Upcoming events on sound and space

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be presenting at two events that both look excellent.

Tuned City in Ancient Messene, Greece, 1st-3rd June 2018

I will be presenting about an audio drift I made for the ruins of Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary. Ancient Messene is a collection of ruins, so hopefully this work will fit with the place.

I will be playing examples of how sound art methods, such as working with binaural recording and portable audio players, can disrupt the conventional heritage approach to history. The heritage industry promotes the idea that history is a fixed, linear chronological narrative, confined to the past, which should be clearly and unambiguously represented to people to help them learn about history, e.g. through the audio guides that give factual information to visitors at heritage tourist attractions.

My presentation will be about how can audio be used in more playful and generative ways to reconfigure places. By using techniques such as binaural recording to create spatial illusions, and overlapping multiple sounds and voices, audio can remind us that history is ongoing, that places are always happening in the here-and-now, that events are multiple and messy, and that there is no single ‘correct’ version of what a place ‘is’.

Audio also physically moves bodies – pushing ears and skin and from there hooking into the nervous system. With my audio drift people reported feeling compelled to slow down at points, or to hurry away from certain areas of the site. One woman was drawn by some watery audio to a stream – and then slipped and fell in (disclaimer: no one was hurt. Thankfully.) So narrating a place through audio is not just about representing facts to people. It can be a visceral experience, in which learning happens in an embodied way. In ruins, there is particular potential for using audio to amplify uncanny and haunted atmospheres.

Symposium on ‘Sound and space: theory and methods in sonic geographical research’ at Cardiff University, 5th-6th June 2018

This event is free to attend, although places are limited. There is more information here:

http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/geographyandplanning/2018/03/26/sound-and-space-theory-and-methods-in-sonic-geographical-research-symposium/

My sonic geography collaborator Jonathan Prior is organising this, together with urban cultural geographer Mark Jayne. Day one will be presentations from invited speakers including me. Day two will be a more hands-on sonic geography methods workshop led by Jonathan.

My presentation will be about working with voice audio as research data rather than only as a precursor to textual transcription. Voice audio can be used to productively disrupt dominant paradigms of voice: by propagating voices as vibration, experimenting with the machinic media ecologies that constitute voice, and rewiring the relations between voice, space and place. I will be presenting some examples of experimental styles of voice audio, again drawing on my Kilmahew audio drift, to illustrate creative ways of editing voices and using contrapuntal polyphony (to borrow the term used by Glen Gould to describe his solitude trilogy of radio documentaries).

You can read more about my audio drift for Kilmahew and St. Peter’s Seminary in this paper here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474474014542745

The paper is open access so you don’t need a university subscription to read it.

Authors into the future

Skeletor lookalike, patriot and speaking as a mother Andrea Leadsom recently attracted ridicule for accidentally suggesting that Jane Austen was one of our greatest living authors.

Yet it is unfair to single out Leadsom, who has had both children and a glittering career in investment banking, for such a simple slip of the tongue.

Leadsom’s entire political party routinely confuses polar opposite concepts. The Tories have misidentified weakness as strength, instability as stability, uncertainty as certainty. These walking contradictions and doublespeak merchants have in recent years convinced themselves that Theresa May is capable of effective leadership, that Brexit can be a success, and that Liam Fox deserves a senior ministerial position rather than to be hunted down using pitchforks, shackled into stocks in the village square and pelted with rotten turnips before being harnessed to a hayrick and made to tow it to market with a pack of feral dogs biting at his unshod heels.

Even Leadsom’s own surname seems mistaken: lead some what? Some sort of badly-organised church hall jumble sale for a charity that later turns out to be a front for offshore money laundering? Her incompetence so obviously exceeds even that of the current incumbent that the faintest whisper of Leadsom as a possible future party leader sends black clouds of dread billowing across the soul.

Little wonder, then, that Leadsom struggled momentarily to differentiate between being alive and having been dead for 200 years. For zombies, such distinctions are not clear cut.

Far more important than her minor mouth mishap was what Leadsom said next: “I think many of us probably wish she were still living.”

Now here is a sentiment with which no right thinking person could disagree. If only Austen could have been kept alive!

What better to reassure us, at this time of turmoil, than a living connection to Britain’s golden literary past, whose twilight glow still glimmers in our rose-tinted rear-view mirrors.

What a comfort it would be to come face to face with the esteemed author, and find her still registering vital signs at the age of 242 years. People would queue around the block for an opportunity to see the decaying flaps of her ancient skin, to stare into her blind rotted eye sockets, to hear the rasping of her artificially ventilated breath. They would watch entranced as her skeletal hand creaks outwards, pen trembling, wasted muscles replaced by electric motors, to autograph a barely legible ‘JA’ in the front page of a crisp new paperback of Pride and Prejudice.

