Unsettling Colonial Mapping: Sonic-Spatial Representations of amiskwaciwâskahikan

Originally featured on the femlab blog (a feminist exhibition space on the University of Alberta campus): https://ualbertafemlab.wordpress.com/

Unsettling Colonial Mapping: Sonic-Spatial Representations of amiskwaciwâskahikan

This project is supported by the Digital Rights Community Grant Program, a partnership between Digital Justice Lab, Tech Reset Canada and Centre for Digital Rights.

This map is a sonic exploration and representation of the North Campus of the University of Alberta. Campus has a long history as Native Land, be it as a traditional meeting place for diverse Indigenous peoples (Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Dene, Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit, Haudenosaunee and many others) on the banks of the kisiskāciwani-sīpiy (North Saskatchewan River), as a Papaschase settlement, or as the homestead of Métis leader Laurent Garneau.  All of this was long before the University’s founding in 1908.

With this digital experiment, it is our goal to detail spacetime aurally on this land where we learn, grow, and imagine, with a focus on Indigeneity, gender and sacred ecology. To hear the stories of the Land and its people reimagines mapping as a potentially decolonial praxis where boundaries aren’t lines on a map at a specific place in time drawn by the powers that be. It is a deconstruction of a colonial land claim, and we respect the knowledge from the Land imparted upon us through its story.   

Deepest gratitude to Kaitlyn Grant and Femlab, Dr. Mo Engel, HUCO 530, Dr. Trudy Cardinal, Drs. Christopher Sturdy and Marisa Hoeschele and the Songbird Neuroethnology Lab, UAlberta Libraries and Archives, the many librarians invested in the project, CJSR, Shout4Libraries, Kahn Lam, Violet Archer, Ursula Pilmeier, kisiskāciwani-sīpiy, and all who make our campus vibrant–– be it human, animal and other.  

Satahóntsatat – Listen  

Pauline Oliveros has taught me a lot about sound. Her declaration that “everything is sounding”  shifted my listening practice and, somewhat painfully, revived a personal awareness of the bioacoustic environments through which I move (Oliveros, 2017). Pauline’s life’s work was oriented towards deep listening: “creating an atmosphere of opening for all to be heard, with the understanding that listening is healing” (Oliveros, 2017). This resonates with me, I believe that all kinds of healing happens when we allow ourselves to listen to (and feel) that which animates our surroundings. However, I find deep listening really fucking hard.

When I typically navigate campus I usually have my oversized headphones on, blasting the world away through music. I usually have a certain amount of time to run errands on campus, or I’m rushing from one meeting to class to another meeting. There’s no time for intentionality or exploration. Sound easily distracts me. As such, my surroundings fade behind the auditory boundaries I’ve constructed in an effort to focus. Still, sounds seep past the headphones. It’s rhizomatic, to use the terminology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I reconstitute this plane, this campus, through my headphones. To retread into the realm of Deleuze and Guattari, “Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings

interlink and form relay in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further” (2014, p. 10). More simply, making this map forces a reorientation. Headphones off, listening intently with my audio recorder at hand, ready for action.

I always have my headphones. In a panicked, I-can’t-leave-the-house-until-I-find-them, sort of way. My headphones allow me to disengage with the sonic environment – or rather, to curate my own, one in which I choose what I want to hear when I want to hear it. However, it is not lost on me that this protective act of retreating disconnects me from the intimate (and intimately-connected) kenetic and sonic awareness that Pauline champions. And so, headphones off, I too reorient towards a campus that is sounding.

This reorientation is and always will be informed by our own orientation(s): how we move through the world, the social locations we inhabit, the relationships we prioritize. As arbiters of its content (and process), we have deeply embedded ourselves in the map. Which, by way of its creation, operates as a proposition, an “argument of existence” (Wood, 2010, p.34) of particular places on campus asserted through our curation and navigation of it.

