sweep

Through repeated listening, sound recording and exploration of experience, this project probes the simple act of sweeping. It is the mundane, everyday tasks and their associated sounds that are of interest. This is partly because their cultural and communal significance is often overlooked. But, it is mostly because ordinariness is in abundance, offering repeated opportunities to experience meaning, directly and intuitively.

introduction

"As I sweep, I gather dust and dirt, along with memories, imaginings and small achievements. I listen to the sound of the brush swish, knock on the skirting, reverberate around the room. The qualities of the sound expose my tension, intention and inattention. With the house empty, sweeping is a private recital. The performance is well-rehearsed, typically embodying a long history of forgetfulness, rounds of triumph and certain defeat and the surfacing of memories and plans from the dirt of the mind. At times, it can be other; a free improvisation, a connection to home, a disclosure of meaning.

 

Occasionally it is just sweeping."

sweep - Richard Bentley
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Spaces swept: hallway, dining room and kitchen

Average Sound Pressure Level: 50dBSPL (LAeq) over 15 minutes

Acoustics: average reverberation time of 0.69 seconds

 

Flooring

Karndean: Oak Effect

Description: Karndean vinyl oak effect flooring bordered in the hall and dining room by painted MDF skirting and in the kitchen by MDF kitchen plinths and the bases of various kitchen appliances.

 

Broom

Make and Model: Addis Comfigrip

Dimensions: width 300mm, height 1290mm, depth 70mm

Description: Made from durable and hard-wearing plastic, this broom is a cleaning tool from the Comfigrip Range, designed with comfort in mind. The broom boasts soft rubber lips to protect walls and skirting boards while sweeping.

Dust Pan and brush:

IKEA, BLASKA Dust pan and brush in green and clear plastic.

Dustpan Handle: Polypropylene plastic,

Bristles: PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic,

Edging: Synthetic Rubber.

Dimensions: Width 21cm, Height 7cm, Length 32cm, Weight: 0.14kg

 

Sweeping method:

typically swept in short lengths of between 60-80cm, starting from left and moving to the right and back to the left, each stroke overlapping the previous by around 5cms. Sweeping and disposal of dirt from stated areas taking approximately 14 minutes to complete.

sweeping

This transcription of sweeping was made at the beginning of the project and captures something of the interplay of sound and ‘thought-sound’ typical of my sweeping practice.

 

Underlying the internal monologue (in italics) and the more transitory sounds transcribed (in parentheses), is the sound of the bristles on laminate floor, the occasional knock of the broom against the skirting boards and the squeaking of its plastic handle. The low humming, whirring, clunking and squealing of the washing machine in the kitchen, is heard at first from the hallway then louder as I enter the dining room and kitchen. Its sound appears and disappears from the soundscape as it progresses through its washing cycle.

 

3.15pm 25th April 2019

Sound of the sweeping

Brushes

Not much dust

It’s where I hoovered

 

What’s that on the floor?

Umm, lots of cat hair.

(Broom knocks into microphone stand leaning against the wall under the stairs)

Oops. Don’t want to knock that over.

 

This floor hasn’t been swept for a while.

 

(cough)

 

Just noticing how bent my back is.

Lots of cat hair. It’s very difficult to sweep.

 

Brush the door off.

 

Cat hair gets stuck to the bottom of the broom and drifts around in the air currents.

 

Just remembering the tea leaves I spilt from the caddy on my way out, as I sweep them up.

Is that a finger nail? Hmm.

 

I put the washing machine on, it’s always whirring.

 

(Broom knocks into the underside of the unit)

Umm, difficult to get underneath…some of the units.

 

Umm, there’s a hair pin. Should I pick it up? Should do really.

 

Oh…a spider? Nah.

 

(washing machine starts up again)

Washing machine again.

I’ll close the door to stop the draft coming through.

 

(loud clanking sound of door shutting and reverberating around the kitchen-come-dining room.)

 

Oh, gotta move this heavy chair.

 

(The broom handle bounces on the wall as it is leant against it. Loud, scrape of heavy chair being dragged along the oak-effect vinyl flooring)

Wow, loads of cat hair under there. Some stuck to the bottom of the chair leg.

 

Kids will be home from school soon.

Try and get this done before they get home, it’s just easier.

 

Gonna have to stop and take all of this cat hair off.

(brushing halts and is closely followed by sound of rustling, picking-off matted cat-hair from the bristles)

 

This floor’s done well. Karndean I think it’s called.

Expensive, but it’s done a good job.

 

Oh. Someone has left some shiny old paper under the unit.

It’s probably one of the kids.

I don’t think Sarah uses those.

 

Oh, a dandelion.

From Sarah’s lino cut.

 

What will I find under here?

Oop, I don’t know, but I can’t move it.

Oh, I think it’s the table cloth, cover.

 

Wow, there’s a lot of rubbish, a lot of dirt and dust today.

 

Oh, my back hurts.

 

Probably why the bottom of my socks are a mess.

