Author: Ian M. Cook

Urban anthropologist. Budapest, Mangalore, Glossop

Protest & Politics: Sounds from Budapest and Beyond

Do you remember your last protest? I do, because I spent the protest alone with my headphones on clutching a sound recorder. I was trying to avoid both the wind and the eyes of my friends, hoping they wouldn’t come over and say hello. I didn’t do this (only) because I’m anti-social, but also because I didn’t want to spoil the field recording I was making for a recently launched global sound map of protests.

I was hiding between bushes

The amazing project ‘Protest and Politics‘ is ‘the world’s first global mapping of the sounds of protest and demonstration’. The brainchild of Stuart Fowkes, a UK-based artist, it is part of his larger Cities and Memory website in which field recordings are collected and then remixed, providing both the original capture and a creative imagined alternative.

For the protest sound map he collected nearly 200 sounds, submitted by more than 100 contributors.

One of them, me, was at the ‘Nem adjuk a jövőnk, itt maradunk!’ (We won’t give up our future, we’re staying here!) protest organised by Nem maradunk csendben (We won’t stay silent) and Oktatási Szabadságot (Freedom for Education).

This was a protest at the end of a spring of protests organised in Hungary. The two catalysts were the attack against the Central European University (an independent university that the government introduced a law to try to shut down) and a law that sought to restrict the freedom of civil society. But the roots are much deeper, and include issues such as the squeezing of the free media, widespread corruption, gerrymandering and so on.

The protest itself was interesting sonically as the organisers decided to have a sound system at the front of the demo, with DJs playing. The group ‘Nem maradunk csendben (We won’t stay silent)’ had organised a big successful protest party a few weeks before where they alternated between music and speeches. I feel that Hungarian protests are – when compared with other countries – quite quiet. The sound system made it even quieter however, as people didn’t chant or sing much at all, even during the gaps.


Here’s my recording:

It was remixed by Stuart who wrote of his work,

I was fascinated by the idea that for whatever reason, protests in Hungary are quieter affairs than in most other places in the world (especially when you consider Hungary’s leadership gives its people plenty to complain about!). As such, I wanted to reflect this in the piece by creating a piece of ambient, almost relaxing electronica from the field recording (along the lines of Wolfgang Voight’s marvellous GAS project). Everything you hear here is from the field recording with no additional sounds. The melodies are sections of recording fed through vocoders and other effects, while the beats are from the protest’s sound system, hidden under a fog of filters to give them that dubby, ‘lost’ feel

You can hear that here:

I’m not sure I agree with Stuart when he says that, “if there’s one sound that defines the last few years and the age that we’re living in, it’s the sound of protest,” as he told WIRED, but it’s a good line for promoting the project and Protest & Politics has been featured in loads of places – you can hear him on the BBC World Service or read a write-up over at Mashable.

I think he was onto something  however when he told CityLab that, “sound can bring you back to a place or time in an instant in a way that probably only smell can rival.” Listening back to the recordings I made many months ago gave me a memory of an emotion that I didn’t even know I had.

Listening to all the different sounds also highlighted the amount of repetition – not only within one protest, but across them, something touched on in an interview for Cracked Magazine. I think part of it is that we’re connected to a global network of protesters and riff off each other, but also part of it relates to what’s engendered by the rhythmic patterns of walking (and, of course, what sounds good as a chant!). Of course there’s as many differences as there are similarities between the pieces and some of the variations between the different recordings – including the quietness of Budapest vs the loudness of the “casserole” protest in Canada – are commented upon in a piece on Atlas Obsucra.

You can (and should) listen to all the recordings here!

Interview: Rethinking Classical Indo-Roman Trade by Rajan Gurukkal

Rajan Gurukkal‘s Rethinking Classical Indo-Roman Trade: Political Economy of Eastern Mediterranean Exchange Relations (Oxford University Press, 2016) casts a critical eye over the exchanges, usually and problematically termed trade, between the eastern Mediterranean and coastal India in the classical period. Using insights from economic anthropology to recast the standard narrative of the time, the study explores ports and polity in south India as well as the different types of exchange relations in both the eastern Mediterranean and the subcontinent. A provocative, fascinating and deeply detailed study, the book is sure the shake up existing scholarship on the topic.

