Ep. 10: Animal Control (Mandy-Suzanne Wong, Robbie Judkins, Colleen Plumb)

This week, we examine the sounds humans make in order to monitor, repel, and control beasts. Author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s Listen, We All Bleed is a creative nonfiction monograph that explores the human-animal relationship through animal-centered sound art. We’ll hear works by Robbie Judkins, Claude Matthews, and Colleen Plumb, interwoven with Wong’s unflinchingly reflective prose. By turns beautiful and harrowing, these sounds and words reposition us, kindling empathy as we listen through non-human ears.

Links to works by the artists heard in this episode:

Mandy Suzanne-Wong’s Listen, We All Bleed. 

Robbie Judkins: Homo Tyrannicus, “Pest” (video), live in London, 2017

Claude Matthews: “DogPoundFoundSound (Bad Radio Dog Massacre)”

Colleen Plumb: “Thirty Times a Minute” (homepage), indoor installation (video)

[ethereal music plays]

 

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

 

[pig grunting]

 

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 10.

 

[CRIS]

Animal Control.

 

[MANDY SUZANNE WONG]

If humans did this to each other, they call it sonic warfare, terrorism or crowd control, depending on who did it and whom they did it to. They call the end result for the victims, that is post traumatic stress, but skunks aren’t human. They’re not even pets. Not like your spaniel who clearly enjoys notions of his own. Can a skunk suffer post traumatic stress? Aren’t they just wild animals? Yes and yes, sound is contact. Fear is a weapon. The wild is here.

 

[sounds fade out]

 

[MACK]

Welcome back to another episode of Phantom Power, where we explore the world of sound in the arts and humanities, I’m Mack Hagood.

 

[CRIS]

And I’m cris cheek.

 

[MACK]

Hi, cris.

 

[CRIS]

Hi Mack. How you doing?

 

[MACK]

I’m okay. We’ve got an interesting episode in store today I think.

 

[CRIS]

Good.

 

[MACK]

I spoke with an author of fiction and nonfiction work. Her name is Mandy Suzanne Wong. She hails from Bermuda. She’s got a PhD from the University of California in Los Angeles. You may have heard of the place.

[CRIS]

I have. she’s very interdisciplinary right?

 

[MACK]

Yeah, she’s another person that I met through that crazy conference for science literature and the arts. Like the other person that we met.

 

[CRIS]

Brian House.

 

[MACK]

Brian House, yeah. The other person we met at that conference, Brian House. She has a concern with animals and the sounds of animals and sound art about animals.

 

[CRIS]

Right, it seems like she is a creative writer in short fiction and also has a novel coming out this year. It seems like she is also an essayist about sound almost a creative nonfiction thinking about sound is that right?

 

[MACK]

Yeah, and she’s got this manuscript that she recently finished and it’s called “Listen, We All Bleed.” It’s her critical response to a number of sound art pieces that focus on the human animal relationship through sound. So, on today’s show we’re going to listen to four pieces of audio that Mandy Suzanne Wong has written about in “Listen, We All Bleed.” We’re going to listen to those pieces and we’re also going to listen to her words about those pieces. So, the first piece we’re going to listen to is by Robbie Judkins. It’s called “Desired Place” and it’s on his album “Homo Tyrannicus.”

 

[low, ominous music plays, sounds like an orchestra]

 

[MANDY]

What is empathy? There are at least two definitions of empathy out there on philosophers of animal ethics. One is basically if I empathize with you, I feel something similar to what you feel. Another is when I empathize with you, I am deeply affected by your situation, but in my own way/ I think Robbie Jenkins desired place could be about either or both. I think empathy is a kind of resonance.

 

[music continues]

 

The final track on his album “Homo Tyrannicus: Desired Place” opens with a beautiful electronic chord. Long and rolling in slow motion through the tones of some major triad with a bit of fuss. Two minutes. Most people would say that’s very long for a chord and it keeps going. And then little bells start ringing. Wind bothering a microphone, splash or stumble in the grass. The bells are somehow holler and then sheep and cattle mowing. The bells are full of footsteps in the grass.

