March is a journal of art & strategy.

Introduction: Conversations on Sound and Power

Sonic Insurgency Research Group

November 2021

Image by @delvecchiograce via Twitter. Grant Park, Chicago, IL, US (July 17, 2020).

Two months had passed since Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. Chicago, like most of the country, was in ceaseless protest. Rhizomatic coalitions organized everything from neighborhood pandemic mutual aid networks to community care alternatives that, through the practice of abolitionist worldmaking, refused the violence of policing. Rejecting a return to business-as-usual, we demanded a world beyond empty public rhetoric and opportunistic corporations seeking to benefit off the revolutionary groundswell, reducing social transformation to a marketing ploy. Our movement ancestors warned us (prepared us); power does not relinquish power without violent retribution.

The “try everything” desperation that fueled our insurrectionary spirit during early summer 2020 gave way to palpable exhaustion. One felt it in the air and the body. Despite everything, on July 17, a highly coordinated effort was mounted to forcibly remove the Columbus statue in Grant Park. The action was met with police violence in a brutal clash that made national news. It was one among many clashes taking place across the country over the summer, each calling for an end to the public health crisis of policing, the killing of Black and Brown people by police, and for other systemic changes to the impunity of state authority, neo-feudal capitalism, and white supremacy’s contemporary instantiations. Many of us were badly beaten and tear gassed – our bodies in shock, unable to stand or speak for days.

A week later, GoodKids MadCity and BLK RISING circulated a flyer calling for another gathering. BLK RISING included the caption, “We don’t get tired.” Thousands of people appeared in the Logan Square neighborhood on July 23 and marched to the corner of Wrightwood and Kimball within earshot of Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home. A powerful mobile sound system was set up by organizers in the center of the intersection. We occupied public space with sound and dance. We turned to each other by turning our backs on the heavy police presence surrounding us. We did the Cha-Cha Slide. We laughed together. The longer it went on the more our protest became an exuberant celebration. At around 8:30 p.m. the Village People’s “YMCA” blasted through the streets. Our haggard voices rang out. The entire group erupted into a campy sing-along, replacing the chorus with “FUCK CPD!” – an act of communal sonic insurgency.1 Police helicopters circled for hours, their rotors sending aftershocks of chopping sound into the almost entirely gentrified neighborhood, phase-shifting and echoing down alleyways, past the tire shop, the corner store, and into people’s backyards.

Militarized police define public space in many ways, including sonically. Sirens ring out; helicopters whir; police amplify their commands; they blast their long-range acoustic devices (LRADs) and set up their gunshot detection technologies. What we hear, mis-hear, do not hear, cannot hear, or choose not to hear plays an integral role in the structuring of social and political life, particularly when what constitutes sound and noise are leveraged in the struggle over social power and public space. Conceptualizations and accompanying legal definitions regarding the sonic can be mapped within a historic field of settler colonial, patriarchal, ableist, heterosexist, and capitalist thought. If war is the continuation of politics by other means and politics is the continuation of war by other means, how do sound regulations and sound norms forged within uneven power dynamics and dominant consensus contribute to the notion of politics and war as variants of the same hegemonic projects?2 Focusing on sound gives cultural criticism and historical analysis a chance to listen, balancing overly common frameworks that prioritize visibility in the political, philosophic, and ethical articulations of social life. Sound as a form of social power or site of politics may seem obscure. How is a demand for peace and quiet more than a mere expression of common courtesy? Are expectations around “proper” ways of talking yet another way to racialize and marginalize subaltern classes? In what ways are noise ordinances a factor in the brutal logic of property?

In addition to the ways that sound regulations shape social space, sound is also integral to the foundation of communities of refusal and opposition – in the form of song collections or the amplified call-and-response of the protest march. Social groups are produced and produce themselves through their listening practices and shared repertoires of sounding out, even as they struggle against the weaponization of sound and dominant society’s authority over acceptable aural ways of being. As the dominant neoliberal order of actions and ideas continues to shrink our sensations, deliberately limiting our abilities to think, feel, perceive, act, and propose otherwise, sound offers a radical openness and intersubjective quality of experience. It provides a sensorial experience of layered time, space, and place, giving rise to a functional link between one’s self and an unknown other, between one’s place and an elsewhere, between one’s time and an elsewhen. Considering sound as a social event and shared phenomena creates exciting new potentials for theorizing our relation-based productions of self and society within the mutual and contested space of the sonic commons.

