Intonarumori at SMFA: Ultra-red

On February 10th, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts was visited by Ultra-red, as a further installment in the ongoing Intonarumori lecture series – occurring in combination with Hearing Modernity. Ultra-red is a collective of artists, researchers, and organizers, focused on “exploring acoustic space as enunciative of social relations.” In their mission statement, Ultra-red describe the fragile exchange they are interested in pursuing – that fine line between art and political organizing. Originally founded in 1994 surrounding an invested interest in the AIDS crisis, Ultra-red is currently engaged in a variety of different projects involving a multitude of communities and social movements. A lecture, a performance, an experiment, a conversation – this extremely informative visit by Ultra-red seemed to touch upon all of these forms, as well as others. What occurred here was a truly active listening experience, and it was very much appreciated.

The collective is ever-shifting in membership, but we were joined by two standby members for this lecture. Dont Rhine, the cofounder of Ultra-red, and Robert Sember – an active member since 2004. They began with a description of how our time together was to be spent. Reading from a prepared statement, both Dont and Robert described the experience to come. There was a pad of paper placed in the center of the stage. We were told that we would be listening to a selection of recordings, and would then be asked to respond to the question, “What did you hear?”, at which point our responses would be recorded on the pad. In between these listening sessions, portions of the prepared text would be read.

Dont began with a description of the beginnings of materiality itself. Referencing Althusser’s The Philosophy of the Encounter, Dont speaks about the contact of two atoms and the subsequent encounter of materiality. This encounter is what politics and revolutionary organizing are striving to achieve. Activism creates the contact, organization the encounter.

And then we listened to a recording.

Robert continued to speak about the beginnings of Ultra-red – as an entry point to speak about the ongoing AIDS epidemic as an a result of a structural inequality. An exclusion of the public. Sember asked the common question defining the AIDS crisis – “Is the general public at risk for AIDS?” . Continuing, he described how this question always already excludes – curating a public that does not involve those already infected with HIV.  The question excludes those of color, queers, migrants, and the poor.

“Thus, it was the very representation of the public that was producing the AIDS crisis. For AIDS activist, the public is always ideological. The public is always problematic.”

And then we listened to a recording.

Dont and Robert next spoke on conceptualizing relations to silence, and the act of listening. Rhine engaged writings of Paulo Friere, focusing on the concept of the teacher as one who adopts a discipline of silence. Silence as something not to be broken, but as the condition for listening. Dont referenced silence in the early civil rights movement, with a quote from John Lewis speaking about SNCC campaigns in the south.

“We were meeting people on their own terms, not ours… Before we ever got around to saying what we had to say, we listened. And in the process we built up both their trust in us, and their confidence in themselves.”

And then we listened to a recording.

Robert continued on this subject, with the statement that “listening is never natural.” It posits the self in relation to the world, and those within it. For political organizing, the organized listening experience can contribute in many ways. Robert goes on to describe four of these moments, formulated by Ultra-red.

– First, a listening procedure can assist a group of people in the early stages of organizing themselves, helping them to identify themes or contradictions that will be the focus of collective inquiry.
– Second, after completing an initial collective action, a group of people can use a listening procedure to assess what they have learned and to identify the next phases of inquiry.
– Third, after being active for many years, a group can use an organized listening process to reflect on the historical terms of the struggle and test those terms against the current reality of lived experience.
– Fourth, a listening procedure can help facilitate an encounter between two or more groups of people exploring the potential for collaboration.

And then we listened to a recording.

Rhine then began to speak about Pierre Schaefer’s four practices of listening. The first, is that of identification of the real-world source of the acoustic event. The second – that of the concrete qualities of the sound itself (pitch, sustain). The third is a practice of analysis – for Ultra-red this is equivalent to the involvement of subjective context – taking the form of memories, emotions, “resonances of the lived experience.” Finally the fourth, as formulated by Schaefer, is a movement into music theory. Ultra-red offers an alternate fourth, in the form of the social meaning of a listened experience.

“The object is less defined  by medium than the event of its reception.”

And then we listened to a recording.

Later in the lecture, Dont and Robert began to reveal the procedure of a Militant Sound Investigation. This was the procedure we were immersed within. Robert offered up a further explanation, using these previously offered listening modes as a framework for Militant Sound Investigations. After a common experience has occurred – whether this be a demonstration, a walk, a community trauma – the question is asked, “What did you hear?” These responses are recorded, and analyzed by the team – the organized group. This analysis leads to a further question; one of generative direction.

As described by Dont, this question can mark a point of divergence or contradiction – making contradiction the object of study. A Militant Sound Investigation’s goal is to engage this object, asking “What is the sound of that object?” e.i. “What is the sound of anti-racism?” A Militant Sound Investigation is interested in finding a space where we can hear that sound, and record it. These new recordings are then diligently analyzed, revealing the “resonances and dissonances in the sound objects.” Which brings the investigation back to the beginning again, by revisiting the first question, “What did you hear?” Rhine described the sequence – from collective reflection, leading to analyses, that then inform action. This action is what then informs the next reflection.

As the final statement, previous to our own analysis of what we had heard, Robert concluded…

“Listening events occupy just one moment in the militant sound investigation. They are tools within the long labor of solidarity. At the same time, organizers, activists, and base communities sometimes resist intentional protocols of listening on the grounds that such procedures feel artificial. In that resistance the researcher may hear a conflict between underlying ethical systems. For example, collectives organized around friendship can find intentional processes inauthentic precisely because they demand a reorganization of relations. Protocols can shift a group’s ethical foundation from one based on affinity to one that becomes available to the outsider.

It could be said that listening as a political practice is always an encounter with the stranger.”


And then we listened to a recording.


– by Simon Remiszewski

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