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Sensing Vulnerability, Listening to Urban Atmosphere. The political possibility of participatory sound art practice within Palermo’s suburbs.


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The article discusses how the sonic environment reflects and shapes the atmosphere of vulnerable urban areas. It aims to investigate the potential of critical listening as a tool for attuning and exploring everyday public feelings, and it seeks to engage collaborative sound-art practice as a relevant means for empowering local communities. The contribution provides the outcomes of a case study developed in Palermo at "Quartiere San Giovanni e Paolo" where the author was involved in a public art process as researcher and sound artist, and developed a participa-tory project named Voci Fuori Campo. The action-research uncovered unprecedented perspectives on the relationship between vulnerable neighborhoods, power hierarchies, social inequalities, and gender issues.
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Sensing Vulnerability, Listening to Urban Atmosphere
Nicola DI CROCE1
Abstract. The article discusses how the sonic
of vulnerable urban areas. It aims to investigate
the potential of critical listening as a tool
for attuning and exploring everyday public
feelings, and it seeks to engage collaborative
sound-art practice as a relevant means for
empowering local communities. The contribu-
tion provides the outcomes of a case study
developed in Palermo at “Quartiere San
Giovanni e Paolo” where the author was
involved in a public art process as researcher
and sound artist, and developed a participa-
tory project named Voci Fuori Campo. The
action-research uncovered unprecedented
perspectives on the relationship between
vulnerable neighborhoods, power hierarchies,
social inequalities, and gender issues.
Keywords. Sonic Environment, Social
Vulnerability, Participatory Sound Art
Practice, Policy Analysis, Design
Listening to
The Political
Possibility of
Participatory Sound
Art Practice Within
Palermo’s Suburbs
Social Vulnerability and Collaborative Design Processes1
The term vulnerability, used in social sciences in opposition to resilience, describes
the exposure to adverse impacts and triggers including social exclusion and natural
disasters (see Alwang et al., 2001). In particular social vulnerability deals with the
incapability experienced by individuals and communities to endure problematic issues
(such as poor living conditions, racial, religious, and gender issues) that are not easily
addressed by institutions. Particularly, it spreads in areas undergoing transformations,
affected among other factors by depopulation, segregation, and expiration of local
By acknowledging the urban atmosphere of a vulnerable neighborhood, the contribu-
tion shows how the sonic environment serve to make an area attractive, as everyday
sounds are crucial for the proliferation of urban vibrancy and livability (Atkinson,
2007). Therefore, it seeks to demonstrate how climates of tension and social exclusion
could be sensed (and specically listened to) within a vulnerable area, for “affective
atmospheres” reverberate in public space and inuence its pleasantness (Thibaud,
2015). In this regard, the investigation of everyday sound-related public feelings
(Gallagher and Prior, 2013) is presented as the core of the participatory sound art
intervention Voci Fuori Campo (namely “voices out of bound”), which points at the
empowerment of local communities, and aims to impact on the urban policy level (see
Davies et al., 2013).
During fall 2019, Palermo-based cultural association “Sguardi urbani,” together with
a team of artists, researchers and designers, launched the project “Riconnessioni” in
1. Università Iuav di Venezia – Department of Architecture and Arts, S. Croce 1957, 30135 Venezia, Italy,
From a Sensitive Ecology of Ambiances/Atmospheres to a Political Ecology 281
the framework of the Italian Ministry of Culture’s funded action “Creative Living Lab.”
The project specically aims to deepen the social vulnerability of Palermo’s suburbs,
and concentrates on “Quartiere San Giovanni e Paolo” (usually named as CEP). CEP is
a public housing neighborhood located in the outskirt of the city, which suffers from
poor living conditions, illegal occupation of public properties, and a high rate of cri-
minality. All these issues result in a mostly abandoned and underused public space,
which the project intended to revitalize through a collaborative process and a series
of public art interventions. The cultural association assumed the bocce court situated
in the middle of the abandoned main park – entitled to Peppino Impastato, victim of
the maa, and surrounded by unused greeneld and illegally occupied buildings – as
the symbolic center of its revitalization process.
