Welcome to the second part of Radio Art Reflections, a series on radio art that brings together the thoughts of three practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the UK.
In the first part Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz discussed how transmission art has shaped her practice and how it has become an important current within the expanded territory of radio art. Following this, musician and sound artist Colin Black reflects on the particularities of Australia’s radio art history, analyzing the effects of ongoing cutbacks at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Black fears a distinctive Australian soundscape-based radio art is in danger of being lost, while identifying a current renaissance in narrative based radio features which currently shape ABC radio output, and considers the potential of ABC’s new Creative Audio Unit.
– Guest Editor Magz Hall
As an artist growing up in rural Australia, I was hugely influenced by how state-owned radio engaged with sound-based practitioners. For decades, radio not only gave voice to some of the more exploratory artists and their works, it allowed artists and audiences from all over this vast continent to find a space in which experimental works could, with financial support, gestate, be realized and propelled onto a world stage, often receiving international acclaim for their distinctive perspective.
In recent years I have come back to those works as a PhD researcher, interviewing thirty five international practitioners, theorists and producers on Australian radio art thereby gaining a new appreciation of its particular aesthetic practices and approaches. This article draws on some of these interviews to highlight national and international perceptions about where Australian radio art has been, while also demonstrating its potential to influence a new generation of artists to explore beyond mainstream media formats.
THE LISTENING ROOM
While there are a few early examples of Australian radio art, consistant programming and commissioning of radio art effectively commenced in the 1980s with the formation of the ABC Arts Unit during 1984-85 and the acoustic arts programme The Listening Room, which aired from 1988 to 2003. Although long-decommissioned, The Listening Room was still one of a very few signposts that my interviewees cited when trying to understand the properties of Australian radio art. The Listening Room’s founding executive producer Andrew McLennan, who expanded the boundaries of ABC radio from 1976 onwards, had a clear take on the aesthetic framework of the show, stating in one internal ABC report (c1990) that the programme was a:
… venue for the exploration, the cross-pollination of radio forms. … you can hear new radio plays, audio essays, acoustic features, sound documentaries, new music, sound-scapes and sculptures, audio installations, acoustic art forms …
This approach was broader than that of other international radio art programs. Here is a quote from the formative executive producer of Deutschlandradio Kultur, Götz Naleppa, who took a much more “aesthetic” approach for his well-known Klangkunst programmes in Germany:
The difference to other radio-art-forms like radio-play is simple: sound-composition [a term Naleppa prefers to radio art] shares with them the same elements: sound, text (voice) and music. But in radio-play text (dialogue) is in the foreground and the other elements SERVE it (often in an illustrative way). And in (radio)sound-composition we have the same elements – but they are EQUAL, they are simply MATERIAL in the hands of the composer [Götz Naleppa, e-mail message to author July 28, 2005].
Of the two, The Listening Room clearly had a wider scope. Thus a number of ABC works, like On the Raft, All at Sea (by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton), placed the text in the foreground as the narrative is primarily driven by the use of spoken dialogue and the other elements are used to serve the text in a chiefly illustrative fashion. By definition Naleppa would call this a “radio-play” and not necessarily neues hörspiel or radio art, and definitely not a radio “sound-composition.”
Extract from On the Raft, All at Sea (2002) by Robyn Ravlich and Russell Stapleton (courtesy Robyn Ravlich and ABC Radio)
“AUSTRALIAN” RADIO ART
Alongside this inclusiveness of a wide scope of work, my research uncovered a range of other ideas about the identifiable properties of Australian radio art. Austrian Elisabeth Zimmerman claims that with Australian work there is “a certain tradition” that favours the “use of environmental sounds … but in a very composed way.” Andrew McLennan supports Zimmerman’s viewpoint and states: “it’s always hard to say and it is probably a bit of a cliché … [however he] often think[s] of it as quite environmentally driven.” Douglas Kahn, an American, is more skeptical, observing that “The Australian stuff was much broader range … I don’t think you can say that there was an Australian aesthetic because there were so many different artists that were brought in to do things.” Although later Kahn does state that a common thread heard in Australian work was its “really high quality production values … really nice complex mixes … people playing the mixing board like it was a piano in a really sophisticated way.” Kaye Mortley from her Australian French background describes Australian work as “radiophonic art, of various sorts, more experimental in nature, some produced by composers.” While not a composer, Australian Virginia Madsen supports Mortley’s viewpoint when she describes her own work as “experimental … it combines music, theatre performance, and documentary really.” The common theme that emerges from my research is the openness and commitment to experimentation that exists alongside a highly professional approach to the art form within Australian radio art culture.
