Sonic Graffiti: Hacking the Subconscious Through Aural Cues

The project presented to funding sources through 2015. Was abandoned due to legal and permit issues. Artist considering gorilla art and self-financing as an alternate installation method.




Every day we are exposed to sounds from both natural and man-made sources. Our ears are constantly bombarded with cues that tell us more about our environment. Everything from train conductor announcements, to the beeps and clicks to your iPod, assist in providing the information that one needs to navigate and interact with the modern world.


Depending on your profession, your ear might be trained to pick up on sounds that trigger an ingrained response due to training or repetition. For example, a fighter pilot through many hours of training will respond to certain aural feedback coming from his cockpit. In turn, a construction worker understands the sonic landscape of the construction site with all of it crashes of manufacturing and beeps of warning.

Other than the aural cues of a distinct profession, what are the cues that tie the human race together? Do certain sounds connect us all? Obviously, the farmer has a very different set of daily environmental sounds, and therefore different reactionary cues in his environment than the urbanite would have in theirs. And while our daily experiences may be different sonically, we may have a set of sounds that binds us all together through evolution.


It is well known that certain sounds trigger a mammalian response often referred to the flight or fight response. This response prepares the body to either run from danger or challenges it. Engrained in us over our evolution, our subconscious can inherently identify sounds in our environment that can cause us harm, and react. This emotional, sonic exploit, is often used in movies. Whereas, the low hum of bees will be laid into the background track of a scene to heighten a moment (The Exorcist, 1973). Or by the use of sudden loud sounds to interrupt a quiet moment often used in every horror film since 1923. The effect is used to literally strike fear into an audience.


I believe that we all share a pool of environmental, aural cues, that trigger an uncontrollable emotional or physical response. My project intends to manipulate those emotional responses by exploring these sounds via context, repetition, and source identifiable. How do these sounds interact with the conscious/unconscious mind?



Project Outline


My inspiration for this project came from the more effective, modern, graffiti artists such as Banksy. Specifically a piece where, in 2005, he placed subverted artworks in the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. What worked about his art subversion was the subtlety that it was presented. His art was placed in an environment where the context allowed it to be accepted as “real art” and then interpreted by museum-goers as such.  He used context to gain access to visitors interpretive minds. Without this subversion, the more traditional museum visitor probably would not have viewed his pieces in this new, established, context.

The Sonic Graffiti project borrows not from Banksy’s social commentary, but from what I believe his core approach is when choosing the environment for his art. A decision-making process to maximize context, interpretation and create an “art space” from nothing but a perceived area.

I plan to plant audio projecting devices within spaces where people gather. These “Improvised Sonic Devices”, or I.S.D.’s,  will then project sound through a variety of mechanical and acoustically practical means. Chosen sounds will be denoted by the context of the space, and the audience available. The key to a covert Sonic Graffiti show is the subtlety that the piece is presented and the physical and emotional responses that they elicit from the unwilling participants.


While the sounds and implementation may vary from any two Sonic Graffiti pieces, I believe that there are three main factors that are used in both a Banksy project and Sonic Graffiti. The core approach to this project needs to consider the environment, sounds produced, and finally, the devices used.


When considering a Sonic Graffiti project, a matrix is created that assists in denoting the application and programming of the I.S.D.’s. The three variables in the matrix are the environment, sound, and device. Examples of each variable can be but are not limited to, those found below.


Requirements: Quiet enough for I.S.D’s to be heard, complex enough to be hidden.


  • Library
  • Small Park
  • Gym
  • Lounge
  • Art Installations
  • Museums
  • Schools
  • Restaurants
  • Restrooms
  • Airplanes



Requirements: Illicit physical or emotional response out of participants, given context.


  • Practical (aka mechanical) Applications
    • Taps
    • Broken Bell
    • Chime
    • Pops/clicks
    • Physical vibration through low Hertz
    • Rattle

  • Speaker Based Applications
    • Hiss
    • Whiz
    • Falling rocks
    • Infrasound
    • Baby
    • Siren
    • Mammalian Distress
    • Screeching car
    • Voice



Requirements: Long lasting. Programmable volume and duration for sound projection.



  • AC Powered “Vampire” devices
    • Edison plug
    • Incandescent
    • Fluorescent
    • Power over Ethernet (POE)

  • Solar Powered
    • Indoor
    • Outdoor

  • Wind Powered

  • Battery Powered
    • Magnetic
    • Sticky
    • Clippy

The intent of a Sonic Graffiti installation is to heighten the awareness of the audio environment. By using sounds hard-wired into our collective unconscious, the installation will generate a physical response that will enhance attentiveness in the participant, therefore increasing the perception of their acoustic environment.


Since the piece is variable due to the open interpretation by the participants, this cognizance will come in many forms. From searching out the source of the sound (I.S.D.), to the subtle curiosity of the modified environment. Ultimately, certain sounds and their manufactured environments should be perceived and not heard. This “subtle hack” should be invisible, much in the way the humming of bees presented in the exorcist was only intended for the audience’s subconscious.

Practical Installation

Location: Hudson River Greenway. Westside Highway and 64th Street, New York NY.


Potential visitors to the audio installation would visit to find the current location of the Sonic Graffiti Project.

The Hudson River Greenway provides everything that a good Sonic Graffiti installation needs to be sustainable and successful; A quiet space where people congregate and relax, access to energy sources (e.g. Sunlight, wind, public utilities, etc.), areas for concealment of I.S.D.s, and a relatively subdued background noise provided by the Westside Highway.


The installation will utilize every type of I.S.D. in the Sonic Graffiti arsenal. A minimum of 5 pieces will be used to create the installation. The main goal of this installation is to generate a certain sense of awareness in the visitors of the greenway. By using sounds and vibrations, visitors will seek their source, therefore exploring the space and changing the intent of the visit.


Devices Used

Thumper – Battery powered. Conductive transmission though steel by spring loaded hammer mechanism.


Buzzer – Public utility powered. Buzzing and cracking sound emanated through the speaker and concealed in a light pole.

Talker – Battery Powered. This device transmits a one-sided conversation to visitors sitting on the park bench.

Beekeeper – Solar Powered. Playing back the sound of a hive of bees in the grass, this device is meant to distress passerby’s curious of the ornamental grass.

Whaler – Wind-powered. This device is the only I.S.D that will not be concealed. Hiding the device is not needed because it is unreachable from the installation. The sounds of dolphins and whales emanate from the partially submerged pier off of the Hudson River Greenway.