Noise Scavenging: Disrupting the Invisible Historical Space

S1502_200x207SPACE_No. 567
SPACE No. 567 (kr 104-106; en 107-109)_JoonKim

In 1996, Joon Kim first visited Nanjido when the residences of the Nanjido people—most of them garbage collectors—still partially remained and the residents were protesting against the City about the issue of their relocation. Behind this scene lay the turbulent history of the building and closing of the Nanjido landfill, which had become a monumental landscape of Korea’s history of compressed industrialization and modernization.

The garbage collectors moved into this marshy land starting in the late 1970s and continuing throughout the 1980s, following the newly built major landfill; they settled in and around the landfill site.[1] Within a decade, the piles of waste formed two gigantic mounds that reached almost one hundred meters in height, an artificial landscape literally unprecedented in the history of Seoul. Over four thousand residents were living in a housing complex modeled after Quonset huts provided by the city—all under one address, “482 Sangam-dong.” Such a historical rush into the landfill was possible because of the period’s locomotive economic development and the unsanitary landfill system in which all types of garbage were dumped collectively in a single location. Thus, the garbage collectors could conveniently find economic opportunities in the Nanjido landfill because they could profit from sorting out recyclable items from the mixed refuse. However, the landfill’s era of prosperity was suspended by the flow of the global economic system into Korea in the 1990s, by which the price of the recyclable items plummeted, ultimately causing the demise of the Nanjido community. The gargantuan size of the landfill was already an insurmountable problem as well. Meanwhile, in the year 1996, on the brink of 1997, the Korean economy faced the IMF financial crisis followed by unbridled neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the 2002 FIFA World Cup games Korea/Japan was announced in June 1996, and the Sangam-dong area was soon appointed as the site for the World Cup main stadium. At these multi-layered socio-political and economic complexities, the Nanjido people remained a crux of the site’s transformation. Here, in this historical space, Joon Kim might have sensed, witnessed, experienced—consciously or subconsciously—and captured the state of “uneasiness” surrounding the community and the site with his lens.

What was it that caused the “uneasiness” in Nanjido? Before discussing the sense of uneasiness, it might be helpful to examine the socio-economic meaning of dirt/waste, first. According to Mary Douglas’s anthropological studies, “dirt” is defined as any matter that is “out of place.” In the context of a capitalist society, “dirt” can be interpreted as either something that has lost its use value or someone who lacks the ability to become proper producer and consumer, thus becoming surplus value. Zygmunt Bauman, in this line of thought, elucidates the relationship between modern capitalism and the meaning of waste:

Waste is the dark, shameful secret of all production (alongside the security service, that continuation of the cover-up policy by other means, aimed at staving off the return of the repressed—of which more later). Hence the waste-disposal industry is one branch of modern production that will never work itself out of its job. Modern survival—the survival of the modern form of life—depends on the dexterity and proficiency of garbage removal.[2]

Meanwhile, there are dual aspects to garbage collecting: recycling and scavenging. While recycling in the landfill means an act of trade that turns a profit and assimilates with existing economic systems, the practice is fundamentally grounded on scavenging. Scavenging is normally practiced by the least economically capable people, and the act of scavenging, in its essence, holds a potential threat to the existing socio-economic norm, as it disrupts what has already been defined as improper and discarded as waste outside the boundaries of the modern city. In Egypt, scavengers are known as zabaline predominantly consisting of Coptic Christians, and in Mexico, scavengers are called pepenadores who are mostly unionized and even powerful.[3] The intimidating power of the scavengers, as such, comes from their identity as an anomaly and subversion of the socio-economic norm.

However, the disruptive potential of garbage-picking was remarkably dwindling in Nanjido during the mid-1990s, a period that eventually added more layers of uneasiness to the site. This uneasiness was obviously derived from the community’s anxiety over losing its economic ground, yet more profoundly, there was also an undercurrent of fear that the scavengers’ emancipatory potential was at stake, suppressed by the dominant order. The pile of dried corncobs, refused furniture, household items and multifarious paraphernalia, presented in Joon Kim’s photographs, are indicative of the precarious status of this site. The scarecrow, lodged into the landfill slope, aptly represents the destiny of the waste on the verge of being denied once again by the new economic system. Once a golden field for the scavengers/recyclers—a place where they could obtain whatever they needed for everyday life from food to building materials—Nanjido approached its demise.

