Media @ McGill

Sound, Vision, Action - speaker bios and abstracts

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Karin Bijsterveld

“Hearing and Seeing Voices: Speaker Identification at the Stasi”

Abstract: “The Lives of Others,” a film released in 2006, has informed a wide audience on the practices of eavesdropping on telephone calls and private conversations in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). By the end of the 1980s, GDR’s Ministry of State Security (Stasi) had developed such a fine-grained infrastructure that it was able to execute 20,000 wiretapping and eavesdropping actions in East-Berlin at one and the same time. This frantic activity required specific techniques such as the use of automatic recording technologies. Moreover, from the 1960s onward, the GDR worked together with the USSR on the issue of how to identify speakers by the characteristics of their recorded voice, as Stasi employees did not always know whom they were listening to. This resulted in a voice data bank. Yet how exactly did Stasi staff members make sense of taped voices? Which aspects of voice, noise and language did they consider relevant for their diagnostic purposes? And how did their “sonic skills” become “legitimate” ways of knowing in this context? I will not only answer these questions by referring to the Stasi archives and the Cold War, but also by showing how the Stasi built its concepts of auditory knowledge, such as voiceprints and hearing collectives, on visual ones like fingerprints and eyewitnesses. Despite its local legitimacy, however, the Stasi’s speaker identification program ran into many problems, one of which concerned the retrieval of information. This gives food for thought on modern-day forms of eavesdropping.

Bio: Karin Bijsterveldis an historian and professor in the Department of Technology and Society Studies, Maastricht University. She is author of Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 2008), and co-editor (with José van Dijck) of Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices (Amsterdam University Press, 2009). With Trevor Pinch, she has co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (Oxford University Press, 2012). She coordinated several funded projects at the crossroads of STS and Sound Studies, and has been awarded a NWO-VICI grant for the project “Sonic Skills: Sound and Listening in Science, Technology and Medicine.” She has edited Soundscapes of the Urban Past: Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage (Transcript Verlag, 2013), and is co-author (with Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs and Gijs Mom) of Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel (Oxford University Press, 2014).


Natalie Bookchin

“Long Story Short”

Abstract: I will be discussing and screening parts of my project, “Long Story Short,” a film, an installation, and an interactive website. The project is drawn from and linked to an archive of 75 video diaries made by very low-income residents of Northern and Southern California, who describe, reflect on, and analyze poverty’s effects on their lives, families, and communities. Instead of a single narrator, there are dozens, with voices layered, and narrators at times appearing to speak in unison, suggesting the scale and multiplicity of poverty, and imagining collectives and social bodies that may not yet exist, or are difficult to see in single video diaries alone. Video diaries were made using webcams and laptops, some of the same technologies – high tech and digital – that ushered in hardships for low-skilled workers and their families in the first place. Here these tools amplify their voices. The installation draws inspiration from one of the more promising aspects of network culture and social media – the shift away from a focus on single voices to that of many, and the expansion of who gets to speak in public and of what we consider to be expert knowledge. Yet participation depends on access, and visibility depends on public and popular affirmation (likes, clicks, shares, remixes). “Long Story Short” represents those mostly misrepresented or invisible on our screens. It reimagines a more social media and explores how depictions of poverty and inequality might benefit from, as well as reflect on, current modes of digital and image mobility, dissemination, and display.

Bio: Natalie Bookchin’s work addresses the social, political, and aesthetic ramifications of mass connectivity and effects of the digitalization of everything on our identities, our desires, and the truths we tell about ourselves and the world. Her work “misuses” technology, commercial platforms and media, using the Internet as a site for art interventions, appropriating security-camera footage found by means of an unexpected glitch in search engines to document global landscapes, and producing collective narratives from isolated individual expression circulating on YouTube. Bookchin’s work has been written about, screened, and exhibited widely, including at LACMA, PS1, Mass MOCA, the Walker Art Center, the Pompidou Centre, MOCA Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum, the Tate, and Creative Time. She has received numerous grants and awards, including from Creative Capital, the California Arts Council, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and most recently, the MacArthur Foundation. Bookchin has been on the faculty of the Art School at CalArts since 1998, and is currently Professor of Media Art in the Visual Arts Department at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University.


