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Someplaces: Radio Art, Transmission Ecology and Chicago’s Radius

Jeff Kolar with Radius' mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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This week Sounding Out! is proud to present the first post in Radio Art Reflections, a three part series curated by radio artist and senior radio lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University Magz Hall. Focusing on innovative approaches to radio art, the series will bring together three leading practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the U.K.

We begin with a fascinating exploration of “transmission ecologies” in recent works in Chicago, Iceland and elsewhere, written by Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz – one of the most exciting radio artists working today — who discusses how transmission art has shaped her practice.

– Special Editor Neil Verma

From the early avant-garde Futurists to present-day, utopian dreams litter the history of art meeting technology. When it comes to radio and wireless, these often include the dreams that each new technology will conquer space and time; that the overcoming of distance will enable the symbiosis of human with machine and the union of self with other, while the overcoming of time will bring about a simultaneity of experience. For many radio and transmission artists (myself included), our work with so-called “trailing edge” media seeks to critically engage these myths, positing wireless transmissions instead as time-based, site-specific encounters between people and devices over distances small or large, where the materiality of the electro-magnetic spectrum is experienced within a constantly shifting transmission ecology in which we all, people and devices, function.

If one hallmark of radio art is the desire to appropriate broadcasting by rethinking and re-using technologies of transmission and reception in service of crafting new mythologies and futures for the medium. Artists have long questioned the policies and norms established by state and market around radio broadcasting which delimit experimentation and autonomous practices. Bertolt Brecht‘s call in 1932 for radio to exceed its one-to-many broadcast format in favor of a democratized, transceptive (or many-to-many) medium still resonates with contemporary artists and activists alike. What else could radio become, we ask, if not only a disseminator of information and entertainment, acoustic or digital? If radio so far has largely acted as an accomplice in the industrialization of communications, artistic appropriations of radio can destabilize this process with renewed explorations of radio and electromagnetic phenomena, constructions of temporary networks small or large, and radical explorations of broadcast beyond the confines of programming and format norms.

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

Curators, producers and art historians typically describe radio art as the use of radio as an artistic medium, which is to say, art created specifically for the technical and cultural circumstances of broadcast, and which considers these circumstances as artistic material. Today these circumstances have exceeded terrestrial broadcast to include satellite, online, and on-demand forms; similarly radio art has also expanded to include sprawling telematic art exchanges, online podcast series, and unlicensed temporary interventions into the radio dial. As a further reclamation of radio as a medium, many artists pull radio out of the studio to create installations, performance works and public actions which consider not just the act of transmission or the creation of artistic content, but also the material aspects of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and the circuits of people and devices which activate and reveal them.

Japanese media theorist and artist Tetsuo Kogawa describes broadcast radio art as art radio, where art is the content of a transmission. By contrast, radio art involves directly playing with electro-magnetic waves as the artistic medium. Galen Joseph-Hunter of Wave Farm further expands Kogawa’s formulation of radio art with the term transmission art, so as to include audio visual broadcast media and artistic activities across the entire electro-magnetic spectrum, such as work with Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves, or high frequency wireless networks. These definitions of radio and transmission art emphasize that radio is not a container for content, but is defined as relationships between people and things, occurring in the context of the electro-magnetic spectrum within a transmission ecology.

I apply the term transmission ecology in reference to both the symbolic spaces of cultural production such as a radio station, and to the invisible but very material space of dynamic electromagnetic interactions, both of which feature the collaboration between people and things. Transmission ecology asks more than “who owns the airwaves” by questioning the shifting relationships between all actors in the environment, from human to device to localized weather system to nearby star, and thus is not defined by homeostasis but by constant change. These relationships also support a theory of technology where people are not the absolute controllers of things, but where a push and pull of collaboration occurs within complex material and cultural environments.

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009. 

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009.

