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Activating Publics

The two works addressed in this chapter, Cathy Lane’s Hidden Lives (1999) and Emma Hedditch’s We’re Alive, Let’s Meet! (2005) provide complimentary movements for an appreciation of the ways in which sound arts and experimental musics may be perceived to socialise experience and as a means of experiencing socialisation. In other words, each work can be heard as de-materialising and re-materialising identities and publics through sound and music.

Both Hidden Lives and We’re Alive, Let’s Meet! critique and expand upon some of the ways in which the ‘category of woman’ has been constructed in and through practices of composition, sound arts and experimental musics. The deployment of archival materials that underpins each work – whether that be a text from the 1930s or riot grrrl music from the 1990s – and that each express similar performative concerns, can be heard to create a sense of belonging for those who, as Lauren Berlant writing about intimate publics describes, may “already share a world view and emotional knowledge” as “nondominant peoples” (Berlant 2008: viii). By listening through cultures of circulation – through texts, musics, images, zines, records, memes, giffs, Tumblr pages, blogs, word of mouth, mixtapes, CDs, objects and ideas – that people share in time and space as happenings and across time and space through ephemeral resonances, a means of communicating is met with the intention of communicating something. This something is “the generation of affect through representations that aim to touch their audiences” (Cvetkovich 2012: 9).  Something is transmitted through a politicisation of affect for a working through of feelings of indignation, depression or marginalisation, of feeling political that is invested in creating the sense of having something in common and as a means of survival, indeed as a means by which to engender survival tacticians in hostile and increasingly precarious environments.

Composition as Intimate Public

Lauren Berlant explains that “the gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real – social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life” (Berlant 2008: 5). As a pointed critique that echoes Berlant’s assessment of popular women’s culture, Mimi Nguyen questions the sentimental fantasy of an “aesthetics of intimacy” such as that which she experienced in the riot grrrl movement as “engendering an emotional style, and a rhetorical practice, that sometimes glossed intimacy for reciprocity, experience for expertise, and misrecognised how forces work through these idioms” (Nguyen 2012: 178). I want to suggest then, building upon these concerns and following Ann Cvetkovich (2003), that an intimate public both mediating and mediated by the sub-cultural musics that denote a certain membership for non-dominant peoples might not be one that is based upon normative assumptions that idealise the good life as ‘living for love’, but may instead take the site of struggle, as a struggle for an “on-going, continuing, unfinished, open-ended” life, such as that which Stuart Hall has explained is a necessary modality for the activation of a ‘living’ archive, as its starting point (Hall 2001: 89). Hall’s explanation of ‘living’ archives, written in regard to the constitution of the African and Asian Visual Artist’s Archive, seemingly necessitates an engagement with an intimate public, in part due to the investment of the people whose interests form the basis of the archive’s construction,

The very practice of putting the collection together is informed by practitioners who are themselves active participants in defining the archive. They may have contributed to it. They may have collected some of it. They have appreciated and helped to interpret it. They have learned from the work in their own practice: and this new work will, in turn, become candidates for inclusion. An archive of this kind is a continuous production (Hall 2001: 91).

Seemingly, Hall’s explanation of how to make an archive ‘live’ in which “the practitioners who are themselves active participants” in the construction of the archive would be practitioners whose very “continuous production” is based upon the ongoing development of emotional knowledges and ways of feeling in common (Hall 2001: 91). Living archives then by necessity engage with various discourses of publicness – counter-publics, partially hidden publics, ephemeral publics and intimate publics (Warner 2005; Gilroy 1993; Muñoz 1996; Berlant 2008). This ‘public’ engagement becomes most evident especially when the “ability to endure may be intimately bound with the need to engage a larger public”, not as a drive for power but as the desire to inhabit “a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived” (Berlant 2008: 3 emphasis added). I want to suggest that compositional processes, such as the two that have been addressed throughout this chapter, may similarly be thought of as ‘living’ compositional processes that collapse the boundaries between archiving and composing as much as between composing and performing, where “the very practice of putting the collection together”, as the collection of musical relationships, “is informed by practitioners who are themselves active participants” (Hall 2001: 91) within those musical milieus which form the basis by which such a composition might be sensed, through relations of production. As Berlant intones,

What makes a public sphere intimate is an expectation that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a world view and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience (Berlant 2008: viii emphasis in original).

The collection of specific archival materials, installations and performances associated with what can be called feminist composition, that each express similar performative concerns, aims to create the sense of belonging for those who may “already share a world view and emotional knowledge” as non-dominant peoples (Berlant 2008: viii). Such processes that can be called feminist composition, then, seek to connect social and aesthetic processes in contemporary sound arts and experimental music practices through various feminist, LGBTQIA and anti-racist, discourses. This may at first be considered as ‘preaching to the choir’, but as Berlant points out, this is an often undervalued yet necessary process, for “when an intimate public is secreted in its own noise, it rehearses affectively what the world will feel like when its vision gains mass traction” (Berlant 2011: 238);

… an intimate public is an achievement. Whether linked to women or other non-dominant people, it flourishes as a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex of consolation, confirmation, discipline, and discussion about how to live as an x (Berlant 2008: viii).

Yet the question remains, who creates this intimate public, who has access, and whose interests form the basis of the terms of belonging? Berlant explains that, “any person can contribute to an intimate public a personal story about not being defeated by what is overwhelming… they do not have to do anything to belong” (Berlant 2011: 226-7). Following Berlant’s lead then, as a performative sense that has been developed throughout this chapter, it is not necessary to audition to belong to an intimate public, but rather to perform audition (Berlant 2011: 226). To engender a sense of citizenship in an intimate public, Berlant claims that listening out for the political in a “mode akin to eavesdropping, overhearing and gossip is preferred”, for it is affective knowledge – as ways of knowing – within the melodramatic noise of the political “that can measure the materiality of status and power” (Berlant 2011: 230; 2008: viii). But whilst the establishment of an intimate public may be an achievement and one may not actually have to do anything to belong other than track the scene’s “visceral impact”, the notion of belonging itself is perhaps the point at which “the question of whose noise matters, whose immediacy-pressures rule the tendency of the situation – who controls the zoning” (Berlant 2011: 230) become most audible within the noise of the political. The concept of belonging seemingly assumes, within its dominant use, that a desire to belong is the ‘correct’ desire to cultivate, to aspire to. As such, it is the assumed concept of citizenship within an intimate public that might most “register the normative distinctions in terms of who has the formal and informal right to take up soundspace” (Berlant 2011: 230) which is the focus that is extended throughout the following chapter.

Published inActivating PublicsChapter 2 | Unspeakable Noise