Presence, failure, and the ancestral remediation of sound
Complicating Care (11/13)

Presence, failure, and the ancestral remediation of sound

At the Decolonial Frequencies Festival, sonic utopias resonate outside the institutions.

Three artists on Berlin’s Decolonial Frequencies Festival

Introduction

Theater Ballhaus Naunynstraße was built as a dance hall in the 1860s and is now a theatre in the heart of the Kreuzberg district in Berlin. When I was there last June, patios lined the small streets, which met together in a pie shaped-wedge. The low evening sun illuminated everything in high contrast; flower shops, cyclists spinning by, roses cultivated in the boulevards, and building walls replete with graffiti Berlin is known for.

Ballhaus Naunynstraße is the home of post-migrant theatre, focusing on performance from Black, Queer, and communities of Colour. In a city still largely subsumed by white imagery, white audiences, Naunynstraße is the first Black theatre space. meLê yamomo is the curator of the Decolonial Frequencies Festival which took place in 2022 at the theatre, and of it he writes: “I only have one curatorial brief: If you do not have to perform or translate yourself to the white heteronormative male gaze and ears, how would your sonic utopia sound?” In addition to meeting with meLê over Zoom in August of 2022 to better understand his vision, I met online with three artists from the festival to find out more about their practice, how meLê’s prompts and provocations affected their work, and how a notion of care relates to their practice: Sky Deep, Anjeline de Dios, and Ariel Orah. What did it mean for them to have a curator who invited them to produce work without an eye to the white gaze? What did it mean for them to create “decolonial” work that, because of the nuanced stance of their curator, could push deeper than what might normally be possible through arts institutions?

A turquoise, mustard, and coral pink illustration. The image shows a pencil, notebook, sand timer and wax cyclinders on the left, and phonograph on the right

Space to fail, artistic capital, and labour:
yamomo’s approach to curation

meLê yamomo shares his time between Amsterdam, where he teaches Theatre, Performance, and Sound Studies, and Berlin, where he is a composer, theatre director, and curator. Born and raised in the Philippines, meLê dreamed of becoming an opera director. “In the beginning, I still had high hopes that maybe what they call this politics of representation would work. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that not because there is a black director or a female conductor would the system change. That’s exactly what this colonial system assumes—that by appointing racialized or gendered bodies in artistic leadership positions, while expecting them to enact patriarchal and white supremacist aesthetics and cultural politics, that it can still get away with an entire system built on abuse.” So that’s when he decided to shift his attention away from the conventional musical institution and began looking into early sound archives.

As well as curating the Decolonial Frequencies Festival, meLê is the director of several research projects, including Decolonizing Southeast Asian Sound Archives, whose objectives include the disclosure of colonial recordings. He explains,

I am interested in the audio recordings made at the advent of sound recording technology at start of the 1900s. Here, we are talking about the wax cylinders; these are the very first recordings ever made. With the emergence of sound recording technology, it didn’t take long before they were intertwined with the colonial project. Listening to the surviving audio recordings made from communities in Southeast Asia in Europe opens up a lot of questions of the politics of who has the power over the recording technology, who was recorded, and for what purposes?

As part of this project, meLê explains, “We make these recordings, which until now have been very difficult to access, more accessible to the source communities by setting up digital platforms that translates the metadata to local languages and through archival restitution.” Another project he is currently wrapping up, Sonic Entanglements, involves researching sound archives from Southeast Asia from between 1890-1950 in order to understand modernity there by investigating sound instead of print media as a primary source of information.

So how did meLê move from wanting to direct opera to repatriating colonial sound recordings, to curating a festival addressing the post-migrant artists and publics? In his pursuit of opera, meLê followed an academic career in music before finally throwing in the towel, feeling he was always going to be the “other” in that milieu which was created in the interest of Eurological aesthetics and white supremacist ideologies. He explained, 

It would take me a while to realize that—and also a lot of pain—like really wondering why I can’t get into this field as a brown queer person. And so I took a lot of detours, entering academia and asking some of these deep questions, and realizing that there’s an entire system and structure that has been set up in the cultural and artistic sector that favours specific people and cultures, and that it is a system of othering.

meLê now prefers the term “sound” to music, seeing music as a colonial project that shapes the listener.

