Matt Parker is a Sonospheric Investigator; an artist researching the resonances between things. His multimedia works are influenced by the practice of listening; to unsound vibratory ecologies and the economies of noise. His research engages with sound studies, media ecology, field recording and environmental humanities through a spectral art practice.
He has published on methodologies for listening to the infrastructures of the Anthropocene and exhibited sound and media artworks on this theme internationally. Publications include Culture Machine Journal, Sonic Urbanism, Photomediations, and Caught by the River. He has a PhD on the topic of listening, fieldwork and media infrastructure ecology from the London College of Communication, UAL; a Masters in Music Technology from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire; and a BA (Hons) in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Leeds.
FIELDWORK Q&A – January 2023
How is fieldwork part of your practice?
I have recently been reading how the Department of Social Work at the University of Southern California (USC) has announced that they will no longer refer to terms associated with the word ‘field’ including ‘field work’ and being ‘in the field’ within their course syllabi, instead opting for the Latin term ‘practicum’. The department deemed that connotations of the use of the word ‘field’ were potentially triggering, and evoking a traumatic history of slavery, oppression, colonialism and white supremacy. So what is ‘the field’? What is ‘fieldwork’? Are there alternative and succinct words that capture what exactly it is that we do as researchers, who are interested in navigating space, place and temporality through an embodied and situated set of widely varying methods? Until I can find an appropriate term, I feel obliged to continue to describe this set of practices as fieldwork but am curious as to whether there is an improved container because regardless of whether you consider ‘the field’ and fieldwork to be carrying problematic undertones as expressed by the Department of Social Work at USC, fieldwork is not without its complexities. The notion of fieldwork and ‘the field’ connotes a hugely diverse range of practices. It is a catch all term, that links to military strategists surveying pieces on a puzzle board and describing battle arenas as ‘the field of play’. The field is, after all, where young men were sent to their deaths. The field is also, in its simplest form, a field. A defined area or plot of land/space. Its usage is varied. The thing about fieldwork, is that it is a catch all term for a bundle of varied activities that may or may not even include a clearly defined space. The field for me, is a container for situated knowledge; knowledge that is embedded in, and thus affected by, the concrete historical, cultural, linguistic, and value context of the knowing person. Fieldwork is the process by which I seem to investigate a given place through concrete, cultural or linguistic context. It helps me build a better understanding of a topic of enquiry.
For many years, I considered fieldwork to be the act of physically going to a location and then being there doing ‘stuff’. As an artist with a background in sound and music, that ‘stuff’ would typically be entangled with the practice of field recording, and then by extension, the media practices of recording, filming with cameras, photography; the collection of digital media material from site. I have increasingly begun to understand this is as more of a subset of actions that can make up an aspect of a fieldwork enquiry, that it is not a totality. My fieldwork activity would begin many months before I would ever travel into ‘the field’. So fieldwork is a process that leads to an encounter of some kind, with a site of some kind. This feels quite diffuse but I think more accurate to the realities of fieldwork. During the lockdowns imposed by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself unable to physically travel to locations I had earmarked for site based investigation. This, however, didn’t prevent me from conducting fieldwork. Remote fieldwork is still fieldwork. So perhaps fieldwork is more about a mindset and disposition towards researching phenomena through site but that it is not exclusively on site. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have begun to think that I am perhaps in a perpetual state of fieldwork. During field trips to places in the past, I would remain fully engaged at all times whilst on site, or around the site, during the trip, but also the weeks prior and the weeks following. I now think that there is rarely a moment that passes where I am not in some way encountering site and space as a research zone, I am rarely out of the field, whether it is reading at home, sound recording at a specially determined location, leafing through images at a historical archive or writing this description. Fieldwork is not only embedded in my practice, it is the crux of my practice and my very disposition towards artistic research.
How would you describe your fieldwork activity?
My practice follows a research methodology I call sonospheric investigation. I am interested in working with and producing archives that amplify the hidden connections between every-day technologies and the environment. My multimedia works are influenced by the practice of listening; to unsound vibratory ecologies, to the economies of noise, and the infrastructures of the Internet. I am interested in how vibrations are the modular connections between things, humans, nonhumans, and posthuman infrastructures. I produce work that interrogates the physical and virtual worlds of media infrastructures, and the geology and deep-time of media as agential assemblages of the Anthropocene. A number of works I have produced, work in collaboration with members of the public to develop narratives of media history and media present, including Fields of Athenry and Project Antioch, which are part of a series of sonospheric investigations into the protest and counter protest movement of a local community on the west coast of Ireland where Apple plan to build one of Europe’s largest data centre complexes. For the work Memory Lines, I collaborated with a number of women and men who are pioneers of computing to develop a narrative that explores the history of computing, memory, and programmed inequality within the computing industry.
Through each of my projects I am developing what I call the ‘sonopalette’, a toolkit of field research methods which reveal the being of sounds, vibrations, noises and affective vibratory impulses. These methods include—but are not exhaustive of—field recording, oral history interviews, documentary filmmaking, deep listening, vibration sensors, electromagnetic sensors, performance, data scraping and machine learning, archival research, soundscape ecology, conversations, soundwalks, and scale model making. A sonospheric engagement with space and place can generate new connections between human, nonhuman and nonorganic bodies that further our understanding of the conditions of the Anthropocene.
How are you currently sharing your fieldwork?
In some cases, my fieldwork is shared through experience with others who meet me or join me in some kind of collaborative process in a designated ‘field’ of some kind. I share it as a lecturer and member of the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes where I am currently a Research Fellow, with the fine art and music students and faculty. I share through exhibition, audio production and more diffusely through my website ‘earthkeptwarm’. Lastly, I hope to share in the future, new and emerging work interested in what it is to conduct field work, what is field work for artistic research and how do artists conduct fieldwork in their own right, outside of the established mixed criteria of other research disciplines in the arts, humanities and sciences. This will hopefully be in the form of a book and podcast series.
Fieldworking from home