Interview with Dan Ibarra, Graphic Designer and Student of Everyday Life, about Caution Car Approaching Klaxons

This is an interview based on a website I found over five years ago featuring systematic recordings of the "caution car approaching" sounds coming from the parking lots of downtown Minneapolis. Intrigued by the project, I reached out to its creator and found Dan Ibarra, a well-known graphic designer, artist, and musician.

This interview was recorded over three years ago, was lost on my computer hard drive, but recently resurfaced. Apologies for the delay.

As a result, the website with the recordings is no longer up on the internet. I have tried to recreate some of them with my own recordings of parking lots. The sounds have not changed much in the last five years.

[Transcript begins.]

Dan Ibarra (DB): My name is Dan Ibarra, I'm the principal designer at Aesthetic Apparatus. We're a commercial art and printmaking studio. We are mostly graphic designers, but also do illustration and printmaking, sometimes even audio.

For me most of what inspires me and what partially inspired this audio recording project was that I enjoy the culturally ephemeral, the small moments that we don’t see as anything important, but actually become the daily places that we walk through and experience.

So much of my work is  literally constructed from print ephemera. I’ve also published a book that’s photo documentation of misplaced groceries in a grocery store. And I feel like this is kind of along those same lines. This is a thing that you wouldn't t really give any thought to, but once you start paying attention to sounds to downtown Minneapolis you start noticing those “Caution,  car approaching" sounds everywhere.

Twin City Sidewalks (TCS): I can't wait to hear about it. But first, tell me about the posters. What kind of posters?

DI: We still do posters on weekly, daily, monthly, or annual basis. We’ve done a lot of art shows. Printmaking has really become much more of a prominent discipline, for example Artcrank. You see one hundred bike posters, you’d think well that’s just all the possible bike posters there could be. But no, it’s not. There are one hundred the next year, and one hundred more the year after that.

I’ve never been one for the fetish of the bike, it’s always been about the experience of biking. Last year our art crank composition was a poster of trash collected from the Greenway, then put into a collage composition and reprinted.

TCS: So some detritus!

DI: Yeah. On one hand, we were cleaning up the Greenway, then collecting a cultural core sample of the Greenway. For example, there’s always Swisher Sweets and flaming hot Cheetos. We have so many different iterations of the flaming hot Cheetos bags. It’s a good measure of who’s on the Greenway and why.

TCS: So let's talk about this project in downtown Minneapolis. Tell me where this project came from.

DI: The project began when our studio used to be Downtown at Nate’s clothing company.

TCS: Hey, I bought my only suit at Nate's! [Note: I've since bought another suit.]

DI: I think all men of our generation bought their only suit at Nate’s Clothing Company. It was a great building, great location. … It was one of the last of those buildings where it was really hands off. Scott Seekins was in there, too, another person who had lived there for 30 years.

So I was working downtown, driving downtown, walking downtown, and this perception I have of my world, about what’s ephemeral and what's the trash, what’s the leftover of the things we think are important. Well I kept taking note of these car warning. I found it was interesting that a lot of them in a literal sense shared the same voice. Some times it was a worn out recording.

[Parking lot klaxon from Portland Avenue and 6th Street.]

[A car approaching sign, klaxon embedded.]
Yes, that’s the original caution car approaching,

[Note: Since I have inserted my own recordings, they will not be the original ones and will not match perfectly with the transcript.]

I began recording as many of these as I could. I got obsessed with it, and I wanted to find out the background.

I did discover that Minneapolis is the only city that has this. I assumed there was some guy in the Northeast that did all this, and there may be other approaches to this idea, but this "caution car approaching" voice is the sound of downtown Minneapolis alone.

So I reached out to the Minneapolis "ramps and lots manager" Tim Belezing [Note: spelling is unclear.] and he informed me that it as an ADA issue. They wanted to make something that gave warning to people that couldn't t see that there was a car coming.

For a long time they had buzzers and bells which I imagine are universal to any downtown city. But they wanted something that had a bit more of a direct input as to what was happening if you were walking down the street and if you were blind. A buzzer could be a fearful sound to hear. They wanted  something that was calm, but let you know what was happening around you.

For a while they were working with a recording that simply said “car coming.” When he said that I couldn't help but think of Wayne's World where they just yell “car!”… That’s what it seemed like to me. Just yell “car coming!”