At such a ripe vintage, no-one would expect Austen to be capable of producing new fiction, as that would probably prove disappointing, like when Harper Lee finally followed up To Kill A Mockingbird, or when Morrissey did that book that everyone hated apart from Terry Eagleton. What we want from our centuries-old literary giants is not fresh copy but repeated affirmation of their greatest hits – a more modest goal, and surely achievable within our lifetimes by cutting edge medicine.

I therefore hope that Leadsom, who has said that men should not be employed in childcare because they are potential paedophiles, will now act decisively to support research into maintaining the life of noted writers far beyond the usual span of human days.

It may prove too late for Austen, whose buried dust is probably past the point of reanimation. But what about sustaining our current literary talents indefinitely?

Imagine our descendants 200 years hence: the hardened survivors of desertification and sea level rise, scraping by on the last remaining pockets of habitable land. If only they were able to ask a still-living JK Rowling why Harry and Hermione never got together, it might lift their weary spirits enough to carry on in the face of ecocatastrophe.

Two centuries of hindsight would make for fascinating, if heated, discussions about the planetary apocalypse with environmentalist writers such as James Lovelock, his disheveled, barely-recognisable husk of a body pumped full of stem cells and tubes.

At the weekends, exhausted from days spent scouring for fragments of viable food or huddled in tunnels to escape a nuclear winter, our dwindling species might find welcome distraction in a meet-the-author with E.L. James’s nervous system preserved in a chamber of crackling plasma.

These undead authors will be hooked up to computers, enabling them to speak like Stephen Hawking, their vocal chords having long since disintegrated. The only exception will be Stephen Hawking, who will have reprogrammed his software to emulate the voice of Jane Austen.

Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, but with Leadsom we can dare to dream of a world in which authors don’t die, they just lose the capacity to exist independently of medical hardware. As a mother, Leadsom may be unable lend her time to furthering this worthy cause, but as a Tory MP and former investment banker who managed tens of thousands of multi-billion pound accounts, she would surely be well placed to help raise the required funds.

Election adverts, grime and Tory artificial unitelligence

Yesterday I went onto YouTube and was served up a Tory election campaign advert at the start of a video I wanted to watch. It attempted to discredit Corbyn by depicting him as a supporter of terrorists such as the IRA, and hence a security risk. Material from interviews with him had been taken out of context and crudely edited together. It was like the work of an inept right wing Cassetteboy and smacked of desperation.

What made me laugh was where the ad was placed: on the video for a Novelist track. Novelist is one of the current rising stars of grime music. So the Tories are now trying to promote their party by hitching onto a predominantly working class, predominantly black, anti-establishment, anti-police urban youth culture.

The Tory’s algorithms must have missed the whole #Grime4Corbyn movement, and the fact that in 2016 Novelist dropped Street Politician, a track spitting white hot rage against the government and the police. Its chorus is a loop of David Cameron’s voice repeating over and over “keeping people safe is the first duty of government”. Think NWA’s Fuck Tha Police updated for generation Brexit.

Targeting an anti-Corbyn advert via a Novelist video is like trying to flog the Communist Manifesto in Fortnum and Mason. Who out there searching for grime vids would be tempted to vote for Theresa May on the basis of badly produced scaremongering about Corbyn? Most grime fans will be too young even to have have any memories of the IRA. Maybe the bots missed the sarcasm of the Cameron sample, reading it as a straightforward call for tougher policing.

There has been a lot of debate recently about the use of big data to influence elections. Both the Leave and Trump campaigns have claimed that part of their success was due to using data analytics to target adverts tailored to appeal to specific groups of undecided voters. For the 2017 election, the Tories reportedly hired social media experts (so we haven’t had enough of experts after all) including Craig Elder, Tom Edmonds, and Jim Messina. It has been claimed that “All three are highly rated for their ability to target adverts to specific demographic segments.”

But it wouldn’t take much AI to figure out that I am not remotely in the Tory swing voter demographic. I work in a university education faculty, a position from which supporting the Conservatives would be an act of self-harm; I’m on the Guardian website every day; I’m forever tweeting my dismay at May; my YouTube searches are mostly for 90s dance music and minimal techno. I’d need a lobotomy to vote Tory.

Is this the best they can do? Perhaps artificial unintelligence is to be expected from a party whose leader would struggle to pass the Turing test.

Empty Brexit and dead schools: the ghostly politics of Theresa May

Grey face, empty words, opacity and absence. Theresa May is a bad Thatcher tribute act. She does the voice better than the original, but everything else is just miming to the backing track.

