Ruminations [full text]

Several people have contacted me looking for my article “Ruminations While (Audio)Walking” which was published in Extensions in 2009. Apparently it is not available online anymore, but I am more than happy to share the full text here. In fact, I’m chuffed that it is still being read!

The original publication had audio clips embedded which I have not reproduced, but a pdf of the text can be downloaded here.

A short extract below:

One: Begin. April 2005

“Isn’t it fabulous?” Roger Moore croons in my ear, as I admire the painted ceilings of the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Previously I had always shunned the audio tour desk when visiting museums and galleries, content to find my own way through the space and its objects. But I had heard that Roger had been contracted to do the English version of the Forbidden City’s tour, and that it was itself pretty fabulous (in a kitschy kind of a way).

I jostle with the crowds peering through narrow doors into dark, faded, and dusty rooms. I marvel at the piles of new golden roof tiles everywhere, part of the Olympic makeover happening everywhere in Beijing. Every once in a while I stop, have a moment with Roger as he directs my attention to a detail of the architecture, tells me stories and gives me dates. This is after all, a simple extension of traditional museum practice where looking is primary; a slight elaboration on the informative label.

But it is not all just looking; it is also a mobile and auditory tour very connected to being in this place. I am standing at the top of a terrace behind the Hall of Protective Harmony, surveying the kingdom below me. The characters of the audio narrative – ghosts of construction workers who pulled great slabs of stone across icy roads in 1406 – and the imposing scale of the Imperial Palace combine to collapse time and history. It is easy to imagine that my body in this place is that of the Emperor – Pu Yi maybe – that it is my kingdom. It is a small hint at the possibilities for transportation and transformation contained within the narrated soundscape in my ears.


MP3 technology and the advent of podcasting has led to a proliferation of portable players in many people’s daily lives and an accompanying development of on-the-go listening practices. The sounds of the real world around us and the recorded sounds from our headphones mix together as we move through place. There is greater possibility here to mess with what we hear and where we are, in either time or place. There is room for unofficial narratives as well as scripted soundtracks such as Roger Moore’s, or for ephemeral Hollywood moments when music and scene are just right. There is room for flights of fancy or of foreboding, for the personal or intimate occurring in the spaces of the very public. Real and imagined, heard and not-heard, seen and not-seen combine to create connections between place, time, and body; and both exploit and expose these connections at the core of lived experience.

In the following pages, I will go on a meandering walk through several art works, tourist productions, and everyday locomotions that together try to articulate a temporal-spatial-corporeal nexus made evident through the practice of audio walking. Taking Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks’ theatre/archaeology as a model, this paper is multi-vocal; attempting reconstruction as a “creative process in the present” (Pearson & Thomas 133). It draws together my nearly four years of history engaging with audio walks of some kind or another, including a walk I have made and several walks I have taken. Through its wandering path, this paper remaps selective experiments and analyses I have undertaken over that period, drawing meaning from some walks stumbled upon by accident, their significance only gleaned in retrospect, and others that were sought out as my interest in the performance genre deepened. The Forbidden City English audio tour is a materially different endeavour than those to come: it wasn’t so much an audio walk as a stop-and-listen audio guide. However, I opened this paper with my recollections of this experience because it was my introduction (in retrospect) to the sort of time-travelling, shape-shifting virtual world that sound can tap into. Not just sound alone, but sound combined with being of place, of body.

Place. The body. Time. All three are required for engagement with an audio walking tour of this kind. They are the raw materials that prove flexible and malleable; a messy interrelatedness and occasional congruence occurring between them. “I am not in space and time, nor do I conceive space and time; I belong to them, my body combines with them and includes them… the synthesis of both time and space is a task that always has to be performed afresh” (Merleau-Ponty 161-2). I contend that with examination the practice of audio walking reveals the workings of this synthesis – both cracking open and performing the relationship between space, place and people – and thereby tapping into the qualities and processes of lived experience in thoughtful ways.