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Culture Jamming and Game Sound: An Interview with foci + loci

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Sound-Improv-New-Media-ArtGuest Editors’ Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s December forum entitled “Sound, Improvisation and New Media Art.” This series explores the nature of improvisation and its relationship to appropriative play cultures within new media art and contemporary sound practice. Here, we engage directly with practitioners, who either deploy or facilitate play and improvisation through their work in sonic new media cultures.

For our second piece in the series, we have interviewed New York City based performance duo foci + loci (Chris Burke and Tamara Yadao). Treating the map editors in video games as virtual sound stages, foci + loci design immersive electroacoustic spaces that can be “played” as instruments. Chris and Tamara bring an interdisciplinary lens to their work, having worked in various sonic and game-related cultures including, popular, electroacoustic and new music, chiptune, machinima (filmmaking using video game engines), and more.

As curators, we have worked with foci + loci several times over the past few years, and have been fascinated with their treatment of popular video game environments as tools for visual and sonic exploration. Their work is highly referential, drawing on artistic legacies of the Futurists, the Surrealists, and the Situationists, among others. In this interview, we discuss the nature of their practice(s), and it’s relationship to play, improvisation and the co-constituative nature of their work in relation to capital and proprietary technologies.

— Guest Editors Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger

1. Can you take a moment to describe your practice to our readers? What kind of work do you produce, what kind of technologies are involved, and what is your creative process?

foci + loci mostly produce sonic and visual video game environments that are played in live performance. We have been using Little Big Planet (LBP) on the Playstation 3 for about 6 years.

When we perform, we normally have two PS3s running the game with a different map in each. We have experimented with other platforms such as Minecraft and we sometimes incorporate spoken word, guitars, effects pedals, multiple game controllers (more than 1 each) and Game Boys.

Our creative process proceeds from discussions about the ontological differences between digital space and cinematic space, as well as the freeform or experimental creation of music and sound art that uses game spaces as its medium. When we are in “Create Mode” in LBP, these concepts guide our construction of virtual machines, instruments and performance systems.

[Editor’s Note: Little Big Planet’s has several game modes. Create Mode is the space within the game where users can create their own LBP levels and environments. As player’s progress through LBP’s Story Mode, players unlock and increasing number of game assets, which can be used in Create Mode.]

2. Tell us about your background in music? Can you situate your current work in relation to the musical traditions and communities that you were previously a part of?

CB: I have composed for film, TV, video games and several albums (sample based, collage and electronic). Since 2001 I’ve been active in the chipmusic scene, under the name glomag. Around the same time I discovered machinima and you could say that my part in foci + loci is the marriage of these two interests – music and visual. Chipmusic tends to be high energy and the draw centers around exciting live performances. It’s immensely fun and rewarding but I felt a need to step back and make work that drew from more cerebral pursuits. foci + loci is more about these persuits for me: both my love of media theory and working with space and time.

TY: I’m an interdisciplinary artist and composer. I studied classical piano and percussion during my childhood years. I went on to study photography, film, video, sound, digital media and guitar in college and after. I’ve primarily been involved with the electroacoustic improv and chipmusic scenes, both in NYC. I’ve been improvising since 2005, and I’ve been writing chipmusic since 2011 under the moniker Corset Lore.

My work in foci + loci evolved out of the performance experience I garnered in the electroacoustic improv scene. My PS3 replaced my laptop. LBP replaced Ableton Live and VDMX. I think I felt LBP had more potential as a sonic medium because an interface could be created from scratch. Eventually, the game’s plasticity and setting helped to underscore its audiovisual aspect by revealing different relationships between sound and image.

3. Would you describe your work as a musical practice or an audio-visual performance practice?

FL: We have always felt that in game space, it is more interesting to show the mechanism that makes the sound as well as the image. These aspects are programmed, of course, but we try to avoid things happening “magically,” and instead like to give our process some transparency. So, while it is often musical, sound and image are inextricably linked. And, in certain cases, the use of a musical score (including game controller mappings) has been important to how our performance unfolds either through improvisation or timed audiovisual events. The environment is the musical instrument, so using the game controller is like playing a piano and wielding a construction tool at the same time. It has also been important in some contexts to perform in ‘Create Mode’ in order to simply give the audience visual access to  LBP‘s programming backend. In this way, causal relationships between play and sound may be more firmly demonstrated.

