Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Great Wall of Music

Glenn Weynant, a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, is a “baker- welder” and a funky sound sculpture artist who has in the past worked with all sorts of found objects, beating on them with pots and pans, wiring them to guitars, and even invented his own sound transmogrifer – the Kestrel 920 – which was designed to “amplify and exploit the nano and overt vibrations created through percussive blows, bowing, electromagnetic fields and assorted manipulation.”
Among his many other experimental makeshift hybrid acoustic sonifications, one of his most recent projects called “The Anta Project” (in Sanskrit this roughly translates to ‘border’ or ‘end of territory’), he essentially turns parts of the U.S./Mexico border fence into a form of musical instrument. What?

Yeah, I know, how did I not hear about this before? How have I not gone down there already and run around with this dude to check this out?
Reading about it in this recent news piece recounting an appearance he made in California at UC Merced to talk about it, I was, of course, utterly intrigued.
Based in Tucson, Arizona, the portion of the border fence he chose to “play” was a section in Nogales that divides Sonora, Mexico from Arizona. His strategy, which is both described in the article (and on his website), uses chopsticks and bows, “a metal whisk with bent tines, an amazingly sturdy cardboard tube which once held fax paper, thin rods of aluminum removed from a science experiment and palm cut frond cores,” most of which he says were either found in the desert or constructed for the purposes of interacting with the particular border fence materials.

He then bangs and taps the sheet metal walls and gently strokes the barbed wire strands like a massive remote terrestrialized border cello, all of which produces odd hums, spindly gurgles, metallic guttural vibrations that he records into a multi-track on his laptop through microphones strategically placed on the fence.

You can listen to samples right here. Kind of a funky ambient electro minimalist ready-to-be-sampled raw noise kind of stuff. But, more than that it’s a kind of political noise, if you will.
In addition, he apparently also recorded “the sound of wind vibrating the fence along with thump-thump-thump sound made by U.S. Department of Homeland Security helicopters that were flying above the fence at the time of the recordings.” As if the fence weren’t enough, he’s got the sounds of the war machine chiming in the background, reminiscent of the Italian futurists, or something. Perfect, as far as I am concerned.

In the Merced Sun Star piece, he says:
"There's actually a lot of political and conceptual ramifications for that decision. What one decides is noise get policed and cordoned off from what gets to be considered music," he added.
"To me, you know a thing only by uniting with it. To be able to play a wall — that is really like immersing yourself in the wall and becoming the wall, by creating this sound and relating with it," Ramicova said. "That's how art is. You unite with something through playing it, painting it or writing about it."

So, it almost goes without saying that I am obsessed with the idea of converting the Wall into something else, adaptively re-using its physical and acoustic properties for some other considerably more noble purpose altogether. Recontextualizing military urbanism for the sake of some sort of counter-valence where the products of spatial division serve as an unwitting engineering of their own demise.

[Image: Our Wall, National Geographic, Photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel.]

Supposing we relent for a moment and accept that border fences are destined to completely take over the world and will undoubtedly proliferate across the global landscape. I wonder then how they might be used to, in a sense, bring themselves down?
How could we, as Weyant intends, transform them from “a symbol of fear and loathing into an instrument”? Not only an instrument for making music but for devising some sort of architectural protest, perhaps; how could we use these structures to create a kind of auto-deconstructive Wall event where borders and barriers become a symbol of solidarity and resistance rather than an extended spatial dimension of military power and divisive nationalism?
What if playing them, as Weyant does, turned the fence along the U.S./Mexico border into something that came alive? What if all walls became, as a result of being made musical, to some degree, conscious of their own presence, their imposing nature – often times tragically out of context – erected for no other purpose then to serve some ideological trapping?

[Image: Our Wall, National Geographic, Photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel.]

