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  • Writer's pictureChris Sciacca

Recap of events: My Position

Updated: Jun 17

Though there has been a gap in this blog, a lot has been progressing with my practice and research. Critical books like Mark Peter Wright's, Listening After Nature, have framed some of the issues around my practice of field recording. Mainly, the book addresses the silent contexts surround the "field". These include the oft overlooked cultural, technical, political, and conceptual elements that surround capturing sound, reproducing, and representing it. Technologically, the natural resources required to build microphones involve the silent acts of "geological extraction, labor, waste, and environmental degradation that make holding a microphone possible" (p.117) After the silent acts of microphone construction, you have the recorded material - in whatever form of sonic media it ends up on: CD, LP, MP3... these are the reproducible artifacts of sound recording. The same issues apply to the technosphere of massive data centers that make it possible to store digital online content. This includes the oceanic volume of digital sound files on the internet alone that could also be viewed as a form of waste. What I have chosen to focus on in particular is the waste part of Wright's equation... but... why? What's the point and in doing so what am I hoping to bring to attention for practitioners, the arts, the public and myself?

The very simple fact of the matter is that as an artist, I am tied to the technology I use and this is often high end recorders and microphones. I have never really questioned how these items have been made and where they end up when they expire. As a layperson, not involved in the waste sector, I would assume most of the public is also unable to answer these questions as well. When my "stuff" breaks, because they are the electronic tools of my trade, I always seek to repair them. I cannot say the same for the numerous cheap earbuds over my lifetime that have broken, remaining out of sight in back of a drawer for years on end until an inevitable purging. For throwing these things in the trash, I am sorry to say I am unquestionably guilty. I hold no special place above the global waste crisis which is why I am seeking to understand what it means to be tied to it at a personal and local level. It also doesn't help to know that I am not alone in this matter according to the New York Times.

In my experience, I've had many microphones break that I could not repair myself. Increasingly there are fewer and fewer trades-people locally who deal in independent electronic repair. In today's economy, the first point of contact is always the manufacturer. There also seems to be some current business paradigm to ship the microphones off to distant headquarters where often, the repairs are so expensive they are not worth it. After my ATH-50 headphones broke, they were sent to the manufacturer for repair. I paid for it up front with the knowledge they'd return in fair time. What ended up happening is that they kept the headphones for an increasingly longer and longer time, despite me regularly questioning what was happening with them. Weeks led to months with no resolve. Eventually after prodding, they went back on their offer to repair them. Instead they offered to sell me a new pair for an "additional" fee. Part of me wondered if the delay was a tactic that might pressure the small, independent, working sound recordist who does not have backup kit, forcing the necessity of having to immediately pay an additional fee to speed the process. Electronic equipment hostage negotiation 101. While I respect these companies for the products they produce, on another occaision, Sennheiser had to send my horribly scratchy-sounding shotgun microphone through the post several times, since the "fix" was claimed on their end. Yet from my end, they remained broken. This was such a technical matter as I had to keep reiterating that there was some interference with coupling the mic to several hand held sound recorders, despite working according to their testing standards. When plugged directly into their sound board, it sounded completely fine, and therefore not a malfunctioning piece of kit. The trouble shooting process did not at all address the needs and specificities of a field recordist. My point is that, outside of warranty, this process was not only expensive but technically tripled the carbon footprint of international shipping. Eventually I was given a new microphone for all the back and forth. I wondered: what happened to my broken one? Was it eventually fixed and resold or was it stripped for working parts?

This is all to mention that I have no idea what happens if you blindly throw electronics into the trash. Though consumers are informed not to do this, some are often so small as to go unnoticed and from there miss the filtering process at waste treatment facilities.  I did take a tour of the Hollingdean recycling facility in Brighton, of which I will discuss in another post. There were pickers on a conveyor belt line sorting material but surely for 4-8 hours per day things must slip by. This morning in Brighton, I began briefly talking with a City Council cleanup crew who was driving throughout the neighborhoods to recover items that do not belong in trash bins, but in designated tips. The flatbed truck they drove a cornucopia of waste accumulated. It literally contained a kitchen sink. However, even disposed at the tip, where does it go? How does it get recycled, since it is made up of problematic constiuent parts? Do these things actually end up in the Global South as second hand items as has been uncovered in the fashion industry with second hand clothes? Would anyone at these facilities agree to being interviewed? Could they answer freely if they are still a representative of a company? Are there old retired tip workers who could tell me something outside of the public relations responses I can easily gleen from the internet? Emails forthcoming...

The bottom line, in my world, is that everything I use will eventually break. It will far outlast a my lifetime with its plastics, and precious metals and minerals. To the point of the New York Times article, it might be better to think of these two states of working and not working as one in the same, just separated by the inevitability of time. Unless there is a circular economy where sound technology is composed of 100% recycled material, with the current rate of production, we can easily imagine the earbuds piling up in a mountainous heap. Or maybe we can't even conceive it based on our position and perspectives and, literally, the billions piling up each fiscal quarter. This is one of the ideas behind Morton's hyperobject: the massive scale of things defies the capacity of having a logical grip on things. Outside of mine, one can look to the very shocking images of Agbogbloshie. What can I do however, as an artist and practitioner to address what Levin et al. call a super wicked problem? The first step might be to begin to develop a critical practice, that is, to know and understand one's context and role within the field they are working. Being aware of shortcomings and trappings are at least the first step toward a renewed practice. So much of field recording practice is overlooked, that clean, high fidelity recordings feel like they have historically developed to obfuscate these problems. To be clear, I do not believe in art as some savior to alleviate the world's shortcomings. Artists can give voice to things overlooked or provide new ways of seeing and hearing that might point to relevant societal, political, or ecological shortcomings in the face of the Anthropocene. From there no one has found a quick and easy solution. Yet, when I think of the irrelevancy of making an impact through art I always think of the institution of documentary filmmaking and its potential power to open eyes toward an evidential truth, with the hope of galvanizing public to pressure policy change.