I think Zen monks have special slippers they wear.

 

I wonder if they stop the dirt sticking to the bottom?

That’d be helpful.

 

Thinking about the project. (wondering how accurately I can capture my thoughts by speaking them)

 

There’s all sorts of hair, and dirt, underneath the radiator.

(sound of drilling noticeable in the distance)

 

I wonder if the speed at which I do this and the very methodical approach is something I’ve learnt from being at home, my mum doing that. Very methodical.

 

(stop to clear-off hair stuck to the brush)

Someone is doing some sawing or drilling outside.

 

Oh, forgot to pick up the cat food and water. Oh what a mess! Eat pretty messily these cats.

The thing with wearing these binaural microphones is that the cable gets in the way. I should have really tucked it in to my t-shirt… put it underneath.

I wonder if the recording level’s OK?

(washing machine starts up again)

There’s a lot of washing in there.

 

(Sound of drilling in the distance, noticeable when the washing machine stops)

That drilling again. I wonder what’s going on?

Swishing again. Quite a nice sound. Gentle. It has a softness about it.

 

(Broom knocks against the skirting under the kitchen units)

Is there a rubber part on the end of this broom? Sounds like it.

Haven’t done this for a long time.

It’s uh, really, really dirty. I suppose it was the Easter holidays.

I’ll have to clean that skirting or whatever they call it, under the units.

It’s always messy… where we prepare the food.

 

Better not tread in the pile I’ve just swept up.

Bran Flakes. Gor’, there’s all sorts in here.

 

What time is it. Half-past three. Kids’ll be home in ten minutes.

Must remember Phoebe’s appointment for parents evening.

 

Right, now can I put this in the compost bin? Yeah, I think it’s…. it’s all…

Cat hair and dust and food – it’s all organic.

(Sweeping pile of dirt into the dustpan. Rustle of a piece of plastic wrapper pulled from the dirt)

I’ll take that plastic bit out.

(Sound of emptying the dustpan into the compost bin)

The compost bin lid’s broken.

Phew, I’m done. Bit of a pain in my back after doing that.

Wash my hands I think.

(Sound of running water, depressing the hand-soap pump, squelching of lathering soap, rinsing hands under tap. It stops, exposing the whirr of the washing machine again)

 

Right! Put the chairs back. Think we’re done.

sonogarbological Study

Garbology: The study of domestic refuse, often employing archaeological techniques to analyse the consumption patterns of households. Can also be used as an alternative designation for a Waste Disposal Engineer.

 

Sonogarbology: Appended with the prefix ‘Sono’ (from the Latin ‘Sonos’ meaning ‘noise’ or ‘sound’) refers more specifically to the study of sound generated by refuse collection, storage and disposal. 

Human hair woven into a nest, the brushing, the epilating, the waves upon waves of knots and static, agitated sighs broadcasting the discomfort to those who might listen.

 

A housefly, its withered corpse suspended within the nest, frantically, obstinately buzzing as it struggles to escape a closed window.

 

A strand of soft, black and white fur, the idling purr of cats, warm and contented to rest for as long as I remain still.

 

A fragment of pepper-seasoned crisp, its bright, hyperreal crunch, the sound effect from a commercial, now dampening to become an unpleasant, agglutinate chomp.

 

A shrivelled ball of cat litter, singled-out for closer inspection, the ritual burial of faeces an intermittent scraping of bentonite pellets in a plastic tray.

 

A dandelion seed with its filigree of fine hairs attached, the faint scoring of lino, the brushing and blowing of shavings revealing the outlines of stems, rosettes and clocks.

A garlic’s rice paper skin, fingers rustling, struggling to prize clove from bulb, an abrupt tear as the segment is detached, a pink-veined membrane drops unnoticed to the floor.

 

A bead of crumpled tin-foil, its fashioning masked by shrieks, calls and chatter reverberating around the school lunch hall.

 

A small blue flower, dried and pressed against other memories in a scrapbook whose pages turn slowly, savouring what has been lost.

 

A sequin reflecting the soft fascination of a reversible t-shirt design, a bipolar emoji, its foley sound - the swash and backwash on a pebble beach.

 

A fragment of leaf, curled and shrivelled, autumnal and frost covered, crunching underfoot like a flattened cornflake.

 

A sultana, fallen unnoticed amidst the half-mumbled, half-hummed silent disco that is baking with headphones.