[sounds mentioned above play out]

 

One interview recall this piece a collage of simultaneous curiosities. First, this long chord. I’m a fan of drone and ambient music. I know long cords. There are long chords I can sleep in, chords I can fly in, chords that hold my breath or gouge me or transforming into carpet or warm water. They assert their independence, which is why Robbie says they are humbling. This long cord is dusty velvet, maybe even musty, with velvet cushions on the sides. It’s also electric with dust motes and wintry light. It coils the tones of the Triad around and around. This motion is internal, quills of rope are still one route. This is a binding chord and the hollow little bells creeping up on it, and the footsteps in the grass.

 

[sounds continue]

 

Farm animals, says the album’s website, and English winter weather. I hear cattle and sheep moving through wide grasslands under heavy ash grey skies. I’ve read that northern shepherds keep track of the herded and attuned to their tempers by listening to the bells around their necks. I think this piece is about captivity and liberation and friction between what feels like liberation but is also captivity. There are at least two ways to hear the animals lowing, tinkling and swishing through the open field. Here’s one way, nature. Tranquility, pastoral simplicity, peace, and the wide open. Where everyone walks and tinkles instead of shoving and cursing, breathing the perfume of fresh grass instead of smoke. This feeling is genuine and legitimate, desired place is beautiful and calming. Here’s another way to hear the combination of “Homo Tyrannicus.” The sheep and cattle tinkle because there’s some human’s property. They fare better on the range than they do extensions, but the clang of captivity has them by the throat. Appended to their bodies at the neck bills are their prosthetic voices as though captivity were some defining part of them. Just as the human Robbie Judkins who comes to their wide open to escape himself is imprisoned in himself, even in the great wide open, to the point that he’s turned to mirtazapine and anti depressant of last resort, which gives its name to the previous track.

 

[sounds continue]

 

Empathy means coming to share a relevantly similar effective state with another. It happens here in the simple juxtaposition of sounds and words. Captive non human animals do suffer depression. We don’t often think of it as complicated, all consuming anguish worthy of drugs and psychiatrists, but it is. Horrifying, though it is. Captive fishes have been treated with Prozac and responded. I think desired place is that imprisoned human heart crying out to prisoner cattle. I feel what you feel. It’s so complex and knotted, it never let’ me go.

 

[sound of clanging cans]

 

Desired place isn’t just about the artist. Judkins makes his own field recordings, but he’s not the one who baws. He says playing with animal sounds and animals to the another humbling experience, for it’s about not feeling that you are a master of them. It’s about feeling with them. So desired place is neither a tranquil place nor a bear walled cell, but a place where words about human tyranny and anguish coincide with captive animal sounds to give us an opportunity to appreciate that they suffer tyranny and anguish of the same complexity but differently. Desired place is a resonance, sounding out the irony in humans have to use idea of freedom, echoing the complexity of non humans emotional experience of captivity. Empathy is a liminal place full of echoes and reflections, changing color as they fly.

 

[sounds continue, then fade out]

 

[MACK]

Thoughts?

 

[CRIS]

I have a lot of thoughts about that. I actually like it as a piece into relating her writing with the sound, although I know the sound exists in its own right. So, for people who want to hear the sound without the voices, we’ve put the links up on our website. I’m drawn to thinking about cowbells and sheep bells and goat bells and what that does to the sheep or the cow or the goat. They are forced into hearing this clanging every time they move their head. That must be, to say the least, incredibly annoying let alone intrusive, uncomfortable, maybe deafening.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, maybe literally deafening. You can certainly see this as a form of torture, yet I think from our anthropocentric perspective, this is the sound of the bucolic good life. This gentle clinking and clanging.

 

[CRIS]

We do. We think about it as kind of like a rural evil. Oh, the sound of the cattle coming across the hillside, or the clanking of the clinking, clanking of the goats in the valley.

 

[MACK]

I love it as this meeting place, this space for conjuring the kind of empathy that Mandy Suzanne long is talking about here. Trying to hear from the perspective of these animals and hear how this sound that’s beloved to us maybe torture to them.

 

[CRIS]

Absolutely. Let’s hear another one.

 

[MACK]

So the next piece is also by sound artist Robbie Judkins and this one is a live performance that he did in London in 2017. It’s called “Pest.”

