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Flâneuse>La caminanta

Since its inception at the World Soundscape Project in the 1970s, soundwalking has emerged as a critical method for sound studies research and artistic practice. Although “soundwalking” now describes a diversity of activities and purposes, critical discussions and reading lists still rarely represent or consider the experiences of people of color (POC). As Locatora Radio hosts Diosa and Mala have argued in their 2018 podcast about womxn of color and the sound of sexual harassment in their everyday lives and neighborhoods, sound in public space is weaponized to create “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” for POC.

While we often think of soundwalks as engines of knowledge production, we must also consider that they may simultaneously silence divergent worldviews and perspectives of space and place.  In “Black Joy: African Diasporic Religious Expression in Popular Culture,” Vanessa Valdés explored alternate conceptions of space held by practicioners of Regla de Ocha, epistemologies rarely, if ever, addressed via soundwalks. “Within African diasporic religions . . . including Palo Monte, Vodou, Obeah, Macumba, Candomblé – there is respect for the seemingly inexplicable,” Valdés remarks, “there is room for the miraculous, for that which can be found outside the realms of what has been deemed reasonable by systems of European thought. There is room for faith.”  Does current soundwalk praxis—either as research method, public intervention, artistic medium, field recording subject, or pop culture phenomenon—impose dominant ideas about space and knowledge production as much as—if not more–they offer access to alternatives? Are there alternate historiographies for soundwalking that predate the 1970s? Can soundwalks provide such openings, disruptions, and opportunities without a radical rethinking? What would a decolonial/decolonizing soundwalk praxis look and sound like?

Soundwalking While POC explores these questions through the work of Allie Martin, Amanda Gutierrez, and Paola Cossermelli Messina. To read the series from the beginning click here: Today, Amanda Gutiérrez  .  —JS


Flâneuse>La caminanta is a video soundwalk project, edited as a virtual reality (VR) interactive environment that I created using a 360-degree camera to document participants’ journeys. Its title emphasizes a missing word in the French and Spanish languages for women as wanderers, a gap that also represents the lack of inclusive public spaces that allow female-identifying and non-conforming bodies safe passage and co-existence. The VR environment exposes the perspective of four women of color who navigate urban landscapes in Mexico City, Abu Dhabi, Manhattan and Brooklyn. The participants selected their own locations, building from places that have a personal meaning or memory in their everyday journeys.

Walking in Lightness

This post discusses Flâneuse>La caminanta, its influences, previous iterations, and use of the methodology of the soundwalk as an intervention exposing the dangers inherent in public space for women of color.  To begin, Flâneuse>La caminanta is the virtual reality iteration of my previous film essay and photo series, Walking in Lightness.   Walking in Lightness departs from my experience walking in the neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The soundscapes I recorded during soundwalks became a pivotal medium for offering subtle observations of a woman’s cultural identity, recording my interactions and tracing a psychogeographic path as the camera navigates urban spaces.

The sonic component of Walking in Lightness reflects my subjective experiences of recognizing sonic signifiers such as the Spanish language, music genres and what Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter call “auditory icons” (“Ancient Acoustic Spaces,” The Sound Studies Reader, 187).  Auditory icons are sonic events that contain special symbolic meaning not present on the sound wave but reconstructed through cultural codes. While walking in these places, my recognition of the visibility and invisibility of cultural interpretations can be perceived inside the multicultural neighborhood of Sunset Park, where Muslim, Latino, and Chinese populations share the space.

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Walking in Lightness’s soundwalks functioned as an anthropological tool where they indicated how my engagements with space are personal, often amplifying dissonances in the acoustic journeys when my embodied memories surfaced past associations with the sonic landscapes I traversed. I recorded each soundscape was recorded with binaural headphones. The sound was a vast fabric of cultural codes such as the popular music from the immigrant neighbors, the chants from a mosque, the voices of the men talking at us, which allowed me to reflect upon my embodied sound in the public space, through my conversations, breathing, and my disposable 35mm camera’s sounds.

I used the camera to compile images of placemaking marks such as stores using speakers in the sidewalk to attract their clientele, the sound of the paletas cart, adds of Mexican norteño bands, associating them with the sound landmarks that I found “readable” or familiar, such as conversations in Spanish, either by passing or my own interaction with street vendors, the radio tuned in a Latino station.  While developing the project, I decided to use the images in the installation, so I learned the photo print process in the darkroom of the International Center of Photography, ultimately deciding on silver print techniques because of the indexical materiality and the elaborated manipulation of light in the 35 mm film printing process. This allowed me to have a meditative experience about the memory of sound and the connection with still images.

The long evenings and very exhausting printing process in the darkroom opened an introspective process confronting my role as an artist/ethnographer and challenging me to reckon with my own reasons for immigration to the United States. I had been living in Chicago, Illinois and currently in Brooklyn, New York since 2002, exploring the relationship of placemaking in the Mexican neighborhoods of Pilsen and Sunset Park. My reflections opened up for me the issue of the systematic gender violence present in Mexico as well in other countries, where women’s rights are still in an even more precarious condition than the U.S.  I then used the photo prints as the materials of the cutout animations for the visual accompaniment to Walking in Lightness, and they symbolize my personal and intimate reflections of sensing the vulnerability—and the normalizing of—gender violence as a woman of color in U.S. public space.

Photo of the exhibition the of the solo exhibition, Walking in Lightness at The Camera Club of New York in Baxter Street Gallery, Manhattan, New York.

Where the Flâneuse walks

Flâneur: from the French noun flâneur, means “stroller,” “lounger,” “saunterer,” or “loafer.” The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th-century France, an imaginary character from the streets of Paris, which carried a set of rich associations such as the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street.

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842, Image via Wikipedia

The concept of the “flâneur” has been an essential figure in French writers’ novels such as Honoré de Balzac and Victor Fournel. However, Walter Benjamin defined Baudelaire as the ultimate flâneur in 1935, an individual poet that experiences and describes the modern city.  Some consider Baudelaire the creator of modern poetry since his literature describes his personal experiences in the urban context while transiting and exploring the bohemian life of a male writer in salons and intellectual circles.  Via Baudelaire, Benjamin cemented the image of the flaneûr as a bourgeois white male who can wander in the streets in late evenings and without much concern for his endless luscious time while on urban explorations.

Lauren Elkin widely explores this observation in her book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London.  Elkins begins by narrating her experience of spatial isolation living in suburban New York, unable to walk on the streets without seeming odd or calling suspicious attention; later she explores Paris as a writer who links her memories with other nineteenth-century female writers, whose practice of walking represented a primordial tool but also a constant struggle with danger.

The most pointed realization for me while reading Elkins was that in the French and Spanish vocabulary we do not define the concept of “the walker” /“flâneur”  as a female subject   (although these terms are supposed to be gendered neutral in both languages).  However, there are other words in Spanish such as “pilgrim” that can be written as “peregrina” which functions as a referent to the female gender but also as an adjective. However the first pilgrims in the history of the Christian religion were women, such as the case of the noble Egeria, who embarked in the late 4th century in search of the Holly Places described by Saint Helene. From Mesopotamia to Syria, Constantinople to Jerusalem, Egeria narrated her impressions of her trips in the form of letters, titled Itinerarium Egeriae. She did not walk alone, however; as part of the imperial family, she walked with a court of people.

