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"In Place: Shibuya Crossing"

Tokyo, Japan

October 11, 2012
7:00–19:00


The sixth intervention of the "In Place" series. A recording of me reading the following text was released as a cassette by Winds Measure. The photo above shows a typical surge across the intersection.

"Clambering up the stairs from the Tokyo metro, I feel as though I've arrived at the wrong place. The sprawling intersection in front of Shibuya station has never sounded this way to me before. Agitated masses of hungry crows swoop down on the mounds of trash lying everywhere. Their grim cawing fills the cool morning air, oscillating back and forth across the formidable intersection. Traffic is light. A few cars and the odd cyclist moving nearly soundlessly through the crossing. Four commanding video screens in varying degrees of grandiosity perch black and silent over several buildings on the opposite side of the intersection. I've never seen these screens turned off before, their kaleidoscopes of color normally lording over the area, each screen aggressively competing for every passerby's undivided attention and saturating the area with an impossible web of tangled sound and light.

The relative peace and quiet totally confuses me. The odd early morning bus barges through the silence with a blast of diesel exhaust and loud air horn. Last night's sagging bar denizens straggle towards the metro entrances, some laughing, some puking, some crying, painfully disentangling themselves and making their way home. Their subdued farewells of "bye bye" feel like a cool breeze to my ears and it gradually dawns on me that I've accidentally stumbled upon some vacuum point in Tokyo's overwhelming density. The city looms around me but I don't actually seem to hear it. Its being presses down on me as a solid body of sound and light and smell.

I hear the pigeons now. They coo placidly, barely recognizable above the increasing low frequency rumble of the city waking around me. To my right a train crosses a steel bridge and sends deep, ominous tremors through the ground. Feeling the sidewalk shake beneath my feet ushers in a sudden fear of Tokyo's earthquakes. Trash collectors make their ill-humored debut. Their black plastic brooms whisk across the stained concrete, scratching up small bits of paper here and there. Like little explosions, their dustbins open and close with a violence that belies their size. As a trash truck arrives, the crows shriek with fury at the threat of losing their breakfast. Men leap from the trucks, emptying the spewing bins and carting away the stinking bags of trash. The grueling sound of the trucks compressing all this refuse marks the day's begin. Traffic slowly builds but everything is still mysteriously quiet, perhaps just a long sigh before all hell breaks loose.

At nine a.m. the sleeping video screens go on abruptly with a whopping burst of sound and light, shattering the morning quietude. Time for business! The screens compete with each other, alternatively louder, at times syncing for a brief respite of unity promoting an upcoming fashion show, then splitting up again into a babel of television personalities, pop stars, pleas for charity, pitches selling chocolate bars, even the screens advertising themselves, boasting of their size, their importance. The images on the screens barely shine through the glaring morning light, though the sheer vehemence of their sound easily makes up for this. It all seems a bit sad, as there is hardly anybody around to hear them yet, stare up at their fast-moving images and gaudy colors. The crows have now fled, perhaps scared off or discouraged beyond all hope by this daily intrusion of their space.

The perspective of the crossing now stretches back and forth in direct relation to the loudest screen, tugging my ears this way and that. The space is elastic and dissected by the sound of the screens. I cross the intersection to the smaller of the screens. I hear it loud and clear now and the trains crossing the bridge to my right fairly roar as they enter and leave the station. Walking back across the street to the empty space in front of the Tokyu department store, the larger screens tilt back into focus and the amassing influx of commuters emptying out of the JR station add a new layer of texture to the expanding block of sound. I begin to feel as though I'm in a pressure cooker, experiencing sound as something substantial and resilient and menacing. The four main sources of sound – the commuters, the video screens, the traffic and the trains rumbling above ground – all build off each other, vying for control, a pendulum of sound mounting with each stoplight, each arriving train. And the occasional blacking out of all four screens for twenty to thirty seconds offers only some brutal respite, because when they go back on again the screens always seem that much louder than before. I move slowly from corner to corner of the crossing but now the sound seems uniformly repressive everywhere I go.

At some point earlier on in the morning I closed my eyes and dreamt the crows were seagulls and the congested traffic whitecaps breaking on the shore. It is now midday and when I close my eyes I can only hear the crossing for what it is: a supersaturated cacophony of sound and image battling for preeminence. Still, considering the sheer number and density of people moving across the intersection, there is a strangely collected aura of calm at play here. I don't hear cell phones ringing, or people speaking loudly. Even the click-clack of women in high heel shoes rarely breaks the monotony. This bizarre tranquility is more unsettling for me than the imperious video screens and the snarled traffic. I long for some chaos.