On a warm summer night demonstrators gathered outside the mayor’s house. They sang and danced in the streets in an act of communal sonic insurgency. It was an expression of outrage, a refusal, a mutual celebration. Helicopters circled, chopping the night sky into aftershocks of sound. The voice of state authority and the voice of the people collided once again.

Our work as artists, writers, and organizers is shaped by a politics of listening. We have endeavored across various mediums, events, and platforms to establish the conditions through which we can not only ask questions like those listed above, but also listen to and learn from what follows. What we are calling Sonic Insurgency Research Group is our attempt at formalizing these efforts. It is a name that puts our artistic efforts within a field of study (sonic research) and a particular kind of political mobility (insurgency). What we refer to as sonic insurgency are acts of rebellion undertaken by communities of opposition against the sonic ruling class – those financial and political elites who define the limits of sonic acceptability and criminality through legal, legislative, or extra-political means. Sonic insurgency articulates a field of refusal in which rebellion and sonic life meet in unique and unexpected ways. As a collective working across and beyond disciplinary, academic, and other taxonomic boundaries, we hope to overrun the methodological and practical enclosures associated with any given field of study, especially as a tool of professionalization within the rarified spaces of academia and the art worlds.

Over the next six months, Conversations on Sound and Power will gather exchanges from a wide variety of contemporary artists, scholars, writers, activists, and interdisciplinary practitioners concerned with how sound and ideas about sound shape our historical, experiential, juridical, intersubjective, and current socio-political entanglements. It is a document of the thoughts and practices of others who have dedicated themselves to the deep tensions that make acoustic worlding so impactful. The forthcoming conversations reflect our commitment to treating ideas and methodologies as temporarily stewarded rather than privately held intellectual property. Stewardship in this sense includes an open form of sharing, circulation, and enlivening, a shaping and tending to the activist and theoretical spaces where new histories, concepts, practices, and conviviality can flourish and be transmitted to others. Each of these dialogues has been shaped by our dutiful and creative engagement with the work of the invitees. Their practices, artworks, scholarship, and writing has inspired our own.

It is within our multifaceted relationships to communal culture making and studying together that we find our soundings are neither finalized totalities nor ours alone. Literary theorist Michael Warner’s sentiment acts as a guiding refrain: “Every sentence is populated with the voices of others, living and dead, and is carried to whatever destination it has not by the force of intentions or address but by the channels laid down in discourse.”3 We transmit our signal on the preexisting pathways and platforms made graciously available by the labor, lives, and imagining of others. At the same time, we contribute to and transform those pathways for the benefit of our peers, people whom we do not yet know, and even those whom we may never know – distant readers, thinkers, and practitioners of the future. And while our voices may be filled with the voices of many, we are not diminished in our assemblage. Feminist philosopher María Lugones describes the positive framework of partiality as “nonfragmented multiplicity.” To be mixed and made of others does not necessitate an impending judgement of disunity or the modernist/postmodernist diagnosis of partiality or fragmentation.4 As such, our partial, fragmented, and manifold song is filled with the partial manifold songs of others, including our direct and indirect collaborators, the histories we engage, and all the tracks that have been and will be brought into the assembly and composition of our collective thought and action.

On a warm summer evening a large group of demonstrators gathered in the streets outside the mayor’s house singing their outrage in an act of communal sonic insurgency. It was a refutation of power and a collective celebration. They danced while helicopters circled above chopping up the night sky, sending shocks of sound into the alleyways. The voice of state authority and the voice of the people collided.

The forthcoming series of interviews this essay introduces, Conversations on Sound and Power, constitutes one lineage in a network of practice and thought dedicated to the transformation and transgression of disciplinary and praxis-based demarcations. It is also a search for and co-construction of a new kind of wide-reaching yet interconnected community. It is collective research and active engagement. Our inaugural interview, which will be posted in December, is with the theorist, composer, and writer JJJJJerome Ellis. In anticipation, please learn more about Ellis’s latest interdisciplinary project, The Clearing, which “asks how stuttering, blackness, and music can be practices of refusal against hegemonic governance of time, speech, and encounter.” Other forthcoming conversants to be featured include Jillian Hernandez, Allie Martin, Cog•nate Collective, Alex E. Chávez, and Brandon LaBelle.

Footnotes

  1. C.P.D. is the acronym for the Chicago Police Department.
  2. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76 (New York: Picador, 1997).
  3. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005).
  4. María Lugones, “Purity, Impurity, and Separation,” in Signs, vol. 19, no. 2 (1994).

Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations be­tween criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.