Essay : Headphone Space
People walk through New York City with headphones on. Navigating the crowded streets of cars, people, advertisements, posters, shops, restaurants, television displays, lights, noise, dirt, steam, trees, animals, garbage, construction and decay, they walk alone occupying a private space within the public sphere. This private space is marked by sound emanating from headphones which only the user can hear. The sound compliments their living experience, blanketing the immediacy of the physical environment with a personal layer of thoughts, memories, associations, juxtapositions, and projections.
Interpreting our environment is a sensorial experience mixing sights, sounds, smells, and touch. We live in a visually dominated culture because sight is more easily manipulated for messaging. Urban experience is a bombardment of visual spectacle sending us massive amounts of information in such dense layers that we are often unaware of how we filter and interpret the saturated content. The information barrage is accepted as part of the public experience. Consider the sounds that assist these messages in their context -- sounds of the car horns with the piercing bird-like screams of young girls outside of MTV Studios in Times Square playing as a soundtrack for the visual glitz of massive lights and billboard advertisements, or the crack of baseball bats hitting balls and barking of small dogs in Central Park as a soundtrack for the hotdog stand. Spaces are interpreted through the blending of sight and sound.
Headphones let us customize public space with controllable, private sound. The visuals in a public environment remain the same, but with the introduction of a personal soundtrack, the context of the shared images change. Take for example, riding a subway train. This mundane experience of observing the wallpapering of Budweiser commercials, crowds of sullen faces, and the occasional vagabond delivering a speech, becomes an entirely new interpretive experience while contextualized with soprano Maria Callas singing Ave Maria. Depending on the style of headphones or volume level, different amounts of external sound may leak into the private music experience, mixing the content both of the song and public space.
As small plastic objects, headphones nestle close or sometimes inside our ears, cutting out extraneous noise. We “plug in” to our portable audio device, separating ourselves from the sounds of the external world as we move through from one environment to the next. While headphones isolate us, they simultaneously open the world in new interpretive ways. A schizophrenic experience is created as the user occupies two spaces at once, building an entirely new psychological environment composed of the private and public space. Combinatorial in creating meaning, headphones’ designed portability move the personal sound space through various physical spaces weaving intersections of layered interpretation and thought. Included in these intersections are the users’ own memories and personal relationships to the songs, constructing even deeper meaning and subtext within the physical environment. Listening to a certain song that reminds you of a past lover while walking to meet a stranger for a date might flood your thoughts with new, complicated emotions and questions that would otherwise have remained unexamined.
Headphone space is not only auditory and invisible. Headphones are visible and physical objects. The sound emanating from them may be a private experience for the user, but seen by other people, headphones communicate a “do not disturb” message, like a sign on the door of a hotel room. They delineate a clear line of private space within the public space. The user of the headphones is socially excused from listening regardless of whether or not they can hear what is happening outside of the headphone space. In fact, headphones are often worn to create the illusion of separation in order to avoid human interaction or information responsibility. People choose when and where to symbolically excuse themselves by putting on their headphones, and also manipulate (perhaps secretively) the levels of their isolation through volume control. Although interpretation of environments may be unintentional, the decisions to appear absent are always intentional. Headphones are socially recognized private spaces.
There are many provocative ways to use headphone space as a site to explore themes of personal vs shared and private vs public space while probing its inherent intersections of layered space. Consider the concepts of intimacy that result from sharing a headphone space, perhaps the same set of headphones worn simultaneously by two or even one hundred people; or concepts of manipulation and ownership if a set of headphones are controlled not by its user, but rather by an audience. Art and design projects exploring headphone space include Alice Wang’s Peer Pressure, Michelle Rosenberg’s Dynamic Headphones series, Paul Davies’ The Prayer Antenna, and Cre8tive Challenge’s Echo Ricochet, just to name a few. Headphone space is rich with content and metaphor. As the technological and aesthetic design of headphones advance, more complex relationships with these objects are sure emerge as the space grows denser with human experience and meaning.