SAVVY FUNK | Further Reading

Every Time A Ear di Soun

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Every Time A Ear di Soun is a documenta 14 Radio Program in collaboration with Deutschlandfunk Kultur that explores sonority and auditory phenomena such as voice, sound, music, and speech as mediums for writing counterhegemonic histories. Every Time A Ear di Soun reflects on how the sonic impacts subjectivities and spaces, especially through the medium of radio. For the duration of documenta 14, nine radio stations in Greece, Cameroon, Colombia, Lebanon, Brazil, Indonesia, the United States, and Germany will constitute a worldwide art exhibition on air. The radio program live streams on FM in Kassel, online from the documenta 14 website, and on shortwave around the world. The programs punctuate each station’s usual programming in its local language with art pieces for radio commissioned by documenta 14, archival material, and broadcast selections from documenta 14’s Public Programs for four hours daily. Every Time A Ear di Soun is also accompanied by live acts addressing issues related to the phenomenology of the sonorous, the sonic as a medium for historical narration, Frantz Fanon’s concept of radio as a medium of resistance, Rudolf Arnheim’s concept of the imagery of the ear, and more.

The project, which draws its title from the dub poetry of Jamaican poet Mutabaruka, takes its cue from the privileging of visual culture over auditory knowledge in most Western cultures. Greek philosophical thought in particular often reduces experience primarily to the visual, building its epistemology of historiography on the act of visual witnessing (autopsia) and considering the act of seeing as the principal source of knowing. In cultures with a so-called oral tradition, histories transmitted through narration freely assume the forms of both identifiable and nonidentifiable vocal utterances, speech, sound, and music. Here, sonority is fundamental and functions outside a visual and written logic, goes beyond it, and can neither be grasped by nor fully understood through it. When auditory experiences are shared, histories too are shared, and not only from mouth to ear: they are perceived by and encoded in the body through the physicality of sound waves and passed on from one generation to another. Because, as pointed out by Jean-Luc Nancy, if the visual is generally mimetic, the sonorous is tendentially methexic; that is, it has to do with participation, sharing, or contagion. It is this ability of auditory phenomena to instigate participatory moments and create spaces of exchange, and their ability to infect others, that makes the medium especially appropriate for transmitting histories beyond words. Every Time A Ear di Soun also explores the possibility of understanding orality and embodiment through auditory phenomena as a means of sharing knowledge and archiving memory in/on a moving, vulnerable body that exists in a specific time and space. The project deliberates on how sound creates and accommodates psychic and physical spaces, and how, through sound, a synchronicity emerges and reigns between bodies, places, spaces, and histories. At the same time, it attempts to give space to alternative narrations, as James Baldwin stated, not only “to redeem a history unwritten and despised, but to checkmate the European notion of the world. For until this hour, when we speak of history, we are speaking only of how Europe saw—and sees—the world” (“Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” 1979).

In African and African diasporic cultures, Esiaba Irobi has written, the body “functions as a somatogenic instrument as well as a site of multiple discourses which absorbs and replays, like music recorded on vinyl, epistemologies of faith and power grooved into it by history” (“The Philosophy of the Sea: History, Economics and Reason in the Caribbean Basin,” 2006). The analogy of music on vinyl is in no way accidental, as the expression of any auditory phenomena gets encrypted not only in memory but also in the body; and through reiterations in performances of the “quotidian,” in dance and other rituals, the past is conveyed to the present and catapulted into the future. The transition and interconnections between vocal utterances, speeches, sounds, and music and also between performativity and an embodied experience within space and place form the curatorial node on which Every Time A Ear di Soun focuses.

While eight radio stations in the program are existing structures, the German iteration is a new station in Berlin, starting from scratch—SAVVY Funk. For SAVVY Funk, artists invited by documenta 14 take over twenty-four hours of programming, including news, weather, and other sections such as Unpacking Sonic Migrations, Listen to the Other–disEmbodied Voices–Hybridized Techno, Saout Africa(s), and Piratensender (Pirate station). Participating artists collaborate with students from the Class for Experimental Radio at Bauhaus University Weimar, directed by Professors Nathalie Singer and Martin Hirsch, to prepare and operate the radio program. Singer and her team are also contributing to a reading and listening room at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, where visitors can experience and reflect on radio in the making.

