Posts published during August, 2009

This (see “about artworks” or “Artwork #1” for background) was recorded about a year ago.

One day in downtown Bangkok, I crossed paths with a blind man using a lead pipe to echolocate his way down the street. The resonance of the hollow pipe is especially well-suited to producing sonic images that can reveal large objects at a distance – walls or buildings or sets of steps, say. This is a useful supplement to the cane as a means of feeling objects directly. As the man walked, a gym in the ground level of a shopping center played a trancy jingle through loudspeakers mounted outdoors. The gym is called California WOW Xperience, and they’re all over the city, enticing natives and visitors alike with kitschy, oily body-building imagery that nevertheless gets its point across.

Music in advertisements, rather obviously, recruits consumers. Songs plug into associations between identity and sensuality that we often don’t even realize we carry around. The California WOW Xperience ad declares in sensual terms (i.e., without needing to use words) that the gym is high-tech and modern. The accelerated tempos of trance suggest not only the pace of exercise but of the modern more broadly. The use of this ad thus creates and maintains a space that might “feel” “right” enough to passersby to entice them into laying down good Baht for a personal trainer or a yoga class or whatever.

Any useful acoustic analysis has to account not only for primary sound sources as they come into contact with materials, but also for reflections and noise. Sounds interact with one another in complicated ways that can confound engineers attempting to manage sound environments. This recording gestures to another source of confusion, one that lies beyond echo or interference – listening. The taps happen to be audible acts of listening that disrupt or at least mingle with the advertisement, which is what makes this work as a piece (I think). But it should also remind us that listening is a kind of work we do every time we encounter a sound, even if it seems to be second nature.

The ad and the taps are also, finally, kind of amusingly indifferent to each other. I like this a lot, because it rightly insinuates (to my ear) that human encounters are only fleetingly cooperative and never truly systematic.

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Voice is integral to many acts of protest.

Why? First, voice, in the low-tech sense, is a readily available public alert system. If one is unable to appear on broadcast media, or to start a blog or distribute printed material for fear of political reprisal, one can usually still walk out into the street and scream.

Second, the use of the voice has acute affective power for listeners. It carries not only explicit meaning but also a great deal of emotional content. If listeners feel the depth of a speaker’s resolve, they may be moved by it.

Third, the use of the voice in unison, as with singing or chanting, produces a sense of political singularity that can serve to inspire fellow protesters, and to recruit others.
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How do you make a decent sound recording on the fly? The challenges are legion.

I’ve had a pretty good set-up going for about two years now, and for those interested in the technical details I’ll describe it today. This is what I use for every recording presented on this site, unless otherwise noted.


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In addition to discussion of sonic politics, this blog will include short audio sculptures that investigate the interaction between space and sound. This is a project that’s been in the conceptual stages for a while.

The idea is 1) to render an image of a space in the shortest time possible (always under four minutes, and usually under two); 2) to try to capture that space in an active moment so as to render its image robustly; and 3) to select politically compelling or aesthetically charged moments.

My only real background in art is as an amateur photographer who was lucky enough to be able to take multiple classes over the course of three years at a photography school where I was doing fundraising work. I read a lot and thought a lot about approaches to photography during those years, and what I picked up has informed my ideas about audio sculptures. I try to record the same event multiple times from different angles, and to think about framing.

Sound, of course, is very different from imagery. A recording (usually) has a definite length, and (usually) suggests a linear apprehension. Viewers are used to approaching visual media in a less linear, more deliberately subjective fashion. People don’t usually attend to photographs for more than a couple of minutes, and this threshold of interest likely holds for sound as well. I think it might be brazen to expect someone to listen to 11 minutes of a recording, unless they’ve really come to trust you, or unless there’s a rock-solid narrative, or unless it’s music they like. So I’m starting, at least, with shorter segments. Listen to them like you would look at a snapshot – expect funny juxtapositions, emphatic arrays of forms, minor narratives, and surreal scenes.

Artwork #1 was recorded inside a student art gallery in Madison, Wisconsin. For the first minute, I walked around with the door closed. You can hear voices. Then I opened the door and joined the group outside.

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Me and S visited Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin last month for her birthday. It’s about three hours’ drive from Madison. We reserved a room in a bed & breakfast fifteen miles from the bay itself. When we called to make the reservation, we were really impressed by the owner’s thick upper Midwestern accent.

Conversation between Door County bed & breakfast hosts and guests, July, 2009

During our stay, we ended up talking to her and her husband for quite a long time. (In the recording, they talk about their next-door neighbor, a musician who’s planning to lift a piano to the top of his grain silo to play when he retires.) His family immigrated from Belgium and hers from Ireland, both in the mid 19th century. Both families have been in and around Door County ever since. The b&b house itself is about that old as well. It’s built on a farm where the couple used to raise cattle, and where they now grow corn, hay, and soy beans, They run their b&b, I think, mainly for company.

In the previous post, I took for granted that “Thai” and “American” ears were absolutely distinct, but our experience in Door County should cast at least some doubt on the assumption that national citizenship can be uncritically mobilized as an anthropological category. While we obviously spoke the same language, the couple’s accents were for us a pretty profound marker of difference. As soon as we first heard the hostess’ voice on the phone, we had the sense that our trip would take us pretty far out of our normal environment. And when we sat down and talked, our differences were a primary subject of conversation. America, like Thailand, and probably like any nation in the world, is a place of significant internal difference rather than homogeneity. It is also a place whose contours have been shaped by patterns of migration and exchange. Spend a couple hours in Bangkok, and you’ll hear embodied residues of the same sorts of migratory histories – Chinese immigrants, farang (foreign) ex-pats, migrant laborers from Isaan, etc.

In language classes, we might well notice that native Thais tend to speak English with particular intonations, or that Americans tend to do the same with Thai. But at least in anthropology, these surface-level observations can’t substitute for an awareness of the ways that nations – all nations – are internally fragmented. Accent can be a useful clue to this fragmentation, as it was for us when we made our reservations.

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