 

[Pest begins to play. Starts as an annoying ringing]

 

[MANDY]

You’re fast asleep in your cookie cutter house on a decent suburban night. A stinking feral cat slinks onto your property bent on wreaking havoc among your flower beds and spreading cat

 

disease to little Junior. Never fear, you’ve got an ultrasonic animal repeller. The infiltrator trips the motion sensor and your faithful military green box on a stick start shooting powerful ultrasounds and blinding lights. The intruder, cat, bat, hedgehog, fox, raccoon, squirrel, skunk mole, or dog feels deafening sound spearing it’s brain. Scared out of its wits, the enemy turns and runs. Meanwhile, you continue snoozing in your bed, dreaming perhaps of football, having noticed not a thing. Humane and guaranteed. If humans did this to each other, they call it sonic warfare, terrorism or crowd control, depending on who did it and whom they did it to. They call the end result for the victims, that is post traumatic stress, but skunks aren’t human. They’re not even pets. Not like your spaniel who clearly enjoys notions of his own. Can a skunk suffer post traumatic stress? Aren’t they just wild animals? Yes and yes, sound is contact. Fear is a weapon. The wild is here. Robbie Judkins tells me the sounds of ultrasonic animal repellers give him ear pain even though he can’t hear them. Imagine hearing them with hypersensitive dog ears. Now dream back to London 2017 where Robbie’s made a sonic arsenal into a 22 minute artwork. He calls it “Pest.” With him on stage is the powered solar ultrasonic animal repeller, two of them actually. Robbie stands between them with his laptop on a table in real time, he translates their ultrasounds to audible sounds and layers them with field recordings of other sonic repellents. Sometimes Robbie leaves the table. He walks back and forth across the stage pacing as if on patrol or imprisoned in a bear cell. He keeps having to hop or duck the wires strung across the stage at chest level and ankle height. They’re high tension wires, the kind farmers used to keep birds out of their crops. When the wires move in the wind, Robbie says, they make a droning, humming noise, really noisy and really loud. So he layers that noise with solar ultrasonic javelins, stretched into law and loud lansing wailes.

 

[the wailes are played]

 

Every time he leaves or returns to his laptop. He must wiggle between wires stepping up and ducking under. He hits his head once, and then bending or crouching over the computer having nothing to sit on Later, he admits it somewhat painful to perform. That’s the point. The artists literally ensnares himself, he doesn’t spare himself as he blasts the only species on this planet that would purchase ultrasonic animal repellers with the noises of those very things.\ as the outcasts might hear them. Ortification as subversion. The whole thing is physically awkward for all humans present. Even for a fan of drone music, “Pest” is discomfitingly piercing. Drones are sonicwalls, as if magnifications of ultrasonic fortresses. “Pest” is an invisible fortress that makes my body feel like liquid. It sounds out the ambiguity of resistance, resistance as rigidity, refusal to give ground even to a squirrel. Resistance as critical, effrontery. Revolt the very force of change. Now there are no mice and moles and “Pest.” No non human animal sounds at all. What does their absence tell you about the kind of threat they are and where are the pests? What are they? Which species is trapped in emptiness here with nothing but itself and the traps it has invented and wildness trembling inside it?

 

[the piece ends]

 

[MACK]

What I like about listening to these pieces, I think what’s starting to emerge is all of these different methodologies that we have for controlling our relationship to animals. Controlling the animals themselves, and how much sound plays into these things. You want to keep tabs on the animals, so you put a bell around its neck.

 

[CRIS]

You want to know where it is.

 

[MACK]

Then you always know where it is, and where you want to keep the animal away. Some animals we want to keep them. We use sound to do that. Some we want to repel them, so we use sound to do that. Sometimes, the things that we’re doing to animals, as we’ll see in a moment, cause the animals to make inconveniently loud and unhappy sounds. So, maybe we’ll mask that with some sound. It’s all of these ways of asserting our dominance over animals.

 

[CRIS]

Dominance and privilege. A sense of the non human animal interactions that we favor, that we want to have. We want the cuddly, when we want the cuddly, we want the cuddly. Where and how we want the cuddly, we want the cuddly.

 

[MACK]

Cuddles on demand.

 

[CRIS]

Cuddles on demand. That sense of policing our own spaces to eviscerate them of any other animal presences.

 

[MACK]

Ok cris, so this next piece, I wouldn’t say it’s sound art per say, but it’s a field recording made surreptitiously by a guy named Claude Matthews.