Memories shape the sounds of this space, and this map. As a student, I’m lucky to be surrounded by incredible Indigenous scholars who shape my understanding and perspectives, and their wisdom echoes inside me while I track sounds. Listening for the crunch of snow, voices in the distance, the wind, I also hear the voice of Trudy Cardinal (Cree/Métis) describing the importance of listening to learning, and the respect inherent in that act, saying “When I’m honouring what I’ve lived as Indigenous pedagogy, it comes from my grandmothers. It’s not that they lived the traditional Indigenous lifestyle on the land, it’s just their way of being and knowing. It’s an embodied knowledge, if we learn to listen to that again.” In other words, listen, learn, and live.

Experiencing campus beyond the visual-productive places of a university, we hope to understand how sound shapes our experience of place,  how sound – its vibrations, movement, audible expressions, emotional cues – informs our encounters of campus and the meaning we assign them. If we accept the assertion that everything is sounding and imprinting on our experience of space, this map becomes a sonic composition reliant on sensory ways of knowing. It is our belief that this can challenge colonial logics of mapping, wherein the focus on delineating space through borders and built landscapes gives way to more fluid, embodied, and complex relationships of spacetime.

One of the first things I attempt to track down is the squirrel that makes its home outside of the Administrative building; earlier in the summer, this particularly bold lil critter tried to steal my bubble tea after I stopped by the finance office to drop off tuition paperwork. I’ve been informed that this squirrel is rather well-fed by certain staff in this building, so the odds are high that this rodent remains. A bit of snooping shows that there are no squirrel tracks. I listen for the high-pitched chirps of a squirrel– nothing. It’s enough for me to question whether squirrels hibernate. A quick Google search tells me that “No, squirrels do not hibernate, but they do sleep a lot!” No such luck on this front.  

As one listens to the map they are accompanied by our footsteps. This continuous sound is reflective of our own experiences of movement, including the particular physicality of our bodies as they navigate campus. Additionally, the footsteps operate as an acknowledgment of our imprint on the map – they  move through space and time, reconfiguring and affecting it (and the map) as we walk about campus. Our footsteps are always present in the map – engaging with and co-creating the sounds and places of the university.

Looking for a sure thing, I decide to trek to the North Campus LRT station to record the arrivals and departures at the main platform. The sounds of University Station are affective, evocative: hearing the two-toned ding and the calm voice announcing “Next train…”, the following rush of folks down the escalator, scarpering on the mid-level platforms, and squeezing through the closing train doors before you are left behind to wait for the next train. This seemingly mundane experience is a strong memory triggered by the soundscape around me. Artist and scholar Lucy Lippard says that place is “space combined with memory” (1997, p. 9), but what role does sound play in creating said space, memories, and therefore place? Sound scholar Mickey Vallee explains the need to address places as “the intersections between time, space, materiality, memory, and bioacoustics [which reveal] those vibratory intersections that are otherwise imperceptible to the normal sensorium, but come about instead through technologies of transduction” (2018, p. 210). In other words, sounds play a part in shaping space. It too is mapping. These sounds are part of a map, a memory. They are place-making.

And so, we understand this to be a project about place, which according to Lippard, is “temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories … it is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happens there, what will happen there “ (1997, p.7). As such, this map engages sounds both as we experienced them sounding and through recordings that speak to particular happenings and experiences of campus across time and space.

While I wait on the platform to capture the sounds of the Century Park train, an Education student strikes up a conversation with me about my recorder and what I’m doing. We talk about this audio mapping project, as well as the student experience and how it sends us on strange, previously unexpected trajectories–– the movement of life. He used to be an engineering student, as encouraged by his family, but he chose to be true to himself and switch. As someone who switched programs in my undergraduate, and didn’t know that the Digital Humanities field existed until three years ago, I can empathize. The two-toned ding strikes and the conversation ends as I return to my original purpose for being on the platform. He’s quiet, watching what little action happens during the recording. It’s his train that rolls in, and after I switch off my recorder, I wish him well and he gets on the train. It’s an experience I wish I had recorded. Now when I hear “Next train: Century Park, on Track Two”, the conversation with this young man is what I really hear.   

