For the Hammer Museum's Public Engagement residency, Triple Canopy is considering the role of listening, the settings in which speech and sound can be heard and have a meaningful effect. How has our ability to listen changed with the development of new technologies for synthesizing, transmitting, capturing, and quantifying expressions? Instead of valorizing the assertion of individuality through speech (which now is so likely to be mediated, mined, and commodified), Triple Canopy asks how to listen in a way that makes us more receptive to one another, and ensures that a plurality of voices can be heard.
Omniaudience is organized with Triple Canopy editor Alexander Provan and the Los Angeles-based artist Nikita Gale. The title of the project refers to the faculty of hearing and comprehending everything, but might also name a congregation of listeners who possess, or strive to attain, this faculty. Triple Canopy’s focus on listening—or hearing with intent—is tied to a longstanding concern with the modes of distracted viewing and reading that proliferate online, and that characterize the attention economy. The first episode of Triple Canopy’s residency will be a series of invitational listening sessions at the Hammer and elsewhere in L.A. in December 2018; the residency will continue in 2021 with additional episodes, which will involve performances, screenings, workshops, broadcasts, publications, and more.
Omniaudience is part of Triple Canopy’s forthcoming twenty-sixth issue, which is concerned with speaking and listening and the role of emerging technologies in fostering, reconfiguring, and eroding associations between people.
In Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age (2013), Kate Lacey describes the kind of listening that might enrich our lives, given the likelihood of speech being mediated, rebranded as interactivity, captured as commerce, not to mention surveilled. Rather than lament the passivity of the earbudded listener, she links recorded sound to “a new and more democratic mode of participation in the public sphere” that goes back to the dawn of radio. She recounts how, after World War I, the BBC sponsored groups that encouraged Britons from disparate backgrounds to gather, “sound out” diverse ideas, and carry on debates, which were then broadcasted. She identifies in these congregations a model for the public sphere as an “auditorium,” which diverges from the model associated with eighteenth-century print publishing: rigid hierarchies and reliable patterns of circulation, which characterize periodicals, are traded for fluctuating forms of mediation and “the non-linear qualities of resonant space,” which characterize radio.
To Lacey, the “freedom to listen” is not just a condition for the freedom of speech. She considers the freedom to listen to be a responsibility and a right, an assurance that a “plurality of voices can be heard.” This freedom has less to do with individual rights than with the necessary conditions for speech to work as communication, which involves the listener shifting from a passive member of an audience to an “auditor.” What is essential to the auditorium is the ability of the listener not to have the sound world conform to her sensorium and volition, but to be receptive, attentive, and open to various speakers and forms of speech—which might also mean being solitary and silent.
This conception of listening—and of the public sphere as an auditorium—suggests an ideal basis for relations between and among listeners and speakers, but also seems aspirational, even outmoded, given recent technological shifts. Not all listeners have the same ability to listen and be heard, or want to inhabit the same auditorium. The freedom to listen is under assault by a flood of corporate “speech,” which makes it nearly impossible to hear a “plurality of voices.” Right-wing demagogues and propagandists effectively address some listeners as true citizens and others as criminal aliens. Sound can now be easily captured, converted into data, and processed, which is remarkable in relation to the long history of text being read by computers. As a result, we’ve seen the development of all kinds of always-on listening tools, from Amazon’s Echo to the NSA’s MYSTIC “voice interception program” to Google’s soon-to-be-ubiquitous “voice interfaces,” which threaten to turn our homes into “pan-auditory spheres of surveillance.”
Omniaudience is devoted to understanding the public sphere through sound as well as speech. We’re interested in how musical performances and recordings travel and register, but also how they move and position people by toying with the sensorium, rattling the rib cage, approximating the presence of others, simulating or facilitating intimacy, supplying generic emotional appeals that cause highly personal responses, and establishing a “community of reference.” To think in these terms about listening might provide a sense of the conditions for effective communication, but also of the limits of public reason, the uses of inarticulateness, and the fallacy (or commercial basis) of so many claims made about the value of speech—whether as the exercise of a right or as the manifestation of individuality. In The Other Side of Language, the philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara argues that Western societies “have little familiarity with what it means to listen” because they harbor “a logocentric culture in which the bearers of the word are predominantly involved in speaking, molding, informing.” She notes that “logos” derives from a term meaning “to lie with” or “to receive,” which she contrasts with “the assertive tradition of saying” that we are trained to valorize.
While the experience of music might provide a model for attentive listening, the music that we most often encounter—like the words that we utter and scroll through—is being subjected to quantification and being converted into a site for the cataloguing of preferences, exploitation of neurobiological impulses, and manipulation of user behavior for profit. We might fear such incursions but also look forward to our listening being aided by machines, as has been the case since the advent of amplification devices and recorded sound; and to big-data-fueled applications that generate custom songs and sonic environments for each individual, or merge the songs and environments of friends, or provide courts with better tools for tracking and evaluating testimony, or log all speech in order to enable people to easily recall their experiences and bolster their memories. Omniaudience will consider the prospects for—and ask how listeners might shape and benefit from—these technologies, which already are expanding and directing our senses as individuals and audiences.