In this podcast Sounding Out! interviews Amanda Brennan, the meme librarian at Know Your Meme. Here, Amanda explains well known audio memes like The Harlem Shake, The ASMR Whisper Community, and Holophonic Sounds. She talks about the emotional bonds of Internet communities, the similarities between memes and gossip, and the scientific bias of Wikipedia. For anyone interested in the replication of sound online, this interview is essential listening.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Interview with Meme Librarian Amanda Brennan.
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For as long as she can remember, Amanda Brennan loved the internet. Combining that love with a passion for archival research while earning her MLIS degree at Rutgers University, she explored tagging systems and the habits of the Internet group Anonymous. Currently, she is the resident librarian at Know Your Meme where she studies viral content and watches a lot of cat videos. You can find her on Tumblr, Twitter and Last.fm.
As the practice of sound design becomes ever more refined as a key factor in the immersive aspects of gameplay, it is essential to develop a conceptual vocabulary of the ways that sound is implemented as a cultural facet. In particular, it is important to recognize the power relations at stake within the implementation of the human voice as an interactive narrative trope. And, while I’ve already discussed the ways in which the voice of GLaDOS in Portal invites players to reflect on how they internalize a set of mediated perspectives about how their body ought to be, it is equally important to consider the other ways that a narrator’s voice invites players to reconsider the intersection of agency and surveillance.
This post compares the use of narration in Bastion and The Stanley Parable in an effort to understand how the voice is used as what Karen Collins would refer to as an “interactive non-diagetic sound,” or, in other words, a sound that is triggered by player actions, but not experienced by the character in the game. Specifically, I argue that the voice in these examples is an essential point in the feedback loop between player and game. And, as part of the cybernetics of gameplay, it produces a dispositif of surveillance, akin to Bentham’s panopticon, which lets the player know their actions are constantly being monitored, calculated, and considered by the game’s algorithms. But, while the original panopticon produced the effect of surveillance through the clever use of light, these games use sound to effect surveillance.
Bastion, was developed by the small indie game company Supergiant Games, but was distributed and released by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, first through Microsoft’s distribution service, XBOX Live Arcade, but has since been released more broadly after receiving much critical acclaim. In Bastion, players take the role of a young boy, referred to only as “The Kid,” and adventure around gradually rebuilding a world that has fallen apart since a cataclysmic sundering referred to only as “the Calamity.” Although the world of Bastion is beautiful and visually stimulating, it is the game’s sound design that has earned it much critical acclaim. The game is narrated by a character named “Rucks,” who speaks in a deep weathered voice, with somewhat of a western twang. And, even though The Kid eventually encounters and is able to interact with Rucks within the game, Rucks still relays dialogue in the third-person.
When The Kid and Rucks meet, Rucks evinces with trademark grit, “Sure enough, he finds another. He finds me.” And, while that is a scripted plot point within the game, at other points Rucks’ narration modulates to best reflect the player’s actions. A player who begins the game slowly, exploring nooks and crannies, might hear “The kid walks slowly down the path, checking everything,” while a player who runs straight ahead could hear, “The kid barrels forward, not looking once behind him.” These quotes force the player to recognize that the game is watching, and actively staging narrative commentary about their in-game decisions. This commentary unfolds in aural space, through narration, discrete from the old text (and controller) triggers of “look” and “examine” which used to prompt text-box commentary about the environment of the game. In short, Bastion’s sound design succeeds because it is balanced in such a precise way: players are being constantly engaged with a narration which confirms that they are, in fact, properly interacting within the game world and story.
The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, works deliberately to turn the paradigm of narration on its head. Where Rucks, in Bastion, frequently alluded to how many secrets he was yet to reveal about himself and the game-world, his character ultimately plays a supportive role, helping The Kid to understand the chaotic environment of the game. The narrator in The Stanley Parable, however, plays the antagonist in many ways, attempting to foreshadow and predetermine the actions of the player, or “Stanley.” On the game’s website, a short sentence contextualizes the endeavor, “The Stanley Parable is a Half Life 2 mod about video games.” The game itself is a mod of the “Source engine,” which runs both Half-Life 2, and Portal, was developed by the very small development team of Davey Wreden and William Pugh, and released for free. It is meta-fiction that stages a critique of the context of narrative within interactive games and fiction. Specifically, the game questions the idea of narrative itself by showcasing the ways that players are able to undermine the scripted plots and spaces of a videogame by exploring and experimenting with exploits and bugs in the game’s code and narrative.