DI: So through a process of elimination, they came to this idea that it would say "caution car approaching", and that seemed to meet the needs of ADA requirements as well as being something that was social enough, something that’s...  To me it means it's not yelling at you, but it’s a gentle warning. “Car coming” to me seems like there’s not a kindness to it

[Parking lot klaxon at 3rd Street and S 3rd Avenue.]

TCS: Then what happened?

DI: There was an even mix of some people who really like how casual it was, very simple and succinct. Other people felt like the warning was backwards, and they wanted the cars to get the warning that a person was coming.

I liked that idea and I liked the shift in perception. This warning is also about us making way for the car, as opposed to the car making way for the pedestrian. At some point it had to have been a decision of someone one that they thought about, as opposed to the cars, that the people are here.

TCS: So to me the tone, and the way that the language is used reminds me of Robocop. That scene where Robocop is interrogating a criminal, or that scene with the giant other Robocop, where he says "WARNING you have five seconds to comply." That's what this sounds like for me walking down the street. It's almost threatening to me sometimes.

DI: Yes, it's the idea that there's this disembodied voice commanding you. Tim Belezing said they brought in a Japanese engineer to come in and study the technology of the ticket machine, the one that that says “please take the ticket.” They were working on that technology. And they had a Japanese engineer some in and say, "well where do you want the voice to come out?"

"Well maybe just this box, a speaker." They didn’t understand the question. In Japan it’s offensive to have a disembodied voice. You put a person there, or some sort of animatronic being,

TCS: How about an electronic Chuck E. Cheese bear?

[The Rock-a-Fire Explosion.]
DI: Just something so that there is a thing, a person, an animal talking to you. Although we don’t have the kind of cultural offense there, we still have this weird relationship to technology talking to us in a human voice. Who is talking? This building? Who is telling us to approach with caution? Is it the door or the car itself that we’re supposed to hear?

TCS: It’s the system. It's the skyway system with the retail activity and all its interior spaces. If you're actually walking down the street, you’re faced with a lot of blank walls and giant grey slabs. And its very inhuman. And on top of that, there's  this sound, this voice you hear that will give you a verbal assault. It produces an affect of melancholy that's almost militaristic … Sometimes it gives me the jeebees.

DI: I know what you’re saying, the sense when you’re walking down the street you don’t interact with those buildings at all except when you’re warned about them shooting cars at you. That’s your only interaction with public space in any sense.

TCS: Then there's parking ramps that extend extend out over the sidewalk, and you’re forced to walk in these dark tunnels. Walking around can be unpleasant to say the least... So how many of these parking ramps did you go to?

DI: I think I got about 20. That was a week’s worth of taking an afternoon and biking around and recording, and it was this logistic nightmare. I had to go during rush hour, because that was my best chance to get a car coming out.

You can go at any any time of day, but then you sit and wait. I spent a good amount of time biking around at rush hour, waiting until a car came, and recording. And sometimes recording again it it wasn’t right.

[Parking lot klaxon at the IDS center, Marquette Avenue.]

TCS: It's like going fishing or hunting!

DI: Yes! I was fishing for cars. I started in a geographic location at what I considered was the most northern portion of downtown, the parking ramps like the 2nd Avenue ramps. And then I slowly worked my way back block by block.

It's interesting when you start looking for the ramps how many you come across, and ramps you didn’t even notice were there. They all have their own audio signature.

And I think its also beautiful in a sense. I find beauty in really a lot of ugly things. What i think is beautiful is typically what the normal person thinks is ugly, and so those audio recordings, the awkwardness, the blemishes and bad recordings... Those are beautiful in their own weird sense of music. It's all we've got for sounds downtown now that there's no horrible opera music coming out of Block E an more…

TCS: The sonic landscape, mostly it's the sound of cars, and an almost space like vacuum of air rushing through.

DI: Yeah the wind of Nicollet.

TCS: So convince me these are beautiful sounds. Is there one you think of that is particularly beautiful?

DI: Let me see if i can find one. There’s one that’s awkward. "Caution vehicle exiting." It sounds like maybe an intern did it or something. They’re a little bit…

[Parking lot klaxon at Block E.]

TCS: That guy’s a bit lazy.

[Parking lot, "East Town" / Downtown Minneapolis.]
DI: There’s... You’re almost convinced. What I like about that one is that for some reason someone felt that "caution car approaching" was not appropriate for their needs, or ended up trying to do it a little bit different. Maybe they wanted a signature style for their caution announcement.

There’s an institutional thing to it. This it the US Bank parking ramp. You can tell he’s a little bit nervous about having to do it. There’s something human, flawed about this awkward voice being the voice of this institutional parking ramp.