Figure 1. The bocce court situated in the middle of Peppino Impastato park, Nicola Di Croce,
November 2019
Sguardi Urbani’s approach makes use of collaborative design as it addresses to engage
local communities by: listening to their expertise (Rohe, 2009), and implementing
place-based knowledge (Deakin and Allwinkle, 2007), thus building collectively a
shared image of vulnerable areas. On this basis the sound art project Voci Fuori Campo
acknowledges that public relational art supporting participatory practice has proven
to strengthen inclusiveness within wider processes of urban regeneration2 (Sharp et
al., 2005). Likewise, it recognizes to what extent the contribution of a collaborative
approach to urban planning through sonic environment’s analysis and sound art prac-
tices has recently increased (Claus and Pak, 2019; Lappin et al., 2018). Specically,
collaborative sound art practices have demonstrated the capability to deepen the
2.  Voci Fuori Campo was the rst of three different workshops developed in the framework of the project 
“Riconnessioni.” For further informations visit Sguardi urbani cultural association’s website. See at:
Sensing Vulnerability, Listening to Urban Atmosphere
social and cultural basis of vulnerable communities (Ultra-red, 2012), thus contributing
to re-orient future urban interventions.
Collaborative sound art practice’s focus is the empowerment of citizens and local
institutions through the raise of critical listening, as a crucial device for community
building (Farinati and Firth, 2017), then for the enhancement of social coexistence
(LaBelle, 2018). Accordingly, the action-research and participatory sound art project
Voci Fuori Campo promotes the development of listening awareness as a political
possibility for citizens to enhance a deeper understanding of the social dynamics
entangled within a vulnerable area’s sonic environment. By focusing on listening
practice, the project establishes a new connection between citizens and their every-
day sonic environment. Such engagement is assumed as the starting point of a colla-
borative debate that addresses local development, as it prioritizes a place-based
approach, it invites non-experts to contribute in decision making process, and it
constitutes an essential preliminary step toward sustainable and inclusive urban re-
Voci Fuori Campo: a Participatory Sound Art Project
The project Voci Fuori Campo took place during November 2019 and used a mixed-
method approach that included: informal group interviews, soundwalks, eld recordings,
roundtables, collaborative design, and a nal participatory sound performance.
The rst workshops were open to youngsters at different ages (14-16, and 16-18) all
attending the cultural association “San Giovanni Apostolo” sited in the local parish,
which offers playgrounds, security, social services, and organizes classes dedicated to
younger affected by learning issues, and/or coming from difcult family situations.
The workshop proposed soundwalks and open discussions aiming to raise youngster’s
sonic awareness, and reached very interesting ndings. It asked them to critically
engage with their everyday sonic environment, and encouraged to acknowledge their
public feelings connected to the area. In particular the teenagers noticed how the
neighborhood’s pedestrian streets were very often populated by local inhabitants
(exclusively men) enlivening public space through their talking and particular tones
of voice; while the most silent and out of the way areas were perceived as potential-
ly dangerous, for they were used as gathering places by other (not recommended)
groups of people. Close to the busier roadways the group noticed how the sonic envi-
ronment was dominated by scooters’ engines often souped up by their owners in
order to be as loud as possible and drawn people’s attention. Another characteristic
sound coming from the roadways was the car stereo’s music, which was often diffusing
“neomelodico” throughout the neighborhood: a style originally coming from Naples
and widespread in Palermo.
The following workshop engaged a group of woman attending the sport activities
organized by the local association “San Giovanni Apostolo.” Through an open discus-
sion regarding the everyday sonic environment perceived by those women a strong
feminine perspective emerged, and underpinned the rest of the research. In particu-
lar, woman reected upon their habit to chat with their neighbors from window to
window, and to rarely walk down the street except for shopping during the morning.
By reection on their everyday activities they realized how they normally perceive
the neighborhood’s sonic environment mostly from their homes. Since they constantly
feel insecure about going out – due to frequent acts of intimidation – they contribute
only in part to the area’s everyday sonic environment, which is dominated by man’s
voices and activities over day and also overnight (for example through illegal car
From a Sensitive Ecology of Ambiances/Atmospheres to a Political Ecology 283
After the rst workshops a series of soundwalks (partly guided by groups of teenagers)
contributed to critically engage with CEP’s sonic environment. Widening the circle of
the previous explorations, the soundwalks reached the borders of the neighborhood,
where the shopping mall “La Torre” is located. Here it was possible to listen both to
the music spread by the shopping mall’s parking lot, and to the activities of many of
those youngsters that were meeting and playing in a safer and more controlled area
(compared to most of neighborhood’s spots).