My interviews also indicated that radio art plays a role in the perceived amorphous and multi-faceted notion of national identity, while confirming Kahn and Nicholas Zurbrugg’s earlier observations that radio art has critically contributed to the overall arts ecology in Australia. As a practitioner, I would also describe my own work as having an experimental approach that is influenced by the high quality production levels of programs like The Listening Room. While much of my work is environmentally driven, my artistic focus is to create multi-faceted, intimate aural geographies in which human imprint is present.
Extract from Alien In The Landscape (2007) by Colin Black (courtesy DeutschlandRadio Kultur). This extract features synchronous field recordings made by a Rodes NT4, X-Y configured stereo microphone and Fender Stratocaster with additional strings attached as pictured below.
THE CREATIVE AUDIO UNIT AND AUSTRALIAN RADIO TODAY
When The Listening Room was decommissioned in 2003, explorative radio was forced in two directions: ABC Radio National programmed some word-based works, while ABC Classic FM aired another set of works that Kate Dundas (Director of ABC Radio) has called “Shorter-form pieces, maybe perhaps down the sound-based acoustic end or radiophonic end of the spectrum.”Budgets were dramatically reduced and diverted, resulting in the effective abandonment of regular commissions and airtime for long-form sound-based works. In 2012 ABC management decommissioned book readings and Creative Instinct (a “feature program that reflects and explores the creative world”) and The Night Air (described as “aural equivalents of the avant-garde cut-up: a montage of interviews, location sound, music and found audio”). Moreover management oversaw the dismantling of the Airplay programme, which included “hour-long dramatic fictions [sic] experiment with form” effectively ending an 80-year tradition of Australian radio drama. In replacing these programmes, the Creative Audio Unit (CAU) was planned and American-style low budget radio production techniques for dramatic short stories (as championed at the 2012 ABC run Radio Beyond Radio conference) were put on the table as the future of radio.
In 2013 the ABC recruited a whole new team (who collectively had very little direct engagement with prior radio drama and The Listening Room production budgets and procedures), to setup, oversee and run the CAU. This transition was so atypical of past ABC changes that it raises questions as to whether this was an orchestrated act of cultural amnesia. It is perhaps not surprising that one of the major challenges this new team faces is the lack of resources, which impedes the magnitude of new works commissioned. This also raises questions as to how the previous budgets from Airplay, The Night Air and Creative Instinct have been reassigned. Another challenge is this unit’s extremely wide area of responsibility (that was previously spread across a number of ABC Units) ranging from radio drama and essays on the Radiotonic programme (effectively replacing the entire radio drama department) to what it claims to be a “portal into radio art, performance, soundscapes and composed audio features” on its Soundproof programme.
While Soundproof makes gestures to re-stimulate radio art activities in Australia, in sampling its first twenty episodes it becomes apparent that a very large percentage of airtime is heavily driven by the spoken dialogue narrative, more in line with radio drama or documentary. Furthermore, the episodes that contain the more interesting sound works seem to be frequently interrupted by extended contextual dialogue and therefore, for the most part, present only extracts or shorter form radio art works. Therefore, as a practitioner who runs the risk of being excluded from future CAU activities, I would nevertheless argue that for the most part, the CAU is doubling up on its focus on radio drama and documentary style productions and has not to date reached its goal of fully exploring and presenting sound rich radio art features, as it claims (please see Soundproof episode mp3 downloads dated between 11 May to 21 September 2014). Moreover, Soundproof is much more constrained, even backward-looking, when compared to its predecessors and is therefore aiming to attract a much less adventurous radio audience. More glaringly, the first twenty episodes lack a strong presence for new Australian works when compared to The Listening Room that broadcast sixty-four Australian works with a total duration of fifty hours in its first year of operation. As an inquisitive listener it seems that, to date, Soundproof has forgotten its own lineage without offering anything new or innovative and in doing so, has also forgotten audience members like myself in Australia and throughout the world.
