Crossing Listening Thresholds

curated by Regine Basha


Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, 2015. Land art installation and community engagement. Installation view, US/Mexico Border, Douglas, Arizona / Agua Prieta, Sonora. Courtesy the artists.

There is a lot to say about listening. But the point of listening is not to say very much at all. In this position, are we silent? Or just latently loud? Considering the modalities of listening and how it can be an active practice, many questions follow:

How to listen? And what to listen to?

What does listening produce? Who do we listen for?

Is listening the ear’s form of voyeurism? A form of witnessing?

When should we stop listening? Should we believe what we are listening to?

Listening can be a shape-shifting way to move through the world, but it requires a commitment to subtlety, which is why it is not as often discussed in the arena of the political. I have been invited to host some listening experiences and thoughts on the act, in response to Art in General’s symposium What Now? The Politics of Listening.

In my own practice, I have been listening to historical moments and sharing this experience with Tuning Baghdad Radio and have recently become smitten with the eerie listening phenomena of planetary sounds captured in the cosmos by NASA.

This leads me to wonder–can listening be a fetish? Jeanine Oleson’s submission to Crossing Listening Thresholds has convinced me of such a thing. What hidden listening experiences have we yet to have? Dario Robleto’s recent research into the pulse delves deep into this. I have also become fascinated with the work of SETI, whose mission is to listen to space for extraterrestrial contact.

Crossing Listening Thresholds covers listening in relation to contested geographies and expansive spatial concerns, generating alternative sonic maps that surpass our own crudely drawn borders. These concerns are taken up in the work of Steve Rowell, Julia Christensen, John Dombroski, and Dombroski’s collaboration with Ander Mikalson in a Confederate Church in Virginia. The online exhibition also focuses on re-arrangements of language and sound into concrete and resistant forms–an approach found in Valerie Tevere & Angel Nevarez’s hip-hop spoken word piece Parley, in Hong-Kai Wang’s video where retired factory workers return to the work site to record the sound of their labor, and in the fascinating research that Gala Porras-Kim is doing with Zapotec whistles. Listening to the environment has long been a driving force for field recorders and sound artists since R. Murray Schafer established his position as a soundscape listener. Charles Lindsay’s immersive live feed from the jungle, Stephen Vitiello’s important early work with Yanomami Indians in the Amazon, and Leah Beeferman’s more recent research in Iceland all engage with fragile ecologies using the vocabulary of experimental field recording. A seminal text by Josh Kun about listening to the border and to border music is included as a response and companion to Postcommodity’s current project on the United States/Mexico border, which was discussed in detail during Kade L. Twist’s presentation in the What Now? symposium.

Crossing Listening Thresholds reminds us that, in fact, our bodies are porous, our borders are penetrable, sound is a time-travelling medium…and a howling monkey might as well be sitting right next to us in our living room. We are all implicated in the soundscape.