4. There are many communities of practice that have adopted obsolete or contemporary technologies to create new, appropriative works and forms. Often, these communities recontextualize our/their relationships to technologies they employ. To what extent do you see you work in relation to communities of appropriation-based creative expression?

CB: In the 80s-90s I was an active “culture jammer,” making politically motivated sound montage works for radio and performance and even dabbling in billboard alterations. Our corporate targets were selling chemical weapons and funding foreign wars while our media targets were apologists for state-sanctioned murder. Appropriating their communications (sound bites, video clips, broadcasting, billboards) was an effort to use their own tools against them. In the case of video game publishers and console manufacturers, there is much to criticize: sexist tropes in game narratives, skewed geo-political subtexts, anti-competitive policies, and more. Despite these troubling themes, the publishers (usually encouraged by the game developers) have occasionally supported the “pro-sumer” by opening up their game environments to modding and other creative uses. This is a very positive shift from, say, the position of the RIAA or the MPAA, where derivative works are much more frequently shut down. My previous game-related series, This Spartan Life, was more suited to tackling these issues. As for foci + loci, it’s hard to position work that uses extensively developed in-game tools as being “appropriative,” but I do think using a game engine to explore situationist ideas or the ontology of game space, as we do in our work, is a somewhat radical stance on art. We hope that it encourages more players to creatively express their ideas in similar ways.

TY: Currently, the ‘us vs. them’ attitude that characterized the 80s and 90s is no longer as relevant as it once was because corporations are now giving artists technology for their own creative use. However, they undermine this sense of benevolence by claiming that consumers could be the next Picasso if they buy said piece of technology in their marketing—as if the tool is more important than the artist/artwork. Little Big Planet is marketed this way. On the whole, I think these issues complicate artists’ relationships with their media.

Often our work tends to be included in hacker community events, most recently the ‘Music Games Hackathon’ at Spotify (NYC), because, while we don’t necessarily hack the hardware or software, our approach is a conceptual hack or subversion. At this event, there were a variety of conceptual connections made between music, hacks and games; Double Dutch, John Zorn’s Game Pieces, Fluxus, Xenakis and Stockhausen were all compared to one another. I gave a talk at the Hackers on Planet Earth Conference in 2011 about John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Richard Stallman and the free software movement. In Stallman’s essay ‘On Hacking,’ he cited John Cage’s ‘4’33″‘ as an early example of a music hack. In my discussion, I pointed to Marcel Duchamp, a big influence on Cage, whose readymades were essentially hacked objects through their appropriation and re-contextualization. I think this conceptual approach informs foci + loci’s current work.

[Editors’ note: Recently celebrating its 10th anniversary, This Spartan Life is a machinima talk show that takes place within the multiplayer game space of the First Person Shooter game Halo. This Spartan Life was created by Chris Burke in 2005. The show has featured luminaries including Malcolm McClaren, Peggy Awesh, and many more.]

8570574546_a047ca71f6_b5. You mention the ontological differences between game spaces and cinematic spaces. Can you clarify what you mean by this? Why is this such as important distinction and how does it drive the work?

CB: We feel that there is a fundamental difference in the way space is represented in cinema through montage and the way it’s simulated in a video game engine. To use Eisenstein’s terms, film shots are “cells” which collide to synthesize an image in the viewers mind. Montage builds the filmic space shot by shot. Video game space, being a simulation, is coded mathematically and so has a certain facticity. We like the way the mechanized navigation of this continuous space can create a real time composition. It’s what we call a “knowable” space.

6. Your practice is sound-based but relies heavily on the visual interface that you program in the gamespace. How do you view this relationship between the sonic and the visual in your work?

TY: LBP has more potential as a creative medium because it is audiovisual. The sound and image are inextricably linked in some cases, where one responds to the other. These aspects of interface function like the system of instruments we (or the game console) are driving. Since a camera movement can shape a sound within the space, the performance of an instrument can be codified to yield a certain effect. This goes back to our interest in the ontology of game space.

7. Sony (and other game developers) have been criticized for commodifying play as work – players produce and upload levels for free, and this free labour populates the Little Big Planet ecology. How would you position the way you use LBP in this power dynamic between player and IP owner?

