The following video installation by Mandie O’Connell, is part three of a four part series, “Round Circle of Resonance” by the Berlin based arts collective La Mission that performs connections between the theory of José Esteban Muñoz and sound art/study/theory/performance.
The first installment and second installments ran last Monday. The opening salvo, written by La Mission’s resident essayist / deranged propagandist LMGM (Luis-Manuel Garcia) provides a brief introduction to our collective, some reflections on Muñoz’s relevance to our activities, and a frame for the next three missives from our fellow cultists. It is backed with a rousing sermon-cum-manifesto from our charismatic cult-leader/prophet, El Jefe (Pablo Roman-Alcalá). Next Monday, our saucy Choir Boy/Linguist (Johannes Brandis) will close the forum with a dirge to our dearly departed José (August 9, 1967- December, 4, 2013).
–LMGM a.k.a. Luis-Manuel Garcia (curator)
Concept and Performance: Mandie O’Connell
Filming and Editing: Piss Nelke
Music: Khrom Ju (La Mission)
Piss is Power.
Power exists in urination, in this basic and most crucial of bodily acts. Problems with urination can result in embarrassment, infection, hospitalization. And yet so many of us women encounter confining, unfair, cruel, and Puritan limitations to where, when, and how we can pee, while our male counterparts traipse around urinating wherever they please. It is time, brothers and sisters, to re-politicize piss.
Brother Muñoz taught us that utopian projects require fellow participants, not audiences. We need a Urinary Utopia, a Piss Paradise that is open to men, women, trans and intersex people of all colors. Let’s shower down a blissful piss, a rainbow-colored golden shower where we all can piss wherever the fuck we want to!
In my performance video, I attempt to create a Muñoz-inspired utopian sensibility through the enactment of a new modality of an everyday action. I use a Female Urination Device—which enables me to stand up and urinate—to take a Yellow Adventure around my neighborhood. I piss freely in places where my penis-having brethren piss. I piss in a urinal next to which “Piss on me Bitch” is crudely scrawled. I piss into the river Spree, symbolically owning it with my liquid gold. Finally, I write my name in piss, a macho action turned feminine, the power and privilege of said action redirected towards my vagina.
In “Standing Up,” three different sounds are mixed together to create the soundscape of the performance: ambient noise, music, and sound clips of urination. The ambient noise serves to locate the scene in space/time. The music by Khrom Ju was selected to give the performance an eerie, strange, and repetitive undertone. The sound of urination was recorded live and is the sound of female urination. We use this sound both as a cue and as comic relief. Piss is funny, piss is strange, and piss happens all around us.
Urination and the female struggle around it is a real struggle that really happens and really matters. Exceptionally long lines for the ladies’ room, the inability to publically urinate at festivals due to feeling exposed and shamed, being charged money to use toilet facilities when males can piss outdoors for free, getting forced to use a ladies’ room when your sexuality sways towards using the men’s room, the list of complaints goes on and on. So I say: pee where you want, not where others want you to. Pee on administrators, police, politicians, and oppressors of all kinds while you’re at it!
I refuse to adhere to these rules anymore, and I beg you to follow my lead.
Piss is Power.
Featured Image adapted from “Pee” by Flickr User Melissa Eleftherion Carr
Mandie O’Connell (yo) aka “Knuckle Cartel, is a former big cheese and intellectual powerhouse behind the wildly successful Seattle-based experimental theater company Implied Violence. I, Mandie, have experienced the same “conservatism” and capitalistic partnership between Money and Art in the performance/theater scene. Witnessing firsthand the immense power that cash-wielding creeps hold over creatives is sickening, sad, and sordid. I’ve had enough, and so have you…right? Let’s fix a broken system. If we can’t fix it, let’s circumvent it.