After about fifteen years, when Joon Kim revisited Nanjido as a residency artist of the Nanji Art Studio (run by the Seoul Museum of Art), which was built in the middle of the two mounds, the former landfill had been transformed into a public park—public in the sense that it is owned and managed by the city as well as open to the public (“who are the public” is another subject of discussion). During the landfill’s stabilization process, construction had begun a year after Kim’s first visit; Nanjido had been reclaimed as a park when the city appointed the neighboring region as the site for the World Cup main stadium. All of the garbage collectors had moved out and scattered to different regions, and no more waste could be [visibly] found in this site. Instead, the institutionalized and corporatized resource recovery center and the artist residency studio were established in the course of the economic transition to neoliberalism, which relentlessly co-opted cultural and environmental matters to the logic of capital.[4]

When Kim arrived in Nanjido the second time, his experience of the site overlapped with that of his first visit. In other words, he experienced this site as a historical space. During his second sojourn in Nanjido, he, as a sound artist, played the role of a scavenger, digging up what had been covered and collecting auditory booties to re-present them [visually]. That is to say that Joon Kim, as the scavenger of sound, represented a potential threat to the current landscape of the park in the same way that the former scavengers of the landfill’s recyclable garbage had. He symbolized a threat in the sense that he disrupted what had been eliminated during the process of ongoing modernization. In another sense, he was a threat as he revealed what had been buried for its unsanitariness and improperness—a potential disease (dis-ease). However, what he unraveled was not the physical entity of the garbage, but the auditory traces that hint at the socio-economic systems that produced, consumed, refused, and reclaimed the things within the historical space or spatial history of Nanjido, which, of course, also encompasses the landfill’s inhabitants and the site itself.

Kim’s choice of medium is “sound.” Sound, like odor, has no limit or border in its extension and exists beyond the concept of distance or space. Therefore, it can exemplify an apparatus through which he can recall the past—a historical space/spatial history that has visually disappeared or exists invisibly. Jonathan Sterne, while commenting on the “audiovisual litany,” states that, “hearing is treated as the better sense since it is the “inner” one. While seeing creates distance, focuses on the superficial, and calls on the intellect, hearing surrounds us with sounds, penetrates deep into the heart of the matter, and is inclined to the affective.”[5] Regardless of the religious overtones of this view, with the eye (the dead letter) filling the role of the fallen angel and the ear (the living spirit) embodying our future paradise,[6] the auditory mode is indeed effective in immediately conjuring up a certain temporal space, particularly one that is not visible or tangible—the past.

Kim first grasped the micro sounds of the ‘ecological’ park, including those of insects, rain drops, and unknown atmospheric noise, and then collected the sounds under the ground, or the landfill, particularly within the area close to the methane gas collectors. During the process of stabilization in which he scavenged, the sounds of the landfill form a mixture of unidentifiable hissing noises, which one presumes to have been secreted from biochemical operations. What this noise represents is the other side of urban development, one that is comprehensive of both the environment and social dynamics. Here, we might be able to hypothesize that the “uneasiness” within the site emanates from the conflicts between the two contrasting sounds: first, the conflict between the interior (the landfill) and the exterior (the park), and, second, the conflict between the frictional noises within the landfill. Following Mary Douglas’s definition of “dirt” as “any matter out of place,” the physicist G.W.C. Kaye took this lead and referred to noise as “sound out of place.” He claimed that a sound could come to be out of place by its “excessive loudness, its composition, its persistency or frequency of occurrence (or alternatively, its intermittency), its unexpectedness, untimeliness or unfamiliarity, its redundancy, inappropriateness, or unreasonableness, its suggestion of intimidation, arrogance, malice, or thoughtlessness.”[7] The uneasy sound of the landfill is the noise created by the conflicts between the natural decomposition of the garbage initially refused for its inappropriateness [to the social norm] and the artificial stabilization processes. In short, Joon Kim was scavenging the noise in order to bring back what had been buried for its unwholesomeness to our sensible realm. Scavenging for noises, in this sense, not only causes sensorial uneasiness, but also evokes a feeling of danger as it brings up an ominous connection between the unease and dis-ease, which has been thoroughly prevented in the urban space under the modern ideology of sanitation.