All activities in the electro-magnetic spectrum form ecologies in relation to one another conceptually, performatively, and materially. Consider the Radia network, an international alliance of independent radio stations who share radio art programming as an alternate transmission ecology within the broader culture of private broadcast radio stations. Another kind of ecology is formed by radio receivers all playing the same station diffused across countless cars and households, as they function in relation to other kinds of wireless devices and electronic systems nearby. Such a muster of receivers can be physically brought together, for instance, in a multi-channel radio installation, to reveal the complex relationships among devices, as each receiver also becomes a sender by electronically effecting its neighbor. A mobile phone receiving wireless internet likewise functions within the instability inherent in the surrounding transmission ecology shaped by all aspects of the built environment, such as the electrical grid and other urban infrastructure, as well as weather or time of day or solar flares. Human bodies and devices alike register the invisible electromagnetic activity that surrounds us as physical, measurable, and affective.

With this in mind consider radio art as occupying “radio space,” a continuous, available, fluctuating area described by the reach of signals within overlapping fields of influence and the space of imagination that invisible territory enables. The extrasensory nature of radio space allows for a productive slippage between real material signals and audible imaginary landscapes. Many radio art and transmission art works specifically draw attention to the transmission ecology in order to question the naturalization of mainstream communications systems, the normalization of practices within those systems, and the pervasiveness of electrical infrastructure, proposing alternate narratives and experiences.

So what is some of this work like? In the past year I have had the pleasure to work with Chicago-based Radius, an experimental radio-based platform which curates monthly episodes broadcast locally using the Audio Relay Unit, an unlicensed autonomous low-watt FM radio transmitter system developed in 2002 by Temporary Services and the Intermod Series. Radius neatly unites radio and transmission art by embracing the production of artistic content for broadcast, sampling existing content for artistic expression, and artistic use of the electro-magnetic spectrum generally. Radius functions as an intermittent exhibition space and as an intervention into the predictable daily grind of the FM dial. Artists compose their pieces specifically for the interference-prone radio space where their work may only be heard in fragments, as the instability and fluctuations of the relatively small Radius signal in relation to the big commercial stations broadcasting from downtown all form the context for experiencing the radio art works. Radius broadcasts one episode per month, on a schedule determined by the artist, with pieces varying in length and repetition, and some following a strict schedule related to cosmic or social timing.

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Photo of my private transmitter + antenna pointing out the window in Seydisfjördur, Iceland

Recently I crafted an episode for Radius while on an artist residency in Seydisfjördur, Iceland. The town was the site of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph link between Europe and Iceland in 1906, which was also the year that Reginald Fessenden first broadcast a human voice over radio from his workshop in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Iceland is remote enough that the electro-magnetic ‘pollution’ from human signal activity is notably absent, and located far enough to the north that in October the light disappears rapidly, so that each day loses eight minutes of daylight. The piece was called Radiotelegraph, a beacon crafted from spoken morse code and sampled signals, then sent from north to south, simulcast on my own low-watt FM transmitter in Seydisfjördur at sundown each day as well as on Radius in Chicago. The transmission marked time passing, beginning earlier each day as it followed the path of the sun. My intention was not to overcome but to experience and recuperate distance through the relation of a remote radio outpost to another minor outpost further south within a metropolis; to hear distance and feel it; to understand that distance, however finite, is a necessary condition for communication and relationship, and that distance is the key ingredient of situated, time-based, spatialized sonic experiences.

Here is the Radius episode featuring Radiotelegraph:

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Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

As part of a recent yearly theme on “Grids” Radius tackled the electro-magnetic field space of the city by inviting four artists to create new works to be performed near power stations. In his piece electrosmog, Canadian artist Kristen Roos utilized a high frequency receiver to sonify signal activity in the 800 MHz – 2.5 GHz range, which includes mobile phones, wireless phones, wifi, and microwaves. His site-specific performance took place overlooking the Fisk Generating Station in Chicago, and included microwave ovens and micro-watt transmission to a sound system made of radio receivers. Thus the work was site-specific to both the transmission ecology of urban Chicago and the field effects of the electrical grid, mixing material signals with a speculative approach as to what the cumulative effects of living in this built environment characterized by centralized power could be. In Roos’ work, radio space contextualized and revealed the real–though naturalized and often invisible–relationships between people, things, and systems, where a microwave oven gestured at both danger and musicality.

