The research by Elena Giulia Abbiatici on the political component of noise in the artistic practices of the last century continues in dialogue with Abinadi Meza, filmmaker and artist whose work references spatial and temporal perception, politics, and transformation.
Elena Giulia Abbiatici: You have worked a lot on hacking and radio incursions, so on the interference and overlapping of sounds that create a cacophony of sound close to noise. These clandestine actions are part of the concept of noise as a constant background in the practice of disinformation, of communicative confusion refractory to clarity. Could we speak of noise as a socio-political practice that proceeds, without the concern to look back, towards a collective psycho-madness, due to fake news, cognitive overload and information increasingly polarised?
Abinadi Meza: Yes, this is a huge question – certainly noise can involve disorientation and even violence or pain, but I think this depends a lot on specificities of temporality and intensity. I think short bursts of tolerable noise can “reset” one’s body, one’s cognitive or neural mode; it can bring your body and the world into focus, re-activate and revitalize things. This is probably why people find other types of noise pleasurable like noise music, drone music, thrash or speed metal, or the peaceful white noise machines that help you focus or sleep. The problem with unintentional noise, noise pollution, the noise-attacks of the world, is that it never ceases, there’s no release. This kind of noise persists beyond natural points of exhaustion. When I’m doing live sound performances, since I often use elements of noise, atonality, chaos, and concrete sounds, I pay close attention to the release – when I release the pressure or intensity, that allows the body to enjoy what just passed through it, or what just enveloped it. It has to end, even if to restart.
Politically speaking, clandestine and pirate radio involves a different kind of noise, as an intervention or interruption. This is noise in a more metaphorical sense perhaps, as subversion or rebellion against a dominant force; hijacking a dominant narrative to introduce something different, to fracture the dominant coherence, to puncture it. In the work that you wrote about, Air, Condition, I saw the radio transmissions as performing a kind of perceptual puncture – I wanted to open a sonic doorway between the “invisible” macro-sonics of urban space, what surrounds us but what most of us do not hear, and our personal listening spaces, where we might listen to the radio, in our kitchen, living room, car, etc. It was about air, how the air is full of information that we don’t always perceive. COVID19 also made us aware of air, and what inhabits it, seen or unseen.
What did it mean for you to work on radio hacking in Baltimore, a large urban centre in USA, under a sky full of visual and sound interference? And what difference did you encounter and can you tell us between the soundscape in Baltimore, where you presented Ghost Station, and the soundscape in Houston, Texas, where you presented Air Condition?
Both of these are large urban metropolises, and coincidentally both are also port cities; the wetness of the air actually amplifies the intensity of the electro-soundscape, because there’s more “material” to carry the waves. But to be honest most of what I heard in the airwaves of these cities could be called trauma. Police, fire department, ambulance calls and responses – gunshots fired, burglaries reported, fires, medical calls for help, states of emergency or trouble. There were also strange and anomalous sounds – very odd alerts, beeps, tones, etc. This might have to do with weather, navigational or radio-controlled technology, or other elements of our electromagnetic world. Before I started these pirate radio interventions I did a project called [Silence.] in Dublin as an artist-in-residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. There I used specialized bio-acoustic equipment to scan the ultrasonic frequencies of the city, the soundscape above the threshold of human hearing – our silence. But this sonic world is inhabited by many living beings, even our familiars, like dogs.
I feel sorry for all of these creatures because we have polluted the air and their soundscape, while we remain blissfully unaware. For example using this equipment I could hear cash machines (bancomats) shrieking and wailing from blocks way…automatically-opening doors on stores, supermarkets, I could hear the streetlights…we have designed all of our built world in our privilege, as the center of these worlds. So of course they are comfortable for us, but other life suffers, I fear. So when I now go to a city and start scanning the electromagnetic wave-space, I realize some of the sound is human, and some is nonhuman – emitted by the “things” of our built world.
In Mere Pis: Lisbon you worked on the residual elements of a city, including dust and tectonic vibrations… In fact, noise pollution is the residual part of human activities, what remains as waste. More simply, have you ever thought of recording the negative of Mere Pis, the cleaned up sound space?
I love that idea – but as you say, sound is a kind of residue. In fact sound is the result of change – stasis is silent, but change “sounds.” Mere Pis was presented in the 3rd Lisbon Architecture Triennale, and was another attempt on my part at exploring what we’ve been talking about – the hidden dimensions of our environment, our atmosphere, I wanted to reveal realities we inhabit but don’t sense or perceive. Rather than using radio I used weather instruments, environmental sensors, but it was the same urge, to show the aliveness of the invisible. Actually my title “Mere Pis” is an anagram of the word “Empires” because I am interested in how forms, invisible or not, shape and colonise futures. And Empires have a troubled relationship with the invisible. The presence of the invisible, the spectral, haunts the city, haunts time, and haunts the Empire.
