Radical Sound Activism

Since 1994, Ultra-red has established a unique position in the world of sound art. Their highly analytical projects, which range from radio broadcasts to art installations, directly link social activism to sound experiments. A global collective, Ultra-red made its mark through electronic music composition, although their practice gradually shifted to a more process-based engagement. Merging aesthetics with politics, Ultra-red has created work that is simultaneously collective and of high artistic quality.

In 2001, Ultra-red joined forces with the Frankfurt chapter of migrant anti-racism activists Kanak Attak, to produce one of their most anticipated releases so far, Ultra-red Play Kanak Attak (2005). With tracks based on site recordings from locations in Frankfurt resonant with the everyday struggles of migrants, the resulting record is a powerful sonic statement ranging from moody soundscapes to minimal house and electro beats. A more recent project, SILENT | LISTEN (2006), was organized to reflect on the state of the global AIDS crisis. In staging participatory performances at art museums, galleries and art schools across the United States and Canada, Ultra-red performed John Cage’s famous composition of “sheer” silence, 4’33″. After the performance, they invited the audience to respond to the question, “What did you hear?” by entering statements related to AIDS into an audio record.

Ultra-red elaborates on the theoretical underpinnings of the historical avant-garde and brings together art, activism, and public issues. During a long Skype conversation with Robert Sember, one of Ultra-red’s core members and a visiting professor at UCLA, we talked about their work methodology, their artistic strategies, the issues they are involved with and the gesture of making all of their work available for free.

NIELS VAN TOMME: Ultra-red merges art with activism and radical politics. Can you name some of the issues you are engaged with?

ROBERT SEMBER: Currently we are engaged with a number of issues. Dont [Rhine, Ultra-Red cofounder] and I have worked for a few of years on HIV/AIDS related issues defined by the increasingly managerial organization of the crisis. The epidemic is administered, which shifts attention away from the fundamental social and political inequalities and oppressions that produce it. In England, there are antiracism concerns, which include violence and other intractable forms of social exclusion aimed at racial and ethnic minorities in that country, including migrants who recently arrived from Eastern Europe. That moves into the focus that we have in the rest of Europe, which is on the topic of migrant workers. European economic systems and entrenched national ideologies structure migrant flows on the continent. It constructs a very particular political status for migrant workers, one that almost always guarantees a lack of political power and basic civil rights. Those are the concerns we have at the moment. They are tied together by a very strong collective interest in militant inquiry and a Freirean inspired pedagogy. There are also Ultra-red members in Los Angeles, which is where I am at the moment, who for many years have worked on popular education, housing rights and migrant rights. In the past, we have worked on needle exchange and on the rights of sexual minorities.

VAN TOMME: To many people, sound art and music are pretty abstract forms of expression. How do you translate the very concrete political and social reality of the issues you are engaged with into something as abstract as sound?

SEMBER: There are many different ways in which we use sound. Going to the Freirian foundation of our practice, we often use sound as a point of reflection. As representation, sound provides an opportunity for what Freire calls codification, which is a stage in the process of identifying or delineating the terms of a struggle. Codification is the development of the codes or specific vocabulary to be used to undertake an analysis. The process can be as simple as recording a conversation and then playing the recording back to the participants in order to provide an opportunity for deep listening.

This occurred often during our SILENT | LISTEN events, beginning with our interactions with participants following the performance of John Cage’s 4’33″. We would move through the group asking a series of questions: What did you hear? When was the last time you were in this space? What is the relationship between this space and the city outside? When was the last time you talked about AIDS in this space? The first question was always the most moving for me because it related to a crucial element of Cage’s intervention into listening by assuming that there is always something to hear. Silence is full. As the questions and events proceeded, the numerous permutations of silence took on political dimension by suggesting the questions: What is absent? What is the meaning of that absence? Is it a problem? Should we do something about it? So, when one person concluded a statement and we listened to the echo of their statement within our memories, or when someone fell silent in the middle of a statement and searched for ideas or specific terms, we had these or some version of these questions in mind. The feelings during these moments were astonishing.

