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snowbowl The Listenn project, directed by Dr Garth Paine, Associate Professor and Associate Director, School of Arts Media + Engineering, Arizona State University, is an interdisciplinary collaborative project that explores remote embodied landscapes of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves through sound. The project focuses on community awareness, sustainability, environmental engagement, critical enquiry and interpretative discourse around questions of how digital technology and rich media environments can be used to create experiences of being present in remote environments.

Specifically it engages with notions of community place making through the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, sites recognised by UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme to promote sustainable development based on local community efforts. Composed of 621 sites in 117 countries, Biosphere Reserves seek to reunite the conservation of biological and cultural diversity and test and implement innovative approaches to sustainability. The Listenn project focuses specifically on six Biosphere Reserves in Arizona, New Mexico and California representative of the richness and diversity of the southwest desert ecosystem. Through extensive field work in each location, Listenn explores how a notion of belonging to landscape/environment can develop environment stewardship and engagement. In our current state of ecological crisis, Listenn will explore how these notions of immersive environmental engagement could be extended to national and international communities through new internet based technologies.

Capitalising on the Biosphere Reserve status within each location, this project seeks to extend the existing efforts and build the capacity of the community to engage new technologies in understanding the environment. The community engagement strategies will involve extensive consultation with key stakeholders in the Biosphere Reserve prior to hosting a series of workshops and sound walks. The sound walks will facilitate the process of identifying locations, which will be followed by ambisonic field recording labs directed by the Listenn team. Ambisonics is a surround sound technique that enables the recording and diffusion of sound sources above and below the listener in addition to the horizontal plane. This enables the opportunity when playing back these recordings, to recreate soundscapes as they are experienced in the natural environment and deliver embodied sonic experiences remotely.

Upon completion of the initial stage, strategies will be put in place to enable the communities to remain actively involved in the ongoing project. These strategies will be developed in response to the needs and accessibility of the community, but will likely involve providing a series of low costs digital recorders with ambisonic capabilities, developing an accessible digital platform and ongoing access to capacity building workshops and forums in community spaces. The ongoing outcomes from the community will be made available via the internet as immersive listening experiences for these remote landscapes in a way that engenders a deep embodied and individual enquiry into the criticality of their preservation for sustainable long term global well-being. This endeavor is utilising these specialist practices in surround sound recording with the intention to deliver immersive, embodied sonic experiences remotely and cultivate environmental engagement through sound.

Listenn questions what constitutes attention in sound (a bird or animal call or a ‘silent’ landscape) and through the proposed embodied experience will actively engage participants in consideration of the question: what is listening and how central is the sonic environment to our communal, social and global health? It asks if acoustic ecology, the critical examination and creative representation of sonic environments, can focus communities on their local environment whilst simultaneously building national and international communities for stewardship and sustainability.

The Listenn project will offer creative answers to these questions by utilising innovative surround sound recording techniques, multimodal sensing and data fusion and new Internet streaming technologies that will allow individuals to undertake virtual, immersive sound walks through the remote wilderness of the Southwest deserts of the USA from anywhere in the world.

At its core the Listenn project explores a range of research questions about the role and function of sound and the perception of sound for a deeper understanding of questions pertaining to place, presence, belonging and sustainability. As a perceptive mode that inherently engages an intermedial relationship to the world, sound both conveys and withholds knowledge, adopting and adapting the realms of the vocal, the textual, the spatial, and the affective to be mediated for reception and parsing aurally, and by extension epistemologically, in the mind of the listener. Sound's ability to capture and convey movement, spatiality, and emotion in very distinct ways works synergistically with the human mind's ability to unify within consciousness a number of perceptual inputs, such that a cognitive picture of the world and one's position within it comes to light. The immersive sonic productions, which form the foundation of Listenn, provide a palpable framework within which such a phenomenology of human experience of the world can be experienced, shared, examined and understood.

