[This article I wrote was from an electronic festival guide from 2002, which previously only appeared in print. I found it under my bed during a recent clear out and have digitised it. Hope you enjoy]
The atmosphere has been building up during a performance at the POL festival of electronic music and arts in Frankfurt, Germany. However, instead of being excited and getting pleasure from the experience, the crowd is becoming increasingly frustrated and irritated. There are constant interruptions and distortions to the audio signals, and the audience cannot hear what the people on the stage are saying all the time. Eventually one person stands up and demands to know what the fuck is going on. This in turn provokes another person to stand up and respond to the first outburst. And suddenly, much more of the audience are joining the dialogue.
It turns out that this is a stunt, a deliberate attempt by the artists Ultra-Red to foster debate among the crowd. The performance was facilitating open border immigration groups on a panel, in a country where immigrants often arouse the wrong sort of passions. The dialogue with the audience became part of the performance. and vice versa. Through this they were also attempting to break away from the one-way medium of the performer and the consumer. They were also making an abstract representation of immigrant voices – constantly interrupted and repressed.
Ultra-Red is a four-piece collective of producers from Los Angeles, whose output has been released on labels such as Mille Plateaux, Fat Cat, Beta Bodega, and Antiopic. They describe themselves as ”an audio activist group producing radio broadcasts, street actions, performances, recordings and
installations.” A project in 2002 brought them to Ballymun, a northern suburb of Dublin.
Ballymun is located on the fringe of the Dublin city border. It was probably the most readily identifiable suburb in the country. The old seven “signatory” towers dwarfed the surrounding blocks, were visible from most corners of the city, and were the first buildings you recognised when touching down in Dublin airport. Built in the 1960s, as a modernist answer to public housing problems, the scheme ultimately only replicated previous mistakes. A lack of proper facilities and amenities for the residents, coupled with neglect meant that Ballymun was to suffer economic deprivation and all the accompanying social ills.
In the early 2000s, the suburb underwent a slow transformation. Certain distinguishing features vanished, notably the central roundabout, and the sculpture on the hill, which depicted the juxtaposition of Ireland’s megalithic stones with the new concrete realities of Ballymun. Under an ambitious plan, all of the existing flats were to be demolished and the residents re-housed in local low-rise housing developments.
Ultra-Red’s project was initiated under the Breaking Ground arts scheme. For them, this was an extension of a previous dialogue with residents of the Pico Aliso & Aliso Village housing projects in Los Angeles in 1998/99, which also resulted in the release of Structural Adjustments [Mille Plateaux, 2000). Their work in Ballymun saw them recording the social sounds of the spaces, the demolitions and reconstructions in the spaces in which they occur, the dialogue between the residents, and also recording the sounds of Dublin city centre to explore the social, economic, and geographical distances from Ballymun. The prime focus of their work however was creating connections between residents of Ballymun and Los Angeles.
“What’s more important to us is the creation of networks of relationships”, says Dont Rhine. “Whether this results in house music, or abstract electronic music, is somewhat irrelevant to us really. It’s the relationships established that are much more important. The music that is produced from this is almost residual. But for us, as an end result or goal, it’s not everything.” Fellow member Leonardo Vilchis echoes Rhinfe’s views. “For us, the electronic music comes at the very end of the day. After days, months, or even years of processes and dialogues.”
Historically whenever electronic music has attempted to be overtly political, this involves the use of vocal samples being injected into pre-formed beats. Ultra-Red feels that this does not particularly politicise or make the music revolutionary. Instead, Ultra-Red applies a more subtle means of expression. “Our values are to do with creating social relations”, says Elizabeth Blaney. “What’s a way to trigger that? It seems to us that it’s through memory, remembrance of experiences. As a genre, electronic music seems to be a trigger for something that has happened before.”
Although abstract art, in which tihe medium of electronic music would fall into, can contribute to the creation of emotions or feelings, it lacks the subtleties of verbal communication. Is it possible to communicate a complex message without language, or will the message be lost within the limitations of an abstract medium? Ultimately, it remains open to vast interpretation by the viewer/listener. Electronic music has always made pretensions to being a political medium. The music itself did not contain the message however; the message was the medium itself.
An accessible art form, open to everyone with right equipment, methods of production bypassing existing channels (no to the majors!), public exhibitions of the music taking place clandestinely, collectives operating in opposition to the state, desolated urban spaces being squatted and reclaimed (albeit temporarily). However, the absence of lyrics and a complex message meant that the medium could be interpreted in any literal way.