 

[sounds of animals barking and crying]

 

Once you’ve heard a big cry, you won’t forget it, or hundreds of dogs. Big and small. Black and brown, and dappled. Claude Matthews, met them on death row. Matthews went again and again to the Center for Animal Care and Control in Manhattan, taking pictures of homeless dogs and cats in cages. He made flyers for each animal, urging humans to adopt them before the CACC killed them, froze their bodies and then burn them. In June 1996, he smuggled in a mic and recorder, hid them in his camera bag, put the bag on the floor pressed record. He shuffled quietly along the corridors 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b, photographing every single dog and every last narrow dingy cage stinking with piss and fear. In every cage, a dog ran up to plead with him. They threw themselves at bars and mesh. They tried to eat away the mesh. Terriers and Great Danes ramming themselves through food slots while Bulldogs sprawled and corners giving up. All the while that recorder ran, so Matthew’s took home two hours of doggie agony. Now and then among the whimpering and raging at these bag russells. The floor taps him from beneath. He’s right there in the foreground where the dogs howl. In the background, not quite distant is music. of all things that old song by Billy Joel, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone.” It’s a horror of a coincidence. The CACC didn’t know about Matthews tape recorder. He offered to build a website connecting lonely humans with homeless dogs. The CACC turned him down, choosing to leave the moment alone and kill the animals instead. Matthews wrote, it was massive and systemized violence but it is not called violence. The facilities which perform the killing are cold shelters, facilitating denial of, or at least a diffusion of responsibility for what is in fact, a premeditated policy of cruel austerity. The music is foreign in the background. Silly soft rock, sequestered beyond empty walls and coradoors. If you don’t know the song, you won’t recognize it, but you’ll know it’s music. You’ll pick up its mellow rhythms, even though Matthews position is so that the dogs would drown out everything. For the CACC staff ,it was the other way around. Music flooded the halls to drown the screens. A musical deployment to crush responsibility and willful ignorance. Howls and croons were countermeasures firing on each other in a stalemate. Their collision on Matthews recruiting is an explosion of noise. The way he recorded it was hush hush subversive. The recording had to be made in secret, or the CACC wouldn’t have let Matthew set the bag way he did. From the hidden recorders in human perspective, human crooning drowns in non human misery. Doggy howling. drowns the human staffs pretensions to normality. The fantasy that those cages are like a doctor’s waiting room or shopping mall with piped in prettiness. Listening I start to feel like the rope in a tug of war between faint Billy Joel and deafening doomed pit bulls. The music’s presence shows how determined ignorance is but with their chaotic range of pitches, tempers, dire emotions, and shared shuttering volume, what can I say? The doggies win. Their voices so loud, so distressed and then such numbers coerce my decision.

 

[sounds fade out]

 

[CRIS]

So that’s a terrifying recording, but I have to almost make light of the fact that my response to Billy Joel might be not dissimilar.

 

[MACK]

Yeah, the juxtaposition of Billy Joel is just almost too much.

 

[CRIS]

It’s terrifying. I remember going to the zoo in Chicago several years ago. It was Christmas time, and the lions were in their cages, and they had kind of big carousels outside and they were playing Christmas carols. It almost reminded me of the US military trying to get Daniel Ortega out of his presidential palace by blasting the Rolling Stones at him.

 

[MACK]

The thing that I really like about this is this is a almost a very Friedrich Hitler kind of thing. Where the recorder because it works differently from the human ear. It just captures what’s there. This recorder is down on the floor in this bag, and it was at the dogs level. We’ve got this kind of, musical perfume that’s trying to cover up the stench of this place. The Billy Joel, but it’s kind of up at the human ear level. This recorder’s down on the floor with the dogs. It’s picking up this different soundscape where Billy Joel just can’t paper over the pain of these animals.

 

[CRIS]

That’s great.

 

[MACK]

I think once again it’s just like Mandy Suzanne is sort of positioning us in the position of these animals. Mandy’s grabbing on to these recordings that do this work of putting us in the position of these other beings that live on our planet.

 

[CRIS]

It’s so distressing to hear, and many people listening will understand from their own domestic environment. Possibly they are dog owners themselves, the terror that’s being expressed through these dog wines, these dog howls. The sense of insecurity in a place that’s called shelter.

