To the Front
By Nikita Gale and Jasmine Nyende
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation between Nikita Gale and Jasmine Nyende at the Hammer Museum as part of Omniaudience (Side One) on December 12, 2018. Gale and Nyende are artists who are concerned with the politics of musical performance and subcultures; Nyende is a member of the punk band Fuck U Pay Us. They spoke about the relationship between singing and engineering, studio technicians and the representation of performers, amplification and silence. (Gale presented a performance as part of a subsequent installment of Omniaudience, and later adapted the work for an essay published by Triple Canopy.)
Nikita GaleHow do you think about listening, specifically as it relates to your practice as a punk musician? In the past, we’ve discussed how you deal with the structures that make certain types of performance, or producing certain types of sounds, possible—or difficult.
Jasmine NyendeFuck U Pay Us is a band that I started with my bandmates in 2015, after they saw me performing Hole’s “Violet” at a No Sesso show. They liked my voice and we started talking. We thought, “Let’s start a punk band just to see what happens.” We were interested in listening to our bodies. We found ways to get instruments, and then we found people who were down to teach us how to play them. I’d never had any real experience as a vocalist. I’ve made music before, but being able to produce the particular sound I was after in my body took time, for sure.
Fuck U Pay Us is a Black femme punk band. I identify as a Black queer woman and femme; the band includes nonbinary folks, but we all identify as femme. We wanted to disrupt the historical idea of punk as male-dominated by bringing gender equality to the fore, by taking up space, by being loud, by being ourselves as much we can. That said, when people listen to Fuck U Pay Us, I don’t quite know what they’re experiencing!
GaleI’m reminded of a show I saw you play at the Echo in Silver Lake, in 2017. You were opening for Pussy Riot. I remember being in the audience, near the front, but not being able to get all the way to the stage because there was a barrier of really tall white dudes. There were women in the back of the crowd who felt authorized to challenge these guys, to ask them to move out of the way, because the women were there to see you and Pussy Riot. Halfway through your set, they charged to the front—it was really tense, bordering on fisticuffs. It was cool, though: I sensed that the people who were there to hear your music felt like the space was theirs.
NyendeI say “Black femmes to the front” at all of our shows. That is our audience. That is who we want in the front row. I feel more comfortable when I see a sea of people who I want to inspire with the music than when I see a row of tall white dudes standing there, staring at me.
GaleRight. You mentioned Hole—I want to talk about influences. When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of P. J. Harvey. Listening to that music inspired me to start playing guitar. Did you have specific influences, or people that you were thinking about, when you started the band?
NyendeI’m glad you asked. I don’t even know who PJ Harvey is! What is that, a cereal? [Laughter] So much of what a band like Fuck U Pay Us does isn’t even about the music. I went to college in Portland, and that’s where I discovered Hole, which I love. Instantly, I got this feeling of: Ugh! The groans—all of these noises that I’m attracted to in my music, and that go beyond genre. I like the bodily noises in rap. I wouldn’t say that my influences in punk are what a good punk musician should be listening to.
GaleI don’t have a very thorough history of punk music, but I occasionally get that history mansplained to me. For me—and this has to do with the way I work in my studio, too—it’s always been more about an attitude and the connection between attitudes and relationships, social spaces, politics, and lines of influence. I’m not making rock or punk music, but I feel like the underlying attitude is manifest in the way I work and the materials I use.
Recently, when we did a studio visit, you mentioned you’re working on creating a DIY PhD that focuses on sound, or on sound management as it relates to venues for live music. What’s that about? I should say that my interest in sound doesn’t have so much to do with the technical side of things, as opposed to how sound, music, and noise function culturally and politically.
NyendeDo you mind if we play a video as I answer? [Video plays] This song is from a show that we played in Stockholm. The songs we play sound different every time, based on whether or not the sound person respects us enough to make sure the levels are right and we sound great, to make sure that we feel comfortable going on stage and showing how badass we are. Sometimes there’ll be the moments when my mic isn’t on, or the bass will be too low, or the amp stops working halfway through the show and the guitarist has to leave the stage, figure out what’s happening, and come back. And we’re jamming for ten minutes of our thirty-minute set. The show in this video is an example—but I can’t remember if I chose this show because I thought the audio was really good or really bad! [Laughter; audio plays]
We recently recorded a live album at a show. I’ve never been in a studio. I have no idea how to make music in a studio. But, with punk, the qualities of live performance charge the sound, so I’ve been learning about music production through live shows, and I’ve been learning how I hear. At some shows, all you can hear is Uhuru’s guitar, and I’m so curious about how the song is heard and received by the audience. I think that musicians, especially femme muscians, really need to know how to control their sound—how to listen for what sounds good and know what their is, so they can recognize when that standard is not being met, when they’re not being cared for.