Nevertheless, Egeria’s trips were an early sign of independence and autonomy that would be taken away as women’s oppression increased with the rising power of Christian ideology. Although separated by centuries, Elkin and Egeria write from a perspective of privilege in societies where the concept of the women’s choice existed, allowing them to claim their autonomy by leaving their respective hometowns, and carrying with them the economic stability to secure their walks around the globe.

Feminicidio

In countries where gender equality remains elusive and all but nonexistent, however, it is difficult to imagine a woman wandering the streets during late evenings without being considered easy prey or a prostitute. Alternatively, an independent woman who walks alone on the streets in the late evenings in the contemporary moment represents a symbolic danger for the ruling patriarchy, a bold challenge to its power and domination.  In countries like Mexico for example, walking and habituating in public space had been steadily becoming more dangerous, since women are being assaulted, kidnaped, and killed. These violent acts defined as femicides, which are turning into a profound issue that has risen alarmingly in the last few years, not only in Mexico City but also in all of Latin America. Femicide or “feminicidio” in Spanish is the term for a gender-based hate crime perpetrated against a female-identified subject, often with a clear sign of abuse and violence whether from the victim’s closest social circle or something like the intricate networking of human trafficking or the drug war conflict. In most cases, these homicides are gruesome and violent acts, ending in deaths that involve torture, rape, and sadism.

Image by Flickr User Encuentro de Feministas, “Alerta feminista,” Fotografía: Valentina Vaccotti (CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to the statistics and reports by the UN Women initiative, fourteen of the countries with the highest numbers are from Latin America, and femcide is considered as a systematic killing phenomenon. The main issue is that these crimes are not being persecuted or have a proper investigation perpetuating endless impunity. Many perpetrators do not receive any legal consequence of their acts, turning it as a consequence that normalizes gender violence by the “machista” denial of the woman’s autonomy and therefore misogynistic reactions ending in murderous acts. Machista, comes the Spanish word “Machismo” [maˈtʃizmo]; Portuguese: [maˈʃizmu] (from Spanish and Portuguese “macho,” male), and describes the gender construction of masculinity, either as superior or entitled of power over other non-male subjects.

In 2017 in “Take five: Fighting Femicide in Latin America,” Adriana Quiñones, UN Women´s Country Representative in Guatemala testified that “In Latin America, we have a culture of high tolerance towards violence against women and girls. You see it in the media all the time—crimes against women are exhibited with very crude images and nobody seems to care about it. Violence becomes normalized; it is seen as a part of life for women.”  Images on the Internet and newspapers constantly mine the collective memory with alarmist news, turning the victim’s identity into images of bodies without a name and mundane numbers.

Mexican geophysics and activist Maria Salguero is actively searching for the name of these victims, searching for trustable newspaper sources reporting each case in order to create a dynamic map called Feminicidios en Mexico where she documents day-by-day cases of femicide. For each victim, Salguero creates data, highlighting the woman’s name, location, date, and circumstances of her death, as well as possible perpetrators reported by the local news.  Salguero’s project creates awareness of the increasing problem, which the Mexican government is trying to ignore and publicly misinform not only its population by hiding the real numbers of these crimes, but international organizations as well.

Still photograph from the digital map, Feminicidios en México by Maria Salguero.

In her online platform, Salguero uses Google Maps toward the goal of having a comprehensive and visual database that highlights and traces each case that is not always documented on the local forensic center, and therefore not reported in the National System of Public Safety in Mexico. Salguero’s use of digital cartography provides crucial information about the increasing numbers, by tagging each year from 2016 to 2018 by color. Red crosses, for example, signify those murders committed in 2018, currently the vastest color in most states of Mexico. Created as a personal initiative of Salguero,  Feminicidios en Mexico is exceptionally relevant to understanding the present and future trends of violence in each location, as well as the modus operandi of many of these femicides, exposing the general framework of the gender hate crime as an epidemic problem in Mexico.

My project Flâneuse>La caminanta departs from the acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the female body in the public sphere, employing technology to reflect and trace memories. It uses the concept of space and location as a reflective tool to expand the concept of “cartography” to include how women-identified subjects internalize the effects of violence against them. I use of mapping feeds to visualize the invisible, the forgotten, or the free customs that perpetuate gender violence. My artwork explores digital and analog cartography, from personal drawings of walker participants to metadata information displayed in an online map, which serves as subjective cartography.

When Buildings Speak

My work process building toward this new understanding of cartography can also be appreciated in When Buildings Speak, a piece I developed in 2016 at The Bolit Contemporary Art Center in Girona, in which residents (and myself as a guest artist) identified the relationship of tourism and displacement in the city. When Buildings Speak was embedded in a dynamic online map and displayed on the ETAC digital art catalog, which allows online users to listen to city residents’ interviews explaining their particular experiences of and critical views on the tourism culture industry. Using the most popular attraction in Girona–the the city’s medieval wall—I embedded these interviews and on-site soundscapes in an interactive map linked to personal residents’ opinions on concepts related to arts and education, urban design, city’s identity/memory, affordable housing, and culture industry.

Picture 4, left the side, Touristic Itinerary map published by the Girona City Council of the medieval section of the city.

Picture 5, on the right side, participant’s sketches of their soundwalks using the touristic maps to draw their sonic experiences.

The interviews and testimonials developed through collective soundwalks and drifts (dérives) with local participants: from middle school, high school, and college students, as well as the general public to the museum. The multiple perspectives helped the project to identify the complexity of the economic and social influence that the tourism industry has on the lives of Girona residents, as part of the Catalonia region.

Flâneuse>La caminanta

The project Flâneuse>La caminanta combines these mapping strategies, with the use of collective walks and subjective cartographies.  Here, participants and I trace normative aspects of gender violence rendered in everyday life, but especially sited in public spaces where female bodies feel unsafe and vulnerable. Flâneuse>La caminanta’s development starts with soundwalks in public spaces and documenting conversations with self-identified female collaborators, using a 360 camera and lavalier microphones. The interviews will be part of a virtual reality documentary with interactive features. It starts with a menu located in a photo darkroom as an introduction and link to each participant’s journey. The virtual reality environment was developed and produced as part of the Harvestworks AIR 2018 program in New York City.

Flâneuse>La caminanta’s virtual journey takes the user to an individual interviewee’s walk in a public space where they feel sonically unwelcome or unsafe, making use of psychogeography as a tool to navigate and to listen to the soundscapes and urban features of the location. Then, a second link takes the users to the participant’s “inner space,” the wanderlust location where participants reflect about the concept of feeling safe. The virtual environment enhances the sensorial and cultural journey of the discursive and sonic embodiment of a non-conformative body in the public space. The VR challenges the familiarity and cultural accessibility experienced in the journey while walking through public spaces in particular times and locations in the cities of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Mexico City. The virtual environment documentary reconstructs and documents it with 360 video and binaural sound. The piece’s soundtrack consists of the editing the binaural soundscapes with voice overs from the subjects.

