The Sound of New York: Exploring the City through Soundscape


Li Tin Lun, Otto (recipient of the 2016 HKETONY-ACC Fellowship) is a new media artist in Hong Kong, with an oeuvre heavily influence by his past experience as a concept artist. Li’s work uses pixels as a common motif to explore human sensory perceptions of nature, space, time, media and technology and their mechanisms to create tangible reflection of their system structures. His latest work reconstructs sound date with pixel blocks to create a series of three-dimensional sculptural ‘Soundscapes’ that capture the mood of a city and the spirit of daily lives, and recall a city’s collective memory. He received a fellowship to undertake research and observation on recent developments in the visual arts in the US, in collaboration with local artists to enrich his artistic language. Otto shared with us his experience of exploring New York arts scene from different aspects, his attempt to understand public art and creative methodology of local artists in New York by various stages of experiments.

As a visual artist focusing on sculpture and installation, my artistic practice explores how different types of images are produced and presented, and their relationship to our identities nowadays. By reconstructing images we see every day, which are in the forms of sculpture, virtual modelling and interactive installation, I look into the possibilities and the meanings of interpreting and re-interpreting images, thus discovering an alternative way to understand the hidden rules of the surrounding world.

Though I have always wanted to see exhibitions and artworks related to those issues, I was yet to visit any museums or exhibitions in my first week here. Instead, I was fascinated by New York City itself, the urban and spatial planning, the way New Yorkers engaged with the public space and how arts intervene in public space and communities here. All these have become the topics I have been exploring throughout my stay. Coincidentally, there was the exhibition “Art in the Open Fifty Years of Public Art in New York” at the Museum of the City of New York, which gave me an overview of those issues before I began my exploration. When visiting exhibitions and exploring on the streets, I could not help comparing the cultural scenes and the art practices in the public space in New York and Hong Kong. The experience I gained here will provide a fascinating insight into the local discussion relating to public space and art when more possibilities are opened up for exploration in Hong Kong.

Museum of the City of New York

A community arts show in the New York.

In the first half year of my ACC stay, I have visited most of the “hardware” exhibitions held at the museums and galleries in the city. It was like looking at the final results of making art. However, the process is supposed to be more important—how the art ecosystem works here, how community art projects and public art are initiated here and even how ideas are generated individually behind every art piece? From the experience of visiting ISCP, AIG and Dumbo Open Studio, I found a direct way to throw light on the issues above is through conversation and collaboration with artists based in the city. That is what I am expecting to do for the remaining journey of my trip to New York.


Minkyung Bae, Johann Diedrick and Otto Li at Diedrick’s workshop.

Otto experimenting with his sound device

Discovering the city through soundscape is another creative process ongoing during my New York trip. Apart from my usual practice of exploring and visualizing the environmental sounds with a professional recorder, I am pleasantly surprised to learn about other artists’ creative approaches here. I explored the hidden sounds of Greenwood Cemetery with another grantee Minkyung Bae, using ACC alumni Johann Diedrick'’s creative sound device. My focus and approach are quite different from Johann’s. I always emphasize on visualizing environmental soundscape to reflect the spirit and liveliness of the people living there as an observer, while he sees sound recording as a methodology to connect people and community to encourage them to explore our environment together. Such a creative collaboration with local artists is an alternative to discover their practices, thus an approach to broaden my art language, and that is what I would love to find out more in the second half of my trip.

Otto and his friends recording sound and movement in the Greenwood Cemetery.

During the final few weeks of my stay in New York City, I continued collecting sound recordings and footages from everywhere, in different communities and boroughs. From walking along on both the Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge twice to wandering from the Central Park to the Chinatown neighbourhood along Fifth Avenue, I spent almost eight hours on walking around and taking subway every day to gather soundscapes material, now there is over 50+hours of sound footages. Subway here is the nerves system of the city, and you can find out the distribution of communities along the many lines. The longer I am on the trains or in the stations, the more variety and spirit I discover in this city. I may hear thousands of people's conversations and see them talk and interact, and delightful stories or sad tragedies that I could never know are happening to those people.

Recording the sounds of New York City—a collage made by Otto

A shop named Paris Sandwich in the Chinatown acts as a friendly community centre for the Chinese immigrants. I would stay there for hours, listening to the customers' gossip. Their conversations are about their interesting stories, each of which reflects their families and values of this place. It is a great way to understand what immigrants are concerned about and creates space for me to imagine how their lives are like here. Coming to New York City and seeing it for myself is undoubtedly great, but using the sense of hearing has let me discover more about the city.

Paris Sandwich in Chinatown NY,
where Otto frequented often and collected oral stories

Finally, I am very grateful that I was featured in the coming episode of RTHK’s Artspiration. I am glad that other grantees also enjoy taking part in our conversation and the shooting trip, during which they shared their visions of taking such a pause, travelled a distance from their ongoing local conventions and responsibilities, and to found new inspirations for their professions through the ACC fellowship programme. I believe that creative practice is initiated from sentimental elements, which come from everyday experiences. By observing trivial things in everyday life, they become the fundamental elements and core to my work and remind us of the quotidian experience of our generation. I believe what I have seen and encountered in New York can create a profound impact for my future practice and broaden my horizon.

RTHK Artspiration's coverage on Otto's fellowship experience