an alterspace for doing: Hi-Viz 2021 Reflection by Gail Priest

Gail Priest reflects on Hi-Viz 2021: Sound as Knowledge Exchange


I am going to try and write this piece without referring to binary gender, however I will fail in the second sentence. To reconfigure the gendered binary let us think not of men and women but of those that exclude and those that include. This, of course, is not an exact overlay of those prior gendered forms (both men and women can exclude in various ways and circumstances), but the framework of inclusion-exclusion emphasises systemic actions rather than essentialist gendered characteristics. The sweet irony of Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz is that it excludes in order to include. It creates a space for shared individualities that identify as excluded by systemic dominance so that they may feel and be included. This brings into play another irony of inclusivity: it attempts to operate on both the level of the declaration of individual identity as well as collectivity. The exclusionary world says that these two things are oppositional and cannot be entertained together. Hi-Viz 2021 illustrates how these notions of individuality and collectivity can operate simultaneously and contingently.

In a visually overloaded world, sound is often considered to be excluded. (Another sweet irony of Hi-Viz is how it uses the notion of visibility in its title to draw attention to the lack of visibility of alter-sounding artist). There is then an all too easy temptation to equate sound with the excluded, which is a little too essentialist for me. The wonder of sound is that is that it is available to everyone, and this is not to exclude the biologically non-hearing as the tactility of physical vibrations are a tangible manifestation of sound itself. However, sounding as a practice, like all things, can be territorialised (according to genders, cultures, styles) and this too is addressed by the inclusivity of Hi-Viz. A way to escape the division of sound into bordered zones, is to rather focus on the correlate of sound — listening — and to proactively listen using all the prepositions. To listen in, out, through and perhaps most importantly towards and with others. To listen as an inclusive, practice, both creatively and as an overall way of being.

The theme of the 2021 Hi-Viz Summit is Sound as Knowledge exchange, devised through the collaborative curatorium of Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe, Aviva Endean and Amos Gebhardt. They propose that they are “interested in individual and collective practices which disrupt the habitual, to ask how expanding an attunement to sound can generate cultures of change? Care and connectivity? Protest and survival?” (Curatorial statement). I’m interested in this term “attunement” as an alternative to listening. Firstly, it frees us from the biological limitation of hearing, but it also suggests the change in our selves that listening facilitates, a change that brings us into closer connection with others. This notion is explored, or maybe even enacted, through three panel sessions offering presentations by artists working with sound and music in expressions that range through opera, installation, radio, video, activism, relational experiences, electroacoustic performance, artificial intelligence and more. The strength of the day’s presentations is their clear focus and intensity. The artist have perhaps been encouraged to discuss one or two works rather than a more general range, and this deeper dive into exemplary projects seems particularly satisfying given we have been unable to experience artworks in the real for such long periods of pandemic time.

The day starts with Bunnerong elder Dyan Summers’ welcome, a moving account of the kidnap of her heavily pregnant grandmother, Elizabeth, wife of a Bunnerong. Chief. Grandma Betty, along with another woman, Marjorie and her daughters, are sold to sealers who live on the Bass Straight Islands. These women resiliently continue the Bunnerong culture on these islands and some of their descendants return to the Bunnerong lands on the mainland, which covers the south eastern parts of the Kulin nation. Aunty Dyan’s generous welcome, personalises and particularises the acts of abuse by colonisers, and celebrates the strength of a living culture and connection to land, a land that she asks us to tread lightly on.

The curators then introduce the theme, Sound as Knowledge exchange. Aviva Endean frames this within sound as mode of intergenerational sharing, proposing that artists are custodians of sound, offering the First Nations approach to sonic culture as a prime example of how the immateriality of sound may be understood as a living knowing that must be nurtured, maintained and shared. Amos Gebhardt addresses how sound is a relational medium that offers a language that can traverse ideas, methodologies, cultures and species. Sound and sound knowledges have the power to disrupt dominant structures allowing for the minoritised—genders, cultures, races, identities—to make themselves heard. Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe, with poetic power, focuses on the voices of these minorities, highlighting the issue of how minorities voices have not simply been silenced but stolen by dominant cultures. She proposes the notion of moving beyond the “binary of equality” in a way that reminds us that even the accustomed language of equality relies on an assumption of dominance and repression. She introduces the non-hierarchical nature of the presentations, with no keynotes and all artists offered the same durations, and the option to use a form that best represents them. She finishes by floating the dream of a time when Hi-Viz will no longer be necessary, when all minoritised cultures and genders are visible “across all intersections of practice”.