The net result is that whatever message the medium may have represented is long lost. Techno is used as a soundtrack for car advertisements, background music in corporate presentations, a primer to get your adrenaline rushing at the latest dumb Hollywood action flick. The problem with everyone being able to create electronic music is that everyone has, and neglected to adhere to the principles or supposedly inherent political ideology contained at its inception.
“So much of organising and activism is also about reflection on what has happened before”, says Rhine, speaking about Ultra- Red’s process when creating music with audio samples. “Maybe people discussing the first time they stood up in the local council and shouted at the officials, and remembering they were scared shitless. Well, what if you had a recording of that? And you take that recording and play with it, so it’s not so much about what was said, but about the feelings, sense, aggressions, fear, that everyone can understand. Yes, we’ll have samples of voices sometimes in our music. But for us it’s more about how a recording becomes part of a process that evokes memory, emotion, and history.”
The creation of their music is a period of recollection of the memories and histories that they’ve gathered. In the same way that someone who collects stories transcribes them, edits them down, and puts them together, they do the same with their audio recordings. They are then put into different social contexts. The found sounds from Ballymun will be brought back to the people in Los Angeles. In this way they become a trigger for continuing reflection, analysis, action, or just simple celebration.
The notion of abstract art forms provoking social change is possibly an outdated one, however, with art often co-opted for financial gain as a primary goal. In the context of the limitations of the genre, how can electronic music advance ideologies? Ultra-Red has experimented with their performances and the context in which they happen in order to explore this possibility.
Another attempt, in addition to the POL festival, was in the Pico Aliso housing project. Videos and slides were projected onto two sides of a triangular courtyard in the middle of a housing block, and residents put speakers in their windows with broadcasts from a temporary pirate radio station.
For the art audience in attendance who knew nothing of the local struggles, it blew apart their preconceived notions of life in public housing projects, which had been formed from media images of gangs, drugs and violence. For the residents, seeing themselves projected onto a three storey building with the audio of their struggles reverberating around the courtyard was an affirmation of their efforts and successes, and gave them hope for the future.
As an abstract medium, electronic music is always going to be subject to hypercommodification. The debate around the commercialisation of electronic music is merely a repetition of an old argument that has previously centred on other media such as painting and photography. However, it is more a question of the context of the society we live in rather than the art itself. In a capitalist society, the problem is often not the pieces themselves or the process by which they are built, but that they are created in a world that is explicitly driven by profit. The market turns everything into an object.
For Ultra-Red, activism, music, dialogue, and organising are all part of a greater struggle. They have no wish to appear aloof from or condescending towards their electronic music peers who do not engage in the same type of processes. They do however find it problematic.
“I ‘think if you are not connected to a struggle then you cannot communicate about any struggles”, explains Vilchis. “There has to be some sort of link. If you look at other music – say for example in South America where people are playing music about historical struggles, as well as teaching the people how to build grenades and defend themselves, and also in North America where people were singing protest songs – all these people were putting themselves at risk, and involved in political movements or civil rights campaigns.”
Is it possible for people to pick up on the messages in abstract music without being present at a performance, aware of the context in which it was created? The potential for change happening at the point of purchase is limited, and is based on an outdated Marxist model of production and ideas. For Ultra-Red, the change really happens where the recordings take place. They interact with people, and they learn from different spaces. There is potential for change for the residents of Pico Aliso when they hear the recordings of Ballymun residents organising.
UItra-Red admitted that they were blown away by the involvement of the local residents from Ballymun, and how committed they were to fighting for better public housing. They hoped that the people of Los Angeles, part of the richest country in the world yet in a worse-off situation than those in Dublin, would realise that there are possible alternative public housing strategies, which view housing as a right and not a privilege.
Vilchis feels -that when people buy their records obviously all these possibilities aren’t evident. “But hopefully people will investigate more, and read what is in our sleevenotes, or go to our website. We aren’t exactly sure if that always happens. I hope it does, but there are no guarantees. As an organiser I think changes need to happen in an organised way. You need to come together as a collective or a unit to confront the problems you have. It doesn’t happen just because someone has a good idea. You have to have people who believe in it and are willing to get behind it. If you go to your council on your own they wont listen to you. But if you go with a group of people then they pay attention. So I would hope that people’s search for what is behind the Ultra-Red record is just the beginning of so much more. ”