A desire for democracy constitutes intimately democracy itself.
A space for listening, meticulously conceived: large blank sheets of paper, pens, P.A., microphones. It is a space for listening intently to personal and collective experiences. A school for listening to ‘echoes’ – echoes of each other’s expressions. Session organisers sit on one side of this room, managing sound equipment and passing on instructions. Participants share tables for common use. Once the instructions have been given, participants embark on a performance of sounds. The first time I encountered Ultra-red, I followed the transformation of one such space from a silent building to a scene of positioning, movement and analysis. A ‘School of Echoes’ is, as stated by its organisers, a place for listening and inquiring – a place for instigating cycles of analysis and reflection. Perception, reflection, interrogation and annotation, when carried out together, make for a kind of intimacy that nurtures further collective processes.
Ultra-red is a collective, working predominantly with sound, that has been creating ‘Schools of Echoes’ for around twenty years.1 In their own words, a ‘School of Echoes is a long-term project designed to activate pedagogical spaces for development and dissemination of theory and practice in Militant Sound Investigation’.2 Working from sound recordings and compositions, the collective create situations from which to work through questions of ‘how sound produces specific forms of knowledge that contribute to and challenge organising strategies’. Throughout their history, the collective has been concerned with changing processes of learning and self-organisation, devising sound- and music-based methodologies and sharing these in settings from schools and universities to grassroots organisations. Over the years, Schools of Echoes have been set in different contexts (and countries) with a wealth of different outcomes.
In the context of today’s pandemic it isn’t possible to gather in person to engage with questions related to education and capitalism. The pandemic also exposes how human exploitation of the environment not only puts non-human life at risk (as characterises the ‘anthropocene’), but puts human life at risk too. The situation emphasises our need to find forms of collectivity by emphasising the ways in which contemporary capitalism has pushed people apart, isolating some in conditions of exploitation (the everyday obligations of feminised reproductive labour is one example), and giving way to forms of political decision-making that undermine democracy. It becomes useful at this moment to look at School of Echoes, asking how the desire for community can be nurtured when communities are being destroyed. Responding to and intervening in contemporary problems, Ultra-red has designed a political methodology for creating intersubjective exchange intimately via the senses. Listening to and analysing sound together becomes the basis for a democratic means of considering common issues, and consequently of devising political interventions. A listening session can facilitate discussion and reflection on forms of emancipatory organisation. Through the practice of listening and sharing, people get to know one another, and one another’s concerns. Much has been written about Ultra-red and their generous contributions to pedagogic practice, but it is this sense of ‘getting to know one other’ – of intimacy – that I want to explore in particular.
A School of Echoes is launched first of all by a listening session – an encuentro. Ultra-red writes up ‘protocols for listening’ that organise each session. As the group puts it, ‘Silence is organised’. First, a sound object is played to be collectively analysed. This might be, for example, the sound from a site of contestation – protestors chanting a song that stirs their resistance to eviction. Or a fresh wind blowing outside a migrant detention centre in a large European city – perhaps the sound of the lifeforce that wants to be felt from confinement inside.3 A sound object might be abstract to one but ‘clear’ to another – a reference to a concrete memory, for instance, or a reminder of an actual fact. What follows among the group are periods of listening and reading from each other’s notes on their perceptions and feelings, initiating an ongoing discussion that builds towards the formulation of a question common to the group as a whole.
Listening and inquiry is obviously not a linear process. Democracy is slow. This is not the kind of democracy characterised by macropolitical representation. Democracy can also be thought of as a form of self-organisation – an engagement with means of being together and building communities that respect each other’s lives and forms of expression. In an encuentro mediated by sounds and echoes, democracy heats up as empathy increases. Analysis of the intersection of oppressions nurtures a building of intimacy among situated, perceiving subjects. It is an experimental form of consciousness-raising where, even when different experiences are brought to the discussion, the core, shared question – ‘what did you hear?’ – creates a need to abandon the idea that some political experiences are more relevant than others. This is a pedagogical process that brings unexpected and unknown results.
