Posts published during September, 2009

In the wake of the first domestic use of sound cannons, against protesters at the recent, sparsely-picketed G20 summit in Pittsburgh, which comes just a few weeks after the same technology was used to suppress protesters at a factory in Bangkok, I want to discuss sound as an absolute phenomenon – that is, at the point where a human listener experiences acute physical harm through exposure, where sound stops being musical or aesthetic and becomes quite literally indistinguishable from a blunt object or explosive device.

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Movie theater culture varies dramatically, but in most places audiences respond out loud in ways that are normative and even, in a sense, ethical. These modes of response are a very important part of how people are expected to relate to artwork. For instance, Film Forum has sustained, respectful silence with dashes of old-man snore, followed by a hearty concluding round of applause to recognize auteurship. The UA on Court Street has text-pages and outdoor voices. You might be interested to know that Jaipur, India has crying, whistling, and viewers generally wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Although none of us knew a word of Hindi, the plot of “Rab Ne Bana De Jodi” (“God Made This Couple”) was pretty transparent. We were riveted for more than three hours (plus an intermission) by a twisting love story in which two of India’s most glamorous models played an ordinary working couple struggling through an arranged marriage. In a device I found Shakespearian, especially for its implausibility, the male lead did double-duty as a working schmo and a hubristic fop, changing only his shirt, glasses, and mustache in the transformation.

You get the idea from the trailer:

Anyway, the crowd in the gigantic one-screen theater with the ice cream paint job treated the movie like an event from the opening shot. Particularly in the first and the last half-hour, every scene was accompanied by shouts of delight and expressions of concern. By the end, the crowd was worked up, and the babies were at their crankiest. As the protagonists (fop now revealed as schmo) were named the winners of the climactic dance contest, and the central motif began playing for the last time (1:45), there was a grand finale of appreciative clapping and whistling.

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As promised, we’re settling down to dinner.

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This recording sounds absurd, abstract, and probably doctored. In truth, it is only the first of these three.

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This is a montage of people reacting to the smell of the bagful of fresh basil I carried around all day yesterday.

Over the weekend, I was in Maine for S and O’s wedding reception. On Sunday, we went to S’s parent’s house, which has a large garden. Perhaps because I have a prominent tattoo of a basil leaf, or perhaps because I ate all of her pesto, S’s mother sent me home with a quantity of basil that easily exceeded the rest of my luggage. Being fresh-picked and uncovered, it had a powerful odor, particularly when jostled in the bag. Because airports usually smell like carpet and noxious cinnamon buns, the herb scent was not only strong but also out-of-place. Airports regulate sights, smells, and sounds very carefully for reasons of efficiency and security, so it’s unusual to experience anything aesthetically surprising while in them. Consequently, almost everyone nearby noticed the basil, from the security line to the gate to the plane to the taxi, in many cases enough to start up a conversation with an unshaven and hungover stranger.

This piece, although I didn’t deliberately set it up, is the most sculptural of the sonic artworks so far presented because it was such a specific provocation. It was also a productive exercise to excite one sense-mode as a means of eliciting recordable action in another.

An upcoming post will deal with food, a subject central to the politics of sensuality in the contemporary moment. This piece will hopefully make a useful lead-in.

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Bureaucratic departments – the DMV, the career services agency, the post office – are places of infinite, futile drama. Although they are designed to move customers with mechanical efficiency from the entrance to the exit, they are usually tense and messy.

Their drama, ironically, results from trying to maintain rigid structures in a liquid universe. On paper, in the abstract, less flexibility means a more streamlined service process. Take a number, proceed to the desk when you’re called, hand over the necessary forms, and wait for the thud of the stamp. In Plato’s post office, it’s that easy.

Outside the world of forms, however, there are always delays, because there is always serendipity, confusion, and disagreement, sometimes all at once. The man at the front of the line has a complicated question. He doesn’t speak English very well. The clerk can’t find his package. Now he’s arguing with her, although she legislates nothing and therefore can only argue back at him, all the more cruelly because she recognizes her own impotence. (Mutual impotence is the infinite loop that renders bureaucratic drama futile.)

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Sound is a useful tool in bureaucratic settings because, under the right conditions, listening can synchronize tightly with action. We can hear ourselves called faster than we can see our number appear on the stern little LED board. No matter what we’re doing – reading, staring, resting – we can mostly be responsible for hearing “68!” and then standing at attention and proceeding. In the post office/DMV/career center, we willingly reduce ourselves to veritable automatons – obedient listening machines – in order to finish our business quickly and get out. We submit to the authority of the system for our own ultimate benefit. Sound, which we don’t have to face to receive, is a great convenience to this end. With it, we can orchestrate a nearly immediate dynamic of command and obedience.

