You hear a protest long before you see it. The noise of the chants, chatter from participants or, sometimes, the sound of clashes with police. Yet the aural is curiously neglected, with more attention focused on the visual spectacle of protests and less attention paid to the aural texture that underwrites the visual.
Even so, the infrastructure of cities may swallow up the sound of protests; it hardly matters how large a protest is. Even the noise produced by thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. It doesn’t take too long for you to wander out of earshot of being able to hear any protest. The noise of the city, of rhythmic everyday life, devours the noise of a protest just a short walk away.
Certain images of movements can become iconic. Certain colour schemes are associated with demonstrations, or motifs recur in protest artwork. In the same way, movements of sufficient scale can often generate theme songs as a form of aestheticised self-representation. Take, for example, the Sunflower Movement and their image of the blooming sunflower — yellow rays bursting from a central disk — integral to the movement’s positioning of itself as a successor to previous protests movements, such as the 1990 Wild Lily Movement or the 2008 Wild Strawberry Movement. But, for the purposes of this article, I will defer from the image of the sunflower for the sake of the aurality at play behind this yellow disk.
Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement of March 2014 was a month-long student-led occupation of the Taiwanese legislature, the Legislative Yuan, and the city streets that surrounded it. The occupation opposed a free trade agreement that was to be signed with China, allowing for Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry. It was feared that this trade bill, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), could be deleterious to Taiwan’s political freedoms, and that this was being advanced by the pro-China Kuomintang, the authoritarian party that held power during Taiwan’s martial law period, as a strategy to facilitate the political unification of Taiwan and China. Many criticisms were directed against the Kuomintang for circumventing legislative oversight processes to push the bill through the legislature in a ‘black box’ manner that lacked in transparency — an action reminiscent of the Kuomintang’s past authoritarianism.
The sunflower became an iconic early image of the movement in the news media after sunflowers were discovered by demonstrators on the speaker’s podium in the Legislative Yuan and were handed out among demonstrators. The song ‘Island’s Sunrise’, sung in Taiwanese, emerged out of these protests, it reflected the movement’s concerns regarding identity, and suggested an ethos of youthful self-sacrifice. The song’s title, conjured image, and lyrics draw on visual tropes that associated the movement with sun and light.
This was not the only project to aspire towards creating an anthem for the Sunflower Movement. Noise and performance artist Betty Apple, who herself had a role in the production of ‘Island’s Sunrise’, carried out a project inviting participants to sing the Republic of China national anthem during the movement, with the notion of creating something like a new national anthem for Taiwan. Within other movements in Taiwan, the exact question of the anthem of the Sunflower Movement has become contested between different visions of what the movement is considered to be, and is reflected in the different aural representations of the movement.
What the aural reveals is what is usually occluded by the visual spectacle. The aural amplifies the hidden dimensions of a protest movement, and points to politically constitutive absences. For example, in the Sunflower Movement, the political differences between factions in the occupation were reflected in their musical sensibilities. The ‘mainstream’ occupiers within the Legislative Yuan — seen as the leaders of the movement, whom the majority of media attention focused on and whose politics were somewhere left-of-centre — oriented toward musical genres such as indie rock and hip hop. Not exactly commercial genres or ones which were ‘independent’, but which were still variations on broadly commercial genres. Bands favoured by activists included Fire EX, Tizzy Bac, Frandé, Community Service, Kou Chou Ching, and others, allowing for the sounding of a resistance beyond the optical.
The ‘fringe’ splinter occupation, such as the Untouchable’s Liberation Area, gravitated toward radical left politics and viewed the mainstream leaders of the movement as having failed to extend its critique of a Chinese trade deal to the critique of capitalism itself. This splinter group tended toward electronic music and heavy metal. Notably, constituent elements of the Untouchable’s Liberation Area included a number of heavy metal bands, such as The Deposers and The Accomplices, and members of the Electronic Music Anti-Nuclear Front. At anti-nuclear demonstrations in the years prior to the Sunflower Movement, the Electronic Music Anti-Nuclear Front would often drive a speaker truck playing electronic music through the streets, with performers including Betty Apple, Psychiatrist, Blackbells, and other DJs and producers. Such performances of sound provided another layer within this concept of protest.