It gets to the idea of trying to humanize a parking ramp in some way. I collected them not for their consistencies but for their inconsistencies. I think that those more interesting, to think about the hows and the whys of what’s happening, what they say and how they say it.

TCS: The sonic architecture of a parking ramp, it's all hard spaces. There's a lot of space and it's all so echo-y, rigid, sharp. You get this cathedral-like murkily lost-ness, and inside there's this tiny attempt to convey a message, but it's getting swallowed up by the vastness of parking ramp space. It almost makes me feel bad for the person.

DI: I intentionally didn't try and sweeten the audio. You want to get the noise of the city, the background white noise. Hearing that echo, that white noise, you can tell it's city. It’s not …

TCS: It's a vacuum sucking sound.

DI: I equate it to the white noise of an ocean, but it has its own little signature to it, in a sense. It's that great sound where you would never really listen to it, and if you’re in a recording, you think "oh, that’s the sound of a city, the buildings, the air of a city." I  don’t know what that is, the echoes the near cars and the distant cars and the white hiss of whatever is going on.

[Parking lot klaxon at 3rd Street and N 2nd Avenue.]

TCS: That’s what your project is generally. Most people walking around downtown will filter all that out, filter out the white noise, the honking of a horn. Filter out the sound of the parking ramp. Our perceptions are filtered through our habits and our routines, so that if we walk the same six blocks from the parking lot every day, we go on autopilot and don’t notice them. I like your project in that way because you're revealing these things again to us for the first time.

DI: Well said. That’s kind of a creative meaning for anything that I do, taking these things we gloss over and forget about, but are around us on a daily basis. Trying to see them again, hear them again, smell them again, to experience those small moments of our life.

I want these recordings to be kind of funny too. When you start getting them again and again... I'm laughing to myself as I'm thinking about this idea, these eccentricities. They get funnier in the context of the other parking ramps, like they’re all talking together.

TCS: They’re having a conversation, but it’s a really boring conversation.

DI: It's a horrible conversation. Yeah. But it’s like bird calls or something. We don’t really know what they’re saying to each other. Maybe they’re just warning each other that there’s a car approaching.

[The Brooklyn Heights promenade.]

TCS: I used to live in New York City. Have you ever been to the Brooklyn Heights promenade? It's part of Brooklyn just south of downtown. There’s this beautiful walkway pedestrian overhang, over a freeway, right on the river, with a great view of the lower Manhattan / Wall Street area. It's directly across the river from Wall Street, and a lot of people like to go there and look at the city.

I was there at night walking along this promenade. Then all of a sudden one of the office buildings, all the lights in the building started going on and off at random. This is like a 40-story building On an off at random for a good 30 seconds. Then it went back to the way it was before.

I thought it was trying to send a message to me. This is a building trying to tell me something, that there’s this secret code in there that means something, and I’m never going to understand it. But that there was a message.

So sometimes I feel that way about cities in general. You’re walking down the sidewalk, and there’s a piece of paper there, and then you just make your bus by a split second, and on that bus you meet somebody that you hadn’t remembered them from years ago, and you have this interesting conversation, and it feels like the city is trying to tell you something.

I don’t know if you try to decode these messages in that way.

[Termite mound architecture.]
DI: I don’t decode it, but I try to see the city as just as much an organic existence as a forest. In that we have these variations in a single downtown of climate and culture and smell and people. I was thinking a lot about where we draw the line between nature and industry and how we would never really think about a downtown as nature. Or as environment in the most political sense of the word something environmental.

A city is not environmental really, but in a sense it's not that different than an ant colony. An ant colony in a sense, an ant colony, is very much a natural occurrence, and a city is a much larger scale example of that. But because we are human we have our own abilities and the constraints of our own nature, of course We make cities that go way beyond what I would consider a standard human existence, but the city is still made by humans and controlled by humans in some way.

TCS: And it reflects our social nature, our emergent social understanding in some way. We don’t understand it individually, but together..

DI: And we, our humanity comes out in strange spaces and in strange ways. And these parking ramp recordings are a way that humanity finds a way, in something as large as a downtown in the city space.

TCS: Is there another one you want to play for us

DI: Let’s see? What other ones.  Its tough just having them transcribed.

TCS: Let’s listen to one of these beeps. That’s a municipal parking ramp.

DI: Yup. That’s it. That really is... it sound almost like you’ve just come back from a concert. It’s that level of beep.

Let’s play another one here. There’s different beeps as well. [sound plays]

TCS: It does sound like a bird doesn't it?