CB: We are certainly more on the side of the makers than the publishers, but personally I think the “precarious labor” argument is a stretch with regard to LBP. Are jobs being replaced (International Labor Rights definition of precarious work)? Has a single modder or machinima maker suggested they should be compensated by the game developer or publisher for their work? Compensation actually does happen occasionally. This Spartan Life was, for a short time, employed by Microsoft to make episodes of the show for the developer’s Halo Waypoint portal. I have known a number of creators from the machinima community who were hired by Bioware, Blizzard, Bungie, 343 Industries and other developers. Then there’s the famous example of Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, who were hired by Valve to finish their Half-Life mod, Counterstrike. However, compensating every modder and level maker would clearly not be a supportable model for developers or publishers.

Having said all that, I think our work does not exactly fit into Sony’s idea of what LBP users should be creating. We are resisting, in a sense, by providing a more art historical example of what gamers can do with this engine beyond making endless game remakes, side-scrollers and other overrepresented forms. We want players to open our levels and say “WTF is this? How do I play it?” Then we want them to go into create mode and author LBP levels that contain more of their own unique perspectives and less of the game.

[Corset Lore is Tamara Yadao’s chiptune project.]

8. What does it mean to improvise with new interfaces? Has anything ever gone horribly wrong during a moment of improvisation? Is there a tension between improvisation and culture jamming, or do the two fit naturally together?

CB: It’s clear that improvising with new interfaces is freer and sometimes this means our works in progress lack context and have to be honed to speak more clearly. This freedom encourages a spontaneous reaction to the systems we build that often provokes the exploitation of weaknesses and failure. Working within a paradigm of exploitation seems appropriate to us, considering our chosen medium. In play, there is always the possibility of failure, or in a sense, losing to the console. When we design interfaces within console and game parameters we build in fail-safes while also embracing mechanisms that encourage failure during our performance/play.

In an elemental way, culture jamming is a more targeted approach, whereas improvisation seems to operate with a looser agenda. Improvisation is already a critical approach to the structures of game narrative. Improvising with a video game opens up the definition of what a game space is, or can be.

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All images used with permission by foci + loci.

foci + loci are Chris Burke and Tamara Yadao.

Chris Burke came to his interest in game art via his work as a composer, sound designer and filmmaker. As a sound designer and composer he has worked with, among others, William Pope L., Jeremy Blake, Don Was, Tom Morello and Björk. In 2005 he created This Spartan Life which transformed the video game Halo into a talk show. Within the virtual space of the game, he has interviewed McKenzie Wark, Katie Salen, Malcolm McLaren, the rock band OK Go and others. This and other work in game art began his interest in the unique treatment of space and time in video games. In 2012, he contributed the essay “Beyond Bullet Time” to the “Understanding Machinima” compendium (2013, Continuum).

Tamara Yadao is an interdisciplinary artist and composer who works with gaming technology, movement, sound, and video. In Fall 2009, at Diapason Gallery, she presented a lecture on “the glitch” called “Post-Digital Music: The Expansion of Artifacts in Microsound and the Aesthetics of Failure in Improvisation.” Current explorations include electro-acoustic composition in virtual space, 8-bit sound in antiquated game technologies (under the moniker Corset Lore), movement and radio transmission as a live performance tool and the spoken word. Her work has been performed and exhibited in Europe and North America, and in 2014, Tamara was the recipient of a commissioning grant by the Jerome Fund for New Music through the American Composers Forum.

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Improvisation and Play in New Media, Games and Experimental Sound Practices

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Editors’ Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s December forum entitled “Sound, Improvisation and New Media Art.” This series explores the nature of improvisation and its relationship to appropriative play cultures within new media art and contemporary sound practice. This series will engage directly with practitioners, who either deploy or facilitate play and improvisation through their work in sonic new media cultures.

The first essay in this series draws from a constellation of disciplinary perspectives that investigate these critical valences, and posits both play and improvisation as critical interventions which can expose, critique and interrupt the proprietary techniques and strategies of contemporary consumer media technologies.

