Allanah Stewart is an artist from Aotearoa/New Zealand, currently living in Melbourne, Australia. As well as her work in various experimental music projects, she is the presenter of a monthly podcast radio programme called Enquiring Minds, hosted by Noods radio, which explores old and new, lesser known and well known sounds that loosely fit under the banner of experimental music.
Jen Callaway is a Melbourne musician, sound and performance artist, photographer, and community services worker raised in various parts of Tasmania. Current projects include bands Is There a Hotline?, Propolis, Snacks and Hi God People; and upcoming film Here at the End, by Campbell Walker, as actor/co-writer.
Isha Ram Das is a composer and sound artist primarily concerned with ecologies of environment and culture. He works with experimental sound techniques to produce performances, installations and recordings. He was the 2019 recipient of the Lionel Gell Award for Composition, and has scored feature-length films and nationally-touring theatre installations. He has performed at institutions such as the Sydney Opera House; Black Dot Gallery, Melbourne; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Metro Arts, Brisbane; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and Boxcopy, Brisbane.
Dylan Robinson is a xwélméxw (Stó:lō) writer, artist, scholar and curator, He is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts, and associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is author of Hungry Listening, Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, published by University of Minnesota Press.
Megan Cope is a Quandamooka woman (North Stradbroke Island) in South East Queensland. Her site-specific sculptural installations, video work and paintings investigate issues relating to identity, the environment and mapping practices. Cope’s work often resists prescribed notions of Aboriginality and becomes psychogeographies across various material outcomes that challenge the grand narrative of ‘Australia’ as well as our sense of time and ownership in a settler colonial state.
Australian musician Sean Baxter died on 15 March 2020. Part of Melbourne's improv scene, he is described by musician Anthony Pateras as possessing “a unique aesthetic vision and intellectual depth, mixing highbrow philosophical concepts with punk sensibilities in how he lived, spoke and played. He was pure energy.”
Drumkit and percussionist, Sean was an Australian improviser who forged an international reputation as a bold explorer of percussive possibilities both as a soloist and through his work with the acclaimed avant-garde trio, Pateras/Baxter/Brown. Focusing on the use of extended techniques applied to the conventional drum kit, he utilised an arsenal of metallic junk and other percussive detritus to expand the sonic palette of the percussion tradition. In addition to Pateras/Baxter/Brown, he was involved in many collaborations and was drummer for groups The Throwaways, Bucketrider, Lazy, SxSxSx and Terminal Hz.
Thomas Ragnar is an artist based in Singapore. His work is often underpinned by collaborations, affinities and research with experiential methodologies.
Alessandro Bosetti is an Italian composer, performer and sound artist, currently based in Marseille. His work delves into the musicality of spoken language, utilising misunderstandings, translations and interviews as compositional tools. His works for voice and electronics blur the line between electro-acoustic composition, aural writing and performance.
Lin Chi-Wei is a legend of Taiwanese sonic art, whose practice incorporates folklore culture, noise, ritual, and audience participation.
Mat Dryhurst is an artist who releases music and artworks solo and in conjunction with Holly Herndon and the record label PAN. Dryhurst developed the decentralised publishing framework Saga, which enables creators to claim ownership of each space in which their work appears online, and a number of audio plays that derive their narrative from the personal information of listeners. He lectures on issues of music, technology, and ideology at NYU, and advises the blockchain-based platform co-operative Resonate.is.
Sean Dockray is an artist, writer, and programmer living in Melbourne whose work explores the politics of technology, with a particular emphasis on artificial intelligences and the algorithmic web. He is also the founding director of the Los Angeles non-profit Telic Arts Exchange, and initiator of knowledge-sharing platforms, The Public School and Aaaaarg.
Author of Hearing the Cloud (Zero Books), Emile Frankel is a writer and composer researching the changing conditions of online listening. In his spare time he runs the Sci-Fi and critical fantasy publisher Formling.
Bridget Chappell is a raver and theory bro currently living on the unceded nations of the Latji Latji and Nyeri Nyeri people. They make music as Hextape and organise parties in drains, observatories, and other natural amphitheatres. They founded and run Sound School, work with young musicians behind bars, and make experimental sound technologies to challenge police sirens.
Holly Herndon experiments at the outer reaches of dance music and pop. Born in Tennessee, Herndon spent her formative years in Berlin’s techno scene and repatriated to San Francisco, where she completed her PhD at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. Her albums include Platform (2015) and Proto (2019).
Candice Hopkins is a curator, writer and researcher interested in history, art and indigeneity, and their intersections. Originally from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Hopkins is a citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She was senior curator for the 2019 Toronto Biennial of Art, and worked on the curatorial teams for the Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, and documenta 14.
Raven Chacon is a composer, performer and artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation. His work ranges from chamber music to experimental noise, to large scale installations, produced solo and with the Indigenous art collective Postcommodity. At California Institute of the Arts, Chacon studied with James Tenney, Morton Subotnick, Michael Pisaro and Wadada Leo Smith developing a compositional language steeped in both the modernist avant-garde and Indigenous cosmologies and subjectivities. He has written for ensembles, musicians and non-musicians, and for social and educational situations, and toured the world as a noise artist.
Lisa Lerkenfeldt is a multi-disciplinary artist working in sound, gesture and performance. Central to her practice is languages of improvisation and intimacy with technology. Traces of a personal discipline and form of graphic notation are introduced in the online exhibition 14 Gestures. The associated recorded work Collagen (Shelter Press, 2020) disrupts the role of the common hair comb through gesture and sound.
Haroon Mirza is an artist who intertwines his practice with the role of composer. Mirza considers electricity his main medium and creates atmospheric environments through the linking together of light, sound, music, videos and elements of architecture. Regularly showing internationally in group and solo exhibitions, Mirza’s work has also been included in the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, China (2012) and the 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011), where he was awarded the Silver Lion.
Shanghai native 33EMYBW (Wu Shanmin) has been an active member in the Chinese music scene for over a decade. She has also performed at CTM and Sinotronics in Germany, China Drifting Festival in Switzerland, and SXSW. Her 2018 album Golem, released on SVBKVLT, was met with critical acclaim and voted one of the best electronic albums of 2018 by Bandcamp. In 2019 she released DONG2 EP under Merrie Records Beijing, and will premiere her sophomore album Arthropods (SVBKVLT) at Unsound 2019.
Alexander Garsden is a Melbourne-based composer, guitarist and electroacoustic musician, working across multiple exploratory musical disciplines. Recent work includes commissions from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Speak Percussion, Michael Kieran Harvey and Eugene Ughetti; alongside performances with artists including Tetuzi Akiyama (Japan), Oren Ambarchi, Radu Malfatti (Austria), Julia Reidy, David Stackenäs (Sweden), and with Erkki Veltheim and Rohan Drape. From 2014 to 2019 Garsden was Co-Director of the INLAND Concert Series. He has taught through RMIT University and the University of Melbourne.
Annika Kristensen is Senior Curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.
Arben Dzika is an artist whose practice involves working with various media including, but not limited to: sound, image, word, and performance. His work primarily seeks to reflect on, interrogate, and play with technologies, systems, and human senses. Within his practice, he works as a producer and DJ under the moniker, Dilae.
Audrey Schmidt is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. She is a regular contributor to Memo Review, co-editor the third issue of Dissect Journal, and has written for various publications including Art Monthly, Art + Australia and un Magazine. She co-founded Minority Report with Adam Hammad in 2018 and released one online issue that was available until the domain expired in 2019. Audrey sits on the FYTA (GR) Board of Advisors.
Autumn Royal is a poet, researcher, and educator based in Narrm/Melbourne. Autumn’s current research examines elegiac expression in contemporary poetry. Autumn is the interviews editor for Cordite Poetry Review, and author of the poetry collections She Woke & Rose (Cordite Books, 2016) and Liquidation (Incendium Radical Library, 2019).
Bianca Winataputri is a Melbourne-based independent curator and writer researching contemporary practice in Southeast Asia, and relationships between individuals and collectives in relation to history, globalisation, identity and community building. Currently working at Regional Arts Victoria, Bianca was previously Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the NGA. She holds a BA (University of Melbourne), and BA Honours from the ANU where she received the Janet Wilkie Prize for Art. In 2018 Bianca was selected for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art’s Curators’ Intensive.
Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific, founded in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. Hioe is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, as well as an occasional translator.
Chi Tran is a writer, editor, and an artist who makes poems that may be text, video, object, sound, or drawing. Chi is primarily interested in working with language as a means of coming-to-terms. Their work has been published by Incendium Radical Library Press, Cordite Poetry Review, Australian Poetry and Liminal Magazine and exhibited at galleries including Firstdraft, Sydney; Punk Café, Melbourne; and ACCA, Melbourne. In 2019, as a recipient of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust Fund, Chi spent three months in New York developing their practice with renowned poets including Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Fred Moten, and Jackie Wang.
Chun Yin Rainbow Chan is a Hong Kong–Australian artist, living in Sydney. Working across music, performance and installation, Rainbow is interested in the copy and how the ways in which it can disrupt Western notions of ownership. Central to Rainbow's work is the circulation of knock-off objects, sounds and images in global media. Her work positions the counterfeit as a complex sign that shapes new myths, values and contemporary commodity production.
Dale Gorfinkel is a musician-artist whose stylefree improvisational approach informs his performances, instrument-building, and kinetic sound installations. Aiming to reflect an awareness of the dynamic nature of culture and the value of listening as a mode of knowing people and places, Dale is interested in bringing creative communities together and shifting perceived boundaries. Current projects include Prophets, Sounds Like Movement, and Music Yared as well as facilitating Art Day South, an inclusive arts studio with Arts Access Victoria.
Danni Zuvela is a curator and writer based in Melbourne and the Gold Coast. Her research is informed by interests in feminism, activism, ecology, language and performance. With Joel Stern, Danni has led Liquid Architecture as Artistic Director, and continues to develop curatorial projects for the organisation.
Eric Avery is a Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr artist. As part of his practice Eric plays the violin, dances and composes music. Working with his family’s custodial songs he seeks to revive and continue on an age old legacy – continuing the tradition of singing in his tribe – utilising his talents to combine and create an experience of his peoples culture.
Fjorn Butler is an artist, researcher, and event organiser. As an artist, she works primarily in sound and performance under the name Papaphilia. As a researcher, she interrogates how biological discourses are used in neoliberal/colonial governance structures to shape the political. Fjorn's research informs her writing on sound-poetics and the challenges this framework poses to anglophone notions of property. She is also co-director of Future Tense and co-curator of Writing and Concepts.
Freya Schack-Arnott is an Australian/Danish cellist who enjoys a multi-faceted career as a soloist and ensemble performer of classical and contemporary repertoire, curator and improviser within experimental music, electronics, popular and cross-disciplinary art forms. Schack-Arnott regularly performs with Australia's leading new music ensembles, including ELISION Ensemble (as core member) and Ensemble Offspring. Her curatorial roles include co-curator/founder of the regular 'Opus Now' music series and previous curator of the NOW Now festival and Rosenberg Museum.
Gooooose (Han Han) is an electronic music producer, visual artist and software developer based in Shanghai, China. His current releases include They (D Force, 2017), Dong 1 (D Force, 2018), Pro Rata (ANTE-RASA, 2019). Gooooose's 2019 SVBKVLT–released RUSTED SILICON received positive reviews from media including boomkat, Resident Advisor, Dusted Magazine, and The Wire. Gooooose has performed live at CTM (Berlin, 2018), Nyege Nyege (Kampala, 2019), Soft Centre (Sydney, 2019), Unsound (Kraków, 2019) and Recombinant (San Francisco, 2019).
Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, archivist, director, and the author of four collections of poetry, Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues, Hollywood Forever, and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.
James Rushford is an Australian composer-performer who holds a doctorate from the California Institute of the Arts, and was a 2018 fellow at Academy Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. His work is drawn from a familiarity with specific concrète, improvised, avant-garde and collagist languages. Currently, his work deals with the aesthetic concept of musical shadow. James has been commissioned as a composer by ensembles including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Glasgow), and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and regularly performs in Australia and internationally.
Jessica Aszodi is an Australian-born, London-based vocalist who has premiered many new pieces, performed work that has lain dormant for centuries, and sung roles ranging from standard operatic repertoire to artistic collaborations. She has been a soloist with ensembles including ICE; the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide Symphony Orchestras; and San Diego and Chicago Symphony Orchestras’ chamber series. Aszodi can be heard on numerous recordings and has sung in festivals around the world. She holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium, an MFA from the University of California, and is co-director of the Resonant Bodies Festival (Australia), and artistic associate of BIFEM.
Kt Spit (Katie Collins) is an artist and musician based in Narrm (Melbourne). Lyrically and visually her work explores subcultural narratives and challenges dominant representations of loss, grief, and true love. In 2015 Kt independently released her debut album, Combluotion, and in 2019 will release a visual album entitled Kill the King.
The Convoy conjure illustrious soundscapes from the abyss of chaos, revealing hidden worlds of the imagination as the performance takes form and infuses with subjective experience. Using instruments of sound, light and smell, The Convoy enchant space with themes of tension, evolution, entropy and regeneration. Sensorial immersion transports audiences through highly dynamic environments that shift and blend into one single, breathing moment. As entity, rather than singular, Immy Chuah is a guest within The Convoy on unceded land.
I’m interested in what can be done with one’s identity and the space around it. Both my body and mind, touching everyday feelings between the rational, the playful and the political. Of course, this is often to do with my disability and my sexuality. My work has been focused on access, and the lack of it — to places, people’s minds and opportunities. I find plasticine is a great subverter of space and potentially of people’s minds. And the continued flexibility of it is something I am really enjoying — covering or filling up gaps and playing with crevices. But I’m finding that my work is drawing more and more to spoken word as a powerful format.