Georgina Born

“Power and the Circulation of Digital Musics”

Abstract: How can we better theorize the workings of power in the circulation of digital musics? In this presentation, I bring this question to recent research on music’s transformation by digitization and digital media in several countries of the developing and developed worlds. I do this with reference to studies of, inter alia: the upsurge in North Indian movements for the digital recording and archiving of vernacular musics, with an ear both to local, national and “world music” markets; the growth of a “born digital” recording industry in Nairobi, Kenya rooted in the patronage of international NGOs aiming to foster both economic development and a Kenyan popular music to salve postcolonial anxieties over Kenyan national identity by providing the “soundtrack of civil society”; and political and legal struggles within the state in Argentina attendant on attempts to “modernize” copyright institutions so as to support an ailing popular music sector both stimulated and undermined by the combined effects of digitization and liberalization. In face of radical shifts in dominant regimes of circulation, I suggest that power has to be conceptualized anew: its operations have to be traced through social processes at distinctive scales as they interfere with and refract one another. We have, in music, to trace power at work in the face-to-face socialities of the music festival, the recording studio, the outdoor market, and in the transforming divisions of musical labour. But we have to also analyze how music becomes a mediator of global and national processes of adjustment to the crises of capital, whether in the idea of “creative economy” as it is translated into development, or in the conflictual attempts to reform copyright institutions as they obstruct or ameliorate new digital-music-financial regimes in relation to older forms of musical capital. To analyze power in these cases means addressing both micro socialities and macro political and economic formations as they are mediated by music, since both are material. However, the aim – as the presentation will show – must be to analyze them not in isolation, as is too often the case, but, critically, in their mutual interference.

Bio: Georgina Bornis Professor of Music and Anthropology at Oxford University. From 2013-15 she is Schulich Distinguished Visiting Chair, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, and in 2014 she is also Bloch Visiting Professor in Music at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier, she was active as a performer and improviser, playing with Henry Cow, the Mike Westbrook Band, Derek Bailey’s Company and the Feminist Improvising Group, among other groups. Professor Born’s work combines ethnographic and theoretical writings on music, media, cultural production and interdisciplinarity. Her books are Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (1995), Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation and Appropriation in Music (edited with D. Hesmondhalgh, 2000), Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (2005), Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience (CUP, 2013), and Interdisciplinarity: Reconfigurations of the Social and Natural Sciences (edited with A. Barry, Routledge, 2013). She currently directs the research program “Music, Digitization, Mediation: Towards Interdisciplinary Music Studies,” funded by the European Research Council, which examines the transformation of music and musical practices by digitization and digital media through comparative ethnographies in six countries in the developing and developed worlds. In 2014, Professor Born was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.


Daphne Brooks

“Engines of Modernity: Black Sonic Women & the Open Road”

Abstract: This paper explores the politics of race, gender, sexuality, region and automobility in popular music culture, and it explores the work of three drastically different black sonic women from the previous century: Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Lou Williams and Etta James. The talk will examine the ways that each of these artists drew on concepts of automotive technologies to craft their respective sound aesthetics as well as a radical politics of black womanhood that perpetually and imaginatively disrupted the constraints of Jim Crow patriarchy.

Hurston emerges as a surprising early figure in histories of black women’s sonic automotivity. My paper reveals the ways Hurston deployed song, sound recordings and live performance as a means to archiving the musicality of “the black folk” on her automotive expeditions. Her own musical recordings showcase the ways that she drew on new technologies to shape a publicsphere black woman’s voice that moves against the grain of conventional racial, gender and class formations.
Alongside Hurston, avant-garde pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams took to the open road as a transient and fiercely independent artist who played through the changes in jazz culture from the swing era on into bebop and orchestral, concert-hall compositions. Williams was a “rolling stone” in 1940s Manhattan on the move, and my work builds on Griffin’s to examine the ways that Williams’ Melody Maker narratives about her time in the car between gigs, riding along interstate back roads with her mother-in-law in tow and heroically assuming the role of the mechanic to keep their journey afloat, informs the technical and compositional complexity of Williams’ swinging style (on songs like “Nightlife” and “Drag ‘Em”) as well as her intrepid bebop experimentalism that manipulates the trope of shifting gears.

The final section of the paper rides into the era of rock and roll with the rebel original riot grrrl Etta James as she came of age running up and down the I-5 in 1950s California. If the romance of early rock and roll is bound up with notions of the fast and furious velocity of emerging teen culture and mythical New Frontier freedom of movement supplied by the sounds of next generation Great Migration black folks riding their own new transitions, James’ Rage to Survive memoir encapsulates all of that turbulence and suggests to us the ways that she translated the volatility of mid-century American social life into euphoric sound.