Although the narrator in The Stanley Parable will prescribe several decisions to the player over the course of the game, the player is given the agency to contest the story as told by the narrator, and, therefore, to experiment with the plot. As the player reaches a set of two open doors on the way to the employee lounge the narrator reads, “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.” If the player chooses to travel through the door on the right instead, the narrator will attempt to steer the player back to the main plot tree by saying, “This was not the correct way to the employee lounge, and Stanley knew it perfectly well.” And, then as an open door is revealed, “So he turned left at the first open door, and walked back in the right direction.” If the player continues to ignore the narrator’s advice, he comes to somewhat of a dead end and the narrator reads, “Stanley was so bad at following directions, it’s incredible that he wasn’t fired years ago. Maybe this was why everyone left. No one wanted to be around someone as bad at listening as him.” The player is given several other opportunities to make decisions and lead the story to completion in achieving one of seven endings; each based the decisions the player has made when interacting with the narrator’s dialogue.
The Stanley Parable allows players the agency to see the limitations of linear storytelling where Bastion does not. Where some paths in The Stanley Parable will lead the player into direct conflict with the narrator, other paths do not. There is never a point where the narrator ceases to comment on the player’s actions and activities. Because the sonic feedback of surveillance remains a constant in both games the player remains engaged, in both cases, with the logic of the game-system. In other words, no matter how many times the player defies the narrator in The Stanley Parable, it never seems like the game is breaking. The game world remains constant because the motif of surveillance holds; players know the game still works because the narrator continues to stage commentary – even if it is commentary about the player’s failure to keep to the plot.
For Marc Andrejevic, author of iSpy (2007)–who has written extensively about the abundance of surveillance techniques implemented in digital spaces–the danger of surveillance lies in the production of an asymmetrical power relationship between media producer and media consumer. And, while this is certainly best argued about instances of dataveillance–how companies like Amazon, for example, track customer clicks on and off their website via web cookies in order to better produce exploitable (and in some cases saleable) consumer profiles–it is important to also consider the ways that the implementation of sound also functions as a technique of control.
At its most positive, the sonic panopticism of Bastion and The Stanley Parable offer players a sense of comfort in knowing that the game is operating properly, and not glitching out. Further, players are invited into a more immersive game, which leverages both visual and audio interactivity to lull players into an environment of almost trancelike feedback and play. Clearly, this is the promise of good sound design; it gently alerts players to the presence of a tightly designed and well-implemented game, and produces affects of brand loyalty and trust within a game’s player contingent.
But, while there are clearly aesthetic and market benefits to the implementation of narration in both games, one cannot help but wonder, in the context of post-feminism and self-surveillance, what implications there are in the implementation of the male voice as surveil-er in both games. Just as it was curious in Portal 2 how GLaDOS acted as a critical female voice constantly judging the player’s body image and intelligence, it is curious how much authority is given to the voice of Rucks in Bastion. And while several good critiques have already been written about how the game features only one (somewhat silent, and certainly helpless) female character, and how the game’s villain is portrayed, concretely, as the racially exotic other, it is sadly fitting that the most comforting and well-acclaimed aspects of the game come from the interactivity produced by the voice of its distinctively white male narrator.
The sound design in The Stanley Parable, of course, is more cutting in the ways it stages a commentary about how the voice of the narrator (this time distinctively British), exacts a form of social coercion through techniques of surveillance, and how these techniques serve, namely, to hamper player agency. But, even its own narrative of resistance fails to compel; in fact, it is the uneasy ending of compliance and conformity that is, perhaps, the happiest. This, ironically, reveals one of the key cultural problems of our era: the reciprocal aspects of surveillance and interactivity. If affective resonances of trust, knowledge, and comfort come bundled with the male voice, is it in the vested economic interests of sound design communities to leverage these to make profit? Even though both games have earned critical praise, it is only Bastion that has won awards for sound design. In other words, are we caught in our own feedback loop of comfort, industry, and design?