Sarah McCauley is a Melbourne-based music producer, editor and writer.
Neil Morris is a Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung man. He is well known in Narrm/Birraranga for his musical project DRMNGNOW, a project built on subject matter tackling the colonial nature of the Australian construct and how that affects contemporary society upon this land. The work is unapologetic, clear, and deeply poetic. It hints toward Morris's extensive experience as a spoken word artist in Narrm since 2015. Morris's work is triumphant in the face of severe adversity often imbued in a quite fortified melancholy, a powerful marker of the survival of First Nations peoples in the now.
Natasha Tontey is an artist and graphic designer based in Yogyakarta. She is interested in exploring the concept of fiction as a method of speculative thinking. Through her artistic practice she investigates the idea of how fear, horror, and terror could be manifested in order to control the public and how fictional accounts of the history and myth surrounding ‘manufactured fear’ might operate as a method of speculative fiction that determines expectations for the future.
Mat Spisbah is a New Media curator with a unique portfolio of programming that seeks to integrate non-traditional artistic methods and emerging technologies. Having lived in Hong Kong for 14 years, he is connected to the region’s art and culture, and has created professional networks with artists, curators, galleries, promoters and industry professionals across Australasia. Portfolio highlights include the debut Australian performances of north Asian artists including: Howie Lee, Rui Ho, Meuko Meuko, Pan Daijing, Alex Zhang Hungtai, Tzusing, and Gabber Modus Operandi.
Mandy Nicholson is a Wurundjeri-willam (Wurundjeri-baluk patriline) artist and Traditional Custodian of Melbourne and surrounds. Mandy also has connections to the Dja Dja wurrung and Ngurai illam wurrung language groups of the Central/Eastern Kulin Nation. Mandy gained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Aboriginal Archaeology in 2011, worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages for six years and is now a PhD candidate studying how Aboriginal people connect to Country, Off Country.
Lucreccia Quintanilla is an artist, writer, DJ and PhD candidate researcher at Monash University. Her writing and art have been published and exhibited both within Australia and internationally. Quintanilla’s practice is a collaborative one that manifests into outcomes within galleries and also as events and performances outside of that context. She regularly speaks at panels and symposiums on themes within her research, has received grants for her projects and residencies, and has taught at university level.
Amanda Stewart is a poet, author, and vocal artist. She has created a diverse range of publications, performances, film and radio productions in Australia, Europe, Japan, and the USA, working in literature, new music, broadcasting, theatre, dance, and new media environments. Amanda collaborated with Chris Mann for many years in the Australian ensemble, Machine For Making Sense (with Jim Denley, Rik Rue, and Stevie Wishart), as well as in other contexts. Her poem ‘ta’ was written in honour of Chris Mann’s extraordinary vision and work.
Holly Childs is an artist and writer. Her research involves filtering stories of computation through frames of ecology, earth, memory, poetry, and light. She is the author of two books: No Limit (Hologram, Melbourne) and Danklands (Arcadia Missa, London), and she collaborates with Gediminas Žygus on ‘Hydrangea’. She is currently writing her third book, What Causes Flowers Not to Bloom?.
Ivy Alvarez’s poetry collections include The Everyday English Dictionary, Disturbance, and Mortal. Her latest is Diaspora: Volume L (Paloma Press, 2019). A Fellow of MacDowell Colony (US), and Hawthornden (UK), her work is widely published and anthologised (twice in Best Australian Poems), with poems translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, she lived in Wales for almost a decade, before arriving in New Zealand in 2014.
Nick Ashwood is a guitarist, composer, improviser and performer from Nipaluna/Tasmania now residing in Sydney. His focuses have been exploring deep listening, harmonic space and the possibilities of the steel-string acoustic guitar by means of preparations, just intonation, objects and bowing.
Berlin-based composer-performer Johnny Chang engages in extended explorations surrounding the relationships of sound/listening and the in-between areas of improvisation, composition and performance. Johnny is part of the Wandelweiser composers collective and currently collaborates with: Catherine Lamb (Viola Torros project), Mike Majkowski (illogical harmonies), Phill Niblock, Samuel Dunscombe, Derek Shirley and others.
Megan Alice Clune shifts between musician, composer and artist. Primarily, her work explores both the concept and aesthetics of ambient music through sound installation, collaboration and performance. Megan is the founding member of the Alaska Orchestra, and has presented work and undertaken residencies across Australia, Asia, Europe and North America, including the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival (MA), Next Wave Festival, Underbelly Arts Festival, Performa 15 (NYC) and VividLIVE at the Sydney Opera House.
Andrew Fedorovitch is compos mentis. Andrew Fedorovitch embodies professionalism in every aspect of his life, including music.
Shota is an artist working in Australia. He makes sound-based works for varying contexts. He has had the opportunity to collaborate with a multitude of artists from varying disciplines. Shota is currently an honours student who is associated with the Plant ecophysiology and Ecosystem processes lab at the University of Sydney.
Sonya Holowell is a Dharawal woman, vocalist, composer and writer working across new and experimental genres. The contexts for her work, and the forms they take, are diverse and deeply questioning. Her practice comprises interdisciplinary collaboration, improvisation, multi-form writing and conceptual composition. She is also a workshop facilitator; a curator of the Now Now Festival; lecturer in experimental vocal practice; and a co-founder/editor of online arts publication ADSR Zine.
Alexandra Spence is an artist and musician living on Gadigal country in Sydney, Australia. She makes installations, compositions and performances based on (everyday) sound and listening. Through her practice she attempts to reimagine the intricate relationships between the listener, the object, and the surrounding environment as a kind of communion or conversation. She has a current, near-spiritual, obsession with the animation of material and object through sound. Alex has performed and presented work on radio, in concerts, festivals, symposiums and galleries worldwide, and has two releases: Waking, She Heard The Fluttering, with Room40, and Immaterial, with Longform Editions.
MP Hopkins is an artist based in Sydney, Australia, that is concerned with how to record voices that are not really there, and ways to make voices that are there not sound like voices. He makes audio recordings, performances, and texts.
Joel Stern is a curator, researcher, and artist living and working on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne, Australia. He has been Artistic Director of Liquid Architecture since 2013. In 2018, with critical legal scholar James Parker, Stern curated Eavesdropping, an expansive project addressing the ‘politics of listening’ through work by artists, researchers, writers, detainees and activists from Australia and around the world.
Georgia Hutchison is a cultural development practitioner and arts executive in Naarm/Melbourne, and Executive Director/CEO of Liquid Architecture. Her practice as an artist, educator, organiser and strategist crosses contemporary art, music, design and social justice.
Rob Thorne (Ngāti Tumutumu) is a new and original voice in the evolving journey of Taonga Puoro. His debut album Whāia te Māramatanga (Rattle Records) is a deeply felt and highly concentrated conversation between the past and the present—a musical passage of identity and connection. Using modern loop technology and traditional Māori flutes and horns made from stone, bone, shell and wood, Thorne creates a transcendent aural experience that touches the soul with timeless beauty. Every performance of Whāia te Māramatanga is a stunning and very personal exploration of the spiritual and healing qualities of an ancient practice.
Michiko Ogawa is a performer-composer specialising in the clarinet, born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. She performs not only classical repertoire but also contemporary and experimental music, including free improvisation and film soundtrack work. In 2019 she was awarded a doctorate (DMA) from the University of California San Diego, with a dissertation focusing on the film music of Teiji Ito. She is in the beginning stages of writing a biography of Ito’s life.
Curious about the tender intersections between art, life and friendships, Emma Nixon is an emerging curator and writer. In 2018 she completed a Bachelor of Art History and Curating at Monash University and co-founded Cathedral Cabinet ARI in the Nicholas Building. In Melbourne she has curated and written about exhibitions that investigate subjects such as abstraction, the domestic, care and collage within contemporary art.
Fayen d’Evie is an artist and writer, based in Muckleford, Australia. Her projects are often conversational and collaborative, and resist spectatorship by inviting audiences into sensorial readings of artworks. Fayen advocates the radical potential for blindness, arguing that blindness offers critical positions and methods attuned to sensory translations, ephemerality, the tangible and the intangible, concealment, uncertainty, the precarious, and the invisible. With artist Katie West, Fayen co-founded the Museum Incognita, which revisits neglected or obscured histories through scores that activate embodied readings. Fayen is also the founder of 3-ply, which investigates artist-led publishing as an experimental site for the creation, dispersal, translation, and archiving of texts.
Debris Facility Pty Ltd is a para-corporate entity who engages im/material contexts with the view to highlight and disrupt administrative forms and their embedded power relations. Deploying print, design, installation, and wearables as the most visible parts of operations, they also work in experimental pedagogy and perforated performance of labour. They are a white-settler parasite with theft and dispossession as the implicated ground from which they work. They currently hold contracts with Liquid Architecture, Victorian College of the Arts, Monash University and Debris Facility Pty Ltd.
Timmah Ball is a writer and urban researcher of Ballardong Noongar descent. She has written for The Griffith Review, Right Now, Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Art Guide Australia, Assemble Papers, The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, the Victorian Writer magazine and won the Westerly Patricia Hackett Prize for writing.
Jessie Scott is a practising video artist, writer, programmer and producer who works across the spectrum of screen culture in Melbourne. She is a founding member of audiovisual art collective Tape Projects, and co-directed and founded the inaugural Channels Video Art Festival in 2013.
Christopher L G Hill is an artist, poet, anarchist, collaborator, facilitator, lover, friend, DJ, performer, sound pervader, publisher of Endless Lonely Planet, co-label boss; Bunyip trax, traveller, homebody, dancer, considerate participator, dishwasher, writer, bencher, eater, exhibitor: Sydney, Physics Room, Westspace, TCB, BUS, Punk Cafe,100 Grand street, Lismore Regional Gallery, Good Press, Gambia Castle, Conical, GCAS, NGV, VCA, Mission Comics, Slopes, Art Beat, Papakura Gallery, Neon Parc, UQ Gallery, Tate Modern, Connors Connors, Glasgow International, Sandy Brown, OFLUXO, New Scenarios, Margaret Lawrence, Flake, Utopian Slumps, World Food Books, Sutton, Rearview, Joint Hassles, a basement, a tree, Innen publications, SAM, Chateau 2F, etc, and tweeter, twitcher, sleeper, Biennale director (‘Melbourne Artist initiated’ 2008, 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018-20), DJ, retired gallerist Y3K, conversationalist who represents them self and others, born Melbourne/Narrm 1980c.e, lives World.
Iliass Saoud was born in Halba, Lebanon in 1960 as the sixth of eight children of Wakim and Nadima Saoud. Escaping the Lebanese Civil War in 1977, Iliass migrated to Canada pursued a BA in Mathematics from Dalhouse University in 1982. In 1987 he married Janice Joseph (Fakhry) before settling in Australia to raise his family in 1997, owning a variety of small businesses including the Gaffney Street post office across from the Lincoln Mill’s Centre in Coburg from 2005-2011. Currently, Iliass works part time at a local newsagency and is an avid Bridge player and a dedicated grandfather of one.
Dimitri Troaditis works in the Greek-Australian media. As a poet he has been extensively published in Greece and in Australia in numerous literary journals, websites, blogs and anthologies. He has published six poetry collections and two social history books so far. He has organised poetry readings in Melbourne for years and translates others’ poetry. He runs poetry website To Koskino and was a resident of Coburg for 19 years.
Luisa Lana was born in Australia in 1953. Her mother Nannina had arrived in Australia in 1950 with a 3 month old son, and worked for many years on the sewing room floors and her father Angelo worked on the docks where he helped unionise the Italian workforce. Luisa and her brother were latchkey kids, as they looked after themselves in the morning and ran the ‘Continental’ deli in the evenings. Luisa attained a teaching degree, then a postgrad in Social Sciences, and twice studied Italian at The University for Foreigners in Perugia, Italy. Luisa married Luigino Lana, a Venetian migrant who operated a mechanic business in Brunswick for over 30 years. She devoted her life to being an educator and a mother, teaching Italian to English speakers and English to generations of migrants from around the world. Currently Luisa is translating her father's memoirs from Italian to English, and enjoying being a Nonna.
Anabelle Lacroix is a French-Australian curator, writer and radio contributor. Working independently in Paris, she is based at Fondation Fiminco for a year-long residency focused on the politics of sleeplessness (2020). She has a broad practice, and a current interest in experimental practice, working with performance, sound, discourse and publishing. She is a PhD candidate at UNSW Art & Design.
Geoff Robinson is a Melbourne-based artist working on Wurundjeri country. Robinson creates event-based artworks that utilise the temporal qualities of sound and performance and the spatial conditions of physical sites to unravel the durational layers of place. Robinson has presented projects with Titanik, Turku; Bus Projects, Melbourne; Liquid Architecture, Melbourne; and MoKS, Mooste, Estonia. He was awarded the Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture 2014 and completed the PhD project Durational Situation at MADA, Monash University, Melbourne, 2018.
Mattin is a cross disciplinary artist working with noise, improvisation and dissonance. His work Social Dissonance was presented at documenta 14 in 2017 in Kassel and Athens.
Elena Biserna is a scholar and independent curator based in Marseille (France), working at the intersection of social, political and public spheres.
Tobi Maier is the director of Lisbon’s Municipal Galleries, and recently presented Mattin’s Expanding Concert (2019–2023) a four year long concert distributed in time and space through different media: 5 public interventions in 5 different galleries in Lisbon, and 5 texts published within the city.