As a Marxist, his analysis of our contemporary dominant cultural system is that it operates as a neo-liberal capitalist machine. The first time we met over Zoom in the fall of 2022, meLê explained that he sees the artistic labour of racialized and gendered artists are “taken over by colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity to produce capital for a specific kind of people”—while at the same time, he explained, “it has to create that othering so that it can take the intellectual and artistic labours of the racialized and gendered ‘other’ without transferring the capital to them.” Of the Decolonial Frequencies Festival, meLê explained that while he was inviting artists to create and perform sound works outside the paradigm of the white male gaze, he knew that maybe for some of the artists this would be the first time they really had the space to attempt this type of work:

Some of the artists that I invited to the festival were so excited by that. But then three weeks into the process, they realized the complexity of the proposal. Like, Oh, fuck, how do you actually do that?  We are so programmed to perform for the white, male gaze that when we are given freedom, we don’t know what that freedom actually looks like, sounds like.

meLê explained that the dominant aesthetic right now is “the product of centuries of trial and error. What we don’t see in the celebrated canons are the failures in the process.” The failures are part of the necessary work of cultivating a decolonial aesthetic, he explains: “More than anything else, what we should make sure to do, is to create a space where we can fail while we think about alternatives.” 

Ancestral remediation

Sky Deep used to be known as someone who never stopped, who could do everything at once. Her friends joked that she was the brain in Pinky and the Brain, ready to take over the world. And for someone who is a DJ, sound artist, producer, head of Reveller Records, runs her own clothing brand, is an award-winning queer porn filmmaker, and has toured with Peaches as their multi-instrumentalist and MIDI director, this seems pretty apt.

We met in the spring in mid-afternoon on the patio of a new cafe called Marguerete near her place in Berlin, two slices of carrot cake between us. “This carrot cake is bangin’,” she said. She’d spent the night at a queer dance party and so had just had breakfast, too socially exhausted to attend the march for sex worker’s rights that afternoon with some of her pals. And this pacing of energy makes sense: of her own tendency to do everything, she explained, “speaking in terms of care, it was actually probably more of a survival tactic. I’ve been a freelancer nearly all my life and you have to hustle constantly.” As she reflected on entering her late 40s, she said, “there comes a time where I need to not be breaking my back to have a basic daily life that I enjoy.” I wondered aloud what motivated this constant push to do more, and she said, “I could never really celebrate any achievement because I always felt like I never reached where I was going. Maybe a lot of people can relate to just the feeling of it’s never good enough for mom—I think that that was a little bit embedded in me.”

Sky performed at Hopscotch Reading Room while I was there, a performance derived from her work with Decolonial Frequencies but one that she was having mixed feelings about. “It was the first time I did this in front of a group of white people while also explaining it,” she says. “In retrospect, I’m not sure I did the right thing because I wanted to preserve the pureness of what meLê had set up for us, which was the ability to do our thing without regard for the white gaze.”  

During Sky’s performance at Hopscotch Reading Room, I’m seated at the book table in the courtyard outside of Hopscotch, close to where Sky is performing. Benches have been laid out a few rows deep in a semicircle and are full of mostly thirty somethings from the arts scene here. Sky’s hair is done asymmetrically with braids at one temple and the rest loose, and she’s wearing a black, red, and white silky patterned jacket, and gold jewellery. She mixes voices from interviews she did with her family with her own vocalizations, electronic music, and sounds from a hairbrush, a tambourine, a wooden spoon, and a hair dryer. “For me, this practice a lot is about also becoming comfortable with imperfection, also becoming more comfortable with timelessness…” she explains after the set. “I’m thinking about frequencies or sound in general and what I can do with it. How could that look if there had not been colonization? What would that be for me?” Part of her process was to do research into her own ancestry. “It’s been erased through the process of slavery and growing up in the US with everything that comes with that,” she says to the audience.

For the festival, Sky was paired with Pisitakun Kuantalaeng, a visual artist and electronic sound musician who mixes traditional Thai instruments with industrial sounds and techno. Between them, they created a piece called “Synthesized Planet,” from the prompt offered by the festival. They were in contact for a month but only collaborated in person for a week. “The beauty of our collaboration was that he brought his energy frequency wise, sound wise, and so did I.” 

An illustration of a mixing board from above, which fills the whole frame, with a hairdryer and hairbrush in front. The colour scheme is coral, mustard yellow and turquoise.

Sound Healing

Anjeline de Dios is a sound healing practitioner, artist, and researcher who lives in Manila, Philippines. She was part of the Decolonial Frequencies festival last year. I called her late at night from Guelph, Ontario, this winter, and she met me over Zoom just after her morning jog in Manila, her hair tied back, in a grey sweater and bright red lipstick. Her work is integrated with care right from the get go. She explained, “We grew up with helpers, you know; there is a domestic care culture in the Philippines that is very psychological. My sound culture was formed by listening to what my nanny would listen to on the radio in the afternoons while we were all taking our naps.” As a child, singing was a big part of their culture, partly through the Catholic church but also through a strong culture of performance. And the role of childhood looms large for de Dios also. “Listening to music as a social experience was so big for me. But underneath all of that, I have had very early experiences as a kid going into trance states, singing to myself.”