Listen to the Roos piece here:

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Kristen Roos' set up for his Grids performance

Kristen Roos’ set up for his Grids performance

These radio art works enact places in radiophonic space, and experiment with transmission to question the status quo of how the airwaves are controlled and used. As radio trickster Gregory Whitehead notes, it is position, not sound, that matters most with regard to radio. Artists remain committed to making radiophonic someplaces, however temporarily constructed, inhabited by interpenetrating and overlapping fields and bodies.

Featured Image: Jeff Kolar with Radius’ mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Used with permission.

Anna Friz is a Canadian sound and radio artist who specializes in multi-channel transmission systems for installation, performance, and broadcast. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from York University, Toronto, and recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has performed and exhibited widely across North America, South America, and Europe, and her radio art/works have been heard on the airwaves of more than 25 countries. She is a steering member of the artist collective Skálar |Sound Art | Experimental Music based in Iceland.

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Sounding Out Podcast #36: Anne Zeitz and David Boureau’s “Retention”

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Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

In the final entry to our series on Sound and Surveillance, sound artist Anne Zeitz dissects the theory behind her installation Retention. What are the sounds of capture, and how do the sounds produced in and around spaces of capture affect our bodies? Listen in to find out. -AT

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This podcast presents Retention, a quadriphonic sound installation made with David Boureau. It considers the sounds of surveillance, detention and migration. Retention concentrates on the “soundscape” of the Mesnil Amelot 2+3 detention center for illegal immigrants situated to the North of Paris just beside the Charles de Gaulle airport. This center constitutes the largest complex for detaining “illegal immigrants” in France, with 240 places for individuals and families. Approximately 350 airplanes pass closely above the center over a 24 hours time span, creating intervals of very high sound levels that regularly drown out all other ambient sounds. Retention uses quadrophonic recording technology to capture and diffuse a live transmission of communication between pilots and the Charles de Gaulle control tower. The work also integrates recordings from inside the center made by communications via mobile phones. In the short intervals of silence (always implying sounds of some sort), the atmosphere seems suspended. This suspension is paradigmatic for the clash between the local and the global, between those who are trapped in a state of detention before being expulsed by the engines moving over their heads and those who circulate freely (nonetheless under surveillance) in our global society. Retention exhibits a changing sonic space in order to consider how “waiting zones” and processes of mobility meet.

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Featured Image (c) Anne Zeitz and David Boureau, Retention, 2012.

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Anne Zeitz is a researcher and artist working with photography, video, and sound media. Born in Berlin in 1980, she lives and works in Paris. Her research focuses on mechanisms of surveillance and mass media, theories of observation and attention, and practices of counter-observation in contemporary art. Her doctoral thesis (University Paris 8/ Esthétique, Sciences et Technologies des Arts, dissertation defence November 2014) is entitled (Counter-)observations, Relations of Observation and Surveillance in Contemporary Art, Literature and Cinema. Anne Zeitz was responsible for organizing the project Movement-Observation-Control (2007/2008) for the Goethe-Institut Paris and collaborated on the exhibition and conference Armed Response (2008) at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg. She is a former member of the Observatoire des nouveaux médias (Paris 8/Ensad) and of the research project Média Médiums (Université Paris 8, ENSAPC, EnsadLAB, Archives Nationales, 2013/2014). Her most recent research concentrates on the work of the American artist Max Neuhaus with the publication of De Max-Feed a Radio Net (2014), part of the Média Médiums book series. She is the artist of this year’s Urban Photo Fest and participated at the Urban Encounters / Tate Britain in October 2014.

