“The Invisible Suburb” traces the sounds of domestic life

Phonography Austin stages a sonic art installation in a now-empty area of the flood-plagued Onion Creek neighborhood


What does a former neighborhood sound like?

For one night, Phonography Austin will present “The Invisible Suburb,” an outdoor sonic art installation in a now-empty area of the flood-plagued Onion Creek neighborhood.

“The Invisible Suburb” takes place 7 to 9 p.m. July 18. 7306 Onion Creek Drive. Admission is free.

The installation will occupy about half a block along Onion Creek Drive, in an area that’s now a part of a city park. Battery-powered speakers will be hidden in the unmown grass and the public will be free to walk up and down the sidewalk as they please.

Phonography Austin is staging the project as part of World Listening Day, an annual event held since 2008 on July 18 to celebrate the practice of listening and to raise awareness of the ecology of the world’s acoustic environments. This year’s theme, contributed by international sound artist Annea Lockwood is “Listening With.”

Answering questions together via e-mail, the event’s lead artists Vanessa Gelvin and Alex Keller say they interpreted “listening with” to mean listening “to the present, natural soundscape of a Texas park in the midsummer twilight interspersed with and augmented by recorded, domestic sounds as a gentle reminder and recollection of what the site may have sounded like on any summer evening.”

Austin’s largest watershed and long prone to flooding, Onion Creek courses eastward across the city’s southern sector. In the mid-1970s, a middle-class neighborhood was built within a large bend of the creek. But as early as 1981, a flood destroyed houses. And there were more floods: one in 1998, the Halloween flood of 2013, then the Memorial Day flood of 2015. In all, hundreds of homes have been lost over the years.

By 1999, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Austin had began a homeowner’s buyout program which continues today. And the once residential now-houseless streets are being folded into Onion Creek Metropolitan Park.

Say Gelvin and Keller: “We chose the site of Onion Creek Metropolitan Park because, at that location, ‘listening with’ means hearing a sonic environment through remnants of a domestic past and amid the flora and fauna of the present, thereby encouraging quiet contemplation.”

Artists who have created field recordings for the project include Henna Chou, Anne Fichtner, Travis Putnam Hill, Neal B. Johnson, Lacey Lewis, Christopher McConnell, Daniy Oberle, Sean O’Neill, Travis Pope, Josh Ronsen, Christy Tappe, Jackson Warren and Gelvin and Keller.

There’s no music in the recordings. No scripted or performed text. Instead, say Gelvin and Keller, what will be heard are “the sounds of domesticity and of what one hears in domestic life — the scrapes of pans while cooking in the kitchen, the muffled laughter of children heard through a shut window, the hum of air conditioning keeping a family cool.”

“The Invisible Suburb” is an audio homage to the Onion Creek neighborhood’s residential past while a chance to listen within in its present as a park.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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