Exterior (the park)
Interior (the landfill)

Scavenging for noise is not limited to digging up the past. Collecting sounds or, more precisely, the inaudible noise of our present urban environment, is in the same vein as the disruption of continuous technology-reliant modernization. A composer and writer R. Murray Schafer documented that a preindustrial “hi-fi” sonic environment, in which signals are clearly audible, has shifted to an industrial “lo-fi” soundscape, in which individual sounds are masked and overcrowded.[8] In the digital era of the twenty first century, the high-frequency noises of the EMF (electromagnetic field) along with overcrowded “lo-fi” sounds constitute a more complex ambience to our everyday environment—it is even more ominous because we are incapable of sensing them. During his residency at Gasworks, Joon Kim rummaged through various public spaces in London, from tube stations to parks, to phone booths, and collected both audible and inaudible ambient sounds including the EMF noise. The disclosure of these noises could be interpreted as either informative for archiving their existence or as disruptive for unravelling a certain latent threat to the environmental, social and mental ecologies as in the Nanjido project.[9] Be that as it may, the act of rummaging through the unsensory sonic environment (or a domain to which we are insensible) itself contributes to the revival of the auditory sense, which has long been sidelined by the flood of visual stimulation throughout the last centuries. Redefining our sense of hearing in the urban spatial experience awakens the auditory aspect of our subjectivity, which can actively experience, respond to, and operate in urban ecologies. As has always been the case, artistic practice concerning the matter of subjectivity is more powerful and effective when it pries into and scavenges within the fabric of our current environment.

Gasworks Project, 2014

By Jeong Hye Kim

Originally published in
SPACE MAGAZINE  No. 567(February 2015), pp. 104-109.



1. Some people outside Nanjido pejoratively call their residence “Indian Village,” degrading their lifestyle as being uncivilized.
2. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (MA: Polity Press, 2012/2004), p. 27.
3. William Rathje, Cullen Murphy, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), p. 40.
4. The advent of systematic waste collection did not put an end to scavengers or to the significant recycling function that scavengers performed, but it did decisively shift the locus of scavenging from the personal level (in many places it was a familiar and accepted feature of daily life) to the commercial. As the operations at dumps and landfills grew increasingly vast mechanized, the presence of ordinary people became a nuisance (and an invitation to lawsuits stemming from injuries) (Ibid, p. 43).
5. Beijsterveld and Rodaway attempt to overcome this hierarchy of senses with religious overtone. Roadaway views the new auditory mode is not “a revival of something long since lost, but rather yet another redefinition of the role of the sense of hearing … in geographical and social experience (Karin Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century. [Cambridge, MA, London: The MIT Press, 2008], p. 12; Paul Rodaway, Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense and Place, [London/New York: Routledge, 1994], p. 114; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003).
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., p. 240; Kaye, G.W.C. “The Measurement of Noise, Proceedings of the Royal Institute of Great Britain 26 (1931), pp. 435-488.
8. Ibid., p. 23; R. Murray Schafer, Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (MA, Merrimac: Destiny Books, [1997]1994), p. 128.
9. Regarding the three ecologies, see Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London and New York: Continuum International Publishing, [1989] 2008).


Bauman, Zygmunt ([2004] 2012) Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. MA: Polity Press.
Bijsterveld, Karin (2008) Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA, London: The MIT Press.
Douglas, Mary ([1966] 2002) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Fee, Elizabeth. Corey, Steven H. (1994) Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in New York City. New York: The New York Public Library.
Guattari, Félix ([1989] 2008) The Three Ecologies. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing.
Rathje, William, Murphy, Cullen (1992) Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

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