 

[MACK]

So cris, the last piece that we’re going to encounter today is called 30 times a minute. It’s by the video artist Colleen Plum. It comes from years of her videotaping what’s called the stereotypical behaviors of captive animals. Specifically captive elephants.

 

[CRIS]

Yeah, the zoo. Not as a place of beauty.

 

[a howling chord plays]

 

[MINDY]

We’re listening to a chord that should have passed us by in a fraction of a second, but it happens that it’s stuck. Trapped cord. We’re on uncomfortable benches in a dark room with a big screen. Horizontal wires slash the picture all the way through. Behind them is an Asian elephant. Behind her a thick fence. Clothed. primates stare at her. She stares at emptiness. In the near distance, swaying from side to side to side. Her name is Linda. She’s in a zoo in Kansas. Cut to an African elephants swing side to side and another zoo. Cut to an Asian elephant swaying behind bars as thick as her gray legs. Side to side, never forward or backward. Different elephants, different zoos, all doing the same thing as this long cord just sits there. Colleen plum, the artists of this work, traveled to 60 zoos in the US and Europe, videoing elephants as they we left and right going nowhere. Swaying in place is abnormal for elephants. They’d walk 50 miles a day, if they were free. We can’t know for certain what the swaying is about not being elephants ourselves. Colleen observes, only captive elephants exhibit weaving, it’s stereotypic, pathological. If a human rock from side to side to side all day, every, every single long, long, endless day, they’d be diagnosed mentally ill. In elephants these compulsive repetitive movements can cause debilitating,  life threatening damage to the animal’s feet, and joints. In Pauline’s sound, and video collage, 30 times a minute. We watch beautiful gray bodies grinding themselves down, each elephant is alone wearing herself out to music that’s forgotten how to move. The trapped cord is the sound of old recordings of human animals, playing hymns and classical music on non human, non animal bodies, except Collins broken the music into fragments of sound and slow the fragments right down to one to 10% of their original speeds. So what once we’re melodies and progressions are now just cord. The pachyderms heart beats 30 times a minute half the speed of yours and mine. Slowing down human music to even less than half speed, Colleen wants us to feel how an imprisoned elephant feels her time. A photographer by training, Colleen had never worked with sound before. She wanted to make her own soundtrack because she wanted to retrain our perspective personally. To put herself through the experience of unlearning how to listen like a closed and squeaky always rushing primate. Colleen herself took on the work of unraveling familiar tunes into long piles of sound. It’s a new uncertain ritual for her. The painstaking process of her perceptions slowing ,seizing to be familiar or make sense. The long impossible anguish of becoming elephant. Colleen’s stretched sounds dream of a human body trapped in a captives time with elephants ears. Sounding out the slow sensation of an interminable day. Exposing Colleen’s own insides. Her delicate hearing organs and suggestible senses to caged elephants, monotony. Colleen’s distorted no longer human sounds, the sounds of Colleen listening to captivate elephants way of listening. Colleen’s sounds are listening in action, listening as action and response. The sounds are lovely by themselves. Juxtaposed with portraits of elephant after elephant jerking side to side compulsively, those trapped cords start to squeeze. Their grasping feels like too tight clothes. Colleen asks, how do humans seek what she calls connectivity, the feeling of being connected to others, since one of her answers is music, especially religious music. She gives us hymns with their very identities as hymns bled out of them as they bleed into sonic puddles. Zoos are another connectivity tactic. The zoo is where humans go to connect with other animals by learning about them, and above all, staring at them. Meanwhile, those at whom we stare imprisoned elephants, like Sunda retreat into themselves. Imprisoned in her thoughts, thoughts of a life imprisoned, her one outlet is side to side to side neurosis.What Colleen’s artwork tries to do is pervert feel good practices of connectivity into experiences of confinement.

 

[chords fade out]

 

[CRIS]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Thanks to Mandy Suzanne Long for coming on the show. Thanks also to the sound artist and recordists whose work we listened to today: Robin Judkins, Claude Matthews, and Colleen Plum. You can hear their works in their entirety. Find the link to Mandy Suzanne Long’s website, learn more about Phantom Power, and find transcripts and previous episodes of the show all that Phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’s to rate and review us in Apple podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter @Phantompod. Today’s show was edited by Craig Ellie and Mack Haygood. Thanks to our intern, Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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