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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice–Yvon Bonenfant
LMGM’s “Lost: Choirboy” & El Jefe’s “Muñoz & La Mission: A Sermon. . .” (in memoriam José Esteban Muñoz)
Come, let us sing of great men. Well, just one man, not men—and masculine gender is not essential for our purposes. Come to think of it, his greatness isn’t nearly as important as his fierceness, his queer significance, his brown sensibility. But we’re still committed to singing—or at least to music—well, to sound and noise, in any case. José Esteban Muñoz often wrote about queer scenes where music and sound were central to participants’ world-making activities. His archives buzzed with the sounds of West Coast punk, vogue-ball house, cruisy toilets, genderqueer burlesque, and salsa echoing down the barrio streets. And so, for this Round Circle of Resonance, we at La Mission are here to make some noise about a badass thinker who deeply impacted the way we dance/sing/talk/write/sweat about dance music, identity, and politics.
And this is just the beginning of our cacophonous, four-part response to Muñoz’s intellectual holler. The first installment, written by La Mission’s resident essayist / deranged propagandist LMGM (Luis-Manuel Garcia) provides a brief introduction to our collective, some reflections on Muñoz’s relevance to our activities, and a frame for the next three missives from our fellow cultists. It is backed with a rousing sermon-cum-manifesto from our charismatic cult-leader/prophet, El Jefe (Pablo Roman-Alcalá). In the coming weeks, our Naked Mennonite/randy dramaturge (Mandie O’Connell) will prepare and film a urinary performance piece; and our saucy Choir Boy/Linguist (Johannes Brandis) will compose a dirge to our dearly departed José (August 9, 1967- December, 4, 2013).
LMGM a.k.a. Luis-Manuel Garcia
Lost: Choirboy (in memoriam José Esteban Muñoz)
Named after San Francisco’s Latino barrio, La Mission is a satirical utopian doomsday cult, a music label, a queer situationist art-gang, a magazine, and a group of dancers with a very dirty sense of humor. We release music on vinyl, publish DIY ‘zines, and make performance art, aiming to re-politicize genres of dance music that have been important to queer people of color. La Mission’s identity is perhaps best summed up by cult-leader El Jefe’s manifesto-sermon, “The Sermon for the Steps of the Ziggurat in our Hearts,” published in our first La Mission magazine:
La Mission is a Community. La Mission is a Collective. La Mission is a Cult. La Mission is a Situationist Art Gang. La Mission is a Anarcho-Syndicalist terror cell. La Mission is a Family. La Mission is You. La Mission is Us. La Mission is gonna strip you butt nekkid, gonna check all your body cavities, gonna give you a shower, gonna give you a goodie bag, gonna give you a clean sheet and a towel. You at home with us now children, you understand me? You home with us now.
La Mission was first formed in 2012, in a small café in the Neukölln district of Berlin. The collective initially began with just three of us—Pablo Roman-Alcalá, Mandie O’Connell and Luis-Manuel Garcia—but like any good charismatic doomsday cult, it quickly expanded to include a broad network of lovers and collaborators, led by a core of four instigators (Johannes Brandis joined us later in the year). After a fundraising run in the fall of 2012 (witness our surrealist fundraising video here), we held our first two performances in the winter and spring of 2013, which involved experimental performance art pieces held in unusual spaces. The performances incorporated music and text from our vinyl EPs and their corresponding ‘zines, which were released at around the same time. These multi-channel productions were also conceptually coherent, with (kunst/WORK)001 introducing La Mission’s “mission” and (kunst/WORK)002 focusing on the relevance of utopianism to dance music. After a “quiet spell” where we released an out-of-series vinyl record of “lost remixes,” 2014 has been dedicated to preparing the next volume in the series (due in February 2015), which examines the depredations of capitalism, forced austerity, and false scarcity on music.
La Mission has no idols, but we do have influences—and José Esteban Muñoz is foremost among them. We share with Muñoz a focus on queer nightlife-worlds, a non-classical take on utopianism, a commitment to intellectual interventions outside of academic channels, and a certain brassy tone of voice. His revival of Ernst Bloch’s notion of a utopia based in real-life struggles was crucial in helping us reconcile revolutionary politics with dancefloor utopianism; or, put differently, Muñoz helped us find the critical politics latent in the queer, brown, sweaty gatherings that form the core of our scene of commitment. As “EDM” continues to blow up into a primarily white, hetero, cis, mainstream phenomenon, his insights have helped us maintain clarity and critical focus.
