AHRC Sensory Cities Network

Report from AHRC Sensory Cities Barcelona Workshop

AHRC Sensory Cities Network
16th and 17th June 2016
Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona

By Monica Degen, Astrid Swenson & Manuela Barz

In this report we summarize the core findings from the 3rd international AHRC Sensory Cities Workshop in the city of Barcelona. The aim of the series of workshops is to bring together a range of European urban professionals, museum curators and academics to share insights and methodological approaches on how to research, curate and represent the urban experiential realm.

This 3rd workshop was framed around the topic of power and the senses and focused on urban branding, tourism and place attachments. This was in part determined by questions emerging from the discussions in London and Cologne. As in Cologne, the senses strongly frame urban identity of Barcelona, yet for different reasons. Barcelona as a ‘second’ national city, the capital of Catalonia, has been heralded globally as a role model for urban regeneration and urban branding. In particular Barcelona’s successful urban design approach to creating public spaces and a democratic public realm have put the sensory experience of the city to the forefront. The start of such a conscious sensory promotion can be seen in the slogans featured on billboards where major urban renewal took place in the 1990s which stated: “Barcelona posat guapa!” (Barcelona make yourself beautiful) and helped locals endure years of urban redevelopment. More recently marketing campaigns have explicitly moved away from framing Barcelona’s identity solely around Antonio Gaudi and the Mediterranean city offering good food, sand and beaches but, more importantly, they emphasized Barcelona’s lifestyle which visitors can participate in by partaking in its public realm and space.

Yet, the ‘Barcelona model’ has also been increasingly questioned and re-assed since the start of the 21st century. Its success has brought about particular challenges such as a relatively sudden influx of mass tourism concentrated in particular areas of the city (from 1.7 million in 1992 to 8 million tourists in 2015) or the relatively new phenomenon of mass migration from non-European countries that started in the mid 1990s. Thus we decided to hold our workshop and focus our methodological approximations in a neighbourhood emblematic for many of the developments of the city: el Raval. El Raval has undergone dramatical urban regeneration since the early 1990. Situated in the city centre, this former working class neighbourhood and red light district has been reinvented as the ‘cultural quarter’ of Barcelona hosting in its northern part the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, The Centro de Cultura Contemporanea in Barcelona as well as numerous research centres and several universities. The south of el Raval has been redeveloped by cutting through its most impoverished areas to create a new avenue: the Rambla del Raval. However, the regeneration of the neighbourhood has not brought about the expected residential gentrification. Instead it has become Barcelona’s most diverse area (it has approximately 55% of migrant population while the average of the city is 18%), hosting over 50 nationalities and representing, we think, both the challenges of the city as well as its future.

We started our workshop with a philosophical inquiry into the cultural underpinnings of the hierarchy of sensory experience, the multiplicity of sensory perceptions and the need to replace the notion of ‘landscape’ for that of a multisensory environment. This set the tone for a range of Barcelona focused papers that explored the limits of the senses in displaying historical information about the urban past, the importance of Barcelona’s sensory environment in framing the city as a brand and how the sensory could allow to shape tourism beyond ‘the gaze’. Throughout the question of whose senses were present and absent, as well as who has the power to frame the senses informed the discussion. This was equally relevant when analysing homelessness in the city as for the understanding how tourism brings to the fore new ways of sensing the city. The afternoon included a guided walk around CCCB’s latest exhibition on Africa and a demonstration of the use of objects and senses in bringing experiences to live for different audience, including people with dementia as we had seen in Cologne. The last session focused on the Carrer Hospital from a variety of perspectives. We started with an insider’s view from a political scientist who had been born there and has seen his house and family past be demolished. This was followed by reports on how culture is used in multiple ways in el Raval by a number of actors from migrant charities to urban planners to connect people to place and create place attachments. We concluded the day with an interactive workshop with a presentation on the Barcelona of sounds and an interactive performance by the Theatre of the Senses that explored how to put the sensory body at the forefront of research methods.

The methodological emphasis of the Barcelona fieldwork workshop was on the representation of sensory relationships and how to make these tangible for different audiences. On the second day five inter-disciplinary, cross-professional groups were asked to analyse sensory power relations in the Carrer Hospital with a view to the ‘audience’ they were going to present them to: youth, tourists, policy makers, locals and museum curators.

Across the discussions, the following themes emerged particularly strongly:

1. Sensory Hierarchies: To understand, and change how power relations are created through the senses, it is crucial to take into account how sensory hierarchies have been constructed in different cultures and how cultural hierarchies are linked to the senses. Three points in particular invite further reflection: a) Historical, anthropological and philosophical studies have highlighted how, in Western culture, the visual and aural sense have long been identified with knowledge and communication and therefore the intellect and the mind, while smell, taste and touch have placed in a lower order as linked to the bodily. How these hierarchies affect sensing, research and policy in different contexts needs further reflection. b) In the context of Barcelona, the visual sense came up again and again as being reductive, as it simplified the complex identity of the city. Not only is the visual less reliable than we might think, but as can be seen through the false expectations created through urban marketing which relies heavily on visual promotion for example, places are often not experienced as they are seen. Consequently, when a ‘landscape’ turns into a multisensory environment conflict among different groups can emerge. c) Meanwhile, neurological, philosophical and anthropological studies have highlighted that there are many more senses than the conventional five and that we need to reframe how we think of experience and the sensory repertoire. d) Moral codes frame and influence sensory experiences. We learn to evaluate specific stimuli over time and situate them within our social and cultural knowledge. Neuroscientist have shown that sensory disgust and moral outrage are closely connected in the brain: as a result, humans, seem to associate poverty or defilement to particular sensory constellations. Urban planning and its link to social hygienism reflects this point clearly. At the same time work from the social and historical sciences suggests that these associations are cultural and historically constructed. This invites to reflect more on correlation or causation between sensing and judging.