I sometimes wonder what the conclusions from my research study would be if it were only focused on current practice. Would today’s Australian radio art still play a role in the perceived multi-faceted notion of Australian national identity? Would it still be perceived to have an experimental approach with high quality production levels that favour the use of environmental sounds? Is it still a critical contributor to the overall arts ecology in Australia? Audience members who have little prior knowledge of Australian radio art, may think so or may not conceive of its potential to do so. However, given sustained support, the space for experimentation and a clear inventive vision for the future, building on the legacy of past achievements, Australian radio art clearly has the potential to regain its status on a world stage.
Featured Image: Beastman mural on Brisbane Radio by Flickr User JAM Project
Dr Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed composer/sound artist having won the 2003 Prix Italia Award and achieving the final round selection in the 2010 and 2011 Prix Phonurgia Nova for his creative feature length works. As a result of this acclaim, Black has received multiple national and international commissions to create innovative long-form works for broadcast across major Australian and European networks. Black’s curator credits include, international festival/showcases of award winning Australian acoustic art and radio art at London’s Resonance104.4fm, Kunstradio (ÖRF, Austria) and Toronto’s New Adventures In Sound Art. In 2013 he also curated the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sound Fix: Your Weekly Dose of Transmitted Audible Art series. He is a PhD graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he was a recipient of the University of Sydney Postgraduate Awards Scholarship. More recently Black has been engaged as an academic lecturing at the University Technology, Sydney; moreover he has authored a number of conference papers and peer reviewed journal articles including “An Overview of Spatialised Broadcasting Experiments With a Focus on Radio Art Practices” in Organised Sound. Black is also the founding member of The International Radio Art (and Creative Audio for Trans-media) Research Group. For more information see: www.colinblack.com.au
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Unsettled Listening — Randolph Jordan
Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens — Carolina Guerrero
Everything Sounds Podcast — Craig Shank
On October 4-6, 2013 ESSA – The European Sound Studies Association – will have its first conference in Berlin. This initiative is just the latest sign that an institutionalization is taking place within the inter-disciplinary field of sound studies. Erik Granly Jensen, who is one of the founding members and vice-chair of ESSA, tells the story here:
During the past decade, the field of sound studies – or auditory culture if you will –has been growing immensely. International conferences and seminars, numerous dissertations, monographs and research articles have shaped a vibrant, interdisciplinary area of study that of course has a much longer history within the more traditional disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, but which during the past 10-15 years has morphed into a discipline of its own. Just last year, two extensive collections of theoretical texts appeared with major publishing houses, The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (ed. Trevor Pinch & Karin Bijsterveld) on Oxford University Press and The Sound Studies Reader (ed. Jonathan Sterne) on Routledge. A second edition of the classic Auditory Culture Reader (ed. Michael Bull) is in the making and supposedly another Routledge anthology is being planned as well. Furthermore, in 2010 three European journals on sound cultures appeared within just a few months: the Holland-based Journal of Sonic Studies, the Ireland-based journal Interference and the Denmark-based SoundEffects; all three of them international online journals devoted to the analysis of sound cultures with an explicit ambition to integrate sound into academic analysis. To give an illustration of the interest that these journals are already enjoying is the fact that SoundEffects in 2012 alone had 15,000 individual article downloads.
With all these activities taking place, supplemented by the high number of research networks and transnational research projects throughout Europe, for instance “Sound in Media Culture” sponsored by the German Research Foundation or “The Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies” sponsored by the Nordic Research Foundation, Nordforsk, it seemed to be a question of time before the area of sound studies would take yet another disciplinary step and bring all the efforts together in an association. For even if the field of sound studies is alive and well, the advantage of creating a lasting academic platform where researchers, practitioners and artists can meet annually to exchange ideas and build new networks should not be underestimated. The existence of an association and an explicit reference to a global community for research and artistic practice into sound could be the decisive argument for both the introduction of university programs and job positions within sound studies. ESSA, The European Sound Studies Association that was founded last year could become such a forum.