I recently spoke with Rajan for New Books in South Asian Studies. You can listen here or here:


Interview: Sonic Rupture by Jordan Lacey

Sonic Rupture: A Practice-led Approach to Urban Soundscape Design (Bloomsbury 2016) by Jordan Lacey offers a practice-led alternative approach to urban soundscape design. Rather than understanding the functional noises of the city as solely problematic or unaesthetic annoyances to be eliminated, Lacey instead suggests ways in which they can be creatively harnessed to give new expression to urban life. Featuring expansive theoretical discussions and detailed analysis of Lacey’s own work as a sound artist, the book proposes the 5 element sonic rupture model as a way to diversify our experiences of city life.

I spoke with Jordan along with my colleague and friend Dumitrita Holdis for New Books in Sound Studies. It’s a new collaboration between the Centre for Media Data and Society at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary (where I work) and the New Books Network.

You can listen to the podcast here or here:




What’s that sound? The sound of happy students swimming in dissertations, papers, exams? The sound of a faculty drowning in a marking tsunami? The sound of freshly unemployed academic precariats slowly floating towards insecure middle age with no job prospects, pension plan or direction in life…? Yes it’s the sound of summer!

But just because you’re sitting by the beach with your toes in the sea it doesn’t mean your brain can survive on just pulp fiction and pop music. You need some anthropological stimulation for those long summer days.
Luckily I just did a round up of the best podcasts from New Books in Anthropology for Allegra Lab (the amazing anthropology website). You can find the round up here or here


Featured photo by Colin Mutchler (flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Save Academic Freedom in Hungary: Defend CEU

You may have seen the latest cheerful news from Hungary this week! In a breach of the freedom and autonomy of higher education institutions in Hungary and around the world, legislation has been proposed to the Hungarian Parliament that would make it impossible for Central European University to continue operations within the country.

Specifically, the legislation would prevent Hungarian universities from delivering programs or issuing degrees from non-European universities on behalf of CEU. This is critical as CEU functions under Hungarian law as both an American and a Hungarian institution, and existing legislation allows for university programs and degrees from OECD countries (including the U.S.) to function through joint entities.

This legislation is discriminatory and strikes at the heart of what CEU has been doing for over two decades, in full conformity with Hungarian law. A press release with further details on the proposed legislation and CEU’s official response is here.

These changes would endanger CEU’s continued operation in Budapest and would strike a blow against the academic freedom that enables all universities, including those in Hungary, to flourish.

Personally, I’ve been at the university since 2008 (MA, PhD, Postdoc) and the university has allowed me the time and space for engaged, critical research and reflection. Not only does it offer fully funded graduate education to nearly all its students, but it is the home of cutting edge truly original research across a range of disciplines.

There are currently a number of grassroot critically minded actions planned – from teach-ins to protests – but there are also things you can do from wherever you are:

  • Send a letter to your members of Parliament or representatives to communicate your support of CEU and academic freedom worldwide. It has been suggested that if one of your MEPs is from the same group in the European parliament as Hungary’s ruling FIDESZ party (European People’s Party), it might be especially useful (sample letter available here)
  • Sign the org petition now circulating on-line
  • Write to to add your name or organization to a group letter

Interview: BITS of Belonging by Simanti Dasgupta

What links a water privatization scheme and a prominent software company in India’s silicon city, Bangalore? Simanti Dasgupta’s new book, BITS of Belonging: Information Technology, Water, and Neoliberal Governance in India (Temple University Press, 2015), explores the way in which the corporate governance of IT is seen as a model for urban development in contemporary India. Through ethnographic research into both a water privatization scheme and the practices of an IT company, Dasgupta reveals the similarities that cross-cut both domains as new and old inequalities are produced. Rich in detail and fascinating in its analytical drive the book opens up new avenues for thinking about citizenship and belonging.

I spoke with Simanti for New Books in South Asian Studies. You can listen to the interview and many others at their excellent website, or check it out below:

Interview: Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets by Roman Sieler

Roman Sieler’s

 Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets: Medicine and Martial Arts in South India (Oxford University Press, 2015) is a fine-grained ethnographic study of varmakkalai–the art of vital spots, a South Indian practice that encompasses both martial and medical activities. The interview explores how varmakkalai relates to the wider field of manual therapies and martial traditions in the subcontinent, the theories that inform the practice, the relationship between healing and fighting, as well as the role of secrets. A truly fascinating study that raises questions about topics such as categorisation, concealment and learning that go way beyond the confines of South India, Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets will be of interest to many.