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Acousmatic Surveillance and Big Data

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Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

Moving on from cybernetic games to modes of surveillance that work through composition and patterns. Here, Robin James challenges us to consider the unfamiliar resonances produced by our IP addresses, search histories, credit trails, and Facebook posts. How does the NSA transform our data footprints into the sweet, sweet, music of surveillance? Shhhhhhhh! Let’s listen in. . . -AT

Kate Crawford has argued that there’s a “big metaphor gap in how we describe algorithmic filtering.” Specifically, its “emergent qualities” are particularly difficult to capture. This process, algorithmic dataveillance, finds and tracks dynamic patterns of relationships amongst otherwise unrelated material. I think that acoustics can fill the metaphor gap Crawford identifies. Because of its focus on identifying emergent patterns within a structure of data, rather than its cause or source, algorithmic dataveillance isn’t panoptic, but acousmatic. Algorithmic dataveillance is acousmatic because it does not observe identifiable subjects, but ambient data environments, and it “listens” for harmonics to emerge as variously-combined data points fall into and out of phase/statistical correlation.

Dataveillance defines the form of surveillance that saturates our consumer information society. As this promotional Intel video explains, big data transcends the limits of human perception and cognition – it sees connections we cannot. And, as is the case with all superpowers, this is both a blessing and a curse. Although I appreciate emails from my local supermarket that remind me when my favorite bottle of wine is on sale, data profiling can have much more drastic and far-reaching effects. As Frank Pasquale has argued, big data can determine access to important resources like jobs and housing, often in ways that reinforce and deepen social inequities. Dataveillance is an increasingly prominent and powerful tool that determines many of our social relationships.

The term dataveillance was coined in 1988 by Roger Clarke, and refers to “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons.” In this context, the person is the object of surveillance and data is the medium through which that surveillance occurs. Writing 20 years later, Michael Zimmer identifies a phase-shift in dataveillance that coincides with the increased popularity and dominance of “user-generated and user-driven Web technologies” (2008). These technologies, found today in big social media, “represent a new and powerful ‘infrastructure of dataveillance,’ which brings about a new kind of panoptic gaze of both users’ online and even their offline activities” (Zimmer 2007). Metadataveillance and algorithmic filtering, however, are not variations on panopticism, but practices modeled—both historically/technologically and metaphorically—on acoustics.

In 2013, Edward Snowden’s infamous leaks revealed the nuts and bolts of the National Security Administration’s massive dataveillance program. They were collecting data records that, according to the Washington Post, included “e-mails, attachments, address books, calendars, files stored in the cloud, text or audio or video chats and ‘metadata’ that identify the locations, devices used and other information about a target.” The most enduringly controversial aspect of NSA dataveillance programs has been the bulk collection of Americans’ data and metadata—in other words, the “big data”-veillance programs.

 

Borrowed fro thierry ehrmann @Flickr CC BY.

Borrowed from thierry ehrmann @Flickr CC BY.

Instead of intercepting only the communications of known suspects, this big dataveillance collects everything from everyone and mines that data for patterns of suspicious behavior; patterns that are consistent with what algorithms have identified as, say, “terrorism.” As Cory Doctorow writes in BoingBoing, “Since the start of the Snowden story in 2013, the NSA has stressed that while it may intercept nearly every Internet user’s communications, it only ‘targets’ a small fraction of those, whose traffic patterns reveal some basis for suspicion.” “Suspicion,” here, is an emergent property of the dataset, a pattern or signal that becomes legible when you filter communication (meta)data through algorithms designed to hear that signal amidst all the noise.

Hearing a signal from amidst the noise, however, is not sufficient to consider surveillance acousmatic. “Panoptic” modes of listening and hearing, though epitomized by the universal and internalized gaze of the guards in the tower, might also be understood as the universal and internalized ear of the confessor. This is the ear that, for example, listens for conformity between bodily and vocal gender presentation. It is also the ear of audio scrobbling, which, as Calum Marsh has argued, is a confessional, panoptic music listening practice.

Therefore, when President Obama argued that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he was correct. But only insofar as nobody (human or AI) is “listening” in the panoptic sense. The NSA does not listen for the “confessions” of already-identified subjects. For example, this court order to Verizon doesn’t demand recordings of the audio content of the calls, just the metadata. Again, the Washington Post explains:

The data doesn’t include the speech in a phone call or words in an email, but includes almost everything else, including the model of the phone and the “to” and “from” lines in emails. By tracing metadata, investigators can pinpoint a suspect’s location to specific floors of buildings. They can electronically map a person’s contacts, and their contacts’ contacts.

