Urban Nature

A few days ago I spent a couple of hours at a coffeeshop in the fine company of some of Singapore’s contempory artists. The subject of my installation arose, so I briefly described my project and put forward one of the questions I wish to explore through my research: What do Singaporeans consider to be the sacred elements of their current soundscape?’ I expressed my view about natural sounds being something sacred, and how these sounds often have difficulty competing against the soundscape of modernity and ‘growth’ in today’s cities.

Kai responded by saying that people who grow up in predominantly urban environments will consider the urban soundscape to be nature; the urban becomes ingrained within their concept of what is ‘natural’ in their aural experience of the world. Nature hasn’t been drowned out by modernity, but rather what is natural to people has changed as a result of urbanization. City dwellers, he suggested, have simply adapted and subconsciously adjusted their notions of nature. Urbanites can, and perhaps should appreciate the Cagean beauty in all sounds of a bustling city soundscape – whether traffic, construction or other echos of supermodernity.

In response to Kai, Mr Lee argued that the sounds that characterise the urban could never be considered nature in the true sense, since they are usually man-made, channeled through machines and hence unnatural. Kai persisted with his point of view saying that the unnatural has now become our nature, whilst Mr Lee still contested that this isn’t and never could be the case; nature can only encompass things that are alive! If one wishes to experience nature in Singapore, one must escape the city and go to the jungle.

Hearing these conflicting opinions argued passionately from both sides, was as entertaining as it was interesting!  Recollecting this conversation leads me now to the question; Have our perceptions about what constitutes nature really changed?’

Like all living things, humans have to rely upon their innate ability to adapt to the environments they exist in in order to survive. If our minds were to indicate that our surroundings were anything but natural to us – if we perceived our surroundings as unnatural and alien – then we would become vulnerable, fearful and perhaps unable to survive. So, I propose that if we do experience the urban as natural, it’s out of our necessity to survive.

That said, I believe true experiences of living nature are deeper ingrained in our collective experience as a species, perhaps even written into our physiological and emotional responses. Before humans embraced the urban – before the metropolis and industrialization – the sounds of nature were more abundant and commonplace within our everyday lives. If you take an evolutionary perspective, the human ear has existed hearing the sounds of nature for many more millenia than urban sounds. Maybe this is one of the reason why these sounds may cause greater reverberations within our deeper selves, and why these sounds still define nature in the truest sense.

So, although it is in our nature to adapt, it’s of tantamount importance that we also adapt to nature. The soundscapes of the future must give space to the sounds of nature, and strive towards balancing them against man-made sounds.


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