For a few seconds this week, in between the live feeds of the spectacle in Washington, D.C. and on the Hudson River, CNN went silent. When reports of possibly another round of shelling in Gaza, its anchors and reporters had the bright idea to stop talking and let viewers simply listen in on whatever that could be heard from yet another live video feed, this one peering into the war zone from afar. No international journalists are allowed inside, so it was the best that CNN could do at breaking news reporting from the trenches.
“Is that some kind of a humming noise?” the anchor asked the foreign correspondent, breaking the silence.
We didn't hear a humming noise; we heard something droning. But was it from a surveillance UAV or the movement of tanks sonically reverberating through holy bedrock? Or was it something coming from our heating vent? Could it have been the running motor and refrigerator fans of the delivery truck parked outside our HQ? Was it coming from here or from thousands of miles away?
This apparent and quite accidental conflation of sonic and physical space led us to imagine a temporary sound installation, which would go something like this:
1) Overlay a scaled map of Gaza City on a map of Chicago.
2) Set up microphones throughout Gaza City.
3) Network these microphones individually to their own speakers in Chicago.
4) The locations of the microphones and speakers should match on the superimposed maps.
When the next major conflict erupts, turn them all on, and Chicagoans will eavesdrop on the aural landscape of another city: the whirring blades of helicopters, the whistling of mortars as they streak across the sky, the roar of burning buildings, metal grating on metal grating on rocks and dirt, the cries and wails of widows and orphans, the crackling statics from a speaker disconnected to an obliterated mic.
Of course, where Chicagoans might listen in will depend on the orientation of the maps.
Perhaps this twinning results in one speaker getting sited on a school playground, and so the joyous screams of children there will mingle with those of telepresent children playing during the brief lulls in the fighting.
How about a speaker on Federal Plaza, right on the same block as President-elect Obama's Miesian HQ? Its counterpart in Gaza is actually on a prime location to pick up the thundering shockwave of Israeli jets crossing the sound barrier. The plaza would thus come under similar sonic attack, turning it into a battlescape. Moreover, as there is no way of knowing when it gets blasted again, the plaza becomes an anxious landscape, wherein, after several exposures, federal employees acquire post-traumatic stress disorder.
Will one of the city's Olmsted parks be serenaded by the natural soundtrack of war?
Of course, most speakers will likely be on the streets and inside buildings, embedded into the sidewalk pavement and office walls, adding to the ambient noise of the city. Is that a mortar explosion or a car backfiring? Is that a malfunctioning siren humming in B-flat or the hum of the HVAC system?
Two soundscapes melting into each other.
POSTSCRIPT #1: “So many drones over #Gaza city it sounds like everyone is out mowing their lawns in the dark” — Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) 16 Nov 12
POSTSCRIPT #2: “Surreal: 830 PM in #Gaza City and all I can hear is wailing cats below and many buzzing drones above. No sound of people.” — Ben Wedeman (@bencnn) 18 Nov 12
POSTSCRIPT #3: “From the BBC: how the sound of war is changing, from shields to helicopters to drones (includes audio): http://bbc.in/SW65r4” Simon Sellars (@ballardian) 22 Nov 12