So... getting to my position. I wouldn't be doing a practice-based research project if it had no impact on my life. I am easily complicit in the commodification and desiring to acquire array of microphones and recorders so I can "capture" and reproduce an immersive scenes from the field. I do have other friends who have sworn off the ties to the unethical and unsustainable nature of what makes media propogation possible. They have gone wholly into listening as perhaps a less entangled position for themselves - though any claims that it remains "unmediated" through our ears alone has been challenged by practitioners such as Mark Peter Wright with our own internal privileges, biases, and culturally contextual positions. For me there has always been something powerful about creating the document - creating the artefact that encapsulates time, that stands as a reminder to the dynamic forces of culture and history at a specific time and place. These documents can be valuable if the relationship we have with them veers away from wasteful byproducts but authentic and intimate statements on lived experience. One of my favorite documentaries, Hospital, by Frederick Wiseman may be over 50 years old but watching it I ran through my own dealings with the health care system in America and could already identify the same threads then as there are now - that these institutions become institutionalized, and in doing so, lose an element of humanity at the cost of operating.

In my previous work, I sought to produce soundscape compositions to the ideal as if one can imagine one "being there". This is aided technologically by microphones that have a high signal to noise ratio, thereby eliminating noise or hiss in the system as an "unnatural" byproduct of recorded sound. I have as a sonic documentarian, spent hours editing recordings to eliminate the telltale sign of myself in the recording process, heard as "handling noise". Such "mistakes" indicate my presence, etched into recordings when I accidentally brush against wires, shift position noisily, or crack knuckles with the slightest of movements. They seek to eliminate the subjectivity of field recording practice and veer toward the so called objectivity of the technological reproduction of sound. Strike this against the advent of the earliest microphones - touted to reproduce life and record events truthfully. Our modern ears would hear a noisy, lo-fidelity mess. It begs the question as what is gained and what is lost within the ends of the spectrum of fidelity. Outside of using modern recording equipment, what would happen if the apparatus of sound capture derived not from factory precision technology but from the ubiquitous raw material household waste products we have been accustomed to recycling like pet4 plastic, styrofoam, and metal? What can we understand about sound itself as carrier of information when we use waste to audition sites of waste? To recall Wiseman again, he has spent a lifetime creating works that turn a lens on American institutions, providing intimate portraits of the inner workings of the justice system, education, politics, meat production, animal experimentation, and small town life to name just a small fraction. The big difference is that Wiseman was a master at getting unfettered access inside the institution in a way that I honestly do not think is at all possible in today's climate. Away from visual media, and placing sound over vision, what happens if I examine the local infrastructure of waste, such as the myriad waste to energy recovery facilities, recycling centers, tips, and down to the street level of garbage collection and transportation? We can bear the ephemerality of the noise of the waste collector's trucks and disruption into our "quiet" neighborhoods, but to encapsulate it into the artefact, to put into a space where it must be heard with intention and not "blocked out" as a form of noise may reform our relationship to it.

The purpose of my research is to apply a form of sonic thinking to the waste crisis. This is to claim that sound, in its spatial and temporal undulations; processual, fluid, vibrational permeative, nature, and it's phenomenological associations, can call into question the "out of sight, out of mind" Western disposition towards waste. It is often claimed that in the West, a hegemony of vision exists that exalts the visual above the other senses. This has been ideologically supported over centuries dating back to the advent of rennaisance perspectivism and eventually to the inherent truth of the photograph as documentary evidence. On a cultural scale, the bombardment of visual advertisements that tap into consumer desires and problematically enforce an objectifying gaze, have become so ubiquitous as to be second nature. In other ways, photos crossing over from an objective distance as a form of "in your face" fetishized "disaster-porn" can be said of documenting the ecological crisis. In the other direction, not seeing or rendering invisible is the ideal for that which is culturlly deemed abject. As I had outlined in previous journal entries, there is no out of sight, out of mind for those working in the world's largest E-waste sites in Ghana, India and China. Even the proliferation of imagery from Western media outlets, intending to open eyes, has lended more toward a shock and awe aspect, an objectifying horrorscape, and a shameful spectacle. It can be argued to have led to a governmental counter-solution in the very place it mattered most.

Critically the idea is to look where I live first, to understand my own relationship to the very equipment that I use as a field recordist, knowing that it's material nature is tied to the very problems of the Anthropocene, and the problems of the pre-and post consumer relationship to a piece of electronic's life cycle as a commercial commodity. Before getting to any methodology, one of the key questions is how the medium sound might be better equipped to deal with the superwicked problem of waste.

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