Listening as Doorways to Futures - Julian Willming


Listening as Doorways to Futures is a counter-intellectual art piece that resists recent cultural and sociological claims that humanity is experiencing the ‘End of Imagination’.

Whether German sociologist Harald Welzer, cultural critic Mark Fisher or writer Arundhati Roy—a widespread claim that humans fail to imagine other worlds mingles through the academic cosmos.

However, what if other worlds are out there, but just not visible with the current method of exploration? What if the empirical, data-driven and rigid scientific approach simply does not allow for other systems to be perceived, just as the image-centred world ignores other forms of experiencing? This artistic project aims to counter the claim of a loss of imagination and will exercise sound as a portal to different worlds. Our society—being immensely curated by visual imagery—pays less attention to sounds, although they can help us experience our environment in innovative ways. Sound, in contrast to images, can be unidentifiable and abstract. At the same time, sound assemblages are not just an arrangement of noises, but can be a clear reflection of social structures and opportunities— rich worldly ecologies that could make us connect with our environment. This incentivises the project to exercise listening as a method to discover different futures: not just challenging the loss of imagination, but also the etymological tie between image and imagination.

Who and What?

We seek out members from within and outside the CEU community: staff members, researchers, students, artists, among others. Participants will attend a two-part workshop by artist Chloe Kelly on new ways of perceiving the local environment, equipping them with a disposition helpful for discovering doorways to futures. After going into the field, the second part of the workshop will reflect on common themes and stories among the recordings, and how they have shaped our imagination. Recordings will either take place with their own smartphone or zoom recorder which are available in Vienna and Budapest. Instructions on how to use the zoom recorders will be provided. Based on the reflections from the second workshop, audio specialist Thomas Aichinger will support the postproduction of the sound collage. 

Listening as Doorways to Futures on Soundcloud

Results & Reflections

To what extent can the listening to soundscapes foster imagination of new socio-political systems?

It needs to be noted that the term imagination is interpreted very differently by scholars from various disciplines. In psychology, imagination is often represented by social or emotional intelligence and empathy. In political science, imagination, according to David Graeber, could mean to re-direct democracy toward citizen leadership rather than class politics. In the Transition Town Movement, Rob Hopkins calls for imagination of new forms of relating to each other (e.g. via the commons). The term imagination is very broad, which led to ambivalent thoughts regarding the workshops.

We decided to not specify imagination and kept it broad. The reason for doing so was that the term imagination itself implies unrestricted, free and/or creative thinking that should not be guided into a certain direction. Not knowing the participants backgrounds and intentions for joining this project made us initiate imagination from where participants “came from”.

The first workshop was led by Chloe´s introduction to the most fundamental sound theorists as well as good examples of how sound can be used as a tool for imagination. For example, she asked participants to read J.G. Ballard´s Sound Sweep, where sounds do not disappear “into thin air” but manifest in the world so that the protagonist of the short story has to sweep sounds away. While Ballard makes a creative case for imagining a world centered around sound, we assessed that the aim of this project should not be to create a Sound Economy, where some sorts should be considered trash while others are preserved. Instead, our (including the participants) position was to acknowledge the blend of “ugly” and “beautiful” sounds as a dynamic spectrum. This is the systems thinking perspective I was referring to earlier. Other systems thinking aspects of sound that we raised were:

Fluidity and Temporality of Movement: Sound does come evenly. Its constant fluidity means constant re-formation. One participant compared it to community forming or team building, which is a process that never really terminates.

Non-Rational Forms: Listening to unknown sounds triggers eerie feelings, rather than makes us imagine concrete political agendas. This hints to the notion that listening to sounds is perhaps re-defining what we consider imagination. What sounds trigger is an intuitive feeling, rather than concrete politics. The reason, I would argue based on the participants statements, is the fluidity of sound and removal of static imaginary (e.g. we can look at a playground for two hours and examine it, but can only hear the sound of the playground very briefly).

Commonality: one participant stressed the fact that sound is being shared by all members of  the surroundings, which creates a common experience. Thinking about this created a stronger degree of empathy toward non-human lives who might involuntarily hear what sounds we impose on them.

With these theoretical discussions we sent participants to record their environments. They had two weeks time and recordings were then placed together.


To conclude, I would argue that we have answered the research question to the extent that listening to sounds was acknowledged as a novel way of navigating oneself in this world. While some participants perceived their environment in new ways via this workshop, others were more triggered by listening to the recording of others by accepting the abstract and unknown stimulus that they were listening to. I would thus conclude that listening to sounds does not change the current conceptualization of imagination, but rather helps us perceive the world as a dynamic system filled with fluidity, abstraction and uncertainty.