Bio: Daphne A. Brooks recently joined the faculty in African American Studies, Theater, and American Studies at Yale University. Previously, she was professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton University where she taught courses on African-American literature and culture, performance studies, critical gender studies, and popular music culture. She is the author of two books: Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), winner of The Errol Hill Award for Outstanding Scholarship on African American Performance from the American Society for Theater Research, and Jeff Buckley’s Grace (New York: Continuum, 2005). Brooks is currently working on a new book entitled Subterranean Blues: Black Women Sound Modernity (Harvard University Press, forthcoming). She is the author of numerous articles on race, gender, performance and popular music culture such as “Nina Simone’s Triple Play” in Callaloo; “This Voice Which Is Not One: Amy Winehouse Sings the Ballad of Sonic Blue(s)face Culture” in Women and Performance; “The Write to Rock: Racial Mythologies, Feminist Theory, and the Pleasures of Rock Music Criticism” in Women and Music; and “‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’: Surrogation & Black Female Soul Singing in the Age of Catastrophe” in Meridians. Brooks is also the author of the liner notes for The Complete Tammi Terrell (Universal A&R, 2010), winner of the 2011 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing, and Take a Look: Aretha Franklin Complete on Columbia (Sony, 2011).


Nathalie Casemajor

"The Digital Drift of Derivative Artifacts"

Abstract: How can we follow the trajectory of an image online? Retracing its path through the maze of the Web, from the darkest blog to its viral multiplication on social networks seems like an insurmountable challenge. And yet, studying these trajectories allows us to better understand the cultural biographies of data. It provides ways to explore the incommensurable variety of subproducts and derivative objects generated by daily cultural consumption activities on the Internet. Digital artefact studies offers a framework to explore the material qualities of digital objects, and their relation with the social, technological, economic and cultural conditions of digital circulation. Yet it raises a number of epistemological questions: how to conceptualize the materiality of digital artifacts, their regimes of value and exchange, their role in the constitution of social worlds? And what methodology can we use for an empirical study of these phenomena? Observing how images from the Maple Spring circulated on the Web, I will explore some of the processes of production, exchange and consumption that affect the circulation of cultural goods on the Web.

Bio: Nathalie Casemajor is an Assistant Professor in communication in the department of social sciences at the University of Québec in Gatineau (Canada). She holds a PhD in Communication from Université du Québec à Montréal and a doctorate in Information and Communication Sciences from Université Lille 3 (2009). She was Postdoctoral Fellow at McGill University (Department of Art History and Communication Studies) and at the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS – Montreal, Urbanization, Culture and Society Research Centre), as well as a Visiting Scholar at New York University (Department of Media, Culture and Communication). Her work focuses on digital culture, archives and collective memory



Mark Curran

“The Normalization of Deviance and the Construction of THE MARKET”

…what people don’t understand…is that what happens in the market is pivotal to their lives…not on the periphery…but slap, bang, in the middle…

(From telephone conversation with Trader (name withheld), Dealing Room, Investment Bank, London, February 2013)

Abstract: In the evolutionary aftermath of the global economic collapse and in the absence of sustained critical audiovisual engagement with the central locus of this catastrophic event, the project THE MARKET critically addresses the functioning and condition of the global stock and commodity markets. Continuing a cycle of long-term research projects on the predatory context resulting from migrations and flows of global capital, this paper will outline the theoretical and ethnographically-informed methodological framework of this multi-sited, transnational, audiovisual research undertaking, and the resulting formulation of its installation as critical representation. Having undertaken an extensive process of negotiation to access strategic sites and individuals, the project excavates, focusing upon operating function, materially and increasingly cyber-based individuals within these globalized spheres. Thus, the tension between human experience and the increasingly algorithmic systems that govern the markets provides an underlying sense of urgency. Incorporating photography, digital video, verbal testimony, sound and artifactual material, a reading is proffered that takes it out of abstraction, and positions it as a real and pervasive force that is absolutely central to our lives. While the paper will frame the central research thematic and methodology, in its summation and installation, THE MARKET instantiates the construction of an audiovisual ethnography of power and finance.