“On the Wings of the Wave“ - Listening to the radio with Frantz Fanon and Rudolf Arnheim

Marcus Gammel

“Every evening, from nine o’clock to midnight, the Algerian would listen. At the end of the evening, not hearing the Voice, the listener would sometimes leave the needle on a jammed wavelength or one that simply produced static, and would announce that the voice of the combatants was here. For an hour the room would be filled with the piercing, excruciating din of the jamming. Behind each modulation, each active crackling, the Algerian would imagine not only words, but concrete battles.”

This is how, in 1959, Frantz Fanon evoked the effect of the radio in Algeria’s struggle for independence. The historical context of his observations is topical again today. Protracted decolonialization is the basis of wars and streams of refugees all over the world. As a result, radio has regained a significance that was almost lost. “This is the great miracle of wireless,” wrote Rudolf Arnheim. “The omnipresence of what people are singing or saying anywhere, the overleaping of frontiers, the conquest of spatial isolation, the importation of culture on the waves of the ether, the same fare for all, sound in silence.”

Rudolf Arnheim formulated this sentence at the beginning of his still-pioneering book, Radio: An Art of Sound, from 1933. At that time, he was on the run himself, stranded in a small southern Italian fishing village. There he, too, initially perceived radio as a source of noise.

“It was very quiet, but suddenly from behind me there came a spitting and a spluttering, then screams and squeaks and whistles—the wireless was being tuned in. The loudspeaker had been set into the front wall of the café and served to catch customers.”

The parallels to the hissing and crackling of Fanon’s radio speak volumes. For like Fanon, Arnheim—as a Jew fleeing from the Nazis—was also involved in a brutal political conflict. And as for Fanon, a sound gradually crystallized from the noise of the ether that evoked an astonishing sense of togetherness:

“The announcer informed us that they were going to broadcast an hour of German folk songs and he hoped we would enjoy them. And then a typical German male voice choir sang the old songs that every German knows from childhood. In German, from London, in a little Italian place where strangers are almost unknown. And the fishermen, hardly one of whom had been in a big town, let alone abroad, listened motionless.”

It is not only astonishing that the voices from afar cast a spell on the audience across all cultural and political borders. It is also astonishing that Arnheim himself seemed to freely enjoy the German folk songs in spite of all the ideological burdens. There were indications of an aspect of radio that Frantz Fanon would later spell out for Algeria:

“Almost magically the technical instrument of the radio receiver lost its identity as an enemy object. The radio was no longer part of the occupier’s arsenal of cultural oppression. In making of the radio a primary means of resisting the increasingly overwhelming psychological and military pressures of the occupant, Algerian society made an autonomous decision to embrace the new technique and thus tune itself in on the new signaling systems brought into being by the Revolution.”

So it is not essential what we listen to on the radio, but how we listen. Our decision to open our ears, to hear between the frequencies and languages, to actively listen to something we don’t understand immediately, is the first step toward a changed perception of the world.

“What we have witnessed is a radical transformation of the means of perception, of the very world of perception. Of Algeria it is true to say that there never was, with respect to the radio, a pattern of listening habits, of audience reaction. Insofar as mental processes are concerned, the technique had virtually to be invented.”

This special technique of listening had to be invented in Algeria and elsewhere. In principle, the radio can incite all users to perform it. Arnheim:

“The new aural education by wireless, which is so much talked about, does not consist only of training our ear to recognize sounds […]. [I]t is more important that we should get a feeling for the musical in natural sounds; that we should feel ourselves back in that primeval age where the word was still sound, the sound still word.”

The deep connection between sound and word on the radio has special significance again today. The omnipresent displays of our age suggest that they can explain the world to us. Images from faraway crisis regions or from the next street corner claim with the help of tickers and logos: That’s what it looks like there; that’s how it is there. But they hide the fact that that we understand less and less about the actual conditions of the world beyond our direct horizon of experience. For we don’t listen to them.

Every Time A Ear di Soun and SAVVY Funk are an attempt to make the world audible through the radio in keeping with the ideas of Frantz Fanon and Rudolf Arnheim. The artists in this program offer us their own ears and their own voices, their personal reactions to their respective environment. If we follow them, we discover a kind of reverse side of the flood of media images—listening knowledge that continually encourages us to ask new questions.