Flâneuse>La caminanta’s representations of soundwalks amplifies the soundscape as an embodied medium of everyday life urban space that has a profound and uneven effect on our inner space. Artists and Podcasters Mala Muñoz and Diosa Femme describe this impact as “sonic landscapes of unwelcome” in a 2017 episode of their podcast series Locatora Radio produced especially for Sounding Out!’s series “Chicana Soundscapes.” In their discussion, the hosts detailed some of the most common ways of sonic harassment that they regularly experience in the public spaces of Los Angeles, living as latinx dealing with the sexual harassment in the streets and the vulnerability and precarious safeness that the city conveys, especially for women of color. The phenomenon of sonic unwelcoming for women varies from specific contexts to cultures, and from time locations and specific individuals, which makes it complicated to identify the specificity of the harassment’s exposure, perpetrator, and victim.

Still image of the interview with Zelene Pineda. Soundwalk at the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Flâneuse>La caminanta focuses on the soundscape of unwelcome, in the case of the non-conforming and self-identified female body transiting an environment designed, ruled, and surveilled by a patriarchal society. Female walkers frequently and repeatedly move through spaces where the male gaze perceives verbal harassment as a way of appreciation, a problem that turns into a cultural norm. In some Latin cultures, these forms of public speaking are accepted and normalized as communication, rather than verbal violence. Furthermore, when these behaviors are taken out of the context of their countries and perpetuated in foreign cultures where verbal harassment is a specific behavior of disrespect and political correctness, this behavior then stigmatizes the male immigrant as an ethnically-constructed threating figure for the white female body.

As an immigrant women of color I have experienced sexual harassment commonly and openly in both New York City and Chicago, in neighborhoods where culturally speaking this verbal communication remains accepted as part of the culture. However, in my listening it is unclear to me whether the men performing this form of harassment center their sexual expressions on women of color–to whom the cultural meaning of these words is acutely understood—or if these expressions prevail as part of the toxic masculinity that links the US to global spaces, modes of violence and oppression over all women in general, yet still most strikingly to women of color. The state disbelieves—with double doubt!–women of color, who are often punished after expressing their concerns or claiming their rights after they experience the trauma and transgression of a sexual assault. It is also evident that the human rights of people of color are of the lowest priority, with women of color being the most vulnerable.  Racial targeting conveys negative connotations and signifiers.

It is essential to create an in-depth study of these female experiences of the language of harassment. We must use theories of intersectionality to understand the depth of the systematic patriarchy imposed in our social systems via political decisions. We should not center the issues of gender violence on one particular form and population, especially if they are male people of color and/or immigrants, who can quickly turn into an ethnic target and the face of the foreigner threat of the host nation. Furthermore, there are other ways women are harassed that are not necessarily related to being catcalled in the streets such as men presuming the privilege of addressing women who are alone in spaces such as bars, coffee shops, restaurants, assuming that they are always readily available to start a conversation with a stranger (and often to assume women must be gracious, kind, and even excited and perpetually “smiling” in return). While unsolicited conversations are equally a transgression of space—and an expression of male entitlement–many men in western cultures find intrusiveness socially acceptable and non-violent despite the fact that they can lead to coercion and other cases of violence in rape culture. Our interrogations of gender violence in public space, then, should be broad and open to understanding systematic methods of gender control and violence present in different contexts and cultures simultaneously.

Flâneuse>La caminanta. Walis Johnson in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

This systematic oppression shaping the soundscapes of the unwelcome are also amplified by elements of industrial noise pollution from public housing of working-class families living near the most noise-polluted spaces: airports, for example, and aging infrastructures such as the elevated train system in New York City, which reaches high sound spectrum levels affecting the human ear permanently but also resulting in high blood pressure and body stress. In the gendered sonic realm, we layer into the unwelcoming soundscape the messages of unsolicited sexual gestures, police harassment, car honks, screams, angry drivers pointing out the masculine gender-entitlement to the space, and sounds that sonically cross the boundaries of female and non-conforming subjects in order to construct them as a weak, inferior, outcast, and/or sexualized pedestrian. Silence—or blocking the sound through headphones—Is a solution that many of us take as an option. Even if nothing is playing, just by the fact that our ears are not publicly exposed, protects us from the sonic violence polluting the public soundscapes.

Flâneuse>La caminanta, brings together multiple modalities and mediums of which the virtual reality is only one component. Since 2018, I collaborated with the artist Walis Johnson to create the multidisciplinary project, The Brooklyn League of Women Walkers with the goal of having an intersectional conversations with women of color from diverse ethnicities, ages, cultures, using the walk as analytical tool in a collective conversation. During the walks we approach ideas of how can we claim and adapt the public space as a safe place for everyone. First we develop a brief circle where participants can identify themselves, and then we bring a few questions of what being vulnerable and empowered in the public space means for each person. Then we embark the walk with the group, first tuning our ears, in which I make use of Deep Listening exercises from Pauline Oliveiros. Then we walk to key places that can highlight these facts and we embrace the conversation in the space.

My soundwalks embrace the conversations among participants, since the exercise of walking is also a vehicle of spontaneous reflections that emerge while we are experiencing the spatial navigation. After the walk we return to the space to create subjective maps of their personal experience, highlighting what could be done to improve those spaces, such as a pedestrian walk along a community garden, a school yard, a bike path instead of toll cars lots, a common place where you as a women walking in the night can shelter, etc. These ideas made us reflect that the sexual harassment can be tackled far more from call back to harassers, but develop a culture of common safeness where the city itself provides with spaces of shelter and mutual care. Developing a feminist city implies an inclusive conversation where multiple perspectives are taken in consideration through their own spatial experience.

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The Flâneuse>La caminanta, is now exhibited as the Beta version of the VR documentary at The 2019 New York electronic Art Festival organized by Harvestworks and showcase in Governors Island in New York. The second iteration will take in consideration the performative aspects of the VR documentary. In this newer version, the sound and video montage explores the point of view of three women through the cinematic walk side conversations. The sound dialogue emphasizes their spatial memories and their experience of mobility in public and private spaces while speculative maps render a metaphor of their migratory path. The VR performance will incorporate a collaborative work of female artists working with sonic explorations and choreographic gestures, in collaboration with two female musicians who will explore the multiple possibilities of the interpretation of the meaning dialogue. The performance will be presented at the culture venue in Manhattan, La Nacional, as part of the Female Migrations art program, organized by Se Habla Español collective. Musician Cecilia Lopez will curate the second iteration to be presented at an experimental sound music festival at Roulette music venue in Brooklyn.

Featured Image: Still image from the Flâneuse>La caminanta, video teaser.