Clare Milledge is an artist and academic, she lives and works between the lands of the Arakwal people in Bundjalung country (Broken Head, Northern NSW) and the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people (Paddington, Sydney). She is a Senior Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design and is represented by STATION gallery.
Alexander Powers is a choreographer, performer and DJ from Naarm. In 2019 they premiered their first full length choreographic work Time Loop at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, receiving the Temperance Hall Award at the Fringe Awards. Under the moniker Female Wizard, they are known internationally for their forward-thinking DJ sets. They’ve performed at Golden Plains, Dark Mofo, Boiler Room, Hybrid Festival and Soft Centre and held a four year residency at Le Fag.
Zoe Scoglio’s (often collaborative) practice explores the space of art as a site of study and sociality to engage the radical imagination towards alternative ways of being, knowing and relating. Current research takes critical and collective somatic approaches towards response-ability in these times of ecological collapse, within settler colonial conditions. Past projects have taken place within varied contexts, on top of mountains and under full moons, as large collective choreographies and intimate encounters.
Tricky Walsh is a non-binary artist working in New Norfolk, Tasmania, who works both collaboratively and in a solo capacity. Their projects focus on both spatial and communication concerns in an increasingly speculative manner and while they use a diversity of media (architecture, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, sound, film, comics, radio) it is foremost the concept at hand that determines which form of material experimentation occurs within these broader themes.
Kengné Téguia is a Black Deaf HIV+ cyborg artist, who works from sound deafinitely. #TheBLACKRevolutionwillbeDEAFinitelyLoud
Angela Goh is a dancer and choreographer. Her work poses possibilities for disruption and transformation inside the aesthetics and conditions of technocapitalism, planetarity, and the post-anthropocene. She lives and works in Sydney, and has toured her work across Australia, Europe, the UK, the USA and Asia. She received the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award and the inaugural Sydney Dance Company Beyond the Studio Fellowship 2020-21.
Jannah Quill’s deconstructive exploration of electronic instruments and technologies manifests in electronic music production and experimental audio-visual performance and installation. Jannah modifies existing technologies (such as solar panels) into innovative light-to-audio systems, used with software/hardware experimentation and modular synthesis to carve a distinct voice in electronic music and art.
Tom Smith is a Melbourne-based artist, musician and researcher whose work combines video assemblages, experimental performance, speculative fiction, electronic music, websites and critical writing. Tom’s work is concerned with the politics and poetics of computational systems, the contradictions of creative economies, generic digital aesthetics and music as a mode of critical inquiry. Tom is also one half of music production duo Utility, and runs an independent record label called Sumactrac with Jarred Beeler (DJ Plead) and Jon Watts.
Pris Roos grew up in Rhenen, the Netherlands. Her family migrated from Bogor, Indonesia, to start their own toko in the Netherlands. Toko is the Indonesian word for shop, and they sell non-Western food (products). Roos grew up in the toko, a space of being together, and full of colours, smells, food, stories and images of immigrants. The toko is a source of inspiration for her artistic practices. Stories that are normally not heard find their way in her works. Roos makes portraits of immigrants that she meets in the toko, on the streets or in her surroundings of the South of Rotterdam. She visits them at home or invites them to her atelier. The stories are translated into painted portraits, videos, installations and spoken word performances.
Winnie Dunn is a Tongan-Australian writer and arts worker from Mt Druitt. She is the general manager of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Sydney University. Winnie’s work has been published in the HuffPost Australia, The Saturday Paper, Griffith Review, Meanjin Quarterly, SBS Voices and Cordite. She is the editor of several anthologies including Sweatshop Women, The Big Black Thing and Bent Not Broken. Winnie is currently completing her debut novel as the recipient of a 2019 CAL Ignite Grant.
Jon Watts is a Melbourne/Naarm based musician, designer, 3D artist and animator. His music has been released through cult labels SUMAC and Butter Sessions, and he is currently Senior Multimedia Installer at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Pan-Pan Kolektiva was established in March 2020, as a research group on listening. Pan-Pan is a standard emergency call based on the acronym Pan which stands for Pay Attention Now.
Nathan Gray is an artist whose recent works use voice as their medium, taking form as lecture-performances, radio-plays and documentaries, DJ sets, narrative and rumour.
makik markie yammamoroto
Leighton Craig is an artist living in Meanjin/Brisbane. He has been in a number of bands (The Lost Domain, G55, The Deadnotes et al) and is currently a member of the duo Primitive Motion with Sandra Selig.
Anne Zeitz is associate professor at University Rennes 2. Her research focuses on aural attention, the inaudible, the unheard, and the polyphony in contemporary art. She directed the research project 'Sound Unheard' and she co-organised the eponymous exhibition at the Goethe-Institut Paris, Paris and exhibition 'Échos magnétiques” at the MBA Rennes, Rennes in 2019.
Melissa Johnson is Associate Professor of Art History & Visual Culture at Illinois State University (Normal, IL). Her scholarly research focuses on the histories of craft and its intersections with modern and contemporary art. She is currently working on a project that explores artists making work in response to the writings of Virginia Woolf. She’s deeply interested in situating her academic writing and her textile-based work as parallel practices, and is working on two writing and textile projects, “Woolf Words” and “Haptic Investigations,” and a project on mending and repair.
Diego Ramirez makes art, writes about culture, and labours in the arts. In 2018, he showed his video work in a solo screening by ACCA x ACMI and he performed in Lifenessless at West Space x Gertrude Contemporary in 2019. His work has been shown locally and internationally at MARS Gallery, ACMI, Westspace, Torrance Art Museum, Hong-Gah Museum, Careof Milan, Buxton Cotntemporary, WRO Media Art Biennale, Human Resources LA, Art Central HK, Sydney Contemporary, and Deslave. His words feature in Art and Australia, NECSUS, un Projects, Runway Journal, Art Collector, and Australian Book Review. He is represented by MARS Gallery, Editor-at-large at Running Dog and Gallery Manager at SEVENTH.
Noemie Cecilia Huttner-Koros is a queer Jewish performance-maker, writer, dramaturg, poet, teaching artist and community organiser living and working on Whadjuk Noongar country in Boorloo (Perth). Her practice is driven by a deep belief in the social, political and communal role of art and performance and in engaging with sites and histories where queer culture, composting and ecological crisis occur.
Josten Myburgh is a musician based on Whadjuk Noongar boodja country who plays with techniques from the worlds of electro-acoustic music, radio art, free improvisation, field recording and experimental composition. He co-directs exploratory music label Tone List and the Audible Edge festival. He has performed in South Africa, the United States, and throughout South East Asia, Europe and Australia. He is a Schenberg Fellow and a student of Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro.
Aisyah Aaqil Sumito is an artist and writer living near Derbarl Yerrigan on Whadjuk Noongar Bibbulmun lands. Their work reflects mostly on personal intersections of disability, queerness and diasporic ancestry in so-called 'australia'. They have recently made text-based contributions to Runway Journal and HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.
Michael Terren is a musician and educator from Boorloo/Perth. Grounded in experimental studio-based practice, his work explores the social construction of the technologies of music’s creation and distribution. He is a sessional academic teaching music at two Boorloo universities, and in 2019 finished a PhD thesis entitled 'The grain of the digital audio workstation'.
Joee Mejias is a musician and video artist from Manila. She is co-producer of WSK, the first and only international festival of digital arts and new media in the Philippines and co-founder of HERESY, a new platform for women in sound and multimedia. She performs as Joee & I: her avant-pop electronica solo project.
Myriad Sun are an experimental audio/visual/rap trio from Walyalup (Fremantle), Australia, composed of electronic producer Ben Aguero, Mc POW! Negro, and Limit Bashr. Additional performers: Mali Jose, Billy Jack Narkle and Polly-Pearl Greenhalgh.
Jasmine Guffond is an artist and composer working at the interface of social, political, and technical infrastructures. Focused on electronic composition across music and art contexts her practice spans live performance, recording, installation and custom made browser add-ons. Through the sonification of data she addresses the potential of sound to engage with contemporary political questions and engages listening as a situated-knowledge practice.
Sounding Together comprise of the following performers: Rhys Butler (alto saxophone); Simon Charles (soprano saxophone, shakuhachi); Eduardo Cossio (electronics, writing); Luke Cuerel (alto saxophone); Jim Denley (flute, writing); Julia Drouhin (voice, electronics, objects, images); Jameson Feakes (mandolin); Be Gosper (voice, objects); Noemie Huttner-Koros (voice, writing); Lenny Jacobs (percussion); Annette Krebs (amplified string instrument); Annika Moses (voice, images); Josten Myburgh (clarinet, alto saxophone, editing); Dan O’Connor (mastering); Stuart Orchard (guitar, objects, editing); Daisy Sanders (voice, movement).
Yan Jun, a musician based in Beijing uses a wide range of materials such as field recording, body, noise and concept. Yan Jun: “I wish I was a piece of field recording.”
Katie West is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives on Noongar Ballardong boodja and belongs to the Yindjibarndi people of the Pilbara tablelands in Western Australia. The process and notion of naturally dyeing fabric underpin her practice – the rhythm of walking, gathering, bundling, boiling up water and infusing materials with plant matter. The objects, installations and happenings that Katie creates invite attention to the ways we weave our stories, places, histories, and futures.
Simon Charles is a composer and performer based in Noongar Ballardong Country (Western Australia). His practice reflects an interest in the instability of compositional structures; as friction between musical notation and perception and interactions with place. He has performed at Serralvés Festival (Porto), The Wulf (Los Angeles) Studio Rotor (Berlin), Vigeland Mausoleum (Oslo), Avantwhatever Festival (Melbourne), DATA (Marseille), ANAM Quarttethaus and the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Tiarney Miekus is a writer, editor and musician based in Naarm/Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow (Online), Overland, Memo Review, un Magazine, Art Guide Australia, Swampland and RealTime. She is currently editor and podcast producer at Art Guide Australia.
Liang Luscombe is a Naarm/Melbourne-based visual artist whose practice encompasses painting, sculpture and moving image that engage in a process of generative questioning of how media and film affect audiences.
Thembi Soddell is a sound artist best known for their powerful acousmatic performances and installations in darkness. In 2019 they were awarded a PhD from RMIT University for their practice-based research titled, A Dense Mass of Indecipherable Fear: The Experiential (Non)Narration of Trauma and Madness through Acousmatic Sound. This research developed a novel approach to understanding lived experiences of anxiety, depression and trauma using a medium (abstract sound) with the unique ability to reflect the intangible nature of the inner world.
James Parker is an academic at Melbourne Law School and long-time associate curator with Liquid Architecture. His work explores the many relations between law, sound and listening. He is currently working on machine listening with Joel Stern and Sean Dockray.
Eloise Sweetman loves art, misses her home in Western Australia, all the time loving Rotterdam where she became friends with Pris Roos whose artwork Sweetman speaks of. Sweetman is a curator, artist, writer and teacher working in intimacy, not knowing and material relation. She started Shimmer with Dutch-Australian artist Jason Hendrik Hansma in 2017.
Cecilia Vicuña's work dwells in the not yet, the future potential of the unformed, where sound, weaving, and language interact to create new meanings.
'In January 1966, I began creating precarios (precarious) installations and basuritas, objects composed of debris, structures that disappear, along with quipus and other weaving metaphors. I called these works 'Arte Precario', creating a new independent category, a non-colonized name for them. The precarios soon evolved into collective rituals and oral performances based on dissonant sound and the shamanic voice. The fluid, multi-dimensional quality of these works allowed them to exist in many media and languages at once. Created in and for the moment, they reflect ancient spiritual technologies—a knowledge of the power of individual and communal intention to heal us and the earth.'
Camila Marambio is a private investigator, amateur dancer, permaculture enthusiast, and sporadic writer, but first and foremost, she is a curator and the founder/director of Ensayos, a nomadic interdisciplinary research program in Tierra del Fuego.
Las Chinas is the cosmic coincidences led to the meeting of Chileans Sarita Gálvez and Camila Marambio in Melbourne. Their shared reverence for the ancestral flautón chino from the Andes Mountains lead to playful explorations of its unique dissonant sounds and thereafter to experimenting with atonal signing and other technologies of the spirit.
Influenced by Chilean feminist poet Cecilia Vicuña, the now deceased poet Fidel Sepúlveda, the musical ensemble La Chimuchina and the chino bands from the townships of La Canela and Andacollo, Las Chinas honours the ancestral tradition by enacting the principle of tearing each other apart.
Bryan Phillips A.K.A. Galambo is a Chilean/Australian artist working in community arts, music and performance, using sound as a means to facilitate engagement with others. His practice has mainly been developed in Chile, but after completing his Masters in Community Cultural Development (VCA-2013) he has become involved in projects with artists from Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Australia.
Douglas Kahn is an historian and theorist of energies in the arts, sound in the arts and sound studies, and media arts, from the late-nineteenth century to the present. His books include Energies in the Arts (MIT Press, 2019); Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts (University of California Press, 2013); Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (MIT Press, 1999); Mainframe Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of Digital Arts, edited with Hannah Higgins (University of California Press, 2012); and Source: Music of the Avant-garde, edited with Larry Austin (University of California Press, 2011).
André Dao is a writer, editor, researcher, and artist. His debut novel, Anam, won the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. He is also the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history project documenting people’s experience of immigration detention and a producer of the Walkley-award winning podcast, The Messenger. He is a member of the Manus Recording Project Collective.
Poppy de Souza is a Meanjin (Brisbane) based researcher affiliated with Griffith University and UNSW. Her work focuses on the politics of voice and listening—broadly defined—in conditions of inequality and injustice, including the relationship between sound, race, and conditions of (not) being heard. Poppy has previously worked in community arts and cultural development (CACD), and with the national Film and Sound Archive as a curator on australianscreen.