From the outset, we have also been profoundly influenced by Muñoz’s lifelong theorizations of brownness, affect, and (dis)identification. Since three of our four core members are Latina/os in varying states of stripped identity, we have been especially interested in Muñoz’s notion of the “brown commons,” as he was developing the concept in the last years of his life. In promotional texts that circulated ahead of his speaking engagements on the topic, he described brownness as “an expansive sense of the world, a feeling and being in common that surpasses the limits of the individual and the subject.” Notably, he understands brownness and the brown commons as being shaped not only by suffering and struggle, but also by thriving, providing a pool of resources for a better, more vibrant kind of life.
The significance for La Mission’s project in dance music culture should be clear already, but we also take great inspiration in how Muñoz developed an expansive view of brownness and the brown commons, using Latina/o experience as an entry-point for “a vaster consideration of the ways in which people and things suffer and experience harm under the duress of local and global forces that attempt to diminish their vitality and degrade their value.” We here at La Mission are committed to exploring brownness for its potentials for lateral solidarities among people of color, who may have diverse cultural backgrounds but nonetheless share post-migrant experiences of struggle, devaluation, displacement, and inauthenticity. In fact, Muñoz’s work was a direct inspiration for the “Brown Corner” in our La Mission ‘zine (a parody of the “ladies’ corner” and “kid’s corner” of American mid-century lifestyle magazines). Published bilingually and featuring post-migrant authors, the Brown Corner reflects on aspects of brownness, as both specific to their contexts and generalizable to a wider “commons” of brown experience. In the process, we hope to highlight shared feelings, narratives, and resources for brown survival in a world of white supremacy.
Singing into the Horizon
Brother Muñoz, what are we supposed to do with the vinyl records, the zines, the performance videos we had been accumulating for you? We’re trying to sing our way into a queer utopian horizon, and we had been counting on your voice. We know you’re not coming back. As a radical lefty utopian doomsday cult, we’re not so invested in the afterlife, anyway. But it still sucks for us and everyone else you left behind, left in the “here and now” that we struggle to turn into something less suffocating. The party was just getting started, dammit. Besides, we had such a kickass choirboy outfit picked out for you.
LUIS-MANUEL GARCIA aka “LMGM”: LMGM/Luis-ManuelLMGM/Luis-Manuel is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, currently an Assistant Professor in Popular Music at the University of Groningen (NL), after migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into post-doctoral fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Freie Universität Berlin. On the side, he writes about food and dances every chance he gets.
Muñoz & La Mission: A Sermon for the Imagined Sanctuary We Built Together
Welcome. La Mission is a family. A family of chosen comrades, chosen brethren, chosen hermanos, chosen сестры, chosen lovers, chosen students, chosen teachers, and chosen arms. Arms, linked and brandished through common thought, common feeling, common goals. It is with a heavy heart that we find ourselves here, remembering one of our family who (though never officially an acolyte or collaborator) was one who contributed to the ecstasy that we have felt and will feel for many years. José Esteban Muñoz was said to be a believer. Ernst Bloch and the New Revolutionary Epoch. Our utopias were described and imagined and realized and experienced. Rise up, my brown brethren, and let us celebrate Brother Muñoz’s legacy!
The words and deeds of this fellow freedom-fighter, who infiltrated the bourgeois güero academy and infected it with a polylateral program for de- and reprogramming, has been our parallel and our inspiration. Colleague and comrade. A representative of our struggle. Not quite a patron saint—that honor we’ve reserved for communarde Louise Michel—but no less a visionary. As queers, as minorities stripped of identity, as angry and happy children in revolt for something better, we must all learn from each other as equals.
