Kyoto and the Ultrasonic Bat Detector

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

. . . our toil must be in silence . . .

Most bats use echolocation to navigate and find food. They listen to the sounds of their own nasal clicks, vocal cries, and wing-flutters bouncing off the things around them. In echoes of themselves, bats hear the where and what and size of things. The moth about to be a meal. The trees making mazes of their flightpaths. Most of these batty sounds are what we call ultrasounds —  way too high in pitch for us humans to hear. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek would say they’re “part of a real which is not part of our reality.”

Yes, there actually are multiple realities. David Dunn, a pioneer of underwater insect recording, writes, “The sound we hear is only a fraction of all the vibrating going on in our universe. What we do hear is the result of a dance “between our bodies and others.” 

Dance is a great analogy for echolocation. Echolocation is total body-to-body responsiveness: reach out to tree with nose or throat, get ready for the cue, feel the leafy touch inside the ear, acknowledge with a dip of wings and quick evasive spin. Isn’t all listening improv dancing? It’s so easy to mistake intense listening for passivity. Just because intense listening requires stillness, quiet. But think about it. Really listening. A ready ear and bones and mind, reaching out into the air, feel sound’s subtle touch so deep within themselves it rarely registers as touch but as coincidence with some outsider, some bat, some lion, some body begging acknowledgment. Really listening isn’t just active, it’s interactive. Which is why it’s hard. It shows us how entangled we are, each of us differently. 

We each “organize our reality out of this dance,” Dunn says, “and since each thing is made differently, each form of life hears a slightly different multiverse. Each species . . . listens to a distinct reality.” So nobody’s reality encompasses all the real. 

Weird, right? Even weirder are the things that slither back and forth between separate realities. Weirder still: some of those things are nonhumans that humans made.

Like the Batbox IIID or Magneta Bat4 Precision. They’re bat detectors. Little handheld machines that pick up ultrasounds and translate them in real-time to something bat enthusiasts can hear. 

In 2011, Japanese artist Eisuke Yanagisawa released Ultrasonic Scapes, sounds he’d recorded via bat detector. The best ones, I think, are the ultrasonic echolocation sounds of urban bats living underneath the Sanjō bridge in Kyoto. 

It sounds like glitchy techno music. Not because Yanagisawa added beats or loops. All he did was set up his bat detector. The Aphex-Twinny rhythms are all the bats’. That they match something humans like is a delightful coincidence with more or less significance depending on how you look at it. Just remember it’s not about stuffing bats into judgmental prefab categories like music. It isn’t about bats doing anything for us. They’re just being bats. 

That said, the thing about bats — since they’re nocturnal and we can’t hear them cry, it’s easy not to remember them when, for example, we dump garbage under bridges. We’d rather forget everything living under bridges. Those unsanitary creatures of the night who jabber through their smashed-in faces without making sense; whether they’re primates or rodents, they’re abject absent referents of the glittering city. 

They’re outcasts. Consider the vampire. Symbols of the liminal, the purgatorial. Vampires represent the in-between as through-and-through corrupt with insatiable, parasitic appetites which Western cultures find as horrible and fascinating as sexuality itself. Nosferatu (from the Romanian for repugnant and unclean) is in every legend a social outcast with the power to turn into (you guessed it) a bat. Because real bats are considered pests on par with rats and roaches, they make magnetic alter-egos for erotically tormented supervillains who represent what we all are — trapped forever at the edge of death — and all that humans long and cannot bear to be.

But with his bat detector, Yanagisawa gives some overlooked undomesticated city-dwellers the dignity inherent to being heard. And yes, if bats’ sounding like Autechre makes you less likely to throw a cigarette butt off a bridge because of whoever might be under it, I’d argue that’s just lovely. Even better if bats sounding like Autechre make you think prefab categories aren’t as safe and clear-cut as you thought they were, but instead brittle, oozy, fickle, and ambiguous. What city means, for example. Or what home is. The very idea of probing such a glass-and-chrome anthropo-saturated place as Kyoto with a bat detector bursts the bubble we call civilization, revealing that the boundaries between the wild and the metropolis are alarmingly porous. 

Still, there are thresholds between realities as they are lived. That’s where Yanagisawa plants himself and listens. Between the bats’ audible multiverse and ours. Inside the detector, that threshold is no longer a cutoff point between audible and inaudible but a much thicker place, invisible and bizarre. In that place, one vibration is both silence and sound. Through that machine, bats interrupt our audible spectrum from the ultrasonic out-side. 

Thresholds are treasures for Yanagisawa. Finding strange interstitial zones to put microphones in is an art in itself for him. Under bridges, inside a computer, outside audibility, hanging off a boat without touching the water. It’s a quest for ambiguous perspectives; ways of listening that just aren’t what people are accustomed to. Fellow artist Salomé Voegelin says, “Yanagisawa’s bat recorder renders the inaudible audible not to get me to one inaudible as a mere curiosity, but to open myself to the possibility of many impossibilities: to tune my sense to what I do not hear; to make me think of all the slices of actuality that are possible… [and] which need to be heard.” 

After Yanagisawa heard its liminal, mechanical, practically cybernetic perspective, he turned the bat detector on the rest of the city. It found ultrasonic pulses in an automatic gate. Ultrasonic drones in streetlights and a television. Everything he could think of, he pointed the bat chaser at it and listened. People in department stores. People jangling their keys. And so he heard Kyoto as if for the first time; listening to his home from the gap between his reality and bats’ reality, a nonhuman reality we cannot detect though it’s right here all the time. 

It’s really something, what Yanagisawa did. He listened to city bats. That’s significant by itself. But then he listened to city humans the way he listened to city bats. Then he listened to TVs, laptops, shopping districts, automatic gates the way he listened to bats. He listened to the prosthetic mechanisms which keep up the illusion that civilization is alive, intact, and fortified—the way he listened to bats. He listened to gleaming, historic Kyoto in the same way he listened to nonhuman outcasts. Listened to his own reality as if it were the wild. An alien out-side that humans cannot penetrate. Which is exactly what it is even though it’s here, right here. 

Mandy-Suzanne Wong, PhD, is the author of the award-winning fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging Press, April 2019) and the novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, October 2019). Her essays on art and animals appear or are forthcoming in Waccamaw, Permafrost, Little Patuxent Review, The Hypocrite Reader, Chaleur, and other venues.

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3 responses

  1. Kyoto and the Ultrasonic Bat Detector

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