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.
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DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks– Tom McEnaney
The Role of Sound in Video Games: Pong, Limbo, and Interactivity– Aaron Trammell
Orality and Cybernetics in Battleship– Aaron Trammell
Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening–Pauline Oliveros
“CAN YOU HEAR ME?!” “I CAN HEAR YOU!!” “IT’S A VAN GOGH PARADE!!” . . .were some of the enthusiastic replies when artist Elana Mann, musician Juliana Snapper, and other members of ARLA (Audile Receptives Los Angeles) arrived on the scene at Occupy LA with giant hand-made ears. Mann co-founded ARLA in the Spring of 2011 with Snapper, filmmaker Vera Brunner-Sung, and choreographer Kristen Smiarowski. After studying scores and techniques on listening developed by composer Pauline Oliveros, ARLA developed a workshop geared toward Occupy LA that included a listening parade in which they held up the giant ears and protest signs with ears on them. Snapper recalls, “The simple physical presence of people carrying large paper-mache ears was met with a kind of hungry recognition…recognition of what it meant that we were holding the symbols (giant ears).” They led workshops, listening sessions, and discussion groups. They performed Oliveros’ sonic meditation “Teach Yourself to Fly” and a composition written by Mann and Snapper entitled “People’s Microphony.” And a project was born. Through personal interviews and audio-visual examples, I document, contextualize, and analyze its work.
Mp3=The People’s Microphony Camerata performing “Teach Yourself to Fly” Pauline Oliveros
I am happy that Elana Mann chose to use my Sonic Meditations for the People’s Microphony project. These pieces are meant for anyone that wants to perform them regardless of musical training.” –Pauline Oliveros
For Mann, active listening is “a process of tuning in simultaneously inward and outward. Active listening allows for an awareness of and an opening up to sounds around me and also a digestion of what is happening inside of me in relation to these sounds.” Much of the recent focus on this practice comes from the music and sound art worlds, as well as acoustic ecology, a field formed from the overlapping area between science and art that concentrates on the importance of experiencing and investigating our sonic surroundings with detailed care and respect to understand its importance on our world and our place within it. Mann’s work addresses a unique angle at the intersection of these fields: listening’s empathetic effect on those whom you are listening to, a consideration arising from a project she worked on between 2007-2010 with Iraq war veteran Captain Dylan Alexander Mack, called “Can’t Afford the Freeway.”. “Can’t Afford the Freeway” highlights how her collaborations emerge as conversations between involved artists as well as the audience. Speaking to Mann about the project, she stated,
Alex created some recordings for me and I kept listening to them over and over again trying to figure them out. I eventually produced more interviews with him and realized that he needed his story to be heard and I needed to try and understand his story. So I created a project in which I attempted to listen as best I could. Listening to his recordings made me feel close to him, but I also recognized that no matter how many times I heard his words they were still foreign to me. Still the very act of me struggling to listen was important for both of us, and I think this is true of many interpersonal/political and social situations. You can never experience what it is like to be someone else, but active listening opens up a space of empathy and connection. I also think we can see how a lack of active listening is affecting the political landscape in the United States so negatively, by producing a highly polarized and vitriolic environment.
And what about at Occupy LA?
At Occupy LA I was hopeful that there would be a place for listening to voices that had not been heard before and sometimes that happened. Other times people used the space for projecting, not receiving. I think that there needs to be strong voices making themselves heard, but I don’t want to lose the other part of that equation, which is those voices being quiet and listening to others, and themselves.