There is almost always something very somber about silence. Its affiliation to death is particularly strong in the context of AIDS. Rooting listening in these deep structures and resonances brought the participants in these events together in extraordinary ways around the question: What can we do together? The repetition of silence in this case, as in all our events, enables us to listen to each other and to sense the conditions common to our experience. It is also a way of developing a record of what is actually heard because when we ask people to reflect on statements and the silences within statements we encourage a very active attention to sound.

We can also get theoretical about what the unique registers of sound are. What makes it a particular valuable tool for reflection and organizing? Why sound? What is unique about sound? What is it about sound that is actually able to register a type of critique that may be different from vision, for example? There is a certain kind of intimacy with sound; it moves through time, it does in fact register the evolution and the layering of ideas. People will start listening to the specific quality of other people’s voices. One of Ultra-red’s concerns is that radical investigations register the affective level of experience. We consider affect an essential component of the analytic strategy. It is valuable that people become aware of the emotional relations they have to themselves, to each other and to the conditions they are experiencing. That affective level becomes a form of analysis; it is by registering those things that you are also able to have an additional level of critical reflection.

When I teach about the AIDS crisis, for example, and students learn how the policies and actions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization influence access to treatment, they become overwhelmed at the scale of the free-market oppressions of people in the developing world. They say to me: “I feel overwhelmed, I feel helpless, I don’t feel there is anything I can do.” By spending time with that response, by reflecting on it, by listening to each other, they begin to see their own affect not as an uncritical and natural production. It becomes a symptom of a certain structural context and they begin to analyze the relation they have to these issues. Not just their intellectual, but also their affective relations: How, as a result of feeling “overwhelmed,” can you undertake an analysis? Rather than turn away from the crisis and conclude that there is nothing you can do, can you comprehend being overwhelmed as an understanding of the crisis? What can you understand about what produces your sense of helplessness?

Despair is not confined to our work as a collective. I battle it myself in my activist work on the AIDS crisis and gender and sexuality rights, and repeatedly encounter it in my colleagues and collaborators. There are a few strategies to battle despair. One is a form of repression. I think this often happens in activism. We find relief in the script, in the pre-formed analysis provided by the intellectual patron of particular causes. Despair, to the extent that it paralyzes us, is the enemy of activism and we overcome it by sticking to the talking point. Alternately, despair is viewed not as a state of paralysis necessarily but a relationship to events and conditions. If you hear despair in others and you listen together to the tone and form of that despair, you begin to historicize and denaturalize emotion and its objects. In the case of my students, in the example I gave above, the object of their feelings of despair is the seemingly unstoppable force of global politics and economics. It is an amazing moment in the class when someone says, “There is nothing I can do,” because the others acknowledge the same thought and feeling. And just when it feels that we are all about to fall off a cliff and give up, I suggest we listen precisely to what everyone is saying. Thus, we slow down. We take our time, we are careful. Sound is an amazing mechanism through which you can actually register levels of experience and make them available for codification and analysis. Someone will inevitable note a contradiction between the claims of helplessness and the knowledge we have developed in the classroom and we start talking about ourselves as actors, perhaps even in despair, but actors nonetheless.

VAN TOMME: Although Ultra-red’s premises are very theoretical and analytical in nature, would you say that it is all about the human aspect in the end?

SEMBER: I am reminded of an event we organized last year at the Tate Britain in London. We Come From Your Future emerged from a sustained investigation of racism and anti-migrant issues by Ultra-red members Manuela Bojadzijev, Elliot Perkins, Janna Grahame, and Dont Rhine. For the event, we set up two tables in a room in the museum. Representatives of non-governmental organizations and individuals who had confronted racism or anti-migrant acts presented testimony and recorded, in writing on large sheets of paper, their responses to each other’s statements. I sat to one side listening and watching as a number of operations emerged over the course of the event. First, the voices of “victims” and those who often speak for and advocate for them were in the same room, at the same time, and were accorded the same status by the procedure. Second, affinities emerged from the resonances between statements, between issues and constituencies that are often segregated.