We are then invited to participate, via the chat facility of Zoom, responding to prompts set out by Chamber Made’s Emilie Collyer: What land are you on?; What is an element of place that is meaningful to you?; What is a sound you associate with your day to day life?; What themes have been emerging in your practice this year?. To conclude the session we all unmute ourselves and voice the ideas in a joyous cacophony of difference and agreement. This is one of the several moments in which we are encouraged to participate, as best we can in the alterverse of Zoom. While nothing like real exchange, these moments still allow a certain level of engagement and a feeling that while we are in different places, we are together in time.

Stéphanie Kabanyana Kanyandekwe moderates the first session on Story telling and the Sensory Archive. Deborah Cheetham discusses making Pecan Summer[1] (2010), the first Australian Indigenous Opera and Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace[2] (2019). She talks of how she works in traditional forms of western music to allow an opening into a new territory of story and language, using the “known” to reveal the “unknown”, in a way that then encourages a “move from not knowing to knowing — to understanding a shared history”. Her project Woven Song[3] is a series of chamber pieces composed in response to ten tapestries made of selected works of First Nations artists hanging in embassies around the worlds. Cheetham composes the pieces utilising the instrumentation of each host country and in a pre/post-pandemic world, this includes performing these works in the countries themselves. She talks of the interrelations of art forms, materials and cultures and how these cultural processes hold old and new knowledges. In the following discussion she emphasises how traditional western culture creates silos for art forms which actively exclude knowledges and the creative knowing of First Nations people and their integrated forms of music, art and ceremony.

Actively illustrating this web of relations, the Woven Song documentation features the next presenter, Mindy Meng Wang, a ghuzheng player, composer and artist. She shares her project Mother[4] (2020-21), a personal reflection through video and composition exploring the loneliness and longing of separation that the pandemic has brought about. A moving and subtle work it captures the complexity of emotions for both parent and child, that arise when adult children make a life that is far removed from their family. Lucreccia Quintanilla’s project reveals the stories that an object holds expressed through its sounding. Based on a memory she has of her grandfather playing a Cumbia song on his walking stick, using the height adjustment holes to play different notes, Quintanilla has conjured the object through sculpture, installation and video. Working with a flute maker she has recreated the song, so that her work illustrates the intimate connection of memory, object, place and sound. Like Cheetham, Quintanilla’s work illustrates the importance of the integration of art forms and sensory expressions in order to hold and communicate cultural knowledge. At the end of this session we are sent off into breakout rooms, to have a smaller discussion around how storytelling might feature in our practice. The discussion in my group is lively and enlightening, evidencing a thirst for communal sharing that we have been denied for almost two years.

The second panel session Amplification & Entanglement is moderated by Amos Gebhardt. The works presented by geographer and artist AM Kanngieser explore place and relationality. Creating projects focusing on Pacific nations, such as the radio work And then the sea came back[5] (2016) exploring the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia; and Eye of the Storm[6] (2018) an audio work that that explores, through the voices of local artists, poets and scientists the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in Fiji in 2016. Kanngieser talks of the process of making relations with place and people, through these sound works emphasising “relationality as place — in place sound is always contextual”. Rosalind Hall presents her work with electro-acoustic composition as a relation between artists, instrument and space. Exposing the “hidden physical effort” through amplifying and spatialising the breath that animates the saxophone, she turns the performance space into a “breathing body”.

Quandamooka artist Megan Cope was unable to attend, however the video documentation of her work, Untitled (Death Song)[7] (2020), speaks eloquently on her behalf. Cope makes instruments from colonial and capitalist refuse and elements of the landscape — mining equipment, metal, rocks and wire. When the sculptures are played the moaning, scraping and keening sings a collective grief. The combination of natural and machinic, and the delicate composition releases the cries of a wounded earth and a tortured people. Even in the double remove of documentation via Zoom, it is deeply moving.