Bio: Mark Curran lives and works in Berlin and Dublin. He holds a practice-led PhD (2011), lectures on the BA (Hons) Photography programme, IADT, Dublin and is Visiting Professor on the MA in Visual and Media Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin. Incorporating multimedia installation informed by ethnographic understandings, Curran has undertaken a cycle of long-term projects over the past 16 years, critically addressing the predatory context resulting from migrations and flows of global capital. Curran has presented widely on his research practice, including at Photographers Gallery, London (2012) and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2013). He has also published articles, including in the current edition of Photographies (Routledge) edited by Liz Wells and Deborah Bright. Supported by the Arts Council of Ireland, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and curated by Helen Carey, to mark the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, a pivotal moment in Irish labour history, his ongoing project, THE MARKET, addresses the functioning and condition of the global markets. It was installed at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin; Belfast Exposed, Northern Ireland; and Limerick City Gallery of Art (2013); and at Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris (2014). A publication will follow in 2015. Further information: and



Sumanth Gopinath

“Beep: Listening to the Digital Watch”

Abstract: The most thoroughgoing transformation in the recent history of the consumer timepiece was its digitization in the late 1960s. Thanks to piezoelectric quartz crystals, whose regular oscillation is measured by a microprocessor, consumer watches profoundly gained in accuracy. Quartz watches soon obviated the intricate internal movements of older mechanical watches.
But watch digitization is colloquially understood through the subsequent replacement of the clock face with numerical displays, which developed over the course of the 1970s. Through its visual transformation, the digital watch became an iconic image of the early 1980s, a fad treated in print and moving-image media, with the figure of the (usually white, heterosexual) male computer geek dominating such representations. Relatively absent in these contexts, however, is the sound of the digital watch: its beep. This sound emerged as a by-product of the quartz-regulated oscillations, yielding a consistent frequency. By convention, watch beeps were not only used as alarms but also to ring in the hour.
This paper attempts a history of the digital watch’s beep, reflecting upon its sonic qualities and the social contexts in which it was heard. In doing so, it explores both standard digital watch alarms and more esoteric variants, some of which incorporated simple, single-oscillator melodies highly reminiscent of early monophonic cellphone ringtones. What emerges is an examination of petty labour resistance at the white-collar workplace, shifts in the capitalist world-system following the onset of the great downturn of 1970–1973, and the sounds of a global, tinkling treble culture produced by miniature synthesizers.

Bio: Sumanth Gopinath is Associate Professor of Music Theory, University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Ringtone Dialectic: Economy and Cultural Form (MIT Press, 2013) and co-editor, with Jason Stanyek, of The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014). His writings on Steve Reich, musical minimalism, Marxism and music scholarship, the Nike+ Sport Kit, the ringtone industry, Bob Dylan, and Benjamin Britten have appeared in various scholarly journals and edited collections. He is working on a book project on musical minimalism and is conducting research on sound in new and formerly new media, Bob Dylan’s musicianship, the aesthetics of smoothness, and the music of the Scottish composer James Dillon.


Anette Hoffmann

“The Auscultation of Culture: Sound Recordings and Knowledge Production”

Abstract: The debris of projects of imperial knowledge production holds sounding chards: recordings with songs, stories, accounts and grammatical examples in non-European languages that were produced as material for the study of music, languages, and cultures from the late nineteenth century. The interception of different practices and strategies of conservation–those of archives and repertoires–reverberates in those sound recordings, which became objects for the study of culture and its representations, yet also conserved fragments of other knowledges, historiologies, comments and critique. The Berlin Lautarchiv holds the acoustic and written documentation of a massive project of recording, a “cultural auscultation” of a grand scale: prisoners of World War I who were interned in German camps were recorded to create an archive of languages. My paper offers an introduction to listening to and reading these acoustic collections, along with the examples of recordings with African prisoners of World War I from the Berlin Lautarchiv, who became objects of anthropological research, yet were also speakers who articulated their impressions of war and captivity in the camps in Germany. While the project of the Lautarchiv is exceptional in scale and systematic approach, its archive is also symptomatic of the methods and procedures of acoustically archiving languages and music as objects of study and thus affords us to engage with a series of questions around the status of the recorded voice, of sound-archiving, and the historical value (specifically) of sonic archives.