— Guest Editors Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger

As media art scholars and curators of the annual Vector Game Art & New Media Festival, we are particularly interested in the conceptual convergence between critical approaches to play, on the one hand, and to improvisation, on the other. In this short essay, we therefore ask how improvisational sound-based media practices that use technologies, aesthetics, artifacts, and expressive modes of play may challenge the assimilative advances of corporate capital, carving out sites at which its logic may be opposed and confounded. We contend that there is a critical edge to the cultural milieu of playful computation through which practitioners (whether as artists or simply as players) can recuperate play from the mainstreamed sound cultures of digital capital through improvisation-based approaches. It is in this regard that play, as a participative act, rather than an interactive mode, can become a critical site by which to understand artistic interventions through contemporary technologies. This essay provokes a dialogue between theoretical avenues in popular music studies and game studies in order to show how the often-conflated practices of improvisation and play have the potential to challenge the homogenous and repetitive logic of the technological sector and the music industry.

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An algorave at Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

We must turn first to popular music studies where the critical valence of improvisation is a relatively well-established concept. Jazz improvisation in particular has been widely recognized as a powerful mode of political expression. Charles Hersch has argued that techniques of polyphony allow for jazz to reconcile the seemingly contradictory dynamics of individual expression and collectivity, thus allowing for the articulation of black solidarity through musical interventions (97-8). Because jazz is importantly built on appropriation-based creative models, it yields fluid, fleeting, spontaneous results that are difficult to assimilate into the entertainment industry’s property-based circuits. Digital play exhibits a similar potential of challenging the logic of capital; it harbors a powerful creative potential even in heavily commodified contexts. Play allows us (indeed, requires us) to become active in shaping the improvisational, the field of simultaneously critical, creative and performative contexts of expression.

 

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Crowds enjoying Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

Like jazz musicians, game players embody and enact a powerful sense of potentially uncommodifiable agency. Both improvisation and play function similarly, and highlight how contexts of music-making and game-playing activate individuals as critical, expressive agents. Players guide themselves through games based on subjective, rather than imposed, motivations. We can see this emerging in gaming cultures through the rise of player-based phenomena such ‘speedrunning,’ a practice that exploits glitches and faults in a game’s architecture in order to reach the end of a game in the shortest possible time. These niche and ephemeral gaming practices highlight the degree to which practices of improvisation in play may constitute a powerful way of pushing ‘through’ capital–both literally, by accessing games through glitches in their proprietary fabric, and figuratively, if we understand such forms of play as ways to resist the capitalist ideologies embedded within the structures of games (such as the accumulation of wealth, power, or points). Having established here how game-play can act as a form of critical improvisation, this essay now intends to show how these practices of playful improvisation are manifest in the technologies, aesthetics, and the cultural contexts of sound-based art.

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Circuit bending Vector Game Art & New Media Festival’s glitch.jam.

Where can we locate practices of improvisation in the context of sound art? For us, sound art is improvisational both in form and practice. First, the emerging aesthetic dimensions of the medium are fundamentally related to the participatory practices of making that have been used to develop the instruments of sound art, such as circuit bending, hacking, tinkering. Here, the playful and open-ended practices of making are a form of improvisation, a modulation within the typical technological frames in which musical composition is typically embedded. Second, when gaming devices are turned into musical instruments (or vice versa), users are called upon to rethink improvisational practice as game-play, and experiment with deploying play as composition. In this sense, game players become sound artists, with sound technologies extrapolating and improvising new sounds from the habit of their play. Improvisation and play thus allow emerging communities of practice to counteract the corporate ‘black boxing’ of entertainment technologies and the creation of closed systems of interaction and participation (such as many mainstream video games) which assimilate user activities and foreclose improvisational play.

Such approaches to sound art are represented by many creative practitioners and take a wide variety of forms, including the appropriation and creative redeployment of participative game environments and game engines. Examples include the creation of interactive sound environments and playable instruments within mainstream participative game ecologies such as the Little Big Planet franchise, the hacking and ‘bending’ of proprietary technologies that invoke the vast universe of game culture nostalgically or in a parodic mode (including handheld gaming systems such as the Nintendo Gameboy, which spawned an entire electronic music genre known as chipmusic), or the making of non-proprietary infrastructures for creative expression that encourage open, participative play, such as open source live coding environments including Sonic Pi, originally developed for the Raspberry Pi platform. Following such approaches, game controllers, digital objects, avatars, virtual architectures, and digital artifacts can thus become tools of composition and/or improvisation. Similarly, we might also think of the improvisational frameworks constructed by sound practitioners as ‘playgrounds,’ which allow players to become performers who explore the technological, political, and aesthetic limits of play. But emergent communities of creative practitioners frequently adopt such close systems and technologies subversively, for example by reverse-engineering them and developing alternative uses. In doing so, they alter the contexts in which these technologies are employed, and open them up for use as musical instruments and infrastructure for creative and critical expression. Technological artifacts with unique user communities can thus be conceptualized as frameworks for musical expression. Vintage gaming consoles, games engines, and computational algorithms have all been reconstructed as new forms of musical creation and interaction through participatory creative communities.

