In this interview, curator and writer Anaïs Duplan speaks with 2022 Wave Farm artist-in-residence Johann Diedrick and 2021 artists-in-residence Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson and Sadie Woods on Black experimental documentarian practices, especially as they pertain to sound-based works and other inter- or post-disciplinary practices. Black soundings of speech and racialized forms of listening are ever-mutating invisible responses moving to and from societal biases. Diedrick, Robinson, and Woods discuss their past works along with the thematic undercurrents of those works, including racial bias in artificial intelligence and news reportage, the discipline and the language of science, and the mechanics of sounds. This interview is a part of research by Duplan toward a future publication detailing interdisciplinary experimental documentarian practices among practitioners.
In an interview, poet Etheridge Knight describes the disaffection felt by white artists of the 1980s: “I don’t think Black poets in this country have the problems of a lot of white poets, because I don’t think Blacks in this country experience the sense of alienation from their audience that I know lots of white artists do. Or they wouldn’t be leaving the country or they wouldn’t be going totally crazy, going off on trips.” Both Sadie Woods and I, during our own interview, were astounded by this description of the condition of both Black and white artists. Did Black artists of the ’80s really not feel a sense of alienation? Did white artists really feel as isolated as Knight was expressing? We puzzled over how Knight might define this word he was using, “alienation.” Was it the shortage of a feeling of connection, and if so, connection to what?
“Polarization” might be a more familiar word for our contemporary cultural landscape than the “alienation” of Knight’s time. When we attune our ears to the media, we hear loud conservative voices and loud liberal voices alike. So, too, there is the confusion of the intermixing of voices, the panoply created by news and social media, combatting truths that amount to a kind of horrifying noise.
Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson, who along with Sadie Woods took part in the 2021 Wave Farm residency program, described during our conversation not wanting to give voice exclusively to leftist perspectives in his piece Blackbody, White Noise. He wanted instead to find a kind of rhythm in the sounds of voices across the political spectrum, in “these various shades of Blackness,” he explained, recounting the range of interviews he amalgamated for the work. The mechanics of sound—how sound works—are as important to Robinson as what those sounds mean. After all, as Robinson reminds me, sound waves literally hit our bodies. They touch us. The noise we hear each day, whether literal or figurative, makes actual contact with us. Our faces. Our hands. Our relationship with sound is, above all, physical.
At the same time, sound does seem to evade us. Though it touches us, we can’t really touch it. It’s there and it is not there. In Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, Steve Goodman describes how sound, unlike the other senses, is intra-sensory: It moves in, around, and beyond our perceptory apparatuses. Similarly, 2021 MAAF for Artists grantee and 2022 Wave Farm artist-in-residence Johann Diedrick talks about Black experience as being just on the edge (he apologized for using the word “liminal”), as being on the boundaries of what is possible. Isn’t this liminality endemic to Black heritage?
Certainly, I think, liminality describes the Black immigrant experience. Diedrick’s parents, who are from Jamaica, respond lightheartedly to the fact that Alexa, the Amazon device infiltrating homes around the world, doesn’t understand their accents. They poke fun at themselves. To communicate with Alexa they must code-switch—though, as Diedrick notes, they likely wouldn’t use the term “code-switching” to describe their actions. In another framework, however, we could say that Diedrick’s parents are carving out a new linguistic space in which their Jamaican history collides noisily with the technological present.
To carve out your own space linguistically empowers you to interact safely with others who are in that space with you. This is a fact marginalized people are no strangers to. You have, with the other speakers of your secret code, a vocabulary you can whip out en plein air, while evading the hungry ears—to borrow scholar Dylan Robinson’s terminology—of the people around you. The hungry ear wants to decipher (read: de-cipher) what it’s hearing. This deciphering serves as a kind of control. (I first learned about Dylan Robinson’s work from Diedrick, and Robinson’s 2020 book Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies became an anchor for all three interviews with the Wave Farm residents. Hungry listening, as I came to understand it through talking with Diedrick, Woods, and Robinson, is a phenomenon that the Black sound artist is uniquely familiar with and must, at all times, be working against.) Where is the line, though, between listening as dominance and listening as tender witness?
