The Art of Being Many: The Sounds of Separation, Selection and Seduction.

repost from November 14 City Fables project

The Art of Being Many — The Sounds of Separation, Selection and Seduction.

The Art of Being Many assembly of assemblies. Hamburg. Kampnagel Internationale Kulturfabrik. September 2014.
As we entered the large hall, we were informed that most — almost all — activities would be sonically mediated not through speakers but audio disseminated to the audience through individual headphones. Ostensibly, the idea of multiple channels with various audio tracks and a DJ-track with music for anyone who wanted to “lounge” rather than pay attention to one of the several simultaneous interventions and presentations going on, was one of freedom. Of choice. The result was, more often than not, one of seclusion and separation. We would take on our headphones and instantly be separated from each other, and anyone next to you would be distant even if we were actually listening to and engaging with the same presentation.

The mediation of sound through headphones could also create a sense of closeness. This intimacy was at times created because of the disembodied way in which a voice would enter your personal sonic space but it was hard to pinpoint where the speaker actually was placed in the erratically organized space. This was not always a welcome intimacy; it could be intrusive and disorientating. Where were the people who were speaking just then? Time was spent looking for the people whose voices I heard, and whenever I could not find them with my eyes an entire register of enunciation and communication was lost to me as they became jumbled, non-bodied voices.

Often I found myself seeking comfort in the lounge channel so that music could engage me and give me a moment of reprieve when I grew tired of the disjunctive experience of listening to speakers whose bodies (and bodily language) were hidden from me. And, at least, when I’m listening to music I am expecting to be disconnected from those sitting next to me. A privatizing aesthetic choice, in Michael Bull’s terms (2013), that I can indulge in and know I have some power over, at least choosing when to listen, even if not what to listen to.

I remember vividly groups of people, sitting and standing around, as if they had little glow worms in their hair: red, green and blue lights on our headphones. How could an assembly happen in any real and engaging way here?

Hamburg 2014

As the Sounds, Systems, and Voices group began their presentation/performance/event the confusing or often tiring activity of negotiating the sonic space vis-à-vis the rest of the experience, was transformed into a seductive, sensitive experience. Ernesto Estrella Cózar explored the “guided relaxation exercise” in order to take us — the listeners — into a gradual “abandonment of the body.” As manipulative as any of the other sound mediations at the Assembly, this one had a different goal, one which the mediation actually fit. Most importantly, the experience of following Ernesto’s voice allowed us — prompted us — to put our sight aside. With that, the searching for he who was speaking so closely next to me, into me, was nullified.

As I re-emerged from the experience, I wrote the following:

It is such a sensual experience to have his voice close, close in my ears as if I could feel his breathe on my skin. When I do look for him, there, across the large hall the disjunction between close and far evokes an unknown but not uncomfortable feeling. His calm voice asks me to lie down and it is not so much that I obey but rather that I want to go with him; I want to feel this some more and so I go with his voice wherever it goes. When his voice disappears I feel a sense of loss. A wish that he should come back and help me relax into myself again. The sensuality too, is real, echoing through my body, pausing in turn at the reassuring, the care-giving, the comforting, the sexual. From respect, in reverence to my following his voice, succumbing to those “fucking you all until you are deaf” raunchy, off-kilter comments, I refuse to choose another channel when the next session starts.

When he returns I seek out his channel and with my headphones close and my eye on him as he starts talking, I stretch out not only my fingers at his command, but part of my body. I extend into space, floating around, seeking him, his voice. He says:

You hear murmurs; someone is coughing, someone is masturbating, someone is talking softly close by.
You can choose to take those things personally, or just let them go.

The difference is staggering between those at the Assembly, such as Ernesto, who understood the multiple implications of sonic mediation and remediation and those who staged the headphone remediation of voices, failing to grasp the emotional, intellectual and interpersonal consequences of their choice. Presentations that otherwise could have been heard through open speakers and thus engaged with and shared, underscoring and facilitating the Assembly. The disconnection that the use of headphones and separate audio channels caused, rendered the event’s conversation mute despite all its polyphonic choices. Not an assembly of assemblies, but — simply — a cluster of inchoate assemblies engaging side by side but not always being allowed to co-exist.


Bull, Michael. 2013. “iPod use: an urban aesthetics of sonic ubiquity.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. 27:4. 495–504.DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2013.803300.

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