“Sometimes you only have to listen…”
About the sonic entanglements of our colonial past

You went to these archives and listened to these recordings. What exactly did you hear?

It’s fascinating to listen to all these materials because it’s interesting what they recorded. A lot of them can be refered to as folk music. There are actually not many recordings from Southeast Asia. I think, only 11% of the collection at the Berlin Phonogrammarchiv comes from that region. What is interesting, however, is if you do a close listening, more layers are revealed.

What layers are you referring to?

There are other things – apart from the intentionally recorded text – that the person who’s being recorded might say. For example, in one of the recordings at the Lautarchiv, there is someone who was recorded saying: “Stop, I can’t breathe” in their own language. This has to do with the fact that there was no microphone so sometimes they were pushed inside the horn, that was the main recording device. If you don’t speak that language, you would miss it.

You can hear that they were really forced to do it…

Exactly. But then these are some things that you can only hear when you understand the language. You have to understand the context. If we just think of this as an encyclopedia and forget about the context in which these were made, we could assume that these are just collected knowledge.

How would you describe this context?

When we talk about context we could think about how those who are recorded are being treated. And to what extent is this a game of agency that these are colonial subjects that are being recorded for scientific purposes. In the head of the colonizer there is a distinction between “he has the power and he has the machine” and these are subjects to be recorded and they are just objects that have to be collected. But I’m wondering to what extent these people who were being recorded know who will listen to it. I’m wondering, as well, to what extent they were thinking that maybe even if they are told to say their prayer, they are embedding messages, hoping someone listening would catch the message. And so, to a certain extent, we could question agency. Especially, when you suddenly hear them embedding their own message.

You can even hear a practice of resistance…

Exactly, yes.

…reverting the intention of the colonizers.

Some South-Asian subjects that were being recorded were told to tell folk tales. But sometimes there is no way for these German researchers to know if this is an actual folk tale or something invented. If you listen carefully, one of them was talking about a boy who is living in a village who became a soldier and travelled to Europe. If you really listen closely, it seems like he is telling his story. But in the story he is also embedding some messages, including how this soldier is now suffering and he is just praying that someday he could return to his family. And indeed, that’s a form of resistance. These are acts to empower themselves in the very difficult situations that they are in. And it’s interesting that their voices stayed.

In Echoing Europe you try to create a new sound mixing electronic music with these historic sound documents. What is the relevance of it today? Why is it important to do this performance now?

The urgency ultimately lies in how these materials have been hidden for so long. Even in 2019, many of these materials are not known to many researchers or societies where they were recorded from, so that’s one. What power relationships are still in play? Surprisingly, access to these materials is an urgent issue because without access we could not even reflect or think about it.

meLê yamomo and Pepe Dayaw © Zé de Paiva

The position of the security guards performed by you and Pepe as people of color is very central in this performance… You do not talk much. However, you are very present, handling the playback devices. But your own relationship to the sound recordings is only addressed by your silence. The performance presents a setting in which we see guards working in an exhibition that is not meant for them. It seems that they are not considered as someone who could be interested in commenting on the sound recordings or objects exhibited. This creates a certain tension and made me think about today’s postcolonial discussion of cultural appropriation in museums…

Exactly. Often the roles of musuem security guards (many of whom come from immigration backgrounds) are to be invisible. When you go to a museum, their job is to police the visitors while simultaneously being invisible. I am interested in these positionalities. How, on the one hand, to perform this violence that transpires in these spaces in Europe. And on the other hand, we end up performing the subversion that could happen. We often talk about the history of objects in a museum, but what disappears is their affective history. These objects had lives. When a radio plays certain songs during a specific historical moment, it generates affective events. I am interested in these former lives before they died. Museums are almost just cemeteries. You walk around them to look at the objects which once had very colorful lives. And this is something that I wanted to play around. We often have white bodies looking that don’t have any relationship with these objects. In the second part of the piece, after these objects have been taken out of the original context, I’m interested in how we reanimate them.