NSA dataveillance listens acousmatically because it hears the patterns of relationships that emerge from various combinations of data—e.g., which people talk and/or meet where and with what regularity. Instead of listening to identifiable subjects, the NSA identifies and tracks emergent properties that are statistically similar to already-identified patterns of “suspicious” behavior. Legally, the NSA is not required to identify a specific subject to surveil; instead they listen for patterns in the ambience. This type of observation is “acousmatic” in the sound studies sense because the sounds/patterns don’t come from one identifiable cause; they are the emergent properties of an aggregate.

Borrowed from david @Flickr CC BY-NC.

Borrowed from david @Flickr CC BY-NC.

Acousmatic listening is a particularly appropriate metaphor for NSA-style dataveillance because the emergent properties (or patterns) of metadata are comparable to harmonics or partials of sound, the resonant frequencies that emerge from a specific combination of primary tones and overtones. If data is like a sound’s primary tone, metadata is its overtones. When two or more tones sound simultaneously, harmonics emerge whhen overtones vibrate with and against one another. In Western music theory, something sounds dissonant and/or out of tune when the harmonics don’t vibrate synchronously or proportionally. Similarly, tones that are perfectly in tune sometimes create a consonant harmonic. The NSA is listening for harmonics. They seek metadata that statistically correlates to a pattern (such as “terrorism”), or is suspiciously out of correlation with a pattern (such as US “citizenship”). Instead of listening to identifiable sources of data, the NSA listens for correlations among data.

Both panopticism and acousmaticism are technologies that incite behavior and compel people to act in certain ways. However, they both use different methods, which, in turn, incite different behavioral outcomes. Panopticism maximizes efficiency and productivity by compelling conformity to a standard or norm. According to Michel Foucault, the outcome of panoptic surveillance is a society where everyone synchs to an “obligatory rhythm imposed from the outside” (151-2), such as the rhythmic divisions of the clock (150). In other words, panopticism transforms people into interchangeable cogs in an industrial machine.  Methodologically, panopticism demands self-monitoring. Foucault emphasizes that panopticism functions most efficiently when the gaze is internalized, when one “assumes responsibility for the constraints of power” and “makes them play…upon himself” (202). Panopticism requires individuals to synchronize themselves with established compulsory patterns.

Acousmaticism, on the other hand, aims for dynamic attunement between subjects and institutions, an attunement that is monitored and maintained by a third party (in this example, the algorithm). For example, Facebook’s News Feed algorithm facilitates the mutual adaptation of norms to subjects and subjects to norms. Facebook doesn’t care what you like; instead it seeks to transform your online behavior into a form of efficient digital labor. In order to do this, Facebook must adjust, in part, to you. Methodologically, this dynamic attunement is not a practice of internalization, but unlike Foucault’s panopticon, big dataveillance leverages outsourcing and distribution. There is so much data that no one individual—indeed, no one computer—can process it efficiently and intelligibly. The work of dataveillance is distributed across populations, networks, and institutions, and the surveilled “subject” emerges from that work (for example, Rob Horning’s concept of the “data self”). Acousmaticism tunes into the rhythmic patterns that synch up with and amplify its cycles of social, political, and economic reproduction.

Sonic Boom! Borrowed from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center @Flickr CC BY.

Sonic Boom! Borrowed from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center @Flickr CC BY.

Unlike panopticism, which uses disciplinary techniques to eliminate noise, acousmaticism uses biopolitical techniques to allow profitable signals to emerge as clearly and frictionlessly as possible amid all the noise (for more on the relation between sound and biopolitics, see my previous SO! essay). Acousmaticism and panopticism are analytically discrete, yet applied in concert. For example, certain tiers of the North Carolina state employee’s health plan require so-called “obese” and tobacco-using members to commit to weight-loss and smoking-cessation programs. If these members are to remain eligible for their selected level of coverage, they must track and report their program-related activities (such as exercise). People who exhibit patterns of behavior that are statistically risky and unprofitable for the insurance company are subject to extra layers of surveillance and discipline. Here, acousmatic techniques regulate the distribution and intensity of panoptic surveillance. To use Nathan Jurgenson’s turn of phrase, acousmaticism determines “for whom” the panoptic gaze matters. To be clear, acousmaticism does not replace panopticism; my claim is more modest. Acousmaticism is an accurate and productive metaphor for theorizing both the aims and methods of big dataveillance, which is, itself, one instrument in today’s broader surveillance ensemble.