 

A small clump of moss. An imagined silence that can only truly be heard in the presence of rocks.

a history of sweeping

Sweeping embodies and discloses our ancestry. Techniques of sweeping are rarely a point of discussion, but an inherited practice, absorbed naturally from generation to generation through observation. As such, sweeping ties us to our ancestry in a visceral way. Despite minor innovations in broom technology and the mechanisation of the task by vacuums, the fundamental design of a brush has remained much the same. Likewise, the act of sweeping has changed relatively little. Each generation may modify the practice inherited from the previous, but something of the essence of sweeping is handed-down.

sweep contact - Richard Bentley
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The approach to sweeping that I have both inherited and perhaps cultivated, is rational, methodical, thorough and efficient. The rhythm of uniform strokes, contiguous lines ploughed into the dirt ensuring comprehensive coverage, accuracy and even pressure combining to create a structured composition that, if compared week-on-week would be almost indistinguishable. This thorough and systematic approach, mirrored in all manner of other domestic chores, was typical of both my mother and grandmother. Both were devoted home-makers. Both were devout Christians, more specifically Methodists. And in the performance of sweeping, I become aware that I embody this relationship between domestic cleanliness and devotion to chapel life.

 

The familiar saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ is a phrase that was first recorded in a sermon by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley in 1778. The sense that spiritual purity can be achieved through the ritual of housework and that cleaning and tidying somehow also sanctifies space, remains with me. A tension, oscillating between pastoral care and religious fervour is set-up. Where an attitude of care directs my sweeping there is an audible softening, slowing and quietening. Where religious fervour rules, the reverse. Yet it is this zeal that dominates, determining my default mode of sweeping, a seemingly innate eschatological urgency, perhaps a manifestation of the protestant work ethic reassuring me of my salvation.

 

Then there is the order and discipline. Like ‘Quakers’, Methodists inherited their title as a derisive nickname, poking fun at their passion for methods, rules and structure. Growing up within the church this devotion to order was evident in both domestic and religious life. At home, the sound of the washing-up being tackled in a preordained pattern, the clunks and clinks of table top objects being lifted, dusted and placed down carefully and the gentle thuds of cushions being plumped - all rituals judiciously observed. And at church, sound was highly organised into set-piece prayers and sermons, orders of service, and the regular meter of hymns that embodied a respectful order binding the congregation.

New Every Morning is the Love

John Keble (1827)

 

If, on our daily course, our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.

New Every Morning is the Love - John Keble
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As I sweep, wading knee-high in forgetfulness, I awake to recognise the presence of my ancestors sweeping through me. In my imagination, they cohere into a devoted mother-figure brushing grey flagstones in a small miner’s house somewhere in South Yorkshire. Smiling in recognition of their hard work and devotion, I bring myself back to the sound of the brush and for a few moments soften my grip on the handle and quieten my movements.

just sweep

To sweep to see the job done is empty of meaning.

 

To sweep in order to think is the philosopher’s search for meaning.

 

To sweep as a practice of contemplation is the mystics search for meaning.

 

To just sweep is the experience of meaning.

Sweeping has to be monotonous, but not boring. Boredom is being suspended in empty time, a deficiency of dopamine, a come-down from stimulation. Boredom in sweeping is to see the task as devoid of meaning beyond a rather futile necessity, it is a restlessness that can only be satisfied once the task is complete. Sweeping becomes a chore to be automated by ‘robovacs’ or undertaken by luckless hired hands and feet. Liberated from tediousness, we can embrace more complex and meaningful tasks, away from the slow, tiresome entropy of the universe.

 

Sweeping can be an opportunity for thinking. Like washing-up, going for a walk or mowing the lawn, sweeping can be carried-out with little attention to the task and so can free and energise the mind. With bodily automation of the task, we are made available to the theatre of the mind, blindly cheering on the comedy, tragedy, melodrama and monologues from which we fashion ourselves. The movement improves blood-flow to the brain - stimulating thoughts, building neuronal networks and strengthening memory. Indeed, the monotony of sweeping has special charms for the thinker. The rhythm of the brushstrokes shapes our thoughts while the tempo reflects and directs the pace of our thinking. Sweeping as thinking time, is both the transcendence of boredom and an antidote to acedia, the listless melancholy of the soul. Nevertheless, there is a victim in all this - the body - subdued into the service of the mind, bolstering the insidious dualism inherent in most of Western philosophy.

 

Sweeping can be ‘mindful’, for want of a less emotive word. To maintain a soft-focused attention on the sounds and sensations of sweeping, can offer a rare opportunity for stillness and embodies our humanity. The effort required to maintain and strengthen such awareness and our comfortability with allowing our mind to wander freely, makes this a less-favoured practice. Indeed, making sweeping ‘a practice’ at all, seems unnatural, impeding the comforting habit of effortless free-association. The commodification of mindfulness, re-packaged without the demands of ethics and community, together with its improbable self-help gurus and otherworldly mystics, legitimises its dismissal further. Yet, the practice has a lineage and pedigree that will see it survive the embarrassment of being ‘so last year’ and will wait silently in plain sight amidst the noise of the crowds.

 

Sweeping can be ‘just sweeping’. The sounds of the brush, the creaking of the handle, the knocks of the broom on the skirting.

To sweep to see the job done is empty of meaning.

 

To sweep in order to think is the philosopher’s search for meaning.

 

To sweep as a practice of contemplation is the mystics search for meaning.

 

To just sweep is the experience of meaning.

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