Brian House - Urban Intonation
Urban Intonation
2017

Living under the paving stones, consuming our refuse, and incubating our diseases, the city rat is a ubiquitous part of global, urban capitalism. The revulsion rats inspire actually speaks of our closeness to them—neither domesticated nor “wild,” rattus norvegicus belies the notion that we are separate from nature. And just as we continually negotiate our place in a dynamic city, so have rats developed elaborate social codes intertwined with urban architecture and geography.

We are not usually privy to the vocal address of one rat to another, however, as they primarily speak above the (20khz) threshold of human hearing. But for Urban Intonation, I recorded rats at multiple sites in NYC by leaving an ultrasonic microphone in their burrows for periods of 24 hours. I then pitch-shifted the result into the human auditory range and mixed it for multi-channel playback over human public address systems, repositioning rat vocalizations as something that is recognizable, if not intelligible, as (political) communication.

Support: TOW Center for Digital Journalism. Thanks: Marguerite Holloway, Jason Munshi-South, Michael Parsons, Matthew Combs, Jim Moses, David Feinberg.