In 2016, Maria Murphy and Roksana Filipowska set up Listening (to) Cyborgs, a collaborative media archaeology lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, Maria Murphy delves into what it means to work at the intersection of theory and practice, and how doing so has informed her research on Laurie Anderson.
Above: first session of Listening (to) Cyborgs
Media Archaeology and the Cyborg
Laurie Anderson’s unique artistic interventions combining politics and aesthetics are perhaps best known from her 1981 piece “O Superman.” The work has circulated widely and across multiple settings—from the Museum of Modern Art’s multimedia installation to the curious case of the Italian Health Ministry’s use of the piece in an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the late 1980s—but it is most closely associated with the failed rescue missions of the Iran-hostage crisis, in particular, “Operation Eagle Claw,” during which helicopters malfunctioned and eight American service men were killed. “O Superman” featured innovative uses of sound technologies, including the H910 Eventide Harmonizer, a studio processor first released in 1975 with pitch-shifting, delay, and feedback capacities among other effects, and a vocoder, a speech synthesis encoder. In the United States, the vocoder originated in Bell laboratories (initially a telephone company; now one of the world’s largest specializing in corporate research) and was developed as a voice encryption military technology.
In 2014, when I first toyed with the idea of writing about Anderson for my doctoral dissertation, I was familiar with some of the particulars of the material history of the vocoder—its military origins, as well as how Anderson creatively appropriated its sonic capacities to critique military technologies and State surveillance practices, working toward disentangling sound technologies from technoutopianist ideals. However, some of the more nuanced scientific and technical properties of Anderson’s sound tools eluded me: how did Anderson’s “voice of authority” manipulate her vocal formant beyond the obvious pitch-shifting capacities of the Eventide Harmonizer that digitizes the signal of her voice? What technical properties of these tools characterized the densely affective charge of her impression of Ronald Reagan’s vocal prosody or her envoicing of an insurance salesman? Such questions necessitated closer hands-on, practice-based research, and a different kind of academic setting in which to conduct experiential and experimental work bolstered by modes of inquiry derived from Science and Technology Studies.
Roksana Filipowska, my friend and collaborator in the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania, shared my interest in sound studies, feminist science, and sound technologies more generally, and she introduced me to the model of the media archaeology lab. We considered not only how this model might best facilitate my own research on Laurie Anderson, but also how it could be mobilized to consider the use of sound technologies for a wider audience beyond music studies, and provide a framework for interdisciplinary work. Broadly conceived, media archaeology positions research at the intersection of theory and practice, and considers “media” as but one variable in a dense assemblage comprised of methods and matters of concern that integrate Science and Technology Studies, aesthetics, politics, and affect. Media archaeology is often defined in reference to lab work, a medium that, to us, seemed full of potential to approach some of the pressing epistemological issues that arise from thinking through sound and technology via scientific and experimental means. The media archaeology lab presented an open-ended format with an interdisciplinary scope—worthwhile for knowledge-creating practices in musicology and sound studies. We created Listening (to) Cyborgs: A Media Archaeology Workshop on Sound Technologies—a project that has since morphed into various configurations of research, performance, and activist projects, but began as a semester-long workshop with students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pennsylvania and community members from Philadelphia.
In daily life and social practice, our communication, labor, and entertainment practices involve voice recognition software, microphones, and operating systems, yet we are often unaware or unfamiliar with the design, mechanics, and political implications of these tools. Together, Roksana and I envisioned a workshop series in which we could create an opportunity for students and faculty, as well as invited sound artists, scholars, and curators, to experiment with and interrogate the multidisciplinary production processes of various new media and sound technologies including voice processors, harmonizers, looper stations, music software, and Digital Audio Workstations. Our goals for the workshop included: engaging in a media archeology of communication technologies, encouraging graduate students to think through the materiality of the technologies they study, and interrogating the ways in which sound technologies can form and constitute our subjectivities as cyborgs—as beings marked and informed by our interactions with technologies and technical networks.
We aimed for collaborative knowledge production, with cross-disciplinary Penn and Philadelphia participants including students, staff, and faculty in Music, History of Art, Anthropology, Linguistics, Engineering, and from the Annenberg School for Communication—all connected by an interest in sound studies. This multidisciplinary environment also afforded us an opportunity to question disciplinary norms and disciplinary claims to knowledge. We solicited reading suggestions and tried to manifest the goals of the feminist science models we were discussing. Following Donna Haraway’s formulation of feminist science as a mode of situated knowledge production, we welcomed all involved to gain firsthand experience of using this equipment to produce sound.
