Sound-based storytelling as an empathy building exercise
Of the many phenomenal works on display at the India Art Fair 2022, one in particular that stood out was project SUNO (सुनो). Design thinker Kanchan Joneja, who makes up a third of the team that undertook this project, describes it as “a new media experiment, exploring the intersections between the art of storytelling and digital soundscapes. Traversing the physical and virtual worlds, sensorially and symbolically, it seeks to recreate an obscure site based in the city of Delhi through aural immersion. In a world where overconsumption of disconcerting visuals has desensitised us, SUNO invites you to engage, empathise and discover a hidden landscape through digital storytelling.”
Project SUNO was conceptualised in response to an open call by Serendipity Arts Virtual in 2021, which invited interdisciplinary explorations that built themselves off of the “internet as a site”. The three-member team worked hard for six months in order to develop the project. Apart from Kanchan, team SUNO also includes Sukriti Thukral and Mayank Joneja. Kanchan introduces herself as a “passionately curious design thinker based out of Delhi.” She explains that she’s “often found deep-diving into wicked problems that cut across disciplines,” and is involved in “designing thought-provoking interventions or finding new ways of storytelling.” She is trained as an architect from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, and her work has largely been impact-driven, collaborative and grounded in the Indian development sector. Currently, she strives to scale social and environmental impact through multidisciplinary experiments at Off Centre Collective. Mayank is a robotics engineer, trained at BITS Pilani, Goa and TU Berlin, who works on drones and camera systems for warehouses, and also enjoys exploring creative coding. He explains that he has worked on interactive art installations in the past, such as one that aimed to make people dance to pollution that was showcased at Native ’17, Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. Mayank was exposed to design thinking through the MIT Media Lab, and tells STIR, “I began looking at problems beyond being simple issues of engineering, but also from a user-centric lens. As a part of the smart textiles track, I learnt how to look at the world of fabrics through an entirely different perspective, and in trying to merge fabrics with sound, I made a prototype of a speaker out of velvet and conductive zardozi thread.” As a passionate drummer and drone enthusiast, he is no stranger to the aural, and has been exposed to plenty of pleasant and unpleasant sounds ever since he was a teenager. Thukral is a keen observer and synthesiser of the world. She is trained as an architect, and works in the domain of research, strategy, and design, wherein she investigates the invisible layers of our environment. With her love for design, data, and humans, she aspires to drive innovation and positive impact. Like Kanchan, she is also an alumnus of the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, and is a co-founder at Off Centre Collective.
The grant that sparked the project catered to furthering the work of up to two collectives, adapted to the digital realm, during the time of the COVID pandemic. It compared that period to Dali’s melting clocks in its brief, which is an apt comparison, as time truly did stretch on, seemingly endlessly. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months, and the lives of nearly every person all over the world was deeply affected in one way or another. Serendipity and SUNO then stand as shining examples of art’s ability to not only break the monotony, but to realign our perspectives as well. It truly is a critical need of the hour for us to step away from the barrage of visual information we are constantly bombarded with, and to instead sit, listen and ponder.
The members of team SUNO were no strangers to the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, and Thukral tells STIR, “Last year in April, India witnessed the deadliest COVID wave since the beginning. My entire family including me had tested positive, and we were isolated in different rooms of my home. With an overburdened healthcare infrastructure and scarcity of hospital beds, I would wake up and go to sleep anxiously each day to the ambulance sirens, and would draw the curtains to cut myself off from the overwhelming world outside. The frequency of these sirens over the span of 14 days of isolation helped me assess the extent of the COVID situation. I soon recorded these sounds on my mobile phone as an archive, realising the impact sound has on the human brain and its well-being. It was during this time that Kanchan had shared the open call for the Serendipity Arts Virtual Grant 2021 with me. I drew on these vivid experiences while mapping the sounds, synthesising our research and building the narrative for SUNO with her and Mayank.”
SUNO’s storytelling technique is quite fascinating, and the project received much audience engagement at the India Art Fair, wherein the team and their work sparked lively conversations about the possibilities of TechArt as an empathy building tool. Kanchan regards the experience as overwhelmingly positive, as she says, “While the first version that was launched online in March garnered some interesting responses to this new media art experiment of ours, it was really at India Art Fair that we realised the impact an immersive spatial and sonic experience can have on people. We were moved to see the level of shock and empathy in people after experiencing SUNO, and so many asked us “what can we do?” Looking into the future, I am curious to explore how we marry more untold stories with art and technology, to craft memorable experiences and investigate the social, economic and political context of India.”
It will undoubtedly be of great value to experience what comes next from the members of team SUNO; whether that be as individual practitioners, or as a trio. For now, however, we can dream of the endless potential creative endeavours such as theirs hold.