Debates on gun violence in America rely on value-laden data and value-laden representations of that data. How can those of us using data in such debates best lade our representations with pro-intersectional feminist values?
Overmorrow is an ongoing project that sonifies American gun violence data. Sonification is the process of presenting a data set for conceptualization through sound—the aural equivalent of visualization. Overmorrow is based on the supposition that because sound locates a listener in a moment in time, sonification facilitates relational logic in certain data conceptualizations, and relational logic can in turn facilitate recognition.
Judith Butler argues in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) that all people are commonly vulnerable to violence (in the most primitive sense—that our living bodies are susceptible to death), but that “recognition [of this vulnerability] has the power to change the meaning and structure of … vulnerability itself. In this sense, if vulnerability is one precondition for humanization, and humanization takes place differently through variable norms of recognition, then it follows that vulnerability is fundamentally dependent on existing norms of recognition if it is to be attributed to any human subject.”1 If we recognize our own vulnerability to violence in others, they are humanized to us and we are less disposed to stand by while violence is enacted against them. If all parties in a cycle of violence are humanized to one another through recognition, cycles of violence may be deescalated and/or arrested.
Overmorrow attempts to facilitate recognition. To date I have made two iterations and am currently developing a third. All have aimed to locate listeners relationally to the vulnerability they share with victims.
The first iteration, from 2014, is a sonification of the reported incidents of American gun violence that occur over the course of the seventy-two hours immediately preceding the performance of the piece as the incidents relate geographically to the place where that performance is held. The piece is scored for a percussion duo and video projection. Each hour of the seventy-two-hour timespan corresponds to five seconds of the piece, and incidents are represented within the timeframe of the piece proportionally to when they occurred over the course of the preceding three days at local time. The video projection visually marks the day and hour of the sonified incidents. Gunshots that were reported without injury are heard on the drum; gunshots that injured victims nonfatally are heard on wood instruments; and gunshots that injured victims fatally are heard on metal instruments. The physical distance of the incident from the place where the performance is held is mapped onto the representational sound by dynamic level, and the age of the victim is mapped onto the representational sound by pitch. The sonified data on the reported incidents is gathered from the New York Times, GunViolenceArchive.org, and police scanner reports on Twitter, and the score must be inscribed the day of the performance using the data specific to that performance.
After realizing the first iteration of the piece, I distributed a listener questionnaire. From the responses, I realized that my representation of the sonified data was heavily laden with the cultural values that my white, female, young, urban, educated identity has instilled in me: I had privileged younger lives over older ones and afforded myself un-rigorous editorial privileges in gathering data, among other failings. Most importantly, I had declined to include race as a factor in my sonification for no other reason than my own discomfort with it. I recognized that race is too significant a factor in the issue of American gun violence to be excluded from my representations.
The second iteration, subtitled No Attack in Progress (2015), sonifies the 257 fatal shootings of civilians by American on-duty police officers in 2015 where the Washington Post reported no attack was in progress or the threat level was undetermined at the time of the shooting. Each minute of the piece represents one month of the year, and incidents are heard within the minute in proportion to the date on which the incident occurred. From the audience perspective in the concert hall, the player on the left is sonifying the fatal shooting deaths of civilians reported to be white, and the player on the right is sonifying the fatal shooting deaths of civilians reported to be black, Hispanic, Asian, other, or unknown. Incidents in which the civilian was armed with a gun at the time that they were shot are heard on the drums; incidents in which the civilian was armed with a knife, a vehicle, another weapon, or a toy gun are heard on wood instruments; and incidents in which the civilian was unarmed or their armament was undetermined are heard on metal instruments. The sonified data is gathered solely from the Washington Post National Police Shootings Database.2 Because this version of Overmorrow sonifies a year of data and is not temporally specific to the date of the performance, it need not be inscribed the day of the performance like the 2014 version.
In 2016 I began developing a third iteration of Overmorrow that would be a born-digital version integrating aspects of both the first and the second iterations. The first two iterations of the project were both realized in concert halls, which are inherently esoteric transmission infrastructures with alienating codes of conduct. As a result, concertgoers are a self-selecting group of like-minded people, and I was effectively preaching to the choir. In this third iteration, an algorithm developed in Python would automatically generate scores for visitors to my website for same-day performance using data specific to the day and the visitor's IP address. The scores would look similar to the scores of the first iteration, but race would be a factor in the representation. It was my thought that anyone interested in realizing the piece could do so easily in any context (in a classroom, at a protest, at the dinner table) and that the broader performance context might help broaden the debate of American gun violence. As I engage more deeply with the antiracism movement, however, I have growing concerns with my direction in the project and am finding more questions than answers.
Ijeoma Oluo writes in “Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement: Here's What You've Missed,” her open letter to white feminists, that “your journey to understanding that racism is a real problem and you have been contributing to it has already been covered…. But all is not lost, and your story does have real value…. You can show fellow white people that they can survive the self-reflection necessary to fight racism. Please, share your story with them, it can do real good.”3
At my website I have documentation of the first two iterations, including full recordings. There is also a more complete description of how I am using this project to see racism more clearly and am trying, in Oluo's words, to “buck up” in my work toward “a more just and equal world.”