We recently bought a new washing machine after the bearings on our old one went – with two young children a washing machine is essential, so we replaced it right away – if fact – the engineer who condemned our old one offered to replace it with a good new one – he was an expert, so we took his advice – he recommended a Bosch, so we got one of those. I was quite excited by this for reasons beyond having a shiny new washing machine, as I had been doing live broadcasts of the sounds of things in my home – including our washing machine – so this offered me another machine to listen to and share. The first thing both we noticed was how quite the new one was – it was barely audible! It made a smooth, quiet humming noise. I attached contact mics and used a field recorder and broadcast the signals via the web one weeknight evening. I do this quite regularly, the sounds of me doing the dishes, the sound of me making a cup of tea, the sounds of the boiler, some lamps, our router etc – you get the picture. I do it in the evening, after work, when our children are in bed and I am catching up with domestic jobs that need doing. Why do I do this? I have to – school uniforms need washing, dishes need doing, the heating needs to be on, etc, so I wonder how I can work with these things. Frankly, by that time of the day, I have a window to work creatively, but not much energy – I want to connect with others but am too tired to go out. I could doom scroll on social media, but I know that would not help. I could read a book or watch Netflix but sometimes I am too restless. So, I work with what I have and connect how I can. After nearly 30 ‘broadcasts’ I’m currently taking a bit of a break to consider what I am doing. Here are some of my findings:
- People make the most noise in our home – especially my boys who are five and eight years old. They have no qualms about shouting and screaming at one another. This is often met with ‘don’t shout the neighbours are probably trying to relax’ or something to that effect.
- Domestic appliances are designed to be quiet. Our new washing machine is evidence of this.
- If anything is making a regular or intermittent noise it is probably broken and needs attention.
- Entertainment things make noise too, this is acceptable, if they are switched on and working properly.
- There are lots of things that are conventionally silent but emit a lot of powerful stuff that is unavailable to humans – such as electromagnetic fields and radio waves.
Before we get to the act of streaming, and what purpose it might serve, it is worth just cycling though these statements to unpick what they might reveal. Firstly, there are people in the home, making all of the noises that they make when they are ‘at home.’ The levels of this vary from the very loud to the almost silent. Our young boys make the most. One of these boys is autistic and screams to self-regulate – so can be very, very loud. The other is only five and just likes to shout and sing. Both of these is acceptable up to a point. At some level, or after a particular amount of time, however it becomes unacceptable. The house becomes ‘too loud’ or ‘too noisy.’ We have great neighbours who like to get a bit drunk at weekends and sing along to Robbie Williams and Oasis, they also become too loud, but we all get along fine and are all probably conscious of the point at which things cross the volume line. What becomes interesting, though, is the fact that there is an appropriate level noise profile for our houses and their inhabitants. Children have license to make noise, but what about my partner and I – how much noise can we make? While thinking about who is allowed to make what noise I came across a great essay by Luca Soudant called ‘Trans*formative Thinking Through Sound: Artistic Research in Gender and Sound Beyond the Human’ in Open Philosophy where she discusses how gender performativity dictates who and what can make certain types of sound. She uses the useful and entertaining example of PepsiCo’s failed experiment in making lady friendly Dorito’s – that make less of a crunch when eaten and comes in a smaller bag so they can be carried in a handbag. This, for Soudant, reflects how a socio-cultural frame for gender demands ‘multi-sensory choreographies’ that are embedded not only in the body but the objects that surround it. The quietness of the proposed ‘lady crisp’ reinforces the socio-cultural frame for femininity that pairs it with unobtrusiveness.
This can be extended to observation number 2, and our new quieter Bosch washing machine. In her text Souter also refers to a great article by Anna Symanczyk called ‘The Sound of Stuff – Archetypical Sound in Product Sound Design’ in which she analyses commercials for domestic hoovers. In an example from 1935 the vacuum cleaner’s quietness as a selling point – suggestive of an environment in which domestic chores, usually undertaken by a woman, can be done without disturbing others, in particular the working man. Yet, as Symanczyk points out, a paradox emerges, as the vacuum also needs to provide power – which is associated with noise, and this results in names like the ‘Rowenta Silence Force Extreme Cyclonic’ and more recent vacuum ads that overlay the sounds of racing cars etc. Perhaps this appeal to a more masculine ‘sound’ of power is indicative of a less gendered approach to domestic work (though I suspect not). Yet, domestic spaces are undeniably quiet by design, perhaps we just don’t like to be reminded that our dead skin needs hoovering up and our sweaty clothing needs washing. So, as I stand in the middle of our kitchen, wanting to broadcast something, it is difficult to pick up on anything, I have to listen closely, which draws me to points 3 and 4.
I have made several broadcasts of things that I suspect are broken or very nearly broken – a rumbling boiler and a dripping tap, for instance. The sound of the boiler rumbling fills me with dread, it reminds me that the heating is on, and probably costing a fortune, that we are burning fossils fuels and contributing to global heating, and that if it is broken, it will mean cold showers and untold further expense. Similarly, there is washer about to go on our tap, less catastrophic, but still a pain. I think this suggests that technology should, if possible, not only be quiet, but completely silent. Our homes should suggest a smooth efficiency, ‘things’ connected and silently waiting to be called upon as we demand them. Expectations met, as required. I also see this in our TV and various computer things. Laptops sit silently until opened, the kids tablet blank until touched, etc. But, and here is the crux of this writing, what if that soundscape of smooth efficiency is not an accurate picture of the family that lives within it? What if that family, through its very makeup, is happily unconventional and inefficient? I’m stood in the middle of it, at 9pm, after my children have finally fallen asleep, listening to the quite hum of the washing machine and the almost startling silence after their noise, and I think, ‘no, this isn’t right at all’. What do I do?
