I met Stuart Hyatt, the Grammy-nominated interdisciplinary media artist, on the top of the Indianapolis City County Building. If you don't know (I didn't), there's an observatory there. From 28 floors up, the city looks oddly unfamiliar at first. But quickly, as buildings and streets start to resolve, it's tempting to feel like you've got the city figured out. If Hyatt's Indy Sound Map project is doing anything, it's showing us just how far we are from totally understanding any urban space.
Hyatt says the observatory is "criminally underutilized." Beyond the simple fact that not many know about it, it's difficult to find. That's something else he loves about it.
"You have to go through a lot to get her." Specifically: the freight elevator to the 26th floor, then another elevator for the final two floors. "Today I had to stand in the corner of the elevator," he says, "because the freight elevator is where they transfer people going to trial from the jail."
But for the howling wind we heard on the morning we met, it's usually pretty peaceful up there, a fact that Hyatt thinks stands in contrast to all that humming life down below. "I think it's the most interesting place in the city," he says.
Understanding why this building is so fascinating to Hyatt is crucial to understanding the Indy Sound Map. Because, at one level, the Sound Map is simple: Hyatt walks around with a backpack, a small camera, a field recorder and a shotgun microphone, and he records the sounds of the city, interviewing people he meets on his way.
It's more than that, though. The idea behind the Sound Map is to use these recordings to to highlight the complexity and strangeness buried in what most of us file away as banal and everyday. And what better place to exemplify this than at the City-County Building, a building most see as nothing more than a monument to bureaucracy? By putting his recordings into a "geotagged database of moments," (the beginnings of which you can see now on his website) which he hopes will lead to, "a bigger more complete truth" about this city, something that will surprise even people who have lived here all their lives.
This interest in giving voice to what might otherwise be skimmed over is nothing new in Hyatt's work. Through projects such as the Prison Mixtapes, where Hyatt helped inmates in the Minnesota State Penitentiary write and record songs about their experiences, Hyatt has striven to be an, "arbiter of meaning or of form for people who might not have access to the writing and recording process" more than anything else. He says the Indy Sound Map might be his "most literal interpretation of this yet."
Eventually, the Sound Map will cover the whole city, but he started with a 20-mile-long segment of Washington Street, stretching from the airport to German Church Road.
"If you want to learn about the 19th, 20th, and 21st century Midwest, all you have to do is walk on one street." And as he says, Washington Street, "has everything," effectively encapsulating something essential about city life and its unpredictability.
A striking example pops up just west of Downtown, right near the Indianapolis Zoo and the now-vacant General Motors stamping plant. Tucked behind the railroad tracks, there's a homeless encampment not visible from the road. Hyatt says, "I've interviewed those folks who have literally built homes out of trash and are living in the brambles."
As close as they are to the tracks, he asked them if the trains ever wake them at night.
"And they said no, it's the sea lions barking from the zoo." He says, "You can't make that up. Here we are right in view of Downtown, and you have sea lions waking up homeless people. It's just bizarre."
Of course, this notion that cities are strange, difficult to interpret organisms is not new to Hyatt. His whole project is inspired by Italo Calvino's 1972 novel Invisible Cities. In it, the emperor Kublai Khan receives an account of his incomprehensibly vast empire from the explorer Marco Polo. Polo divides his account into 11 thematic categories, such as "Cities & the Sky" which accounts for cities building upwards, and "Cities & the Dead" which addresses how cities deal with their histories.
Hyatt has lifted these categories, adding one of his own "Cities & the Field" - which deals with the rise of the Internet's "invisible waves that surround us," something Calvino couldn't have predicted in 1972 - to guide his approach to the Indy Sound Map. They also form the skeleton of an upcoming album he's created using these recordings as source material.
Entitled The National Road, it will be credited to a group of musicians he refers to as Field Works. Field Works are hardly a traditional band. Instead, they are a loose collection of collaborators from around the world, including Nick Zammuto formerly of The Books, and Valerie Trebeljahr of Lali Puna. The album came together mostly online. Hyatt explains, "I would write a few paragraphs, and then just send a musician an email and a Dropbox folder and I'd say, 'This is your assignment.' "
Despite including work from people all around the world, the album is remarkably unified. Perhaps even more surprising is that, for something made almost entirely of ambient urban sounds and snippets of conversation, far from being a noisy and un-tuneful, The National Road is melodic, even poppy throughout most of its length. Hyatt says that was intentional.
"My tastes skew toward folk and pop, accessible music. I love the super far-out stuff, but it's not what I want to listen to while I'm cooking."
On April 4, Hyatt will present a "visual manifestation of everything that the album was trying to explore" at the Harrison Center for the Arts. In addition to a live performance and an array of photos taken throughout the project, there will be an interactive 3D model of Washington Street.
"It will look nothing like a map, nothing like a street, but it will have these strata of components that a visitor to the gallery will get to play." Recordings from the Sound Map will be embedded in the model and mapped to a keyboard; a simple interface that anyone can use. Hyatt sees it as a metaphor for the whole project.
"Anyone can make music out of their environment," he says. "Anyone can find meaning in their surroundings."