Born in Mexico City, Amanda Gutiérrez completed her graduate studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, specializing in Performance and New Media. In Mexico, she completed her undergraduate studies in Stage Design at the INBA/ENAT. For twelve years, she has worked in the field of performance and sound art, fusing the two disciplines in installation projects. Among her video series is A brief history of fictions, which consists of four projects performed under the same methodology and work strategies from documentary and performance. This series has won two awards: The Fellowship Competition 2007 and CAAP 2008, and was selected as a finalist for the national award Artadia Art Chicago 2009. Gutiérrez has had artist residencies at CMM (Multimedia Center) in Mexico City, Mexico (2001), ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe, Germany (2002), and Artist Village in Taipei, Taiwan (2009). She has also received scholarships from the Artist Residencies Program 2009 FONCA-BANFF Centre and the prize-EMARE EMAN at the residency FACT Liverpool.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #2: Springtime in KC: Soundwalking Kansas City—Liana Silva

El Caracol: A Stroll through Space and Time in Mexico City–Anthony Rasmussen

 

SO! Amplifies: The Electric Golem (Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel)

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

On March 24th, 2019 the record release party for The Electric Golem’s 6th CD Golemology was held at the Loft in Ithaca, New York. The Electric Golem is an avant-garde synthesizer duo featuring Trevor Pinch and James Spitznagel, that has been in existence for about ten years.

Trevor Pinch is a local sound artist and professor at Cornell University. He is an STS (Science and Technology Studies) and Sound Studies scholar. As a key thinker of STS, Trevor is the coproducer of theories about Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), and the role of users in technological history and innovation. However, Trevor’s interest in dates back much farther; he built his first modular synthesizer when he was a physics student in London in the 1970s.

The other half of The Electric Golem, James Spitznagel, is a multi-media artist who uses the iPad as a musical instrument and to create digital paintings. While he has played many roles in the music and culture industries—guitarist in a rock band, record store owner, art gallery and guitar shop investor, and even business manager for the Andy Warhol Museum—he moved to Ithaca to focus on producing abstract art: digital paintings and experimental, improvisational music. Being an energetic and enthusiastic person who has unrestrained fantasies, James finds that everything around him can be his inspiration.

Pinch and Spitznagel formed the group after Spitznagel read Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco) and realized Pinch also lived in Ithaca. Spitznagel simply looked his name up in the phone book and called him up: “I go, ‘is this Trevor Pinch?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘well, you don’t know me, but I just read your book and I love it.’”  And then they got together for a beer and have been best friends and collaborators ever since.  Once Spitznagel heard about Pinch’s homemade synthesizer, he asked Trevor to try to make something together and it turned out to be a fascinating mixture of analog–Trevor’s synth, Moog Prodigy, and a Minimoog–and James’s digital instruments.

Building from this first moment of discovery, The Electric Golem’s music is electronic, experimental, and totally improvised. Typically, the pieces of music last twenty minutes to half an hour and expresses their interaction with the machines and with each other in the studio. James is much more controlling of the tone and rhythm, and patches the sound as he goes along, whereas Trevor is much more about making spontaneous weird sounds. They complement each other and the creation process is usually by random and spontaneous, as Spitznagel describes: “I didn’t tell Trevor what to do or what to play, but I said, here’s the piece of music I’ve written. He just instinctively knew what add to it.” Reciprocally, “he might just play something that I go, oh, I can weave in and out of the ambient sound he’s putting there.”

Trevor Pinch, Electric Golem at Elmira College, 2012

For the duo, the process of producing music becomes a shared experience with their listeners. The music is ever changing and evolving. In addition, unexpected drama adds vitality to the palette. “The iPad might freeze up or synthesizer might break somehow,” Spitznagel notes, “that’s happened to us, but we carry on. Like Trevor looks at me and says, it’s not working there. Or, I look at him and go, I have to reboot my computer, it’s not working. But, those times actually inspire us to try new things and go beyond what we are doing.” James explained. Their inspiration comes from the unknown, which just emerges from their practice. “Generally, this sort of music is completely unique to Electric Golem.” Trevor concluded.

The name “Electric Golem” comes from a series of books with Golem in the titles that Trevor collaborated on with his mentor Harry Collins. “The golem is a creature of Jewish mythology,” Pinch and Collins wrote in The Golem, What You Should Know about Science, “it is a humanoid made by man with clay and water, with incantations and spells. It is powerful, it grows a little more powerful every day.  It will follow orders, do your work, and protect you from the ever threatening enemy.  But it is clumsy and dangerous.  Without control, a golem may destroy its masters with its flailing vigour” (1).  Noting Trevor’s association with the concept of the Golem, Spitznagel added the “Electric” twist not just as a metaphor for their sound but also because “it’s kind of like a retro name.” The Electric Golem mushroomed from there, and in the past decade they have had many invitations and bookings to play out, receiving the first recording contract from the Ricochet Dream label, and have played with a bunch of notable musicians, such as Malcolm Cecil of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Simeon of Silver Apples, and “Future Man” (aka Roy Wooten), and they haven’t stopped there.

According to Pinch, the key feature of The Electric Golem’s music is its ability to encompass different moods. “I think Electric Golem has become good at one thing: its changing and transitioning from one sort of mood of music to another. And we have become quite good at those transitions. I think people would say that’s what they kind of like about us.” These sorts of slow transitions construct a unique texture of sound that can be quite cinematic, so much so that in 2012, the Electric Golem performed the accompaniment to the silent movie A Trip to the Moon, a special Cornell cinema event. Overall, as improvised experimental music, it is sometimes challenging to listen to, with no regular rhythm or reliable melody. Trevor produces warm, rich drones from the analog side that contrast with the sharper digital rhythms that James programs. In short, the Electric Golem varies between these two affects but the music goes far beyond the representation of emotional states; sometimes it conjures up the feeling of the vastness of space and time.

Experimental music, is a collaboration and negotiation process between instruments and their users.  No matter if analog or digital, instruments have autonomy; they are non-human actors with their own agency to some extent. As Trevor Pinch intimates, “I understand the general sort of sound that can be produced, but the particular details of how it will work out, you don’t really know, that’s much more spontaneous, you have to react to that.”  Instruments can often be uncontrollable–making their own sounds—so that Electric Golem must respond in kind. “So, it’s sort of like higher level meta-control versus actually doing what you’re doing in response to the instrument that combines together,” Trevor describes, “which I think is the secret to controlling these sorts of instruments.” It is incredible that Pinch and Spitznagel know each other so well—and each know their instruments so well–that they can improvise for long periods with no trouble. Trevor says: “Follow the use of these instruments! Follow the instruments! They are not essentialized. They are just stabilized temporarily.”

On the whole, The Electric Golem shows an artistic form which breaks the traditional paradigm, deconstructs and then reconstructs it, seeking to free sound from the instruments. Their music is beyond pure melody and rhythm, beyond the expression of existence, expressing more of an aesthetic state of transcendence. They challenge what music is, and what musical instruments are; they challenge divisions between the identities of engineer and musician. Electric Golem’s music co-constructs art and technology and binds them together; art, for them, is a mode of presenting technology, and vice versa, technology is a pathway through which art can flourish.

My favorite Electric Golem piece is called “Heart of the Golem.” What is the heart of the Golem? According to Pinch, “It is a mystery, a process of unfolding and discovery. It is somewhere where analog and digital sound meet, and an improvisation.” What the magic is remains unknown and unlimited, just like the future of the Electric Golem.