Of the trance state, de Dios explains: “I am framing this as a kind of side by side listening experience, a relationship with sound as internal and external at the same time. I had some awareness as early as four or five years old that I was singing something that I hadn’t heard before, that it was coming from somewhere. And then it was easy for me to just kind of soak in it like you’re dipping yourself in the water and just feeling it and in a very affective and body level, but not really having a conceptual urge to explain it.”

She came to her musical practice through a circuitous academic route, which for her felt like a safer way to address “longings for voice and for sound that wouldn’t go away,” first writing a book manuscript about migrant Filipino musicians, and hearing of meLê’s adjacent work, and then only later activating her artistic side through a sound healing practice. “My main context for producing sound and performing is like a therapy context—performing to micro audiences.”

Says Anjeline, “I mean, looking at the relationship between care and trust, there is such a mysterious link between the two of them. But [Ballhaus] knew that meLê would take care of the artists and of the theatre itself, which is why they entrusted them with so much creative leeway.”

Excerpt of “Tuning Into Resonances” technical run, 12 May 2022, Ballhaus Naunynstrasse.

Decolonial practice in the Indonesian Diaspora

Ariel William Orah is a Berlin-based Indonesian artist. Like Anjeline, he came to his artistic practice in a roundabout way. His practice is influenced by his experience as part of the Indonesian diaspora and as a migrant in Germany. Ariel met with me over Zoom in March from Berlin—there was a heavy rain in the city and his partner was taking their child to the doctor. In his artistic practice, Orah works with different kinds of mediums from sounds, installations, movement, and other performing and visual arts media. Ariel wears his straight black hair long and sports a small beard and gold wire-framed glasses. He’s blurred his background and wears a lilac-purple sweater with bright yellow cuffs peeking out at his wrists.

Ariel was discouraged from studying art by his family but moved to Berlin in pursuit of a sustainability Master’s degree in 2011. In university he was obsessed with connecting the culinary with the arts, and ended up meeting many people from the Indonesian diaspora through events. “Food became kind of a kinship magnet,” he explains, and they used meals as a point of departure for their research. An early iteration of these were called “empathy suppers,” dinner performances with a theme for the night, and a micro-collaboration. The nights were divided by courses and include dramaturgy or choreography during the transition between courses. Beyond sharing culinary kinship, explained Ariel, “we really wanted to say our thoughts or even anxiousness as a diaspora.” Deciding to root in Berlin and having a child helped Ariel to think that if he was here for the long haul, he wanted to do something meaningful in the Indonesian diasporic community.

Of the Decolonial Frequencies festival, Ariel reflected, “It’s really interesting because decoloniality is really a buzz word … When meLê told me about this festival, I was excited but also a little bit careful because meLê was not the first one who asked us to do work related to this keyword—but because it comes from meLê and the Ballhaus itself, this made us excited. Ballhaus is very unique, one of the rare theatre houses which is supported by the city and have like their post-migrant voices.” For the festival, Ariel was paired with Bilawa Respati, a longtime collaborator through Soy Division, who is a trained classical guitarist: Me and Bilawa, our sound practices were very different but we knew each other for a long time, even in Indonesia. He was quite musically conservative—and I never studied music or art,” explained Ariel.

An illustration of a retro radio half submerged in water. The sky colour is mustard yellow, the water is turquoise, and the radio is turquoise, coral pink, and mustard yellow.

Ariel and Bilawa had to have a long talk with meLê and the dramaturg of Ballhaus before agreeing to let their work revolve around notions of national identity, but eventually they decided on engaging and challenging the Indonesian national instrument, the gamelan, as a way into responding to meLê’s provocation. Ariel explained to me that when Indonesia gained independence in 1945, the first government regime worked to build national identity first through language and then by imposing the gamelan as a homogenous sound and music identity. “The gamelan, which is originally from Java Island, was forced into becoming a sonic identity of the country,” said Ariel.

“When meLê officially asked us, he said, make some work where you don’t have to present yourself as a brown Indonesian,” explained Ariel. When it came to sound and colonization, what stood out for them was actually the formation of national identity after independence, and they felt at ease to explore this element instead of cornered into examining one piece of predetermined ideas about what “decolonial” work might mean.