Bio: Anette Hoffmann is a senior researcher at the Archive und Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where she established a focus on acoustic archives in recent years. Currently she works on a collection of historical sound recordings with African prisoners of World War I, from the Lautarchiv in Berlin. She curated the exhibition What We See, which engages with voice recordings from an anthropometric project in Namibia in 1931 and was shown in Cape Town, Basel, Wien, Osnabrück, Berlin and Windhoek. The accompanying publication, What We See. Reconsidering an Anthropometric Collection from Southern Africa: Images, Voices, and Versioning, came out in 2009. Hoffmann also published on sensitive collections in museums and archives (Berner/Hoffmann/Lange. Sensible Sammlungen. Aus dem Anthropologischen Depot, 2012) and created the sound/text installation (with Regina Sarreiter, Andrea Bellu and Matei Bellu) Unerhörter Bericht über die deutschen Verbrechen in den kolonisierten Gebieten und über das fortwährende Wirken der Gewalt bis in die Gegenwart based on her research, and shown in the exhibition Acts of Voicing in Stuttgart and in His Master’s Voice: On Voice and Language in Dortmund (2012/13).



Amelia Jones

“The Sound of Art”

Abstract: This paper explores performances in which image and sound are in explicit dialogue or tension in the experience of the work, although sound is often not explicitly noted or analyzed in written accounts—such as Heather Cassils’ 2011-12 Becoming an Image (a piece in which she batters a massive block of clay as illuminated only by flashes of light set off by a photographer, her grunts often the only perceptible elements in the experience of her actions) or Nicole Blackman’s c. 2005 performances in which the visual field is evacuated and sound is the only component as she whispers stories in the visitor’s ear in a pitch-black room. Why is sound so rarely accounted for in discussions of how performance art works? What happens when we attend to sound as a key element in the inter-relational exchange of bodily affect and meaning in live art works?

Bio: Amelia Jones is Professor and Grierson Chair in Visual Culture at McGill University, and is currently Visiting Professor and Robert A. Day Chair of Fine Arts at USC Roski School of Art and Design. Her recent publications include essays on performance art histories and theories, queer feminist art and theory, and feminist curating. In 2012, she published Perform Repeat Record: Live Art in History, co-edited with Adrian Heathfield, and a single-authored book, Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts. Her exhibition Material Traces: Time and the Gesture in Contemporary Art took place in 2013 at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery, Concordia University, in Montreal.



Caren Kaplan

“The Emotion of Motion: Exceeding the Visual in ‘Aerostatic Spacing’”

Abstract: Aerial imagery arguably took on specifically modern properties once human flight became possible with the advent of aerostation in the late eighteenth century. The view from the basket of a balloon seemed to embody the “ideal mobility of the gaze” as well as the possibility of enhanced military observation. Aerostation offered views that were shocking in their unfamiliarity even as they stimulated all manner of efforts to interpret and regenerate cohesive information and imagery. The experience of weightlessness made possible by lighter-than-air flight along with extreme alterations in the perception of movement, sound, and the scale of distances generated intense fascination, not only for early aeronauts but also for a public highly receptive to news of innovation. Thus, “balloonomania” and the desire for the sight of places strange as well as familiar brought about deeply emotive engagements with this new science of transportation, producing what Derek McCormack terms “aerostatic spacing,” the logics of “envelopment, inflation, and buoyancy” that exceeded purely visual perception. The first views from the early balloons, therefore, were not simply remotely sensed sights. They signaled affective engagement of the senses as a modern way of being in space and time–the emotion of motion–and, thus, complicate our histories of the visual culture of modernity, governmentality, and militarized observation.

Bio: Caren Kaplan is Professor of American Studies and Acting Chair of Cultural Studies at the University of California at Davis. She is the author of Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Duke University Press, 1996) and the co-author/editor of Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World (McGraw-Hill, 2001/2005), Between Woman and Nation: Transnational Feminisms and the State (Duke University Press, 1999), and Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minnesota, 1994) as well as two digital multimedia scholarly works, Dead Reckoning and Precision Targets. She is completing a book on aerial views and militarized visual culture.



Negar Mottahedeh

“One Light: Cinema and Islamic Spirituality”

Abstract: The Light Verse of the Qur’an stands at the threshold of my meditations on the relationship between Islamic spirituality and cinema. It reads as follows: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the similitude of His Light is that of a lamp in a niche…” Luminous and present, recorded and mediated, its impression on the human sensorium is said in various readings of this verse to affect the very essence of that which is human, the human soul. Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes regarding our relation to light that, “…the soul of the Muslim, and in fact the primal man in every man, yearns for the light which is ultimately the symbol of Divine presence” ¹. To this, one Sufi commentator adds regarding the sensorial body and the soul, that “access to that by which our soul becomes knowing begins by way of the senses, so long as we do not perceive sensible things—the visible, the audible, the sapid, the odorous, and the tangible—knowledge is out of our reach” ². In sum, it is the human sensorium awash in light that facilitates the believer’s presence to the knowledge of Divine light. Cinema’s impact on the senses as a mediator of the luminous presence of the Divine in its play of light must be considered vital to any discussion of Islamic spirituality.