Brother Muñoz made utopia political again and located that utopianism in performance. La Mission’s performances bring forth utopias from our queer future through fleeting mindfuck happenings in the present. Through the work of Sister O’Connell and her band of terrorizing miscreants, we present a non-narrative and non-paternalistic path towards redemption, one of our own making. Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz loved music and dancing and life-worlds connected by the beat and said, “Take Ecstasy with Me.” He revealed to us the connections between collective dancing and feeling utopian. In his spirit, La Mission’s music strives to bring forth utopia through that ever-lasting beat. Through disassociation and reassociation, through transcendental repetition, and through getting the fuck down! Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz believed in learning and critical thinking. Analysis and the great revolutionary trek through the jungle of our critically thinking minds. La Mission’s tracts enact utopia through a constant vomiting out of our recently digested learnings into the baby-bird mouths of those who read them. The brother was also a hilarious motherfucker, and from this we realize that it is not through the shrill screams of egoism disguised as activism that we will prevail. It is through the joy of laughter combined with thought that we will win our bread. Can I get a “Fuck, yeah!”?
Brother Muñoz loved fucking. La Mission’s fucking creates utopias through the ecstatic act in and of itself. If you aint fucking to make yourself a Temporary Autonomous Zone of happiness, then you aint doing it right. Can I get a copulatory “Fuck, yeah!”?
It is not all loss, though. The ideas live on. Caminamos juntos. On the dancefloor. In the reclaimed Torre David skyscraper and the Taller Tupac Amaru collective; in the informal classrooms and the sweaty bedrooms. Our hearts must burst after sagging, our heads must fill after hanging low, and our linked arms will raise! Oh honey, please don’t give your heart to a world system based on exploitation of the luckless, give your heart to US!
All images courtesy of La Mission
PABLO ROMAN-ALCALA: Yo. I am Pablo aka “Beaner” aka “Skirtchaser” aka “El Frijolero” etc. I am an internationally working musician and dj who has enjoyed a modicum of success, but who doesn’t like what has happened to the musical landscape vis-a-vis “conservatism” in respect to both Money and Art. I mean the relationship of the two, okay? It sucks. And I want to change it.
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“New Wave Saved My Life*”-Wanda Alarcon
Welcome to the second part of Radio Art Reflections, a series on radio art that brings together the thoughts of three practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the UK.
In the first part Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz discussed how transmission art has shaped her practice and how it has become an important current within the expanded territory of radio art. Following this, musician and sound artist Colin Black reflects on the particularities of Australia’s radio art history, analyzing the effects of ongoing cutbacks at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Black fears a distinctive Australian soundscape-based radio art is in danger of being lost, while identifying a current renaissance in narrative based radio features which currently shape ABC radio output, and considers the potential of ABC’s new Creative Audio Unit.
- Guest Editor Magz Hall
As an artist growing up in rural Australia, I was hugely influenced by how state-owned radio engaged with sound-based practitioners. For decades, radio not only gave voice to some of the more exploratory artists and their works, it allowed artists and audiences from all over this vast continent to find a space in which experimental works could, with financial support, gestate, be realized and propelled onto a world stage, often receiving international acclaim for their distinctive perspective.
In recent years I have come back to those works as a PhD researcher, interviewing thirty five international practitioners, theorists and producers on Australian radio art thereby gaining a new appreciation of its particular aesthetic practices and approaches. This article draws on some of these interviews to highlight national and international perceptions about where Australian radio art has been, while also demonstrating its potential to influence a new generation of artists to explore beyond mainstream media formats.
THE LISTENING ROOM
While there are a few early examples of Australian radio art, consistant programming and commissioning of radio art effectively commenced in the 1980s with the formation of the ABC Arts Unit during 1984-85 and the acoustic arts programme The Listening Room, which aired from 1988 to 2003. Although long-decommissioned, The Listening Room was still one of a very few signposts that my interviewees cited when trying to understand the properties of Australian radio art. The Listening Room’s founding executive producer Andrew McLennan, who expanded the boundaries of ABC radio from 1976 onwards, had a clear take on the aesthetic framework of the show, stating in one internal ABC report (c1990) that the programme was a:
… venue for the exploration, the cross-pollination of radio forms. … you can hear new radio plays, audio essays, acoustic features, sound documentaries, new music, sound-scapes and sculptures, audio installations, acoustic art forms …
This approach was broader than that of other international radio art programs. Here is a quote from the formative executive producer of Deutschlandradio Kultur, Götz Naleppa, who took a much more “aesthetic” approach for his well-known Klangkunst programmes in Germany:
The difference to other radio-art-forms like radio-play is simple: sound-composition [a term Naleppa prefers to radio art] shares with them the same elements: sound, text (voice) and music. But in radio-play text (dialogue) is in the foreground and the other elements SERVE it (often in an illustrative way). And in (radio)sound-composition we have the same elements – but they are EQUAL, they are simply MATERIAL in the hands of the composer [Götz Naleppa, e-mail message to author July 28, 2005].