In the beginning of the performance, the spectators enter this beautiful ballroom of Ballhaus Naunynstraße and are confronted with this museum-like setting of all these record players, a gramophone and other tape recorders. You were obviously also playing with this very specific space…

Indeed, it’s such a beautiful space that also needs to be performed. It has its own historicity. I actually wanted to use the entire space and perform its grandiosity and the problematics that came with it. When we think of colonialism, it is a more systemic structure which allows for one state to be able to utilize the resources and free labor of another so that the other could achieve economic success. Hence, European prosperity cannot be imagined without colonialism. The only reason we have such prosperity in Europe is because there were free laborers who were enslaved doing all this work. How can we perform the spatiality of spaces like Ballhaus, as a museum, and their excesses? Concomitantly, how can we reposition the entire room as an audience space? By framing the entire piece within this double vision of spectacle and power, I was trying to deconstruct how these multiple frames have so much violence including even the voice of the invisible white man giving a long lecture. And we are still living literally in these spaces of violence.

In the beginning we, the audience, were walking around watching these beautiful machines and recorders that also tell a history on their own. They came from very different places but mostly also from western countries, right? I had the impression – because I was also watching you, the performers – that you were also watching the spectators and there was a shift. We were going to the seats, we sat down and were re-watching this museum-like setting. In the beginning there was not much sound but from these machines. So, is there also a bit of nostalgia in this? Because what are these machines also telling us? Is it going beyond a system of recording and what was your interest in collecting all these machines?

Indeed, I also wanted to comment on this technophilia – of this obsessive practice of collecting these machines. I find it interesting that you say that there is nostalgia, especially when you walk around a museum of dead objects that you don’t really have a feeling for. That is exactly what I’m interested in: this potentiality of a cemetery of dead objects. In the second part, there is this point in the performance when we hear the first Dutch broadcasting of 1927. Pepe and I, in our stage-characters, were thinking: “okay, it’s alive.” It’s interesting to listen to it, there is this aspect of coming to life. But then the other radio started playing 1940s Kronçong music, and animated a completely different life. It suddenly occupies our bodies and we were compelled to start moving. This life of the song penetrates our bodies to a point that we wanted to dance. Thus, indeed, there is nostalgia and through that also reanimation. A reanimation that is only possible because we have this medium. But this medium also connects with our body as a medium so we become the medium through which the life of these sounds become alive through dance – a literal reanimation of the medium as the body. There is the meaning of the medium as a technology, but there is also the other meaning of medium as a spirit medium which we experiennce at the moment of the sound becoming alive.

Your work definitely has a very political impact…

I hope so. I was invited to talk at the conference “Embodied Histories – Entangled Communities. Southeast Asian and Western Approaches to Narratives and Performance Art” at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin in June 2019.1 They asked me specifically to talk about the performance. I showed parts of the vieo documentation of Echoing Europe and discussed the context of the performance. Dr. Stefan Dreyer, the recently appointed Regional Director South East Asia at Goethe-Institut came to me and asked: “What can we do?” So, I think it’s good that both these academic questions I’m asking in the performance are now reaching not just the public but also institutions where which maybe change could finally happen.

What do you think should be done for this?

Well, the Goethe Institute has been very influential in bringing Germans to developing countries but not necessarily the other way around. We need mobilities and access by people from the Global South. I have been asked by the new director of the phonogram archive to consider curating a section at Humboldt Forum for Southeast Asia. Sure, it’s a great opportunity but I was also reflecting: I do not want to be somebody who will just replicate imperialist power and privileges. What strategies can we apply? I don’t think that revolution is going to be made within the institutions. Some final questions regarding the Humboldt Forum could be: are we going again to reformulate our decolonial work and put it back in the very space of feudalism and monarchy? Do we need our work to be validated by these institutions?

Thank you for this interview.

  1. The conference “Embodied Histories – Entangled Communities” is a cooperation between the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum for Contemporary Art – Berlin and the Cluster of Excellence 2020 “Temporal Communities: Doing Literature in a Global Perspective” of the Freie Universität Berlin, with the support of the Goethe-Institut Southeast Asia. []

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