2. Presence and Absence was a theme that ran through all our presentations and was captured by one particular presentation that elaborated this. We learnt that absence is an experience and does not equal emptiness but that absences are filled often by our imagination. The theme of absence and presence also threw up methodological questions about how to research sensory power relations and inherent power relations. Thus for example the ‘policy of land ownership’ is hidden, yet what is visible is increased homelessness, which people identify with sensory pollution. Here the questions are how research on the sensory can make visible the hidden land ownership and global financial processes? Another example is the way in which migration becomes perceptible in the public realm, namely when wives and children follow their husbands, and their daily practices and presence change the sensory make up of the public realm. Absence and presence are also related to power relations in historical research and contemporary policy making. For example, whose sensory experiences do we examine and highlight when analysing historical documents? Or when analysing how urban policy affects daily practices: whose sensory traces dominate and whose are hidden or absent, who is allowed to leave a trace and participate in urban life and which traces are removed (i.e. graffiti). Lastly in sensory analysis of branding places the question emerges who and what is present or absent in such campaigns?

3. How to decode and recode sensory perceptions was a question that follows therefore from the first two points. Here, like in the Cologne workshop, the importance of a public sphere in which such decoding and recoding can happen was seen as crucial. In most European cities, City Museums today fulfil this function strongly within the cultural ‘ecology’ of the city. By making history visible, they can enable debate and help to decode and recode the meaning of place (for instance by portraying migration as both a historical and recurrent phenomenon to offer reflection on a present and future process that is reshaping the city). This reflection is not limited to the historic centre in which most cultural institutions are located. We heard of tours for the suburbs or neighbourhoods that are often not regarded as tourism worthy, but which are aimed at the citizens to make them aware how through everyday, ‘banal’ details one can understand the lived history of a city. Through such tours the grammar of the city can thus be recoded in multiple ways to highlight the diverse histories that shape the city. An interesting debate ensued about the role of particular institutions and the sharing of responsibilities (for example should a city museum be limited to history, while a centre like CCCB deals with the future? Should migration be dealt with in a separate museum or be integrated at the core of city museums or national museums?) While the answer will depend to some degree on the particular museum ecologies of different cities, for all it seems important to ask what senses are enabled in this choreography? Who are exhibitions, city tours and debates for and how are therefore particular sensory experiences brought to the foreground or background?

4. Communicating the Senses: The power of the senses to ‘recode the city’ is also important in branding campaigns of cities. We heard about how Barcelona is more than a ‘great tourist postcard’ and how its branding had to transform to highlight the city as a business city and as a place for research in the knowledge economy. There has been a clear shift in urban branding from cities selling their ‘infrastructure’ i.e. a desirable physical environment (‘the hardware’), to selling the ‘software’ of the city which refers to the civic life, the (sensory) experience of its street life and which implies the ‘consumption’ of a city’s social and public life. This refers to a conscious use of desirable sensory experiences to attract specific social groups to settle in Barcelona, not just as a place to work but as a lifestyle choice. The use of the senses to recode perceptions could offer lessons to reflect on the ethical use of the senses for communication to different user groups.

5. Citizenship, conviviality and playfulness: As the senses frame how we interact with ‘Others’ in the public sphere, sensory perceptions can build walls or foster engagement. This applies both to the public realm and the more interpersonal realms. Some of the activities and talks by performers elucidated how games can create an imaginary that produces an experience. Those in the workshop felt that particularly the sense of touch brought people closer together, creating a collective experience and opening a space of conversation. What became very clear through this ‘dramatization of interactions’ is that such methods or activities might be used to create senses of attachment through the dramatization or visualization of shared sensory experiences. Here the process of ‘creating together’ and sensory exchanges is more important than the ‘product’ achieved. Two other presentations focusing on the use of culture in el Raval to foster the engagement between migrant and local citizens highlighted the importance of shared spaces and shared experiences to evoke a sense of citizenship and cross-cultural communication. Such playful activities could be used more widely to write a sensorial score to accompany dramaturgical projects that might link to policy or museum curation. However, it is important to choose the right senses, meaning that we need to be culturally sensitive to the groups that are involved in such shared activities.