I spoke with Roman for New Books in South Asian Studies – you can listen to this interview, and many others, at their excellent site. Or check it out below:

Interview: The Pariah Problem by Rupa Viswanath

The so called “Pariah Problem” emerged in public consciousness in the 1890s in India as state officials, missionaries and “upper”caste landlords, among others, struggled to understood the situation of Dalits (those subordinated populations once called untouchables). In The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India (Columbia University Press, 2014) Rupa Viswanath unpacks the creation and application of this so called “problem.”

The interview explores the ways in which land, labour and ritual combined in producing the Pariah and the affect Protestant missionaries had in reshaping Pariah-ness, as well as the role of the colonial state and changes in house site ownership among other issues. Amazingly rich in detail and theoretically dynamic throughout, the book is relevant to numerous discussions in present day India and beyond.

I interviewed Rupa for New Books in South Asian Studies. You can listen to this conversation and many more at the amazing website – or here:

are you ready to move?

“In order to grasp and analyse rhythms, it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely… A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function… In order to grasp this fleeting object, which is not exactly an object, it is therefore necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside. A balcony does the job admirably.”
Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis

[Video and text originally published as part of an online exhibition on worldwide gentrification by Left hand Rotation back in 2008 – see here]

In the absence of a balcony, I attempted to grasp the rhythms of Népszínház utca from the window of my flat. The notorious street – literally translated as People’s Theatre Street – cuts through the middle of Józsefváros, a district of Budapest with a notorious reputation amongst those who live outside it; a notorious street in a notorious district. As A., a young woman from Buda puts it “when I see the sign ‘Népszínház’ at the end of the street I get a tight feeling inside like something bad will happen.” Of course, she admits, nothing ever has. But the feeling persists amongst many that the district has a problem that needs to be remedied. The remedy comes in the shape of gentrification, a process mediated by the state at various scales.

A short walk through the district will allow a better understanding of why the district has a bad reputation and also outline some of the most important processes currently underway in Józsefváros. After providing this brief contextual background to the film, I will explain very briefly my understanding of gentrification and how the state is involved in the process as well as why the analysis of rhythms is useful in gaining an insight into it. Finally, I will provide some notes on what anthropological knowledge I attempted to produce in making Are You Ready to Move?
Leaving the flat and walking though the bustling Népszinház utca, with its cast of drunken men and array of mobile phone shops staffed almost exclusively with migrants from the Middle East, you start to understand why the district has a shifty reputation amongst those who live outside it. Moving down and through the street, the Magdolna Quarter creates an even starker picture, labelled a “ghetto” by the local government it boasts ‘notorious’ squares where, depending upon with whom you talk, you will be told that this where a) terrible crimes happen or b) where all the best Roma musicians learnt how to play. As with all reputations you cannot expect too much to be true and should not be upset if you leave without being mugged or hearing gypsy music, although you might meet a social worker from Rev8, the government owned company responsible for the regeneration of the quarter, as they goes about their task of social urban regeneration.

The great cranes from the nearby building site nearby can be seen from here too, swinging above the district in time to a different beat, crisscrossing each other in the sky. They loom above one future of the district, the Corvin Promenade Project, involving renovation, demolition and the rebuilding of 22 hectares of land for multipurpose use including living, working, shopping. But before visiting what will become the ‘new downtown’ you could witness the old, walking briskly in the direction of the Danube, crossing the Big Ring Road and into the inner part of the district, where renovation has long been on the cards. Here you can observe beautiful Eclectic-Secessionist buildings from the nineteenth century periodically greeting you before you arrive at the National Museum and the edge of the VIII. Walking past drunks, through ghettos and building sites is, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea so, if you can wait until 2011/12/13 (deepening upon how optimistic the forecaster is) you can ride the brand new Metro 4 line which not only saves the time and effort of walking but also gives “the internal part of Józsefváros… an unprecedented chance of integration” ( These different and concerted attempts at remoulding the district constitute part of the ongoing gentrification of Józsefváros.


What gentrification is and is not, is a complex debate so I will start from the position that gentrification is the class-based colonisation of a poorer neighbourhood and reinvestment in (including demolition and complete rebuilding of) housing stock. Gentrification is driven by the movement of capital into areas that were previously sites of disinvestment, with gentrification most likely to happen in areas where there is the biggest difference between current ground rent and potential future ground rent (Smith 1979, 1996). Historically, in western Europe and America the reinvestment has been concentrated in the old downtown areas. In Hungary the process followed strikingly similar patterns, though for very different reasons with the initial lull in residential construction in the ‘Stalinist’ period from 1948 to the early sixties, being followed by a boom in suburban construction in the 60’s and 70’s and a renewed interest in the downtown from the 1980’s onwards, which even resulted in some cases of ‘socialist gentrification’ (Bodnar, 2001).
The process is mediated and given its particularities by different actors including the middle classes, real estate developers and officials at different levels of the state. Deindustrialisation has led to demographic shifts including an increased middle class, providing a pool of potential gentrifiers (Ley 1986, 1996) as their consumption preferences help shape the peculiarities of the reinvestment in housing stock. The state meanwhile explicitly helps the gentrification process, as it develops urban rejuvenation projects and policies from ‘social mixing’ to the large-scale demolition and rebuilding of areas and in doing so has in many cases become the ‘consummate agent of the market’ (Smith, 2003).