GaleWe tend to think of these sorts of technologies as objective, as not having subjectivities built into them. But, as you say, there are decisions being made at every level, even down to the design of a microphone. I think about this in terms of guitar design, which, as a sculptor, has been a big part of my work. Initially, I was making work related to the design of cars and other technologies, which was heavily influenced by J. G. Ballard. I was looking at these manufacturing practices from the late 1950s to the early ’60s, around the time that rock and roll music was allegedly invented, or defined as a genre. A lot of the designers who worked on cars were getting hired to create the bodies of electric guitars. Some of the documentation of the manufacturing processes and interviews with the designers make specific references to the shape of a woman’s body—the curves. I’m often thinking about the biases embedded in these technologies. To me, this is related to the fundamental considerations that shape the materiality of recording and broadcasting: they determine who is controlling those spaces and how the documentation of your performances travels.
NyendeYeah, the question that keeps us going is: What if we could fuck all that up? Fuck U Pay Us goes through transitions; I really don’t want to follow the modality of a typical rock band, with the same four people maintaining a formula. We’re not trying to make music that’s “listenable” to fans. I find the idea of listenability to be curious. We don’t call the people who like the band fans: they’re accomplices; they’re committed to our ideas, not just the music. We want to align people with our politics through music.
Generally, we want to do something totally different with the technologies that go into the creation and circulation of music. This includes rethinking how we’re compensated, how our music is commodified. What if we don’t get paid from streams or a record deal? Instead, we’ve chosen to get paid from people sending us reparations via PayPal or Venmo. But this can get awkward: once people give you money, they feel like they own you. They think: “Because I gave you something, I own a piece of you, and that makes me special. I’m not racist anymore; I enjoy Fuck U Pay Us.”
Mandy Harris Williams, a theorist and artist in Los Angeles, has written about the relationship between Black women and the notion of slaveability—how closely we align with the idea of having an inexhaustible supply of labor, of working and working and working without eating or drinking, without caring about how we look or about joy. It’s all about work. This idea about the slave’s ability is still such a part of the American landscape. And it’s part of the reason we say: Fuck you, pay us! Yet even as we challenge that ideology, people expect everything from us for free. People still thinking they’re entitled to our energy, our space, our bodies.
GaleThat’s really interesting to think about in relation to Gary Dauphin’s presentation last week on the never-ending work of Michael Jackson: his archive is being mined to create new songs, and he’s being turned into a hologram that can perform every night in any number of venues around the world. There’s a paradox: people want a physical body that can perform work forever, but the body can never keep up with an image. If you’re in this position, as a performer—especially as a woman of color—you have to figure out how to preserve yourself, but that also means managing the representations of yourself.
NyendeYeah, especially in the music industry, you’re pushed to become a machine, to do nonstop promotion and touring. Instead, we decided to get our income—and define our band—through reparations. We say, “Black Americans deserve reparations.” That’s what most of our songs are about, and we read speeches about reparations on stage. Then we redistribute the money. We create GoFundMe campaigns to help establish a network of people who are dedicated to redistributing wealth in this country. That’s not how the music industry works, of course; that’s not a great way for record labels to make money.
Often, we’re asked to perform and we’re supposed to be pleased to be on stage at a museum in front of people who don’t care about our politics. We’re not supposed to complain—machines don’t complain, slaves don’t complain. You’re supposed to play your music for ten minutes, scream “fight the power,” say thank you, take your check, and leave. But we’re trying to shift the expectations that people have for performers, especially for Black women and nonbinary folks—in addition to the expectations that people have for themselves as political beings.
GaleBeing in the band is about applying these ideas, right? There are entire genres of music that are based on commodifying dissent, or packaging dissent into pure catharsis, so that the effect is limited to creating a marketable image of protest. To say “fuck you, pay us” is to do something different: to turn the performance of music into a part of a political practice.
What are 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), how can we listen in ways that make us more receptive to one another and ensure that a plurality of voices can be heard? When and why might we reject this ideal and refuse to make ourselves available or open to others (or to the systems that feed on our expressions)?
Triple Canopy addresses these questions in Omniaudience, which emerges from the magazine’s 2018–19 Public Engagement residency at the Hammer Museum and is organized with the Los Angeles–based artist Nikita Gale. Omniaudience 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. The first installment of Omniaudience is a progression of invitational listening sessions, presentations, and discussions at the Hammer Museum and elsewhere in Los Angeles, with contributions by Geeta Dayal, Gary Dauphin, Nina Sun Eidsheim, Daniela Gesundheit and Sarah Kessler, David Horvitz, Jasmine Nyende, and Karen Tongson.
I Don’t Like You, but I Love You: On the Afterlife of Michael Jackson
With Gary Dauphin
December 12, 7 p.m.
Kristina Kite Gallery
3400 W. Washington Blvd.
Dauphin will facilitate a listening session and conversation that addresses the ceaseless circulation of Michael Jackson’s voice, body, and labor. The event will be hosted by Kristina Kite Gallery, where an exhibition by Nicole Miller, featuring a sculpture derived from a mold of Jackson’s body, will be on view.
Cover Me: Karaoke and Imitation
With Karen Tongson
December 12, 9 p.m.
Pharaoh Karaoke Lounge 3680 Wilshire Blvd.
