AHRC Sensory Cities Network

Report from AHRC Sensory Cities Cologne Workshop

AHRC Sensory Cities Network
26th and 27th of February 2016
Kölner Stadtmuseum and NS Dokumentationszentrum

By Monica Degen, Astrid Swenson & Manuela Barz

In this document we summarize the key points that emerged from the presentations and discussion of the 2nd international AHRC Sensory Cities Workshop in Cologne. 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. In particular we are interested in comparing how sensory perceptions feature and are researched in a variety of academic disciplines and urban professions across Europe.

The discussions expanded the themes of the London workshop around researching the senses and urban planning, but also emphasized more everyday practices, urban identity, and sensory museums. This was in part determined by questions emerging from the London discussion; in part it grew out of the specificity of Cologne. By moving from London to Cologne, the workshop not only inscribed itself in a long history of Anglo-British exchanges – thus inviting to reflect on the role and range of cultural transfers and mutual emulations between cities of different sizes and ranks, but also to reflect on comparability and the role of particular sensory regimes of individual cities.

The senses strongly frame urban identity in Cologne, captured in its current marketing slogan “Cologne is a feeling”. This is a city whose name (at least in English and French) is synonymous with the scent of perfume, its adjectival form is also the name of a taste – the beer called Kölsch – and of the sound of the local language. It is a city with a strong musical heritage and songs in local dialect collectively are sung during the street carnival which celebrates all thing sensorial in the shadow of the Cathedral. The sensory landscape of the city plays an important role in developing local attachments not only for those whose ancestors have lived in the city but for first and second generation of migrants. Beyond the clichés of Kirche, Kölsch, Karneval, the city’s multiple urban transformations and reinventions from one of the largest medieval cities, to a, by most accounts decrepit provincial (French) town at the end of the 18th century, to a city that had the eyes of the world on it thanks to the Cathedral completion project of the nineteenth century (somewhat akin to an ‘Olympics’ makeover in modern days – and in a kind of ‘Cologne effect’ transforming Romantic sensibilities up and down Europe), to the rebuilding after the destruction during the Second World War and the reinvention as a city with long multicultural roots – offer wider lessons on the sensory experience of urban transformation. Lately questions of conflict in the urban space, of attacks on women, of racist demonstration and anti-racist countermeasures (that draw on the city’s linguistic, artistic and musical heritage) have dominated the news. With this in mind, in the programme we pursued general questions and the specificity of place.

We thus maintained a strong emphasis on architecture, planning, curation and artistic visions, but also paid more attention to the role of sound and music and discussed the underlying political questions about integration, which emerged as so important to the London workshop, by having speakers from a political and activist background. Throughout we continued exploring the fundamental questions about the theoretical framing of research and practice in a broad geographical focus. A range of presentations discussed how to put the body at the forefront of research to capture sensory experiences and attachments to place through a comparative geographical focus. The next panel explored how to draw on the senses to mobilise urban identity in both urban planning and protest movements in Cologne. The afternoon discussed the role of museums in translating sensory experiences across time and history. This included an exploration of the NS Documentation Centre, a guided walk around the City Museum of Cologne by the curators and a dementia tour in the City Museum which illustrated the use the senses to activate memories in those suffering dementia. On the second day five inter-disciplinary, cross-professional groups were asked to sketch out research methods to examine one particular sense in the Eigelstein street.

Discussions highlighted a range of themes:

1. ‘Social practices’ and ‘sense making’: The importance of ‘social practices’ in shaping and framing sensory regimes was apparent across talks and discussion. Sensory experiences in the urban realm are a co-creation between the built environment, people’s behaviours and environmental factors. The senses link subjective individual worlds with the social world. One way of conceptualising sensory experiences in the city would be to draw on ‘practice theory’ and think of the senses as an ‘assemblage of practices’ and the sensory as the mediating or uniting factor. There is a complex layering of sensory dimensions, not just historically or in forms of multiple sensescapes but also in terms of sensory perceptions interpreted from financial, political, cultural, historical or social perspectives. Semiotics also appears useful as a framework to think about the relation between discourses and narratives – i.e. the importance of storytelling for sensemaking – by distinguishing between denotation (‘what is sensed’) and connotation (the associations that are connected to sensing).