There are thus two general, interlinked, methodological challenges emerging: the first (discussed in point 1-2) concernes the fundamental understanding of the senses. All research about the senses needs to engage with a) the uncertainties in our knowledge about the relation of the natural and the cultural in shaping sensation b) acknowledge the theoretical premises that underpin any sampling of the senses; and c) reflect on how the sensory findings challenge or transform these theoretical underpinnings. The second principal challenge concerns how and why we communicate about the senses. Again, here the purpose of the sensory communication is pivotal in that the sensory is hardly ever neutral, but political both in the public and in the private realm. How to create awareness about the power relations that shape the sensory was therefore the object of the fieldwork of the second day. While we are aware that publics overlap, for the purpose of the exercise we divided the groups into locals (adult), locals (youth), tourists, museum curators and policy makers.

Methods, representation and senses:
During the second day of the workshop we divided into five groups to do research on the Calle Hospital. Each group was given the task of developing a method to collect data to represent sensory research for a specific audience. The focus of the research was: How are power relations shaped sensorially on a street? While the London fieldwork focused on multi-modal sensing and the Cologne fieldwork developed attention to the sensory regimes created by one particular sense, the aim of the Barcelona workshop is to think how we move from researching the senses to representing our findings.

Below the notes from each group:

1. Research and Representing for Children (13-16 year olds)
By Manuela Barz, Lars Frers, Cathy Ross and Julia Loyd-Jones

We began by discussing our individual thoughts, interests and any inspirations or considerations that sprang from the papers delivered the previous day, particularly those directly about el Raval. These and later discussions were considerably enriched by the presence of ‘a Barcelona insider’ – Julia – who could contribute views and information that would not otherwise have been available to the group. How much background ‘scene setting’ a researcher needs in order to capture the full meaning and qualities of the sensory environment is probably a matter for debate, but given the short time available to us, this crash course was invaluable.

The social and intellectual development of this user group is an important factor in structuring the research. Members of this age group start thinking about themselves as part of their surroundings and possible engagements with their environment in the present but also future. They also increasingly start to question the positions offered by adults and develop a conscience of their own actions understanding cause and effect. Peer groups and friendships become very important. There was therefore agreement that for the 13 – 16 age group, participation and direct engagement were key for both the process of research and for communicating the findings in any sort of output: the project had to be designed on their terms.

It was also agreed that 13 – 16 year olds were more likely to be engaged by something about them and their peer group: in Lars’ words, ‘seeing their own position is the best hook for getting them interested’. It appeared also important to consider the cultural and social differences within this group and how those could and should contribute to the research.

We felt we faced many challenges …

  • Too old: Our own experiences of being 13-16 were situated in the past and within different cultural and social surroundings.
  • Wrong time of day: The 13 /16s were all in school so their current use of the street spaces was a matter for imagination rather than observation.
  • Wrong time of year: It was Ramadan – a consideration, given the local demographic
  • Too little time: Even for sensory explorations, researchers need a lot of time to prepare and think before launching into action – and this we didn’t have.


How were the 13/16s to collect the data? There was some discussion about what degree of structure should frame the project’s ‘task’. For example:

  • More unstructured / observing task: give them a camera / recorder and tell them to move around capturing whatever interests them personally. The data comes from their current physical use of the space and their movement through it.
  • More structured / game playing task: give them an imagined scenario, e.g. a global fashion brand wants to create a new perfume based on the ‘authentic’ smells and feel of el Raval: the task is to analyse the smells and pitch the results to the client. The data comes from their take on what the smells of the space mean to them.
  • More structured / analytical task: Analysing and marking pleasant and unpleasant sensory experiences in space using different coloured chalk – e.g. circling areas of particular smells or obstacles to or assets for use.

The project task we settled on incorporated everything (!) The 13/16s would be tasked with observing and analysing the sensory qualities of the space as it is now, but with a view to communicating to their peers their ideas for interventions that would make the space better for them. We assumed that the 13 /16s currently do not use the C. Hospital and its neighbouring public spaces very much – this was somewhere to go through, rather than hang out. The resulting data would be twofold – their analyses of the space’s current sensory qualities: plus their feelings about what it meant – as expressed through what changes, if any, they would like. Ideas around power would be brought into how the young people were briefed on the task, for example through prompt questions which focus on the source of smells / noise etc and who is allowed or not allowed to occupy or use the space in this way:

  • what / who is preventing you from sitting or hanging out here?
  • who / what has the right to make loud noises here?
  • Are the smells here made by ‘approved (by the Council)’ groups or individuals? Etc

A. Draft project scheme/ timetable:

  • Stage 1 – Explore and analyse: Young people divide up into groups to analyse the sensory qualities of C. Hospital. Different groups might go to different spaces along the street – Rambla del Raval /Pl. St Augusti etc.
  • Stage 2 – Mark up the space: Using coloured chalks, the groups mark up the space in an agreed way (eg the boundaries of a particular smell). The aim of this to try and capture the ephemeral, and it might be fun… We also considered that some agreement with local stakeholders might be necessary/ethically advisable before the chalking takes place.
  • Stage 3 – Compare and consult: Groups compare their findings with others. In order to bring a sense of wider community, the 13 / 16s would also be asked to test their ideas on groups or individuals beyond their age group – local residents, older people etc.
  • Stage 4 – Design an intervention: Decide on what intervention would be beneficial for their 13 / 16 age group – in the sense of making the space more habitable for them and their friends.
  • Stage 5 – Communicate to their peers
    social media / instagraming etc: an obvious way of communicating to their peer group, friendship or school networks, and 13 /16s in other cities. A Festival – embodying their findings in an event: possibly building something into the traditional Sant Ponc (?) celebrations that fill the street every May.