Tongson, a scholar and aficionado of karaoke, will host and introduce a karaoke session. She’ll draw on her book in progress, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time, which explores the relationship between karaoke and the ways in which we perform and judge repetition and mimicry.
When the Ocean Sounds
With David Horvitz
Saturday, December 15, 5 p.m.
1206 Maple Avenue, #1030
Horvitz will orchestrate a performance in which vocalists—anyone present who wishes to sing—utilize a set of fifty-one scores that transcribe the sounds of waves breaking on a cliff in Palos Verdes, California, accompanied by instructions that evoke the compositions and listening practice of Pauline Oliveros.
Omniaudience at the Hammer Museum
With Daniela Gesundheit and Sarah Kessler, Geeta Dayal, Nikita Gale and Jasmine Nyende, and Nina Sun Eidsheim
Sunday, December 16, 1–5 p.m.
This afternoon-long program will focus on how we are conditioned and how we might condition ourselves to listen—to which phenomena, to whom, to what ends. After an introduction by by Alexander Provan and Nikita Gale, Daniela Gesundheit and Sarah Kessler will speak about listening through the lens of acoustic biology, focusing on the work of Katy Payne, the preeminent scholar of whale songs, which were first recorded by hydrophone in the 1960s. They’ll play excerpts from Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970), produced by Payne’s husband, and discuss the relationship between prevailing technologies of capture (whether applied to whale songs or human expressions) and cross-species relationships and environmental stewardship. Geeta Dayal will present a history—and speculate on the future—of recording technologies, including real and fictional examples from Muzak to Alexa to the manipulative background music in Decoder (1984). She’ll ask how machines, including today’s always-on devices and streaming services, listen to us (and to signals that are not produced by or discernible to humans) and how we listen to and through them. Nikita Gale and Jasmine Nyende will lead a conversation about the relationship between singing and engineering, studio technicians and the representation of performers, and amplification and silence. Nina Sun Eidsheim will facilitate a listening session that will draw on singers (e.g., Billie Holiday) discussed in her new book, The Race of Sound, which addresses “how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre,” and how we might cultivate “a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.” Then she’ll interview participants about what they’ve heard in order to explore how we’re acculturated through listening: how we form relationships to specific sound objects and how we’re trained to hear particular aspects of sound and not others.
Triple Canopy’s focus on listening—or hearing with intent—is tied to a long-standing concern with the modes of distracted viewing and reading that proliferate online, and that characterize the attention economy. The magazine’s residency at the Hammer Museum is a cornerstone of Two Ears and One Mouth, a forthcoming issue that addresses how we speak and listen and who has the right and capacity to be heard. (The other is “Parts of Speech,” an exhibition on public speech, organized with Public Fiction and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, that hinges on a series of experimental lectures.)
- Geeta Dayal is an arts critic and journalist specializing in twentieth-century music, culture, and technology. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno (Bloomsbury, 2009), and is currently at work on a book on music.
- Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Artforum, Bidoun, Essence, Interview, Lacanian Ink, TheRoot.com, Vibe, and the Village Voice, among other publications.
- Nina Sun Eidsheim is a professor of musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She’s the author of Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice and The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music, to be published by Duke University Press in early 2019.
- Nikita Gale is an artist who lives in Los Angeles. Gale received an MFA in new genres at University of California, Los Angeles, in 2016. By engaging with materials that have properties that are simultaneously acoustic and protective, Gale examines the ways in which silence and noise function as political positions and conditions. Gale's work has recently been exhibited at MoMA PS1 (New York), LACE (Los Angeles), the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin, 56 Henry (New York), Bemis Center (Omaha), Commonwealth and Council (Los Angeles), the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York), Rodeo Gallery (London), Martos Gallery (New York), and in “Made in L.A.” at the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles). Gale’s work has been published or featured in the New York Times, Texte zur Kunst, Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, Vogue, and Flash Art, among other publications. Gale currently serves on the Board of Directors for GREX, the West Coast affiliate of the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems.
- Daniela Gesundheit is a singer, songwriter, musician, composer, lyricist, and cantor living between Los Angeles and Toronto. She currently plays in the band Snowblink, a duo with Dan Goldman.
- David Horvitz is a half-Japanese Californian artist who was born in Los Angeles. He has recently had solo exhibitions at Chert, Berlin; Yvon Lambert Librarie, Paris; Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; the New Museum, New York; Jan Mot, Brussels; Dawid Radziszewski Gallery, Warsaw; Statements, Art Basel; and Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.
- Sarah Kessler is a media scholar and television critic who teaches in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Her book project, Anachronism Effects, focuses on the cultural politics of voice and ventriloquism in transatlantic popular culture.
- Jasmine Nyende is a new media and performance artist from South Central Los Angeles. She is the lead vocalist for the black femme punk band FUPU!, and her art practice spans poetry, textiles, sculpture, and performance.
- Karen Tongson is the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011) and a professor of English, gender studies and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She has a forthcoming book from ForEdge Press called Why Karen Carpenter Matters, and two other books in progress: Normal Television: Critical Essays on Queer Spectatorship after the “New Normalcy,” and Empty Orchestra: Karaoke in Our Time.