As is so often the case, the idea for a sound studies association arose at an occasion that was scheduled for other purposes. In January of 2012, twelve members of the Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies were gathered in Copenhagen to plan the activities of the Nordic research network, www.sdu.dk/norsound. During discussions of a possible doctoral school that would include not just doctoral students from the Nordic countries, but be a traveling European doctoral school, the idea for both a European summer school and for a forum that could facilitate sound studies throughout the European continent was put on the table. Everybody present (including Anahid Kassabian, Michael Bull, Heikki Uimonen, and Marcel Cobussen to mention a few) agreed that this was both a great and a timely idea and the association ESSA, European Sound Studies Association, was born.
ESSA is a groundbreaking organization, bringing together the widest range of approaches to the study of sound. It’s exciting to be involved in its earliest stages and to participate in shaping this new community. I’m very much looking forward to its growth over the next few years and to ESSA becoming a productive environment for scholars working with many aspects of sound. –Anahid Kassabian, University of Liverpool
During the past year, an ESSA website was launched and discussions of a possible legal statute of the association have been circulating in the group parallel with the planning of the first ESSA conference. The reason for the working of the legal statute is, that ESSA in the future will be run by membership donations and through a democratically elected board of members.
In particular musicologist Morten Michelsen from the University of Copenhagen and Holger Schulze, professor of historical anthropology of Sound at the Academy of Arts in Berlin (two other members of the founding group) have been the driving forces of ESSA in this initial phase. At this point where everything is still waiting to happen, it is of course hard to predict what ESSA will be and what kind of an association it can be in the future. However, the ambition is to provide “a forum where those involved in the study of sound can meet and exchange ideas.” ESSA will also encourage “the development of research and systematic study in topics and in areas where such study in not well developed” as is stated on the website. In addition to these overall ambitions, the initial idea of a European doctoral summer school for sound studies still has a high priority as a future goal for ESSA.
With the founding of the European Sound Studies Association – the study of sound in all it’s inter-disciplinary richness and diversity now has an independent institutional voice for the first time. The range of sonic scholars that is converging on Berlin for ESSA’s first annual conference in October is evidence of both the need and the success of ESSA. The presence of ESSA will provide a platform, not just for European scholars, but for all those working on sound globally. –Michael Bull, University of Sussex
The theme for the upcoming conference in Berlin is “Functional Sound.” The conference will focus on existing as well as emergent and cutting-edge approaches to functional sound design, sonification, auditory culture, everyday soundscapes, artistic concepts and popular culture. In particular, the conference encourages presentations that include both theoretical and practical aspects and presentations that address everyday contexts within which sound—in its relation to media, technology, and the arts—is constitutive for new ways of thinking, listening, and becoming. The conference is a joint venture with the international research network “Sound in Media Culture” (led by Holger Schulze). During the three conference days, paper presentations in six parallel streams will cover topics such as “Soundscape of the Urban Future,” “Sound Design Practices,” “Sonic Artistic Practices and Research,” and “Cultural Politics & Sonic Experience.” [Editor: Click here for the full program, which includes several Sounding Out! editors and writers: Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Neil Verma, reina alejandra prado saldivar, Mack Hagood, and Regina Arnold. –JSA]
The confirmed keynote speakers are all leading scholars in the field and include Douglas Kahn, who is professor of Media and Innovation at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Professor Kahn has been a driving force for the development of sound studies, primarily due to his influential 2001 book Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Jason Stanyek, professor at the Faculty of Music at Oxford University, is also a keynote speaker. Professor Stanyek is a musicologist, who specializes in Brazilian hip-hop and Pan-African Jazz. Also he is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies. The final keynote speaker is Thomas Macho, professor in cultural history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Professor Macho has published on numerous subjects but of special interest for the sound studies field is his work concerned with the human voice and most recently his book on synchronization, Kulturtechniken der Synchronisation from 2011.
For those who cannot make it to Berlin this year, the place and dates for the 2014 ESSA conference have already been decided. It will take place in Denmark on June 27-29 2014 at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. To be updated about ESSA and future events, please visit the website, http://www.soundstudies.eu, and sign up.
