As a mobile media practitioner interested in mediated everyday experience and urban space, my use of technology for collecting data, sharing impressions and observing cultural practices has shifted from using specialized equipment (high-quality portable recorders, professional cameras and video camcorders) to the smaller, more flexible and already at-hand iPhone (or equivalent Android, Windows, etc.). With a continuous stream of mobile applications and externals, both the design community and the community of ‘prod-users’ and researchers are adopting multimodal tools[i] in their practices. In this piece I want to present ‘sensory postcards’ as a model and method for do-it-yourself digital ethnographies that unite sensory ethnography[ii] and cultural studies[iii] toward questions around urban experience.
Sensory Postcards as method
So how are sensory postcards a method? Everyday mobile media production deserves study in its own right as a novel form of media literacy, signaled by participation in social media communities such as Instagram, YouTube and reddit (to name just a few). From a research standpoint, sensory postcards are a form of multimodal inquiry that engage sensory ethnography as an access point into urban life, place and human geographies, as well as power relations and models of situated learning. As an inductive approach, generating sensory postcards means sensing first, capturing second, and iterative interpretation as patterns settle into media artefacts. The metaphor of ‘postcard’ here is an attempt to evoke a ‘moment in time’ sensibility while de-emphasizing the visual component. In mobile videocam recordings the narrative of the event or action becomes central; removing that by using a static image and sound recording emphasizes instead the temporality of sound, allowing the listener to engage their imagination in constructing a scene without video filling in the blanks. Clean the palate, re-experience, re-engage. Below is a case study of the use of sensory postcards in one Vancouver neighborhood, starting with sound as a unique entrypoint.
Case Study: Yaletown, Vancouver, Canada
Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience. In particular, the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘Sailboat’ postcard below) when the actuality was much more busy and noisy (reflected in the ‘Seawall’ postcard below).
The above are literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open-patio restaurant, a lot of music and the sound of talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the seawall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Curiously, not only is the visual landscape different (and the atmosphere and connotation it carries), but crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels from the overall soundscape levels. One reflection here is that the perceptual convergence I experienced in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetic, rather than purely functional sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the mood or atmosphere of each image.Read More… Sensory postcards: Using mobile media for digital ethnographies