B. FURTHER observations
After these discussions, we walked the territory as a group, and then split up to reflect and observe on our own. This was intended to test out some of the ideas about 13 / 16s discussed above, and also to gather data generally with the overall requirements of the Sensory Cities network in mind.

The observations / findings included:
The marked difference between street space and plaza space and how to capture and evoke this difference in a productive way. One important aspect of street space is bodily movement and negotiation of distance with other (differently abled, smelling, noisy, decorated) bodies in movement.

The cultural and social differences of young people using the area – which groups can be found where and when (e.g. Jardins de Rubio i Lluch and hotels).
A mapping of what we perceived of as sensory obstacles for the specific age group that might provide some ideas of how they use space or what might prevent their use of space (e.g. physical barriers demarcation lines created by restaurants and cafes – tables, planting pots but also economic barriers – being able to afford a place in a cafe, and relationships/spatial sharing with other actors – e.g. homeless people and pigeons)

Mapping traces in space (physical and virtual) we perceived of might provide clues of the spatial use by the age group but also specific cultural and social groups – graffiti, instagram images (teenage tourists/students).

2. Research and Representing for tourists
By Astrid Swenson, Rita Wagner, Soledad Martinez Rodriguez

Our research was guided by the ‘learning outcomes’ we would like tourists to take away and by the question which format might be best suited to attain these. Having found the combination of interdisciplinary conversation and embodied fieldwork of the previous workshops so beneficial for our own reflection and inspired by the repeated call over the workshops for more sensory education, we agreed that we wanted to create an experience that would allow participants to feel, to reflect and to communicate. Given the massive increase in tourism in Barcelona and the resulting transformation of urban life, we moreover thought it important to discuss with our audience how tourists impact the spatial and sensorial regimes of the city. Therefore we wanted a format that would be participatory, interactive and analogue to give time to allow the senses to appear and to have conversations about their interaction and interpretation in a social space.

At the most general level the aims would be for participants to

  • become more aware of their own sensing
  • understand that the senses are not neutral
  • learn about the unique sensory landscape of Carrer de l’Hospital
  • develop transferable skills for decoding other localities with the sensory tools learned
  • develop as ‘reflective individuals and engaged citizens’

A small group tour on foot (8-10 participants at most) would best allow these aims, which could later be complemented by an app, a website or a written guide. The suggestions we make can be adapted to different age groups, and mobilities. While conceptualized for ‘tourists’, the tour is not designed to be exclusively for outsiders but would indeed be enriched by a dialogue between locals and visitors.

Our observations were strongly framed by the papers delivered the previous day, particularly those directly about el Raval. Intrigued by the realization of the previous workshop of how strongly our ‘sensing’ is informed by our ‘knowing’, we decided to use the fact that two of us were foreigners in Barcelona, to investigate what tourists might or might not observe without background information. We were guided by the following questions:

  • which of the sensory power relations discussed in the papers would we be able to detect?
  • which sensory traces did tourists leave?
  • which other sensory power relations might we notice on the basis of our disciplinary training and research (in particular in history and the anthropology of walking)?
  • which sensory experiences would we not be able to decode in situ? (and a point for the final discussion with the other groups: which ones might we completely miss)

To provide answers we chose to alternate moments of silent walking, and recording (mainly through photography and film) with conversations about our observations. As the aim of the tour was to be introductory, we decided to focus on the interaction of the senses rather than on one particular sense. We surveyed the whole street for an overview and returned to particular points for further observation (and a reflection on the changes in the sensory landscape at different points during the morning). We walked from Liceu Metro on the Rambla down Carrer de l’Hospital, crossed the Jardin de Rubio walked Carrer de l’Hospital to Plaça del Pedrò and entered Capella de Sant Llàtzer continued along Carrer de Sant Antoni Abat to Mercat de Sant Antoni, returned via Plaça del Pedrò and finished by exploring the Rambla del Raval just before lunch time.

In our longer report we detail some of the findings (link) on the basis of which we proposed the following tour:

To think about the different sensory ‘atmospheres’ and different uses of public space we propose to concentrate on the part of the street between Jardins de Rubió i Lluch and Plaça del Pedro, exploring the Jardins de Rubió i Lluch, the Carrer de l’Hospital, the Rambla, the Plaça del Pedro and the Capella de Sant Llàtzer. To stop and talk, the broader open squares seemed most suited.
If this were to become a real tour: we would obviously conduct more in-depth research into and collaborate with inhabitations and local organization and activists.

While developed for, and on the basis of, the sensory landscape of Carrer de l’Hospital, and for (rather individualistic tourists) walking and talking, the principles are adaptable to other media, places and audiences. The format will need to depend on a) the space and b) the aims, but the general format and aims of a small scale, interactive multi-sensorial tour can provide a good starting point to educate researchers, public and policy makers to become more reflective and engaged individuals.

