The most interesting cities have a strong genius loci, the particular sense of place that emerges over time from the interplay between a specific locale and its inhabitants. Part of a city’s uniqueness derives from the intricacies of its everyday sounds and noises, attributes often left unexamined. British artist Dominic Wilcox’s Binaudios installation in the Sage Gateshead concert hall – Norman Foster’s shimmering glass cocoon perched on the bank of NewcastleGateshead’s River Tyne – creates an opportunity to tune in to this.
What at first appears to be a cartoonist’s take on oversized tourist binoculars is more akin to a double Victorian ear trumpet for the hard of hearing, enlarged to scoop up the sounds of the city. The user swivels the horns across the urban panorama, pointing at St. James’ Park to catch the thunderous roar of Newcastle United F.C. fans rolling down from the huge Leazes End stands; or angles toward the Town Moor for a decidedly gentler soundtrack of grazing cattle. Binaudios also hears through time, recovering, for example, the now-silenced clamour of shipbuilding on the river, allowing the visitor to experience the entire town and the music of its daily life and history from a single vantage point.
In today’s digital world, which drowns out ambient noise with iPods and Bluetooth headsets, Wilcox’s installation links us to a perspective many will have forgotten. He’s no technophobe, though. This project is a collaboration with technologist James Rutherford, who employed a simple motherboard device, poetically named Raspberry Pi, to present NewcastleGateshead’s textured soundscape of urban living.
Rhys Phillips is an Ottawa architecture writer who believes a project’s success is rooted in how it responds to a sense of place.