2. Politics and planning: Across case studies and theoretical approaches, the workshop discussed the political uses of public space in cities and the role the senses play in framing these. From the discussion it became clear that while academics tend to politicise the senses more, and are often critical of the way capitalist cities plan and curate the senses in particular ways and with particular aims, urban professionals often approach the role of the senses in their work in a more pragmatic manner because of temporal, financial and bureaucratic constraints. Although there is an open process of consultation, the sensory qualities often become a ‘niche issue’ despite being central in mediating a sense of place. Moreover, as the senses are not neutral but framed by cultural, social and political beliefs, the question of who curates the senses for whom is central. While it is generally assumed that the role of policy and planning is to ensure the quality of space – it is often less clear (i.e there is less agreement) who can and should determine what quality and what constitutes quality for whom?

It was, however, agreed that the senses provide common ground to speak about the politics in public spaces – the senses make tangible arguments around citizenship and the public sphere which are otherwise often theorised rather abstractly. Furthermore focusing on the sensory experience of place allows most individuals to be able to have an informed opinion to be part of a debate. Here not only public consultation, but other fora to reflect publically on the role of the senses and the politics of space appear crucial. As will be discussed in the next section, the museum as an institution offers some solutions and it appears worth further reflection on how these that might be purposefully adapted to planning.

3. Museums and the curation of the senses: The workshop reflection on the sensory dimension and impact of curation took us through the different spaces, and their interconnected histories, of the institutions we were holding our conference in. Firstly, the director of the NS-Documentation Centre Museum made us aware of the senses and emotions literary inscribed in the walls of the buildings – the former Gestapo headquarters – through the writings of former prisoners tortured here – and about the importance of the sensory experience of tangible remains in addressing difficult histories for a historically aware political culture. Through a curators’ tour of the Stadtmuseum we reflected further on the importance of historical research, narrative ‘and story telling’. It became clear how for many displayed objects sensory experiences can be evoked more strongly and meaningfully through a combination of historical information and personal memory rather than through a ‘re-enactment’. How dialogue about the stories of different people (i.e. the meaning given to objects & places across time and space) can be enabled was further illustrated through a discussion of the making of a temporary exhibition on the Eigelstein quarter (where we had our fieldwork) in the museum and in the street. The Dementia Tour moverover showed how the senses can be used to reactivate memories. The senses thus can be also used as democratising leveller as all social groups and ages can participate in discussions that focus on senses and objects. The museum is a crucial space that can enable this dialogue – but experiences from the museum might also be applied more broadly in consultations and planning and other forms of public and professional education and training.

4. History and the senses: Across the different themes, the importance of history was always present, yet also often implicitly rather than explicitly defined. Historical ‘importance’ and heritage value determines often a strong focus on the city centre rather than its peripheries. The focus of most discussions on the historical core needs to be problematized more. Yet, what should probably precede this, is a better historically underpinned understanding of the role of centre and periphery in the sensory landscapes of those who use the city. Across talks the importance of history in framing sensing and sensemaking was stressed as particularly important in the city of Cologne. But questions about particularity need a broader comparative basis. Despite the rich research in urban and sensory history, empirical studies on sensory urban histories remain far and few between. To understand how particular histories inform sensing and sense making in different places, more sensory historical research is needed.

5. Methods and senses: On the second day of the workshop we spent some time on Eigelstein trying out different methodological approaches to research particular senses in mixed groups of academics and practitioners. It is important to point out here that one should view these as ‘methodological approximations’, in other words they are of explorative nature and experimental in their conception.