3. Research and Representation for Museum Curators
By Beatrice Behlen, Mizan Rambhoros, Ilaria Sartori, Carolina Vasilikou

Initial thoughts:
We decided to make use of Ilaria’s equipment and experience and focus on sound, but without totally excluding the other senses (which some of us would have found impossible in any case – and which would have been a loss). We had stopped to gather our thoughts in the Jardins de Rubió i Lluch, a relatively tranquil space with bird song and no cars. Possibly partly influenced by the difference between this large courtyard and the street, we decided to focus on thresholds, hoping to figure out in the process how this theme and the sounds we would experience and record might express power relations. Physical thresholds implied dramatic changes in soundscape, switching from noisy to quiet environments (lo-fi vs. hi-fi), allowing us to appreciate sounds and acoustics of different spaces; crossing thresholds also conveyed differences in light, temperature and tactile experiences. The concept of thresholds allowed us to investigate the interfaces of public spaces as articulated by streets, courtyards, squares and alleyways. It offered us the opportunity to heighten our awareness of the different qualities of public space embodied in sensorial experience.

We did not have time to adopt the full methodology Ilaria would use for a project, e.g. surveying the territory, considering the characteristics of the participants, drawing up a form and map to record information useful and/or necessary for processing and disseminating the recording. We thus privileged experiential fieldwork, thoroughly practicing preliminary exercises, then proceeding to sonic exploration and recording, while writing or saying aloud additional observations.

We started with ear-cleaning exercises, which do not involve recording equipment and can be practised by everyone to promote conscious listening. From that we intended to go on to record sounds, focusing on the threshold idea (both physical and in terms of soundscapes – not necessarily connected).

a. Ear-cleaning exercise:
We stood at the threshold of the courtyard and the street and listened while cupping our ears, trying changing the direction of the ‘cupping’ or turning our bodies. We also ‘filled’ our ears with the more ‘natural sound’ of the courtyard, putting our hands over our ears to take this sound with us out onto the street and then releasing our ears to notice the sounds of the street. We also tried the same exercise backwards, walking from a more silent to a louder environment. For another exercise we worked in pairs. One person closed her eyes and was led by the other repeating a noise such as clicking fingers or clapping. Meanwhile, she had to listen, experience and possibly try to classify the surrounding sounds.

Beatrice: I thought I would be scared walking with my eyes closed and no one to hold on to but I was not, but I walked slowly and carefully. I noticed the texture and changes in the ‘feel’ of the ground more because I was stepping forward more gingerly than normal.
Despite my sight being shut off, I found it difficult to concentrate on listening to the sounds of the courtyard, partly because of noticing the ground and partly because of trying to listen where my guiding sounds was coming from. Some of the different kinds of birds in the courtyard had a more piercing, high-pitched sound which stood out from the others. Maybe because I do not speak Spanish, the conversations in the courtyard seemed more like a wall of sound rather than me being able to pick out intelligible snippets. But emotional intention was still recognizable in Spanish speaking voices.

Mizan: There was an incredible attention to the detail of each sound. Sounds usually heard altogether became clearer and more distinct. They were more discernible and the sources thereof identifiable.

Ilaria: I enjoyed observing Beatrice, Mizan and Karolina’s act of listening growing more conscious and playful after each exercise while walking, crossing thresholds, using the body to enhance perceptiveness, notice and appreciate the variety and diversity of sounds.

b. Augmented listening:
Following these exercises we started to use the recording equipment, to get used to the more intense sounds we experienced when wearing headphones, at first mainly in the courtyard.
We noticed that sight and hearing are difficult to separate, Carolina saw leaves moving and expected to hear a sound but it was not picked up by the microphone. Concentrating on sounds also created associations – such as a group of older women chatting at the same time as birds were making conversational noises.

Beatrice: When not hooked up to the recording equipment I tried to write down what I heard but I don’t really have a vocabulary for sounds so noted what made the noise, rather than a description of the noise itself: one bird, moving trolley, high-pitched bird sound, sound quality changes, shouts, wind sound, birds very loud.

Ilaria: It is indeed difficult, but very useful and interesting to try to verbally describe sounds as precisely as possible. When recording it is a good practise to record an immediate (verbal or written) description, including title and keywords, sound sequence and characteristics, timing, location, context, situation, motivation of the recording and as many further details as possible. Besides improving data, description also contributes to the construction of a “sonic vocabulary”.

c. Recording the street:
After experiencing our first augmented-listening short sessions (2-3 minutes each) inside the courtyard, we proceeded to explore of Carrer Hospital on both directions, first towards the Rambla Santa Monica, then towards Rambla del Raval, then back again. We took the recorder in turns (Mizan and Beatrice) to record sounds along the street, trying to bear the theme of threshold in mind. We crossed various thresholds including the quiet hall of a small hotel, S. Agustí church, a side entrance to the Boqueria market, a beads shop and the portal of an ancient building inside which workers were restoring and plastering walls.
Threshold map
From left to right: the portal where masons were plastering the wall, the entrance of the Jardins Rubió i Lluch by C/ Carme / IES, the porch under the National Library entrance, the hall of Massana School of Art, the hotel, the entrance of the Jardins Rubió i Lluch by C/ Hospital, the church of S Agustí, the bead shop, the side-entrance of Boqueria market.