Though large development projects administered by real estate developers and lubricated by state intervention are obvious examples of the state’s role in mediating urban change, there are also more low key and insidious acts that help to cleanse space; to displace unwanted elements. Under neoliberalism, space is mobilised to best facilitate economic growth and the consumption patterns of the elite (Brenner and Theodore, 2002). The state’s role in this process the continual re-regulation of the everyday (Keil, 2002). This includes diverse social-spatial cleansing practices (MacLeod, 2002) including the setting up CCTV systems that define the normal and abnormal (Coleman and Sim, 2000) and criminalize poverty (Coleman, 2004). It is the two different sides of the state – massive demolition and rebuilding and the ‘small scale’ regulation of the everyday – that I attempted to show in the film through the analysis of rhythms.

Lefebvre’s unfinished rhythmanalysis project (2004) is an interesting analytical tool for exploring the changing use of public space over time. Rhythms are produced when space is joined with time and driven by energy. Rhythms can be dived into two broad types: the mechanical and the organic – or the linear and the cyclical – or the quantitative and the qualitative. Through the clashes between the linear rhythms of capital accumulation in the built environment (including the increased speed and efficiency within which newcomers utilise space) and the cyclical rhythms of everyday life, we are given a window into how the body functions in space and time (Lefebvre, 2004). With the film I attempted to show how the meeting of different urban rhythms in Józsefváros.

Broadly agreeing with the argument that visual anthropology can give an expression or comment that goes beyond a particular representation of something (Edwards , 1997) and that certain processes such as like time and duration, uses of space and posture and gesture are best suited to filmic anthropology (MacDougal, 1998) I attempted to capture a certain element of the gentrification process: the effect on the everyday life of those displaced. It is worth reiterating the two sides of the state-mediated displacement focuses on in the film – the continual cleansing of public space along urban neoliberal conceptions of order and the large-scale demolition of working class housing to make way for new developments.

Why I Did What
To realise this purpose I split the film into three parts. The first and longest part is a series of shots from the window of my flat. All of the shots were taken in the morning of one spring day (from between 6 and 10 a.m.). Here I wanted to show the different rhythms of the characters on the street and their individual rhythms in contrast/harmony with the rhythms of other people, along with the rhythms of tram schedules, traffic etc. The shots here are slow and long. The second part of the film is all filmed from a moving tram travelling up and down the street. Life moves more quickly in this part of the film, but I also wanted to create the impression that the rhythms of the people on the street are different from the rhythm of the trams, yet at the same time partly defined by (and of course also defining) them. The final part of the film is shot mostly away from Népszínház utca and around the new Corvin Promenade development. Here I show the rhythms of the cranes building the “New Downtown of Europe”. The shots here are short and move between work on the buildings, graffiti scrawled onto the side of the different building sites’ hoardings and the CCTV cameras.

It was important to bring in video cameras at the end for a number of reasons. Firstly, I wanted to make the link clearer between the types of shots at the beginning of the film – the long voyeuristic shots from the window – with the number of CCTV cameras in the district (supposedly 96). I wanted to create the impression that people are being watched. Of course these are not the actual CCTV images, but rather I am attempting to ‘transcend the alleged limits of representation’ (Crawford, 1992); to attempt to represent how it might feel to be watched without knowing one is being watched. They are also part of the ‘ordering’ process discussed above.
I struggled for a while over the ethical dilemma of whether or not it was appropriate to film people without their prior consent in this manner. It is, of course, probably not ethical. I attempted to speak with one of the film’s main characters on a number of occasions but he was not very responsive. The main argument in my defence is that anthropology is much more reflexive, open and accountable that Budapest’s police force and it is they who are gathering film on the district’s residents on a daily basis. Although of course I could be told that stopping crime (even though I would question whether or not CCTV does stop crime) is more important than producing anthropological knowledge.