The five groups came up with the following methodological insights:

a) City of Vision: The first group discussed visual methodologies and how greater multi-sensorial awareness might affect these. The group was in some ways the least heterogeneous (all members had a lived in the city, studied its history and worked on historical and visual sources) – therefore the first question we explored was whether and how: 1. similar, yet subtly different disciplinary training and professional work as historian, art historian, artist, photographer and curator, 2. prior historical and political knowledge of the street, and 3. memories both personal and professional affected what we ‘sensed’ and how we would approach the street through visual methods in our work. We used a ‘walk along’ methodology with each other (i.e. we walked and talked about what we saw, sensed and how we had or would use it in our work as historian, curator and photographer) and then analysed the results at the end.
Key points of discussion were:
1. Each of us have different sensory maps of the street depending on our purpose of visiting/seeing it – when focussing on the ‘visual’ for research we all tend to look up beyond street level.
2. Our methods combined visually driven questions and conclusions (picking up clues about the history through the architectural fabric) with textual (attention being drawn to particular bits of the street through knowledge of the historical record) and oral (interest and representation being driving by conversations with inhabitants and visitors) ones.
3. Knowledge makes us see and sense: We all saw things we had not seen before by having our attention drawn to different layers of history and interpretation.
4. Conversation creates community: from a discussion of the museum’s exhibitions and the use of photography it appeared strongly how conversation about objects, memories and uses through the senses can positively create a sense of place and decisions about regeneration.
5. We noted that for all of us our research involves an element of fieldwork and participant observation but we usually do not discuss the process in our writing as part of the discussion of methodologies. We discussed whether this should be done more in historical or art historical work.
6. Visual methods and multi-sensorial awareness: we found that external conditions (a cold, clear Saturday morning with few people and cars in the street) meant there were few sounds, smells or movements distracting from a focus on the visual – and indeed the built-environment rather than the uses of street by people. Awareness of the importance of other senses on this occasion came rather through knowledge of the historical record, memories of other conditions in the street and the discussion with the other groups after the fieldwork. It seemed valid to focus on one sense and then to combine insights.
7. Turning from analysing what we saw to how we would represent it, we noted that given the strong links between senses and imagination – the representation of visual sensing can not only be done visually but also powerfully through narrations and art forms that draw on other senses.
8. We found our existing methods not challenged through the experiment, but we found that we a) literally ‘saw’ more through the interdisciplinary exchange and b) were reflecting on a broader range of question by having the question about the interaction of the senses in our mind.

b) City of Touch: The second group experimented with different methods to access the touchscape of cities. A range of issues were discussed before setting up some research questions: What kind of city do we encounter through touch? How can this be translated in a non-visual but tangible representation? What are the politics of touch? Is urban living about organising non-touch? How is touch mediated through the other senses? This group decided to try three different methodological approximations. The first one involved walking blindfolded through a street and the blindfolded person describing in detail what she could feel. The touchscape can be divided into the sensible bodyscape and the other environment. The descriptions would inform a model of a touch city produced by an artist. The second method, involved detailed observations of social interactions: when do people touch in the city? Under what circumstances and for what reason. It quickly become evident from our short observation of the Eigelstein that apart from direct inter-personal touch of people familiar to each other, or in social groups, economic exchanges are the base for most tangible connections between people and between people and the environment: products are designed to be touched, people pay and touch, people hold shopping bags, people try clothes on etc. The last method consisted in following different people from different age groups to observe how they manoeuvred the city, a ‘choreography of the city’ based on an explicit focus on their interactions with the environment.