  • Recording the ordinary sounds of the street was interesting but I kept looking and listening for unusual sounds.
  • We went in and out of shops, a hotel and a church to explore thresholds.
  • I really, really enjoyed recording the sounds of different beads in a bead shop. (This was a made-up sound, which, having my museum hat on, I was not so sure about.
  • Maybe this is less about recording what is there (which maybe does not really work anyway) but recording a subjective experience.
  • At times cars totally dominated the street and the soundscape.
  • We had nice other sense experiences such as the powerful smell of a box of mint delivered to a restaurant in a side street


  • Certain sounds can be specific to a particular city. You can perhaps identify a city through its sounds. However, there can be commonalities with other cities too.
  • Some sounds are more apparent in particular cities than in others. Scateboards in Barcelona are prevalent, also giving an indication of the use of public space, as well as the appropriation of space.
  • The sound of wheels in Barcelona is very distinct. People conducting everyday life with or accompanied by wheels: bicycles, trolley bags, prams, skateboards, rollerblades, scooters, delivery carts…


  • I enjoyed noticing how playful Beatrice and Mizan became while discovering, recording and spontaneously creating new sounds -playing with beads, ground, layers of sound and of course crossing thresholds.
  • I noticed they preferred quieter (hi-fi) environments where it is easier to distinguish (or create) single sounds and appreciate differences in texture despite low volume; they also explored sound “thematically”: wheels, steps, people, birds, water … The difference cars make in the soundscape was noticeable. Threshold crossing offered a very practical experience of the difference between hi-fi and lo-fi acoustic environments.
  • One interesting episode happened towards Rambla del Raval: in a quiet moment without cars we heard someone practicing classical piano somewhere at the upper stores of a building. We cupped our ears and pointed up the mic while trying to spot the sounding window and enjoy the music – until cars returned and covered it up again
  • As Beatrice remarked, the natural tendency was to look for unusual or special sounds; however, we rather experienced how interesting and special ordinary sounds become when listened to consciously and with a perspective or research purpose.
  • We enjoyed plural “listenpoints”: within the same space and surrounded by the same sounds each of us had particular attention, preference and even repulsion towards this or another sound. Teamwork and shared comments proved to be an effective way to enhance perceptiveness and listen through others’ subjectivity, including team and people we crossed in Carrer Hospital.
  • Dialogue was also necessary to develop research on power relations; after discussing we recorded more focused sounds including workmen, people collecting scrap metal and other sounds which more explicitly focused on power relations.
  • While enjoying listening as usual, I tried to concentrate on other senses as well, noticing for instance light and temperature changes from sun to shadow, from closed to open ambient; noticing smells (mint by the market, wax inside the church, plaster inside the portal where masons were working, urine in any dark corner)
  • Most of the recordings were realized in movement and include walking, changing the microphone direction, stopping or getting closer to appreciate particular sounds; as a result, they have a narrative and dynamic character.

Who creates the spaces that facilitate/enforce certain sounds? Who has control over the city’s soundscapes?
We picked up the sound of two men collecting scrap metal to sell for money. That they are doing that says something about the work situation in Barcelona. (BB: Would the sound alone say this?)
People using public space for work. The sound of the workers working makes them more visible. People can choose to not ‘see’ the everyday work of builders or scrap metal, but the sound of them makes their presence acknowledgeable.
Public space can be negotiated or mediated through appropriation – whether the builders, or scrap metal collectors, or even musical instruments played from apartments above. Public space does not have to be occupied physically. Through sound, we can all appropriate space in our own way – we can all have an acknowledged presence.
Spaces like the courtyard, which are quieter and where you can sit down, allow removal from the city’s soundscape. You can actively try to shut out sound, retreat into yourself, take power back.
Sensory experience of sound determines relationships of people to space, as well as the individual to the collective. You can be quiet, owning your thoughts and making sound associations that are exclusively of your interpretation. Or you can be part of the broader collective – contributing your sounds that affect the quality of a space.

There was no time to edit the recordings on the day. Ilaria will put together a one-minute soundscape. Apart from that, the recordings themselves are particularly enjoyable, rich in details and worth listening to. They will be uploaded at Freesound.org.

Thinking about our experiences and museums we had a few ideas beyond the kind of projects Ilaria is already involved in that have an exhibition output (https://barcelonetasonora.wordpress.com/).
A project relating to the plans of the Museum of London to move to a former market in Smithfield: record the sound of the present museum, which will disappear; record the sound of the building we’re going to move to before we get there and then eventually record the sound of the new museum.
We enjoyed listening and recording so much that we thought the museum should facilitate this experience for other people.
BB: We did not touch on this during our fieldwork, but I am very interested in projects Ilaria has done trying to receiver lost sounds, either by asking people to describe, mimic, or remake them. This could be really interesting for a museum.

