reader becomes a writer.

Although sounds and images were initially selected and possibilities predetermined by the designer, one user’s pathway and layered arrangement will be different from the next. For example, one begins by clicking on a button (“cat purring”), resulting in an image appearing but quickly fading from view. Immediately, the ear remains engaged while the eye must remember and reflect; the user is compelled to focus attention on the unexpected. Next, another sound is turned on (“fingers drumming”). Listening for a few moments, the steady rhythm of “fingers drumming” contrasts with the more organic, irregular “cat purring”. Intensifying the role of time, a swift activation sequence of two more buttons (“running water”, “electric fan motor”) results in graphics merging before disappearing together. What remains is a multi-dimensional layering of sounds—rhythmic, organic, flowing, mechanical—and a residual image specific to these four sounds playing together.

The user has been writing and composing, and at the same time reading, listening, and reflecting. In contrast, another’s experience will develop from a different set of buttons, selected in another sequence, and with varying spans of time between decisions. Interludes between performance decisions are like spaces between words, phrases, and paragraphs. Sounds act as nouns and verbs, and images behave similar to adjectives and adverbs. While each element in Common Sounds carries its own attributes, in combination they form meanings by prompting different emotions, memories, and actions.

Through interpretation and reflection—such as that in reading and writing—this interactivity engages the user in transforming parts of a commons into a “new” narrative. As with traditional text, the varying compositions within Common Sounds are not neutral; they have the potential to not only persuade and inform, but also entertain.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Steven McCarthy at the University of Minnesota for his insights and encouragement in the development of this artwork and essay.


Works Cited

Knickerbocker, Conrad. “William S. Burroughs, The Art of Fiction No. 36.” The Paris Review 35 (1965): n. pag. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.

Jordan, Ken and Miller, Paul D. “Freeze Frame: Audio, Aesthetics, Sampling, and Contemporary Multimedia.” Sound Unbound. Ed. Paul D. Miller. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008. 97-108. Print.


Share this