c) City of Sound: The third group developed methodological approaches to research the soundscapes of the city. Cities have rhythms, sound changes within 24 hours but also with seasons. Sound sources mix and create their own symphony. In winter inside and outside sound are more separated; in summer they mix a lot more due to open windows and doors. Although sound levels can be measured and assessed – sound perception is subjective depending on the role of the listeners and their occupation. Sound categorisation can already evoke feelings of bad or good sound such as noise, music, and ambience. The perception of loudness also depends on emotional reactions and experiences, whilst traffic noise is often associated with negative feelings (added health concerns), laughter and music (especially in Cologne – collective identity through dialect/music) seem to evoke positive reactions. Familiarity of sounds to a ‘visitor/listener’ are similarly important for orientation, and attentiveness. Specific auditory information of a city might also form part of signature sounds such as the bells of the Cologne cathedral. The team looked at a particular part of the street first and recorded different sound sources to present a soundtrack of that spot. It became evident that whilst some sources provided more constant streams (ventilation, distant traffic, accordion player) others were fading in and out of hearing (train, cars, people passing by) or created sound events (bell on a bicycle, burst of laughter). Our recorders picked up everything in range, humans do not, they blend out, concentrate on particular sounds, react to sudden event sounds and also later remember/reflect on particular sounds (like me tweeting about the sound bottles make when thrown into a recycling bin). Recording provides researchers with references – copies of specific sensory information (temporary sound/image) removed from their actual context. Technological recordings isolate information but humans also look at sound sources and process other information from the environment. By moving sensory information out of space and time, vital contextual sensory information is lost that has to be substituted for. We took images of sound sources as additional sound references to present later. Recording is usually a conscious process – a reflective process in itself requiring decisions over what is worth recording and what is not, for how long, and who is receiving it. When analysing a city’s auditory sensorium we concluded one has to look at a variety of factors – time (day, year), differing subjective experiences including a variety of different human ‘listeners’ (their sensory reflections in and out of context) – but also objective readings, interactions between the materiality of the build environment, humans, transport and environmental factors (e.g. wind) – extending the idea of the thermal maps (presented in Carolina Vasilikou’s talk during the first day).

d) City of Taste: The fourth group experimented with methods for discovering the tastescapes of the city. It is obvious that one cannot directly ‘taste the public’ but the group focused on finding traces of ‘practices of taste’. The main methods to collect these were mapping, photography, observation and autoethnography. In terms of mapping the group mapped the tastescapes of different establishments i.e. is there a concentration of certain food types, restaurants, supermarkets in certain areas? This could be aided by a visual map of different locations of taste and expanded into a ‘global map’ that would trace where different foods, tastes come from and how they travel. Photography could be an underlying method for different methodological approaches. So for example different ‘practices of taste’, active versus finished, could be captured and analysed. Photographs could also capture the signages of food both in terms of food advertising and the signages of shops: what food identity is created by these adverts? Observation as a method revealed the spaces and temporalities of taste i.e. as the morning wore on more food practices started to happen at the Eigelstein. This highlights the temporality of the urban tastescape that changes over the day but also changes according to the seasons. Observation further revealed the ‘sociability of food’ – tastescapes are often experienced in a convivial setting. Lastly the group reflected on how researching social media in regards to the tastescapes of particular streets or areas of the city reveals how taste gets mediated as a social, sensory practice and reveals geographies that go beyond the immediate street setting.

e) City of Smell: The fifth group focused on methods regarding the smellscape of the city. The team identified a ‘general smellscape’, which is heavily influenced by the existing climate. In other words: cold weather suppresses or diminishes smellscapes whereas warmer weather expands the smells. The design of buildings i.e. open/closed windows and doorways also influences the movement of smells from the private to the public realm. The group resorted mainly to auto-ethnography to access the smellscapes of Eigelstein. This was partly due to the more ‘private’ nature of this sense: one needs to access smell individually to capture it and the associations that emerge have a tendency to be of a more personal nature. Social practices and activities are reflected by the smellscape of a street: for example the smells emanating from shops, a person that has had a shower and then goes onto a street, the disinfectant smell in shops that reflects the start of a new day. The group suggested that temporal research is needed to analyse how certain smells punctuate the rhythms of a street.

6. Researching the senses and developing a toolkit: The final discussion about how to translate the findings into a toolkit reinforced the observations from the London workshop about the importance of the multiplicity of sensory training approaches, and the need to reflect this in a toolkit i.e. in recommendations. An important point that came up from our discussion on different methodological approaches to research the senses was the need for interdisciplinary research terms when examining urban experiences or sensory dimensions in the city. It was highlighted that rather than just developing a ‘toolkit’ we need to voice the need for the arts and social sciences to be involved in planning processes, exhibition design, and regeneration processes. The challenge is to think about structures that would enable these kind of exchanges.

To cite this report:

Monica Degen, Astrid Swenson & Manuela Barz, AHRC Sensory Cities Network, Cologne Workshop Report, 26th-27th February 2016, Kölner Stadtmuseum and NS Dokumentationszentrum’, [http://www.sensorycities.com/workshop/cologne/report-from-ahrc-sensory-cities-cologne-workshop/]

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