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«Listening is never natural. It requires and generates literacy.» Ultra-red
The work of the collective for sound activism, Ultra-red, from Los Angeles has been governed, since the 90s in the last century, by an approach to working with sound as a spatial practice, potentially capable of contributing to the production of social space; postulates derived from their particular reading of Attali and Lefebvre. Over the last 15 years, Ultra-red have become a paradigm of what could be thought of as a practice, one that they themselves have called «militant sound investigation»..
The recent publication of «Five Protocols for Organized Listening» supposes a clear change of paradigm in the collective’s activities. Presented as an exercise book, or if one prefers, a cooking book, «Five Protocols…» consists of 5 sets of instructions for potential, collective, sound investigations.
The publication is based on the knowledge of more than five years of workshops and collective projects realised in different points of the United States and Europe, in contexts as diverse as gentrified neighbourhoods, museums, university faculties and protest camps. Each protocol is accompanied by a series of «variations», or notes, about the staging of specific situations. Therefore though the protocols inevitably remit to the long tradition of works with instructions of artistic movements such as Fluxus, the variations anchor them to specific problems and questions.
At the same time, the variations also establish a narrative line – a series of stories of multiple voices, by way of many different moments and places, where what is related is not so much the evolution of a methodology, so much as the series of crisis and internal transformations of Ultra-red themselves; at no point does the book avoid mentioning moments of creative block, communication difficulties or everyday frustrations. This makes it possible to insert another sub-plot, which relates the internal revolution of Ultra-red themselves over the last five years.
It’s a transition that distances Ultra-red considerably from almost all the grammatical elements (or if you prefer shared places) of so called «sound art», or phonographic practices. Neither recording, nor the publication of sound contents, or even the technical aspects of recording sound have their place in these protocols, beyond a purely utilitarian usage.
All the emphasis is placed on active listening, that goes from being an act of receiving sound content, to becoming a tool for internal work; a methodology for setting in motion the constituent process of a social group, to examine internal, external or individual problems, or to rethink the group’s work. The actions comprehended in the protocols – fieldwork, listening sessions, sound walks, working with sonorous objects – are already established features of the language of sound art. But here they are inserted into a radically distinct process. We are talking about acts of listening, yes, but of listening in a very broad sense, listening to environmental sound, but also mutual listening within the working group.
At the same time, «Five Protocols…» aligns itself perfectly with a marked tendency in the last decade towards social modes of producing culture; if one talks of the so-called «educational turn» in cultural institutions, as much as of networked cultural production, the value of these protocols transcends the ambit of sound art and they become an indispensable tool for any constituent cultural practice.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)