Andrew Brooks is an artist, writer, and teacher who lives on unceded Wangal land. He is a lecturer in media cultures at UNSW, one half of the critical art collective Snack Syndicate, and a member of the Rosa Press Collective. Homework, a book of essays co-written with Astrid Lorange, was recently published by Discipline.
Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate and filmmaker. He was writer for the Kurdish language magazine Werya. He writes regularly for The Guardian and several other publications. Boochani is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, and author of No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. He was held on Manus Island from 2013 until 2019.
Emma Russell is a critical carceral studies scholar and senior lecturer in crime, justice and legal studies at La Trobe University, Australia. She researches and writes on policing and criminalisation, prisons, detention, and activism. Emma is the author of Queer Histories and the Politics of Policing (2020) and co-author of Resisting Carceral Violence: Women’s Imprisonment and the Politics of Abolition (2018).
Jason De Santolo (Garrwa and Barunggam) is a researcher & creative producer based in the School of Design, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He has worked with his own communities as an activist and advocate using film and performance, protest and education to bring attention to injustices and design solutions using Indigenous knowledge.
Kynan Tan is an artist interested in the relations and conditions of computational systems, with a focus on data, algorithm, networks, materiality, control, and affect. These areas are explored using computer-generated artworks that take the form of simulations, video, sound, 3d prints, text, code, and generative algorithms.
Snack Syndicate, two rats (Andrew Brooks and Astrid Lorange) living on unceded Wangal land; texts, objects, events, meals, and publics.
Spence Messih is an artist living and working on Gadigal land. Their practice speaks broadly to sites of pressure, power structures, materiality, and language, and more specifically about these things in relation to their own trans experience.
Tom Melick is the co-editor of Slug and part of the Rosa Press Collective and Stolon Press.
Trisha Low is a writer living in the East Bay. She is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism (Emily Books/Coffee House Press, 2019).
From 2013 to 2017, nearly 2,000 men who had arrived in Australian territory seeking asylum were forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and detained at the Manus Regional Processing Centre (MRPC) at the Australian government’s expense. It was unclear how long they would be there. Conditions at the detention centre were difficult in the extreme. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described them as ‘punitive’, having ‘severely negative impacts on health, and particularly significantly mental health.’1 Detainees themselves spoke less euphemistically of ‘agony’, ‘humiliation’, and ‘torture.’2 On this final point the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture agreed.3 By 2016, the UNHCR was finding rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD affecting over eighty per cent of the incarcerated community, the highest recorded in the medical literature to date.4 Suicide attempts were common. Some, tragically, were successful.5 Both Australia’s transfer policy and the conditions of detention themselves, the UNHCR wrote, ‘do not adequately comply with international laws and standards.’6
In October 2017, Manus Regional Processing Centre was officially closed, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court having declared it unconstitutional eighteen months before, 7 and the men were directed to relocate to smaller facilities in Lorengau, also on Manus. Most refused, citing fears for their safety in the community, and anxiety at ‘what would happen to them once the centre had closed, and the Australian Government washed their hands of them’.8 In order to force them out, the authorities eliminated provisions and removed the generators powering the facility. Instead of leaving, the men self-organised a stand of resistance against their involuntary and indefinite detention. By 23 November, the remaining men had been violently evicted by police and security contractors and relocated to other ‘accommodation’ on Manus.
how are you today is an artwork produced by six of these men — Abdul Aziz Muhamat, Behrouz Boochani, Farhad Bandesh, Kazem Kazemi, Samad Abdul and Shamindan Kanapathi — along with Michael Green, André Dao, and Jon Tjhia, their collaborators in Melbourne (en masse, the Manus Recording Project Collective). The work was commissioned in 2018 for an exhibition called Eavesdropping at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, at the University of Melbourne, the largest University-based museum in Australia. Each day for the fourteen weeks of the show, one of the men on Manus made a sound recording and sent it ‘onshore’ for swift upload to the gallery. By the exhibition’s end, there were eighty- four recordings in total, each ten minutes long. The result is an archive of fourteen hours — too large and diverse to synthesise, yet only a tiny fraction of the men’s indefinite internment.
This essay introduces how are you today, along with a series of reflections on it, including by two of the artists. We see our task as twofold. First, to document the work’s conception, production, and key realisations, both for the record and to spare the pieces that follow the trouble. Second, to offer a curatorial perspective in the process, since we were the ones who commissioned how are you today at the end of 2017.
The essay proceeds chronologically, starting with The Messenger, a podcast produced by four of the artists from the Manus Recording Project Collective, and which led to the work’s commissioning. Though how are you today shares many common themes with The Messenger, drawing out the two works’ many deliberate differences — of style, form, audio-fidelity, scale, setting — is also, we hope, instructive. From there, we move on to describe how are you today’s conception in relation to and as part of the broader project of Eavesdropping, along with some of the risks and curatorial challenges involved in realising it.
What has always been striking about how are you today curatorially speaking is how many of these challenges related to, or came to be refracted through, legal processes, and imaginations. Both the gallery and the University frequently appealed to law as the privileged language and mechanism for resolving ethical, practical, and political questions, even where it wasn’t obvious in advance that legal institutions or frameworks had, or ought to have, jurisdiction. Right from the start, how are you today was a work of law as much as a work of art. This fact alone is not so remarkable. Law’s constitutive role in the production of all art as art has, of course, been widely noted.9 What was remarkable with how are you today, however, was that law was being asked to do so much work, so conspicuously, and with such important consequences for the work’s eventual meaning and effects.
If law always governs the relationship between artists and a gallery, and describes the various rights and obligations over the work; if in doing so it brings the work into being in a certain way, indeed establishes its status precisely as a work; with how are you today, and unlike every other work in the show, so many of the standard terms had to be renegotiated or fought for, and so many novel legal questions were raised. It wasn’t just a matter of determining artist fees, the terms of the work’s display and so on, but also: the legality of communications from Manus Island to Australia, third party intellectual property rights; what would constitute meaningful consent from the artists; the distribution of risk in relation to possible controversial; traumatic or even defamatory content in the recordings; the gallery’s rights to censor or otherwise intervene in the staging of the work; even the men on Manus’ very status as artists. Indeed, in a final perverse but extremely telling instance, just days before the show opened the gallery would insist that jurisdiction over the text used to describe the work on the institution’s own walls fell to the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea. Recording and thinking through these details matters, we think, because they capture something important about art-law relations in general, about the specific artistic, legal, and political climate out of and into which how are you today emerged, and therefore also about the meaning of the work itself.
In so many ways, how are you today unsettles the distinction we commonly make between a ‘work’ and its ‘context’. Though it comprises fourteen hours of audio, these are emphatically not, or not just, field recordings, to be listened to either for their aesthetic merits or documentary fidelity; even if some of them are undeniably beautiful and the audio quality is often high. What we hear when we listen to Aziz cooking or Kazem showering is both the powerful normalcy of such activities and how radically their meaning is transformed by the violence of their setting, as constituted by the laws and politics of offshore detention. Likewise, in the recordings made on 27 July 2018 and 7 August 2018 respectively we don’t just hear the sounds of the Manusian jungle and the Pacific Ocean, but also Behrouz and Samad listening to them, six years into their captivity, along with the strangeness, perhaps, of experiencing all this in a gallery as a leadership coup unfolds in which the current and former immigration ministers battle it out to unseat prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. how are you today insists that we attend to both its ‘cochlear’ and ‘non-cochlear’ dimensions: the dialogue between what is and isn’t ‘heard.’10
UNHCR, ‘UNHCR Urges Australia to Evacuate Off-Shore Facilities as Health Situation Deteriorates,’ UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), October 12, 2018b.
Behrouz Boochani, ‘This is Manus Island. My Prison. My Torture. My Humiliation’ The Guardian, February 19, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/2016/feb/19/this-is-manus-island-my-prison-my-torturemy-humiliation ↩
Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, A/HRC/28/68/Add, (March 5, 2015), 1.https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session28/Documents/A_HRC_28_68_Add.1_en.doc ↩
Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 2015. ↩
ABC News, ‘Manus Island Refugee Dies in Apparent Suicide,’ ABC News, May 22, 2018. https:// www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-22/manus-island-refugee-dead-afterjumping-from-moving-bus/9786852 ↩
UNHCR, ‘Submission by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Inquiry into the Serious Allegations of Abuse, Self-harm and Neglect of Asylum Seekers in Relation to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, and Any Like Allegations in Relation to the Manus Regional Processing Centre,’ (2016), 1. https://www.unhcr. org/58362da34.pdf ↩
Namah v Pato (2016) SC1497. ↩
Amnesty International Australia and Refugee Council of Australia 2018 ‘Until When: The Forgotten Men of Manus Island’ (Amnesty International Australia and Refugee Council of Australia: 2018).
https://www. refugeecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Until_WhenAIA RCOA_FINAL.pdf ↩
Jacques Derrida, Before the Law: in Attridge D ed Acts of Literature (London: Routledge, 1992). ↩
Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art Continuum (London: International Publishing Group, 2009). ↩
This dialogue is ongoing. In the next part of the essay we detail the work’s two most significant realisations to date, at Ian Potter Museum of Art in 2018, and at City Gallery Wellington in 2019. Each time the work is shown, as the recordings become increasingly ‘archival’ and the status both of Manus itself and the men detained there changes, how are you today changes too. We hear it differently because the work is no longer what it was. This is what Desmond Manderson means,1 following Mieke Bal and Didi Huberman,2 when he advocates ‘anachronism’ in art history and criticism as well as in jurisprudence. The work of art, like the law, he says, is ‘always speaking’: always simultaneously a function of the contexts and histories that animated it, in the past, and the questions it animates, in the present. The work’s meaning does not exist at either one of these poles, therefore, but precisely in their tension. Indeed, to a large extent, that tension is the work.3
The story of how are you today begins with The Messenger. In 2016, Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Muhamat (Aziz)4 began sending WhatsApp voice messages to Melbourne journalist Michael Green, using a smuggled phone in detention on Manus. Over two years the men sustained a prolific correspondence, totalling more than 3,500 messages by the project’s end. These formed the basis of The Messenger, a podcast series made by Green, along with André Dao, Jon Tjhia, and producers at Behind the Wire and the Wheeler Centre.
The Messenger is remarkable in a lot of ways, but one thing that stood out immediately was that it enabled us to hear Aziz speak — at a time when debates about Australia’s offshore detention regime tended to exclude refugees’ voices almost completely. This was not an accident, of course. As Peter Chambers has pointed out,5 offshore is a form, not a place. It is a jurisdictional and (an)aesthetic technology, whose spatial and auditory features are essential to its political effects. Offshore not only invisibilizes those subject to it, it silences them — or at least puts them out of earshot.
Together, ‘Australia’s immigration department, and the governments of Nauru and Manus, [had] made it very difficult for journalists to communicate with detainees. Visitors [weren’t] allowed to make recordings, and the people who came by boat weren’t initially allowed to use their own phones,
Green explains early in The Messenger’s first episode. Even on the rare occasions the Australian mainland did hear from refugees on Manus before 2017, what was heard tended to be highly mediated, whether by politicians, journalists or through the sanitising discourse of human rights. This was the logic The Messenger set out to subvert, even if it could not, of course, do away with mediation entirely. ‘We wanted to have detainees speaking about their experiences, rather than hearing the government’s policy justifications’, Green would later explain.6 And sure enough, hearing Aziz out loud, in his own words, against the odds, definitely ‘not a boat number’, came as a real shock both in Australia and elsewhere, where the podcast quickly won accolades and awards.7 The Messenger demonstrated that, in the hands of Aziz and his collaborators, a microphone, an internet connection and the creative appropriation of the WhatsApp messaging service had the ‘capacity to expose and breach the secrecy that obscures and sustains the system of offshore detention.’8
This breach was more than simply testimonial. It wasn’t just a matter of relaying the horrific conditions experienced by detainees on Manus, describing their debilitating psychological effects, or narrating acts of resistance and advocacy on the part of Aziz and his friends. Aziz gave compelling accounts in each of these respects. But his voice wasn’t the only thing that made it off Manus in the ‘voice messages’ he sent Green in Melbourne. There were a whole range of other sonic details too, each one an opening onto the soundscape and other conditions of this peculiar form of incarceration.9 Ten minutes into episode one, for instance, we hear music in the background as Aziz recounts his daily routine. Green is embarrassed by his own surprise. ‘Where are you playing that?’ he asks. ‘Is that playing on your phone or do you guys have a stereo, or what? … We just don’t have much of an idea about what day to day life is like for you guys. I mean, I guess we can imagine a little bit, but it’s hard to know really.’ The background becomes the foreground. Indeed, the very distinction falls away.