 

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Thesis Sahib performs at Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

In this short essay, we have approached ‘play’ and ‘improvisation’ as related concepts that can serve to recuperate and empower critical perspectives within the game and sound cultures of capital. As we have suggested, playful approaches to improvisational sound-work and perspectives on play that are rooted in musical traditions can be productively discussed both in sound studies contexts and within game studies paradigms. How, then, do sound practitioners appropriate game technology? How do the socio-political dimensions of digital game culture inform musical practice? With the help of our contributors to this series, we explore how critical perspectives on musical improvisation aid our understanding of the cultural and socio-political significance of play and, likewise, how critical theories of play may broaden our understanding of improvisational sound practices. Through building, tinkering, problem solving, and improvising on the technological back end, creative practitioners playfully create and reshape tools, devices, and techniques of improvisational practice that often embody important ethics of openness, dynamism, fluidity, and sharing, posited against the closed culture of proprietary consumer technology by which we are commonly surrounded. Between live coding, modular synthesis, creative computing, hardware hacking, and appropriation-based interactive performances, the contributors to this series operate in many creative modes that oscillate between improvisation and play. What all of them share is a sense that both play and improvisation enable creative expression outside of prescribed, commodified circuits of media consumption. Improvisation and play can yield wonderful aesthetic experiments and experiences, they can provide critical, social commentary, and they can sharpen our sense of the impact that proprietary technology has on our digital cultural landscape. What we are most interested in are moments when these ambitions converge, when improvisation – drawing on techniques or technologies of play and operating in modes that are associated with play – becomes critical.

All images used with permission from Vector Game Art & New Media Festival.

Featured image: ”Blip Fest 2011 @ Eyebeam, Day 2” by Wikimedia Commons user Lucius Kwok CC BY-SA.

Skot Deeming is an interdisciplinary artist, curator and scholar, whose work spans the spectrum of new media art practice from broadcast media to computational art, experimental videogames, and game art. Drawing on a wealth of practical experience and theoretical knowledge, skot’s practice focuses on new media history and historiography, and DIY technology cultures. This work articulates itself through critical research and writing, exhibitions, installations, and performances. With Martin, Skot is the co-curator of Vector Game Art & New Media Festival., in Toronto, Canada, and the artistic director of the Drone Island Sound Art Festival in Yellowknife, NT. He currently resides in Montreal where he is a doctoral student in the Individualized Program at Concordia University, and a member of the TAG Research Centre, where he investigates critical histories of computational and new media art practices. http://www.mrghosty.com/

Martin Zeilinger (PhD) is a new media researcher, practitioner, and curator whose work focuses on the intersection of digital media art, activism, and intellectual property issues. He is a Lecturer in Media at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge/UK, as well as an Associate Researcher at the OCADU Data Materialization Studio. He is co-editor of ‘Dynamic Fair Dealing’ (Univ. of Toronto Press 2014), which develops interdisciplinary perspectives on cultural ownership issues in new media contexts; recent peer-reviewed essays have appeared in the Computer Music Journal, the International Assoc. for the Study of Popular Music Journal, and in Sampling Media (Oxford UP 2014). With Skot, Martin is co-curator of the Toronto-based Vector Game Art & New Media Festival. http://marjz.net/

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Sounding Out! Podcast #48: Languages of Exile

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CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADLanguages of Exile

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Factual Dispersion, Poetic Compression

With words stepping backwards from the wave of news coverage, attempting to retrace a moment or point in time, to go back where things began, to the innocuous genesis of a single deliberate decision, the resentment or, in some camps, the war crime, within the continuous ebb and flow.  The stepping back breaks up the habit of our clear factual articulation – a clear factual articulation that, in its fact, becomes ignorable as it satisfies the need for fact and its pincer click of tiny precision.  This articulation now carries other words, carries them forward from the reversal of the day’s date stamped so firmly and authoritatively on the facts, as if justification itself.