The workshop offered a hub for the Penn community to learn and discuss the interlinked processes and politics of sound production from multiple perspectives. Layla Ben-Ali critiqued the possibility of technological insurgencies and the notion of exemplary human technology through analyses of THEESatisfaction. Daniel Villegas invited participants to consider the timbral materiality of the iconic Korg M1 synthesizer and Fatima Al Quadiri’s appropriation of the synth in her aural landscape of war as a fixture of hypermodernity. Mara Mills led participants through a series of audiometry tests (what she called “aural Rorschach” tests), teasing out the listening techniques and politics embedded in the tests’ design. Sound artists Fursaxa, SCRAAATCH, and Nadia Botello generously offered participants introductions to the basic form and function of the sound technologies they use, as well as insight into their own use of technologies as part of aesthetic and political interventions.
In addition to sessions with invited guests, there were also many sessions in which we were simply experimenting with the equipment we had culled together: the tools and software guests had provided, plus our own voice processors and looper stations. Many participants who were working with electronic music equipment for the very first time brought their own embodied knowledges to the table through experimentation and play. These sessions often resulted in thinking through how the body processes and experiences sound, following Gloria Anzaldúa’s work on extra sensory perception and Susan Stryker’s work on affect and experience as both method and theory. Of course, such experimentation also encouraged us to embrace failure as a constitutive factor in the dynamic we sought to create, often invoking Jack Halberstam’s work on the queer art of failure to position the liberating pathways that can emerge from mistakes. So, while some sessions (especially those in the beginning of the series) included us figuring out the technical basics—plugging in cables and exploring the capacities of each tool—other sessions were focused on particular critical theory texts. Often these exercises and conversations overlapped.
The generative friction between theory and practice was evident from our very first session, in which we paired a reading of Haraway’s well-known “Cyborg Manifesto” with unboxing the equipment for which we had hustled funds to purchase. Discussing Haraway’s text, we began slowly articulating some of the fundamental critical questions about technocultures and sound politics that would guide the rest of the workshop. In this discussion, a heated debate emerged over the political constitution of code. While some participants firmly disagreed with the notion that code could contain (or at the very least reflect) bias, others were distraught to hear that some participants working with code did not recognize the act of creating or contributing to a programming language as potentially political. This turned into a discussion about the advent of facial recognition software: particularly its racist algorithms, and then its contributions to State surveillance tactics more widely. Quickly we realized how working at the intersection of theory and practice forced us to confront some of the overlooked political convictions of each of our own unique practices and disciplinary training.
At the same time, lurking in the background were growing anxieties over the weaponization and commercialization of research at Penn, specifically to do with projects like Pennovation and the development of drone technologies, as well as Department of Defense-funded graduate student fellowships in some fields. Indeed, our media archaeology project also compelled us to attend to the uncomfortable juxtaposition of researching the political capacities of sound technology while the research of some of our peers was being coopted, however directly or indirectly, for American imperialist projects. This encouraged us to question not only how to work in an environment that, at the very least, acknowledges the neoliberal conditions that impact these research spaces, but also how to grapple with a burgeoning academic-military complex.
Beyond the workshop, several participants have continued to think through these issues with various research, activist, and performance projects. For example, Juan Castrillón has created and contributed to multimodal installations that range from examining the multilingual dissemination of knowledge in disciplinary spaces to audio-video essays as a mode of ethnographic research. Roksana and I gathered protest sounds to create sound “forests” to play at protests against the detainment and deportation of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. We partnered with Naomi Waltham-Smith and Tod Machover to offer a “Listening for Democracy” workshop on creating field recordings and considering the attendant political implications of recording sound in the city.
Personally, the workshop gave me more insight into Laurie Anderson’s critique in “O Superman”—to see the ways in which her piece indexes a long history of failed military-deployed technologies as well as to recognize how governmental and institutional affiliations conscript us into broader systems of exploitation under the guise of technical innovation. My experience with Listening (to) Cyborgs and its resonances with “O Superman” continue to reverberate through my work and thinking: the State cannot rescue, save, or redeem that which the State itself has endangered.
Maria Murphy is a lecturer in the Department of Music at Rowan University and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work addresses the intersections between sound technologies, new media and media infrastructure, performance art, and body politics.