The rude, tinny blare of a distorted voice barking through megaphones mounted on a large black truck covered in Japanese flags breaks my concentration. The voice stops and something sounding like a Muzak rendition of a Japanese folk song ricochets from corner to corner of the crossing, sound bouncing psychotically from the glass facades of the highrises. Another truck moves slowly across the intersection, advertising the latest Boy Group and playing their hit single at a decibel level designed to crush the politically-charged megaphones of the first truck. The trucks dawdle for a while in the intersection until it perhaps becomes clear that neither one is getting its message across and then both slowly move on. I cross to the plaza in front of the JR station. Two different political groups are preparing for their demonstrations. And behind them, in front of the entrance to the Tokyu department store, a small stage and sound system is being erected. A banner hung above the stage reads, "Shibuya, entertainment city!"

A man from one of the political groups starts his speech, amplified with two megaphones from a small white truck parked behind him. He seems to be complaining about gay people. A woman comes over from the other group and starts screaming fiendishly at him through her megaphone, "Sumimasen, sumimasen, sumimasen!" over and over and over again, completely out of control, her voice climbing in pitch with each iteration of her attempt to stop the other man from talking. Someone from her group comes over and pulls her away. But the other man has never stopped talking, undeterred as if nothing has happened. The woman walks away and her group starts its megaphones, expressing doubt about the reality of Korean "comfort women." A never-ending wave of commuters now oozes like lava out of the JR station and both demonstrations bob under momentarily in the flood of people, surfacing again as everyone moves on across the intersection and dissolves into the jumbled concrete jungle of Shibuya spreading out away from the station.

Some music from the stage in front of the Tokyu department store now makes a sad attempt to be heard above this awesome din. Four young women in matching gold lamé jump suits dance across the stage and sing to a backing track. Even standing right in front of the stage I can barely hear them, especially as now the first truck with all the Japanese flags has parked behind the other two demonstrations and has started to pump up its music at an incredibly loud volume, for a brief moment eclipsing every single other sound at the crossing. Two undercover police officers appear and tell the driver of the truck to turn off his sound. The two other demonstrations continue for a short while longer. Once they've finished the man in the first truck scrambles desperately to find the right cassette tape, pops it into his deck and make one last stand at filling the crossing with his venom and foul music. As he pulls away from the curb another truck appears behind, advertising yet another Boy Group with the latest hit blasting from the truck's speakers, loud and garbled.

I need a break from this whirlwind of sound and cross the street back to where I arrived in the morning. Here, under the shade of a tree, I feel somewhat sheltered from the din, if only symbolically as in reality it's not much quieter here. Especially as to the right of me a man is singing to something he is hearing in the headphones from his mobile phone, his own private/public karaoke party. His voice has this incredibly strident nasal quality, cutting through the noise around us like a knife. In the broadest, most benevolent meaning of the word, he can't sing, yet he doesn't seem to care, oblivious to the people staring at him, laughing at him, making fun of him right before his eyes. One homeless man spits in the singer's direction. The air seems incredibly charged with a nervous tension. Eventually a salaryman comes over to the singer, pats him on the back and strikes up a lively conversation with him.

I cross the intersection again and stand below the biggest video screen, its sound engulfing me like a tremendous waterfall, devouring all the trucks with megaphones, the music stage with dancing, singing women, the public karaoke man, the trucks advertising pop groups and pachinko salons, the odd police siren and bus horn, and the trains plodding in and out of the station. In a way, here it is quiet! Here is only the sound of one screen, nirvana, the eye of the tornado, the epicenter of the crossing. What I had so detested in the morning is now my sanctuary, even though my ears are still ringing, my eyes still stinging from the exhaust fumes, the blood in my head pounding from the pressure of so many people, so much sound.

As the sun slowly sets behind the tall buildings, the evening multitude make their way back to the station. The demonstrations have now finally all dispersed. I cross the street, enveloped in a seething cauldron of people. As I enter the station to leave I hurl one last glimpse back at the crossing, at the blinking screens, at the evening lights going on, at this unfathomable mass of sound."

 

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