Stepping backwards and moving forwards with the words of Syrian poets, women whose poems are oddly and noticeably not dated in the books recovered in translation from the British Library, despite the original words being imminently intelligible within the contemporary language of the particular place from where they were written – whether that be Syria, France, Lebanon or elsewhere. The necessary compression of meaning within each sentence of this poetry is in turn counterpointed against the fact of legal journalistic accuracy and its subsequent dispersal, its general thinning out, particularly in the face of reported death.

Poets:

Mona Fayad

Hala Mohamed

Maram al-Masri

Saniyya Saleh

Aisha Arnaout

Ghada Al-Samman

Salwa Al-Neimi

 

Artists

David Mollin

Salomé Voegelin

All images supplied by the artists

David Mollin’s work is concerned with ideas of contingency within the professionalized contemporary art world, and in particular with the effect of power consolidation and commodification and those elements of the work that disappear as a result of such a process. This has led to an increasing interest in the use of writing as a process of materialization of an artwork that fails to materialize. Mollin has co-founded with Matthew Arnatt the project 100 Reviews (Alberta Press and Greengrassi Gallery) and, with John Reardon, he co-edited ch-ch-ch-changes: Artists talk about teaching (Ridinghouse, 2009). Mollin works collaboratively on text-based sound work with Salomé Voegelin. 

Salomé Voegelin is an artist and writer engaged in listening and hearing as a socio-political practice. She is the author of Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound, Bloomsbury, NY, 2014 and Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum, NY, 2010. While her solo work focuses on the small and slight, unseen performances and moments that almost fail to happen, her collaborative work, with David Mollin, has a more conceptual basis, establishing through words and sounds conversations and reconfigurations of relationships and realities. http://www.salomevoegelin.net

Follow their collaboration at: https://twitter.com/mollinvoegelin

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A Conversation With Themselves: On Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature

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Hysterical Sound3Welcome to our second installment of Hysterical Sound. Last week I discussed silence and hysteria in relation to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s silent film Hysteria, suggesting that the hysteric’s vocalizations go unheard because we have tuned them out. In upcoming weeks Veronica Fitzpatrick will explore how the soundtrack of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be considered hysterical in its rejection of language and meaning and John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson share an excerpt from their performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.

Today, Gordon Sullivan, considers the video art series Hysterical Literature in relation to a long history of women’s vocalizations serving as aural fetishes for the pleasure of male listeners. In doing so he troubles the dichotomies raised by the project, dichotomies between masculine visual pleasure and feminine aurality, between language and bliss.

— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott

Each video in filmmaker and photographer Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature series (2012-) – which consists of 11 “sessions” so far – appears deceptively simple. We see a black and white frame with a clothed woman seated at a table, visible from the sternum up, holding a book of her choosing. She announces her name and the title of the book before beginning to read. While reading, the subject generally begins to stumble, the speeding of reading slowing down or speeding up, changes in pitch and emphasis growing more pronounced. Eventually, she is able to read no more and gives in to sighs, groans, or silent, eye-closing paroxysms. When she returns to herself, she announces again her name and the title of the book before the “session” ends.

Despite the consistency of the concept, the 11 “sessions” have been viewed a combined 45 million times, and perhaps much of the appeal of the series is in what it doesn’t show. What we do not see – and indeed do not hear – is the “assistant” beneath the table with an Hitachi Magic Wand physically stimulating the subject. What might have been errors or difficulties in the reading are retroactively understood as evidence of the difficulty of “performing” under the attention of the vibrator.

According to Cubitt, the series’ title and conceit nod at the Victorian-era propensity for naming “unruly” female behavior as “hysterical,” where the cure was often the application of a vibrating device to produce “release.” Female sexuality is therefore the absent center of Hysterical Literature – it is there, but can be disavowed (at least visually), a trend that places it firmly in a culture that has an ambiguous relationship to female pleasure and its sounds.