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Featured image “Big Brother 13/365″ by Dennis Skley CC BY-ND.

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Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism will be published by Zer0 books this fall, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.

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The Dark Side of Game Audio: The Sounds of Mimetic Control and Affective ConditioningAaron Trammell

Listening to Whisperers: Performance, ASMR Community, and Fetish on YouTube–Joshua Hudelson

The Dark Side of Game Audio: The Sounds of Mimetic Control and Affective Conditioning

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Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

This month, SO! Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell curates a forum on Sound and Surveillance, featuring the work of Robin James and Kathleen Battles.  And so it begins, with Aaron asking. . .”Want to Play a Game?” –JS

It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday night and I’m in the back room of a comic book store in Scotch Plains, NJ. Game night is wrapping up. Just as I’m about to leave, someone suggests that we play Pit, a classic game about trading stocks in the early 20th century. Because the game is short, I decide to give it a go and pull a chair up to the table. In Pit, players are given a hand of nine cards of various farm-related suits and frantically trade cards with other players until their entire hand matches the same suit. As play proceeds, players hold up a set of similar cards they are willing to trade and shout, “one, one, one!,” “two, two, two!,” “three, three, three!,” until another player is willing to trade them an equivalent amount of cards in a different suit. The game only gets louder as the shouting escalates and builds to a cacophony.

As I drove home that night, I came to the uncomfortable realization that maybe the game was playing me. I and the rest of the players had adopted similar dispositions over the course of the play. As we fervently shouted to one another trying to trade between sets of indistinguishable commodities, we took on similar, intense, and excited mannerisms. Players who would not scream, who would not participate in the reproduction of the game’s sonic environment, simply lost the game, faded out. As for the rest of us, we became like one another, cookie-cutter reproductions of enthusiastic, stressed, and aggravated stock traders, getting louder as we cornered the market on various goods.

We were caught in a cybernetic-loop, one that encouraged us to take on the characteristics of stock traders. And, for that brief period of time, we succumbed to systems of control with far reaching implications. As I’ve argued before, games are cybernetic mechanisms that facilitate particular modes of feedback between players and the game state. Sound is one of the channels through which this feedback is processed. In a game like Pit, players both listen to other players for cues regarding their best move and shout numbers to the table representing potential trades. In other games, such as Monopoly, players must announce when they wish to buy properties. Although it is no secret that understanding sound is essential to good game design, it is less clear how sound defines the contours of power relationships in these games. This essay offers two games,  Mafia, and Escape: The Curse of the Temple as case studies for the ways in which sound is used in the most basic of games, board games. By fostering environments that encourage both mimetic control and affective conditioning game sound draws players into the devious logic of cybernetic systems.

Understanding the various ways that sound is implemented in games is essential to understanding the ways that game sound operates as both a form of mimetic control and affective conditioning. Mimetic control is, at its most simple, the power of imitation. It is the degree to which we become alike when we play games. Mostly, it happens because the rules invoke a variety of protocols which encourage players to interact according to a particular standard of communication. The mood set by game sound is the power of affective conditioning. Because we decide what we interact with on account of our moods, moments of affective conditioning prime players to feel things (such as pleasure), which can encourage players to interact in compulsive, excited, subdued, or frenetic ways with game systems.

A game where sound plays a central and important role is Mafia (which has a number of other variants like Werewolf and The Resistance). In Mafia, some players take the secret role of mafia members who choose players to “kill” at night, while the eyes of the others are closed. Because mafia-team players shuffle around during the game and point to others in order to indicate which players to eliminate while the eyes of the other players are closed, the rules of the game suggest that players tap on things, whistle, chirp, and make other ambient noises while everyone’s eyes are closed. This allows for the mafia-team players to conduct their business secretly, as their motions are well below the din created by the other players. Once players open their eyes, they must work together to deduce which players are part of the mafia, and then vote on who to eliminate from the game. Here players are, in a sense, controlled by the game to provide a soundtrack. What’s more, the eeriness of the sounds produced by the players only accentuate the paranoia players feel when taking part in what’s essentially a lynch-mob.