Critical Learning (and its unknown effects)
One result of the experimental listening process is the unleashing of new forms of attention – what happens when sound recorded at one site is transported to another. In Ultra-red’s practice, there are no preconceived forms of social organisation to be reproduced, and the issue of collectivity itself is open for negotiation. When I think about the effects of the encuentros in a School of Echoes, I am reminded of the assertion of Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire that it is necessary to go beyond the limit of the ‘strictly pedagogic’ in order to allow for critical learning. Freire, from the 1960s onwards, influenced new conditions of education in a heavily colonised country, and is a key reference in Ultra-red’s practices. Freire taught that a redistribution of education and radical transformation of institutions are both absolutely necessary to the overturning of colonisation. In the article ‘Andante Politics’, published in 2011,4 Ultra-red writes that popular education might be something through which communities engaged in struggle can produce literacy around the contradictions that condition their experience. This making-visible is often crucial to developing forms of resistance against the oppressive mechanisms imposed by institutions. Radical education creates impulses to cross the borders drawn by institutional policies around who has access to education, as well as who is able to protest failures of education, and whether such resistance even remains to anyone as a right. Learning from Ultra-red and from Freire, we can see that a democratic process is a practice of freedom. It is critical learning here that creates the democratic process itself.
Critical learning, as a democratic process, should be able to encompass complex issues, such as, for example, the political value of education at a time when its uneven distribution has been justified by false constructions of ‘meritocracy’, and its financial value – bound up in questions of debt, how the idea of political leadership might foreclose certain groups from working collectively, the expectations projected onto aesthetic processes from an institutional perspective and many other factors. As the collective puts it, ‘resistance [to invisible mechanisms of oppression] must occur within and alongside the long-term processes of organising solutions to the needs of poor communities that don’t undermine their autonomy’.5 This means, as Freire imagined, a form of education that generates constant dialogue, fostering autonomy through consciousness-raising and making out of education a tool for social and political responsibility.
While a School of Echoes works in small scale, situated realities, it doesn’t retreat from the challenge of facing large-scale issues precipitated by neoliberalism – patriarchy, racism, lack of housing rights, poverty, debt and the deportation of migrants. In order to approach such problems responsibly, a School assumes the challenge of existing beyond the length of a normal institutional ‘project’. With the establishment of SOELA (School of Echoes Los Angeles), we see a long-term merging of Ultra-red members based in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Tenants Union (Unión de Vecinos) that defends housing rights in the city. This multiracial and multigenerational autonomous collective of organisers, teachers and artists was founded in 2012 and has been active ever since in the struggle against gentrification in the locality, positioning itself against new enterprises (including art galleries) and installing itself specifically in the Boyle Heights neighbourhood.6
Situated Listening and Self-Inquiry
In one of many online documentations of Ultra-red’s work, I come upon a ‘play’ button, and, without knowing what I’ll find, start to listen.7 It’s a dense audio recording, 8 minutes long. I’m struck by a velvety voice, in which, quite suddenly, I hear pain. I guess I am hearing about a virus – not the coronavirus of 2019, but HIV/AIDS, which had its greatest impact on living conditions over 30 years ago. The male voice speaks to me about how many funerals he has gone to. The audio piece finishes, and the word ‘time’ plays loudly in my head – another fragment. The voice I am hearing now is that of Robert Sember – a memory from 2009, the first time I ever joined one of Ultra-red’s listening sessions.8 The jump between there and then, here and now is another affirmation of the deep connection between memory and sensory experience that an Ultra-red listening session can activate. The School both de-centres and reaffirms what I know about the group itself – their priorities and goals. The School asks many questions both of me and within me.9
In setting out to write about Ultra-red’s work, I wonder what form such a text might take. A letter, a demand, a call? In order to write I have to undertake a form of self-inquiry, that asks from where and how I am writing. This kind of self-inquiry relates to a form of militant research, in which learning is also understood as a form of producing – a pragmatic and transformational search for ethical ways of fostering knowledge-production and changing material conditions. I am looking for ways of elaborating questions that concern my own teaching and collective practice, and the political practice I live by. I am aware that this kind of inquiry can be discomfiting, and that the urgency of critical learning demands energy. Writing both about and with Ultra-red alerts me to the fact that I cannot undertake this alone.