DI: I like that one a lot. I never really figured  out if that was the intention of that sound, or if it was some kind of technological malfunction in that. it was really kind of an interesting sound.

TCS: It's like it’s a tape trying to play.

DI: Or its lopsided or something. But I feel obviously those beeping and chirping, it isn’t as human as a voice. But I do still enjoy those because, at some point someone had to decide on that balance, about what’s warning enough and what’s too much warning, and what is the audio equiavelnt of that.

I was thinking just yesterday about the FCC warning test sound.

TCS: The EAS the emergency alert system...

DI: The emergency alert system sound. The grating... you can’t even... We all hear it in our head but it's an amazing grating sound. I hope someone got paid a lot of money for that sound, because it is the perfect, most horrible sound that you can possible imagine. And i love that someone somewhere got paid to figure out what is the most atrocious sound you can make for us, and how they came up with that.

TCS: Another one that jumps to mind is the tornado warning siren, which is actually kind of pleasant one a month. In a way

[Tornado siren.]

DI: Yep. And here...

TCS: It’s exciting like there’s fireworks going off all over the city.

DI: I guess it's not a city, Its anywhere that the culture of the industry that provides for us, where we become so large that there's not a person any more to tell us, there’s a machine to tell us now, and how we anthropomorphize that machine or don’t... I feel like the emergency broadcast system could have chosen a human voice, but for some reason they do not. And they also chose the most grating sound possible.

But the huge spectrum between the most horrible sound in existence and the most beautiful song, the most beautiful singing voice, and everything in between... It's interesting how we react to those sounds and how they move things in us.

TCS: There's a way in which the city... When I moved to New York and I didn't know at the time that the apartment I was getting into was a block away form the New York City trash truck washing facility.

DI: [laughing] Now you know why you got such a good price.

TCS: Well, it wasn't that good a price... But so what this meant was that we had all our windows open because it was hot in the summertime, and each night between midnight and 4:30 in the morning there were these big trucks idling outside our window. And for the first week or two it really annoyed me, but then I just got used to it. You sort of filter it out. Don’t even hear it any more

DI: Yep and when you start really looking at something seeing, re-seeing it, re-hearing it...

I always say that I can feel a physical shift in my brain between the point where I’m trying to impose my direction on how something should be versus listening to something or being open to something. And for me in terms of art making, that’s a huge shift, for me to think about "ok oh i’m not going to really pursue an idea, I’m going to keep myself open to what comes to me, what ideas come  to me and make themselves known."

And I feel like living in a city can be a lot of that. You can thrust yourself into a city, or you can let the city come into you, and be part of that city. And it’s a very different dynamic of how you walk down the street. If you are open to the city and what’s happening in the city, you can find those beauties in the small moments of things, the institutional, or things that aren’t meant to be.

TCS: You discover a new place.

DI: But if you just pursue your life with a single-minded agenda, you don't ever  get to really let those things come in that you wouldn't have anticipated happening. That’s something that's important to me to experience on a daily basis, opening myself to those experiences those ideas, those sounds, those objects, those people. Whatever...

TCS: There's one more I wanted to play, a really fast one.

[Parking lot klaxon from the lot across from the new Guthrie Theater.]

[The lot by the Guthrie, on 2nd Street.]
DI: I like that one a lot, because its almost stuck on "car." He’s barking it, but he’s also singing it. Like "caution ca-ar approaching." There’s almost two beats.

TCS: It almost sounds like a vendor at a Twins game.

DI: Right. And I always wonder if its intentional. How many takes they did with that? The more you listen to it, the more you hear those little things that happen in it. Especially once it repeats itself again and again. That one is just, again it's just... What I’m left with  is a lot of questions about why it sounds that way.

TCS: That’s the city again. Maybe its someone you see on the bus, and you come up with a fantasy of who they are and why they’re there. You live with the uncertainty.

DI: Yeah and I think that when we think about cities, and these huge institutions, we think about certainty, and we think about rules and organization and the amount of energy that’s put forth to keep a city moving forward. We never think that someone just kind of did something unintentionally.

But the truth of it is with these downtown recordings, they really were done with this "we’ll just do this" attitude. There were not done with any thorough analysis about how to say it or what it sounds like.

That's Something that Belezing said. He kept saying, "Well, what can I say, I just park cars." That’s how he saw his job. He just parks cars, and this was not really an important thing for him. This was a thing that just happened. I like that it was so unintentional I like that they let the thing just seed.

[Transcript ends.]


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