Featured Image Courtesy of Mediateletipos. In 2008, artist Akio Suzuki presented a sound installation around Berlin’s water tower focused on listening to everyday situations, directing listener’s attention through audial symbols painted on the ground.
Erik Granly Jensen is associate professor at the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the research leader of The Nordic Research Network for Sound Studies, sponsored by Nordforsk 2011-2014. He is also the co-editor of the online journal SoundEffects and a founding member of ESSA, The European Sound Studies Association. His most recent research areas include historical sound archives and radio art. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Sound at ASA 2012–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012. Read last week’s post by Liana Silva here–JSA
Lately, I’ve been halted by a particular photograph of my mother. Like Roland Barthes’ wonderland photo of his mother in Camera Lucida,
this picture “corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical” (8).
It began when my father reorganized his photographs. Since retirement, he’s taken on archival projects with renewed fervor. He began with 1974 (the year I was born), made it all the way to 1984 and from there slipped back. My mother, a freckled farm girl in South Dakota, standing in front of a box house and snow, lots of snow. The year, 1957 or so. My father in a high chair in Sepulveda, California. Perhaps 1948. By then my grandparents knew he was deaf.
And every couple of weeks or so my dad calls me. I finished another year, come see the pictures, he tells me via the Iphone, his slow, thoughtful typing shaped by many years of TTY-use (TTYs, or “Text Telephones,” are increasingly receding from every day use, replaced by chatting and text messaging). I imagine him at home in my old room, surrounded by generations of Waldners, Cardinales, Jensons and Ewings. Eagerly, he fills an old stereoscope viewer with 3d slides. His favorite is of my brother and me at the Buschart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. My brother is six and I am eight; our young faces are carefully tilted towards the pale cabbage roses. My father fits more years into fewer albums, filing the stray photos in new Costco cardboard photo boxes. And yet, as he reduces by putting old pictures into new boxes, he continually finds older pictures, older boxes.
The last time he called me, he was in 1984. These pictures depress my dad; he won’t spend much time here. In the photos I’m always on the phone or covering my face. Perhaps he remembers, as I do, the times he would attempt to enter my teenage world of sound. He’d follow the knotted coil of the cord, pick up the phone and say “huh-lllll-ooo,” exaggerating his lips in a comical lip-synch, emitting a low, guttural voice while I danced for the phone. We’d both laugh as if we secretly agreed: hearing language is silly, ugly; my father rarely uses his voice.
But within 1984 was a stack of black and white 5×6 matte photographs bound by a rubber band. They were a series of still television shots of my mother. We lived in Berkeley then, and my mother would drive to San Francisco to record the DeafNews; I remember being sleepy, confused, and excited when my mother’s face appeared on the TV. These photographs frame my mother the way I saw her: her face elongated by the distorting concave screen surrounded by blackness; in the picture she seems still to be floating in TV space. I wonder, who stood in front of the television, through several barriers and captured these stills of language?
In high school, I went to a dance at the Fremont School for the Deaf where my parents were chaperones. It was easy to find the dance; you could hear the throbbing bass from across campus. It was so loud, it hurt. When I walked in, I wasn’t surprised to see a wall full of uncomfortably dressed teenagers holding balloons to feel the sound and bobbing their heads in tempo. “Careless Whispers” played as it did at all high school dances and embraced couples locked bodies in a slow sway on the dance floor. The music, the discomfort of boys in pressed shirts and Drakkar Noir, it was no different than the stiff dances at Ramona High school down the street. But it was Deaf more than any silence could be. When my friends found out my parents were deaf they nearly almost always gasped: “I bet your house must be so quiet!”; they nearly always got it wrong. Here, in this cafeteria-turned “sea of love,” Deafness announced itself. Deafness was not mute.
sound does not just enter the gateway of hearing; it can also be perceived through the sense of force” (77).
The song changed to M.C. Hammer, and the dancers on the floor continued slowly rocking. A nervous looking redhead held his palm out with one hand and with the other shaped his hands to form legs; he put the two signs together and asked me to dance.