But noise is dangerous. In a bureaucratic utopia, a listener would hear only numbers, perfectly repetitive instructions, and the shuffling of feet. In actual offices, we hear much more. Dramas, futile as they may be for the actors involved, crash the noiseless utopia of efficient repetition, for better or worse. Noise is not only evidence of these dramas, but also a frequent cause of them.

If sound is expedient for an efficient bureaucracy, then we have an opportunity to hear the failure of bureaucracy in noise – sensation, metaphor, and disruption all rolled into one. (We will continue to listen to both the operations and failures of bureaucracy in this space.)

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After the AM rush hour, New York falls into the peaceful lull of the local. Traffic dies down, kids play handball, parents stroll infants, grill cooks sit on stoops and take it easy before lunch. Pairs of old men in high pants laze in lawn chairs on the sidewalk and wait expectantly for anything even marginally remarkable, although Bensonhurst, Brooklyn at 10:15 in the morning won’t usually surprise you. It’s actually brutally routine. No one really visits except delivery vehicles and people picking up U-Hauls from the lot on New Utrecht and 68th. It’s an excellent, low-stress time to hear the texture of dirty truck engines mingling with conversations about parenting.

This recording was made walking in a semi-circle around a handball court, away from the street and toward two mothers.

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Jason Logan has an interactive smell-map of New York City in the digital version of last Sunday’s NYX.

The author walked around eighteen neighborhoods in Manhattan in one day, noting pronounced or recurrent odors. Logan’s findings are presented in short, gonzo-poetic lists, which are linked to an illustrated map of the island on which his route is also overlaid.

The piece is evocative and funny. Certain smells are New York-centric, perhaps requiring some time spent here to really click, including “everything bagels” in Yorkville and “deep-dust-mineral smell of subway” in Tribeca. Others will be more universally resonant, such as “the pseudo-Irish-pub scent” (“bar cloth; last night’s party”) and “the smell of money” (“tangy; metallic-dusty; Play-Doh”).

Logan’s minimal, list-form narrative works well to give the reader a sense of his experiences. The combination of poetic and visual reference is enough to return one, mentally, to the environments under discussion, and for this reason “Scents and the City” is an effective artwork.

It also happens to raise some compelling issues about the politics of sensuality and space – great news!

Like hearing, smelling is a way of knowing a place that we develop quite powerfully as a compass in our ordinary routine without necessarily realizing that we’ve been developing it at all. Logan’s piece demonstrates how smelling makes us aware of people, territory, objects, physical danger, and activity both past and present. In an urban context, for example, we get a heads-up about things we might want to eat (“cheese Danish,” “deep-fried Oreos,” “delicious shrimp grilling”) or go out of our way not to ingest (“dog feces,” “touch of urine,” “garbage”); noxious chemicals in the air (“spilled gas,” “bus exhaust”); commercial activity (“fresh laundry,” “grocery scent,” “pet store”); and so on. Smell offers many such basic cues.

On another level, but often just as acutely, smelling also alerts us to abstract concepts like class and political difference. One of the most striking items comes from Harlem – “Aggressively (almost territorially) soapy cologne.” This hit me immediately. Similarly, from various other geographic areas, “freshly-shaved men,” “medicinal-smelling person,” “hard-to-place perfume,” “faux-leather fanny pack,” and “subtle-but-rank perfume” each announce the presence of categories of people with definite overtones of class, age, and ethnicity. In some cases, these announcements are deliberate emanations that serve to carve out space for the emanator. In others, they are incidental, though no less spatializing for being that way. (Conspicuously absent from Logan’s descriptions were subway scents – the often-thunderous odor of homelessness or spilled food can transform an entire train car into a private or empty cabin.) Smells can insinuate wealth, aggression, ethnic background, generation, religion, and a great deal more.

As with sound, it seems that one of the most acute olfactory markers of financial means and high-class sensibilities is no smell at all, or the smell of things being made not to smell. The “dark, earthy green” of Gramercy Park, the “clean sweat” of Chelsea, the “cleaning products” of Turtle Bay, the “woman purposely wearing no scent” of Midtown South and the “Gallery Smell” of “air conditioning and nothing else” all contrast quite sharply with the thick lists of pungent food oils, heavy-industrial chemicals, and unsubtle personal hygienic products in neighborhoods like Chinatown and Washington Heights.

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