At one point a young Polish couple, a woman and her husband, spoke of difficulties arising from their migrant status, and it echoed sentiments made by an older woman of West Indian descent who had lived in England her whole life. Despite racial, geographic, and generational differences, there was a recognition of what was common in the experiences of each other. During the period of discussion that ended the event, this led to the elaboration of structures common to racism and the anti-migrant sentiment among many in England by the participants. The protocol for the event offered opportunities for participants to hear each other as they spoke and then to continue that listening in the form of writing. Hearing pens scratching on paper at the same time suggested an extraordinary common purpose and gave deliberateness to the listening. The intersection of racism and anti-migrant attitudes and actions is not a new insight, but I sensed, as a listener, an affective and analytic affiliation around these issues that made that connection concrete and urgent.

VAN TOMME: So, Ultra-red’s practice is directly tied to a form of democracy and to a form of social change that is very tangible through the work?

SEMBER: Very much so. I am sure you can imagine that this has an impact on what it means for us to think of ourselves as producing artwork. Our art practice is organizing; we are interested in investigating different modes of organizing collectives. Although we will from time-to-time produce works of art, such as installations or recordings, we actually think that our primary creative work is in investigating modes of collective organizing. As artists this raises questions about your institutional relations, because many art institutions want objects. Our object is not material in that way; it is the process by which people engage with each other. We are not the sole authors of what actually happens, we may establish certain conditions and we may provide a simple structure to begin the process. Whoever participates produces the analysis. It is a process-based and very democratic engagement and practice. Our contributions are at the level of imagining what conditions produce collectives that may be meaningful to the people that participate in them. We have to revise what we think of as art, what we think of ourselves as artists, and the institutional conditions in which we practice our work. This participatory commitment was established early on in Ultra-red’s existence.

Two projects that predate my time with the collective, Structural Adjustments and The Debt, underscore the collaborative heart of our process as well as the site specificity of a lot of the work. It also illustrates a very important element of our process: the performative character of collaboration, by which I mean that it is the act of being and working together that constitutes the project. Fair housing issues cut to the heart of community in the United States and elsewhere. Urban renewal, the top-down vision of what constitutes the health of the built environment, continues to displace communities. In projects conducted with communities in Los Angeles and Dublin, Ireland, Ultra-red addressed these concerns. Again, it was about creating the conditions for people to share statements and reflect analytically on the experience of dislocation and insecurity occasioned by massive urban renewal and development projects. In Los Angeles, Ultra-red made it possible for members of a housing project to broadcast to fellow tenants. The organizing work involved setting up meetings with tenants and generating a strategy for producing and broadcasting various audio statements and compositions. At a set time on a specific day, portable radios carried by participants around the site were tuned to a particular frequency and these audio works filled the space. It is not that Ultra-red sets up a neutral structure that others speak through. It is through long-term involvement with these communities that structures emerge and statements are collaboratively composed.

VAN TOMME: Besides being artists you are also activists and scholars, in which way does this background influence the output of Ultra-red?

SEMBER: If I were to hierarchize these things, I would probably say that we are activists first and foremost. All of our primary investments are in processes of social change; the art becomes one of the mechanisms that we use to actually engage in that project. The work that we do as a collective, as an Ultra-red collective, is not our identity. We do not identify with Ultra-red, we identify rather with the activist constituencies that we are involved with. It means that we really shift our art making from processes of commodification to strategies of social change. Concerning scholarship, a good number of us are intellectuals with ties to universities. The critical investigation of social issues and aesthetics we undertake as scholars is productive to our artwork. We are bound together as a collective by a very strong anti-capitalist analysis, and social justice is what drives each of us. It provides relevance and rational for the work that we do.