Desmond Manderson, Danse Macabre: Temporalities of Law in the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). ↩
Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Georges Didi-Huberman, Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism, trans. Peter Mason in Farago C and Zwijnenberg R Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). ↩
This is a slight adaptation of a point made by Seth Kim-Cohen (2016: 58). He calls it a ‘dispute’ rather than a tension, but the point is the same. ↩
Both in the The Messenger and how are you today, Aziz went by his first name, as did all the other contributors to how are you today. This was a deliberate strategy of familiarisation and humanisation on their part in a context where refugees and asylum seekers are consistently otherised and even referred to by numbers. For that reason, we preserve the practice here. All other artists and authors are referred to by surname. ↩
Peter Chambers,‘Offshore Is a Form, Not a Place: Paradoxes, Global Spaces and Global Classes in Offshoring Finance and Detention,’ Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 19/1 (2018): 1–27. ↩
Awards include the 2017 New York Festivals International Radio Awards: Grand Trophy winner, National and International Affairs Gold Medal and News Gold Medal; 2017 United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards: Winner, Best Radio Documentary; 2017 Walkley Awards: Winner, Radio/Audio Feature; 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission Human Rights Awards: Winner, Media Award; 2017 Quill Awards: Finalist, Podcasting; 2018 Whickers Documentary Audio Recognition Award: runner-up. ↩
Maria Rae, Emma K Russell and Amy Nethery, ‘Earwitnessing Detention: Carceral Secrecy, Affecting Voices, and Political Listening in The Messenger Podcast,’ International Journal of Communication 13, (2019): 1038. ↩
Emily Ann Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004); Tom Rice, ‘Sounds inside: prison, prisoners and acoustical agency,’ Sound Studies 2, (2016): 6-20; Carolyn McKay, The Pixelated Prisoner: Prison Video Links, Court ‘Appearance’ and the Justice Matrix, (Routledge, 2018); Maria Rae, Emma K Russell and Amy Nethery, ‘Earwitnessing Detention: Carceral Secrecy, Affecting Voices, and Political Listening in The Messenger Podcast,’ International Journal of Communication 13, (2019): 1036–55. ↩
This blurring of background and foreground is a dynamic that remains throughout the series. The voices of guards, of Aziz’s friends and fellow detainees, the sound of heavy rain on tin roofs, the compression and distortion that comes with contemporary digital telecommunication: when we listen to The Messenger, we never simply hear Aziz, but also the sounds of Manus and the conditions of our own listening. We listen to Aziz, but also with him, to and through WhatsApp. We always hear too much, more than was meant for us, and this ‘over-hearing’ feels like a kind of antidote to the ‘under-hearing’ deliberately manufactured by the Australian state. 1 A channel of sorts is opened, between offshore and on.
So much about The Messenger chimed with our thinking for a then nascent project called Eavesdropping. Eavesdropping was a lot of things. We ran reading groups, workshops, lecture series; we staged performances and produced a book. But at the project’s heart was an exhibition, shown first at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, in 2018, and then again at City Gallery Wellington, the following year. As a way of holding these various strands together, the term ‘eavesdropping’ was attractive to us — first, because of how immediately it gestured towards the ethical, legal, and political dimensions of listening, which in our view had been underrepresented curatorially;2 and, second, because of how enduring this association turned out to have been.
The earliest known references to eavesdropping are in court records. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first attested use of the noun ‘eavesdropper’ is from 1487 in the rolls of a local Sessions court in the Borough of Nottingham. But already in 1425, jurors in Harrow, Middlesex were reporting one John Rexheth for being a ‘common evesdroppere’, ‘listening at night and snooping into the secrets of his neighbors’.3 And in 1390, John Merygo, a chaplain in Norwich, was arrested for being ‘a common night-rover’, ‘wont to listen by night under his neighbour’s eaves’.4Eavesdropping, it seems, was one of the most commonly reported offenses in England’s market towns and rural villages all the way from the end of the 14th fourteenth century to the start of the sixteenth century.5 But the roots of the term are much older than that.6 And contemporary usage has long since exceeded eavesdropping’s medieval origins.
Today, eavesdropping refers to everything from the most inadvertent and trivial acts of overhearing through police wiretapping to global surveillance structures and the massive corporate data capture on which they depend. Much of this is perfectly legal. Despite eavesdropping’s origins as a language of censure and prohibition, its use in contemporary legal texts is often more ambivalent. Thus, s632 of the California Penal Code prohibits the intentional use of any ‘electronic amplifying or recording device to eavesdrop upon or record’ so-called ‘confidential communications’,7 only for s633 to immediately provide a blanket exception for law enforcement. Eavesdropping isn’t the problem here: only eavesdropping on certain communications (confidential)8, in a certain way (electronically), by certain people (private citizens).
Colloquially, eavesdropping retains its implication of transgression and so its critical edge. When we wield the term against major corporations like Apple or Amazon —‘Alexa has been eavesdropping on you this whole time’9 — the point isn’t that this kind of activity already is prohibited, but that it should be.10 Likewise, when we worry about neighbours or colleagues eavesdropping on us, when we close a door or don headphones in order not to overhear, it’s because we know some things aren’t meant for prying ears. All listening situations presume and imply a threshold of audibility. Eavesdropping is often the name given to this threshold’s breach.
What interested us about The Messenger, and what put it in conversation with many of the works we had already gathered or commissioned for the show, was the way it seemed to appropriate and valorise eavesdropping as a mode of activism, aesthetic production and critique.11 To begin with, listening to Aziz and Green’s messages, there is a sense of real intimacy, of ‘listening-in’ on a conversation never quite meant for you but to which you have nevertheless been granted an audience. ‘Eavesdropping with permission’, Tanja Dreher calls it,12 drawing on the work of Krista Ratcliffe.13 No doubt the intimacy and rapport between Aziz and Michael is crucial to the podcast’s success. But it is above all this sense of a threshold being breached, of ‘listening at a distance,’14 across physical and national boundaries, to and against forms of state brutality, that gives The Messenger its strongly political edge, and which also, therefore, makes it immediately legible as a work of legal advocacy. If silencing is a technique of power here, listening becomes a mode of resistance. The Messenger is very explicit about this, in fact. Not only does it enact a kind of eavesdropping, it frames it: directs us towards the politics of our listening, to the real risks taken by Aziz and Green in enabling it, and in doing so transforms us, perhaps, from eavesdroppers into earwitnesses, responsible now for what we’ve heard.15
Discussions for how are you today began in August 2017 when, based on our interest in The Messenger, we approached Green about taking part in Eavesdropping. Initially, we thought he and his collaborators might remix The Messenger archive, working with unheard or recontextualised messages, in an installation setting, but animating similar dynamics of listening. This approach wouldn’t impose anything on Aziz, we thought, whose ongoing detention we supposed made survival, not art, a priority. But the evolving situation on Manus led Green, Dao, and Tjhia — who had now officially come on board — to the opposite view. We didn’t want to use old messages, because the situation was ongoing — and besides, how could any exhibition treatment of the archival audio feel anything but exploitative? (But also: what alternatives were there?) Meanwhile, the weight of the detainees’ limbo grew heavier as the story lapsed from public attention. Yet, for the men on Manus, there was something new to respond to every day. We began to discuss inversions of a podcast, a project that allowed us to avoid selecting messages or shaping a narrative.16
Following a series of preliminary discussions in early 2018, in April we received the following proposal:
The idea now is to work with several men on Manus to record ten minutes of audio each day to play the next day in the gallery. The work would change everyday. This brings the listener into the present with the guys on Manus. They are still there, enduring. It is boring. Nothing is happening. Or maybe something will happen? Is a listener willing to stay with the men’s ongoing detention, or will they walk away? We won’t edit or mediate the recordings to create narrative or emotion as we did with the podcast, though likely we will work with each person in advance on what they may want to record, and how.17
Here, already, was an excellent summary of the work as it would eventually be realised.
By this stage, Green, Dao, and Tjhia had been in touch with a number of men on Manus with a view to participating in the project, including and via Aziz. The title how are you today was proposed: the most ordinary, but unavoidable, of questions; one that, in its various iterations, the team in Melbourne had found themselves asking time and again, and to which each audio recording would provide a provisional answer.18 The collaborating group, it was decided, would be called the Manus Recording Project Collective, an unwieldy name with the advantage of sharing an acronym with Manus Regional Processing Centre, where the men had first been brought together. The concept was finally proposed to the director and curators at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in late April 2018, two months before Eavesdropping opened.
Right from this first proposal, how are you today generated more questions and curatorial challenges than any other work in the exhibition. Some we had anticipated. Ethically, of course, the work was complex. Would the demands entailed by its structure be too much for the artists? On whose behalf exactly were these demands being made? How to strike the balance between facilitating artistic expression under such extreme conditions and providing the men on Manus with adequate support and guidance in relation to the particular gallery context, especially since not all of them had worked as artists, or in this medium, before? What if either the content of a recording, or the process of recording itself, inadvertently exposed one of the men, or anyone else, to danger? What could we do to prevent that happening? And what would we do if we couldn’t? Likewise with the work’s audience. How to think about their possible exposure to the violence, self-harm, depression, suicide etc. that we knew pervades such spaces of detention? Practically, too, there were questions about how possible it would be to get recording equipment to Manus, how easy any such equipment would be to use, whether internet connections would be reliable enough to send high-fidelity recordings to Melbourne, and what would happen if the situation on Manus or for any individual artists changed suddenly during the course of the work. What kinds of practical, financial or other assistance could we provide? And how would any such eventualities be represented in the gallery? Politically, of course, we knew the work could prove controversial, and were prepared for a certain amount of dialogue about risk mitigation in this respect. But the specific ways in which these matters played out, along with the various other concerns tabled by the museum, came as a surprise. So many of the questions asked of how are you today were asked in the idiom of law. It was legal advice, ultimately, that would secure the work’s inclusion in the show and, it was hoped, on its own unique terms. And it was legal imaginations, often untethered from positive legal obligations or imperatives, that ended up governing key features of the work’s display … sometimes, it would turn out, in quite telling and productive ways.
Once how are you today had been approved in principle by the Ian Potter, conversations immediately began with Legal Services at the University of Melbourne about whether the work exposed the University to any ‘risk’, and if so whether this prevented it from being included.19 This process would ultimately yield a briefing paper on the work, which was understood as requiring and later received the Vice Chancellor’s approval, along with a modified loan agreement, the terms of which had been varied from the Museum’s boilerplate in a number of important ways.
Several matters were resolved quickly. Legal Services were clear, for instance, that the restriction on communications from Manus which had cast a shadow over the early phases of The Messenger and had been the subject of so much public controversy had now been removed, so that making and sending the recordings per se did not present a problem legally.20 Copyright in the recordings would reside with the individuals who had made them, and in the event that the recordings contained copyrighted material, such as music, this would be covered by the University’s licence agreement with APRA AMCOS. This was already a fudge, since the University would have no way of knowing or checking whether any such recording was from a ‘legitimate source’, as the licence required; or indeed whether it was included in the APRA AMCOS library. Perhaps this is why it ultimately sought to shift liability in this respect to us as curators, as we will see.
Ensuring that the men on Manus understood both the nature of the project and the rights, risks and obligations it entailed was more complex, but left largely to us to resolve. Dao, Green, and Tjhia produced, shared and explained a consent form with the men on Manus. The form covered permitted use of recordings, limitations of use, further consent, archiving the recordings, safety and privacy, and payment. It stipulated, for instance:
If you are recording someone speaking, make sure they know you are recording them, and what it will be used for. If possible, obtain oral consent from anyone you are recording, and include that consent in a separate file, sent to us along with the main recording. You must not endanger others through your participation in this project. If you feel your personal safety is being threatened due to your participation in the project, you must inform us and if necessary, stop recording. Your safety is our priority.21
Appropriately, consent was obtained in the form of voice-messages via WhatsApp. And this, Legal Services determined, was sufficient from the University’s perspective. Especially since the form also guaranteed the men ‘the ability to opt out at any stage and to require that their recordings be permanently destroyed at any time.’22
Concern regarding potentially traumatising, controversial, or generally unknown content in the recordings was more difficult to assuage and led to a more radical solution. Legal Services suggested that responsibility and, more important, liability, for how are you today be transferred from the Museum to us as curators. Where other works in Eavesdropping were loaned by artists directly to the Museum, how are you today would be loaned first to Liquid Architecture (‘The Curator’), the organisation at which Joel Stern was employed as Artistic Director, and only then to the Ian Potter Museum of Art. The terms of this arrangement were potentially extremely onerous. Liquid Architecture was asked to warrant, for instance, that ‘nothing in the work: (A) will breach any third party rights (including intellectual property or privacy rights); (B) is defamatory; (C) is misleading or deceptive; or (D) is otherwise unlawful.’ Moreover, Liquid Architecture would further indemnify the Museum ‘against all costs, losses or damages that may be incurred by the Ian Potter Museum of Art as a direct or indirect result of the Artist’s breach of its warranties.’23 Even then, the University remained concerned. Legal Services’ briefing paper insisted that ‘the University will not censor content’, but the following clause nevertheless made its way into the loan agreement:
a. The Curator will notify the Ian Potter Museum of Art if any controversial or sensitive content is present on individual Recordings of the Work, including content that may be defamatory, infringe third party rights, or contain sensitive information (including discussion of suicide or self-harm).
b. If necessary, the parties (in collaboration with the Producers) will:
(i) edit the Recording; or
(ii) take any other steps reasonably required, to address any controversial or sensitive information on the Recording, including displaying appropriate public warnings at the Exhibition.
c. The Ian Potter Museum of Art has the right to review and refuse to Use individual Recordings or parts of recordings, in its sole discretion (acting reasonably), if it is not satisfied that a remedy under clause 7(b) is satisfactory. 24
Not only did the University seek to offset all potential liability for how are you today onto us as curators, it wanted the ability to intervene in the work’s production, even where concerns over ‘sensitive information’ were raised in advance and attempts made by the artists to remedy them. True, in the exercise of this discretion, it was required to ‘act reasonably’, but what on earth that meant in this context or how this would all play out in practice was anybody’s guess.