The following soundwalks reached CEP’s inner roads, where street vendors usually
pass by with their trucks twice a week addressing their distinctive call to housewife
through loud megaphones. Again, street vendors’ male voice explicitly refers to woman
supposed to be at home, and remarked to what extent woman’s role in public space’s
sonic environment is constantly rejected. Additionally, the residential inner streets
were extremely quiet, and from the backyards it was possible to listen to watchdogs
barking at passersby, caged birds, and chickens scratching and pecking on the ground.
These elements stood for a resisting rural environment which permeated private
spaces’ uses, and contrasted evidently the massive gated complex built alongside the
CEP. There, a privatized and surveilled open space discouraged any spontaneous every-
day practice to take place.
Finally, a performance aiming at recomposing the archive or eld recordings taken
during the workshops and soundwalks was presented to the participants and to all the
CEP’s inhabitants. The bocce court turned into a sonic eld in which a short descrip-
tion of every single sound of the archive – such as “street vendor” or “scooter engine”
– was drawn on the playground through a collaborative design process. The idea was
then to playback during the performance the eld recordings through an audio system
as soon as a bowl would reach the corresponding bocce court section.
Kids ocking and willing to help were involved in coloring the sections, all of which
took a title and a number for a total of 33. Before starting, four simple rules explained
the participants how to interact with the sounding bocce court: (i) one single player
at the time can enter the eld and cast the bowl; (ii) every section drawn on the
bocce court corresponds to a eld recording: the bowl entering the section activates
that specic sound; (iii) the number of bowls playing simultaneously is limited to
three, so if all the bowls have been already casted the player can select which one to
withdraw from the eld and cast it again; (iv) after casting the bowl the player is
invited to leave the bocce court and listen to the sonic environment produced by her/
his move. On the other end of the eld I was monitoring the sections reached by the
bowls, and I was ready to play back and mix the corresponding sounds through a com-
puter connected to an audio system. The overlapping of eld recordings was then
resulting from three sounds at the time, that were changing one after the other
throughout the performance. The event took place during the weekend and was ad-
vertised all over the neighborhood; in the end an open party provided music, free
food, and beverages for all the participants.
Empowering Local Community by Raising Sonic Awareness
The performance lasted about half an hour and was enthusiastically received by the
participants3. In particular, youngsters were fascinated by the way they could identify
their everyday sounds or even their voices within the stream of sounds, and cast the
3. An excerpt of the performance is available at Sguardi urbani’s webpage. See at: https://soundcloud.
Sensing Vulnerability, Listening to Urban Atmosphere
bowl few times in their favorite spots (such as those referring to the association play-
ground or the pedestrian streets). More generally the participatory process succeeded
at de-contextualizing and re-actualizing sonic fragments that represented some of the
most critical issues concerning the neighborhoods: the polarization of public space
uses, the ouster of the feminine presence within the sonic environment, the difcult
relationship between teenagers and dangerous urban spots. By using the bocce court
as the core of the event the performance also served to shift the neighborhood’s image
of abandonment toward a new collaborative re-appropriation of public space.
In summary, the overall project, and specically the nal performance, initiated a
long process of re-signication of the neighborhood’s commons. In fact, by raising
inhabitants’ sonic awareness and by stimulating a participatory approach to the criti-
cal engagement and recomposing of urban sonic atmosphere, locals were asked to
confront each other and to imagine a future vision for CEP. Thus, the target was to
challenge the sounds that were mirroring those social issues usually taken for granted
by the inhabitants, yet strongly emerging during the sonic environment’s investigation
and the following discussions. From this perspective Voci Fuori Campo represented an
empowerment device that understood listening practice as a powerful emancipatory
tool. A device that contributed to raising consciousness and stimulating social change
within a socially vulnerable neighborhood that (like CEP and many others) have long
suffered the lack of social assistance, high school-drop-out and unemployment rates,
and a regular absence of urban safety.
The process initiated by Voci Fuori Campo was, in conclusion, the rst step toward a
critical reframe of CEP’s sonic environment. The sonic investigation shared with local
inhabitants during the workshops and soundwalks underlined an environment domi-
nated by a strong male dominance over woman and the most vulnerable. Therefore,
the open discussions and the nal performance intended to foster a “sonic possible
world” (Voegelin, 2018) where the symbols and schemes of prevarication could rst
be re-oriented and then shared with the younger generations, which inevitably absorb
and reproduce the detrimental mainstream narrative enacted by the neighborhood.
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