4. Research and Representation for Policy Makers
By Steffano Faiella, Stefanie Göb, Rebecca Madgin, Monica Degen

Initial thoughts:
We started by discussing what policy makers would want to know, find useful to research about el Raval and Carrer Hospital in particular. Some of the thoughts we had: policy makers would want to know what current conditions are and what the challenges are for the future. From the talks we heard the day before and some of the work we have done ourselves in el Raval we thought that our focus should be ‘social cohesion’. El Raval is a very mixed neighbourhood with locals, migrants, tourists and people from lower economic groups constantly mixing. Considering that Carrer Hospital is regarded as a ‘boundary’ between different communities our policy research task became: does the Carrer Hospital allow all its groups manifest/express themselves on C/Hospital, are there enough public spaces they can own? How can urban policy foster this engagement with public space?
We decided to do ‘inductive’ research i.e. describe the sensorial inventory of el C/Hospital to then let policy makers decide how to address what we’ve observed. As C/Hospital is very long we decided to focus on the Placa Padro.

The different members of the group were allocated different tasks:
Steffano, our architect drew a map of the area outlining the spatial organisation of space;
Angelina and Monica started mapping a sensory inventory walking along the streets of the Pl Padro and noting which sensory experiences predominated etc. We noted the existence of a range of low grade shops that seemed to provide for the local and immigrant population: pharmacy, halal butcher, mobile phone shop, small supermarket, fruit shop, local cafes. Not one smell seemed to predominate. Visually it was a very legible space with a mixture of architecture from different centuries and a range of ‘touchscapes’ that engaged ones eye and tactile sense. Walking around led to a high engagement on the senses: one is very quickly immersed in the everyday life of the neighbourhood as streets are narrow, pedestrians need to negotiate their way with cars, bicycles and skaters. However, it is not overwhelming but fosters a sensory integration into the rhythms of the neighbourhood. We observed a diversity of people making use of the C/Hospital and Pl. Padro. An in depth study would need to assess this over different times of the day/week.

Rebecca sat in one spot and noted the sounds that were shaping the area. She tried to group the sounds into a range of themes: renewal, circulation, sociability, absence, building work etc to get a sense of the identity of place and existing social power relations.

We spend quite a while thinking about how we would present our findings to policy makers and with what purpose. We decided it needed to have a strong sales pitch that would start stating why the senses are important in understanding and managing contemporary urban life. Sensory experiences are an important asset for contemporary cities as they provide the unique differentiating factors that attract tourists and economic investment to cities. Locally it is also important to pay attention to the sensory geography of place as it can offer us information about the social cohesion of places: the public life and sensory coating of areas can provide an insight into people’s attachments to place and struggles over ownership of place and ‘practised citizenship’. It is hence important for urban policy to create and facilitate multisensorial places where different groups of people feel safe and claim these spaces. Public spaces need to be therefore to be designed to provide for and allow for a variety of sensorial experiences. We would then provide policy makers with a sensorial inventory of a particular place by presenting measurable sensory data such as: maps, ethnographic observation and photos that would be able to frame a sensory map of a place which would highlight the sensory hierarchies observed. The role of urban policy would be to allow for different sensory experiences but also different tempos to coexist in a place by fostering different types of activities but also leaving room for the unexpected to emerge.

5. Research and Representation for Locals
By Alex Rhys-Taylor, Carlos Delclos, Marta Tafalla and Diana Mata

Initial thinking:
To undertake a multisensory survey selection of four sites within the Raval, from the differing angles of ‘the Raval local’, ‘the tourist’ and ‘the Barcelonan’.

Asking locals?
After a brief initial discussion, we decided that in order to explore the sensory experience of space for locals we would, in fact, avoid the most obvious method: cold interviewing strangers and asking them about their experience. This decision was based, partly, on previous workshop exercises in Cologne and London during which we had noted ‘the public’s’ general unwillingness, and general inability, to quickly reflect and summarise their relationship with their immediate sensory environs. We also had the advantage of having two members of the group who were either local, or had a lot of knowledge about the social life, culture, geography and politics of the locale.

In response to the perceived difficulty of generating conscious reflection on low-level sensory ambience amongst total strangers, we decided to select four locations and reflect on our own relative positions to the locale, moving between the experience of a Raval local, locals from elsewhere in Barcelona, and an outsider ‘tourist’. The aim was to focus specifically on the experiences that seemed to emerge from, and speak back to, these positions. The main aspiration was that ‘outsiders’ would, given their removal from their familiar sensory environs, notice things that locals wouldn’t at first remark upon. At the same time, locals would be able to account for the ways in which local ‘knowledge’ and situatedness shaped the experience of these sensoria.

What sense?
We decided not to focus on any one particular segment of the sensorium but instead aimed to analyse as broad an ambience as possible. This entailed reflection on atmospheric heat, the texture of the floor, the visual perception of space as well as odour and, to an extent sound. We also made efforts to record emotional responses to these material sensoria, relating these various sensations to our relation to the place and discourses pertaining to it. Pen, paper and smart phones were used to record notable moments and materials.

