In my introduction to the Untitled Dubai Topos Project, I had calculated that my work this summer would be a prolonged meditation of sorts, on the aesthetic fabric of the city’s built environment. As the project moves forward, the research aspect has had to naturally become a lot more intuitive as my initial instincts begin to give way to what is pragmatically possible.
Typically for my practice, I begin with the found object or document first in an aesthetically motivated confrontation, which leads to a closer reading of the historical, cultural or social context after the finding. This summer however, I suspend with a method that is comfortable, to grapple instead with local institutions to encounter context before form and information before the artistic object.
Beginning with Dubai’s indoor environments first, the research I have undertaken so far has begun to identify itself into three distinct groups, namely ambient sound, scent and landscaping. Before I proceed further though, I would like to thank The Dubai Mall Management Office and their marketing and multimedia departments without whose help this initial start to the project would be virtually impossible. The openness of the multimedia section in particular was tremendously valuable in helping me kick start the Untitled Dubai Topos Project, and for providing the material I will be discussing here and which I hope to rely on heavily in the formal production of new works very soon.
In this particular entry I would like to briefly speak about Dubai’s interior soundscapes, as experienced in one of the most public of sites here, the shopping mall, specifically the use of ambient music. Much has been written about the ubiquity of Muzak (the originator of ambient music in public spaces) in contemporary urban societies, its history and the psychological effect of its Background Music Systems (BGM); writing on Muzak has ranged from incoherent diatribes to social commentary and also considered scholarship. Although it would be quick and easy here to lament its distilling of music to a highly rational function and to conclude it as being an invidious system of social control, I would prefer to leave architectural critique of that variety to the formal realizations of artworks and accompanying artistic statements. For the purposes of a simple introduction to BGM practices in place in Dubai, it would be best to simply look at the complexity of the technological systems themselves.
Although some of the smaller shopping centers do continue to use music CDs or extensive self-compiled playlists on a public address system, as I had initially expected, the larger malls I visited here have bespoke compilations produced specifically for them by highly specialized BGM service providers. The most complex of these music setups I encountered is currently at use in The Dubai Mall, where it is part of a much larger network of internal environment organization called Building Management Systems. The BMS acts as a central nervous system that monitors all aspects of mall management, including Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning (HVAC), Landscaping, Lighting, Scent systems, Audio/ Visual time-based displays as well as the BGM system I am looking at currently. Since the BMS system is so highly centralized, all aspects of the mall environment, including temperature, video display screens, sound and lighting are essentially synchronized to respond to each other.
Currently, a UK-based firm provides an 8-channel stream of music to 8 different mood zones inside The Dubai Mall. The Multimedia Department office at Dubai Mall, has detailed color-coded floor plans that inform on what kind of mood each zone ideally presents; moods contain genres that range from chill out to instrumental lounge, to jazz and contemporary electronica. Each zone is then sub-divided for volume to correspond with its particular architectural features (glass, landscaping, waterfall, atrium height etc.). This way the experience of music throughout the mall is always maintained at a constant.
Acoustical analysis, hardware and consultation is provided by Dubai-based LC Acoustics, an acoustic engineering firm that has worked with the entire spectrum of public spaces in the UAE, including shopping malls, museums and mosques. This combination of sacred and commercial sites brings me to the really interesting question of the Adha’an, the Islamic call to prayer, perhaps the most distinctive and indeed idiosyncratic sound feature of any Muslim society. At the moment the switch from ambient BGM to the Adha’an in shopping malls is manually conducted. A list of prayer times is provided by AWQAF (General Authority of Islamic Affairs) to the multimedia department of each shopping mall and multimedia personnel are responsible for switching off BGM and playing the Adha’an with one minute of silence on either side of the Adha’an. In Mall of the Emirates where there are two different address systems, one for the shopping mall and one for Ski Dubai, the Ski Dubai channel mutes itself for the duration of the Adha’an but does not play it.
Spotting a vital gap in the market, LC Acoustic has now developed a software system that will automatically trigger BGM systems to switch off at the correct Adha’an time and restart after the call to prayer is finished. The Call2Prayer program links itself directly to the AWQAF website and can trigger the appropriate response (pre-Adha’an one minute silence, Adha’an recording and post-Adha’an silence) at the precise times without any manual interference. It can naturally be made to link itself to any prayer schedule provider and pretty soon it will also be able to connect itself to the NASA server, as a back up for if/when a regional website experiences a shutdown or crash, to continue providing the Adha’an at the accurate time. Inside the Burj Khalifa, a GPS system makes sure that the internal BGM system provides four different Adha’ans for each prayer due to the fact that the curvature of the earth can be viewed from its higher floors, making the sunset and sunrise times visibly different for viewers at different heights.
Coming across this information was great as it provided the cultural and regional specificity I desperately would like the Untitled Dubai Topos Project to have. Hopefully, I will be able to reinterpret the information in a series of works that aesthetically and affectively respond to constructed environment in Dubai.