Translating Ambiance



View Jordan Lacey's Biography

Jordan Lacey is a research fellow, sound installation artist and musician based in the School of Design, RMIT University. 

Editorial: Translating Ambiance

by Jordan Lacey

This edition of Unlikely was born from the Translating Ambiance exhibition held at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery in Melbourne, Australia (2019). As curator, I invited twelve sound artists with established field-recording practices to translate an ambiance from a site of interest into the gallery. Later, each artist was invited to further elaborate on their installation in a written piece for this journal edition. The exhibition responds to my broader research interests in imagining the possibilities of translating Wild ambiances into densely populated cities - where the non-human is seldom encountered - for the provision of restorative and evocative environments. However, the exhibition installations and various theoretical and practical approaches explored in this edition have made it clear to me that the translating of ambiances will always be more expansive than any one approach can offer. I believe it is best thought of as a conceptual and practical tool that artists, writers and thinkers can use to reflect on their own practices. Indeed, of the 19 contributions included in this journal, the reader will find 19 very different processes and explanations. My own approach to the translation of ambiance can be found in my authored contribution to this edition, COLD. In it I argue that ambiance is the sensory apprehension of a given situation, and that translation is a movement across space; and, in combination, they become a process by which felt ambiances are translated from one situation into another, via creative practice.

Having had the opportunity, as editor, to work with each of the authors I have come to see that the main strength of ambiance thinking and practice - as articulated by its key theorists, Jean-Paul Thibaud and Gernot Böhme - is its dissolution of the subject-object distinction, by foregrounding the connective in-between. In so doing, it removes the distance between 'things'. The in-between mediums of light and sound, smells, temperatures, rhythms etc. are always shaping our perceptions, and therefore, transforming the world we perceive. In this way, thinking ambiance eschews ideas of a fixed, external world that expresses certainty and truth. Instead, it offers a becoming-world that is as varied as the flux of mediums through which it is perceived. Understood as such, ambiances are always in a transformative state as the mediums of any given situation are always in flux (if only the minor turbulences of air). It is interesting to note that a new space for scholarship might be opening up, as the becomings of ambiance and new-materialism - which considers matter to be vital - intersect; indeed, many of the papers explicitly and implicitly make this connection.

In the Call for Works for this edition, Translating Ambiance was offered as a prompt for artistic thought that might reveal new pathways for the discussion of scholarship and practices concerned with listening, field-work and connection with place. Given the diversity of works it is unlikely that a succinct summary of each paper could be provided. Instead I will provide a brief overview that can help guide the reader towards the works that most suit their interests; however, I would encourage a full reading of this edition to leave the reader in little doubt as to the flexibility and usefulness of the term. Before doing so, it should be noted that while ambiance provides a focus on the scholarship of Jean-Paul Thibaud, authors have also chosen to talk about the closely related atmosphere term as discussed by Gernot Böhme, and a range of other theorists, all of which has been welcomed and encouraged throughout the review and editorial process.

The works have been divided into the following three categories:

  1. Exhibition translations
  2. Creative practice essays
  3. Scholarly articles

Exhibition translations have been written by some of the artists involved in the aforementioned Translating Ambiance exhibition. For this issue of the journal I offered each exhibiting artist the unique opportunity to translate their gallery installations into a multimedia online format for Unlikely. The exhibition invited sound-artists with established field-recording practices to bring awareness to their sensing-bodies during fieldwork, and to recreate this awareness in their subsequent artworks. The exhibition was particularly interested to draw attention to the role that listening processes and applied technologies have in translating the experience of place into new situations - in this case, the environs of a gallery. Full documentation of the original exhibition can be found at, an interactive website with audio, images and a video walk-through. In the six works presented here, a number of exhibiting artists took the opportunity to further articulate their response to the curatorial theme. This has been achieved in three ways:

Creative practice essays include authors and artists engaged in - broadly speaking - environmental field work. Each of these works include detailed and high-quality multimedia that effectively evokes the experiences described by the artists. Approaches include sensitive accounts of cultural, historical and emotional entanglements with place, including Cindy Chen's thoughtful reflections on her cultural history and its relation to local indigenous histories of place; Giulia Lepori's careful articulations of the more-than-human in permaculture practices; and, Traci Kelly/Rhiannon Jones' bodily-poetic entanglements with a disused quarry in Cambridge, UK. In separate papers, Mark Peter Wright and Erin Lewis investigate the invisible radiations of electromagnetic frequencies (EMF). Wright applies his installation practice and scholarly interests to bring attention to the ubiquity of EMF, and Lewis creates multiple wearables that actualise EMF's into sonic ambiances. Finally, Malte Wagenfeld provides a detailed discussion of his longstanding 'atmospheres of air' practice as both artist and curator, with an emphasis on the way his experiments with air have shaped his perception of sonic ambiances. Collectively, these papers explore the liminal state of the sensing artist, who brings to our attention those unseen forces, processes and narratives that imbue space.

Scholarly articles include a wide-range of contributions that reflect the theoretical possibilities of the translating ambiance concept. We are very pleased to publish the first English translation of Jean-Paul Thibaud's A brief archaeology of the notion of ambiance, presenting the history of the 'ambiance' term and its relation to the 'ambient' term. Candice Boyd/Michelle Duffy's theoretical and creative practice paper maps ambiance to non-representational theory - an important contribution that reminds us of the connection between ambiance and atmosphere theories, with the concept of affect. Jean-Baptiste Masson presents a historical account of UK-based sound hobbyists from the 50s and 60s that operated in parallel to key academic developments in composition and field-recording; besides providing an in-depth discussion of its subject, the paper is a useful entry point for those interested in studies of sound technologies and history. In separate papers, David Chesworth and Kristen Sharp both show how considerations of translation and ambiance can act as a tool for developing new perspectives in art. Chesworth develops and applies his 'sonic frame' concept in a rethinking of his encounters with minimalist art installations; and Sharp, through an analysis of the site-specific artwork After the Deluge, demonstrates the effectiveness of applying ambiance discourses to artistic practices that engage sensory processes. Finally, in two very different papers, Luz María-Sánchez and Amy Hanley demonstrate that ambiance need not be associated with a gentle aesthetics. Sanchez's powerful work, investigates the fearful ambiances of North Mexican ganglands by translating citizen mobile-phone field recordings into gallery-based affective sonic constructs; and Hanley, in a discussion of queer theory, and their own practice, examines the non-binary condition of ambiance as being always situated in the 'in-between'.

The works presented here show that the translation of an ambiance as an act of aesthetic transformation can also affect our personal, social, cultural and/or political life. Field recording artists, in particular, demonstrate expertise in translating listening experiences via technological applications into installations and/or media files, which is why the initial curated exhibition invited sound-artists with fieldwork experience. However, both the exhibition and call for works clearly demonstrate to me that ambiance artists work deftly across multiple sensory mediums and thematic contexts. It seems fair to say that the in-between medium of any given situation has the potential to be translated across space, via artistic intervention. It is the artistic body that connects original and translated space. The becoming of the artistic body, situated across both spaces, acts as a vector of translation that (re)creates experiences, encounters, ambiances and environments. Understood as such, translation is a becoming-ambiance that - via embodiment and movement - gestures the sensing body towards the possibility of transformative experiences. This is a radical aesthetic positioning that invites each of us - artist and audience - to bring our attention to the situatedness of 'in-between' mediums, through which we might come to experience worlds anew. The reader is invited to explore the articles herein, to discover the unique ways in which this has been made possible.