Recounting her upbringing, Woods described her mother, an avid photographer, as the person who documented all the family events, including the funerals. With her camera, Woods’s mother kept a record of life and death within the family and community. Witnessing, then, can be an act of preservation and of homage, rather than of cultural dominance. This witnessing is crucial in rediscovering the truth where it’s been obscured. As Woods conducted research on MLK’s history in her (and his) home city of Chicago, for example, she found sensationalist reporting on the carnivalesque atmospheres at so-called “riots.” She found, conversely, no reports on the social pathologies that had led to the protests. How else do we apprehend this lack except as the profound and violent alienation of the media—the voice of a kind of truth—from the truth of Blacks in America?
We come upon this alienation in each violent racial profiling event, in which a nearly unintelligible phantom character is imagined to life and subsequently killed. Put another way, we hear music differently. From our own listening positions, we might hear two completely different things in the same sound. We learned this, of course, when Michael Dunn assaulted 17-year-old Jordan Davis for listening to rap music in his own car in 2012. In the wilderness of Black sound, we may hear a celebration of community and culture, or we may, as Dunn did, hear a call to murder.
What is the difference between sound, music, and noise?
Sound, music, and noise?
Sound, music, and noise.
Let’s start here. Sound is probably the umbrella, and there’s music inside of sound, and there’s noise inside of sound. In this context, music has a positive valance, right? It’s usually something that we, amongst friends, find agreeable and desirable. Some would say music is organized noise.
Noise is interesting. There’s books and books and books on what noise might be. A formal definition of white noise is a uniform distribution of energy across a frequency spectrum, and that kind of gives you this smoothness but also this graininess. It has a texture, I would say, or I can kind of feel it. All of that is within, I think, the idea of sound in and of itself. Noise is music that hasn’t been heard yet. Noise is music that we haven’t found a critical listening positionality1 for just yet. We don’t know how to hear it yet, or we’re learning how to listen to it.
If sound is the medium that carries information, music happens to be the sonic information that is manipulated and directed and molded, such as clay, to give shape to the sound, to the information.
Then noise happens to be—they define it as unwanted sound, the sound that we don’t want to listen to. That’s what I love about this praxis; it’s something I can ask myself every day and get a new definition. Instead of defining, I’m more focused on being aware of how I relate to sound, and my relationship with sound when I’m engaged with the ocean, or if I’m up in the mountains, or if I’m in the city, [hearing] construction work. Are there sounds that can physically hurt my body like ambulances driving by, fire trucks? And you just double over?
Sound is a language, and music is the medicine in the sound. It’s the medicine and the poison in the sound. Noise is sound beyond your control.
I make work that allows people to experience the world through this idea of the “sonic encounter.”
Dark Matter [is] an interactive web experience that spotlights the absence of Black speech in data sets that are used to train voice interface systems like Alexa, Siri, Google Home, and the racial bias it produces because of that absence of Black speech. I was reminded of my own parents and their history and interaction with voice interface systems.
My family is from Jamaica. They immigrated from Jamaica to Florida in the late eighties. They still have what we might describe as a heavy Jamaican accent. A few years ago, my parents got an Alexa device in their homes, and I would hear the device struggle to understand their accents.
Code-switching is a tactic that, we’ll say in this context, Black Americans use to help them navigate the world, navigate society. In certain scenarios, where you get pulled over by a police, or you’re talking to a judge, or you are on a job interview, or you’re on a date, or you’re giving a formal presentation, and you want to present yourself as let’s say intelligent, or articulate, or in a way that won’t disadvantage you, Black folks know how to modulate their voice to sound more proper, more correct, like good English, very much conforming to an imagined voice that we have in our collective imagination.