In the event, the loan agreement was never actually sent through to Stern to sign. To this day we have no idea why, what we would have done had push come to shove, or indeed what the University imagined asking a cash-strapped arts organisation like Liquid Architecture to indemnify it against ‘all costs, losses or damages’ really amounted to in practice. As a result, the work’s legal status for the duration of its exhibition in Melbourne remains unclear. And, in the end, none of the eighty-four recordings eventually produced for how are you today was altered or even queried by the Museum. Nevertheless, it matters that this process was deemed essential for the work to proceed. Of course, the University’s nerves speak to some extent to the work’s uncertain nature: to the fact that it would unfold in real time, and that it did, therefore, present real risks. But in retrospect, it is hard not to suspect that the whole exercise was also something of a performance: for us, for the Vice Chancellor, and for an unknown future audience; that the University was concerned less with sculpting real obligations than appearing to have done its due diligence in the event of a complaint or public relations scandal. In this sense, the heavily improvised process also speaks to the general atmosphere in Australia around offshore detention in 2018: the climate of fear, secrecy, and rabid politicisation. Yes, the content of the ‘work’ was uncertain. But its context was what the University feared most, and it was this context to which the University was primarily responding with its (ultimately failed) attempt to contract out responsibility for a work which it nevertheless hosted and provided a platform for.
This nervous dance between supporting how are you today and not wishing to take full responsibility for it played out again when it came to determining the appropriate language to describe the work and its participants. This time, however, the technique of disavowal was jurisdiction rather than contract.
At first, the Museum was concerned about the work’s art status: essentially that audio recordings from Manus may not, in and of themselves, constitute artworks, and that posing them as such risked aestheticising suffering and misrepresenting the status of the men on Manus, whose detention seemed at odds with the freedom and agency the title ‘artist’ would generally imply.
By 2018, field recordings had, of course, long lived in gallery settings, in pioneering works by Max Neuhaus, Hildergard Westerkamp, Bill Fontana, and countless others. These artists have a strong association with, indeed are progenitors of, ‘sound art’, experimental music, acoustic ecology, soundscape studies, and other sonic ‘genres’ with which Eavesdropping was centrally engaged.25 By now, all these genres have established conventions of listening widely understood by institutions and audiences. So, it is interesting that, for the Museum, the sense in which how are you today might belong to these historical modalities was initially illegible or opaque. Perhaps the men’s politicised status as refugees and prisoners overshadowed the work’s connection to these, by comparison, more prosaic sonic traditions; even though, of course, there are also long traditions of art being made from and about conditions of detention.26 Once it had been agreed that how are you today would, indeed, be ‘art’, we still had to fight to secure the men on Manus’ status as ‘artists’.
The Museum’s first suggestion was that, for the purposes of the loan agreement, ‘The Artists’ be listed as Dao, Tjhia, and Green in Melbourne, with the men on Manus acknowledged as (mere) ‘Participants’. This stemmed from a misunderstanding about the nature of the work, we said. The men on Manus were not going to simply ‘participate’ in the recordings, but ‘make’ them, whereas their Melbourne collaborators would facilitate, and, where necessary, provide the absolute minimum of editing. In the end, both in the loan agreement and in all public-facing accounts of the work, including in the gallery, all nine members of the collective were always presented as ‘artists’. But this was not the end of the terminological wrangling.
Similar questions arose again just days before the exhibition opened when it came to the didactic labels accompanying the work, and specifically how to represent the artists’ biographical details on the gallery’s walls. The standard designation in this respect was: place of birth; date; lives and works. For example: ‘Sean Dockray. Born Boston, United States 1977; lives and works in Melbourne’. But from a curatorial perspective, it was problematic to write, for instance: ‘Behrouz Boochani, born Ilam, Kurdistan 1983; lives and works on Manus Island’, without acknowledging the circumstances under which he lived and worked there. Our simple alternative was: ‘Behrouz Boochani, born Ilam, Kurdistan 1983; detained on Manus Island’. This, however, was rejected.
Some two years previously, on 26 April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea had ruled the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Regional Processing Centre illegal on the grounds that it ‘offend[ed] against their rights and freedoms as guaranteed by the various conventions on human rights at international law’ and was contrary, moreover, to their Constitutional right of personal liberty as guaranteed by s42 of PNG’s Constitution.27 Thus began an interminable debate, widely aired in Australia but invariably mediated by the PNG courts, concerning whether and if so precisely when the centre had closed, when, accordingly, ‘detention’ there had ceased, and how to classify the new facilities to which the men were forced to relocate.
In March 2017, the PNG Supreme Court found that the 860 men still remaining were no longer strictly ‘detained’, on the basis that they were now ‘allowed to leave the centre during the day.’28 In a further decision from December 2017, following an application brought by ‘Behrouz Boochani and 730 others’, the court found that the actual date on which ‘detention’ had ceased was 12 May 2016.29 When the Manus Regional Processing Centre was finally emptied by force some eighteen months later, the six artists involved in how are you today were relocated to one of three centres on the island, named — with deliberate euphemism—West Lorengau Haus, Hillside Haus, and East Lorengau Transit Centre (ELTC).30 These facilities were guarded 24/7 and closed to the public. Asylum seekers were able to enter and exit only with a boat ID number and card. And in July 2018, a matter of weeks before Eavesdropping opened, a curfew was introduced preventing the men from leaving the centres between 6pm and 6am. At no point were they free to leave Manus without special permission from the PNG government. They may have been prisoners on day release, but they were prisoners all the same.
This was the backdrop against which the Museum worried that, for the purposes of how are you today’s didactic panel, it was inappropriate to describe the men as ‘detained’. We argued otherwise, pointing both to the men’s own accounts of their present conditions,31 and to the Refugee Council of Australia’s description of the new centres as a ‘heavily securitised environment … not open in the sense that anyone can come and go as they please, and access remains restricted even for human rights and humanitarian organisations.’32 But even as we did so, we were surprised and concerned that the Museum was so willing to defer, in their use of language, to legal institutions overseas and attempts by the Australian government to enforce such use at home.
Peter Szendy, All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017); Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018). ↩
For instance, in such major exhibitions as Sonic Boom (Hayward Gallery, London, 2000), Sound as a Medium of Art (ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 2012), and Soundings: A Contemporary Score (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013). ↩
Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370–1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 65. ↩
Leet Roll of 14 Richard II (1390) in Seldon Society v 1892 (Leet Jurisdiction in Norwich). ↩
Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370–1600, 65. ↩
James E K Parker and Joel Stern, Eavesdropping: A Reader (Melbourne: City Gallery, 2019). ↩
California Penal Code 2020. ↩
Defined as ‘conversations where a party had no objectively reasonable expectation of being overheard or recorded’ in Chamberlain v Les Schwab (2012). ↩
Geoffrey A. Fowler, ‘Alexa Has Been Eavesdropping on You This Whole Time,’ The Washington Post, May 6, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/06/alexa-has-been-eavesdropping-you-this-whole-time/ ↩
The California State Assembly’s privacy committee has since proposed a new bill that would prohibit makers of smart speakers from saving or storing recordings without users’ explicit consent. Though the bill nowhere uses the word, it has nevertheless been dubbed the ‘Anti-Eavesdropping Act.’ ↩
The other artists involved were Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Susan Schuppli, Joel Spring, Sean Dockray, Samson Young, Fayen d’Evie and Jen Bervin. ↩
Tanja Dreher, ‘Eavesdropping with Permission: The Politics of Listening for Safer Speaking Spaces,’ Borderlands E-Journal 8/1, (2009): 1–21. ↩
Krista Ratcliffe, Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005). ↩
Peter Szendy, All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017). ↩
Leah Bassel, The Politics of Listening: Possibilities and Challenges for Democratic Life (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Maria Rae, Emma K Russell and Amy Nethery, ‘Earwitnessing Detention: Carceral Secrecy, Affecting Voices, and Political Listening in The Messenger Podcast,’ International Journal of Communication 13, (2019): 1036–55. ↩
Manus Recording Project Collective, ‘how are you today’ in James E K Parker and Joel Stern, Eavesdropping: A Reader (Melbourne: City Gallery, 2019), 174. ↩
Michael Green, André Dao, and Jon Tjhia, email correspondence on file, April 20, 2018. ↩
André Dao, ‘How Are You Today” at the Ian Potter Museum of Art’ The Monthly, October 9, 2018. https://www.themonthly.com.au/blog/andr-dao/2018/09/2018/1539044312/how-are-you-today-ian-potter-museum-art#mtr ↩
University of Melbourne 2018a, Briefing paper, on file with authors. ↩
University of Melbourne 2018a. ↩
University of Melbourne, Manus Recording Project Collective ‘how are you today: Consent Form’, on file with authors, 2018b. ↩
University of Melbourne, Manus Recording Project Collective, 2018b. ↩
University of Melbourne, Loan Agreement, on file with authors, 2018c. ↩
University of Melbourne, 2018c. ↩
Nicole R Fleetwood, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2020). ↩
Namah v Pato (2016) SC1497: 67. ↩
Eric Tlozek, ‘PNG Chief Justice finds Manus Island Detention Centre Is Actually Closed’ ABC News, March 13, 2017. <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-13/ png-chief-justice-finds-manus-island-detention-centre-closed/8350600> ↩
Boochani v Independent State of Papua New Guinea  SC1566. ↩
Amnesty International Australia and Refugee Council of Australia, Until When: The Forgotten Men of Manus Island, (Amnesty International Australia and Refugee Council of Australia, 2018).
<https://www. refugeecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Until_WhenAIA RCOA_FINAL.pdf> ↩
Ben Doherty, ‘Behrouz Boochani, Voice of Manus Island Refugees, Is Free in New Zealand,’ The Guardian, November 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/14/behrouz-boochani-free-voice-manus-island-refugees-new-zealand-australia ↩
Amnesty International Australia and Refugee Council of Australia, 2018. ↩
After initially being told we would have to settle for ‘lives and works’, which we deemed totally unacceptable from the perspective of curatorial ethics, we decided to play the Museum at its own game, and began looking for alternative wording in the various decisions of the PNG Supreme Court. This is how we came across the following passage from the Court’s 2016 decision declaring the Manus Regional Processing Centre illegal:
In the present case, the undisputed facts clearly reveal that the asylum seekers had no intention of entering and remaining in PNG. Their destination was and continues to be Australia. They did not enter PNG and do not remain in PNG on their own accord. This is confirmed by the very fact of their forceful transfer and continued detention on MIPC by the PNG and Australian Governments. Naturally, it follows that the forceful bringing into and detention of the asylum seekers on MIPC is unconstitutional and therefore illegal.1
This phrasing had been subsequently adopted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and used in the opening lines of the ‘UNHCR Fact Sheet on Situation of Refugees and Asylum-seekers on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.’2 The fact sheet states: ‘3,172 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since the introduction of the current ‘offshore processing’ policy in 2013.’3
On that basis, we proposed the following description of the six artists on Manus:
Shamindan Kanapathi, born Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1990.
Samad Abdul, born Quetta, Pakistan, 1990.
Abdul Aziz Muhamat, born Geneina, Sudan, 1992.
Behrouz Boochani, born Ilam, Kurdistan, 1983. Farhad Bandesh, born Ilam, Kurdistan, 1981.
Hass Hassaballa, born Kutum, Sudan, 1988.4
Forcibly transferred from Australia to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where they remain.
Thankfully, this suggestion was accepted, and the artists have been described using similar wording in every in every iteration of the work since. The extraordinary result is that jurisdiction over the didactic labels for how are you today was doubly deferred to a foreign court: first, in ruling out the use of the word ‘detention’; second, in yielding another turn of phrase in its place — a turn of phrase which, in the end, was much more explicit both about the violence involved in delivering these six artists to Manus and, moreover, in implicating the Australian government. But notice that the Museum was under no obligation in this respect. The appeal to law was, once again, performative. The Supreme Court of PNG was deferred to not because it did have jurisdiction over the walls of a gallery in Melbourne, but as an act of disavowal in the event anyone asked questions. Take it up with the court, the Museum could now plausibly say. These are their words, not ours.
As the exhibition drew nearer, the artists prepared for recording. Zoom H1 recorders were selected for use in the project since, in addition to being small, durable, and inconspicuous, when used effectively, they are capable of producing stereo recordings of broadcast quality. This upgraded the technology significantly from The Messenger, which had relied on the mobile phone microphone to which Aziz already had access on Manus. The higher-fidelity devices would enable subtler, quieter, and more complex sounds to be recorded.
Three Zoom H1s were delivered to Manus by an intermediary in July 2018. Instructions and recording tips were sent as a PDF via WhatsApp. In addition to their artist fees, the Manus artists were transferred extra money for the mobile data required to upload and transfer the files, and a technical infrastructure for how are you today playback was also developed. The six men on Manus would use WhatsApp or Telegram to send one recording each per week to their collaborators in Melbourne, who would then edit and mix the file and upload it to a Dropbox folder. In this respect, the three Melbourne artists would support two Manus artists each. This support involved receiving the recording, editing for duration and volume, and naming and transferring the file to the folder from which it would stream. But it was also creative, albeit that the guiding principle was to ‘intervene’ as little as possible. Preparatory conversations between Melbourne and Manus artists addressed questions of what to record and how. The following indicative transcript, for instance, is of an exchange between Kazem and Tjhia conducted two days prior to the exhibition opening:
Kazem, 22 July 2018
Namah v Pato (2016) SC1497: 37. ↩
UNHCR, UNHCR Fact Sheet on Situation Of Refugees and AsylumSeekers On Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, July 5, 2018a.