Of the two, The Listening Room clearly had a wider scope. Thus a number of ABC works, like On the Raft, All at Sea (by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton), placed the text in the foreground as the narrative is primarily driven by the use of spoken dialogue and the other elements are used to serve the text in a chiefly illustrative fashion. By definition Naleppa would call this a “radio-play” and not necessarily neues hörspiel or radio art, and definitely not a radio “sound-composition.”
Extract from On the Raft, All at Sea (2002) by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton (courtesy Robyn Ravlich and ABC Radio)
“AUSTRALIAN” RADIO ART
Alongside this inclusiveness of a wide scope of work, my research uncovered a range of other ideas about the identifiable properties of Australian radio art. Austrian Elisabeth Zimmerman claims that with Australian work there is “a certain tradition” that favours the “use of environmental sounds … but in a very composed way.” Andrew McLennan supports Zimmerman’s viewpoint and states: “it’s always hard to say and it is probably a bit of a cliché … [however he] often think[s] of it as quite environmentally driven.” Douglas Kahn, an American, is more skeptical, observing that “The Australian stuff was much broader range … I don’t think you can say that there was an Australian aesthetic because there were so many different artists that were brought in to do things.” Although later Kahn does state that a common thread heard in Australian work was its “really high quality production values … really nice complex mixes … people playing the mixing board like it was a piano in a really sophisticated way.” Kaye Mortley from her Australian French background describes Australian work as “radiophonic art, of various sorts, more experimental in nature, some produced by composers.” While not a composer, Australian Virginia Madsen supports Mortley’s viewpoint when she describes her own work as “experimental … it combines music, theatre performance, and documentary really.” The common theme that emerges from my research is the openness and commitment to experimentation that exists alongside a highly professional approach to the art form within Australian radio art culture.
My interviews also indicated that radio art plays a role in the perceived amorphous and multi-faceted notion of national identity, while confirming Kahn and Nicholas Zurbrugg’s earlier observations that radio art has critically contributed to the overall arts ecology in Australia. As a practitioner, I would also describe my own work as having an experimental approach that is influenced by the high quality production levels of programs like The Listening Room. While much of my work is environmentally driven, my artistic focus is to create multi-faceted, intimate aural geographies in which human imprint is present.
Extract from Alien In The Landscape (2007) by Colin Black (courtesy DeutschlandRadio Kultur). This extract features synchronous field recordings made by a Rodes NT4, X-Y configured stereo microphone and Fender Stratocaster with additional strings attached as pictured below.
THE CREATIVE AUDIO UNIT AND AUSTRALIAN RADIO TODAY
When The Listening Room was decommissioned in 2003, explorative radio was forced in two directions: ABC Radio National programmed some word-based works, while ABC Classic FM aired another set of works that Kate Dundas (Director of ABC Radio) has called “Shorter-form pieces, maybe perhaps down the sound-based acoustic end or radiophonic end of the spectrum.”Budgets were dramatically reduced and diverted, resulting in the effective abandonment of regular commissions and airtime for long-form sound-based works. In 2012 ABC management decommissioned book readings and Creative Instinct (a “feature program that reflects and explores the creative world”) and The Night Air (described as “aural equivalents of the avant-garde cut-up: a montage of interviews, location sound, music and found audio”). Moreover management oversaw the dismantling of the Airplay programme, which included “hour-long dramatic fictions [sic] experiment with form” effectively ending an 80-year tradition of Australian radio drama. In replacing these programmes, the Creative Audio Unit (CAU) was planned and American-style low budget radio production techniques for dramatic short stories (as championed at the 2012 ABC run Radio Beyond Radio conference) were put on the table as the future of radio.