Featured Image: Courtesy of The Electric Golem

Qiushi Xu is a PhD candidate in the subject of Philosophy of Science and Technology in Tsinghua University, Beijing and in a joint PhD program in the Department of Science and Technology Studies in Cornell University, working with Prof. Trevor Pinch. Her research areas are Sound Studies, STS, Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. Her current research focuses on the sociology of piano sound and the negotiation and construction of piano sound in the recording studio (PhD dissertation), gender issues in recording industry, experimental music, auscultation and sound therapy. She holds an MA in Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College London; a BA in Recording Arts and a BA in Journalism and Communication from the University of China, Beijing. She is also an amateur pianist, writer, and traditional Chinese painter. As a multiculturalist, she is am fascinated by different forms of art and culture in different cultural contexts.

On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sound Artist Judy Dunaway (Part Two)

Last week, Carlo Patrão published “On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One),” which examined the history of the association between balloon travel and experimentation and the idea of silence, along with a round up of conceptual artists who have used balloons in their work.  Today’s post continues this exploration with an in-depth conversation between the author, producer Marina Koslock and sound artist Judy Dunaway.


We look at alien grace,

unfettered

by any determined form,

and we say: balloon, flower,

heart, condom, opera,

lampshade, parasol, ballet.

Hear how the mouth,

so full

of longing for the world,

changes its shape?

Excerpt from Difference, by Mark Doty

PLAY //

Against Levity: Experimental Music and the Latex Balloon

The term balloon music gained some virality in 2011 after Finn, the protagonist of the animated series Adventure Time, rubbed a toy balloon and improvised a rap over its squeaky sounds. “Balloon music is the future,” says the character. This few second-long scene became an instant meme, inspiring many to share their own versions of the “futuristic sound of balloon music.”

Balloons themselves are viral objects. Designed to infect our moods, they are part of social rituals ranging from the deeply personal to collective (political) euphoria. They are cheap, amusing and awe-inducing. As resonant chambers, balloon membranes are sonically responsive to touch while, at the same time, highly tuned to the vibrations of the environment. To start playing a balloon, no prior experience is required. In this sense, the balloon is a democratic instrument whose sonic textures circumvent expensive music equipment.

The Jazz composer Anthony Braxton was once asked why he used balloons in his Composition 25 (1972). Braxton replied: “I didn’t have enough money for the electronic equipment that could make those kinds of sounds. I’m interested in the expanded reality of sound opened up by the post-Webern continuum, but I’m restricted to using cheap materials. So, you know, I was walking down the street one night and I thought, Hey! I gotta have balloons!”

Anthony Braxton, B-Xo/N-0-1-47a or Composition 6G, w/ Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Steve McCall, with balloon sounds, 1969

“For me, that piece (Composition 25) really best demonstrates the full symbolic meaning of the balloon in the early avant-garde,” says balloon music composer Judy Dunaway. “I’ve discussed this with Braxton himself – the balloon replicated electronic equipment that he couldn’t afford at the time, but he also saw it as a way to open up the minds of the performers to get them to think differently about how they were improvising and how they were interacting in the piece.” Braxton’s Composition 25 is scored for 250 balloons and musicians are required to produce sound by squeezing, rubbing and popping balloons. “I like the idea that he breaks down the hierarchy,” adds Dunaway, “black musicians were discriminated against and they didn’t have the financial means that the white musicians had… and he was using this as a way to get beyond that and say: Here, I’m going to do electronic sounds without any electronics, I don’t need to go buy a Buchla or be associated with an academic institution that can give me access to equipment, right?”

Judy Dunaway, Mother of Balloon Music, Innova Recordings, 2006

Producer Marina Koslock and I met Judy Dunaway at MassArt in Boston to talk about her balloon-based sculptural sonic performances and the ready-made latex balloon as a sound producing instrument. For the past 25 years, Dunaway has been developing a singular specialization in the balloon as a medium for sound and music. You can keep just broadening out and do more things with a concept; or you can work in a particular parameter as an artist and keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper, and that for me as been more interesting, is to pursue that line”, explains Dunaway.

As a consequence, her balloon work has spanned out through several records (e.g. Balloon Music and Mother of Balloon Music), scores, sound sculptures, solo performances, ensembles, and numerous installations. The poetics of the latex balloon as a sound producing instrument contrast with the atmospheric balloon explored in part one of this article. The balloon, no longer buoyant, stays in close proximity to the body of the performer. The surface of the balloon is vibrated through rubbing, stroking, squeezing, pulling, popping and through the control of air releases. These sonic tactile acts bring forth dialogues between the performer’s body and the latex body of the balloon. “I limited my playing techniques to the balloons and my body,” says Judy Dunaway, “it was essential to be able to feel everything that was happening with the balloon in order to be able to fully explore all the sonic possibilities.”

The Balloon Music, DF#, by Tina Touli, 2013-2015

The balloon functions as an external sensory organ, like a skin, that vibrates when sound passes through. In Deaf culture, balloons have a long history of being used as resonating chambers that amplify vibration and facilitate hearing. Deaf people use them at concerts, musicals, clubs and raves to hear the music through the vibration of the balloon’s membrane. David Toop writes about Alexander Bell in the 1870s encouraging students from a Boston school for deaf children to hold balloons in their hands while walking on the street as a safety measure in order to hear the vibrations from the cobblestones as fast horse-drawn wagons passed by. Vibrational information is processed in the same way as sound information. As the scholar Steph Ceraso proposes, the common definition of listening needs to be expanded to include the sensory, contextual, and material aspects of a sonic event. Dunaway’s sound installation Manual Eardrums invites participants to a different mode of listening through the vibration of the balloon. “You are given earplugs at the door and an inflated balloon, and you hold it between your hands as you walk around the space. There’s a low tone playing that sweeps between 100Hz and 150Hz and it causes different vibrational patterns in the room that you can feel and map them out,” explains Dunaway. “Your eardrum is the balloon that you’re holding.”

Judy Dunaway performing Amplified Twister Balloon, Photo by Mizuki Nakeshu

Judy Dunaway started to play balloon music in the late 1980s, first as a preparation for guitar string and soon after as a solo instrument. It was in the midst of the AIDS Crisis and Dunaway was part of the downtown improv scene in NYC. “Many of my friends were dying,” she recalls. “Everybody was saying what caused this? Nobody knew how the disease was being spread,” adds Dunaway. “Then, of course, there was this discovery that it was sexually transmitted and you could prevent transmission with latex condoms. Suddenly, they had this power,” she says, “latex had this power to save people’s lives, and I say that that is when balloons really began to speak to me. They were something beyond a mere mechanism to make sound.” Within the envelope of the balloon Dunaway found space for memory, life, and sensuality.

From the beginning, her balloon work has articulated tensions between explicit and implicit meaning around issues relating to social activism, environmentalism, and feminism. “In an era, which continues to be that a woman’s control of her own body is restricted or attempts are being made to restrict our bodies, I coupled myself to this instrument that expresses sensuality, sexuality, and humanity,says Dunaway. The balloon, as a resonating chamber, bypasses western musical traditions that mechanize the body and gender stereotype musical expression. For Dunaway, the balloon generates a “non-judgmental somatic relationship.”