VAN TOMME: How difficult has it been to work together as a collective on a global scale.

SEMBER: We have worked together for a long time, so we know each other very well. That’s one of the things that have helped; there is a familiarity that you have with people over the time, where it is very easy to drop in. That being said, we can move pretty fast if we need to. The other thing is that Skype has been a godsend to us; we are able to have a great deal of communication with each other when we need to. It has its problems, because it would be good to be able to work face-to-face. At the same time, the benefits of having relationships through struggles in many different local settings far out-weigh the difficulties of not being able to be together consistently. We are able to learn from each other about what the terms of these struggles are and that deepens our collective analysis, so that we can have a transnational view on the issues we are dealing with. Because of fairly consistent communication, we have remained pretty clear about where everybody is geographically but also in relation to the kinds of projects that they are involved in. So being spread across a number of countries is not a huge deal.

VAN TOMME: How should I picture that? Are these mostly conversations or do you really create work online, collectively?

SEMBER: There’s a familiarity on the part of the members of the collective with the general strategy we use to approach projects. When we are working on a project, the members located in the region where the work is happening engage in intensive research through local activist and community networks. And, then, through a series of conversations as well as lengthy emails in which they document the process and its outcomes we are all sort of informed. When it is time to prepare for an event, we have a series of discussions about finding a structure for a piece that is relevant to the conditions the research has mapped out for us. It’s not that all members of the collective are involved in all projects. There is flexibility in the configuration of the group, which means that we can focus on multiple projects at the same time. And then there is the extensive documentation of the work shared with all of the members. In that sense, we are all basically on the same level in terms of our understanding of what is happening. Afterwards, we revise the principles of our work on the basis of each project and those become the foundation for future investigations.

VAN TOMME: So it is all very dynamic and organic, basically, and non-hierarchical?

SEMBER: Yes, absolutely non-hierarchical. Dont Rhine and I, although Dont in particular, are the ones who are currently the most actively engaged in the work and that is because we have the time to be. At present we are the points of contact for the group as a whole, so we travel extensively between parts of the United States and Europe, in order to participate in all projects. We also assume a lot of responsibility for the day-to-day management of the projects, but it is absolutely non-hierarchical. It is not as though anyone in Ultra-red needs permission from anybody else to do what they want to do.

VAN TOMME: Ultra-red does not release CDs anymore. Instead, everything is made available online and free for download. Don’t you make it incredibly difficult for yourself, commercially I mean? What is the thinking behind opening up all your material for free access through Public Record?

SEMBER: Ultra-red was never a moneymaking venture, even if we had wanted it to be. The kind of work we produce is not going to sell, is not commercial. It is not a profit-making enterprise; it does not produce anything close to what is necessary to fund the work we do. For very practical reasons profit is just not a relevant issue. There are a number of gestures in Public Record. It is part of the commitment to the democratic production of sound and access to that sound. Essentially, the work comes out of a collective enterprise, not just the Ultra-red collective. I am very uncomfortable with the claim that the stuff that comes out of the work that we do is only Ultra-red stuff, because we work closely with a large number of people. Public Record is a very simple intervention into the process of commodification, the claim of authorship and the claim that one actually owns the object and can profit from it. The idea of private ownership of things, even the claim to a unique vision, becomes very complicated. In that sense, Public Record is an institutional critique. There are certain things that should be accessible and available to all, the idea of controlling access or charging money for it is a contradiction. So public access doesn’t make things difficult for us at all, in fact it only helps if it means that more people have access to our work. It means that there are potentially more people who are encountering the kind of politics we are interested in.

Niels Van Tomme is associate director of arts and media at Provisions Library. He is also an independent curator, art critic, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This series on new media is part of a special collaboration with Provisions Library supported by the Arca Foundation.