Omg. Have you heard of the songbird people? I dunno, it is a department at the U of A? Maybe? But also maybe it is like the secret garden, you sneak through the hedges and into a new dimension –  everything slows down, the busyness of 40 000 people gives way to the songbirds and you can’t not lay on the ground and listen (in solitude but not isolation). Maybe that is what it is? Okay, so it is not a department. Also, not a secret garden. It is a project: songbird neuro…. AND they have a theme song. They have a theme song?

What is this?



Kateryna and Kendra, among many other things, are graduate students in the Digital Humanities program at the University of Alberta in ᐊᒥᐢᑲᐧᒋᐋᐧᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ, Treaty Six territory. They are committed to feminist collaboration that prioritizes relationships, care, and systems-fuckery in their work together.

Kateryna Barnes’ dual Indigenous-settler heritage comprises displaced Kanien’kehá:ka of Akwesasne who retain their stories and working-class Ukrainian refugees with amazing recipes. Currently, her research explores decolonizing digital space (particularly video games), settler-colonialism as horror culture, and the educative potential of flawed simulacra.  Kat explores terrain and creates spaces sonically, be it through her headphones or her memories.

Kendra Cowley is a third generation settler of mixed-european heritage: Scottish and Polish immigrant homesteaders turned urban middle-class family living in amiskwaciwâskahikan, Treaty Six territory since the 1920s. Forever a schemer, committed collaborator, and self-deprecating artist, Kendra is interested in digitally-mediated (counter)narratives of madness, disability justice, and imagination work. She likes to make noise — sometimes music.  

References (blog)

Barnes, K. SE. (2019). Trudy Cardinal [Personal interview]. 2019, January 24.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2014). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Kerry, and Brien. (2017) “Listening as Activism: The ‘Sonic Meditations’ of Pauline Oliveros.” The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/ listening-as-activism-the-sonic-meditations-of-pauline-oliveros.

Lippard, Lucy R. (1997). The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New Press.

Malpas, J. (2015). The Intelligence of Place: Topographies and Poetics. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ualberta/detail.action?docID=2194781

Vallee, Micky. (2018). Sounding the Anthropocene. Interrogating the Anthropocene: Ecology, Aesthetics, Pedagogy, and the Future in Question. edited by jan jagodzinski. Palgrave, 201-214.

Wood, Dennis. (2010). Rethinking the Power of Maps. Maps Blossom in the Springtime of the State. Oxford: Oxford Press.


References (map)

Archer, V (1993) VISTAS: Prairie Sounds from Alberta, Sasktchewan and Manatoba: ikpaqhuaq [CD]. Edmonton.

Archer, V (1993) VISTAS: Prairie Sounds from Alberta, Sasktchewan and Manatoba: Prairie Suites  [CD]. Edmonton.

Barnes, K. SE. (2019). Trudy Cardinal [Personal interview]. 2019 January 24.

Cheng Thom, K. (Writer), & Lam, K. (Narrator). (2018). The River. Live performance in Alberta, Edmonton on 2018 December 7.

Cowley, K. (2019) Maureen Engel and HUCO 530 [Personal interview]. 2019 January 21.

Dobson, P. (1981). Ethel Anderson [Personal Interview]. 1981 November 9. https://era-av.library.ualberta.ca/media_objects/avalon:3741

Matthews, M. (1993). VISTAS: Prairie Sounds from Alberta, Sasktchewan and Manatoba: The Far Field [CD]. Edmonton.

“Natalia Bruttles [Interview]”. Shout for Libraries: Homelessness and the Library.  Accessed on 2019 January 22.

Sturdy, C. & Hoeschele, M. and the Songbird Neuroethnology Lab. Chickadee Sounds. Accessed on 2019 January 19. http://www.psych.ualberta.ca/~csturdy/research.htm  

“Ursula Pilmeier [Interview]”. Shout for Libraries: Palentines Day.  Accessed on 2019 January 22.

Valente, L. (2000) Liana Valente Sings: Songs of Canada’s Violet Archer. [CD]. Edmonton.