Louis Vuitton Soundwalk and Other Urban Sound Walk Practice
Short Survey of the Related Sound Art History
The ‘sound walk’ concept comes after the sound art movement in the 20th century. The movement thrives on the development of recording technology in the latter half of the century. Aldous Huxley declared the 20th century the Age of Noise: ‘Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire – we hold history’s record for all of them,’ (Butler 2006, p.890). When industrial and urban noisiness destroy traditional harmony, the sound artists and musicians begin to use ‘noise’ to excite and stir the audience’s sensibility. The Italian futurist Luigi Russolo wrote in his book of the Art of Noises Futurist Manifesto: ‘We delight much more in combining in our thoughts the noises of trams, of automobile engines, of carriages and brawling crowds, then in hearing again the Eroica or the Pastorale’ and ‘let us cross a large modern capital with our ears more attentive than eyes'(Butler 2006, p.891).
After Russolo, in 1952, American composer John Cage envisaged his work of 4’33” to introduce the concert hall to outside noise. The pianist makes no sound during the performance and the audience is forced to consider and appreciate, in real time, the real sounds of the place in which they are situated. ‘Even if a modern audience feels reluctant to meditate in a semi-silent atmosphere, by making noise they become a part of the live soundscape and co-creators of the artwork’ (Butler 2006, p.891-892). Sound artists, as well as musicians, have continued to bring audiences outside conventional sites of cultural consumption to appreciate local and situated sound. ‘In listen, a series of walks composed between 1966 and 1976, the audience would meet outside the concert hall where they would have their hands stamped with the word ‘LISTEN’ and they would then follow Neuhaus (who said nothing) around the nearby streets where they would be led to sonically interesting areas, like under fly-overs’ (Butler 2006, p.892). Sound artists have also attempted to overthrow an over-reliance on the visual and break free from the concert-hall conventions of the aural. ‘Bill Fontana, for example, installed Sound Island (1994) in the Arc de Triomphe inParis, in which he broadcasted live sounds from 16 places in the city to a platform above the monument. By treating the urban landscape as a living source of musical information, he tries to challenge old idea of noise and encourage people to appreciate the sounds they live with every day in a new way’ (Butler 2006, p.892).
Butler defines the concept of ‘sound walks’ – ‘by which I mean walks in the outside world guided by recorded sound and voice, usually using a personal stereo – have developed from a number of areas including oral history, museology, sound art and sound ecology’ (Butler 2006, p.889). In my opinion, sound is a medium for stimulating the audience’s imagination of the place and space; walk is a way to invite the audience to participate and reflect. Thus, sound walk is supposed to create an embodied, complex and multi-sensory experience for the audience to bring back their memory and emotion and to arouse their inspiration and understanding.
Louis Vuitton Soundwalk
In 2008, just before Beijing Olympic Games, Louis Vuitton launched an audio-tour product which is a unique location-based soundtrack to portray three Chinese main cities -Beijing,ShanghaiandHong Kong. The target-market aims at the tourists who would head toChinafor the Olympic Games, as well as theLVloyal customers and local listeners. The soundtracks are narrated by three Chinese well-known actresses- Gong Li forBeijing, Joan Chen forShanghaiand Shu Qi forHong Kong. Through their voice the three narrators guide the listeners geographically through an area of a city or a district – Gong Li revisits the Central Academy of Drama where she graduated from in Beijing; Joan Chen takes the tourists through the quaint French Concession area in Shanghai; and Shu Qi starts her path from Luk Yu Tea House, along Stanley Street, to the Central of Hong Kong. They also present a romantic or bittersweet love story which is written by Mei Feng (up-and-coming young Chinese author) in order to offer a cinematic experience for the audience.
The Louis Vuitton Soundwalk synchronises the voice with the music and the signature sounds of the city, which is composed by Kubert Leung and Albert Yu Shan Sa. It is also produced in collaboration with Soundwalk – ‘SOUNDWALK is an international sound collective based inNew York City. Founded in the early 2000s by Stephan Crasneanscki, Soundwalk made its name by producing cutting-edge audio guides, mixing fiction and reality to provide an exclusive and poetic discovery of a city, on the bridge between Baudelairian stroll and cinematic experience.’. Because of its contribution, Soundwalk won the Audie Award in 2009 for theBeijingand Shanghai Louis Vuitton series. Another contributor of this LV Soundwalk is R. Murray Schafer who introduces the concept of ‘soundscape’ and loves travelling worldwide to collect urban sounds of cities, such as in a market, on an intersection or in a subway.
Each Louis Vuitton Soundwalk is one-hour long and available in six languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, Japanese and Korean. It can be purchased separately in six currencies: 17 USD, 130 RMB, 140 HKD, 12 EUR, 2000 JPY and 8 GBP (no Korean currency). This audio product is officially released on July 4th, 2008. Customers can purchase and download the soundtracks to their MP3 players and iPods. At that time some mobile customers can also download them with exclusive mobile contents such as images, texts and maps.