In 2013 the ABC recruited a whole new team (who collectively had very little direct engagement with prior radio drama and The Listening Room production budgets and procedures), to setup, oversee and run the CAU. This transition was so atypical of past ABC changes that it raises questions as to whether this was an orchestrated act of cultural amnesia. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the major challenges this new team faces is the lack of resources, which impedes the magnitude of new works commissioned. This also raises questions as to how the previous budgets from Airplay, The Night Air and Creative Instinct have been reassigned. Another challenge is this unit’s extremely wide area of responsibility (that was previously spread across a number of ABC Units) ranging from radio drama and essays on the Radiotonic programme (effectively replacing the entire radio drama department) to what it claims to be a “portal into radio art, performance, soundscapes and composed audio features” on its Soundproof programme.
While Soundproof makes gestures to re-stimulate radio art activities in Australia, in sampling its first twenty episodes it becomes apparent that a very large percentage of airtime is heavily driven by the spoken dialogue narrative, more in line with radio drama or documentary. Furthermore, the episodes that contain the more interesting sound works seem to be frequently interrupted by extended contextual dialogue and therefore, for the most part, present only extracts or shorter form radio art works. Therefore, as a practitioner who runs the risk of being excluded from future CAU activities, I would nevertheless argue that for the most part, the CAU is doubling up on its focus on radio drama and documentary style productions and has not to date reached its goal of fully exploring and presenting sound rich radio art features, as it claims (please see Soundproof episode mp3 downloads dated between 11 May to 21 September 2014). Moreover, Soundproof is much more constrained, even backward-looking, when compared to its predecessors and is therefore aiming to attract a much less adventurous radio audience. More glaringly, the first twenty episodes lack a strong presence for new Australian works when compared to The Listening Room that broadcast sixty-four Australian works with a total duration of fifty hours in its first year of operation. As an inquisitive listener it seems that, to date, Soundproof has forgotten its own lineage without offering anything new or innovative and in doing so, has also forgotten audience members like myself in Australia and throughout the world.
I sometimes wonder what the conclusions from my research study would be if it were only focused on current practice. Would today’s Australian radio art still play a role in the perceived multi-faceted notion of Australian national identity? Would it still be perceived to have an experimental approach with high quality production levels that favour the use of environmental sounds? Is it still a critical contributor to the overall arts ecology in Australia? Audience members who have little prior knowledge of Australian radio art, may think so or may not conceive of its potential to do so. However, given sustained support, the space for experimentation and a clear inventive vision for the future, building on the legacy of past achievements, Australian radio art clearly has the potential to regain its status on a world stage.
Featured Image: Beastman mural on Brisbane Radio by Flickr User JAM Project
Dr Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed composer/sound artist having won the 2003 Prix Italia Award and achieving the final round selection in the 2010 and 2011 Prix Phonurgia Nova for his creative feature length works. As a result of this acclaim, Black has received multiple national and international commissions to create innovative long-form works for broadcast across major Australian and European networks. Black’s curator credits include, international festival/showcases of award winning Australian acoustic art and radio art at London’s Resonance104.4fm, Kunstradio (ÖRF, Austria) and Toronto’s New Adventures In Sound Art. In 2013 he also curated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sound Fix: Your Weekly Dose of Transmitted Audible Art series. He is a PhD graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he was a recipient of the University of Sydney Postgraduate Awards Scholarship. More recently Black has been engaged as an academic lecturing at the University Technology, Sydney; moreover he has authored a number of conference papers and peer reviewed journal articles including “An Overview of Spatialised Broadcasting Experiments With a Focus on Radio Art Practices” in Organised Sound. Black is also the founding member of The International Radio Art (and Creative Audio for Trans-media) Research Group. For more information see: www.colinblack.com.au
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Unsettled Listening — Randolph Jordan
Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens — Carolina Guerrero
Everything Sounds Podcast — Craig Shank
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.
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.
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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