Project research and development: exploring the Museum’s archives and listening to the sounds of footfall.
I began developing this project over 18 months ago following an invitation by the museum, and a big influence was time spent in Northampton’s footwear store, where I was able to get up close and to actually touch just a few of the amazing shoes in the collection. As I opened some of the boxes, I seemed to experience a sensation of a lived life that ‘jumped out’ as I lifted the lid to explore the contents. The effect was most noticeable with shoes that had clearly been worn over a long time. This feeling I had of the kinetic energy in the boxes, as though the materials were still charged or energised through repetitive stepping when worn, has stayed with me as I developed the work and made the sound recordings. I also enjoyed the fact that the road and pavement surfaces were being replaced in Northampton’s Cultural Quarter – the timing of the street renovation works seemed to join in with the project, by revising the acoustics of Guildhall Road, outside the Museum.
The heavy boots in the images below, with their metal hobnails and irons: protective elements on the soles (boots c. 1940), really got me thinking about the sounds wearers would have generated as they made their presence felt when working, walking, moving on different surfaces and materials, in and through different locations and acoustic spaces. I wondered how the sound would have affected the wearers’ own sense of presence and identity and the interpretation by others.
Following this time to touch, and get close, I found that the weight, construction and purpose of this footwear suggested a paradoxical tension between protection and damage; defence and attack… where the floors or the surface of the ground walked on or in, would ‘suffer’ the damage due to the force exerted, rather than the shoes. Of course various forces (frictional, horizontal, vertical etc) would have entered the wearer’s body due to the lack of what we now understand as shock absorption. It would have been very difficult to run in a fluid motion when wearing these heavy, stiff shoes, particularly when moving on hard surfaces for instance. Wearers must have adapted, more consciously at first and then unconsciously, to the shifts of momentum necessary to change the downward motion to an upward motion for the following stride, through their deportment and gait, to compensate and minimise the shock affecting their bodies. It also got me thinking about perceptions of the weight of footwear and resulting footfall that can imply notions of character, gender, status and even class: where sounds are heard and translated as being indicative of other human qualities. A heavy, repetitive step with less random nuance, may be perceived as dull, intimidating, sombre or more ‘down'; whereas a lighter, brisker step may be perceived to be less threatening, more ‘up’. Hearing is a sensory and perceptual event: where the ear, brain and the entire body are involved in listening experience. I began to consider how acoustic qualities cross over via the senses to affect the concepts and systems we use to think: sound’s role in the formation of language or music and how it plays into peoples’ qualitative judgements, aesthetics and even systems of social ‘stratification’.