Sonic Surveillance: Eavesmining and Acoustic Space

a string grows through me - purely mine and purely not.

communing with the virtual

Listening in Three Stages:

Exploring The Ghostly Nature of Sound and Listening 

Through Lacan’s Distinctions of the ‘Imaginary,’ ‘Symbolic,’ and ‘Real’ 

The act of listening is intrinsically linked to an acknowledgment of the ghostly aspect of sound. Deep listening practices and forums become spaces to explore and engage with this ghostly-ness, engaging with an understanding of multiplicity and the disappearance of origin.  

Sound creates its ghostly character through its embodiment as the ‘real,’ “ what is neither symbolic nor imaginary, and remains foreclosed from the analytical experience” (Lacan, 1977:ix-x) Our listening falls similarly into categories, much like Lacan’s distinctions of the ‘imaginary,’ ‘symbolic,’ and the ‘real’. Our everyday interactions with sound typically engage within subconscious analytical experience. Sound waves enter our ears, and we define and link them to something previously understood: sirens in the distance, a bird, footsteps we can recognize as different family members. All of which are vibrations analyzed and categorized,  able to create a functional perception of our auditory landscape. 

The categorization of these vibrations lends itself to the dismissal of that which exists outside of origin. Sound and listening write their definition, for example, a sonogram of a siren will act as a visual representation of the frequencies of the ‘origin’ sound, in this case, a falling tone coming from a moving amplifier. Yet, this visual rendering already fails in its inability to illustrate the way in which these frequencies gain new character and distinction on their surroundings: the way they bounce off each other, gain new tones from the objects they resonate against, certain tones lost in other excess noise, etc.  Through our conditioning of an audible language, a siren as a siren, a bird as a bird, these characters become pushed into a ghostly space. We now identify a siren as a siren, its location and movement mapped in our brains as it travels across a street, all for its functional usage of mapping our environment. This mode of listening enacts sound as the imaginary. “The imaginary [] then the world, the register, the dimension of images, conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined. In this respect,'imaginary' is not simply the opposite of 'real': the image certainly belongs to reality (Lacan, 1977: ix). Through its necessary predication upon perception, our everyday listening operates in this way, continuing a lack of concern for imagined qualities. 

The process of reaffirming a particular perception of sound as connected to an origin is one similar to Derrida’s understanding of writing, that “the value of the transcendental arche [origin] must make its necessity felt before letting itself be erased. The concept of the arche-trade must comply with both that necessity and that erasure. The trace is not only the disappearance of origin … it means that the origin did not disappear, that it was never constituted except reciprocally by a non-origin, the trace which then becomes the origin of the origin.” (Derrida, 2998:xvi) Distinctions of sound origin as auditory embody Derrida’s writing of the arche. As a result, trace and the ghost are enforced, and redirected - the necessity of perception in listening a core of this enactment.. Through bringing a focus to different experiences of listening, shifting ears to focus on background noise, higher frequencies, creating sound as an experience of listening - trace becomes reinforced. This trace exists as a space comparable to Lacan’s understanding of the ‘real,’ that which “is neither symbolic nor imaginary, and remains foreclosed from the analytical experience … that before which the imaginary faltered, that over which the symbolic stumbles, that which is refractory, resistant.” The ‘real’ becomes a space away from origin, from rendering, from force - all of which necessary for engaging in that which it isn’t. 

Trace-type listening is a growing practice in sound art and experimental music communities. This mode of listening operates with an intention to become a practice in exploration of the ‘real’, a dismissal of origin, and a reaffirming of the ghost. In the context of the previous example of the siren - the main frequencies of a siren rising and falling might move to the background of the listener’s mind, small creaks, hums, low drones of generators, the winds effect on the ears - all become a bigger focus. The malleability of the sound already reaffirms the multiplicity of our sonic environment, and in turn acknowledges the individual action in conditioning priorities of sound. 

Many sound artists cite first finding their way into this explorative form of listening through Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Sonic Meditations,’ a set of text compositions she developed after retreating from society for a short time following her anger at the violence of the Vietnam War. What resulted are instructional compositions which range from vague to specific in the actions asked of the participant. One piece, ‘Energy Changes’ outlines a re-rendering of the sonic environment, “listen to the environment as a drone. Establish contact mentally with all of the continuous external sounds and include all of your own continuous internal sounds, such as blood pressure, heartbeat, and nervous system. When you feel prepared, or when you are triggered by a random or intermittent sound from the external or internal environment, make any sound you like in one breath, or a cycle of like sounds. When a sound or a cycle of sounds, is completed re-establish mental connection with the drone, which you first established before making another sound or cycle of like sounds.” (XIII, Sonic Meditations) In this meditation, vocalizations act as a rendering of the sonic environment. Participants are asked to explore their listening as a path to finding new, unfamiliar sounds, analyzing this conditioning of priorities. 