Learning always depends upon some engagement in transformative action. It depends on the activation of a sensitive, listening body. To dive into self-inquiry I must be able to maintain a productive tension between the position I assert and its relation to that of others. Through Ultra-red’s practice, I discover that critical learning depends on a building up of affection, activated by intersubjective exchange. Feminist anticolonial theory develops this observation – that relationships deepen as we trace our perceptions in relation to the structures that underpin our living conditions. Empathy deepens as intersectional analyses identify specific forms of oppression. Collective analysis means gaining perception around the ‘transitivity’ conceptualised by Freire – a way of reclaiming the autonomy that is taken from us as our lives are routinely subjected to forms of control (slavery, debt, exhaustion, immiseration). When we listen to a sound object together, analysing it through collective self-examination, we are getting to know a reality that doesn’t solely exist ‘out there’, but rather is articulated through numerous processes of interpersonal analysis and exchange. This form of mapping draws out questions to work on, designs a process of researching one’s own life, rather than research by specialists on external objects. Paradoxically, while emerging from togetherness and collective struggle, this does not always result in something unified, for sounds are dissonant, and can often stimulate different perceptions.
In Ultra-red’s work, an inquiry is also a means of producing more recordings, and developing new vocabularies, as, for instance, in the project ‘Vogue-ology’. This sound investigation project of the early 2000s came out of an encounter between the House Ball community and an arts residency programme at the New School in New York. Queer and feminist gender studies and black radical struggle were here brought together in an investigation of the impact of HIV/AIDS in gay communities. Again, in projects such as this, the new forms of expression that emerge multiply expectations and forms of intimacy, living and work to produce democracy itself.
Amid the everyday destruction of democracy it is crucial to organise ourselves. Austerity is a regime of silencing, a programmed cacophony – something that must be collectively opposed. Thinking through the lens of Ultra-red’s practice, and in particular School of Echoes, I have, in a sense, been playing around with the sentence, If power doesn’t listen (to us), that is not why we listen to ourselves. We listen to ourselves to discern the bonds between us. Who this ‘we’ might be is of course a question in itself. To whom and how we bond, to whom and how we connect our lives are questions the present pandemic has reawakened. To investigate these, it is possible that we need to oppose the silence of austerity with our own kind of silence – a pause in which to gather strategies of resistance. While Paulo Freire conceptualised silence as that which must be broken, Robert Sember affirms that to teach is to adopt a ‘discipline of silence’.10 A political reorganisation of silence might emphasise the responsibility embedded in acts of listening, and the intimacy that dismisses the enforcement of our alienation. Only anti-fascist and anti-racist listening can activate democracy from within. Responsible listening must admit noise and difference, against attempts to stifle our screams.11
Ultra-red’s encuentros throughout the life of School of Echoes have something in common with the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, a form devised by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal (influenced by Freire) in the 1970s: there should be no audience, no performance to be seen. The collective process is something to be shared among all who are present, who by fostering this kind of agency learn what it means to say ‘we’ (Invisible Committee). As Galo, a leader of the anti-fascist delivery workers of São Paulo puts it, sometimes we have to ‘stay with the trouble’ in order to reorganise our lives around the ‘pandemonic’ forms of exploitation wrought by the pandemic. Because what is hijacked by exploitation is precisely our ability to share. ‘Democracy from intimacy’ names the constant process of rebuilding relationships, an ‘infinite relationality’ (Jeremy Gilbert). While this process is always unfinished, it allows us to reinstil agency from the roots – the raízes that give the act of gathering, of encuentro, its power, even where it has been made the least possible.