Festival as presence, not success

Part of meLê’s provocation to the artists invited to participate and perform in the Decolonial Frequencies Festival was the invitation to produce sound that was not made for the white ear. I understand more around the gravity of his invitation when I encounter meLê’s book, Sounding Modernities, on the soundscapes of colonial Manila. He relays the early encounters between colonial nonnatives and the indigenous sounds of the land—how the colonists would describe the “nasal” singing contrasting with the clear sound of an organ in a Catholic church, the “auditory dissonance” that colonial people experienced with their discomfort with the sounds of animals or insects, the colonial people characterising the voice of the “other” as by turns drawling, squeaky, or noisy. A trained, programmed appreciation for what is familiar, and by European standards, beautiful, structured the colonial ear—and in the same breath, was programmed into classical, colonial teachings about music, which meLê then encountered and at first absorbed in his own studies in opera and theatre.

In meLê’s early days training in theatre and opera, he began to understand this dissonance and the impossibility of success (and the notion of success itself) in a structure centuries old that was pitted against him. There was no way to be Hamlet, for instance, as a brown queer body, there was no way to be “heard” in this system:

It took me way into my 30s to understand why, in my work in theatre, I disliked acting the most. I realized that as a queer brown person, I knew that I would always be a failure because the canons that we have are the complete opposite of me. They are straight white men, often either royalty or bourgeoisie. I can never be Hamlet. And any attempt would be a failure.

An illustration of Ballhaus in Berlin. The building is illustrated in mustard yellow with coral and turquoise accents.

For meLê, the Decolonial Frequencies Festival is an attempt to make possible an auditory work—of creating sound and of listening, that is not designed to resonate for colonial bodies and sensibilities. Although it is not possible to really put aside the structure altogether, this making of new possibilities creates an opening and directs resources to a new auditory future. The arts landscape in Berlin, explained meLê, still just about allows for this kind of work, which is not necessarily driven by ticket sales. The opportunity seems fragile, though:

As soon as we put decoloniality within the framework of neoliberal capitalism that we are all stuck into … then you are expected to ‘succeed’ while doing the decolonial work. And success typically means how many tickets you sell. And that’s a formula that will never allow you to get to decolonisation because the expectation is already to succeed.

For post-migrant artists to be supported by an arts institution to engage in ancestral sounds, in singing as trance and healing, and in food as a companion to kinship for the Indonesian diaspora without the pressure to succeed before a certain audience is a fragile thing. In the case of this festival, the opportunity to revisit what potential sound-making and the reception of sounds might have outside of a centuries-old dominant aesthetic is driven by meLê’s own experience of disillusionment with the dominant cultural paradigm. What is one festival in the face of this colonial scaffolding of what music is, and of neoliberal capitalism that imposes a notion of value? It’s in philosophy, perhaps, that we find the answer.

One of the ways that meLê is thinking about the resonance of the Decolonial Frequencies Festival and the power of festivals as rituals of repetition is through a notion of presence or parousia—“the state of being in the here and now.” meLê explained in a later correspondance: “When one watches a play, or a film, or listens to a concert, parousia is experienced by those who feel the ‘presentness’ of the story or music unfolding.” In other words, even if someone has experienced the piece many times, the experience is that it feels like the first time—it feels present. “The same notion is embedded in rituals and festivals that are intended to be repeated regularly with each repetition unfolding, with its participants experiencing that the ritual is happening only for the first time, here and now.” This, then, is how meLê imagines a festival as being able to move us towards decolonial futures—by way of repetition and how “cycles of repeated presences can unfold new futures that are intertwined with our past and present ‘presences’.” 

An openness to failure, a rerouting of resources, a resistance to colonial notions of what sound is and whose body can make it sound beautiful, and a sense of time folded into presence through repetition all, in part, underpin the Festival’s momentum. “It’s not what we do that is decolonial. It’s how we do things that makes it decolonial,” says meLê. “In the festival, the final output, the performance is just ten per cent of the process. What the audience sees is just a tiny fraction of it.” In a later correspondence, meLê confirmed:  “The real value of a festival like Decolonial Frequencies is to find the affordance to think, and try, and fail, and try again.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Anna Bowen is a Guelph-based writer, poet, and editor. She works at ArtsEverywhere, Musagetes, and Publication Studio Guelph. She is former news editor at This Magazine and has an MA in Sociology and Equity Studies (now Social Justice Education) from OISE/University of Toronto.

Illustrated by

Cai Sepulis (she/they) is a queer illustrator/ designer with over 20 years experience. Their inspiration for creating cityscapes and conceptual pieces comes from a diverse background which includes studies in philosophy, film school, and architecture. Their work has been used on countless beverage labels, packaging and in national campaigns.

Book Material
Complicating Care (10/13)

Book Material

by Laura Daviña and Steph Yates, Illustrations by Abby Nowakowski, and Introduction by Anna Bowen

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