As participants in Pauline Oliveros’ piece are then asked to make their own sounds, vocalizations become a rendering of these priorities, they are a display of force that allow conversation around sensation to be experienced rather than actualized. Through inviting the participant to listen and navigate the sonic world as one with different avenues of focus, different paths, to, as Deleuze may put it, use listening as “a force [which] must be exerted on a body, on a point of the wave.” (Deleuze, 2003:49)  This use of listening as force then functions as an act of rendering in which the vague nature of the participant allows for interaction with the ghostly nature of sound. That which exists beyond any distinctions brought forth by the listener. The rendering a re-establishment of ones connection with this ghost. Something away from any origin of sound as the ‘imaginary,’ moving beyond origins of sound and focusing on the ghost as an access to Trance. 

Dirty Ear Forum, a collaborative meeting space based in Berlin focuses on generating art and conversation for sound as a space for Ghost and Trance. One of its founders, Brandon Labelle outlines this understanding in his statement detailing his relationship to the exploration of sound, “I would say that sound is movement itself – already my voice is moving into this room... Yet where it, or any sound will end up can be appreciated as a sort of open horizon of possibility: maybe it will find its way into your listening, maybe it will leak out of the window, or maybe it will slip under the door to be heard by someone hiding there... Which is to say, that sound is fundamentally a poetic movement, because it immediately invites, or I might say, requires the imagination. What I hear might be something, or it might be nothing; it moves into the open space, it tries to reach me: in other words, sound is an act of proliferation – it is always more than you think. It rushes forward, touching walls and floors, brushing against this body; it is a special agitation, because as a consequence of its intense movements it also coheres and unites: it brings together; we are already participating in the space that it creates. You can't escape, you can't hide; this sound has got you – it has all of us, it carries us along in its wave, pushing us together.” (Labelle, Dirty Ear Forum #1) This kind of listening, dubbed “dirty” by Labelle, is one which centers itself around navigating the exchange of force and sensation. It requires a type of belief in that which exists beyond our prioritized rendering of sounds. These renderings exist in our identification of sonic vibration as connected to origin, and as such, identifying sounds and generating work akin to Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Sonic Meditations’ becomes a rendering of force. This rendering of force predicated on the existence of sensation. “If force is the condition of sensation, it is nonetheless not the force that is sensed, since the sensation “gives: something completely different from the forces that condition it.” (Deleuze, Painting Forces, 48) Here, Labelle speaks on this sensation as participation in the spaces sound creates. Although Labelle places this participation in sensation as a result of the requirements of imagination in sound, the imagination becomes another form of rendering that which is already there. The multiplicity of a listener’s perception, and the multiplicity of sound itself all exist outside of a rendering of these to vocalization. Engagement with this multiplicity/sensation/’real’ then act as a somewhat religious experience: that which is predicated on belief in an ‘other’ - that which is separate from our own conditioned preferences of perception and definitions. The closest we can come to defining this ‘other’ from the power of rendering force, allowing sensation to exist as something separate. Sensation an othering experience that through its multiplicity, “has got you.” (Labelle)

Sensation in connection with sound has essential albeit subtle uses in other communities and disciplines as well, such as rural Appalachian pentacostal radio stations. These radio stations use sound as a transference of the healing power of the Holy Ghost; “material conduits always seem to insinuate themselves into the contemporary worship context in a tactile attempt to mitigate the precariousness of prayer. Thus, a panoply of charismatic techniques of the body, material objects, and media technologies are simultaneously engaged to make manifest the presence of the Holy Ghost. Such material and ideational entanglements summon a physicality shared by both the spirit and the radio voice, a commonality that is necessary for successful faith healing.” (Blanton, 2015:15) The Holy Ghost is felt as Lacan’s the ‘real,’ through sensory experience, ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’ are released to be immersed in sensation. Vibrations act as a transmission of something liminal, much like a dirty form of listening, use of material translation act as a dirty form of belief. The use of technology becomes a clearer actualization of invisible forces. Thus, in contrast, ‘sensation’ becomes more accessible. The forces that render both sound and the Holy Ghost are made clear, allowing recognition of the conditioning of sensation. This honesty in conditioning, its predication upon multiplicity and the ghostly aspects of multiplicity provide environments for healing, listening, and communing. 

Sounds functions in this way even without the religious ideology of a Holy Ghost. Sound art practices function as a similar space for healing in creating definitions of rendered force, for participants to engage in sensation as a space underneath the cracks, understood but not defined, a dirty way of listening.

Take a walk at night. 

Find a crossing of nature and brick

Sit in the grass.

Track the sounds from left to right.

Breathe in the tempo of each sound.

Place your fingertips on a chest and track the movement of your ears.

Separate machinery from nature.

Live in each.

(Variation I: for group, half live in each then switch.)