The final session is titled Collectivity and Attunement, hosted by Aviva Endean. Aarti Jadu[8] is a vocalist and artist exploring the voice and devotion through performances, installations and workshops. We have, at the conclusion of the previous session, been led in a participatory experience by Jadu. Following a guided meditation Jadu leads us through creating freestyle drawn scores, using Zoom’s whiteboard feature, which we are then invited to explore vocally. This is an example of Jadu’s ongoing Sound Tapestries project. It’s an activity that, within the privacy of your own Zoom room can either feel even more awkward and confronting, or liberating, encouraging engagement with even greater commitment. As part of this session Jadu explicates a deep engagement with traditional Indian music and spirituality (which are, of course, one and the same), embodiment and the integration of these sounding philosophies in Jadu’s contemporary practice.

Ayebatonye Abrakasa[9] begins her section with a DJ set, and amongst the stimulating talk, it is a wonderful change of pace to listen to the deft collage of celebratory and provocative dance tracks. She then valiantly uses her phone to stream her screen to show us her video presentation as there is an issue with screen sharing. From what we can make of it, the video explores her absurdist approach to resistance and destabilisation including discussion of her work as an artist and event producer, as well as an intriguing dialogue with an iguana. Despite the awkwardness and the eventual abandonment due to audio issues, the technical hack is indicative of Abrakasa’s adaptability, good humour and an enaction of her ethos of getting on with it, rejecting what she calls the dominant perfection discourse of white supremacy.

Irish artist Jennifer Walshe finished the day discussing her project ULTRACHUNK[10] (2018), in which she, in collaboration with Memo Akten, have created an AI version of herself from hundreds of hours of improvisation footage. She then performs live with this “other” that responds to her in realtime. Rather than an act of hubris, Walshe’s performance illustrates the notion of the other within the self, a self that is both from her and that has a “beingness” of its own. It also highlights a raging issue within AI and neural network development in which these technologies are currently being created within a predominantly white male paradigm, fed a biased data diet that dangerously further excludes females and non-binary genders, people of colour and different racial groups — i.e. anyone who is not their maker.

Something Walshe mentions in her presentation amplifies a thought that has been circulating for me all day (and here I will fail again and slip into traditional binary genders on the way to making my point). In describing the history of AI Walshe says that chatbots, for example Eliza (1966), were historically configured as female, and were (playfully) designed to respond in a way similar to therapists (or psychics), drawing out the conversation by repeating pregiven information. This creates the sense that they are “taking care of people’s problems” playing into the notion of the “female” as nurturing, a good listener and empathic communicator. (Even in our current day, while you can choose male voices, our tech “servants” like Siri and Alexa are initially configured as female). Replacing the essentialist binary of the female with the notion of the excluded proposed here, it strikes me that it is up to the excluded to nurture, empathise, include and hopefully empower. It is up to the excluded to do the emotional labour. And this is what the space of Hi-Viz does. It creates a nurturing, empathetic, open space for artists to discuss their work in a way that allows people to present themselves defencelessly — offering people the strength to be vulnerable.

As the day concludes I write these questions, and offer some possible answers that are up for debate:

Would these artists get to present in contexts that are not sensitive to the excluded?

Perhaps, some of the time.

Would these artists feel as comfortable presenting their work in these contexts?

Sometimes, maybe not.

Would there be more of a sense of being judged by rules and ways of being wedded to dominant hegemonies — buffeted by argumentative thinking. Would it feel more embattled?

Possibly, almost definitely.

Would these artists then feel that they needed to present themselves differently in a setting that is not specified for the excluded?

Here, I can’t speak for the artists but leave this open to ponder. However, from my own experience, even as a white, middle class, CIS, heterosexual female — the least excluded of the excluded — I know that subtly I present myself differently, monitor myself differently in a full spectrum context. Of course, these are all significant artist that do present their work in the wide world, claiming their space within, and drawing attention to the dominant systems, however there is a sense of openness, empathy, porousness and equal exchange that is tangible in this event. Is it also perhaps a feeling of relief and respite? So where does this leave us? Is Hi-Viz an idyllic space where we gather and collect strength before we have to go out into a more embattled world? Or is it a space where we attempt to grow a new world, to dream up and enact a culture that is inclusive, embracing and empowering for all the currently excluded? Hi-Viz 2021 certainly makes tangible steps in this direction.