In February 2016 I joined Tyler Coburn, Ian Hatcher, Nicole Starosielski, and Lance Wakeling on an excellent panel at the Pratt Upload conference. We talked about “infrastructural aesthetics.” Here’s Tyler’s provocative prompt:
In the recent past, we’ve seen art projects exploring sophisticated (often covert) systems, from military black sites to the electromagnetic signals that suffuse our everyday life. While their subjects vary, these works speak to a broader concern with contemporary “infrastructure”—a term, geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin note, that doesn’t just describe what “runs ‘underneath’ actual structures,” but the “multiple, overlapping and perhaps contradictory infrastructural arrangements” of politics, technology and economy. “Infrastructure” here departs from its conventional definition, becoming a relational field that various agents can potentially influence. The neologism “Infrastructural Aesthetics” is a prompt to consider the artist’s position within this field and the strategies available to her. How, for example, can art engage with systems that rarely have singular forms, but concatenate physical, immaterial and asignifying processes? Is the efficacy of representation thrown into question, and what forms of artistic practice might better speak to our imbrication in contemporary infrastructure? Finally, can art play a role in fostering literacy about this subject, to greater political effect?
I focused primarily on the “typology of topologies” — maps, diagrams, field guides, etc. — we’ve constructed to make sense of infrastructure, to aestheticize it and render it sensible. I then talk about the limits of representation and propose two other affective, process-oriented, aesthetic means of engagement: listening to and smelling infrastructure. Here‘s my talk.
As a visiting scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal in June 2012, I presented my research-in-progress on “Hearing Infrastructure,” by which I mean both listening to infrastructure, and infrastructure that’s meant to undergird systems and practices of hearing. You can find my text and slides here.
My husband and I moved back to Brooklyn a few weeks ago, which means that I now return — for at least part of the week, on mornings when I’m not in Manhattan — to my old gym, which I frequented during my six years in Park Slope. Today was the first day I’d returned, after two years of going exclusively to the awesome McBurney YMCA, and the memories all came flooding back — through my ears.
The Brooklyn gym is a neighborhood gym, with lots of neighborhood folks — including a few with a sonic character all their own. Every gym has its histrionic huffers and grunters, but we’ve got some even more distinctive character actors here. There’s the guy who rides the recumbent bike, whose insanely loud pffffssshhhhh exhalations, expelled through clenched teeth, resonate throughout the entire floor, into separate rooms and even down the stairwell. Then there’s the other guy who rides the upright bike whose wide-open-mouthed exhalations are equally loud, yet punctuated after every four breaths by two hacking coughs. I’m not lying. It’s like clockwork. And then there’s the guy who listens to doo-wop on his Walkman and breaks out every 20 seconds or so with a jarring “doo bee doo bee doo!”… “tell me whyyyy”… “sheboom sheboom”… “dooo waaaaaaahhhh.” He’s got the perfect voice for the musical style — but, honestly, it’s not what I want to hear, drowning out the sound from my own earbuds, when I’m doing my pull-downs.
The last guy, I realize, might sound adorable. I’m well aware that I should find him adorable, but instead, I’m so annoyed I can pay attention to little else. I find myself grimacing, glaring, then catching myself and forcing a smile. For as long as I can remember, I’ve fixated on errant human- and human-and-object produced sounds. “Don’t you hear that? How can you stand it?” I’ll say to my companions. They often have no idea what I’m talking about. Consider last week, when we were taking the bus to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I was trying to have a conversation with my husband, but all I could hear was a persistently squeaky ‘s’ taunting me from the back of the bus. I simply can’t tune out sibilant female voices: “Yesssss, Ssssarah and I are going out Sssaturday night to Lombardi’ssssss.” Why should such an innocuous sentence make my skin crawl? Why does the sound of cracking gum put me on the edge of getting all up in somebody’s face? (I should note that this paragraph is chock-full of extreme hyperbole!) Why do I want to smash the TV screen when Blake Lively says “Chuck” on Gossip Girl? Why do I feel the urge to publicly berate people who drag their feet in flip-flops? What’s the big deal with cashiers whose long, ornately bedazzled fingernails clickety-click on cash register keys? Why do smacking lips make my fists clench? Why is it so hard for me to be next to people walking in corduroy pants? That zip-zip sound — ooh, it kills me.
I never act on any of these impulses or express my anger, of course. I realize my reactions are completely irrational…and pretty embarrassing. “Doesn’t that bother you, that guy cracking his knuckles on the far end of the subway platform?” I’ll ask my companions, hoping for empathy. Their response: What guy? Then I wonder: OMG — what noises do I make that are really annoying? If I had to listen to myself, would I want to punch me?
My gym experience this morning reminded me of an article I read in the Times a couple months ago — one that put into perspective my experience and allayed my fears that I might either have bionic ears or be a total a-hole. Misophonia, misophonia — “dislike of sound” — that’s what it is. “Many people can be driven to distraction by certain small sounds that do not seem to bother others — gum chewing, footsteps, humming,” the Times reports. “But sufferers of misophonia, a newly recognized condition that remains little studied and poorly understood, take the problem to a higher level.” Some doctors believe the “condition is hard-wired, like right- or left-handedness, and is probably not an auditory disorder but a ‘physiological abnormality’ that resides in brain structures activated by processed sound.” Having a name for it makes me feel a little less crazy, but I’m not totally convinced that I’ve got a legitimate “condition,” and that I’m not just being a jerk; I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. As some comedian the brilliant comedian Derik Boik put it, “This new ‘condition’ of yours sounds a lot like a thing I call, ‘Being Annoyed by Something Annoying.'”
My annoyance doesn’t escalate to blood-boiling rage, as seems to be the case for some of the folks described in the Times article. But it does push me to the verge of self-righteous proclamations. “Excuse me, sir, but could you please not breathe so loudly?!? Not everyone wants to share in your respiration!”