When I hear the music of the Anta Project I imagine the psychic nature of the border fence itself suddenly being tapped, awoken, beckoned like a sleeping leviathan laid out across the earth. Perhaps like an epic snake charmer, or nomadic conductor, his soft mallets gently nudge it from a deep embedded slumber, massaging its long rambling body, coercing its parts into a risen wholesome self-awareness; its emaciated corrugated steel spine ringing with spectral tonality, vibrating, purring at his quirky touch.
Tingling with the architectural sensations that only perhaps a border fence can know it becomes apparent to our ears that it is a structure in pain, caught in an interminably vain existence – the U.S./Mexico border fence is the architecture of an absurd political symbol; a mere barricade; an aesthetic and pathetic joke.
I hear the border fence in Nogales bemoaning the fact that it is the mockery of the entire desert, laughed and scoffed at by the surrounding natural landscape that has for years resisted any direct structural, let alone, militaristic delineation of territoriality.

[Image: Our Wall, National Geographic, Photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel.]

Perhaps certain border fences and security walls want to be barriers and are perfectly happy persisting in their separate purposes on earth, playing out their conflicted roles between nations, insinuating a certain set of ‘othered’ ideals, splitting communities apart, substituting bridges and diplomacy, mounting psychological partitions between neighboring countries, casting shadows of imaginary geographies, knifing the natural environmental ambiguity of borders right where they stand.
But perhaps others are less inclined to stand as tall or half as proud. What if some of these border fences actually regret the day of their birth; they sag, they wilt, they crumble under the sun, picked apart by time, stuck in some gestural pose of power that makes less and less sense as the days go by. Perhaps some border fences pray for their own death.

[Image: Our Wall, National Geographic, Photographs by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel.]

I hear it moan, grumble, begging for its own destruction!
Who else besides the desert landscape understands the inner suffering of the border fence itself, its tortured existence?
Call me a pseudo-poetic landscape beatnik-wannabe, but picture a day where would-be musicians and sound artists and activists from all over the world truck out to the border fence nearest them with improvised mallets and handmade bows in hand, descending on these narrow political structures not to subvert or circumnavigate them, but to tease them from their silent oppression; to wrack them with music so that all the border fences are humming and purring and rattling with an acoustic language of their own – a border fence anthem, of sorts – or, an entire orchestra of coordinated border structure music, connected as they have become across the world, this universal global border wall made into mankind’s single largest earth instrument. Heard from space, the entire thing a membrane by which communities as far as Mexico and Asia tap the walls and communicate with each other, a Morse musical code transmitted through the fence, cross borders; the border wall as telemetric communication device for No Border activists.
What if then Weyant takes his show to the Nogales border tunnel infrastructure and turns that into a musical device? Underground Gaza soon bellows in a million different directions and tones.
And so on and so on….all the world’s borderzones made to sing.

All photos not including captions are courtesy of Glenn Weynant. Other Photos with captions can be found in the National Geographic Magazine and were taken by photographers by Diane Cook and Len Jenshel.


Blogger Phila said...

He then bangs and taps the sheet metal walls and gently strokes the barbed wire strands like a massive remote terrestrialized border cello, all of which produces odd hums, spindly gurgles, metallic guttural vibrations that he records into a multi-track on his laptop through microphones strategically placed on the fence.

Sounds a bit like Alan Lamb's work.

I wonder if any of this is audible - or at least recordable - from the tunnels under the fence? Or elsewhere? The possibility of navigating the desert by means of soundmarks has always interested me...

10:21 AM  
Blogger Subtopia said...

there was also this project of turning the eastern state penitentiary into a musical instrument. wish i had been able to catch it.

i imagine new immigration routes between border tunnels and around fences completely guided by acoustic navigation.
i am sure the border tunnels already have an incredibly rich if not subtle soundtrack on their own, but yeah - harnessing that for some type of musical performance migration zone, if even as performance art, pseudo-migratory experience, not cheesy tourism, but another exploration of the border.
converting the informal highways of militarism and illegal immigration into a cathartic event of some kind.
call me crazy, but when all of this structure has exhausted insinuating itself across the landscape, what will it be useful for then? music, art, conversion, novel instrumentation, new geographies of borders and migration zones based on the acoustic remnants of post-military urbanism?

12:07 PM  

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