I was flattered, and acutely aware that I was the foreigner there. As I took his hand, I was filled with adolescent shame forever demanding: “be quiet! People can hear.”
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,/sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres/tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,/tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño–Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets Cien Sonetos de Amor
I am six, and eight, and thirteen. The door is open, so I crawl into my parents’ bed, and the pull of the sheets awakens my mother. She grasps my hand. I whisper in sign language so my father won’t be disturbed by the light. Then, I take her hand and listen, tracing the terrain of her fingers, following the curves to read her words. I fall asleep talking to my mother, her hand in mine, my father’s snoring vibrating the bed.
I am twenty-nine and I am watching her hands, her signing, and seeing my own. Her name, signed with a sweep from a handshape “L” to a curved “C” down the shoulder to the wrist (my name, the same “C”)— “now I know your mother, you sign just like her.” And my punctum—sting, speck, prick—the kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward ‘the rest’ of nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together. Barthes again.
Her hands—her hands and my hands, let me see your hands she tells me. She too sees herself on my body; we are both always looking at the blurrr of her hands.
And looking, I return always to a short story by Julio Cortázar, “Axototl” from Blow-Up and Other Stories about a boy who spends hours at the aquarium watching the axolotls; he is transfixed, haunted, obsessed, and keeps returning to watch these fish, no not fish. The boy consults a dictionary and discovers that they are the larval stage of a kind of Mexican salamander. I find the boy and his axolotls among my books, and discover highlighted in purple:
I was, I am, struck by this passage. These atavistic creatures capture, compress space and being. Identity breaks down—I, we, they are no longer discrete. What side are you on? Mother, Father Deaf.
When I was eleven our family bought a deluxe conversion Dodge Caravan complete with metallic bronze customized paint job, rust colored velour captain’s chairs, and a boomerang-shaped television antenna. I went with my parents to the car dealer on a sticky August afternoon. “We want a minivan,” my mother signed to me, I voiced to the short man with greasy black hair and uncomfortably freckled arms. He immediately took us past rows of suburb-like cutouts of vans and led us to the Las Vegas model of minivans—all the deluxe features and without a deluxe price. A special deal. I signed this eagerly—I wanted my parents to understand as I did—we were lucky to see this car. It’s a familiar scene: father adjusting the seats and falling in love with cruise control; mother insisting it was more than they budgeted; the dealer crawling in the back and hollering out through the nifty sliding third door all of the fantastic features.
Inside the car. Tell them the back seat can be removed for more room. Tell them there’s an acoustical equalizer for the stereo. Tell them there’s air conditioning. Tell them there’s a threeyearthirtythousandmilewarranty. Tell them we do financing right here in the lot. Tell them.
Outside the car. Is this the best price? Does he have anything less expensive? Does it come with a warranty? Do you have special discounts? Are you telling us everything?
“Yes, they like all the extras.” No—best price.
We left the dealer and got back into our happy orange VW van. My bare legs stuck to the vinyl seats and I cried. My mother was upset: “What’s wrong? Did you want that car?”.
The salesman knew my parents didn’t care about the equalizer or the TV monitor in the back seat; but he didn’t know they understood. “How nice of you to help your mother go to the store and do the groceries” while my mother writes a check, looking at the cash register screen for the correct amount. I am the mute one. “What did the lady say?” my mother asks; “nothing,” is my silent reply. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Yes, my mother has a college degree. Table 7 shows that the proportion of persons 18 years of age and over with under 12 years of education increases monotonically as the level of their hearing ability decreases. A bachelor of library sciences. No, she does not work in a library. They were afraid of what would happen if she answered the phone. They were afraid of hearing a deaf woman speak. We moved several times when the rent for one reason or another had to go up; even being six you become familiar with friendly discomfort. Interpreting for my mother when she caught my landlord in a contradictory lie—the distrust on both sides boomeranged off my nine-year old body.
In that parking lot, the traffic of misunderstanding and mistrust, all I wanted to do was to hide my lips, shield my transparent body so that neither side would see they were being betrayed.
The stage is dark, but the theatre is vibrating. “Red hots . . .” lingers in the air. My dad taps me on the shoulder. What does the music sound like?
