LOOK17: Benjamin McDonnell / Open Cities

Musician and photographer Benjamin McDonnell works at the edges of these two mediums. For LOOK17 he has developed an interactive sound installation that responds in time as you walk, creating a sonic exchange with corresponding routes in Liverpool and Hong Kong. Here, he talks to us about how he developed the piece, and the idea of the listening camera.

The idea is that you download the free app, to your phone, and as you walk a loop around the city, different zones activate when you’re in them, as well as some music when you go round, and the music is based on recordings of buildings in a similar walk in Hong Kong.

Open Cities

This is the virtual walk in Hong Kong – its on Canton Road, up the middle, to the observatory. Its about the same length as the Liverpool route. I picked 8 colonial buildings to work with. I was reading a lot of Richard Sennett and he talks about open architecture using and wanting to interject into the other, to make us see things in a different way. I’m a photographer and a musician, but sound is my link to photography – it is about seeing things differently, and seeing through hearing. So the idea is that the sound works in opposition to what you’re seeing – it’s not meant to be a harmonious, necessarily nice experience, although it’s not unpleasant either!

There are 8 different pieces – some of them use sound that is then being modified. Kowloon Park has this big aviary in the middle of it, so I’ve got a recording of birds from that aviary, for the star ferry I’ve got a field recording of the ferry crossing – that’s been modulated by the frequency of the ferries and other things. I use it in quite a structural way. I’ve used an open source programme which you can design synthesisers in – called Pure Data – its super geeky! So you actually make synthesizers out of these elements – and things like the numbers of the dimensions of the buildings are what control those parameters.

Then there’s a visual element also – I’ve been doing these scores as well, of the sound, that’s like a graphic, so that’s a visual component, which exist as photographic prints. At the moment there is this one, but as there are 8 bits of music, I could, in theory, create 8 of these.

starr ferry score001

I started working on the Liverpool one, because I wanted to see the two docks areas of each city which is quite a nice link – they’re both ports, with that history – I was trying to research what would have come between the two cities, but it seems like everything and anything – yes there’s quite a history of exchange.

You last visited Hong Kong two or three years ago, so you’re referring back to somewhere you’ve been in the past. Are you working with old sound recordings that you’ve made incidentally while you’ve been staying there?

Yes, some, but there’s been a lot of Google travelling, so its Google Maps and found material, measuring the buildings, that sort of stuff, so there’s been a lot of research via the internet. Necessity is the mother of invention!

Could you tell us a bit more about that way of looking through sound – arriving in a place or looking around in a photographic way but experiencing that through the sound, and positioning yourself in space.

I wrote a dissertation as part of my MA course which I called ‘The Listening Camera’ so I was trying to explore the idea of the camera as a listening device as well as a looking device, so what that means to place yourself through sound within an image.

I’m not describing how a building sounds, like ‘ you’re listening to the antiquities monument office’ now – but there are some kinds of sonic clues, like the birds or there’s clips from the shipping forecast in Hong Kong, or the street crossing ticking sound – they make really interesting polyrhythms.

There’s something about sound that people seem to just ‘get’ – actually photography has that too, but everyone registers sound on a level – and you can’t close your ears, so its just there, which I think is an interesting thing.




Open Cities is an interactive piece of music. As the participant walks around a short loop of Albert Dock, eight compositions, each based on the dimensions of colonial buildings on a corresponding route in Hong Kong are played. The music disrupts and punctures, revealing the city in a new way.

To experience Open Cities please download the free app Echoes xyz which is available for IOS and Android phones. Once the app is open, load the project Open Cities, this should be the first in the list of projects. Follow the map and walk around Albert Dock in any direction you wish, the different sounds will play as you change location. Headphones are recommended for the best experience.

Open Cities begins from a point outside Open Eye Gallery and is on throughout LOOK17, 7th April – 14th May 2017


Interview by Anna Taylor www.anna-taylor.net


















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