The Impact of LV Soundwalk and Other Sound Walk Practice
I still remember when I first read the LV Soundwalk on Vogue magazine in 2008, I had the pulse to buy and listen. However, after I tried some samples online, I felt disappointed that the soundscape is not layered amazingly enough. I can understand that in the promotion Louis Vuitton intends to sell its brand and the concept of soundwalk which match their slogan of ‘the art of travel’. But I still hope that the forward-thinking luxury brand can have more sincerity to layer the soundscape and dimensionality more delicate and deeper. Another problem is that Louis Vuitton does not combine the actresses’ own experience to script the love story. I feel that their voice is not authentic enough to touch me, and it is obvious to see on screen that they are acting. IfLV tries to give the audience a cinematic experience and let them be immersed into someone else’s memory, they should select the voice more carefully, whether it is warm and embracing enough to convince and move the audience, not just famous faces. Now, for the reason of research, when I try to purchase the product, I find that the website (www.louisvuittonsoundwalk.com) is no longer available. I cannot get the real statistics on profit thatLV made in the promotion, but one thing for sure is that the sales ofLV products inChina rocket up after the Beijing Olympic Games.
In terms of building the soundscape, Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff did a stunning job during the period of 1999-2006. ‘Cardiffand Miller recorded the soundtrack of Ghost Machine (2005) using an invention made in what was then West Berlin: the rias Kunstkopf microphone, a microphone placed in the ears of a dummy human head. On headphones, recordings made in this way give the listener the impression of being surrounded on all sides by really deep space. Combined with the images and with three-dimensional reality, the effect of this sophisticated spatial acoustic is very seductive. Creating an audio and video walk in a place that itself is a kind of illusion machine had a very special appeal to the artists’ (Lilienthal 2005, para. 4). Another element Cardiff used in her Ghost Machine is fear, as Schafer says, ‘When man was fearful of the dangers of an unexplored environment, the whole body was an ear.’ (Cox 2004, p.31). There are three layers of reality interacting in these walks: the spectator moving through the rooms, the modified image of the rooms on the camera display, and the soundtrack guiding the visitor via headphones. ‘The music through the headphone and the unconscious man being carried across the stage suggest a thriller’ (Lilienthal 2005, para. 5).
The mechanical and electronic arts had dramatically altered the fixed and historically grounded relations between art and audience, shifting the emphasis away from contemplation to participation, to active involvement in the work (Tofts 2005, p.13). With the boost in development of internet and computing techniques in the 21st century, sound artists and musicians have realised multi-sensory experience for the audience by multi-media ways. In 2005, a collaborative research team installed a project named Urban Archeology: Sampling the Park at Place Emilie-Gamelin. They explore the social history of a city square inMontreal using sound, image, and Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors. This project examines the ways in which memory can be inscribed in space, drawing on field recordings, oral history, and archival material to form a deeply layered mediascape (Crow 2010, p.155). There is free Wi-Fi access in the park, and the participants use an iPAQ, a headphone and a GPS receiver to start the sound experience. The designers also provide a website with 3D images for the remote online players. The players can log on into the virtual park. They can also communicate with other players through an exploded menu. Interpersonal interaction allows options for text, voice, or video chat and access to personal sound, image, and video files (Crow 2010, p.163-164).
Louis Vuitton is not the first company to use sound walks to promote their brand awareness. Adidas has sponsored the Bronx graffiti soundwalk in 2003 and commissioned a freely downloadable MP3 walking tour ofGlasgow’s music venues in 2005. Another global sportswear giant Nike has even developed a long-term integrated digital strategy and focused less on marketing and communication initiatives but more on developing digital product and service platforms. Since launch, the Nike+ has had a meaningful impact on the company’s drive sales. So far (July, 2010), more than 2.5 million Nike+ kits have been sold (Kansara 2010, para. 5). When the runner wears Nike+ kit and an iPod or iPhone, they can hear music, running information and even applaud from friends. It deviates from the concept of ‘sound walk’ a bit but still shares similar digital strategy.
With the development of recording, computing and internet technology, sound art practice has achieved a high level of offering multi-sensory experience for the audience. Sound walk is one of the main sound-art forms to appeal to a wider audience through multi-media techniques. Although sound walk is still relatively limited into academic and artistic circles, it has huge potential for reaching common people socially and culturally and for the big companies to promote their brand awareness. The Louis Vuitton Soundwalk, for example, has presented the forward-thinking concept of synchronised audio journey. Nowadays, we have more technological advantages to experience the sound walk practice not only physically but also at home through iPhone, iPad, 3D virtual-reality website and other integrated digital techniques.
Butler, T. 2006, ‘A Walk of Art: the Potential of the Sound Walk as Practice in Cultural Geography’, Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 7, no. 6, pp. 889-908.
Cox, C. & Warner, D. (eds) 2004, Audio Culture: Reading in Modern Music, Continuum,New York.
Crow, B. Longford, M. & Sawchuk, K. (eds) 2010, The Wireless Spectrum: the Politics, Practices, and Poetics of Mobile Media,University ofToronto Press,Toronto.
Kansara, V. 2010, Fashion 2.0: What Fashion Brands Can Learn from Nike, <http://www.businessoffashion.com/2010/07/fashion-2-0-what-fashion-brands-can-learn-from-nike.html>
Lilienthal, M. 2005, Playing Roulette with Reality Ghost Machine in the Hebbel-Theater, Berlin, <http://www.cardiffmiller.com/press/texts/ghostmachine_en.pdf>
Tofts, D. 2005, Interzone: Media Arts in Australia, Craftsman House,Melbourne.