<https://www.unhcr.org/en-au/publications/legal/5b3ea38f7/unhcr-fact-sheet-on-situation-ofrefugees-and-asylum-seekers-on-manus-island.html?query=manus%20 island>. ↩
UNHCR, 2018a: 1. ↩
Hass Hassaballa subsequently dropped out of the project to be replaced by Kazem Kazemi, who was born in Ilam, Kurdistan in 1981. ↩
And, another topic is … that I want to, you know, work on it — cooking. I want to cook and record the voice of cooking, that I want to do. What do you think about that?11.20 PM Kazem
And another one is — someone, you know, he just watching movies in his room, and nothing to do every day. And that’s another topic.11.24 PM Kazem
Ah, what about taking shower? I want to take shower, and record that. What do you think about that? Is it good or not?11.25PM Jon
Yeah! That sounds great too. I think … what is really good about these ideas that you have is that they sound pretty different, so you’ll produce a lot of stuff that opens up lots of different sides of life on Manus, and I think that’s great. Congratulations — these are very good ideas. (Manus Recording Project Collective 2019: 188)
Once a recording had been made, uploaded to Dropbox, and sent to Melbourne, the collaborators would produce a short descriptive title to be projected onto the wall of the gallery while it was playing. So, in relation to the above examples, which Kazem would go on to realise: on 6 September 2018, the title read, ‘Kazem, on Saturday, taking a shower’ and on 12 September 2018, ‘Kazem, on Monday, making a capsicum, mushroom and chicken pizza’.1
In the gallery, these titles did much to orient the listener, and signpost at least some of what they were hearing. As the work subsequently transformed into an archive and moved online, the titles grew in importance, becoming the index through which a listener might navigate from one recording to another. how are you today was installed at The Potter in a large rectangular gallery with a floorspace of approximately eight by twelve metres, and with five-metre-high ceilings. The walls of the gallery were painted charcoal black, and a single bulb in a parabolic lamp shade in the centre of the room provided the lighting. The sound system comprised four monitor speakers, angled inwards at forty-five degrees, suspended from the ceiling on drop poles. The four speakers formed a square of approximately three metres in the centre of the room. Twelve small white square stools arranged in four rows of three designated an ideal listening position. On one gallery wall, the work details were projected, featuring a timer counting from 00:00 to 10:00 minutes, the duration of each recording. Underneath, a wall-mounted iPad showed the title of what could be heard in the gallery that day, along with the growing list of prior recordings below.
On 24 July 2018, the opening day of the exhibition, the first recording from Manus played in the gallery, ‘Aziz, last week, watching the World Cup final with the guys’. We hear the instantly recognisable sound of a stadium crowd played back through television speakers, and a commentator’s voice saying the word ‘Modric’. Then, the voices of a number of men, perhaps five or six, speaking quickly, excitedly, in Arabic. They chat, occasionally falling silent, perhaps in response to the game on screen. A few minutes pass, then rather suddenly ‘GOAL!’, shouting, laughing, a number of voices layering the soundscape. The recording continues, as the men continue to laugh and talk, before, at precisely ten minutes, the sound abruptly cuts. This was neither a narrative, nor an unadorned document, but something else. At no point did anyone acknowledge the microphone, or listener. As Dao puts it in the essay included in this collection:
I could hear the men speaking to each other but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I didn’t know if they were talking about the game, which I knew was the World Cup Final between France and Croatia, a game that I myself had been watching at the very same time as the men in the recording. Perhaps they were talking about Manus, the Pacific island off the coast of Papua New Guinea where they have been detained for nearly five years. Perhaps they were talking about home, which I guessed — drawing upon what I already knew about Aziz, the man who had placed the microphone in the room in the middle of these voices — I guessed that for most of them home was Sudan. 1
On 24 August 2018, one month after the exhibition opened, a recording titled, ‘Behrouz, yesterday, speaking at Macquarie University via Whatsapp with his translator’ plays in the gallery. We hear Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz’s book No Friend But the Mountains,2 dialling in from Sydney, his voice filtered by the narrowband fidelity of the mobile phone. He is speaking Farsi. Behrouz is on the other end of the line, in Manus. Tofighian’s words are cutting in and out, distorted, glitching to the point of indecipherability. Behrouz listens patiently. There is a politics of fidelity at work here, in how ‘offshoring’ on Manus Island registers in the degraded quality of the audio signal. Communication becomes laborious and imprecise. The recording we hear, of course, is Behrouz’s. So, while Tofighian’s voice is distorted, the Manus soundscape in which it resounds is rich and clear. The multiple fidelities at work remind us that the medium of how are you today is not so much audio, but the offshore detention complex itself, and the desperate logic that structures it.3 A broken voice on a bad connection is one of the audible effects of the system that the work sets out to explore and expose.
André Dao, ‘What I Heard About Manus Island (When I Listened to 14 Hours of Recordings from Manus Island),’ Law Text Culture, Vol.24, (2020). ↩
Behrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains (London: Picador, 2018). ↩
James E K Parker and Joel Stern, Eavesdropping: A Reader (Melbourne: City Gallery, 2019), 24. ↩
On the same day that Behrouz and Omid speak (24 August, 2018), Scott Morrison deposes Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister of Australia, defeating Peter Dutton in an internal vote. Morrison and Dutton as former Immigration Ministers were co-architects of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, a policy that militarised Australian borders, based on rhetoric of ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘illegal boats’. The new Prime Minister, Morrison, is pictured in his office with a trophy: ‘a laser-cut block of metal in the shape of an Asian fishing boat, sitting on a gently curving wave, with the thick black lettering: “I stopped these.”’1 Morrison, like Dutton, haunts the Manus recordings, although neither is referred to directly. Andrew Brooks notes as much in his reading of the work, when his listening reminds him of Morrison’s 2015 appearance on Annabel Crabb’s ABC television show, Kitchen Cabinet.2 Brooks describes watching ‘in disbelief as Morrison announced he would cook Crabb a Lankan meal of fish curry and samosas (which he nicknamed “ScoMosas”).3 His breezy appropriation of Lankan culture — my culture — was a ham-fisted attempt to prove that he is not racist.’ Contrast this with the how are you today recording, ‘Shamindan, last week, speaking with Srirangan while he cooks fish curry’ from 28 July 2018. In the sound of wind, scraping, and water running, we hear Sri Lankan Tamil refugee Shamindan Kanapathi interview another refugee making a fish curry. He begins preparing the meal in the laundry — there is no kitchen — before moving to the more confined space of a shared room. ‘Why do you cook?’ asks Shamindan. ‘I have been in this camp for more than five years. I am sick and tired. There is nothing else to do here. So I cook’, Srirangan answers. Returning to Kitchen Cabinet: ‘The inane kitchen chatter that Crabb and Morrison performed is the sound of patriarchal white sovereignty in action’, writes Brooks.4 His insight speaks to the capacity of the how are you today recordings to transform our listening ‘onshore’, to insist on co-locating the sounds of Manus and Australia.
Helen Davidson, ‘“I Stopped These”: Scott Morrison Keeps Migrant Boat Trophy in Office,’ The Guardian, September 19, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/sep/19/i-stopped-these-scott-morrison-keeps-migrant-boat-trophy-in-office ↩
ABC TV 2012-2018 Kitchen Cabinet. ↩
Andrew Brooks, ‘Listening to the Indefinite’. ↩
The recordings that constitute how are you today are heterogeneous, varied, and diverse. As the work unfolded, one recording gave little indication as to what the following day’s would deliver. Recordings accumulated: the men making and listening to music; in the jungle; by the sea; cooking and cleaning; trying to relax; speaking with each other and locals. It became evident that what was being shared, in many instances, were not speech acts but ‘acts of listening’, characterised by a refusal to narrate, perhaps a refusal to reduce the experience of incarceration to a digestible story. The soundscapes reflected boredom, limbo, and time passing, without resolution or promise. Ten minutes spent listening reflected ten minutes spent recording. This sharing of time was powerful for the way it also made legible the twenty-three hours and fifty minutes of every day of incarceration that went unshared. The ‘everydayness’ of the recordings belied their specificity however. Behrouz’s contributions evidenced his increasingly intensive journalistic and writing activities with various publishers, translators, and collaborators. Aziz’s activism and advocacy is audible in a number of his recordings where he supports, organises, and rallies, both within the camp, and externally. Kazem’s and Farhad’s musical identities become clear, as they record themselves playing guitar, trumpet, and singing in various rooms at the facility. Samad and Shamindan started to develop highly idiosyncratic modes of address over time. ‘Hi everyone, it is Samad from Manus Detention Centre’, became a familiar opening. Shamindan’s ‘Dear brothers, dear sisters, dear friends’ felt likewise. Addressing the listener directly and intimately transforms them, in a sense, from eavesdroppers to earwitnesses, just like with The Messenger. We know you are listening, that you’ve heard, the men might have been saying; so what happens now?
Eavesdropping at The Potter ended on 28 October 2018, and so did how are you today as a live project. The final recording, ‘Samad, at three o’clock this morning, home from work and lying in bed, listening to music, is a goodbye note to listeners. Samad Abdul has relocated from Manus Island to Port Moresby over the course of the three months, and, in the recording, speaks hopefully of a day ‘when all of us will get out of jail in PNG … able to have our real lives, reunited with our families’. The recording ends with several minutes of Pakistani pop music played on small speakers in Samad’s room, against the whirring background noise of a fan as he tries to sleep.
On 17 August 2019, how are you today opened at City Gallery in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand for the next iteration of Eavesdropping. The period between closing in Melbourne and opening in Wellington had been eventful. In February 2019, Aziz had obtained a temporary visa to travel to Switzerland from Manus Island for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. He had been nominated by Green on the basis of the activism so powerfully represented in the The Messenger. Aziz would win the award and go on to speak compellingly at The United Nations in Geneva, telling the world, ‘This award sheds light on the very cruel refugee policy of the Australian Government. It also brings international attention to the dangers and ill-treatment faced by refugees all over the world, including in countries that claim they uphold the Refugee Convention.’1 Aziz claimed asylum in Switzerland and was, after some months, accepted, becoming the first of the how are you today artists to leave Papua New Guinea.
Notwithstanding Aziz’s achievement, the political atmosphere was still unfavourable. In May 2019, Scott Morrison, against predictions, had been returned as Prime Minister, providing further mandate to his detention policies, among other things. Opposition leader Bill Shorten had stated ‘Australia would accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle some of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru if Labor is elected,’2 but with his defeat, this promise was never tested. Morrison’s election provoked an atmosphere of despair on Manus. Behrouz described it as ‘out of control’, with suicide and self-harm spiking dramatically.3 As the Wellington exhibition opened, five of the six how are you today artists remained on Manus Island or Port Moresby, along with hundreds of other detainees.
The archive of recordings had now been compiled as an online collection, indexed chronologically and by artist.12 What was initially an open channel for listening in almost ‘real-time’ became an archive for listening-back on demand. While this online archive was important in terms of the project’s accessibility, especially for researchers, the ability to ‘surf’ from one recording to the next did not necessarily facilitate the kind of focused listening — this sense of sharing time or listening with the men on Manus, even across time and space — that we wanted to foster. So, at City Gallery, the work was presented in a cinema space with tiered seating for about 100 people, immediately adjacent to the rest of the exhibition. Played chronologically throughout the day, the full fourteen -hours took two days to complete. In that dark space, with high-quality speakers and cinema acoustics, it was possible to hear more in the sound than ever before. Yet, it was difficult to know what these sounds signified as an archive. Almost a year after they had been made, listening back to them was unsettling. In revisiting those sonic worlds, the difficulties of the time since were foregrounded: the dire situation of the men still in detention, the offer of resettlement from New Zealand rejected by the Australian Government. In June, two months before the Wellington exhibition, Behrouz spoke via Skype at Goldsmiths, University of London as part of a symposium called ‘Sound Proofs’.13 Over a poor, frequently glitching connection, he had said of how are you today:
We cannot change this generation. They are following what the government thinks. Unfortunately, this project, my work, and other peoples’ work, is only a record of history. It’s for the next generation … We have movies, we have books, we have this project, we have many materials. And these materials are important so that researchers are able to do research on the basis of this work, and all of the young generation are able to engage with this… [inaudible] I think we should accept that.4
Behrouz’s dignified resignation was a powerful prism through which to relisten to the archive, lending it the quality of an acoustic ethnography, a future researcher’s tool for understanding the sound of Australian offshore detention circa 2018. In the beauty and sadness of the recordings, a hidden functionality was coming to the surface, a sense of the recordings as something else, also important: evidence, against the forces of erasure and forgetting.
In this essay, we have attempted to account for how are you today by the Manus Recording Project Collective, foregrounding not only the recordings, but also the curatorial ethics that attended their production, the institutional negotiations that became necessary at different moments, and the shifting political contexts, legal processes, and imaginations that shaped the project. It is in considering these elements together, we argue, that ‘the work’ is most legible and its meaning most fully realised. Reflecting on how are you today in a review of the first iteration of Eavesdropping for The Wire, Philip Brophy (2019) wrote:
Most field recordings are sonically boring — not to mention patronising in their supposed raising of consciousness by listening to the outside world. Revealingly, they demonstrate an entitled sense of freedom, as if the world is yours to openly record. how are you today stridently reverses these entitled notions: the detainees are excessively restricted spatially, yet sonically they are still capable of uncovering micro sound worlds through their individual site-specific acts of listening.5
How to listen for and with this lack of freedom, as Brophy suggests? Only by tuning-in — turning one’s ears — to context: to information beyond the ‘frame’ of the recordings ‘themselves’; to details that, though not sonically ‘present’, radically alter both the experience of listening and the meaning of the work.
Once the door has been opened to what Seth Kim-Cohen, riffing on Marcel Duchamp, calls the ‘non-cochlear dimensions’ of the work, they quickly saturate it. ‘The normally supplemental parerga’, KimCohen writes, borrowing Derrida’s term,6 ‘become central to the act of encounter’. ‘Contexts impose themselves: past experiences, future expectations, adjacent sounds, other works, institutional settings, curatorial framing. All these influences, and other parerga besides, are essential components of our experience of what we call “the work.”’7 Even if they can’t be ‘heard’. In order to explore and appreciate these dimensions of the work, Kim-Cohen claims — indeed of any encounter with the sounding world — we must move beyond a concern for sound-in-itself, beyond vibration, beyond even the ‘jurisdiction of the ear,’8 towards sound’s necessary social-embeddedness.
