»Weltstadt | World City«
Refugees’ Memories and Futures as Models
When Matze Goerig, director at the Berlin-based artist network Schlesische 27, Tilman Ehrhorn and Alexis Baskind of University of Popular Arts (hdpk) and reached out to HEDD and asked for our support in the context of an exhibition focusing on the works of refugees in Berlin, we were on board immediately. Firstly because of the concept – refugees creating »models of homes, schools, houses of prayer or businesses in Africa and the Middle East« from their memory and photos, and secondly because of the unusual and creative way, sound designers Matteo Brossette, Andrei Cucu, Eric Obeth, and Frederik Thomse intended to integrate our loudspeakers.
The following text and conversation sheds light on Schlesische 27’s highly successful »Weltstadt« exhibition, that we happily supported back in June 2017.
Dr. Frederik Knop | Co-Founder HEDD
A petrol station on the outskirts of Aleppo, a school building outside Mogadishu, a fortified tower in Damascus: When in foreign lands, people who have fled their home often tend to reach for their smartphone to show others photos of their homelands – but also photos of places they have passed through along the way and of their new surroundings.
Each of the photos arouses memories, fears and hopes which then take concrete form in the models they have constructed. Places of remembrance have been created, their visions are now tangible. Berliners and guests from all over the world are invited to take a walk through »World City« and hear the stories of those who built it.
The model-making workshops
The S27 international youth, arts and culture centre housed eight fixed and mobile model-making workshops in the Berlin districts of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Lichtenberg, Neukölln, Pankow, Spandau and Tempelhof-Schöneberg, and also in Genshagen (Brandenburg), each for three to four weeks between September 2016 and March 2017.
The residents of nearby refugee homes and pupils from a »welcome class« (a German language class for refugees) attended the workshops to make their own personal remembrance sites and blueprints for the future based on photos they had on their phones and images they found on the internet and in books and magazines. The project centered around the model building, barely higher than a chair.
Buildings made of cardboard, wood and all manner of different materials they had gathered are testament to life stories that have been knocked down and rebuilt.
Fig.: Model-building workshop during the preparation of the »Weltstadt« exhibition
Fig.: »Weltstadt« ground plot. Houses are green, HEDD Type 05 speaker placement red
The »World City« exhibition showcased the results of the model-making workshops. 130 models of homes, schools, houses of prayer or businesses in Africa and the Middle East, as well as the modeler’s ideas of architectural utopias, were all displayed on 500 square meters of exhibition space as a walk-through cityscape, or a »World City«. On their stroll through the city, visitors were able to see each of the 1:10 scale buildings up close.
Creative people from refugee circles, students from the SRH Academy of Popular Arts (hdpk) in Berlin developed a sound design that let visitors delve into a soundscape, familiarizing them with the stories behind each of the selected buildings and those who built them.
A conversation between Matze Görig, the artistic director of Weltstadt, and the four sound designers of the project, Matteo Brossette, Andrei Cucu, Eric Obeth, Frederik Thomsen
Matze, can you tell some words about the project in general?
Matze: The »World City« exhibition showcases the results of a yearlong project involving refugees focusing on their memories, journeys and dreams. A petrol station on the outskirts of Aleppo, a school building outside Mogadishu, a fortified tower in Damascus: When in foreign lands, people who have fled their home often tend to reach for their smartphone to show others photos of their homelands – but also photos of places they have passed through along the way and of their new surroundings.
The S27 international youth, arts and culture centre housed eight fixed and mobile model-making workshops in Berlin, working with refugees to materialise these images. Around 150 people from Afghanistan, Albania, Benin, Chechenia, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Lebanon, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Ukraine took part in the project. German and refugee artists associated with Schlesische 27 assisted the international model-builders in their work.
Fig.: »Weltstadt« exhibition
About sound design now: what was the purpose of sound in the initial concept?
The sound was supposed to let visitors delve into a soundscape, familiarizing them with the stories behind each of the selected buildings and those who built them.
Eric, Andrei, Matteo, and Frederik: how did you conceive the sound setup? Which challenges did you have to face and how did you overcome them?
Andrei: The entire installation was from the start conceived as being placed inside the exhibition. Our first idea was to create a realistic city with different neighbourhoods, each of them having 5 speakers through which the urban backdrop was created. The concept for the audio content changed along the way, but the idea of a sound installation within the city itself remained and proved suitable even for the new aesthetic approach.
