We're dramatically altering public space by amplifying live heartbeats on city streets
Imagine unexpectedly walking into a public space in which the fact that we all share something profound is experienced physically. We began in 2014, miking 4 people with amplified stethoscopes & situating them along the sidewalk at Mechanics Monument in downtown San Francisco, their live heartbeats suddenly audible to the public. By introducing a uniquely intimate human sound—the heartbeat—into the usual mix of sounds heard at a downtown intersection, the public space was dramatically altered.
People walking by experienced an unexpected sensory shift. The area of the Soundscape was described as having become “soft,” calming,” “soothing,” “enchanting,” “slowed-down” & “engaged.” Rather than the usual responses to sounds of traffic, sirens, honking & cell phone conversations, we observed people holding their hands to their hearts, others gazing at the people whose heartbeats were being amplified, some stood with their eyes closed, others smiled.
We set out to create a space that included aspects of embodiment like impermanence, consciousness of sensation & shifts in perception, while focusing in on something that everyone—regardless of age, background or circumstance—could relate to. We found that the IMPACT of amplifying the sound of heartbeats into public space went well beyond our initial aims and curiosities.
PERFORMANCE ART & SOCIAL COMMENTARY
By offering new, unexpected ways to encounter ‘normal’ public space, we hope the soundscapes prompt your consideration of the following questions: How do the public spaces we encounter & create affect us physically, mentally, emotionally & physiologically? How do they direct where we put, or do not put, our attention? How do they shape our physical habits & personal choices? What is their function? This kind of observation & awareness is an important part of body-literacy. We are also exploring: the effects of live sound on living spaces, ways to expand & create meaningful personal boundaries, characteristics of physiological safety, & the Soundscapes as spaces of belonging & beauty.
Many people expected the soundscapes to be disconcerting, some said it would be too scary for them to attend; when asked if they had ever listened to their own heartbeat the answer was a resounding no. It hadn’t ever occurred to most people to listen to their own heartbeat. A few people told us that they had never even been aware of the sensation of their own heartbeat... But anyone we spoke to who had had a direct experience listening to their own heart couldn’t wait to experience the soundscape. They had spent time firsthand observing their own rhythm and knew what a calming and liberating act it was. Bringing body literacy principles into the public consciousness introduces people to new information and experiences while dispelling out-dated body myths.
Modern public spaces are considered an essential component of sustainable cities, the goals of which focus on uniting a diverse public in social, civic, political, economic and biodiversity activities. “When we think of public space in terms of our embodied presence, it becomes a concept applicable to modern democratic politics,” notes professor James Mensch. In fact, embodiment is a rare element in modern public spaces, and as such our diminished presence while in public in turn dampens our self and civic engagement, as well as our individual development. In response we created this embodied public space to see what happens when we are prompted to be more physically present in public. What happens when we feel our own heartbeats by first hearing someone else’s?
Physiologically, listening to someone’s heartbeat has similar effects as looking someone in the eye. It elicits a parasympathetic response. Of all the things we do to engage with each other, the most important is a calming of the nervous system. After that, we are able to make all the physical movements of social engagement: facial expressions, eye contact, altering the prosody of our voices, tilting our heads, smiling, listening. If we don’t feel an underlying tone of safety in our nervous systems, our heartbeats will respond by sending a signal to the brain that in essence blocks our ability to make all those movements. Offering spaces that support direct experience of embodiment supports social engagement in public; when people feel engaged & connected, a myriad of health benefits follows.
We discuss the Heartbeat Soundscapes, what constitutes a 'healthy' public space & more!
On Friday we had our first interview about Embodied Public Space & brought our first Heartbeat Soundscape to the air. Tune in every Friday in March, 2pm to Women’s Magazine on Mutiny Radio (in collaboration with KPFA) to listen to a live Heartbeat Soundscape.
Our gratitude to our Soundscape donors
Sib & Judy Wright
Geordie Van Der Bosch
David Fernadez & Ask La Cour
Trudy & Steve Katznelson
Susan & Bill Merriman