This is the kind of encounter with how are you today we have been arguing for, and that we think the work also presumes and demands. As a form of listening, it is, in a way, ‘excessive’. It invites the listener to hear ‘too much’: more than was meant for them, more than is even ‘there’, ‘in’ the recordings. Listening this way involves the breach of a threshold, therefore. This is also a kind of eavesdropping, whereby the listener permits themselves — since it cannot, after all, be avoided — to over-hear: not only the sounds of Manus and the men forced and held there, not only evidence of all this against the geographic, political, and legal forces that would rather none of this was heard, but also something of the strange ways in which these forces play out in curatorial and Uuniversity contexts, as mediated by improvised legal processes and rampant legal imaginations, and how, in the process of becoming archival, whether heard online or in a gallery in New Zealand, the recordings are animated anew by interminable stasis, contemporary political events and even, occasionally, by hope.
On 14 November, 2019, to the amazement of millions, Behrouz Boochani landed in Aotearoa New Zealand, having left Papua New Guinea more than six years — 2,269 days — on from his forcible transfer there by the Australian Government. This was a shock to all but a small group who had been working over a number of months to arrange the transfer. The UNHCR had provided travel documents to leave Papua New Guinea, Amnesty International had sponsored the visa, and Word Christchurch, a small literary festival, had nominated itself as his New Zealand host.9
This is how it came to be that on 17 November, 2019, the final day of Eavesdropping at City Gallery, the exhibition had a surprise visitor. Behrouz toured the show, meeting with curators and other artists in the exhibition, before addressing a large audience in the same cinema space where how are you today had been playing for the previous three months. He spoke about each of the other five men; where they are now, in Port Moresby, in Australia under the so-called ‘Medevac Bill’10 and Aziz, in Switzerland. And, incredibly, he was in a position to listen, in the gallery, as a free person, to the recordings that he and his friends had made a little over a year earlier, from a place of seemingly indefinite incarceration.
Two weeks later, Behrouz would speak again at the 2019 meeting of the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia, on Yugambeh land in the Gold Coast. The conversation, which was conducted by André Dao, covered Boochani’s journey to New Zealand, his time on Manus, his journalism, book and films, but was principally concerned with how are you today: his experience making the work, the motivations behind particular recordings, his reflections a year later. A lightly edited transcript follows this piece. After that comes Dao’s own essay,11 in which he listens in detail to the work’s first seven recordings, but from the specific vantage point of an artist involved in the work’s production and who has also listened through the entire archive; which, at fourteen hours, is no mean feat (this, indeed, is how Dao’s essay gets its title). Dao’s essay is about these recordings, but also about the experience of listening to them: a hearing, a re-hearing and also, in a way, a pre-hearing, he explains. What we read is Dao ‘listening to himself listening’;12 noticing the different forms of knowledge, ignorance, pathos, attention, sorrow and surprise that structure his encounter with the recordings. ‘As a staged hearing’, Dao writes, ‘the essay itself gestures to another meaning of the word —– to the trial or the scene of judgment. Which is not to say that the hearer in this case has the authority of the judge. To be clear: nothing in this hearing can alter the material circumstances of the six men making the recordings.’ Not just that. Despite the archive’s status as ‘evidence’ of a sort, it is not an experience that admits a simple normative response of the kind a lawyer might listen out for. That, for Dao, may be its virtue. He ends by asking with Simone Weil what it would mean to listen to something like how are you today not in the register of ‘rights’ but ‘justice’: which is to say precisely not as a lawyer; without ‘instrumental ears’; despite and against Dao’s own legal training. The mute justice of a hearing without a verdict.
The next two essays are by thinkers who weren’t involved in the production of the work. Like Dao, Poppy de Souza also develops her essay through individual recordings. Like Dao, she is also interested in how, despite failing to conform to any ‘recognisable genre of refugee testimony’ or narrating any particular injustice, indeed precisely because it ‘confounds expectations of what life in an offshore ‘“black site”’ might sound like’, it seems to have been ‘forged of, and might help forge, more just relations of attention.’ Crucially though, for de Souza, if how are you today suggests or entails a certain justice, this is not a matter of empathy, compassion, or even understanding, since these can all tend towards the depoliticization of systemic issues. Rather, she explains, how are you today points us towards ‘the more difficult, durational and justice-oriented listening needed to unsettle Australia’s settler colonial border regimes.’ ‘Taken together, or heard collectively,’ she argues, ‘the work invites us to listen beyond the horizon of the state in order to hear the enduring-ness of life on Manus — the solitude and suffering, but also the sociality and solidarity — as well as the limits of what settler colonial carceral logic and law can hear.’
For Emma Russell, the issue is less the limits of carceral logic than the production of ‘carceral atmospheres’, a term she coins to help think through how are you today. A carceral atmosphere, she says, is both the ‘product and effect of technologies of confinement —– those disciplinary mechanisms of law, power, and surveillance that detrimentally keep in and contain bodies within space and time.’ how are you today both conveys and creates such atmospheres, Russell explains, and in doing so ‘provides models for denaturalising detention through creative practices of transborder solidarity.’
Through the accumulation of ‘everyday’ soundworlds, it seeks to create a space for intimate and uncomfortable engagement with the repetitive and often mundane reality of life in enforced limbo. Through eschewing sensationalism and dramatic violence, it prompts us to question the reactionary frame of ‘crisis’ that dominates liberal refugee politics in Australia and instead attune to the ‘‘slow violence’’ of abandonment at the border.
This is a violence in which time itself is weaponised, where ‘hotels and homes can be repurposed as prisons’, and where the experience of carcerality, though undoubtedly material, is also profoundly sensory, which is to say ‘permeable and unstable’, felt as much as seen. But as Russell points out, how are you today isn’t just an archive of atmospheres, but of acts of resistance: both in itself, as an artwork, and in the moments it records, like when we hear Aziz speaking from Manus at a protest in Melbourne. ‘By capturing these daily practices of resistance,’ Russell contends, ‘how are you today provides an historical record of collaborative, cross-border campaigning against the secretive and unaccountable system of offshore detention.’
So much has changed since this essay was first drafted at the start of 2020. Back then, Behrouz’s future in New Zealand was still unclear. His initial one-month visa had lapsed and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had stated that any further developments were ‘totally hypothetical.’13 Behrouz, for his part, had said of Papua New Guinea and Australian detention: ‘I will never go back to that place.’14 Then in July 2020, almost seven years to the day after he was arrested by the Australian Navy, taken to Christmas Island, and subsequently flown to PNG, the New Zealand government finally granted him asylum. He is now a Senior Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury. ‘I look at it as an end of chapter of my life and I feel happy because I have certainty for my future’, Boochani told the ABC. ‘But on the other side it’s extremely difficult because still this policy exists and still people are living in detention in Australia, in Port Moresby and Nauru and still the Australian Government continues with this policy of torturing people.’15 So much remains the same.
And so, with three new members — Farhad Rahmati, Thanush Selvraj and Yasin Abdallah — in place of Aziz and Behrouz, both of whom now had asylum, and Kazem Kazemi, who decided not to take part, on 1 August the Manus Recording Project Collective embarked on a new work, this time entitled where are you today. For four weeks, subscribers received a text message every day with a link to a new ten minute audio recording and, if they allowed their location data to be accessed, their distance from the recording’s maker. By virtue of the now-in-force Medevac Legislation, the men were being held variously in hotels or detention centres in Port Moresby, Melbourne or Brisbane, meaning that some of the messages from our homes in Brunswick were uncannily close. ‘Yasin, drinking green tea and looking through the window, watching cars go by, for Eid. You are 3km away from Yasin, who recorded this 16 hours ago.’ Australia’s internalisation both of ‘offshore’ and the border itself was very much in evidence. In the final essay gathered here, Andrew Brooks reflects on this new work, and puts it into dialogue both with his own previous writing (2018) on how are you today and Christoph Büchel’s notorious contribution to the 58th Venice Biennale Barca Nostra,16 in which he displayed as a readymade the ruined hull of a boat which sank while carrying migrants from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015. Only twenty eight of the estimated thousand or so on board survived. For Brooks, what differentiates a work like where are you today from one like Büchel’s is how unspectacular it is, how it moves us beyond the reproduction of trauma and the spectacle of suffering towards something more like witnessing. Moreover, Brooks explains, because the recordings were transmitted directly, via text message, rather than broadcast in the gallery space, ‘the event of witnessing intrudes on our daily life: one morning, having just gotten out of the shower, I listen to Farhad Rahmati and others watching Discovery Turbo channel and talking about the cars they dream of having when they’re out of detention; another day, I listen to Shamindan, in his room, doing nothing.’ How might these ‘quiet portraits of state-sanctioned violence’ puncture the ‘racially saturated sonic field’, Brooks wonders, that is so crucial not only to the maintenance of offshore as a system but with it the ‘maintenance of whiteness in the settler state’?
Martin Ennals Award, ‘The 2019 MEA Laureate: Abdul Aziz Muhamat,’ Martin Ennals Award: For Human Rights Defenders, February 13, 2019. ↩
Jane Norman, ‘Bill Shorten Maintains Labor’s Stance on Boat Turnbacks but Offers More Refugee Places, Cash to UNHCR,’ ABC News, December 17, 2018.
<https://www. abc.net.au/news/2018-12-17/labor-boat-turnbacks-abolish-indigenouswork-for-the-dole-scheme/10626634> ↩
Holly Robertson, ‘Manus Island in “Unprecedented Crisis” as Refugee Self-harm Surges after Australian Election,’ ABC News, May 29, 2019.
<https://www. abc.net.au/news/2019-05-29/growing-surge-in-refugee-self-harm-sinceaustralian-election/11156064> ↩
Manus Recording Project Collective, ‘how are you today’ in Parker J E K and Stern J, Eavesdropping: A Reader (Melbourne: City Gallery, 2019). ↩
Phillip Brophy, ‘Eavesdropping’ The Wire No. 419, (2019). ↩
Derrida footnote ↩
Seth Kim-Cohen, Against Ambience and Other Essays (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 54. ↩
Seth Kim-Cohen, Against Ambience and Other Essays, 73. ↩
Ben Doherty, ‘Behrouz Boochani, Voice of Manus Island Refugees, Is Free in New Zealand,’ The Guardian, November 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/14/behrouz-boochani-free-voice-manus-island-refugees-new-zealand-australia ↩
Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill, 2018. ↩
André Dao, ‘What I Heard About Manus Island (When I Listened to 14 Hours of Recordings from Manus Island),’ Law Text Culture, Vol.24, (2020). ↩
Peter Szendy, Listen: A History of Our Ears (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 142. ↩
Angela Cuming, ‘Jacinda Ardern Says She Was Kept in the Dark Over Arrival of Manus Refugee Behrouz Boochani,’ The Guardian, November 18, 2019.
Ben Doherty, ‘Behrouz Boochani, Voice of Manus Island Refugees, Is Free in New Zealand,’ The Guardian, November 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/14/behrouz-boochani-free-voice-manus-island-refugees-new-zealand-australia ↩
Quentin McDermott and Natalie Whiting, ‘New Zealand grants asylum to Behrouz Boochani, Kurdish-Iranian refugee who was detained on Manus Island,’ ABC News, July 24, 2020.
< https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-24/behrouzboochani-granted-nz-refugee-visa/12484316> ↩
Joel Stern is a curator, researcher, and artist living and working on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne, Australia. He has been Artistic Director of Liquid Architecture since 2013. In 2018, with critical legal scholar James Parker, Stern curated Eavesdropping, an expansive project addressing the ‘politics of listening’ through work by artists, researchers, writers, detainees and activists from Australia and around the world.
James Parker is an academic at Melbourne Law School and long-time associate curator with Liquid Architecture. His work explores the many relations between law, sound and listening. He is currently working on machine listening with Joel Stern and Sean Dockray.
The writings included in Sitting by the Fence near the Jungle: Reflections on the Manus Recording Project Collective were originally published in Law Text Culture, as part of a larger peer reviewed collection on the ‘Acoustics of Justice: Law, Listening, Sound’, edited by James Parker, Sara Ramshaw and Mehera San Roque. The collection is generously reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence (non-commercial) with the permission of the journal. The original PDFs can be downloaded here, along with fifteen other pieces (some of which are forthcoming in August 2021). We ask that you cite to the originals. But we hope this version of the dossier, which places the writing in direct conversation with the Manus Recording Project Collective’s original audio recordings, offers readers a different reading experience, as well as opening the work up to new audiences.
The editor would like to thank Joel Stern as co-curator of how are you today and where are you today, Liang Luscombe and Monet Jones for their amazing editorial support and Public Office for the beautiful design. The works discussed in this dossier were originally commissioned as part of the Eavesdropping exhibition, staged at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne in 2018 and City Gallery, Wellington in 2019. We thank these institutions for their support in the public stagings of the project. Most of all, sincere thanks to every member of the Manus Recording Project Collective — Abdul Aziz Muhamat, Farhad Bandesh, Behrouz Boochani, Kazem Kazemi, Shamindan Kanapathi, Samad Abdul, Farhad Rahmati, Thanush Selvraj, Yasin Abdallah, Michael Green, André Dao and Jon Tjhia. In solidarity for their ongoing struggles for freedom and justice.
This dossier was produced online, and across multiple unceded Indigenous Lands in so-called ‘Australia’ and Aetearoa, New Zealand. We acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nation as the custodians of the lands on which we work. We pay our respects to Indigenous Elders, past and present.