As John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis note in “Aural Pleasure: The Female Orgasm in Popular Sound,” the sounds of female pleasure are “more viable, less prohibited, and therefore more publically available form of representation than, for instance, the less ambiguous, more easily recognized money shot” that characterizes “hard core” pornography (104). Certainly Hysterical Literature’s home on YouTube would seem to confirm Corbett and Kapsalis’ claim that sounds of female pleasure “occur in places…that would otherwise ban visual pornography” (104).

Indeed, the question of pornography looms over Hysterical Literature, as Cubitt seeks to push on YouTube’s “Community Guidelines” by exhibiting female pleasure sonically (See also Joshua Hudelson for a discussion of sexual fetish and the ASMR community on Youtube). Here the sound of the subject’s voice echoes Linda Williams’s description in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and “The Frenzy of the Visible,” where the female voice “may stand as the most prominent signifier of female pleasure” that can stand in for the pleasure we are denied access to visually (123). In this way, the sound of female pleasure is, as Corbett and Kapsalis suggest, always evidentiary (104). For them, a woman’s pleasure may/must be corroborated by her sounds (For an alternative view of gender and sound as it relates to women, see Robin James’ “Gendered Voice and Social Harmony”).

This pleasure calls to mind Roland Barthes, who saw the possibility of bliss and representation as fundamentally incompatible. For Barthes, the “grain” of the voice is a bodily phenomenon, not one of language and signification. For him, “the cinema capture[s] the sound of speech close up…and make[s] us here in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle” (67). This “materiality” has a single purpose: bliss. This bliss doesn’t reside in language, with its representational aims, but in those aspects of the voice that are not ruled the signifier/signified dynamic.

What draws me to these discussions – and their relation to Hysterical Literature – is the almost overwhelming insistence on dichotomy. The visual “evidence” of hard core pornography is juxtaposed to the aural “evidence” of female pleasure. Male pleasure (on the side of the visible) is opposed to female pleasure (on the side of the invisible). Representation is incompatible with “bliss.”

This logic is not confined to discussions of sound, but is echoed in some of the writing on Hysterical Literature as well. In her profile (which included her own “session”), dancer and writer Toni Bentley argues that the series “juxtaposes the realm of words literally atop the realm of the erotic.” In her view, this immediately becomes a conflict: “Who would win the inevitable war? Upper body or lower? Logic or lust? Prefrontal cortex or hypothalamus?” Though her list of oppositions may seem idiosyncratic, she still insists on division before suggesting that what might emerge instead is that they “meld together.”

Bentley is not alone in understanding the videos this way, as other subjects find a clean break between “I am reading” and “I am orgasming” that would suggest a strict dichotomy between, as Barthes would put it, representation and bliss. For Bentley, this is a “literate, and literal, clitoral monologue that renders the Vagina Monologues merely aspirational.” I’m not sure that “monologue” captures the depth of what is happening in each Hysterical Literature session. Cubitt’s goal is to reveal something about his subjects, to use “distraction” as a means for revelation that ultimately removes him from the scene. Indeed, the participation of the vibrator-wielding “assistant” and Cubitt’s status as filmmaker argue that instead of a monologue, the series facilitates what Cubitt calls “a conversation with themselves.”

Though Cubitt and his subjects seek to maintain the division between the subject and her distraction, the series is far more interesting than that dichotomy would suggest. Hysterical Literature is interesting not because it juxtaposes “reading” and “orgasm,” but rather because of the rigor with which it is willing to dwell in between these two (apparently) opposed states. There is no cut, no switch in which a subject goes from reading to not-reading. Every video begins and ends the same way – we open on a woman telling us her name and her book, and end the same way, orgasm over with. In between, however, we have a combination of the book chosen by the subject and her augmented reading. Rather than the sighs and groans that supposedly evidence the subject’s pleasure, the more interesting elements are the sounds of the book transformed. The cadence that slows down, speeds up, gets lost, and must repeat. The drawn out vowels that teeter between a gracefully pronounced word and the abyss of unintelligibility. That the “struggle” will end in orgasms and the loss of speech is less significant than the attempt to maintain a voice in the face of what cannot be denied.

If we grant a gulf between “representation” and “bliss,” Hysterical Literature suggests that such a gulf is a productive place to be.

Gordon Sullivan is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, currently writing a dissertation on questions of sensation and the political in exploitation films.

Featured image taken from “Hysterical Literature: Session Four: Stormy“.

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