Seeing my connection to the body of the balloon, that to me served as an unspoken rebellion against the patriarchy, against the power structures that have oppressed women and, ultimately, all humankind by severing the psyche and the body,” says Dunaway. Following the scholar Robin James, the patriarchy is not just a “relation among people but is also a “relation among sounds that are coded in a gender system of masculine absolute/feminine other. “The way I approach the balloon is not nailed or fixed or part of this history,” clarifies Dunaway. The balloon as an instrument has allowed Dunaway to develop a musical lexicon outside of a male-dominated classical heritage.     

Judy Dunaway performing Piece for Tenor Balloon, written notation with improvisational passages, 2002

For example, this is her description of the round balloon as a sounding instrument:

Imagine a string, a string on a violin or guitar, and this string is held taut on either end by a the tuning pegs and the bridge now imagine that string suddenly melted and spun out into an orb and it’s all held tight by a column of air. . .this is the palette that I have to access when I play the Tenor Balloon, I have all these harmonics on this curved shape, and I control it partially with my knees.

The Tenor Balloon is placed between both knees and Dunaway applies and releases pressure on the balloon producing microtonal changes on its surface. “And I also use water,” she adds, “copious amounts of water, warm water on the balloon and on my hands because that’s the way I get this stick and slip mechanism to work.” The hands gliding on the balloon’s surface act similar to a bow on a string reaching different nodes and moving through harmonic series.

Judy Dunaway performing “Hommage à Kenneth Noland”, for amplified giant balloon, vibrators, synthesized tones, and projected video, with Max/MSP/Jitter interface, 2017

Each balloon requires its own specific touch or sounding technique. On the piece Amplified Giant Balloon, vibrators are used to resonate the surface of a giant balloon creating a low drone sound.It’s like vibrating a giant bass string”, says Dunaway, ”I tune my vibrators, I go to the sex shop and I listen to vibrators, and I tune the vibrators to each other so there’s a little beating pattern between them that I can control.”

Around 2015, Dunaway added a new balloon to her solo performances, the Amplified Twister Balloon. The twister balloon is equivalent to the long balloons used to make balloon-animals. Due to its string-like shape, the sounds produced through rubbing or gliding differ from the sounds of a round balloon. “The harmonic series isn’t so predictable,” she continues, “the tension is highest close to the navel of the balloon and that makes it microtonal different from one end to the other like an out-of-tune bugle.” Visually, the Amplified Twister Balloon performance delivers a feminist affirming statement. Defying the tradition of the male guitarist stroking the female form of the guitar, Dunaway finds musical material in a phallic-shaped balloon. “I sort of invert this”, she says, “now I have the penis form that I’m stroking and caressing and I’m taking this phallic power for myself in the Amplified Twister Balloon.”

“My work doesn’t come out of a void,” states Dunaway. In the article My Beautiful Balloon, Dunaway maps out a detailed history of the balloon in experimental and avant-garde music. Many Fluxus artists used the balloon in events, concerts and instructional scores. The sounds of the balloon embodied Fluxus’ humorous/satirical attitude towards art and the collapse of hierarchies of experience by reframing everyday life objects. Balloons are used by DIY artists that re-invent, hack and create new music instruments (Jean Francois Laporte, Thierry Madiot, Aaron Wendell, Tom Nunn, Javier Bustos). Balloon sounds are explored by many artists with backgrounds ranging from improvised music, rock, electronic or electro-acoustic and sound installation (Ricardo Arias, David Bedford, Mauricio Kagel, Alvin Lucier, Terry Day, Tod Dockstader, Christine Sun Kim, Davide Tidoni, Sharon Gal, Eugene Chadbourne, Matmos, EVOL, Alan Nakagawa, to name a few).

Balloon Music Compilation

To develop a practice around the accessibility of latex is to engage with politics of mass-production and exploitation of resources and labor. Dunaway mentions the connection between the air and breath that fills the balloon and the mass-extraction of latex from the lungs of the Earth. “[Balloons] are literally the blood from a tree in the Amazon,” says Dunaway, “and there’s a whole history of how the indigenous people there were and still are persecuted. Now, they are mostly farmed in Malaysia,” she adds.

Latex being collected from a tapped rubber tree, Wikimedia Commons

Between 1890 and 1920, a rubber fever led to a boom of extraction and exploitation of rubber-bearing plants in the Amazonian countries and to the forced displacement, slavery and mass killing of its indigenous people. The same happened in many African countries. As John Tully writes in his book The Devil’s Milk, “it is still true that where there is rubber there is often human suffering.” Ricardo Arias, a Columbian composer working with balloons (balloon kit) since 1987, has acknowledged this suffering through his balloon work. In  Musica Global, Arias composed a series of 20 short balloon pieces called Caouchu: The Weeping Tree/El Árbol Que Llora in memory of the native Americans tortured and killed by the North American and European hunger for natural rubber latex.

These ontological relations between the balloon’s materiality and the environment inform Dunaway’s work. “I’m writing a piece for a large 30 to 35 person balloon ensemble. This piece is called Wind Ensemble and is all about the air going out of the balloon, and the sound of the mouthpiece being vibrated as the air comes out.” Dunaway shares a video recording of this work and the room is filled with high pitched sounds changing at different speeds. The experience is immersive; a meditation on air and vibration. “It’s rather minimal in the concept because I really want you to notice the small changes and nuances over time.” The performative element of the piece has balloon players squeezing the balloon’s mouthpiece and bending over large balloons to make them vibrate until the balloon’s last breath. “Ideally, I would like 60 balloon players, that would be great!” she exclaims. The embodied relationship that Dunaway has developed with the balloon over the past decades resulted in an artistic practice extremely tuned to the sonic proprieties of every inch of the latex balloon.

Still from Le Ballon Rouge by Albert Lamorisse, 1956

The poetics of balloon music bring forth alternative narratives that challenge dominant hierarchies of music production, bypassing expensive technology and expectations of gendered musical expression. The balloon as an object of childhood and of playfulness is charged with emotional resonance and invites the construction of meaning while offering an opportunity to build upon subversive themes. In this two-part article, the balloon was analyzed as an object that is able to generate a vertical dimension of self and the construction of a sense of Place within the silence of the upper air regions that informed the “listening ear” to perceive difference. As a Probe, the balloon navigates the irreversibly altered constitution of the airspace, sonifying masses of air and weather data. Filled with breath or air, in Play, the latex balloon is an extra ear attached to our bodies that vibrate in sympathy with the terrestrial agitations of the Earth. Maybe Finn from Adventure Time is on to something. “Balloon music is the future.”

Thanks to Judy Dunaway for the interview and records; Marina Koslock for co-producing the interview with Judy Dunaway; and Jennifer Stoever for your help and excellent editing.

Featured Image: Judy Dunaway, photo by Alice Bellati

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city. 