This is something that happens outside of your home most of the time. So, you come back to your home, and you peel your skin off. You wash off the clown makeup, and now you’re you. Now you’re your true self. With voice interface systems now inside of your home, I was noticing my family code-switching not just for white ears any longer, but for [artificial intelligence] ears.
That becomes the spiral into understanding why these devices can’t listen for Black speech in a way that allows Black people to speak naturally. You see racialized listening practices2 start to take over the interior spaces of where we live.
The work is an attempt to give people an opportunity to experience firsthand what is inside of speech data sets, and what’s inside of the data that is then used to make this technology possible, so that people can start to develop this awareness that this [technology] is biased, and we might want to do something about it. You get to encounter what I call “black voids,” and these are the spaces of the absence of Black speech inside of the data set. The dark space in the data set becomes this potential site to think about liberation technologies.
I built this musical instrument called the Harvester, and it’s a portable handheld instrument that lets you play music with everyday sounds. The instrument can sample any sound around you. I usually use my voice or a whistle, but if there’s a dog barking, or an ambulance going by, or sea waves, or birds chirping, the instrument can record that, and then you can play back the music in a pentatonic scale, where everything kind of sounds nice. It’s an anti-expert instrument.
I learned a lot about music, electronics, and sound from my dad. When I was growing up, we would build computers together. He had an audio shop with his buddies, where they would install big 12-inch subwoofer speaker systems in cars. He would pick me and my sister up, we’d go to his shop, and then I was surrounded by low-frequency test signals being blasted around. I’m realizing I’m part of the lineage. I’m part of a history that goes back to my dad, and it goes back to Jamaican sound system culture and Caribbean music.
Could you speak more on pirate radio? What is it, and how did you come to it?
I look at artists like Giles Peterson, who’s a DJ from the UK. He got famous from producing pirate radio broadcasts. Making space for himself when there was no space for him. When I was in high school, I used to make transmitters and little radios. […] My mom’s Puerto Rican, and my dad’s here from the States. I come from creative families on both sides. My grandmother came here to New York through Puerto Rico. My grandfather was a missionary and brought people from Puerto Rico to New York. They had their own struggles with that, but they thought that they were going to have a better life coming to New York than they did in Puerto Rico, because it was rough at that time. I come from families of farmers. They came here doing carpentry, and they had businesses, painting businesses, making their talents more utilitarian, more functional.
They also performed music. Both my parents play music. My mom still plays drums and tambourine. My dad played drums. He still plays drums, but he taught himself to play every other instrument by ear, and had band situations. My mom also played in bands. I would call her a photographer, and I would say my interest in curating came from her. She collects stuff and she hangs stuff all over the house. She’s kind of like a pack rat, hoarder. She has collections of things like masks. It’s a very Caribbean thing. She has all these masks. She also loves Pepsi, so she has literally every Pepsi can that has been released. My mom documented everything from births to deaths. We have funeral pictures, birth pictures, weddings. Who takes pictures at funerals? Nobody but my mom. Who does that? A photographer.
For me as an artist, the first thing that came naturally to me was music. I learned how to sing before I learned how to talk because I grew up in a musical household, and that’s how I communicated until I understood what talking was. My mom never pursued music professionally. She went into computer science and worked for Northwestern [University], doing computer technology for decades.
How did you first become aware of racial bias and AI?
Yeah, I want to trace it back. Definitely the work of Joy Buolamwini [on] facial recognition, racial bias, and computer vision. A student at MIT’s Media Lab also came to this realization that facial recognition didn’t work well on Black skin. In the documentary [Coded Bias], she talks about this housing complex in New York that wanted to install facial recognition software at its entrance to know who was coming in and out of the building. They have an image of a potential criminal, they run it through a database, and that recognition is supposed to match people up, but because these systems are fuzzy, they end up getting the wrong person. There’s this one individual who ended up in jail because of a false facial recognition. We can’t get rid of bias, but we can be aware of bias, and we can kind of develop a sensitivity to the kinds of biases that are out there and that can crop up, so that when we do encounter them, we can be like, “Hold on. Let’s take a step back. Let’s reevaluate or let’s take that bias into consideration.”
