Sound can be an incredibly powerful, spiritual, and transportive force. It can also be weaponized.
Contemporary use of sound warfare dates back to World War II, when Albert Speer, Hitler’s Chief Architect, invented an acoustic canon that would create deafening noise by deploying 1,000 explosions per second. (It was never used). In 2003, the BBC reported that U.S. interrogators were subjecting Iraqi prisoners of war to long sessions of loud heavy metal music as a torture tactic.
Domestically, the U.S. police have used sound canons, or long range acoustic devices (LRADs), to break up protestors at the 2009 G20 in Pittsburgh, at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, and, most recently, against protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The devices can be square or round, propped up on a stand or held by hand. Before the police and military started using LRADs to dispel protestors, the Pentagon supplied them to U.S. cruise ships to use as a defense against pirates. Though range and decibel vary by device, LRADs can produce a sound beam that reaches 162dB of pure noise (any sound above 140 dB causes pain). When the Israeli Defense Force used LRADs to displace settlers from the West Bank in 2005, the Totonto Star’s Middle East bureau reported: “The knees buckle, the brain aches, the stomach turns, and suddenly nobody feels like protesting anymore.”
At this year’s Documenta 14 art exhibition, held in Kassel, Germany, and Athens, Greece, the artist collective Postcommodity co-opted these sonic weapons to create an artwork both inherently peaceful and strikingly beautiful. Titled The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking, the piece uses two LRADs set up at the Lyceum in Athens to heal, not hurt—the devices broadcast an enveloping opera composed of immigrant stories, testimonies, and songs.
Postcommodity—made up of artists Raven Chacon, Cristobal Martinez, and Kade L Twist, all based in the southwestern United States—started working on the piece in 2016, after being invited to participate in Documenta, a 100-day exhibition held every five years. According to Twist, while LRAD dealers are reluctant to sell to individuals—they prefer to buy from military gear auctions and sell to police forces or municipalities—it only took a little persistence. The artists bought the military-grade sound cannons used in the piece off of eBay.
Postcommodity’s idea for the piece was to use the LRADs at low volume, positioned in different directions along the border of the Lyceum, to create what Martinez calls “stereo headphones” for the site. Though they broadcast only slightly above the volume of ambient noise of the site (around 75dB), their beams of sound can cut through it as long as there is a direct line of sight. They chose the Lyceum because of its history: it’s where Aristotle founded his Peripatetic school of philosophy, named for the philosopher’s tendency to walk the grounds while he taught. Postcommodity wanted to highlight a parallel between the history of walking the Lyceum during Aristotle’s lectures and the long walks and journeys that displaced people are forced to take in order to find refuge.
“We wanted to draw attention to people doing long walks as a part of neoliberal displacement, caused by warfare, economic collapse, globalization,” says Martinez. The collective had long been thinking about how LRADs have been used to facilitate war and silence dissenters. Their idea was to position them on the site so that they encouraged the visitors to walk around to get the full effect of the broadcasted score.
The only problem with that idea, the group found, is that the Lyceum is an ancient historical site under the Greek federal government. When Documenta first approached the Archeological Authority Commission with Postcommodity’s proposal, it was rejected. In October 2016, the three artists flew to Athens to defend the proposal themselves. Using Aristotle’s philosophies to frame the proposal and to demonstrate their intentions to pay tribute to and critique the school, Postcommodity won the council over. “We had to build a discourse and mount a defense,” says Martinez, who has a PhD in rhetoric, composition, and linguistics from Arizona State University. “Collectively, we are skilled at public speaking.” The project about sound and rhetoric was off to an auspicious start.
Once the group was granted permission to use the site, they set out to collect recordings of migrant and refugee stories. Chacon relocated to Athens to talk to dozens of displaced Syrians and Afghans who traveled through Turkey to seek refuge in Greece. Martinez and Twist stayed in the U.S. and talked to immigrants living along the border to Mexico. They gathered interviews, stories, songs, and even written texts that they would turn into recordings themselves.
When they had enough material, they composed a day-long audio score to be played by LRAD. “We tried to stay faithful to opera,” says Chacon. “With monologues and dialogues and comedies—all of these things made up the drama of the overall piece.” They incorporated instruments and music styles native to Greece and Mexico. They turned the text pieces they gathered into a libretto and asked a Greek opera singer to perform it.
With the score composed, the artists needed a way to broadcast it from their two LRADs, so they wrote a custom software. “One way of understanding it is it’s similar to iTunes,” says Martinez. The program allowed them to create two separate playlists to be broadcast through the two devices. They scheduled two recordings to play simultaneously at a specific time of day, with the software synchronized to the world clock.
When the artists arrived in Athens ahead of the opening of Documenta 14 in early April, they set up the LRADs on the rooftops of the Athens Conservatoire of Music and Theatre and the Hellenic Armed Forces Officers’ Club. “We wanted to facilitate walking in the Lyceum to reanimate Aristotle’s school,” says Martinez. “We wanted people to learn again in that space.” Depending on what side of the Lyceum they are on, visitors are enveloped by both recordings at once, but one recording will be clearer and louder than the other. “It’s two channels of sound in the space—you want to walk to investigate,” says Martinez.
The result for visitors is a short, circuitous pilgrimage to hear the stories of those who have been forced to take longer ones, broadcast through weapons of war. Even more striking than the sounds, says Martinez, are the spaces of silence throughout the opera: a typical recording might last six minutes, while the silence in between lasts 20. “Visitors describe experiencing a sense of longing in the piece because music can be very beautiful, haunting, sad, and present: Because the LRAD turns the body into a resonator, you are essentially hearing the sound from within,” Martinez says. “When it goes away it leaves you with a sense of longing. It brings a new type of Lyceum to bear. The weight of history smacks you in the face in the middle of these ancient ruins.”
The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking is at the Lyceum in Athens, Greece through September 17, 2017.