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On the Poetics of Balloon Music: Sounding Air, Body, and Latex (Part One)

I see them in the streets and in the subway, at dollar stores, hospital rooms, and parties. I see them silently dangling from electrical cables and tethered to branches of trees. Balloons are ghost-like entities floating through the cracks of places and memories. They are part of our rituals of loss, celebration and apology. Yet, they are also part of larger systems, weather sciences, warfare and surveillance technologies, colonialist forces and the casual UFO conspiracy theory. For a child, the ephemeral life of the balloon contrasts with the joy of its bright colors and squeaky sounds. Psychologists encourage the use of the balloon as an analogy for death, while astronomers use it as a representation for the cosmological inflation of the universe. In between metaphors of beginning and end, the balloon enables dialogues about air, breath, levity, and vibration.

The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that Western thought has forgotten air despite being founded on it. “Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as (a) being. It allows itself to be forgotten,” writes Irigaray. Air is confused with absence because it “never takes place in the mode of an ‘entry into presence.'” Gaston Bachelard, in Air and Dreams, calls for a philosophy of poetic imagination that grows out of air’s movement and fluidity. For Bachelard, an aerial imagination brings forth a sense of the sonorous, of transparency and mobility. In this article, I propose exploring the balloon as a sonic device that turns our attention to the element of air and opens space for musical practices outside classical traditions. Here, the balloon is defined broadly as an envelope for air, breath, and lighter-than-air gases, including toy balloons, weather balloons, hydrogen and hot-air balloons.

PLACE /

Vertical Dimension: Early Experiments in Ballooning, Sounding, and Silence

On September 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre was assigned to serve the French military in a meteorological station in Alsace behind the frontline. His duties consisted of launching weather balloons, monitoring them every two hours and radioing the meteorological observations to another station. Faced with the dread of war and an immediate geography that he compared to a “madmen’s delusion,” Sartre took his gaze upwards to the weather balloon and its surrounding atmosphere to find refuge. In Notebooks from a Phony War, Sartre describes the sky as my vertical dimension, a vertical prolongation of myself, and also abode beyond my reach.” The balloon becomes a vessel for an affective relationship with the atmosphere that is mediated by the sounding of meteorological data. While gazing into the upper air, Sartre experiences a tension between the withdrawn”frozen blackness” of the atmosphere and the pull for feelings of oneness with it.

Falling Stars as Observed From the Balloon, Travels in Air by James Glaisher, 1871

The first balloonists to explore the atmosphere felt similar sensations of belonging by moving along masses of air, and at the same time, experiencing a deep sense of otherworldliness. Despite the dangerous enterprise, early balloon travelers repeatedly recounted expressions of the sublime associated with the acoustic qualities of the upper air. Late 18th and 19th-century balloon literature features countless textual soundscapes of balloon ascents that reveal how the experience of sound and silence helped frame early narratives of “being in air/being one with air.”

Ballooning developed in France and England among the emergent noise of industrialized urban life. The balloon prospect, as the author Jesse Taylor put it, spoke to “the Victorian fantasy of rising above the obscurity of urban experience.”  Floating over the city, the English aeronaut Henry Coxwell describes hearing “the roar of London as one unceasing rich and deep sound.” In the same spirit, the balloonist James Glaisher compares the “deep sound of London” to theroar of the sea,” whose “murmuring noise” is heard at great elevations. Ascending to higher altitudes, Coxwell hears the sounds from the earth become “fainter and fainter, until we were lost in the clouds when a solemn silence reigned.”

L’exploration de l’air, In Histoire des ballons et des aÇronauts cÇläbres, 1887

The balloon not only allowed access to a panoramic and surveilling gaze in the midst of boundless space but also a privileged access to a place of quietude and silence. In the memoir Aeronautica (1838), Thomas Monck Mason speaks to this point when he writes, “no human sound vibrated (…) a universal Silence reigned! An empyrean Calm! Unknown to Mortals upon ‘Earth.” According to Mason, when the balloonist goes “undisturbed by interferences of ordinary impressions,” like the sounds from terrestrial life, “his mind more readily admits the influence of those sublime ideas of extension and space.”

The experience of silence in the upper air brought forward in the Victorian white elite the longing for freedom, individuality, and assertion of social identity. Balloon flights provided a form of escapism from the confines of city walls reverberating with the aural manifestations of the Other. In Victorian Soundscapes, John Picker examines the struggles of London’s upper class of creatives (academics, doctors, artists and clergy) in finding spaces of silence away from the bustling noise of the urban environment. During the mid-19th century, the influx of immigration and the rise of commercial trade and street musicians altered the soundscape of the city. As Picker documents, the English elites rallied against this emergent aurality through racialized listening made evident by the use of sonic descriptors like invasion and containment that underlined anxieties related to the dilution of national identity, culture, class division and territory. For the elite, to physically ascend above the noise of the Other into the silent regions of the atmosphere via balloon, an instrument that dramatizes scientific prowess, validated an auditory construction of whiteness organized around ideals of order, rationality and harmony.

Circular View From the Balloon in Airopaidia by Thomas Baldwin, 1786

The descriptions of balloon ascents featured in James Glaisher’s book Travels in the Air (1871) are a vivid manifestation of these ideals. Experiences of floating at high altitudes were often met with poetic reports on the “sublime harmony of colors, light and silence,” the “perfect stillness,” and the “absolute silence” reigning “supreme in all its sad majesty.” The nineteenth century’s constructs of “harmony” and “quietude,” argues Jennifer Stoever, were markers of whiteness used to segregate and de-humanize those who embodied an alternative way of sounding. The Victorian balloon memoir echoes the construction of this sonic identity rooted in the white privilege of being lighter-than-air and claiming atmospheric silence. The balloonist Camille Flammarion, upon hearing “various noises” from the “dark earthbelow, questions what prompts “the listening ear” to be sensitive to difference. “Is it the universal silence which causes our ears to be more attentive?” asks the aeronaut.

Balloon Prospect, In Airopaidia, Thomas Baldwin, 1786

Balloonist’s encounters with silence in the upper air and the sigh of “boundless planes” andinfinite expanse of sky” were accompanied by feelings of safeness and overwhelming serenity. Elaine Freedgood argues that the balloon with its silk folds and wicker baskets were a perfect container for states of regression and the suspension of the boundaries of the self into an oceanic feeling of at-oneness with the atmosphere. According to the author, the self and sublime become momentarily entangled originating a sense of heroic masculinity, power, and the rehearse of imperial and colonial ventures. This emotional state justified an unprecedented mobility and the sense of losing oneself to the whims of the wind with no preoccupations of where to land. However, in an image that contrasts the privileges of mobility, Frederick Douglass uses the metaphor of the balloon as the terrifying anxiety of uncertain landing – either in freedom or slavery. The novel Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan, deals with similar issues by fictionalizing the balloon ascent and traveling of a young slave, whose hearing is tuned to the “ghostly sound of human suffering coming from beneath.

By late 1780s, thousands of people witnessed the European wave of balloon flights, but only a small fraction had access to them. Mi Gyung Kim, author of The Imagined Empire, draws attention to the silence imposed on the figure of the “balloon spectator” whose dissident voices were erased by the dominant colonial narrative of aerial empire. Mostly, the balloon spectator is featured in Victorian texts within a soundscape of affects characterized by “vociferations of joy, shrieks of fearandexpressions of applausethat advanced the dominant colonial narrative.