Fig.: HEDD Type 05 speaker placement
Fig.: HEDD Type 05 speaker placement
At first we wanted to have a surround system, along with the 16 HEDD Type 05 speakers inside the exhibition. But after closely considering what the main goals of our design were, we realized that the main point is for the interviews to be discernible from any position. As for the sound design, seeing as we had finally not worked with spatiality, it was also important to cover as much ground as possible, which is why we opted for placing the speakers among the exhibits. Also, by having the sound coming from in between the houses, you get the impression that the whole city actually comes alive with the voices of people, rather than having the audio material split from the houses themselves. A surround system would have entailed this physical distance between the houses and the voices, which give them life. Finally, we had four speakers on each exhibition surface, positioned in such a way that one would have a clear listening experience from any position within the room. The main challenges when working with this speaker setup was speaker position and orientation.
The Type 05’s were extremely suitable for our setup due to their compact form factor, which allowed us to easily place them among the houses, but they still carried enough punch to cover 500 m2 of exhibition space.
Of course, having such a large exhibition area, it is not that easy to make sure that people walking around the hall have a pleasant experience no matter where they are in the room, but I think we found a good balance and managed to cover almost the entire ground.
The final setup was 16 HEDD Type 05 loudspeakers spread among the houses built during the workshops Matze mentioned. We were extremely glad to be able to collaborate with HEDD, seeing as their loudspeakers have the necessary clarity to work in such a wide open environment.
Also, it’s always great to work with local manufacturers and consolidate a sense of community within a certain field even in such a huge city like Berlin.
Let’s talk about the content itself: Which kind of sound material was used? How was it conceived?
Eric: At first, we focused on creating an immersive, realistic city, with different neighbourhoods, all manifesting themselves over the course of a one day cycle. Each of us started working on his respective neighbourhood, but after listening to the interviews, we realised that the stories of the refugees were so powerful, they needed more than just an urban backdrop, which is why, together with Matze, we started working closer to the interviews.
Rather than a simple background, the sound design became part of the narrative told by the interviews, from a simple natural atmosphere, it turned into a more abstract form, containing different leitmotifs, surreal atmospheres, small melodies, all conceptually very closely knit to the spoken word content.
Most of it was produced digitally with different synthesizers, but we also worked with field recordings, for example of a muezzins call or children playing on a boat in Mali.
Fig.: »Weltstadt« exhibition in the dark
The four of us started by working very freely, each trying to design the whole piece, the entire length of the interviews, so that afterwards we could select the best parts for each section and decide together what would fit best aesthetically and conceptually. What was very surprising was that not only did our content oftentimes match stylistically. We had even chosen the same musical key in some parts! It only goes to show how powerful the interview content is and how even without speaking about it we all started working in the same direction. That is why there is even a moment – the war episode – where we didn’t have to choose from the different elements we created, we combined them all. That is where all our designs really come together at the same time.
Much of the sound production has been done in studios, and the final mix in the hall took place only in the last days before the opening. How much fine-tuning was needed then? How did you prepare for this while working in studios?
Frederik: We were very lucky that the hall had a wooden ceiling, which helped minimise reflections and unwanted clutter when playing the piece. We knew that low frequencies would not necessarily come to our advantage when working in such a big space and with such weird speaker positions, so we didn’t have that much low frequency content. At 2 or 3 moments there is however a very deep bass sound which could have proven problematic, but we got lucky once again and while testing out the system we realised that the wooden surfaces on which the houses and speakers were placed resonated so well with the bass that it really became one of the most powerful elements. The mixing interventions after the whole setup was in place were minimal, it was more of a question of speaker position, like Andrei mentioned before.
If the project goes further, what would you like to change?
Matteo: One thing which wasn’t put to use was the spatial aspect of the sound design. If we have the chance to work on the project further, we would love use this dimension also, in order to have another element which creates a real sense of a city. We decided against exploiting this dimension at this first iteration, because like Eric said before, our focus relied heavily on the narrative, and we also wanted to let the visitors roam freely among the houses without having the impression that they are missing something which is happening sonically in another corner of the city. I am sure that some ingenious solutions for aesthetically integrating spatiality into the project are very close and I hope we have the opportunity to take the project further.