During the EU referendum campaign she was nicknamed “submarine May”, but submarines dive because they have something important to hide. Our newly unelected Prime Minister seems to be hiding precisely because, so far, she has nothing to give us: no answers to the big Brexit questions, no coherent programme for government, just slogans on repeat and expensive brown trousers.

At a time when the UK faces massive political upheaval, she stands in front of an RAF chopper saying she wants a “red, white and blue Brexit”. An appeal not to principles of economics, democracy or sovereignty, but to the hollow nationalism of flag colours. Vacuity has become virtue.

Now we have the ‘shared society’. Only the Conservative Party could think it original to propose that society is something collective. Next up: edible food, wearable clothes, learning schools and a health service based on medical care.

With so little content on display, what can we say about Prime Minister May? One thing seems clear: she is riding the latest wave of what Simon Reynolds has called retromania, the addiction of culture to its own past. Brexit has become a rallying cry for those who view our country through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. The Leave campaign’s operative word wasn’t ‘take’ or ‘control’ but ‘back’. We want our country back. Way back. In a world stuck on fast forward, people are reaching for the comforts of the rewind.

So Theresa May has decided to re, re, wind, so the crowd won’t say ‘reject her’. Her style mixes the 1950s and the 1980s, like a wedding DJ trying to please everyone. With Corbyn in opposition beatmatching the 60s and 70s, all we need is Tony Blair’s 1990s Britpop revival and parliament will be like one of those clubs with music from different decades on different floors.

When warm nostalgia gets into politics, it curdles into something lumpier and less appetizing. We have seen this before in the UK. Thatcher used a romantic, backwards looking vision of wartime Britain as a cultural cover for economic policies that eroded the shared society we once had. Her idea of Britishness was inspired by Churchill, who in turn harked back to the British Empire and its sense of moral and cultural superiority. (Adam Curtis’s 1995 film The Attic deals with these themes, and is therefore essential Brexit viewing).

So Theresa May is a covers band of a covers band of a covers band.

Look at how she has dug up the rotting corpse of grammar schools as a flagshit policy. I say shit, because evidence on selective schooling is clear: it increases inequality, and decreases overall levels of attainment, which is the exact opposite of May’s stated aim of making “a country that works for everyone”. Even some of her own MPs oppose the policy.

Why would a politician want to invoke the ghost of such a dead dysfunctional system? Answer: not to improve schools but to  appeal to the aspirations of voters, particularly amongst the working and lower middle classes, in a way that requires little money or action. The PM has sent a message: “We want your children to have the opportunity to do well, like they did in the past” – even though grammar schools probably won’t be built near you, and even if they are your child probably won’t get a place.

So it doesn’t really matter whether the schools ever get built or not. The policy has already done its work, stirring up hopeful little voices inside parents’ heads that whisper, “my child is special, my child is clever, maybe my child could get in.” Theresa May is leveraging parental ambition to build political support, dangling before us a tantalising illusion of meritocracy that obscures the blunt reality of inequality.

Because again the evidence is clear: poor children are less likely to get into grammar schools, even if they are high achievers. There are exceptions of course, but exceptions are irrelevant when you are organising education for an entire population. Poorer children do tend to have slightly higher levels of achievement if they get in, but very few of them ever get in, because those with more resources will always find ways to boost their chances of selection, such as private prep schools or tutors to coach for the 11-plus. Grammar schools disproportionately benefit the affluent, for whom they provide a free alternative to private school. So the policy appeals to that demographic too.

We must not allow our instincts to be played in this way. Instead, let’s be pro-active and read May’s politics as a crystal ball for Brexit. She keeps saying she won’t show her negotiating hand, that we must trust her to get the UK a unique and favourable deal. Yet her leadership to date shows little to suggest she is capable of pulling something really clever out of the bag. As well as the grammar school proposals, her government has watered down the obesity strategy, passed a snoopers’ charter that violates privacy, kicked the Heathrow 3rd runway vote into the future, and dithered over Hinkley Point. Based on this track record, expecting Theresa May to come up with a brilliant solution for Brexit would be like expecting Michael Buble to drop a deadly grime banger on his next album.

Our new PM has not shown herself to be someone who produces ingenious, bold, innovative solutions to difficult problems. At best, she produces policies that appeal to English conservative voters’ love of authority, hierarchy, and Britain’s mythic past, whilst minimising any impact on the vested interests that support her party.

I therefore guess her Brexit priorities will be:

  • To appear tough on immigration, whilst allowing it to continue in thinly-disguised forms where it serves particular interests and sectors, such as food production and banking.
  • To maintain trading links with the EU, but without remaining part of the single market. This might involve special arrangements for sectors and companies seen as valuable e.g. large companies (like the deal with Nissan), the City of London.
  • To use Brexit as an opportunity to weaken laws on human rights and labour rights. As a friend of mine put it, May is instinctively illiberal – like many of her party and its supporters. She will be looking for ways to advance that agenda wherever possible.

