Looking back to “Sound in/as :: Memory and Place” at SSRW 2018

Larissa Babak & Benjamin Lauren

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Larissa Babak is a Master’s student in Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing at Michigan State University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Writing and minor in Art History from Grand Valley State University. With professional experience as a writer, graphic designer, and content strategist in both nonprofit and industry settings, her research primarily focuses on educational technology, content strategy, and participation in online and analog spaces. At MSU, she is currently a First Year Writing instructor and has contributed to projects at the Writing Center, the College of Arts & Letters, and Sherlockian.net. Learn more at https://www.larissababak.com/.

Benjamin Lauren is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. His work aims to help people learn, create, communicate, and participate in today’s increasingly complex and expansive institutional, organizational, and community networks. Routledge’s ATTW Series published his book Communicating Project Management: A Participatory Rhetoric for Development Teams. Ben is also an accomplished songwriter, best known for his work with the band No Address, whose song “When I’m gone” spent 22 weeks on Billboard’s Radio Charts peaking at #11 on Rock Radio and #22 on Alternative Rock Radio. Learn more at benlauren.com.

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*To navigate, please click on the arrows above; full-screen viewing is available.  Also, you may download the document as a PDF file here: Sound in/as :: Memory and Place.


Contextual Statement

The inaugural Sound Studies in Rhetoric and Writing Symposium (SSRW) was on October 7-8 in Nashville, TN. The symposium was capably hosted by Steph Ceraso, Eric Detweiler, Joel Overall, and Jon Stone. Our work was accepted for an interactive sound installation. From our acceptance email from the planning committee, the installations were described as the following:

We are accepting your proposal as what we’re calling a “sound installation.” These installations will run concurrently during the second day of the symposium. Symposium attendees will be able to circulate to different installations at their own pace, spending as little or as much time as they’d like with each one. While it is fine if your installation will require visitors to be present for a certain amount of time, we ask that you consider this concurrent, gallery-style approach as you plan and structure your presentation.

Our work, which we chose to organize as two installations that made up an exhibit experience, was one of several that premiered at the symposium that weekend. The pamphlet we include and publish here was initially prepared to circulate with the installations we presented at the SSRW. Below we talk through the pamphlet and give a bit more context on the symposium and our installations.

The pamphlet, titled the same as our installation, provides a theoretical background for our development work. That is, as we developed our installations, we were grappling with several issues relating to participation, art, and user experience design, and we wrote the pamphlet to emphasize those ideas and start a conversation with others about how to approach installation development in rhetoric and writing. We had a second reason as well: during the symposium installations were to be run similar to poster exhibits we’d attended at other conferences, and so we wrote this pamphlet as a takeaway for people who came to interact with each installation, especially if we didn’t have the opportunity to talk with everyone who stopped by.

The day of our session, we visited our room to arrange our installations for engagement. Larissa decided to hang her poster on the wall and then tested our iPad paired with headphones to make sure participants could look at different pictures and choose sounds to listen to as they did. The goal for this experience was to imagine the sound by looking at the picture, and then have the sound give the picture more context. Larissa loaded Novation Launchpad software on the iPad to resemble the images on her poster so participants could match each image to each sound. The below image shows Kyle Stedman interacting with her exhibit. In the image, Stedman is looking at the iPad to choose a sound and to see how that sound matched with an image.

Symposium participants engage with sound art installations

Symposium participants engage with sound art installations


Meanwhile, Ben arranged a laptop computer and a Novation Launchpad interface together, then placed descriptions of each sound on an overlay to fit over the Launchpad. In this way, when participants would press a button on the Launchpad to begin composing, they would be able to predict the sort of sound that would would play. Participants were invited to sit at the desk and use the sounds to compose a story. They could also record that story and email it to themselves. Participants could also choose to wear headphones or listen to the sounds with others. In the above image, you’ll note that Ben Harley chose not to use headphones to compose. As a result, the group could listen together as the composition unfolded.

Last, we wrote two prompts on the white board behind us, and invited participants to leave their impressions of the experience using sticky notes. The first prompt asked “What memories surfaced from the exhibits?” and the second “What places were evoked by the sounds?” We used the sticky notes to create a visual archive of previous participant experiences in hopes to create a longer conversation among symposium attendees.

After symposium attendees interacted with our installations, we reflected on the role of play in the work we had created. We initially approached the development of our installations thinking about participation, memory, sound, and storytelling, but found that play turned out to be an important part of our work that we hadn’t fully anticipated. When we think of play, we think of improv work like “Yes, and…” games, storytelling challenges like we’ve seen in “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” or Rebecca Stockley’s “Visit Improv World Without Looking Like a Tourist” from UX Week in 2013 (to view Stockley’s presentation, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddEryrU0qRo). We noted people playing with our installations by choosing multiple ways to participate, adapting the instructions of how the installations worked, or by using the installations in other expected ways. For example, in Larissa’s work, we expected people would look at the pictures first and then play a sound. But sometimes, people did the inverse. In Ben’s installation, we expected people would use sounds to tell a story from the past, but some of the participants used the installation to compose music in small groups instead.

The process of developing, sharing, and reflecting on our installations was generative for our work both as scholars and practitioners of sound. We offer this pamphlet as an insight into our process, and how we situated our making processes in rhetoric and writing studies. As well, we hope this pamphlet can act as a guide for those doing work in similar areas, especially to make process work visible.

If you have any questions about this work, please feel free to contact Larissa at babaklar@msu.edu or Ben at blauren@msu.edu.