These first principles on light, the soul, and the senses stand at the threshold of my considerations of cinema as a play of light and shadow and the consequences of this play, clearly part of the design of sacred architecture, for an Islamic spirituality. My close reading of scenes from Dariush Mehrjui’s Pari (Iran, 1995) will delve into the intimacies of this human yearning for light in Islam and to cinema’s engagement with it.

[1] Seyyed Hossen Nasr. Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany: State of New York Press, 1987, 50.
[2] Laleh Bakhtiar. Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest. London: Thames & Hudson, 1976, 19.

Bio: Negar Mottahedeh is a cultural critic and film theorist specializing in interdisciplinary and feminist contributions to the fields of Middle Eastern Studies and Film Studies. She is known for her work on Iranian Cinema, but has also published on the history of reform and revolution, on Bábism, Qajar history, performance traditions in Iran, the history of technology, visual theory, and the role of social media in the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. She received her PhD in 1998 from the University of Minnesota. She has taught at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in 2002 began teaching at Duke University, where she is Associate Professor in the Program in Literature and in the Women’s Studies Program. She has two monographs: Displaced Allegories: Iranian Post-Revolutionary Cinema and Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her edited volume `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey West: The Course of Human Solidarity was published April 2013.



Ultra-red (Dont Rhine & Robert Sember)

“What did you hear?”

Abstract: For 20 years, Ultra-red members have work closely with activists, organizers, artists, and cultural workers committed to a range of struggles and accountable to diverse communities. We are regularly asked why we privilege sound as the object of inquiry over other mediums and forms, and why we emphasize listening as a political practice. The first question points to an interest in the phenomenological qualities and aesthetic operations particular to sound while the second question often presumes that listening is limited to reflection and therefore not central to doing politics, which privileges speech and action. In this presentation we take up the questions “why sound?” and “why listening?” in reference to specific investigations and theoretical propositions within the fields of sound art and music and particular histories and practices of listening within political movements. This exposition will raise and respond to a further set of questions concerning sound’s relevance to materialist politics. How is a political listening of liberatory organizing reflective, analytical, and present in direct political action? To help define these questions, we draw from Ultra-red’s two decades of investigations, specifically the current School of Echoes initiative, launched in 2009. This long-term, multi-site investigation into collective listening procedures to support community organizing is predicated on a shift from composing sound to organizing listening. The central practice of School of Echoes is the formulation and testing of protocols to organize collective listening, beginning with the questions, “What did you hear?” and “How did you listen?”

Additional resources: Ultra-red, “Practice Sessions,” three-part video and PDF workbook

Bio: Ultra-red is a sound art collective founded in 1994 by two Los Angeles AIDS activists. The collective’s current 12 members work as organizers and educators with community-based organizations and social justice movements in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Dont Rhine co-founded the sound art collective Ultra-red in 1994. As an AIDS activist since 1989, he has been involved in ACT UP Los Angeles (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Clean Needles Now, recently renamed Los Angeles Community Health Project. He has lectured extensively at art schools across the United States and Europe and is faculty co-chair at Vermont College of Fine Arts where he has been a part-time instructor since 2007. He was a fellow with the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 1994-1995 and with the UCLA Community Scholars Program in 2000. He received his MFA from UCLA in 2006. He received mid-career artist fellowships from the California Community Foundation in 2007 and from the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs in 2010. He and fellow Ultra-red member, Leonardo Vilchis, are currently research fellows with the Social Practice Art Research Center at UC Santa Cruz.

Robert Sember is a member of the international sound-art collective, Ultra-red. For 20 years, Ultra-red has investigated the contribution experimental sound art can make to political organizing. Robert brings to his work with Ultra-red training in cultural studies and medical anthropology. His ethnographic research in the US and South Africa has focused on governmental and non-governmental service sectors with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and treatment concerns. He currently teaches at The New School’s Eugene Lang College in New York City. He was the recipient of a fellowship in 2009-2010 from the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School.