Audio Walks

An audio walk is a kind of tour guide which can be listened to on headphones while walking around a place. This is usually used by museums and tourist boards but writers and artists have also begun to use them as a creative tool. One of the advantages of this kind of writing about place is that, while it can be listened to anywhere, it is usually listened to in the place where the narrative is set and writers are able to play on this fact to create surprising effects for the listener.

“The format of the audio walks is similar to that of an audioguide. You are given a CD player or iPod and told to stand or sit in a particular spot and press play. On the CD you hear my voice giving directions, like “turn left here” or “go through this gateway”, layered on a background of sounds: the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two. My voice gives directions but also relates thoughts and narrative elements, which instills in the listener a desire to continue and finish the walk.” (Janet Cardiff, The Walk Book)

Part urban guide, part detective fiction, part film noir, Janet Cardiff's The Missing Voice (Case Study B) entwines the listener in a narrative that leads them from Whitechapel library across London's East End.

“For me, The Missing Voice was partly a response to living in a large city like London for a while, reading about its history in quiet libraries, seeing newspaper headlines as I walked by the new stands, overhearing gossip, and being a solitary person lost amongst the masses. Normally, I live in a small town in Canada, so the London experience enhanced the paranoia that I think is common to a lot of people, especially women, as they adjust to a strange city. I was trying to relate to the listener the stream-of-consciousness scenarios that I constantly invent in my mind when I see someone pass or walk down a dark alley. It is one of my frustrations as well as entertainments to constantly have these visions and voices, which are quite often scary or violent, running through my brain as I encounter the simplest of realities. I think it is a desire to dramatize my life, make it real by making it cinematic – probably the result of reading too many detective novels or watching too many movies.” (Janet Cardiff)

Listen to The Missing Voice: Case Study B

Though Janet Cardiff has made many audio walks, she also explores the potential of video walks. Alter Bahnhof Video Walk is designed to be watched and listened to on mobile phone or iPad while walking around the old train station in Kassel, Germany. The listener/viewer watches a video on their mobile device while listening to a commentary on headphones. The commentary gives instructions and directions on where to walk and where to look. The viewer watches events unfold on their screen while standing in the exact location where they were shot. This creates an uncanny sensation in the combination of reality and fiction.

The Loss Adjusters is an audio walk that takes place on the Isle of Portland off the south coast of England, an area where limestone is quarried. The walk begins in an empty office in Easton on the island. The listener then heads out past a cemetery and towards a quarry, where they hear various stories about a young offender turned gravedigger and the daughters of a quarryman who live in two huts on the edge of the island. The stories are narrated by a female writer, whose texts about Portland were apparently recovered from a computer in the Easton office, and a male representative of the Loss Adjusters, a mysterious organisation who are responsible for accounting and balancing the loss of material on the island. The narrative is accompanied by field recordings from Portland – the swell of the tide, the banging and cutting of quarry work – and, as they walk, listeners may experience some of what they hear seeping out into reality.

Listen to The Loss Adjusters

SATSYMPH (short for ‘satellite symphony’) make use of satellite-based navigation systems (GPS) on smartphones in their audio dramatisations of historical events. Sections of the audio play are triggered on the listener’s mobile phone when passing through the place that relates to that scene or event.

Their audio-play 1831 Riot! is set in Bristol and dramatises the story of the 1831 riots that took place there. As the listener walks around Queen Square and its environs, their smartphone picks up pieces of audio relating to events happening in and around the square. These include monologues, dialogue, sound effects and music.

Listen to extracts from 1831 Riot!