Ghostly politics, but with very real effects. This is the terrain on which she must be fought.

Donald Trump: sexual failure and tragic masculinity

“I’d never withdraw. I’ve never withdrawn in my life.” Not the wisest choice of words for a man who has just been caught bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Yet amidst the disgust at Trump’s lewd boasting, something has been overlooked. The taped conversation that has caused so much controversy actually begins with an admission of sexual failure. “I moved on her and I failed…I couldn’t get there.”

His ‘move’ was take ‘her’ shopping for ‘nice furniture’. You can picture it. Trump reclines suggestively on a million dollar gold plated olympic-sized bed, flashing his wad, but his advances are spurned. Nancy says no. A deflated Donald limps home to console himself with his 1980s porn stash and a box of gold plated tissues.

The knock-back is hardly surprising. Anyone with functioning eyes can see that Trump is every bit as ugly as his rhetoric. It makes his rudeness about women’s appearance all the more laughable. His head looks like some squashed meat topped with candy floss. The mouth either slumps open miserably or screws up into a cat’s ass. Some men with those physical characteristics might make themselves more attractive through courteousness, sensitivity or intellect, but Donald’s Top Trumps card scores low on everything but wealth and fame.

So it turns out Trump is not the alpha male but the tragic male. The puffed up egotist who likes to think he can have any woman (even though he clearly can’t), who likes to think he’s attractive (despite being well past his prime), who wants to believe women are desperate for him (whereas in fact it’s him who is desperate for them, resorting to grabbing, groping, and bribing them with shopping trips). David Brooks sees in Trump a deeply sad, lonely character: “His attempts at intimacy are gruesome parodies, lunging at women as if they were pieces of meat.”

This is a man who says he can trump everyone, but whose every emission stinks like a noxious fart. No alpha male comes out with lines like, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her.” This is a man who knows the toxicity of his own halitosis.

His tragic male defence is to argue that all men are essentially the same. ‘Locker room talk’, ‘Bill Clinton did worse.’ This diffusion of responsibility, this retreat to strength in numbers, must be resisted. Trump’s rancid chat is not ‘what men say’. It’s what abusive misogynists say. Professional sportsmen have made it clear that his remarks are absolutely not normal ‘locker room talk’. And trying to use his opponent’s husband’s behaviour to discredit her merely reaffirms Trump’s position as the king of sexism. Whatever your opinion of Bill Clinton, one thing is clear: he’s not running for president. Trump is.

It has been suggested that, regrettably, some men do talk like this. Personally, whilst I’ve witnessed plenty of sexism, I can’t recall anything quite so explicitly derogatory and abusive. So when Nigel Farage says that this is just ‘what men do’, remember that the men he associates with include xenophobes who use physical violence to settle political disputes.

The real test for those of us appalled by Trump will be whether we can see beyond him as an individual and grasp the wider situation of which he is a symptom. This is not just about Trump, and not just about America. What is it in western culture that has given so much attention, adulation and material wealth to such a hateful, tragic man? How has mainstream politics failed so catastrophically that disenfranchised voters are turning to men like Trump and Farage to express their fears and dreams?

If Hillary wins, what will happen to all the anger and disaffection that Trump’s campaign has surfaced? Will it be repressed again as unacceptable, buried like nuclear waste, left to fester? Or could a politics be found that acknowledges it, makes space for it to be voiced and heard, without amplifying or celebrating it?

Some Brits are treating Trump as a distant horrorshow, the product of a craziness that only happens in the US. But the Brexit brigade have courted the same angry working class voters as Trump, and promoted a similarly anti-immigrant, backwards-looking vision (make American great again; take back control) with no plan for delivery. Comparisons with Boris Johnson have already been made. Trump is just more raw, more explicit, more transparently obvious. Where Trump channels nostalgia for the heyday of US capitalism, Boris channels nostalgia for the British Empire.

Trump also reminds me of Jimmy Savile, another tragic alpha male wannabe. Trump seems to have targeted adult women rather than children, but there is something disturbingly similar in the stories of sexual predation. Like Trump, Savile was egotistical, self-promoting, and relentlessly pursued celebrity. Princess Diana reportedly described both men as ‘creepy’.

For Brits who think Trump couldn’t happen in the UK, think on this: we put Savile on TV, lauded and applauded him, ignored all the rumours and warning signs, gave him access to vulnerable people via public institutions, and awarded him a knighthood. If there is anything to be hopeful about here, it is that, unlike Savile, Trump is still alive to face the consequences of his actions.