Alastair Boone is the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
Why an artist from the U.K. is mapping the din of dissent.
Flares fired by police punctuate the voices of protesters: “If you stay together, they cannot arrest you,” they say, “There are too many of us.” Over a megaphone, a police officer shouts at the crowd to vacate or be subject to “impact weapons.” The scene culminates in a familiar refrain: “the people, united, will never be divided.”
This is the sound of an anti-Trump protest in Portland in 2016.
“When I listen to that I kind of get a lump in my throat,” says Stuart Fowkes, “because I can kind of feel like I was there.”
Fowkes is the founder of a new project called Protest and Politics—a sound map that documents the sounds of protest, as they grow louder in cities around the world. Indeed, from Brexit to Trump’s election, the past year has known more protests than many before it.
“I think we are going to look back at these last few years as a time when dissent was rising, when voices of opposition were becoming stronger, and people were saying: ‘I’ve had enough of the way things are and I’m going to make myself heard,’” says Fowkes.
The majority of the sounds that comprise Protest and Politics are from the last decade, but some date back to as early as the first Gulf War, in 1991. Many come from the protests following Trump’s election in the US and Brexit in the U.K., but they also run as far afield as women’s rights protests in Istanbul, and support for Narendra Modi in New Delhi.
“What’s great about this project is that it’s little slices of history,” Fowkes says. “It’s a small way of demonstrating to people that there is a kind of global solidarity around protest.”
The project is part of a larger program Fowkes founded called Cities and Memory—a world map that uses sound to document the lived experience of any given destination. Fowkes, who is a digital consultant and hobby musician based in Oxford, curates each of his projects in his spare time. The majority of his field recordings are volunteer submissions, and the rest he records himself. Since its founding in 2014, hundreds of volunteer collaborators have collected all types of sounds (One project, “The Next Station,” documents the sounds of the London Underground, while another called “Sacred Spaces” collects sounds from churches and temples all over the world. One contributor even mapped the sound of the internet.).
But this new project is the first to document the sounds of history—the politics and protests that capture the past and help to shape the future.
Fowkes says we have an intimate relationship with sound because it is one of the first senses we develop—we can hear long before we can taste or see. “Sound can bring you back to a place or time in an instant in a way that probably only smell can rival” Fowkes says. “I think that’s incredibly valuable.”
Sound maps have certain strengths that visual maps lack, especially when it comes to documenting cities. Daily life moves quickly—the experience of a place is easily affected by current events, or even just the time of day. Think of the Tokyo fish market, which is alive with splashing and yelling at dawn but settles to a hum by noon. With a sound map, you’re capturing more than the noise of a place—you’re also documenting the way it sounds at a particular point in time.
“The protest project really is the ultimate display of that,” Fowkes says. “It’s much harder to get a protest recording than it is to record a church or a railway station, or something that’s always there.”
The sounds of Protest and Politics provide a snapshot into the politics of the last decade, and the ensuing responses. Scrolling through Fowkes’ playlist, listeners can engage with place-specific tensions—the student protests in Chile, for example, or rallies against salary cuts in Greece—while also documenting the ways in which dissenting populations have shared in certain sentiments over the past few decades.
(Fowkes’ listener can also enjoy an additional sound for each location on the map—each field recording is accompanied by a remix, allowing the listener the option to engage with a place through either its plain reality or an artist’s reimagining, or flip between the two.)
“Fundamentally, you learn about two things,” Fowkes says, “you learn about similarities, and you learn about differences.”
Indeed, protestors across the US used a number of the same chants last fall. Refrains like “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “Trump grabs pussy, we grab back” made their way from Los Angeles to Denver, Louisville, and New York.
The same sort of unity is present abroad. Take casserole protesting, for example, using pots and pans to make noise in lieu of voice. The method of protest originated in Latin America but can be heard in Fowkes’ European and Canadian field recordings as well.
“What you pick up from dotting around the map is something of a unified voice that’s becoming stronger, becoming louder,” Fowkes says. “More and more, people feel like they’re part of something.”
Fowkes’ project cannot escape the bias of his contributors. While some attempt to capture multiple perspectives, listeners will notice that most recordings document a backlash from the left against the growing austerity of conservative politicians worldwide, with some exceptions.
But this does not bother him.
“There’s no such thing as a completely neutral, apolitical map; there never has been in the history of maps,” Fowkes says. “I wasn’t trying to create a completely representative picture of every protest that’s taken place.” Instead, his goal is to provide a snapshot into some of the ways that people have been voicing their dissent around the world.
“I hope people will listen to [Protest and Politics] and take away a sense of unification,” he says. “I think there’s a general feeling that we need to rise up and make our voices heard.”