Beyond the aesthetic re-elaboration, in an era of great attention to the circular economy, do you think it is possible to transform these waste noises into further expendable energy? Could we think in terms of the economy of the future? I wonder if there are any projects that have tried this…
Oh yes certainly, let’s get technical for a moment – sound is pressure waves, as the result of a force acting upon stasis, disrupting stasis. So yes the “waste” of sound could be harnessed. For example, in piezoelectric microphones it is physical or mechanical action that generates electricity, and is sonified. You attach a “pickup” to a wooden guitar and the physical action on the instrument generates an electrical signal that is sent to the amp as sound, but that piezoelectricity could be used in other ways, and small currents can be “recycled” from sound in the air. If you get your face close enough to the guitar pickup and scream at it, your voice waves will also be electrified and sonified, though with less clarity than the physical force upon instrument. But I would love to see the ambient sound waves of our environment captured and stored for use, it’s just energy, after all.
Our brains cannot tolerate more than 45 minutes of absolute silence. This has been established by experts at Orfield Laboratories, a US company that deals with the acoustics of places (e.g. theatres). In their anechoic chamber, which absorbs 99.99 per cent of sounds, no one could last more than 45 minutes, disoriented by the lack of sound references we usually use when we move, and distressed by noises such as the gurgling of one’s stomach, breathing, heartbeat, which are not normally perceived. All those micro-sounds from John Cage’s 4’33’ concert of silence, to be precise, and the various electromagnetic waves that pass through our reality. With a practice traversed by the relationship and presence of radio waves, what does the concept of absolute silence represent for you?
This makes me think of two things – first is that scanning the radio dial is, for me, an act of seeking and travelling…I wander through fields of silence, noise, and signal. But the silence is a necessary zone in the search, it is more than silence, somehow. Regarding absolute silence, I think of a total void, and total stasis, which feels like death. I experienced this once in Rome actually, when I visited the Jewish catacombs of Vigna Randanini along the Via Appia Antica. I was with a small group that obtained special permission to enter this subterranean space, a death space. At one point we were deep in the tunnels and I lingered a little too long to look at a beautiful and mysterious fresco of a peacock, and I became left behind by the group and guide. I stepped out of the chamber, into the tunnel, and into absolute darkness and silence. I knew the group was ahead, somewhere, but the tunnels branched in different directions like a maze, and an animal terror surged through me. The depth of the subterranean complex, the porosity of the earthen and mineralized tunnels which absorb sound…the presence of the dead, it was total silence. Even if I cried out the sound would not help me, because it would have been annihilated by the place itself. Actually – ironically, in my terror, I was sonically paralyzed and couldn’t cry out. Well, I am here today talking to you so I did make it out in the end, clearly. But I think I won’t seek out absolute silence anytime soon…I am in love with the radiant sound of aliveness.
cover image: (cover 1) Abinadi Meza, portrait
Abinadi Meza, (born 1977 in Austin, Texas) Meza is a filmmaker and artist. In his practice he employs ephemeral materials, such as text and sound to create transformative spaces and explore relationships regarding individuals and social context. As a young artist Meza studied Butoh with master teachers from Japan, Europe and South America.
has shown his work at venues across North America and Europe, including Institute of Contemporary Arts, Dunaújváros, Hungary; FILE Festival,São Paulo, Bazil; MAXXI Museum, Rome; Helicotrema Festival, Venice, Walker Art Center Minneapolis; Team Titanic, Berlin; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Sonorities Festival, Belfast, FACT, Liverpool; La Casa Encendida, Madrid; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and Lisbon Architecture Triennale, Portugal. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Nothern Iowa, Cedar Falls (1999); a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (2004); and a Master of Architecture degree from SCI-ARc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Los Angeles (2009). Meza is currently a professor of Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms in the School of Art at the University of Houston. In 2014 he was awarded a Rome Prize in Visual Art by the American Academy in Rome.
The Interview to Abinadi Meza is part of “Eternal Body. Human senses as a laboratory of power, between ecological crises and transhumanism”, curated by Elena Abbiatici. This rearch has been organised thanks to the support of the Italian Council (IX edition 2020), an international programme promoting Italian art under the auspices of the Directorate-General for Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and for Tourism.
E.G. Abbiatici, The political component of noise in the artistic practices of the last century: Pt. I ( 14.10.2021) e Pt. II, 14.10.2021
Elena Giulia Abbiatici, Smell as a transcendent sense. The Role of the Olfactory System in a society focused on the Ethernal Body, Arshake 02.08.2021
Partners of the project: Arshake, FIM, Filosofia in Movimento-Rome, Walkin studios-Bangalore, Re: Humanism, Unità di ricerca Tecnoculture – Università Orientale – Naples GAD Giudecca Art District-Venezia, Arebyte – London, Sciami – Rome. “Eternal Body. Human senses as a laboratory of power, between ecological crises and transhumanism” is supported by the Italian Council (9th Edition, 2020), program to promote Italian contemporary art in the world by the Directorate-General for Contemporary Creativity of the Italian Ministry of Culture”.