Computer vision software is generally produced in an environment by a white, cis, male person sitting two to four feet away from a camera in a fluorescent room that has lights hanging overhead. They don’t test it on darker skinned individuals, or non-men, or people who are sitting farther away, or people who are super tall, or at nighttime, or without the same kind of lighting scenarios.
Jennifer Lynn Stoever, in her book [The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening] exposed me to this idea of racialized listening, which is to say that the idea of a Black voice versus a white voice is a social construct. The history of [racialized listening] goes back to advertisements for escaped enslaved people. In these advertisements, they would describe the person physically, but they would also describe their voice, how they sounded. This idea of Black voice starts there. The melanin in my skin doesn’t determine how my voice is heard. All of that happens in the mind of the listener.
[The term “prosody”] encapsulates all the qualities of speech that aren’t about content and information. Things like pitch, stress, repetition. Early developments of speech recognition don’t take into account these qualities of speech. I think we can agree that Black speech has a much richer character and information in it related to pitch, repetition, and saying things in an affected way that carries a lot of weight. Black language comes out of experimentations within the Black soundings of speech, so that we invent new words, [like when] we extend the “irrrrr” in “girrrrrrrl,” and that becomes its own thing.
[Black speech] is constantly mutating. It’s constantly shapeshifting. It’s autopoietic. It self-defines and self-emerges, which makes it evasive. Why is Black speech constantly on the move? It has a lot to do both with evading surveillance, and evading capture metaphorically and literally, and then cohering community.
I was thinking about your relationship to both the discipline and the language of science. There are a lot of artworks in my consciousness about ways that Black people have been violently exploited by Western science. Henrietta Lacks, the Hottentot Venus…
Yes. Doing an autopsy on her to figure out how exactly she’s the link between humans and apes, and that the autopsy was “successful.” I’m curious about your relationship to science, given that it sounds like you’re deeply aware of these events.
The only text that I have access to when it comes to documenting history is usually scribed from whiteness. I’m not saying that’s the only written language that exists in this world, but I don’t know other languages. Science becomes part of this mythology, that becomes a part of this stream of consciousness. It’s interesting to have respect for the scientific method, beginning with that philosophical question of “Why?” or “How does this work?” Then observing and getting into this space of controlled experimentation.
That’s when certain bodies start to come into this story as subjects, as things that are not being perceived [as human]. The religions and the sciences were validating these behaviors. Even though not all white bodies adopted these ideologies, there’s a lot of white bodies that even laid down their own lives [for them]. It’s interesting to know that science is part of this legacy of horror, of objectification, subjectification, imposition, imperialism, violence. In the name of what? In the name of progress? I question a lot of the things they say science has accomplished. Even Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species—the full name of that is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. You know what I’m saying?
If I’m going to be indoctrinated, I’m going to learn about all of it. You say this person is a great thinker, you say this person discovered the genetic code, but James Watson was a scientific racist. I think it’s time that we stop pretending they should be in charge of this ship that they call “progress.” I’m not anti-science, but I see how they have used it and I see that it can be used in a better way, a more holistic way, a more healing way.
We could look at any discipline, artistic or not, and point to ways it has been used to harm Black people. I know you practice in an interdisciplinary way. I wonder if you’ve ever encountered a discipline and decided, “This is not for me”? If you’ve ever had a sense of trepidation?
Anthropology. I stay away from it. It’s the audacity, the entitlement, to go wherever you want and to define it how you want to define it, even naming plants that are in other people’s countries after your leaders. Not just plants, but birds. Science is that new crusade, and so I go into every field of science looking for where whiteness exists in the language, in the methods. […] [I made] an experimental radio art piece titled Blackbody, White Noise. The whole concept was to fabricate blackbody radiation demonstrators. The goal was to record thermal conduction, record the sunlight infusing the interior space of the cast iron cubes. I was curious if it was possible to record the sound of sunlight.
