Graduate Research Colloquium: Dr Ruth Bernatek (University of Oxford: SONCITIES)

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The management of noise in an urban context has been the subject of extensive scholarship. Overwhelmingly, the literature has focused on how ‘mitigation’, ‘avoidance’ and ‘reduction’ of unwanted or offensive noise protects default liberties; the ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of our home and environment, and our physical and mental well-being. Within the UK, built environment professions use numerical standards and formats developed through expert knowledge to objectively assess healthy or ‘appropriate’ environmental noise levels. Accordingly, the local governance of noise is underpinned by global regulatory frameworks, international standards, building regulations and codes, planning and licensing policies. However, everyday experiences of unwanted or offensive noise in the built environment – where sounds or sonic vibrations are perceived by the subject as crossing party boundaries – is dealt with by local authorities via noise complaint systems, and ultimately by the British courts under nuisance law. Contrary to what the data driven urban soundscape suggests, and as Cooper (2002) and Valverde (2011) have convincingly shown, the intersubjectivity of noise nuisance and its underlying values cannot be ‘written out’ of apparently objective legal or regulatory systems. Through an analysis of the noise complaint, and noise complaint processes in the UK, this paper focuses on how legal forms and conceptualizations of noise nuisance and urban acoustic regulatory regimes are mutually constitutive. Drawing from recent fieldwork in Brixton, I demonstrate how the noise complaint is mobilized as a bridging tool between intersubjective noise nuisance and centralized urban acoustic planning protocols. Bringing together different quantitative and qualitative perspectives of noise, in different acoustic and sociolegal urban contexts, as an ‘anatomy’ of built and systemic architectures of sound in the city that converge at the site of the body.

Ruth Bernatek is an architectural historian and postdoctoral research fellow at the Faculty of Music, University of Oxford, where she works on the ERC project titled “Sonorous Cities: Towards a Sonic Urbanism”.   Before joining Oxford, she taught as a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (2017-2021), where she also completed her PhD in Architecture and Urban History and Theory in 2021.  Her PhD dissertation investigated sound in the built environment, with a particular focus on audiovisual architecture since 1950 – specifically the Polytope de Montréal (1967) and Polytope de Mycenae (1978) by architect and composer Iannis Xenakis.  Her doctoral project was awarded full funding by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (AHRC) and was further supported by a Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) Collection Research Grant (2016), and the Bartlett Architecture Research Fund (2016 & 2018).  In 2017, Ruth co-founded the Bartlett doctoral research network “Sound Making Space” with Dr Merijn Royaards, which she also led until November 2020.  The networks’ regular research seminars, workshops, and events brought together international sound artists, composers, performers, architects and curators to share and discuss their research, experience and expertise.  In this role she has undertaken curatorial collaborations with the Royal Academy of Arts (2017 & 2018), Corsica Studios and the Architecture Film Festival (2017), Photolanguage and the Langham Research Centre (2020).  More recently, her academic and curatorial projects have explored collaborative research practices and interdisciplinary modes of writing, model-making, film, and exhibition to engage critically and creatively with sonic architectures, sound archives, and their sites and histories.  She has presented and screened her research at a number of international conferences and has published articles in peer-reviewed journals focused on history and theory of architecture and sound studies.

About the series:
The Colloquia feature leading figures, as well as younger scholars, from across the world. They present their research in papers on all kinds of music-related topics. Graduate students Chuyu Zhang and Eugenie Dalgleish organise the series. Presentations are followed by a discussion and drinks reception. If you would like more information, please email Chuyu Zhang.