I could record it. I have the Zoom field recorder and could make a recording of the boiler and the tap dripping. I could then use some software to compose a work, I could make it noisy, then put it on SoundCloud of Bandcamp. But within this act there seems to be something at odds with the general sense of powerlessness I have as a parent – marshalling the sounds of our house, arranging them into some sort of composition with a nice (or noisy) intro and outro, would suggest I have some sort of control over proceedings, and, quite frankly, I don’t. What I do feel is I’m continuously entwined in a madly complex, shifting mess of relationships, that, in this moment, is densely packed with people, objects, spaces, histories and futures. My experience mirrors that of Luca Soudant, who, when faced with the ‘lady crisp’, initially used her body to create, then sample, crisp sounds to make a track to be played at high volume, to take up space, at events and galleries. As great as this sounds, by her own admission it is about gendered sounds, and she became more interested in engaging with ‘the open-ended interconnectedness of the human and nonhuman’. The resulting project FEMMECORE uses a sound system to amplify sound waves which move a whole field of objects, both human and non-human, at different low frequencies.
This reflects my own relationship with the quietness I am faced with at home, the objects are all sitting there in silent, or quiet obedience, but the world, my world anyway, is not like that – how could I, just for a while, work with these things to create something that reflected my experience better? This, I think, is why I decided to begin live audio streaming. I gradually began by simply hooking up a field recorder to my laptop and setting it down next to an object – the sound of the dripping tap – opening a live audio connection and broadcasting via a webpage at peripheri.es. I might snap a photo and put it on Instagram. I wanted to poke at this silence to find what other noises were there, so bought some contact mics – hooking them up to the washing machine to broadcast the vibrations.
In my search for sounds I also began to use an induction loop receiver, originally designed for picking up the magnetic signals sent by a closed loop hearing system for people with hearing aids, which picked up translated the electromagnetic fields around objects into sounds. I could hold one these next to a wall socket and get one sound, then move it to a DAB radio on standby and get another. I introduced a mixer so I could have different sources, then some cheap effects units to give all of these sounds a bit more texture. This all went through an audio interface into broadcast software, then played live in a html page for anyone connected. What I ended up with an assemblage that I was part of, literally waving sensors and mics around, testing objects and searching for sounds then these adjusting sounds before they were sent to the server. It was, dare I say, good fun – the results were pleasingly unpredictable. I would try to keep the sounds ‘together,’ overlapping phaser oscillations produced by the EM field of a plug socket with a drip from a tap, etc. Sometimes I finished quite pleased with the result, happy that we had maintained some semblance of coherence. Other times I came away thinking that the broadcast had been quite unlistenable. What was problematic, and continues to be so, is what these things actually were. I am not a performer, nor am I a conductor or musician. The closest framework appeared to be broadcast radio, so the language around the show evolved along those lines – I began ‘co-hosting’ ad hoc ‘shows’ with different things around my house. We would broadcast at odd times for odd lengths of time, depending on what was going on.
While looking for a way to talk about this I happened across another great article in Feminist Review called ‘Don’t Touch My Midi Cables: Gender, Technology and Sound in Live Coding’ by Joanne Armitage and Helen Thornham. I really enjoyed the way they pushed back against research around live coding as ‘threaded through accounts of a ‘performance’ by a whole agential subject who creates and builds sounds and technology to their own vision’ resulting in a live event that ‘becomes the playing out of intentionality in an ordered and coherent way.’ This also resonates with the field of radio/audio broadcast – which since the commercialisation of radio in the 1920’s, it has been scheduled into neat segments and presented by singular personalities. Even it’s foundational resource, the frequency spectrum, was partitioned and managed, in a way that I recognise as perpetuating what Armitage and Thornham call ‘the white and masculinist qualities of speed, smartness, smoothness and autonomy.
In both cases, live coding and audio broadcast, the technology itself is subordinated to this human agency, either as an inert arrangement waiting for the human to come along and activate it, or it is fetishized. In live coding Armitage and Thornham suggest that the coding environment is there ‘to be shaped to the coders desire’ while often the code is often more visible than the person – projected on a large screen behind them. The main aim of most broadcast is to noiselessly allow the broadcaster to communicate with their audience. Interference is to be minimised. The technical aspect of radio has, for a long time, been populated by mostly older, cis white men who meet to share knowledge around things like frequencies, antennae and voltages. In their defence, live coding, and making radio work is highly technical, but the cumulative expertise required to operate in this area is just one type of knowledge. Again, it was great to read from Armitage and Thornham how an account of live coding suggests an alternative in how ‘expertise is located at the site of the ontological’ that combines ‘multiple temporalities and interdependencies.’ There is a body, technologies, and sound all at play, with the person operating somewhere in amongst it all. This resonates with me, at home, connected to a Icecast server and others across the internet, waving an induction loop receiver, adjusting the oscillations of the sound of a mains socket, trying to match it to the thrum of our (hopefully not broken) boiler.
Finally – what I am really excited about, is the possibility of what Armitage and Thornham call ‘technological kinship,’ that draws all the strands of this situation into an extension of the main function of our house, of caring. Lots of my artwork and research over the last few years has been about how I look at digital networks and acknowledge the interdependencies that exist within them. Being at home a lot, as a carer, has meant that these interdependencies have taken on a particular shape that I’ve decided to work with, more through necessity than anything. I’m excited to look more to kinship, Donna Haraway and some of the texts cited in ‘Don’t Touch my Midi Cables.’ Perhaps that’s my next post?