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Auditions of Devotion

The different processes in the works that have been considered in the previous chapters, as spaces of historical amnesia, have been interpreted as expressing feminist concerns and queer theories that have each addressed different aspects of women’s cultures in sound arts and experimental musics. My listening to both of the previous works to problems of political exclusion from dominant musical/sonic discourses – as a struggle against the multiple forms in which the category of ‘woman’ has been constructed in subordination. In each of these cases, the terms of representation are both accepted and refused through different strategies that reflect the different and shifting positions of ‘woman’, composer, performer and audience addressed toward questions of authority and experience, in particular of who seeks to speak for whom.

This chapter, extending upon the previous, measures assumed thresholds of auditory intelligibility. In other words, I’m listening out for the limits of normative listening, what is generally assumed to be intelligible – and thus recognisable – as ‘sound’, as ‘listening’, as ‘hearing’, within socionormative sound reproduction practices and audio-technical discourses. Measuring assumed thresholds of auditory intelligibility in this way presents as a particular kind of auditory practice, almost like putting your ear up against a wall. It is one that is performed analytically, an analytical audition, a performative audition. Specifically in this chapter, listening is analysed through ways in which societal thresholds of ‘race’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ can be heard to manifest within and through auditory thresholds of intelligibility. This ‘audition’ is similarly addressed toward questions of authority and experience, but rather than considering who seeks to speak for whom, I am concerned here with who seeks to listen for whom.

Lauren Berlant’s notion of belonging, thought through the place of “ambient citizenship”, raises questions about communication and representation within sites of the political as much as within constructions of intimate publics (Berlant 2011: 230). Berlant puts forward the thesis that tuning into political noise – gossip, the over-heard, ambient noise and performative silence – enables an affective measurement of political parameters, one where “the noise of the political measures the materiality of status and power” (Berlant 2011: 230). This chapter takes-up Berlant’s suggestion of the noise of the political as a potentiality by which to measure assumed thresholds of auditory intelligibility, of what can be heard, what is silenced and how these concepts are instrumental in the construction of racialised, gendered and sexualised identities. Further, this chapter considers the measuring potential of noise through historically shifting concepts of ‘masking’, as processes that have been utilised in both audio technologies and as social strategies deployed to negotiate between different environments and norms and expectations. Specifically, I address ways in which the organisation of audio technologies may be considered as being informed by – and in turn materialising – certain aspects of sociopolitical organisation through theories of masking, both auditory and political. These ideas are primarily considered through the Devotional Wallpaper, the Good Morning Freedom print and the foundational placement of Shirley Bassey in the initial construction and later exhibition of the Devotional Archive. All these elements are artworks within the Devotional Collection by the British artist Sonia Boyce. The Devotional Series was exhibited as one element in Boyce’s exhibition, “Scat – Sonia Boyce: Sound and Collaboration” at Rivington Place, Iniva in London in 2013.

The Devotional Series by Sonia Boyce

The Devotional Collection resonates with the Her Noise Project addressed in the previous chapter, in that it focuses upon collective memorial strategies as a counter to forms of historical amnesia, but in regard to black British female singers, songwriters and performers. Initiated in 1999 through a collaboration program with FACT in Liverpool, lead artist Sonia Boyce, who draws upon her political identity as a British Afro-Caribbean woman in her work, was paired with the Liverpool Black Sisters1 to facilitate a series of workshops over a six-month period with the aim of co-producing an artwork. Similarly to the Her Noise Project, at the centre of the Devotional Series is the Devotional Archive, a collection of vernacular culture2 by black British women in the music industry; performers, musicians, composers, singers, songwriters and deejays. Throughout the ongoing development of this project since its inception in 1999, Boyce has continued collecting artefacts for the Devotional Archive; musical assemblages consisting of recordings, testimonials, personal correspondences, books, CDs, videos and ephemera which have been continually sent to her by friends, family, colleagues and the public since the project began. Boyce explains,

This information is passed on to me in the most informal ways. Very similar to how gossip travels, friends of friends pass on names and donate items resulting in the Devotional Collection and Archive consisting of records and tapes and brief testimonials from members of the general public. Affectively, this project is building a collective memory (transcribed Boyce Her Noise Symposium, 2012).

The listening-writing that fills the rest of this chapter is based upon the exhibition of the Devotional Collection at Rivington Place, Iniva in London in 2013, exhibited within the curated program “Scat – Sonia Boyce: Sound and Collaboration” (Iniva 2013). For the exhibition at Rivington Place, Boyce re-recreated the Devotional Wallpaper which framed the exhibition space of the lounge in which the Devotional Collection was displayed. Additionally, the artist published the Devotional Newspaper, produced the print Good Morning Freedom and extended the archive into the permanent Stuart Hall Library at Iniva, where a selection of magazines, books, DVDs and videos, presented alongside some of Boyce’s own research materials, were made available for perusal. A series of events also accompanied the exhibition, including artist talks and sound art performances.

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  1. Collaborators on this project include Sonia Boyce, Nicola Duzant, Sandi Hughes, Ann-Marie Norbert, Oluwatoyin Odunsi, Sally Olding, Dianne Paul, Pilar Rowland, Claire Taylor and Michelle Walker.
  2. Of note, there are no actual sound artists listed in this archive. The majority of artists are singers/songwriters of soul, blues, r’n’b, jazz and pop with a small handful of classical singers. There are a handful of historical figures such as Adelaide Hall and Elizabeth Welsch. There are two composers, Shirley J. Thompson and Priti Paintal. There is one sound artist in the archive, Ain Bailey,but who is listed under her deejaying alter-ego, DJ Miss Bailey.
Published inAuditions of DevotionChapter 3 | Politics of Audition