Ascent of a Balloon in the Presence of the Court of Charles IV by Antonio Carnicero, 1783

Although explorations in sound were one of the many goals to legitimize the balloon as an instrument in modern natural philosophy, the scientific utility of the balloon succumbed to spectacle and entertainment. Early aeronauts tried to use their voices and speaking trumpets to sound the atmosphere and experiment with echo as a measurement of distance. Derek McCornack in his book Atmospheric Things, says that these balloonists were most of all “generating a sonorous affective-aesthetic experiencewith the atmosphere. Along with scientific tools, balloonists often ascended with musical instruments and, in other instances, the balloon itself became the stage for operatic performances. More than a century before modern composers had transformative encounters with silence in anechoic chambers, aeronauts had already described its subjective qualities and effects in detail. In 1886, the photographer John Doughty and reluctant balloon traveler, while floating in a silent ocean of air, recalls hearing only two bodily sounds: “the blood is plainly heard as it pulses through the brain; while in moments of extra excitement the beating of the heart sounds so loud as almost to constitute an interruption to our thoughts.”

Travels in the Air, James Glaisher, 1871

PROBE /

I feel like a balloon going up into the atmosphere, looking, gathering information, and relaying it back. Rachel Rosenthal, 1985

The first untethered balloon ascents happened between 1783 and 1784. In current literature, this period is most cited for the patent of the steam engine, the beginning of the carbonification of the atmosphere by the burning of coal, and the start of the Anthropocene. In the industrialized society, the balloon floats through irreversibly modified atmospheres. “We are still rooted in air,” writes Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. However, this air is partitioned and engineered to facilitate consumerism, war, terror and pollution.

Contemporary art practices using the balloon address some of these concerns. The balloon functions as an atmospheric probe that reveals “invisible topographies” andpolitics of air” such as human interference, air quality, air ownership, borders, surveillance and the privileges of buoyancy. As a playful, non-threatening object, the balloon can elicit practices of inclusivity (e.g. balloon mapping) and affect. The transmission and reception of sound and music through the balloon help manifest air’s qualities and warrants artistic and social encounters with weather systems.

“Travels in the Air” by James Glaisher, 1871

During the 6th Annual Avant-Garde Festival parade going up Central Park West in 1968, the body of the cellist Charlotte Moorman rose a few feet above the floor attached to a bouquet of helium-filled balloons. This led the police to chase her and demand an FCC license for flying, to which Moorman replied: “I’m not flying – I’m floating.” Moorman was performing a piece called Sky Kiss, conceived by the visual artist Jim McWilliams that involved cello playing suspended by balloons.

In an interview for the book Topless Cellist by Joan Rothfuss, McWilliams explains that the original concept of Sky Kiss was to sever the connection between the cello’s endpin and the floor and expand the idea of kiss to an aerial experience. According to Rothfuss, McWilliams intended this piece to be an expression of the ethereal. But Moorman preferred the playfulness and the communal experience of the airspace. Instead of avant-garde music, she played popular tunes like “Up up and away” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Dressed with a super-heroin satin cape, Moorman infused Sky Kiss with humor and visual spectacle, posing a challenge to the restrictive access to buoyancy.

Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Sky Kiss by Jim McWilliams, above the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, 1976, Kaldor Public Art Project 5, Photo by Karry Dundas

Furthermore, Charlotte Moorman collaborated with sky artist Otto Piene to establish the right quantities of lighter-than-air gas to reach higher altitudes. Otto Piene, was a figure of the postwar movement Zero and coined the term Sky Art to describe his flying sculptures, multimedia balloon operas, and kinetic installations. For Piene, a child growing up during World War II, “the blue sky had been a symbol of terror in the aerial war.” The balloon collaboration between Charlotte Moorman and Otto Piene was a form of acknowledging aerial space in a musical and peaceful way. In his manifesto Paths to Paradise (1961), Piene questions: why do we have no exhibitions in the sky?(…) up to now we have left it to war to dream up a naive light ballet for the night skies, we have left it up to war to light up the sky.

Phil Dadson’s work Breath of Wind (2008) lifts an entire brass band of 24 musicians into the sky with 17 hot-air balloons. Brass instruments, usually associated with moments of revelation in religious texts, serve here as a calling for an aesthetic experience of wind and air currents. Since 1970s, Dadson’s environmental activism has brought forward sonic tensions between the human subject and Aeolian forces, as in Hoop flags (1970), Flutter (2003) or Aerial Farm (2004).

Similarly, the artist Luke Jerram displaces the experience of a concert hall to the sky. His project Sky Orchestra comprises of seven hot-air balloons floating across a city with speakers playing a soundscapes design to induce peaceful dreams. The hot-air balloon orchestra ascends at dawn or dusk so the airborne music can reach people’s homes during sleep or while in states of semi-consciousness. The sound-targeting of residential areas during periods of dimmed awareness exposes the entangling capacities of airspace, and the vulnerability of the private space.

Artist and architect Usman Haquem utilizes a cloud of helium balloons as a platform to identify and sonify changes in the electromagnetic spectrum. This project, Sky Ear (2004), reveals our meddling with the urban Hertzian culture via mobile phones and other electronic devices. Andrea Polli’s environmental work features sonifications of data sets captured by weather balloons. These sonifications provide audiences an emotional window to frame complex climate data. In Sound Ship (descender 1) by Joyce Hinterding and David Haines, an Aelion harp is attached to a weather balloon that ascends into the edges of space. The result is a musical trace of the vertical volume of our atmosphere and the sonification of masses of air as the balloon journeys upwards.

Haines and Hinterding, Sound Ship (decender1), 4-min extract, 2016

Yoko Ono and John Lennon created similar exercise in sounding in the film Apotheosis (1970). A boom microphone and camera attached to a hydrogen balloon ascends over a small English town documenting a sonic geography of the upper air. The artists stay in the ground as the balloon rises. In a period of great media spectacle, the couple choses to stay with trouble while balloon records Earth’s utterances slowly fading into atmospheric silence.

It is important to note that these musical and sound based works that expose the physicality of air movements and assemble affective meanings with atmosphere and weather systems are not particular to contemporary practices. The scholar Jane Randerson draws attention to indigenous modes of knowing and sensing air and the weather that incorporate sounding instruments. In Weather as Medium, Randerson writes: “in Indigenous cosmologies, the sense of interconnectedness “discovered” in late modern meteorological science merely described what many cultures already sensed and encoded in social and environmental lore.”

The balloon has a lighter than air object mediates our relationship with the airspace and offers opportunities to expand our aerial imagination. By sensing changes in the atmosphere, the balloon is a platform that generates knowledge and can help us experiment with new forms of being-in-air some inclusive and empowering, others much more invested in exclusivity sounded through the rare air of silence and the silencing power dynamics fostered via the view from above.

I would like to express my immense gratitude to Jennifer Stoever for editing this paper and for sharing her scholarship and input on this article. Thank you to Phil Dadson for sharing his video.

 

Featured Image: Scientific Balloon of James Glaisher, 1862, Georges Naudet Collection, Creative Commons

Carlo Patrão is a Portuguese radio producer and independent researcher based in New York city. 

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