More to the point, did I even manage to create anthropological knowledge at all? I think I managed to show the meeting of the different rhythms in the district. The daily, organic rhythms of individuals were juxtaposed with the rhythms of investment and disinvestment of capital in the built environment that resulted in the Corvin Promenade. And the different daily rhythms of individuals were juxtaposed with one another and the public transport schedules, sometimes they appeared eurhythmic at others less so. Throughout I attempted to show how the different rhythms clash and one might result in the end of another. I struggled here with the issue of subtlety; how subtle could I be? I decided to be less subtle than I would in writing, as films are usually watched in a continuous manner – you cannot turn back a page in the book to check the details. Thus I left in the ‘ne’ at the end of the film, despite a feeling it was a bit over the top (the graffiti really does exist in the district after all).

Context is of course important in the creation of anthropological knowledge and with this in mind I attempted to show as many Hungarian flags as possible (I filmed soon after a national holiday) although I did feel tempted here to insert extra contextual information – to tell the audience that it was the shops belonging to migrants that made the effort to put out the Hungarian flag on this day. However, I decided that inserted contextual information puts up a barrier between the viewer and the images (MacDougal, 1998) and bearing in mind that I was attempting (some sort of) expressive mode of film making, I wanted to keep the viewer as immersed in the images as possible. This paper provides additional contextual information, but I believe the film can also exist independently of it; it is clearly about urban change in Hungary. Of course the level of prior knowledge amongst the audience is an important factor here.

The music was composed in collaboration with a local electronic composer and DJ Marton Kasynik. Some of the original sounds remain, but for the most part the music was completely new so as to create a certain atmosphere, with a focus on the different intensity of rhythms. The music in the third part of the film is taken directly from a promotional video for the Corvin Promenade. Marton struggled to make something as horrible and cheesy, but despite trawling through hours of ‘corporate music’ and attempting a ‘mash up’, nothing was as bad as the original.

I believe that any further comments on why I chose to show certain things in certain ways and in a certain order, would undermine the choice to make a film and not write a paper. This filmic ethnography hopefully shows the urban rhythms of Népszínház utca in a way that a text could not; I am attempting to show what can best be shown through the medium. Levels of understanding and the process of ‘reading’ the film are always contingent on the author, so I will explain no further and rather let the film speak for itself.

Bodnar J., 2001, Fin de Millenaire Budapest: Metamorphoses of Urban Life, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Brenner N. and Theodore N. (2002) Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism” in Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe edited by N. Brenner & N. Theodore. Blackwell
Crawford, 1992, Film as Discourse: The Invention of Anthropological Realities. In Crawford and Trton (eds) Film as Ethnography, Manchester University Press: Manchester
Coleman, R. (2004) Reclaiming the Streets: Closed Circuit Television, Neoliberalism and the Mystification of Social Divisions in Liverpool, UK. In Surveillance & Society CCTV Special, 2(2/3): 110-135. Retrieved May 22, 2009:
Coleman, R. and Sim, J. (2000) ‘“You’ll never walk alone”: CCTV surveillance, order and neo-liberal rule in Liverpool city centre, in British Journal of Sociology, 51(4): 623-639
Edwards, 1997, Beyond the Boundary: A consideration of the expressive in photography and anthropology. In Banks M. and Morphy. Eds.
Lefebvre, 2004 [1992], Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Continuum: London
Ley, D., (1986) Alternative Explanations for Inner City Gentrification: A Canadian Assessment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 76, No. 4 pp.521-535
Ley D., (1996), The New Middle Class and the Remaking of Central City, Oxford University Press: Oxford
MacDougal, 1998, Visual Anthropology and Ways of Knowing. In MacDougal, Transcultural Cinema, Princeton University Press: Princeton
MacLeod, G., (2002) From Urban Entrepreneurialism to a “Revnachist City”? On Spatial Injustices of Glasgow’s Renaissance in Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe edited by N. Brenner & N. Theodore. Blackwell
Smith, N., (1979) Toward a Theory of Gentrification: a back to the city movement of capital, not people. Journal of the American Planning Association, 45(4): 583-48.
Smith, N., (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, Routledge: London and New York

Smith, N., (2002) New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy. Pp. 80-103 in Neil Brenner & Nik Theodore (eds.) Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe. Blackwell

Your Praises, My Love

A film about scrap metal, one of Georgia’s biggest exports. The film is a re-edit of footage shot for the film Harvest Georgia, part of the Black Shorts project (