In this post, Tom Western presents a sound piece about loudspeakers — μεγάφωνα — in Athens. The recordings highlight the ethical and political work done by loudspeakers in the city, and the diversity of functions they perform. The accompanying text asks us to consider sound reproduction technologies not only as part of narratives of western modernity, but as ethnographic objects, amplifying historical and cultural particularities.
There’s an old Greek song that talks about φωνογραφιτζήδες – the men who toured the streets, markets and tavernas of Athens and Piraeus with portable gramophone machines. For a small fee, they would play records, and were particularly important to the working classes and the refugee communities that developed out of a forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s. Sharing sounds, forging public listening cultures, remapping the city’s aural public sphere – loudspeakers do a lot of work. They both address and constitute subjects. They amplify the city as a resonance chamber. In Athens, loudspeakers – μεγάφωνα – continue to take on political and ethical labours.
The recordings in this short sound piece speak to these politics and poetics. There’s a pun that connects loudspeakers (boxes that project sound) to loud speakers: those with the power to have their voices heard over others. But other things are happening here, too. Loudspeakers are mobile, circulating around the city, changing hands and locations – territorialising and claiming, contesting and containing public space. They are central to the ways in which cities, as Shannon Mattern puts it, ‘have continued to provide spaces where a demos, an urban community and its individual urban subjects, constitute themselves (or divide themselves) through sound’. They are part of a sonic infrastructure that comes at once from the top down and bottom up, enrolled in the production of common spaces, remaking the city.
We hear political demonstration, and the technologies of policing that are used in efforts to contain it. We hear loudspeakers strung up in public spaces to soundtrack religious celebration. We hear acoustic amplification technologies that have long circulated the city’s streets. We hear the sonic repression of certain religious practices, and the overwhelming dominance of others. We hear the sudden and constant festivities that are used to assert alternative modes of belonging. We hear the everyday presences of street music and public transport systems that chime together in urban polyrhythm.
Sounds are part of the long movement of people, goods and ideas around the Mediterranean – signalling connections between sound and citizenship, migration and memory, audibility and activism. Around the city, the loudspeaker broadcasts layers of history. Athens vibrates with both local specificities and transnational dynamics. The city is an aural borderland, with sound cultures developing at the intersection of overlapping Greek, Ottoman, Mediterranean and European border logics. The loudspeaker is historical and particular: an ethnographic site and object.
So while sound reproduction technologies have mostly been studied as part of the rationalisation narratives of Western modernity, the recordings here respond to a recent call for sonic histories to be ‘conceived as a narrative of jagged histories of encounter’. Amplified sounds stimulate solidarities and frictions between different communities in Athens. They become part of urban struggles and migrant activisms. They are entangled in what Asef Bayat calls social nonmovements, whereby fun becomes political, and movement itself becomes a social movement. Sonic strategies become sonic citizenships, as people make claims on belonging at street level, disarticulating borders between citizens and noncitizens. These recordings make audible the amplified politics that resonate through everyday life in the city.