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Issue 139

Kite: The Listener
by Zoë De Luca

Listener begins: with a wanderer Listening. An Oglala woman, equipped with Listening devices, which are passed down from woman to woman. Alone, her devices work in ways she can’t quite understand, they seem to listen farther than technologically possible, beyond time and place. She has suspicion that she is receiving scrambled transmissions from a good place, but a Far Place. She feels they Listen back.”
– Kite1

  • Suzanne Kite, <em>Listener</em>, performance still, 2018, projection, tv, multichannel audio, hair-braid controller, poetry, software, cloak, 18:00

A police siren pierced the small dark room: a livestream from the local Ottawa police scanner frequency. Unseen, the artist spoke: “I heard my biometrics.” Two boots trudging a wet sidewalk appeared on a CRT monitor in the corner. The snowy grayscale image treaded the border of legibility. The artist’s voice transmitted a chopped up and delayed narrative over a two-way radio channel. Kite, in character as the Listener, entered the room shrouded in a hooded grey cloak sewn out of industrial felt, doubling as concealment and acoustic absorber. The labour required to keep reciting the text as the delay effect jammed her speech signals felt immense. Yet under this increasing pressure Kite builds a feverish energy – her speech speeding up – a signature move that pulls her audience even deeper into her character’s world.

Kite identifies as diasporic Oglala Lakota and Listener is the first work she has produced since join- ing the Indigenous Futures Cluster at Concordia University. At SAW, Kite placed the various reading materials used to compose Listener just outside of the performance space, an act of citational politics.

In one of these sources, Standing in the Light (1994), the late Porcupine Singers leader Severt Young Bear describes the concept of “four circles” as it applies to both Lakota participatory configurations at wacipi (powwows) and identity more broadly: “There are always some people who are respected and honoured, who are out in the centre, whether as dancers, singers, announcers, or committee members.”2 Before she even entered the room, Kite’s installation shaped Listener’s audience into in an approximation of Young Bear’s circles, with two distinct circles around her floating circular projections. The smaller one showed a spinning aerial view of Ottawa, vertiginous if watched too closely and on the larger, a white line maintained a mesmeric flow against a blue background, evoking vital signs on an ECG as well as Lakota line, triangle and star designs (echoed in metallic embroidery on the back of her cloak). Kite manipulated her hair-braid instrument which produced visible and audible effects.

A police siren in the settler state can simultaneously represent either terror or order, depending who hears the sound. Kite’s audio composition incorporated the signals of the settler-occupation regime as they poured from the police scanner; in intervening over and around its output, she deftly decentred it. Heard in this context, then, the siren perfectly underscores the positional fact of listening. In a historical study of how certain associations between race and sound came to seem “natural” and “right” with- in the context of the United States, sound studies scholar Jennifer Lynn Stoever offers the figure of the “listening ear.”3 This is her shorthand for how sound is racialized by the listening practices of dominant white settler culture which produce and maintain norms and hierarchical values – whose sounds are valued and in what way – through the white surveillance and discipline of aural phenomena such as spoken language or dialect, vocal pitch and volume, or screaming. The police scanner’s output streamed during Listener is live evidence of the state’s “listening ear,” as it surveils for anything deemed out of place and provides disciplinary response accordingly. For 18 minutes, Listener remediated beyond the specific power dynamic of surveiller and surveilled.

Listener builds out from Kite’s deep knowledge of both the Western classical musical tradition and more recent history of sound art in the gallery (she was trained as a classical violinist and in music composition). Conceptual sonic art practice, though regularly occupying unconventional spaces and methods, still often spatially reproduces straightforward producer-receiver listening conventions. The spiral path mapped out by Listener’s graphic score rejects the traditional configuration which renders the position of individual receiver static by architecture (such as in the concert hall) or interpellated as a subject of settler ideology (via the police siren).

“A rethinking of the ontology of music rises up from within the history and tradition of its most accessible and legible symbols: the musical instrument,”4 writes Seth Kim-Cohen. Listener’s opening line – “I heard my biometrics” – immediately alludes to a definition of instruments as tools of measurement with deep and gnarly colonial roots. Kite’s custom instrument, her hair-braid, is comprised of an accelerometer woven into synthetic hair that measures her movement according to a three-dimensional coordinate system. This data is rerouted through machine learning software connected to her multiple audio and visual channels – in this case, bell synths, a crashing bass drum and projections. Listener complicates expected subject states in performance frame- works – who is listened to (the artist, the producer) and who listens (the audience, the receiver). This is achieved through the circular process by which Kite’s instrument allows her to respond to the visualization and sonification of data-mapping her own body via the hair-braid, a futuristic GPS technology she has termed L-sys (Lakota-system).

Relational practices too frequently flatten the intricate ethics of what it means to be in relation to each other or technology. In the Lakota epistemologies Kite is working through, there are a multitude of ways for understanding and describing relations. Listener’s series of circles – especially the circularity of the process by which the artist’s body and hair-braid technology co-determine the composition – map a contemporary Lakota relational listening process that insists on an arrangement more intertwined than passive reception and recognition. Listener proposes a challenge to the settler-colonial present and its attendant liberal performance projects of redemption. It takes place in a dystopia but is reaching for the speculative “good place, but a Far Place”5 and using L-sys, Kite is working to bring this future into being.

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