Artist Reflection: Raise the alarm

Michael Clemow is a sound artist who worked with Eyebeam on the Acoustic Infrastructure program in 2016.



The Long-Range Acoustic Device (a “sound cannon”) was used by police against protestors in Ferguson, MO. Follow @eyebeamnyc on Instagram for more sound sites.

It was my job to explain sound art to the people who run New York City’s PA systems. It’s harder than you think.

I always begin my pitch the same way: “Imagine you’re standing on the subway platform: ‘The next Manhattan bound L train will arrive in  4 minutes (insert sound art here)… The following  Manhattan bound  L train will arrive in (insert more sound art here)… 16 minutes.”

East Lake MARTA Station Alarm

Atlanta’s northern suburbs have always resisted public transportation because of fear of crime. @eyebeamnyc

The screens of Times Square run 24/7 and the light they emit can be seen from Earth’s orbit. Visual artists have access to this airtime for a few minutes each day, but nothing of the sort exists for sound artists.

If adspace is controlled by the market, sound is often policed by the state.

It turns out that, when it comes to audible media, Times Square is relatively quiet. I have to admit that, despite being a sound artist and sensitive to this kind of thing, this was, in fact, a surprise to me.

Long story short, the MTA didn’t get back to my emails. So I began to investigate other options: the strange hybrid places called “privately owned public spaces” (POPS), but these spaces were also reluctant to share information about their PA systems.


Technological advances in public address and alert systems, seen side by side. @eyebeamnyc

The search began in earnest when I started to inquire at the city agencies. The NYC Parks were supportive and helpful, but in the end, they always relayed the same answer: “The sound system is for emergency and security purposes only.”  

Crowd control, sirens, announcements, all are forms of sound as a weapon. A clear example is the literally ear-piercing sound cannon used by the police in Ferguson, and military grade LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Devices). .

The thinking is that by allowing artwork to be broadcast from these PA systems in public space, owners run the risk of crying wolf — At a time when our nerves are on edge around the issue of so-called “security” in post 9/11 New York are we so afraid that we cannot share the soundspace with artists?

It’s not difficult to see why sound is policed in a way that vision isn’t. We cannot avoid sound. Kim Seth-Cohen puts it this way: “the ear is always open… always multiplying the singularity of perception into the plurality of experience.” 

As the recent hacking of a Vietnamese airport A/V system shows, these authorities must maintain complete, unerring control of such a system to retain the right to raise alarm.


A recently de-installed Federal Model 500 T defense siren. @eyebeamnyc

Michael Clemow is a sound artist and the producer of Acoustic Infrastructure, a public sound art exhibition and symposium on sonic interventions into PA systems in public spaces. Follow @eyebeamnyc on Instagram to see our running archive of sound sites, or read the special issue of Continent journal about Acoustic Infrastructures.