Blackbody radiation, to my knowledge, is a term that exists in the physics realm of science. Blackbody [structures] are bodies that can absorb all of the frequencies of light, all of the frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum, and emit all of that. Absorb, emit, and radiate. Black bodies, such as yours and mine, have absorbed all of the frequencies of whiteness, of the white noise. We have not only absorbed this white noise, but have also been indoctrinated by this noise. We are starting to awaken to whiteness, the insecurity of Whiteness, the addiction to control and power and the fear. To me, whiteness has always been the artificial intelligence. Throughout the whole [history] of the white noise, we have been dehumanized, de-spiritualized.
Blackbody, White Noise was to let their voices shine, let this be white noise. Let them speak, let that pseudo-superiority shine forth, but juxtapose it with the voice of the Black body, which is poetic. There’s an art, or care, in how we express ourselves. We have created our own kind of sound. We have created gospel music and Dixieland and the blues and jazz. There are [Black] musicians just expressing their humanity, but the white noise feels the need to intervene and define it: “This is Afrofuturism, this is jazz.” They’re constantly watching, watching how we are reacting to their own noise. It’s a critical theory of progress.
I’m interested in the phrase you use to describe yourself, “post-disciplinary,” and I wonder how you arrived at that. What opportunities do you feel are created by using that phrase?
I’ve always produced sound works and made visual art. When I went to Columbia for my undergrad, Columbia College in Chicago, I went for photography and music, as well as printmaking and jewelry design, [and] all this other stuff I was doing on the side. I made my own jewelry for when I performed, because I could never find jewelry that I liked. I wanted to have artwork that would help tell the story of whatever I was performing, so I showed my own work. I was working as a teaching assistant and learned how to get into education through the arts.
When I graduated, I fell into DJing and curating at the same time. I would produce shows, exhibitions, and a lot of pop-up events. For me, that was a way to provide platforms for my peers and to stay creative in times that I did not feel like making work. I’ve always managed to have at least two or three part-time jobs. I learned that hustle early on. That’s how I was working in school. I was going to school full time, working full time, and producing stuff, not sleeping very much. Part of staying creative is being plugged into other creative people, people you admire, and then focusing on you when it’s time to focus on you.
I have a background in science and engineering, so I was doing that to stay creative until I was able to get myself into doing visual art. Coming up in Chicago during that time, when you would try to get grants or be a part of programs, people wanted you to do one specific thing: everybody loves painters. Nobody would take me seriously as a curator, because I don’t have an art history background. I wasn’t interested in going to school for art history, and I’m still not interested in art history in that kind of way.
The stuff that’s taught in school is not necessarily relevant to my experience. I question why it’s necessary to fight for inclusion in systems that were not designed for us, that are functioning as they were intended to function in the first place.
When you were talking about Blackbody, White Noise, you were saying you had included people across the political spectrum. I would love to hear you talk more about that.
I know how the world works when it comes to creating separation and division, and the hierarchies of oppression. That certain groups—it seems as though they are all fighting to be humanized. Like, “See me, hear me. Don’t dictate my love, my choices, what I want to do with my body, what I want to do with my health.” It’s interesting to see that all of them have a lot in common when it comes to that human determination to be free, and to be empowered. When I start to create artwork that is just trying to invite your humanity, I’m not trying to invite the liberal or the conservative, the Republican or the Democrat. I’m trying to invite your universal human truth. I don’t like [political affiliation] to stop me from hearing something that’s beautiful, poetic, true.
I want to hear you talk more about your sense of the meaning of “hungry listening” and “racialized listening practices.” Both phrases.