Mann, thinking and researching about social, aesthetic, and political points of listening and voicing, felt there was something to be considered about the “radical receptivity and the core message of the OWS movement” and its global amplification of voices struggling to be heard. In the Spring of 2012, she formed The People’s Microphony Camerata with Snapper, a radical experimental choir based in Los Angeles exploring the process of the People’s Microphone. The exact history of the “People’s Microphone,” or “People’s Mic” is unclear, but its use in the Occupy Movement has already become iconic. Ted Sammons discusses the implications of the People’s Mic for communication in his October 2011 post, “‘I didn’t say look; I said listen’: The People’s Microphone, #OWS, and Beyond.” The human microphone is a way to deliver one person’s message to a large group of people in situations where amplification tools, such as bullhorns, are either not allowed or unavailable, or if the acoustics of a space distort amplification. The speaker calls, “mic check!” to alert their intentions. Those around them call back, “mic check!”, until the gathering understands something will be said. The speaker breaks their statement into short sentences, pausing to allow those around them, or the “first wave,” to repeat them in unison. They then pause for those further away, or the “second wave,” to repeat again…and so on until those in the back of the gathering have heard the statement.
The group’s trademark intensity sometimes carried over to the audience. Mann discovered such transference often had to do with prior associations with a location or context. Mann recalled a particular performance at the Occupy movement called “Chalkupy” that was formed in response to a protest running simultaneously with the LA Art Walk, in which activists had handed out chalk and told stories of police repression while chalk drawings were created on the walkways. The police shut down the art walk and a violent struggle ensued. The Occupy LA movement called for people globally to take to the street with chalk in protest, and the day was called “Chalkupy”. The audience of protestors was mixed and tense, and when the PMC began their performance of a highly emotive score called “Sob-Laugh” by Daniel Goode, people were either drawn to or repelled by the performance.
I think there was some fear about the vulnerable revelation of emotions in the space of the protest. Many of the Occupy LA protests were so risky that everyone had to be extremely tough to exist in that activist space. I respect that. Still I think there are other things that can happen in a space of protest that bring out different feelings. Some activists wanted us to be more musically conventional, “why can’t you just sing some folk songs like normal protest choirs,” we were asked. But we really were not into that kind of thing. . .
In most protest situations, the audiences welcomed their activities. Many shared that it opened up a new space where people could meet each other as humans rather than adversaries or collaborators. Mann edited and published a monochromatic grassroots songbook with the various scores the PMC received for performance, opening up the circle for anyone and everyone to perform and feel that closeness.
Sometimes it was hard to translate a piece that worked during a group rehearsal to something for an audienceperformer situation. . .The PMC never fully developed how to deal with audience participation, but this is something I have been developing on my own in working with students on PMC materials. The scores from the People’s Microphony Songbook and the techniques Juliana and I developed when we first formed the PMC create an immediate closeness within a group, which is remarkable.
From the “People’s Microphony Songbook”: Many voices that were once silenced are now resonating through large crowds, not only of activists, but ordinary people all over the world, assisted by internet networks, and a simple technology called the People’s Microphone. The People’s Mic expressed the interrelated desires of collective and individual voices to speak and be heard, to hear one’s words spoken back through different mouths, and to digest someone else’s words through one’s own body. Beyond projecting an individual’s voice further then it can resonate on its own, the People’s Mic has implications for all of the bodies in its vicinity. It energizes listeners in ways the microphone or megaphone cannot by making listening active, vocal, and embodied. The project, like the Occupy movement, holds all the complexity, beauty, and drive of being human, whether you consider it “working” or not. When I asked Mann about how changes within and towards the Occupy Movement affected the choir, and whether they were winding down or taking a new form, she answered:
I think more than anything else, our group faced a lot of the same challenges that the Occupy Movement faced challenges in horizontality, in the push and pull between interior and exterior exploration, in the sometimes painful vulnerability of investigating the intimate personal and political space with others. I think the project is still developing. The choir still communicates, and some members are currently collaborating with composer Daniel Corral, but the PMC does not meet and rehearse like we used to I think it will continue to wax and wane. In the meantime, I am still working on ideas of active listening. I am currently creating a project called “Listening as (a) movement” within an under-served neighborhood in Pasadena, CA, exploring ideas of radical listening within a specific neighborhood.
In an age of constant bombardment of stimuli, our heads scream with thoughts, opinions, arguments, and expressions. With our current technology, our input and output can be a constant rush of snap reactions and impulses, which has a profound effect, of course, on our day-to-day lives, on our culture(s), on our politics. But these circles cannot be affectively complete without the other side. We need someone to hear us, and, more then that, we need someone to listen to us. And we, in turn, need to listen to them.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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