Rambla del Raval
The most significant finding in this location, which is characterised by a broad vista, trees, shrubs, a handful of cafes and relatively few people, was the centrality of the perceiver’s relationship to the place in shaping perceptions of it. This was particularly striking in the difference of interpretation between the tourist, and the critically informed local. The tourist, for instance, interpreted the sensory ambiance of La Rambla del Raval as evidence of a sort of ‘off-the-beaten-track’ authenticity; an authenticity signalled by lower pedestrian foot fall, the use of the space by elderly locals, and the mix of bucolic birdsong with the noise of the city’s everyday (seemingly non-tourist) business. The local however, was less moved by the sensoria of La Ramblas, instead noting the ghosts of the developments that had been torn down to make way for this relatively new plaza, highlighting the relative absence of people as indicative of ongoing efforts to police the street of its street sleepers, drinkers and drug users. They noted the lack of benches, the necessity of standing, the imposition of bike tours barraging through those few people that were using the space. They also noted the absence of a squat that had been set up nearby. A history of impositions and displacement coloured the local interpretation of the same sensoria noted by the tourist. The other (non-Ravalean) Barcelonan also had a differing interpretation, ambivalently oscillating between finding pleasure in the aesthetic of the promenade and vegetation, while noting its general in-hospitability compared to other spaces.

The Cat Hospital
Perhaps the strangest location we covered as a group, although indicative of the relative ‘thrown-togetherness’ of El Raval. The space was unusually shaded, smelled lightly of cat urine, surrounded with a cold stone wall topped with a rusting wire fence. There was a general consensus on the relative weirdness of this space for all groups, with little else to compare the space to. While the tourist delighted in this weirdness, the local (from elsewhere in Barcelona) noted that the space was particularly unpleasant, sad and seemingly indicative of neglect. However, the ‘Raval local’ pointed to an analogy between the ways in which the area’s stray cats had been rounded up and incarcerated, and the ways in which the area’s most vulnerable humans are currently being treated. The sequestration of malodourous nomads and vagrants, whether feline or human, were taken as indicative of efforts to manipulate the sights and sounds the Raval for the purposes of tourism and investment. In this respect, the ‘disgusting’ cat hospital elicited politically significant trans-species empathy.

Placa de Sant Agusti
This plaza was in many respects, typical of many other ‘public spaces’ we saw around la Raval: an open space, partly shaded by trees, with two large buildings (a Hotel and a Church) along two of its sides. There were, however some peculiar features of the space, not least, the incredible stickiness of its floor, the pungency of decaying blossoms fallen from the tree, the relative quiet compared to the nearby road, and notably the presence of both homeless vagrants (hunched, ramshackle, dusty) and police (upright, large physiques, high-visibility vests). For the tourist the space was relatively un-inviting, offering no sun, no obvious place to sit and, aside from an historical church, little of immediate interest. The smell of the decaying blossom and the tackiness of the floor were deterrents, as too was the guilt elicited either by the homeless, or more precisely, by seeing the police removing vagrants, ostensibly for the benefit of tourists. For both locals (the Barcelonan and the Ravalean), the sensorium of space spoke volumes as to the struggles over the city; the relative neglect evidenced by the preponderance of pigeons and decaying matter indicative of the buck-passing between state and church, and the removal of rough sleepers by the police indicative of heavy handed containment measures, eliciting pity and anger. The proximity of defensive architecture with the church’s steps added to the place’s sense of in-hospitableness.

Passatge Bernardi Martorell
A small road, or alley way, cutting between buildings that line Carrer de’lHospital, the location would not have been chosen by anyone other than a local, not least for the fact that it appears a private alley way. It was shaded, devoid of any other pedestrian traffic, and notably quieter than nearby roads. Upon learning it was a public right of way, the tourist wants to slow down, peak past the neon lit window of a sports bar, through the doorways of what appear to be pantries and front rooms. Everybody else, however, moves through the space faster, not least after hearing that the community here are particularly vulnerable and in need of privacy. The seating area that the alley way opens out onto provided space for a lively discussion as to the relationships between the raw sensoria that we had just encountered, our biographies and the sensations that we experienced. The loud discussion attracted acrimonious glances from others using the seating area, speaking of the hushed ‘sensory order’ that characterised the smaller streets running away from the city’s central tourist areas.

To cite this report: Monica Degen, Astrid Swenson & Manuela Barz, ‘AHRC Sensory Cities Network Barcelona Workshop Report, 16th – 17th June 2016, Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona, [http://www.sensorycities.com/category/workshop/barcelona/report-barcelona-workshop/]

Recent Comments

    Sensory Cities

    MoniDegenMonica Degen
    RT @ProfGillian: Posthuman Agency in the Digitally Mediated City - my latest paper is online now and you can get a free copy here: https://…
    87 months ago
    _NinaJMNina Morris
    Great to see geographer @ProfGillian on Smile! The Nation's Family Album on @BBCFOUR #photographs
    87 months ago
    ProfGilliangillian rose
    honoured by this endorsement from someone using Stiegler in such interesting ways - thanks James! https://t.co/mtGfMgT1Bn
    87 months ago
    ProfGilliangillian rose
    RT @allartmarkets: Representing the claim that smart data can make everything great @OliverZanetti @AMValdez_OU #digimethods https://t.co/8…
    87 months ago
    RT @allartmarkets: Making a city smart takes much more than data infrastructure @OliverZanetti @AMValdez_OU @ProfGillian #digimethods http…
    87 months ago
    allartmarketsLiz McFall
    Making a city smart takes much more than data infrastructure @OliverZanetti @AMValdez_OU @ProfGillian #digimethods https://t.co/KHtQQaCIEG
    87 months ago