Another term that Dylan [Robinson] uses in the book [Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies] that I think is an umbrella for all of this is “critical listening positionalities.” I believe Robinson means that, again, listening is socially constructed. We learn to listen and interpret sonic information through our lived experiences, and our histories, and our own positions in society. You can modulate your listening by moving in and out of different listening positionalities. To try to listen from your position, to try to listen from another person’s position, or as a friend sometimes says, in a different context, “To borrow someone’s ears, to occupy someone’s ears and to listen to the world as they might hear it.”
They use that phrase in a disabilities and deaf studies context, because they are deaf. Sometimes when they’re making sound works, they are like, “Oh, can you listen to this for me?” It’s warming to think about sharing ears with people. Dylan Robinson offers hungry listening as one listening positionality. “Hungry listening” might be like a settler colonial listening positionality. The settler colonizers who came to Canada who were literally hungry. They were famished. They had no food. They didn’t know how to make food. Right? They came to these lands and were starving, and so the Indigenous people taught them how to cook, and hunt for food, but it’s a kind of starvation that leads you to uncritically and aggressively want to consume, and extract, and to take as much as you can.
That kind of hungriness is a placeholder for white European enlightenment era epistemology, where the world is knowable, and we need to make knowledge from the living world and our experiences in it. We have to take, take, take, take everything, describe it, categorize it, organize it, discipline it, put it into vestibules, kill it, make it something we can have control over. Then listening is for [Dylan Robinson] a synonym for witnessing.
There was that one case in Florida where a bunch of teens were in their cars listening to really loud rap music. This white man asked them to turn it down. They didn’t, and he ended up shooting up their car, killing one of the teens. That’s an instance of racialized listening.
Can you talk about the two riot instances that you talked about? Detroit in ’67 and Chicago in ’68.
If you look up the Detroit riots, there’s nothing in the news that is [written by] the community. You have to dig for that stuff. I think the most critically public conversation we’ve had around the language of riots was in 2020 on social media. It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen that much explosive conversation around how the word “riot” is racialized, and understanding the difference between “rioting,” “looting,” “agitators,” and “protesters.” We understand publicly now that police are agitators. They plant weapons.
Protesting does not equal rioting and looting. Why are we focusing on these things when we should be focusing on the social conditions of why people have to protest in the first place? Looking at Detroit helped me to rethink home. Thinking about the Black belt here, thinking about the destruction and erosion of the communities that [used to be] thriving by redlining.
I was thinking about the sanitized image we have of MLK, making him this very meek figure. My work as of late has been with archives and how information is disseminated and what is missing within those stories, using different modes of research, which includes academic and social research, and materials research. People are also libraries, and have stories that are not represented in the media, in print, or on TV.
It Was a Rebellion was developed over a three- to four-year period. It started off first as a project that I was going to do on the Detroit riots that happened in ’67, for a project that was going to be produced for the 50th anniversary. While I was looking at what was going on in Detroit at that time, there were also similar events that happened throughout the [United States] in the sixties, where there were uprisings in different states, including Chicago.
I was looking at information on YouTube, on the internet, any kind of new channels I could find that had recordings of the event, news broadcasts or reviews of the event as well. Then thinking about whose perspective was influencing the language around these things. With that, I pulled news clips, political speeches—including MLK speeches—music, and ephemeral sounds, just everyday sounds of people, actual sounds from documentaries that recorded what was happening, the fires and police sirens. I made an audio piece that re-narrated what happened. [The School of the Art Institute of Chicago] bought the old Sears Tower on the West Side, in North Lawndale, in the same area where the events happened.
It just happens to be across the street from a police bloc site, where people have historically been disappeared and tortured. I performed this as a pirate radio broadcast in the tower, so people could tune [in] on their radios. We provided small radios so people could come to the venue and pick them up and walk around and listen to the broadcast while walking the neighborhood and see the impact, and also [see] what had not changed in the 50 plus years [since it happened]. That area has experienced divestment and has not been rebuilt since that time. You can still see some areas where there’s still that devastation there.
Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).
Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016).