Since 2018, I N F R A has been developing sonic experiences for an audience that isn’t able to listen or, rather, hear in the traditional sense of the word: People from the deaf communities in Latin America and beyond. In a collective research process that is informed by principles from the sound arts, inclusivity, or industrial design, acoustic signals are made perceptible through vibration, visualisation, and other means.
Guely Morató and Víctor Mazón Gardoqui, the two minds behind I N F R A, introduce their project in a multimedia report that we are publishing as a part of our on-going thematic focus on “petri dish.”
How can we design sound experiences that include deaf audiences? How does sound become more than an auditory sensation and take on a tangible, palpable form, thereby creating a transformative experience for such audiences? Can we shift towards an expanded listening experience in the realm of sound arts?
It was questions like these that occupied our minds when we embarked on our journey that became I N F R A, an initiative of the Sonandes platform for research into sonic arts that was founded and is directed by Guely Morató in collaboration with Víctor Mazón Gardoqui, a researcher and artist with a focus on perception and sound. The launch of I N F R A led to the creation of a space where sound and vibration can be felt and seen, transformed by collective research that explores how deaf people establish connections with sound and vibration.
Crafting Sound within Deaf Communities
The journey began in 2018 in Bolivia with a laboratory that united community members of the Asociación de Sordos de Cochabamba (the association for deaf people in Cochabamba) with local and international artists. The goal was to come together regularly over the course of a month to craft a public sonic experience with-and-for deaf people. These actions took place in the context of the art residences of the 3rd edition of Sonandes: International Biennial of Sound Art, the only biennial in Latin America that focuses on arts-based research into sound. Every edition of the biennial is dedicated to a specific topic; in 2018 it had the curatorial theme of “perception and listening.” I N F R A premiered at the biennial in Cochabamba and was later invited to institutions and festivals in La Paz, Medellín, Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, and Montevideo. These various actions revealed the potential of multisensory sound experiences for deaf people and the general public.
Making Sound Tangible
Audiences are guided through this journey by a group of mediators, a cadre of multidisciplinary practitioners to which new members are added in each city and who present a set of custom tools to the participants to navigate the labyrinth of physical sound. These mediators build bridges between art and science and deaf audiences, ensuring that the project meets the needs of each local community. Local associations are asked to collaborate in a collective dialogue on the perception and expanded listening of sound. The core of the project aims at inclusivity, welcoming people that are deaf as well as all other audiences to participate and create a tapestry of experiences and knowledge of sound events that coined their lives.
For the community of the deaf, the world of arts that embraces the physicality of sound and touch holds a promise. By collectively creating artistic expressions that make sound palpable, individuals enrich their sensory experiences. Resonance and vibration are a means to convey the emotional and artistic content of sound to those who may not hear in a traditional sense. Multisensory sound is a call to celebrate the individuality of each participant and the diversity that makes our sensory experiences unique. This concept of sound as a multisensory experience promises inclusivity in sonic arts. It allows artists to create works that can be felt, experienced, and understood by a group of individuals and communities larger than what they would cater to in other contexts.
Learning with Deaf Communities
Our work in Bolivia showed us the value of sound experiences in early education of deaf children, as well as the need to promote a discourse of equality regarding people who do not hear in the conventional sense of the word. This discourse was consolidated in a third iteration of I N F R A that took place in Medellín, where participants proposed to expand the experience by creating a space of inclusion that guarantees an expanded auditory experience for people with different disabilities. The family environment in which a deaf person grows up drastically influences their way of experiencing the world, their self-esteem, and development. In Buenos Aires the participants focused on designing a family experience, focusing on collective participation and fun. In Montevideo we worked with a band of deaf percussionists called Aguante Beethoven. The band approached sound from a visual perspective and created music through light-based reactive electronics that helped them improve their rhythm and beat accuracy during their intense candombe performances. In these cases, the participation of deaf communities was related to the legitimacy of deaf culture within their territories. Schools, families, and institutions that mediate the life and development of deaf people are factors that influenced the reception of our proposal and the decisions made by the participants in the creative processes. Beyond the experiences gathered during the meetings I N F R A initiated, these communities have articulated a discourse and shaped political action in their territory: The resources and reflections provided in the laboratories have enabled them to configure a discourse for their community.
A Multisensory Sound Massage
The research conducted during I N F R A wasn’t just an artistic, scientific, or academic journey but a collective archive of personal experiences that underline the realization that sound is not confined to a single dimension but stretches across our senses. Whether you can hear perfectly or not, whether you’re young or old, everyone can experience the world of sound in a way that transcends our traditional understanding when sound is accessible as a multisensory experience. It’s not just auditory; it’s tactile, visual, and synesthetic. When a sound is born, it reverberates through the air, water, or the different arranged mediums it encounters, and in this interaction it passes through our skin, our largest sensory organ.
The human body becomes a resonating chamber, amplifying and absorbing sound vibrations. This phenomenon allows participants and audiences to craft immersive experiences, where sound moves through our bodies as a cavalcade of sensations that transcends the boundaries of hearing, creating images that do not exclusively belong to the domain of vision. This is an idea that has been crucial to our platform when focusing on the use of sound as the main material to work: the territory of the image does not belong to sight only. Perceiving sound creates images in the receiver and participants that were blind or deaf communicated a great intensity of images after being exposed to those sound bath massages and collective expanded listening sessions at an intense volume.
On Designing Tools and Educational Methodologies for the Edge
In a world preoccupied with visual and auditory standards, designing for the edges – a concept stemming from industrial design – and shifting the focus towards the sensory experience away from societal norms and with and towards an audience who may have previously been excluded from traditional sound-based art forms requires a new language, regardless of our sensory abilities. Touch is underappreciated; we inhabit a world that emphasizes other senses, but through the research with I N F R A, a vital sensory canvas for the arts emerged. In this approach, the spotlight shifts away from societal norms and instead celebrates the unique sensory experiences of each individual; regardless of the sensory abilities, everyone can engage with sound through the skin. So this research relies on a deeper exploration of the senses and perception. Consumer electronics are mass produced for a normative body, rejecting non-normative bodies and excluding – in this case – a set of tools to perceive sound by other means than our ears. For these reasons I N F R A has been designing custom open hardware devices, where electronics and designs are shared with free licenses, ensuring that the project’s research benefits are available to a dedicated audience: special subwoofer boxes on which to lie, cabinets to enter and experience as resonant bodies, custom analog and digital oscillators to go beyond hearing ranges, instruments to make sound waves visible, amplify friction, etc.
The core of I N F R A’s body of work is a process in which participants collectively investigate the different aspects of sound during regular meetings, discussions, and workshops. They share findings from their research and translate them into a set of tools that feature theoretical and practical inputs for a range of topics: sensing, visualizing, and transcribing everyday and artificially created sound. These are published in a collective open publication called I N F R A Variations for Body, Space and Subwoofer System: a Toolkit.
Beyond Auditory Boundaries
The experiences gathered during I N F R A remind us on a daily basis that sound is more than just sound – we feel the vibrations of sound while we travel in the metro, the pressure on our bodies when using the elevator, and we listen to the floor while pushing a trolley at the supermarket. As soon as you start noticing sound through vibrations, a reality emerges where the senses unite, where the diversity of human experience becomes obvious, and where sound does not exclusively belong to the cochlea anymore.