Why UNESCO Biosphere Reserves?

beaver creek UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are sites managed by passionate communities that are inspired to explore new approaches to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity. They differ from world heritage sites in that they encourage active community participation and are ideal locations to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainability. The Man and Biosphere program was initiated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the 1970s as a practical tool to deal with some of the most important challenges of our time: “how can we reconcile conservation of biodiversity and biological resources with their sustainable use”. To them the concept of Biosphere Reserves serves as incubator for local sustainable development projects and helps share this information and learning with other Biosphere Reserves. The concept can therefore be considered as a tool for enabling respectful dialogue and knowledge sharing.

Listenn seeks to use the media arts to inspire the local communities to broaden their message about the value of the proclaimed Biosphere reserves by providing an experiential tool for promotion and discussion of the value of their reserve. It also aims to provide agency to the community by providing listeners of the ambisonic sound recordings with an additional sets of social, historical and contextual layers about the Biosphere reserves, thus enhancing listener engagement, while also permitting the remote space of each Biosphere Reserve to take on the more intimate facets of place and meaning-making for the listener.

The initial stage of the project will involve the following outcomes:

  • Field laboratories involving ambisonic sound recordings in six regional Biosphere Reserves in Arizona, New Mexico and California.
  • Building a database of these surround sound recordings that can be streamed over the internet and accessible to a global audience as remote embodied sonic experiences.
  • Developing an audio-visual VR experience using a virtual reality Oculus Rift headset as an exhibition work to be presented in the identified communities and in festivals and galleries internationally. This outcome will be used to draw international attention to the project and promote the diverse ecosystems of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
  • Begin development of an iPhone GPS tracked app that layers the recorded sound fields from the Biosphere Reserves on local walking routes (ie, your walk through an urban park could take place in a virtual sonic soundscape of a remote desert in Arizona);
  • Developing an online discussion community focused on engaging with the recorded environments and developing awareness of sustainability issues and stewardship of the southwest desert ecosystems, engaging the interwoven notions of resilience and precariousness, which reside at the heart of theories of sustainability.
  • Develop a series of community engagement and capacity building tools to enable the local community at each location to remain actively engaged in the development of the project.

These outcomes combine to deliver a substantial project that promotes the Biosphere Reserves internationally, bringing attention to these fragile ecosystems, local communities and their stewardship of the environment. Listenn also highlights the future possibilities of digital technology and rich media environments in creating immersive experiences that can generate a deeper ecological awareness and engagement globally.

Listenn Project UNESCO Biosphere Reserves

  • Jornada Biosphere Reserve, New Mexico
  • Beaver Creek Biosphere Reserve, Arizona
  • Organ Pipe Cactus Biosphere Reserve, Arizona
  • Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve, California
  • Sequoia-Kings Canyon Biosphere Reserve, California
  • San Joaquin Biosphere Reserve, California


Listenn Research Team

Director - Dr. Garth Paine
Associate Professor and Associate Director, School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Dr. Daniel Gilfillan
Associate Professor, German Studies and Information Literacy, School of International Letters and Cultures, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Dr. Sabine Feisst
Professor of Music, School of Music, and Senior Sustainability Scholar, GIOS, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Dr. Perry R. Cook
Visiting Scholar, School of Arts Media & Engineering, ASU and Professor Emeritus, Princeton University Computer Science and Dept. of Music

Dr. Sha Xin Wei
Professor and Director School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Dr. Leah Barclay
Adjunct Faculty, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Australia and Visiting Researcher, School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Additional Collaborators:

Dr. Andreas Spanias
Professor in Digital Signal Processing (DSP), Director SenSIP Consortium, School of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Dr. Ricardo Dal Farra
Associate Professor, Music and Associate Director - Hexagram Centre for Research Creation in Media Arts and Technology - Concordia University, Montreal. Director, Balance-Unbalance International Conference on art & science for climate change.

Student Assistants:

Mitchell Keaney
Intern, School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Alicia Hawley
Intern, School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Serena Fonze
Intern, School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Michael Krzyzaniak
Graduate Research Assistant, School of Arts Media & Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona