This past August 2016, professional “pick-up artist” Dan Bacon caused a stir with his article “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones.” The article was published on TheModernMan, a site pledging to “make [a woman] want to have sex with you ASAP.” Bacon offers step-by-step “instructions” for pick-up artists to overcome the obstacle of being rendered inaudible by the music a woman might be listening to:
She will most likely take off her headphones to talk to you when you say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’, but if she doesn’t, just smile, point to her headphones and confidently ask, ‘Can you take off your headphones for a minute?’ as you pretend to be taking headphones off your head, so she fully understands what you mean.
His article was criticized in articles that appeared in The Guardian, Washington Post, Slate, and other news sites, which pointed out that Bacon and his followers advocated ignoring a clear visual signifier of privacy in pursuit of sex. Not only did Bacon feel entitled to a woman’s time, they suggested, but also to an audience. What Bacon insists is “two, [sic] normal human beings having a conversation” is in fact a belief in his unilateral right to be heard.
I witness a similar gendered dynamic of forced listening each week outside of a women’s health clinic in New York, where I volunteer as a clinic escort. Evangelical protesters from a handful of churches line the sidewalks outside the clinic every Saturday morning during the hours that they know abortions have been scheduled (in addition to pap smears, screenings for sexually transmitted infection, prenatal care, transgender services, etc.). Escorts walk with patients down the block to the front door. The sidewalk becomes a space of physical and emotional risk as protesters block the pathway with large, gruesome signs and their flailing limbs (at times physically assaulting volunteers and patients), as well as filming and photographing patients in the hopes of inducing shame.
Among their most intrusive weapons is the scream, which male protestors direct at patients, nurses, doctors, volunteers, security guards, and passersby. While women are abortion protestors, too, they generally get relegated to note-taking, sign holding, and pamphlet distribution, almost never given the authority to “sidewalk preach” or scream. In my experience of listening to this masculine screaming, words lose all sense and become pure sensation. Some patients wince, most speed up their pace, a few burst into nervous laughter, and almost all are stunned into speechlessness as they experience what one volunteer calls “the ripping apart of silence.”
During otherwise quiet moments, when nobody is walking down the sidewalk, a handful of men including a pastor and a high school science teacher pace the strip of sidewalk directly in front of the clinic entrance, preaching about sexual immorality and the “black genocide” taking place behind its soundproof walls. When a woman turns the corner down the sidewalk, they immediately begin to raise their voices. The men shout loudly as they attempt to chase women away from the door: “You don’t have to do this”; “Don’t be a murderer”; “You should have kept your legs closed.” The women and children accompanying these men plead in tones of pure desperation: “Your baby has a heartbeat at three weeks”; “You will regret it”; “Let us help you.” Volunteers chatter to the patients, trying to babble over the cacophony; the clinic has been forbidden from broadcasting amplified sound, though Janis Joplin and other artists used to play from speakers at the entrance.
A sample of anti-abortion protestors’ sonic technique, by Youtube user ehipassiko
At other clinics in the United States, protesters use amplified sound in violation of city sound permit requirements. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Catholic Church purchased the land across the street from the reproductive services clinic. Every weekday morning protesters gather there to sing, pray, and yell at cars and the patients getting out of them. Sitting in the midst of signs declaring “ALL LIVES MATTER” and “TULSA’S AUSCHWITZ,” a boombox faces the front door of the clinic and blasts Christian rock music. A clinic escort in Tulsa, who is also a Unitarian priest, described her experience with amplified sound in a sermon titled “A Womb of One’s Own”:
I stood near the driveway entrance where the protestors had placed a CD player blaring Christian music (which I happened to know) and so I stood near it and sang softly while they continued to shout. After about 20 minutes of shouting from afar, while I stood singing to the music, one of the protesters came near the CD player and began to pray for me—loudly. I stood quietly as he yelled a prayer for my misdirection, for my false prophethood, for my broken soul.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, volunteers track decibel levels on their phones in the hopes of getting the local police to issue a citation.
Cities4Life breaking the sound permit laws. CMPD won’t write a ticket. pic.twitter.com/40wLCnkx6V
— QC Clinic Escorts (@QCClinicEscorts) October 22, 2016
If, as Jonathan Sterne states in The Audible Past, “listening is a directed, learned activity” (19), then women and gender-nonconforming people must learn the art of hearing but actively not listening, of learning to direct one’s attention elsewhere to ignore catcalls and shouts of abuse. Christine Ehrick points out that vocal sound is not only a signifier of gender, it’s also a signifier of power. To ignore a male voice yelling over one’s own, or over one’s headphones, requires a stamina that contradicts the expectation of female receptivity and submission; Bacon asserts that “most women are polite” and will take off their headphones when asked. Even as patients overcome their shock and put up a wall against the shouting, protesters and volunteers must perfect the act of directed listening, focusing on the commentary to take note of periodic death threats, bomb threats, and any other unusual comments in spite of the repetition of the preaching and aural abuse. They must also speak and listen guardedly to each other, as protesters eavesdrop on conversations between volunteers, hoping to discover their identities so as to shame and harass them in the public and professional sphere.
Anti-abortion protesters push their agenda through their conflation of the public and private, the internal and external, the oral and aural. They continue to yell even once the patients have made their way into the clinic, despite the fact that the waiting room is soundproof—silent except for the occasional murmured conversation, soft piano music, or cartoons. In his essay “Broadcasting the body: the ‘private’ made ‘public’ in hospital soundscapes” in Georgina Born’s 2013 collection Music, Sound and Space, Tom Rice discusses the blurring of the internal and external in hospital environments, where patients must put on “mental headphones” as a form of “studied unawareness” (174). Despite the private, internal nature of illness, in hospitals there exist “threats to bodily boundaries and bodily control” (184). The right-to-life movement has capitalized on this blurring of boundaries since its 1984 film The Silent Scream. If their posters of mangled fetuses bring the unseen into the realm of the visible, their shouting brings the unheard into the realm of the audible as they give voice to these silent fetuses: “Mommy, mommy, don’t kill me!”
When anti-abortion protesters gather in public spaces such as sidewalks, they affirm Judith Butler’s claim in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly that “if there is a body in the public sphere, it is presumptively masculine and unsupported, presumptively free to create, but not itself created. And the body in the private sphere is female, ageing, foreign, or childish, and always prepolitical” (75). The loudest protesters use their male bodies and male voices to assert their right to create sound and to be listened to by female ears. The masculine voices emanating from these presumptively male bodies stridently invade, interrupt, and attempt to shape private and prepolitical spaces, extending even to the uterus—what one would think would be the most private and prepolitical of spaces. At its most troubling, the loud, relentless insistence by the right to an audience translates to the desired ownership of non-male bodies. This desire for control–and its performative rhetoric enacted in the public sphere–originates in the absence of female bodies and voices, in the exclusively male private sphere of “locker room talk.”
This was locker room talk. This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it . . . This was locker roomtalk. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it, and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk. –Donald Trump in the third presidential debate, 19 October 2016
The stridency of the 2016 election cycle has revealed the gendered nature of public space and sonically blurred the boundaries between the theoretically public space of streets and the metaphoric masculine privacy of the metaphorical “locker room.”
“Locker room talk” has been the term used by right-wing pundits–and the candidate himself– to excuse the recently re-played 2005 recording of US presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging to radio and TV host Billy Bush about various sexual conquests: “I moved on her like a bitch”; “Grab them by the pussy”; “You can do anything.” Trump’s statement following the release of the tape in October 2016 emphasized a patriarchal delineation of space, in which male bodies are always safe and non-male bodies almost never are: “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.”
Trump’s insistence on a private space, in which men can talk amongst themselves with no consequences, reverses the dynamic outside of the hospital, in which the private is made public. It also further demonstrates the blurrability—and even portability—of private space, which white males arm themselves with and freely replicate in public spaces. Not only does such private “banter” affirm the assumption of the superiority of the male voice and the stigmatization of the female voice, it silences the voices of the women affected by Trump’s actions, while objectifying women-writ-large into currency exchanged between men. And indeed, women’s prior allegations were all but ignored by the press and the public until the release of Bush tapes.
We had to hear it from Trump’s own mouth to believe it.
In Modernity’s Ear, Roshanak Kheshti discusses the “feminization of listening” via sound reproduction and particularly the world music industry, which mythologizes the sound of the “other” in service of white female ears (27). Constructed in terms of a male heteronormative fantasy, the ear has come to resemble a vagina, “an organ to be penetrated by an active sonic force” (67). In this construction not even headphones–which ideally afford a visual signal calling for privacy and the gendered privilege of uninterrupted listening–are enough to shield non-male ears from the average scheming pick-up artist.
Kheshti’s arguments can be fittingly applied to gender-specific spaces of both the locker room and the abortion clinic. Male-asserted power dynamics of speaking and listening work to create spaces spaces that silence female needs, voices, and agency. In the public space outside the clinic, such practices deem women an ear for hearing patriarchal arguments against abortion, and in the private space of the locker room, objectify them as a vagina for “grabbing.”
The spatializing of power dynamics via sound has forced women to become versed in aural refusal, to keep our ears closed the same way we are encouraged to “keep our legs closed.” This aural refusal, however, all too often renders women silent in public, patriarchal spaces. Feminist initiatives like “Shout Your Abortion” and “Hollaback,” a movement to end street harassment, have given women voice within these structures of gendered sonic violence. The initial criticism faced by Hollaback, regarding racism in their viral video, alongside the targeting of non-white women and couples outside the clinic, suggests that the intersectional dimension of listening in public needs further examination in hopes of reaching an understanding of what equitable public space would sound like. Ultimately, however, with these and other movements, women are asserting not only our right to harassment-free public and private space, but our right to create sound, to speak, and to be heard.
Rebecca Lentjes is an NYC-based writer and gender equality activist with plans to pursue graduate studies in ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, TEMPO Quarterly Review of New Music, Bachtrack, and I Care If You Listen. By day she works as an editor and translator at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.
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Gendered Voices and Social Harmony–Robin James
With the premier last month of Lemonade, her second visual album, Beyoncé didn’t make the world stop so much as she make it revolve: around her, around her work, around black women. For all of the limitations of pop music as a medium (it’s inherently capitalist, for one) and Lemonade’s various feminist strategies (“Formation,” with its “Black Bill Gates” language, can be heard as a black parallel public to white corporate feminism), the album nevertheless re-centered mainstream media attention on black women’s cultural and creative work.
As the conversation about Lemonade revolved around black women and black feminism, two white men pop critics writing for major publications responded with “So What About The Music?” articles. The description to Carl Wilson’s Slate piece asks “But how is it as strictly music?,” and Kevin Fallon’s Daily Beast piece asks both “But is the music any good?” in the title and “But is the music worth listening to?” in the dec. Each time, the “but” sounds like the antecedent to its implied mansplainy consequent “actually…” And just as “but actually” recenters men as authorities and experts, these three questions decenter features prioritized in black women’s pop performance traditions, and in Lemonade itself. As posed in these two articles, the “so what about the music?” question frames “music” so narrowly that it both obscures or at best trivializes what the album does musically. Wilson and Fallon’s essays are good examples of how not to listen to Lemonade.
I want to read Wilson and Fallon carefully so we can think about when this question makes for both technically correct and ethically/politically responsible theory and criticism, and when it makes for technically incorrect and ethically/politically irresponsible theory and criticism. My aim here isn’t to argue that Wilson and Fallon are bad people. My focus is the definition or concept of “music” that’s at the heart of the method they use in these two articles (and methods are bigger than individual writers). In more academic terms, I’m asking about research ethics. If, as Wilson’s and Fallon’s articles prove, the “so what about the music?” question can be a power move that establishes the critic’s or theorist’s authority, how can we–especially the mainstream we–ask about the music parts of pop music without making that power move?
Firstly, both articles apply fairly conventional European fine art aesthetics to the album. Wilson invokes pre-Enlightenment European aesthetics to argue that the “reality show aspect” of the album is somehow aesthetically inconsistent with great pop music. Prior to the 17th century, it was commonly thought that the status of a work’s form or medium ought to correspond to the status of its representational content: painting, the most highly regarded art form, should have subject matter of equal stature–gods and royalty. Wilson’s claim that “the other distraction is the way that the album’s central suite of music interacts with tabloid-style gossip (and a certain elevator video clip) about Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z” echoes that centuries-old sentiment, a sentiment which is about as alien to Lemonade’s aesthetic as, well, Boethius is.
Fallon begins his article with a genuflection to Prince (as does Wilson), scrunches its nose at the gossipy lyrical and narrative content, and then twice scoffs at the very idea of a visual album, “whatever that is,” as though we in the West don’t have precedents for this sort of Gesamtkunstwerky (the total artwork combining music, visuals, and lyrics) thing going back to Wagner and the Florentine Camerata (the collective attributed with inventing opera in the 17th century). He does talk more extensively about the sounds and music than Wilson does, but given the rapid turnaround he also faced, there’s not a lot of close listening to specific musical figures, performances, or compositional techniques, mostly just a survey of the different genres on the album.
Wilson says that the cheating story detracts from the album’s musical quality because it’s an unoriginal narrative:
a drama of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation, one of the most ancient and common of human experiences, and of songwriting fodder…that issue of thematic freshness may render some of the songs here less distinctive and invigorating than Beyoncé was.
I find this an odd criticism to level at a pop album, or even an artwork. Nobody would say that West Side Story or Romeo & Juliet were aesthetically diminished because they recycled that tired old theme of jealousy, betrayal, and (failed) reconciliation. Moreover, as Angela Davis argued in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, these themes of jealousy, betrayal, and reconciliation are the foundation of black feminist pop music aesthetics in a personal-is-political kind of way. Both articles force a contextually incorrect definition of “politics” onto the album, one which sees the most intimate details of relationships, sex, and kinship as merely personal and apolitical. Fallon, for example, says “there’s no doubt that the music on the album is far more personal than it is political.” Both critics fail to consider it in terms established in black women’s pop performance traditions.
Even in Wilson’s attempt to focus strictly on the music, he spends most of the time talking about visuals and lyrics. He hears a wide range of sonic references in Lemonade, from Dolly Parton to Donna Summer to the Lomax recordings to calypso. But he thinks this makes it sound derivative: “as an aural album, Lemonade is a little less fascinatingly singular and eccentric than Beyoncé” (Wilson). Fallon makes an almost identical remark in his article: “Lemonade doesn’t hurl itself toward any genre in a statement of artistry. Instead it masters… um, all of them, but in turn doesn’t make the same powerful statement of Beyoncé’s artistic mission, like her last album did.” Contrast this with the way Jonathan Shecter talks about Diplo’s post-genre eclecticism as “fresh and cutting-edge,” part of an “ongoing artistic evolution.” As philosopher Christine Battersby has argued, the habit of thinking that flexibility is a sign of innovation when attributed to white men, but a sign of regression when attributed to anyone else, is a habit that goes back to the 19th century. It’s not surprising that Beyoncé gets dinged for the same thing that garners Diplo praise: in her case, what Fallon calls “the most daringly genre-hopping music she’s ever produced” is evidence of unoriginality, whereas in Diplo’s case post-genre eclecticism is evidence of his ability to distinctively transcend provincialism. Even when Wilson’s article does manage to talk about sounds and music, it trivializes Beyoncé’s other artistic achievements on the album.
Both articles rely on some gendered and racialized interpretive habits to address the song’s aesthetic value, lyrical content, and Beyoncé’s artistry. But what about their discussion of the music?
These same racialized, gendered habits tune Wilson and Fallon’s listening and mask the sonic dimensions of Lemonade that don’t fit their narrow concept of music. Both critics make a conceptual move that separates musical practice from black feminist practice. Fallon uses some parentheses and a “but…?” question to put rhetorical and grammatical space between Lemonade’s black femininity and its musical and sonic features: “(By the way, it’s powerful, and feminist, and unapologetically black, and transfixing, and gorgeous, and assured, and weird, and confusing, and dumb, and groundbreaking.) But hey: Is the music any good?” This framing defines “the music” as something distinct and independent of the album’s black femininity, as though black women’s and black feminist musical traditions didn’t infuse the album’s music…or, to the extent they do, they don’t count as “music.”
Wilson makes an identical move. Following the white liberal feminist aesthetics that influence lots of contemporary post-feminist pop, Wilson’s piece locates treats the black feminist message primarily in the video. “In video form…it’s more evident that [Lemonade] is equally the cyclical story of generations of black women dealing with men and balancing their struggle for R-E-S-P-E-C-T (as well as S-E-X) against the violations and injustices of race and gender.” He sees the politics in the visuals, but doesn’t consider the sounds as having anything to say or do about that story and that struggle.
This approach isn’t limited to well-meaning but ignorant white men pop critics: even bell hooks’ now (in)famous essay on Lemonade looks at but doesn’t listen for its politics. She argues that it is a “visual extravaganza” whose “radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” Locating the politics entirely in Lemonade’s visuals, hooks’s essay treats black feminism as something contested solely in terms of images. (And divorcing the images from the sounds fails to consider the fact that the sounds impact how viewers interpret what they see.)
This is the wrong method to use for thinking about Lemonade and Beyoncé’s work as a whole (and pop music in general). Sounds on this album don’t operate independently of black femininity, black women’s performance traditions, or individual artists’ black feminist politics. On the one hand, thinking with Daphne Brooks and Regina Bradley, it’s more accurate to say that Beyoncé’s sound game has generally led the way and been more politically cutting-edge than her visual game. On the other hand, sound can also be what does the heavy lifting for patriarchy and other systems of domination, as I argue here. Separating the music itself out from the political content misrepresents what music is and how it works. And it is a particularly gendered misrepresentation: critics are not so eager to separate Kendrick’s sounds from his politics. In both white and black philosophical traditions, dominant concepts of politics and the political are normatively masculine (just think about the gendered public/private distinction, for example), so from these perspectives feminine and feminized sounds don’t feel or seem “political.”
But in these two cases the divorce between music and politics is also what lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music. If they can distill Lemonade down to its “solely musical” aspects, then they can plausibly present themselves as experts over generic, depoliticized sound, sounds disconnected from knowledges and values tied to particular lived experiences and performance traditions. Problem is, in the same way that there is no generic ‘person’ without a race or a gender, there is no generic, depoliticized sound. As Jennifer Stoever has argued, even though Western modernity’s occularcentric epistemology obscures the sonic dimensions of white supremacist patriarchy and the subaltern knowledges developed under it, sounds nevertheless work politically. Digging deep into the music on Lemonade or any other pop song does not involve abstracting the music away from every other aspect of the work and its conditions of production. Digging deep into the music part of pop music means digging deeper into these factors, too.
When Regina Bradley, Dream Hampton, Laur M. Jackson, Zandria Robinson, and Joan Morgan talk about how Lemonade makes them feel, what affects and knowledges and emotions it communicates, they are talking about the music–they just work in a tradition that understands music as something other than ‘the music itself’ (that is, they don’t think music is abstracted away from visual and cultural elements, from structures of feeling common to black women with shared histories and phenomenological life-worlds). As I have tried to show in my own work, the sounds and musical performance are central to Beyoncé and Rihanna’s work because they engage traditions of black women’s and black feminist knowledges. Aesthetic practices develop and emerge as types of implicit (i.e., non-propositional or non-verbal) knowledge, knowledge created in response to lived experiences in a particular social location. Aesthetic practices can communicate and perform knowledges that reinforce systems of domination, and they can also communicate and perform subordinate knowledges that map out strategies for survival amid domination. Dominant institutions (like the music industry) and people from dominant groups (like Iggy Azalea or Eric Clapton) separate the aesthetic practice from the implicit knowledges that make it meaningful, and thus neutralize those knowledges and make the aesthetic practice fungible and co-optable. Talking about “the music itself” or “solely music” does the same thing: it is a form of what philosophers call epistemic violence.
So, asking “but what about the music?” is a way to dig into those implicit knowledges to show where much of this epistemic work is happening. And that’s good analysis that isn’t (necessarily) epistemically violent. It demonstrates what Stoever calls “an ethical responsibility to hear African American cultural production with…assumptions about value, agency and meaning” (31) that are appropriate to them. But you can also ask “but what about the music?” in a way that abstracts away from these implicit knowledges. That’s what Wilson’s and Fallon’s pieces do, and that’s why they’re both epistemically violent and objectively poor methods of musical interpretation. But we can and do better when we write about and theorize the music part of pop music. And, to riff on Mariana Ortega’s argument in her article on the type of epistemic violence she calls “loving, knowing ignorance,” doing better means listening to and with black women, black women’s music, and black feminist aesthetics. You can’t divorce music or listening from politics; listening better can and will follow from practicing more just politics.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
I Been On: BaddieBey and Beyoncé’s Sonic Masculinity-Regina Bradley
Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James
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Join Gretchen Jude as she performs a soundwalk of the Yoshiwara district in Tokyo. Throughout this soundwalk, Jude offers her thoughts on the history, materiality, and culture of the Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s red-light district. An itinerary is provided below for the curious, as well as a translation of the Ume wa saiti ka, intended to help orient listeners to the history of the Yoshiwara. What stories do the sounds of this district help to tell and can they help us to navigate its sordid history?
From the outer regions of the capital’s northwestern surburban sprawl to Ikebukuro Station (Tobu Tojo Line), transferring from Ikebukuro to Iidabashi (Yurakucho Line), from Iidabashi to Ueno-okachimachi (Oedo Line), from Naka-okachimachi to Minowa (Hibiya Line), then by foot from Minowa to Asakusa:
Due east, past Tōsen Elementary School
South on a nameless narrow lane parallel to Edomachi Street, with a short stop at Yoshiwara Park
Turning from Edomachi Street west onto Nakanomachi Street
Curving around to the south, just past the Kuritsu-taito Hospital and Senzoku Nursery School, with a long stop at Benzaiten Yoshiwara Shrine
Due south toward the throngs of tourists at the Sensō-ji Temple grounds, then across the Sumida River to my hauta teacher’s studio in a quiet residential neighborhood south of the Tokyo Sky Tree
Gretchen Jude is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California Davis and a performing artist/composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her doctoral research explores the intersections of voice and electronics in transcultural performance contexts, delving into such topics as presence and embodiment in computer music, language and cultural difference in vocal genres, and collaborative electroacoustic improvisation. Interaction with her immediate environment forms the core of Gretchen’s musical practice. Gretchen has been studying Japanese music since 2001 and holds multiple certifications in koto performance from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo, as well as an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in Oakland, California. In the spring of 2015, a generous grant from the Pacific Rim Research Program supported Gretchen’s intensive study of hauta and jiuta singing styles in Tokyo. This podcast (as well as a chapter of her dissertation) are direct results of that support. Infinite thanks also to the gracious and generous assistance of Shibahime-sensei, Mako-chan and my many other friends and teachers in Japan.
All images used with permission by the author.
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Guest Editors’ Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s December forum entitled “Sound, Improvisation and New Media Art.” This series explores the nature of improvisation and its relationship to appropriative play cultures within new media art and contemporary sound practice. Here, we engage directly with practitioners, who either deploy or facilitate play and improvisation through their work in sonic new media cultures.
For our second piece in the series, we have interviewed New York City based performance duo foci + loci (Chris Burke and Tamara Yadao). Treating the map editors in video games as virtual sound stages, foci + loci design immersive electroacoustic spaces that can be “played” as instruments. Chris and Tamara bring an interdisciplinary lens to their work, having worked in various sonic and game-related cultures including, popular, electroacoustic and new music, chiptune, machinima (filmmaking using video game engines), and more.
As curators, we have worked with foci + loci several times over the past few years, and have been fascinated with their treatment of popular video game environments as tools for visual and sonic exploration. Their work is highly referential, drawing on artistic legacies of the Futurists, the Surrealists, and the Situationists, among others. In this interview, we discuss the nature of their practice(s), and it’s relationship to play, improvisation and the co-constituative nature of their work in relation to capital and proprietary technologies.
— Guest Editors Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger
1. Can you take a moment to describe your practice to our readers? What kind of work do you produce, what kind of technologies are involved, and what is your creative process?
foci + loci mostly produce sonic and visual video game environments that are played in live performance. We have been using Little Big Planet (LBP) on the Playstation 3 for about 6 years.
When we perform, we normally have two PS3s running the game with a different map in each. We have experimented with other platforms such as Minecraft and we sometimes incorporate spoken word, guitars, effects pedals, multiple game controllers (more than 1 each) and Game Boys.
Our creative process proceeds from discussions about the ontological differences between digital space and cinematic space, as well as the freeform or experimental creation of music and sound art that uses game spaces as its medium. When we are in “Create Mode” in LBP, these concepts guide our construction of virtual machines, instruments and performance systems.
[Editor’s Note: Little Big Planet’s has several game modes. Create Mode is the space within the game where users can create their own LBP levels and environments. As player’s progress through LBP’s Story Mode, players unlock and increasing number of game assets, which can be used in Create Mode.]
2. Tell us about your background in music? Can you situate your current work in relation to the musical traditions and communities that you were previously a part of?
CB: I have composed for film, TV, video games and several albums (sample based, collage and electronic). Since 2001 I’ve been active in the chipmusic scene, under the name glomag. Around the same time I discovered machinima and you could say that my part in foci + loci is the marriage of these two interests – music and visual. Chipmusic tends to be high energy and the draw centers around exciting live performances. It’s immensely fun and rewarding but I felt a need to step back and make work that drew from more cerebral pursuits. foci + loci is more about these persuits for me: both my love of media theory and working with space and time.
TY: I’m an interdisciplinary artist and composer. I studied classical piano and percussion during my childhood years. I went on to study photography, film, video, sound, digital media and guitar in college and after. I’ve primarily been involved with the electroacoustic improv and chipmusic scenes, both in NYC. I’ve been improvising since 2005, and I’ve been writing chipmusic since 2011 under the moniker Corset Lore.
My work in foci + loci evolved out of the performance experience I garnered in the electroacoustic improv scene. My PS3 replaced my laptop. LBP replaced Ableton Live and VDMX. I think I felt LBP had more potential as a sonic medium because an interface could be created from scratch. Eventually, the game’s plasticity and setting helped to underscore its audiovisual aspect by revealing different relationships between sound and image.
3. Would you describe your work as a musical practice or an audio-visual performance practice?
FL: We have always felt that in game space, it is more interesting to show the mechanism that makes the sound as well as the image. These aspects are programmed, of course, but we try to avoid things happening “magically,” and instead like to give our process some transparency. So, while it is often musical, sound and image are inextricably linked. And, in certain cases, the use of a musical score (including game controller mappings) has been important to how our performance unfolds either through improvisation or timed audiovisual events. The environment is the musical instrument, so using the game controller is like playing a piano and wielding a construction tool at the same time. It has also been important in some contexts to perform in ‘Create Mode’ in order to simply give the audience visual access to LBP‘s programming backend. In this way, causal relationships between play and sound may be more firmly demonstrated.
4. There are many communities of practice that have adopted obsolete or contemporary technologies to create new, appropriative works and forms. Often, these communities recontextualize our/their relationships to technologies they employ. To what extent do you see you work in relation to communities of appropriation-based creative expression?
CB: In the 80s-90s I was an active “culture jammer,” making politically motivated sound montage works for radio and performance and even dabbling in billboard alterations. Our corporate targets were selling chemical weapons and funding foreign wars while our media targets were apologists for state-sanctioned murder. Appropriating their communications (sound bites, video clips, broadcasting, billboards) was an effort to use their own tools against them. In the case of video game publishers and console manufacturers, there is much to criticize: sexist tropes in game narratives, skewed geo-political subtexts, anti-competitive policies, and more. Despite these troubling themes, the publishers (usually encouraged by the game developers) have occasionally supported the “pro-sumer” by opening up their game environments to modding and other creative uses. This is a very positive shift from, say, the position of the RIAA or the MPAA, where derivative works are much more frequently shut down. My previous game-related series, This Spartan Life, was more suited to tackling these issues. As for foci + loci, it’s hard to position work that uses extensively developed in-game tools as being “appropriative,” but I do think using a game engine to explore situationist ideas or the ontology of game space, as we do in our work, is a somewhat radical stance on art. We hope that it encourages more players to creatively express their ideas in similar ways.
TY: Currently, the ‘us vs. them’ attitude that characterized the 80s and 90s is no longer as relevant as it once was because corporations are now giving artists technology for their own creative use. However, they undermine this sense of benevolence by claiming that consumers could be the next Picasso if they buy said piece of technology in their marketing—as if the tool is more important than the artist/artwork. Little Big Planet is marketed this way. On the whole, I think these issues complicate artists’ relationships with their media.
Often our work tends to be included in hacker community events, most recently the ‘Music Games Hackathon’ at Spotify (NYC), because, while we don’t necessarily hack the hardware or software, our approach is a conceptual hack or subversion. At this event, there were a variety of conceptual connections made between music, hacks and games; Double Dutch, John Zorn’s Game Pieces, Fluxus, Xenakis and Stockhausen were all compared to one another. I gave a talk at the Hackers on Planet Earth Conference in 2011 about John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Richard Stallman and the free software movement. In Stallman’s essay ‘On Hacking,’ he cited John Cage’s ‘4’33″‘ as an early example of a music hack. In my discussion, I pointed to Marcel Duchamp, a big influence on Cage, whose readymades were essentially hacked objects through their appropriation and re-contextualization. I think this conceptual approach informs foci + loci’s current work.
[Editors’ note: Recently celebrating its 10th anniversary, This Spartan Life is a machinima talk show that takes place within the multiplayer game space of the First Person Shooter game Halo. This Spartan Life was created by Chris Burke in 2005. The show has featured luminaries including Malcolm McClaren, Peggy Awesh, and many more.]
5. You mention the ontological differences between game spaces and cinematic spaces. Can you clarify what you mean by this? Why is this such as important distinction and how does it drive the work?
CB: We feel that there is a fundamental difference in the way space is represented in cinema through montage and the way it’s simulated in a video game engine. To use Eisenstein’s terms, film shots are “cells” which collide to synthesize an image in the viewers mind. Montage builds the filmic space shot by shot. Video game space, being a simulation, is coded mathematically and so has a certain facticity. We like the way the mechanized navigation of this continuous space can create a real time composition. It’s what we call a “knowable” space.
6. Your practice is sound-based but relies heavily on the visual interface that you program in the gamespace. How do you view this relationship between the sonic and the visual in your work?
TY: LBP has more potential as a creative medium because it is audiovisual. The sound and image are inextricably linked in some cases, where one responds to the other. These aspects of interface function like the system of instruments we (or the game console) are driving. Since a camera movement can shape a sound within the space, the performance of an instrument can be codified to yield a certain effect. This goes back to our interest in the ontology of game space.
7. Sony (and other game developers) have been criticized for commodifying play as work – players produce and upload levels for free, and this free labour populates the Little Big Planet ecology. How would you position the way you use LBP in this power dynamic between player and IP owner?
CB: We are certainly more on the side of the makers than the publishers, but personally I think the “precarious labor” argument is a stretch with regard to LBP. Are jobs being replaced (International Labor Rights definition of precarious work)? Has a single modder or machinima maker suggested they should be compensated by the game developer or publisher for their work? Compensation actually does happen occasionally. This Spartan Life was, for a short time, employed by Microsoft to make episodes of the show for the developer’s Halo Waypoint portal. I have known a number of creators from the machinima community who were hired by Bioware, Blizzard, Bungie, 343 Industries and other developers. Then there’s the famous example of Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, who were hired by Valve to finish their Half-Life mod, Counterstrike. However, compensating every modder and level maker would clearly not be a supportable model for developers or publishers.
Having said all that, I think our work does not exactly fit into Sony’s idea of what LBP users should be creating. We are resisting, in a sense, by providing a more art historical example of what gamers can do with this engine beyond making endless game remakes, side-scrollers and other overrepresented forms. We want players to open our levels and say “WTF is this? How do I play it?” Then we want them to go into create mode and author LBP levels that contain more of their own unique perspectives and less of the game.
[Corset Lore is Tamara Yadao’s chiptune project.]
8. What does it mean to improvise with new interfaces? Has anything ever gone horribly wrong during a moment of improvisation? Is there a tension between improvisation and culture jamming, or do the two fit naturally together?
CB: It’s clear that improvising with new interfaces is freer and sometimes this means our works in progress lack context and have to be honed to speak more clearly. This freedom encourages a spontaneous reaction to the systems we build that often provokes the exploitation of weaknesses and failure. Working within a paradigm of exploitation seems appropriate to us, considering our chosen medium. In play, there is always the possibility of failure, or in a sense, losing to the console. When we design interfaces within console and game parameters we build in fail-safes while also embracing mechanisms that encourage failure during our performance/play.
In an elemental way, culture jamming is a more targeted approach, whereas improvisation seems to operate with a looser agenda. Improvisation is already a critical approach to the structures of game narrative. Improvising with a video game opens up the definition of what a game space is, or can be.
All images used with permission by foci + loci.
foci + loci are Chris Burke and Tamara Yadao.
Chris Burke came to his interest in game art via his work as a composer, sound designer and filmmaker. As a sound designer and composer he has worked with, among others, William Pope L., Jeremy Blake, Don Was, Tom Morello and Björk. In 2005 he created This Spartan Life which transformed the video game Halo into a talk show. Within the virtual space of the game, he has interviewed McKenzie Wark, Katie Salen, Malcolm McLaren, the rock band OK Go and others. This and other work in game art began his interest in the unique treatment of space and time in video games. In 2012, he contributed the essay “Beyond Bullet Time” to the “Understanding Machinima” compendium (2013, Continuum).
Tamara Yadao is an interdisciplinary artist and composer who works with gaming technology, movement, sound, and video. In Fall 2009, at Diapason Gallery, she presented a lecture on “the glitch” called “Post-Digital Music: The Expansion of Artifacts in Microsound and the Aesthetics of Failure in Improvisation.” Current explorations include electro-acoustic composition in virtual space, 8-bit sound in antiquated game technologies (under the moniker Corset Lore), movement and radio transmission as a live performance tool and the spoken word. Her work has been performed and exhibited in Europe and North America, and in 2014, Tamara was the recipient of a commissioning grant by the Jerome Fund for New Music through the American Composers Forum.
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