My father is sitting to my left, my husband to my right. It is between scenes at the DEAFWEST performance of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m thrilled to watch the interpreters peering from the balcony above; their voices float above the Deaf actors who take center stage. Sign language takes center stage. The interpreters are for the hearing. The dividing line of the stage is several feet ahead of us. Blanche Dubois begins signing to Stella on the stage. But unlike the other Deaf actors, Blanche speaks with her own voice; the interpreters above are silent. Her signs are stiff, they struggle to keep up with her vocal cadence. I nod as I watch, transfixed: everything has been reversed.
I quickly sign to my father: She is speaking. She’s hearing! Then I lean over and whisper to my husband: her signing. It’s not Deaf. She’s hearing.
I am signing Deaf. I am whispering Hearing.
Cara Cardinale gives sound to her narrative with her mother’s voice–“sounding out” against audist notions of sound that keep Deaf voices silent and perpetuate the idea that deafness is interchangeable with muteness. She would like to thank her mother for sharing her beautiful voice, which to a CODA is a distinctive and comforting sound but often carries a stigma outside the home. Cara uses her own signing body here, not as interpreter, but as primary narration of this intimate photograph.
From his jacket pocket, my father pulls out his hearing aid still marked with red dormitory tape from his years at the residential state school for the Deaf; the opaque embossed letters have slowly curled back on themselves. He adjusts the petrified, squealing earmold then smiles at me.
Her hands are strapped to the hospital bed. More violent than the search for willing veins to take the sedatives, is the silencing. I cover my mouth to keep from gagging. In the darkness, I watch the television screen as it shows the tour of my mother’s internal body: my face looking back at me against the glass.
The doctor freezes the image and points out the polyps clinging to the intestinal walls. But I see gestation, birth—I am looking from the inside out:
If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides. When we experience this passage . . . intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (218).
It was my body in her body and I found myself looking for the lost baby from years ago; perhaps it was there, inside of her body, my body.
The intimacy, the motion still in the blurrr of the photograph. I am fascinated with a delightful dread, horror. Her name in captions, my name. Her body, my body. That picture says everything about my body. Everything about sitting between my father and my husband: lines drawn between us in the newly reupholstered seats, steel blue like everything new, between the actors and the audience, close enough to see the eyeliner drawn in for emphasis, between the Deaf actors on the stage and the hearing interpreters peering over them on the balcony.
I am transfixed. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Florescent lights saturate the room. I lean forward; take a breath; faint.
center of vision
Sometime within the last six months, my father’s left eye has had an aneurysm. This led to a detached retina and a burst blood vessel. The blood has been slowly moving towards the center of vision. During the day, my father sees shadows. And my mother has been hearing things. Last week she was startled by a high pitched noise; moments later the light in the kitchen flashed indicating that the phone was ringing. Lines are bleeding. The darkness is terrifying for my father in the same way that sound has become disorienting for my mother. And lately I’ve been on the verge of vertigo. It seems as if it were the moving forwards and looking backwards at the same time that’s been disorienting me.
I go with my father to see a retinal specialist. Once in the examining room, I am in the dark again. I am signing in the dark, but my father cannot hold my hand. He is across the room, peering at me with one eye, seeing my signs with the shadow of the pinlight. It must be dark, they explain, his eye needs time to dilate, to open so we can see inside. He will be injected with a kind of serum so that the shadow can be seen.
While we wait for the dizzy eye to dilate, I describe my vertigo to my father. He notes with interest and nods, yes, mother took me to doctors in Washington D.C. He looks at me. Your age. Even the emergency room. Nothing wrong. Gone—he signs with a shrug. Maybe gone—he points at me—soon.
The doctor returns and looks into my father’s eye. The serum has worked, and the image is transparent.
I see his eye, enlarged, disembodied, projected on the screen behind him. It is beautiful and dark, a moonscape clouded over by an eclipse. Everything is transparent, and I think of the axolotls.
C.L. Cardinale has a PhD in English Literature from University of California, Riverside. Currently she is editing her manuscript on what she calls “look-listening”—deafened gestures—in twentieth century narratives. She also publicly reads Proust, edits for Lettered Press, and sings with her one and six year old in California’s east bay.