The ambient sounds produced by players of Mafia have overtones of mimetic control. Protocols governing the use of game audio as a form of communication between bodies and other bodies, or bodies and machines, require that we communicate in particular ways at set intervals. Different than the brutal and martial forms of discipline that drove disciplinary apparatuses like Bentham’s panopticon, the form of control exerted through interactive game audio relies on precisely the opposite premise. What is often termed “The Magic Circle of Play” is suspect here as it promises players a space that is safe and fundamentally separate from events in the outside world. Within this space somewhat hypnotic behavior-patterns take place under the auspices of being just fun, or mere play. Players who refuse to play by the rules are often exiled from this space, as they refuse to enter into this contract of soft social norms with others.

Not all panopticons are in prisons. "Singing Ringing Tree at Sunset," Dave Leeming CC BY.

Not all panopticons are in prisons. “Singing Ringing Tree at Sunset,” Dave Leeming CC BY.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple relies on sound to set a game mood that governs the ways that players interact with each other. In Escape, players have ten minutes (of real time) where they must work together to navigate a maze of cardboard tiles. Over the course of the game there are two moments when players must return to the tile that they started the game on, and these are announced by a CD playing in the background of the room. When this occurs, a gong rings on the CD and rhythms of percussion mount in intensity until players hear a door slam. At this point, if players haven’t returned to their starting tile, they are limited in the actions they can take for the rest of the game. In the moments of calm before players make a mad dash for the entrance, the soundtrack waxes ambient. It offers the sounds of howling-winds, rattling chimes, and yawning corridors.

The game is spooky, overall. The combination of haunting ambient sounds and moments where gameplay is rushed and timed, makes for an adrenaline-fueled experience contained and produced by the game’s ambient soundtrack. The game’s most interesting moments come from points where one player is trapped and players must decide whether they should help their friend or help themselves. The tense, haunting, soundtrack evokes feelings of high-stakes immersion. The game is fun because it produces a tight, stressful, and highly interactive experience. It conditions its players through the clever use of its soundtrack to feel the game in an embodied and visceral way. Like the ways that horror movies have used ambient sounds to a great effect in producing tension in audiences (pp.26-27), Escape: The Curse of the Temple encourages players to immerse themselves in the game world by playing upon the tried and true affective techniques that films have used for years. Immersed players feel an increased sense of engagement with the game and because of this they are willingly primed to engage in the mimetic interactive behaviors that engage them within the game’s cybernetic logic.

These two forms of power, mimetic control and affective conditioning, often overlap and coalesce in games. Sometimes, they meet in the middle during games that offer a more or less adaptive form of sound, like Mafia. Players work together and mimic each other when reproducing the ambient forms of quiet that constitute the atmosphere of terror that permeates the game space. Even the roar of bids which occurs in Pit constitutes a form of affective conditioning that encourages players to buy, buy, buy as fast as possible. Effectively simulating the pressure of The Stock Exchange.

Although there is now a growing discipline around the production of game audio, there is relatively little discourse that attempts to understand how the implementation of sound in games functions as a mode of social control. By looking at the ways that sound is implemented in board and card games, we can gain insight of the ways in which it is implemented in larger technical systems (such as computer games), larger aesthetic systems (such as performance art), economic systems (like casinos and the stock market), and even social systems (like parties). Furthermore, it is easy to describe more clearly the ways in which game audio functions as a form of soft power through techniques of mimetic control and affective conditioning. It is only by understanding how these techniques affect our bodies that we can begin to recognize our interactions with large-scale cybernetic systems that have effects reaching beyond the game itself.

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Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.

Featured image “Psychedelic Icon,” by Gwendal Uguen CC BY-NC-SA.

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