Music therefore came to constitute an element of the ‘sociality’ of both groups in the years leading up to the Sunflower Movement. Shows and concerts were, for example, events that activists gathered at, socialised at, and came to form the networks which were later mobilised during the Sunflower Movement.
But beyond this, the evident differing aesthetic sensibilities were also reflective of differing political sensibilities. It may be no mistake that the left-of-center occupiers within the Legislative Yuan drifted toward music which was not commercially mainstream, yet could still have mainstream appeal — much as with their politics — while more radical members of the Untouchable’s Liberation Area tended toward music which was, in many cases, more experimental and alienating, perhaps reflective of their more marginal politics. This latter group of occupiers drew on harsher sounds that one had to accustom one’s self to, and grow familiar with as a musical form, much as acclimatising to radical politics requires a gradual process of breaking with the assumptions about society held by members of the mainstream.
Such differences were far less reflected in the purely visual. Both sides, after all, were generally young people, and if the latter group was more prone to acts of protest which did involve more theatrical and carnivalesque forms of protest in the occupation space, the differences between various groups was not always the most visible. We live in a predominantly visual culture, after all, and we look to the visual for the most immediate markers of difference to grab onto, but these markers can be deceptive.
The roles that noise plays in a protest are manifold. For one, noise — and particularly the human voice — has a functional role in directing the crowd or serving as a means of communication among protesters. How this ‘noise of the voice’ manifests depends on the juridical context of a protest, that is to say, what the specific laws are within the context of the protest movement that is occurring. In Taiwan, electronic amplification of noise is usually permitted by the police, and so loudspeakers tend to be the norm for people expressing protest. Whereas, in many parts of America, electronic amplification is only permitted for demonstrations with a permit. As a result, adaptations such as the Occupy Wall Street–style ‘human mic’ have developed, involving demonstrators repeating a speaker’s words to themselves, rhythmically, in order for all members of the crowd to hear.
At the same time, such sounds likely affect the dynamics of protest spaces, particularly in occupation-style movements. The Occupy Wall Street–style ‘human mic’ was highly participatory in nature, involving all members of the crowd and not just a central speaker. Such an act of amplification lent itself to the view of the movement as a leaderless, decentralised one, becoming a symbol of the movement regardless of whether or not this was the ‘actual’ outcome from the demonstrations. It must be noted that the ‘human mic’ is not without connotations of romanticism with regard to the concept of a non-hierarchical amplification. The concept of ‘leaderlessness’ does veil many concepts regarding the actual power dynamics operating in the background. An echo is made by a first-and-foremost sound, and the act of channeling such a sound, regardless of how many people it’s passed on by, may still be the unidirectional projection of one voice outward, rather than a multitude of voices genuinely speaking together in unison.
On the other hand, protests in Taiwan tend to be much more centralised in nature, with leadership coalescing around whoever has the mic. This was the case even among radical groupings such as the Untouchable’s Liberation Area, which was critical of the central leadership within the Legislative Yuan but arguably had its own informal leadership structure around those with louder voices than others.
Oftentimes, the view among activists is that a microphone system must necessarily be present in order for the masses not to fall into chaos. Hence, during the initial charge into the Legislative Yuan, a microphone system was prepared ahead of time and brought into the legislature by occupiers. In other cases, the functional role of noise is emotive in nature. When the crowd became agitated at some points during the initial occupation of the Legislative Yuan, an organiser decided that the solution would be to find a singer he knew to sing calming songs to pacify the crowd.
Noise may also be a source of ‘fiction’ within movements — again, most strikingly, during occupation-style movements. This is perhaps reflective of differing political sensibilities or social mores, as differing groups within the occupation are either accepting or unaccepting of certain forms of noise, or certain levels of noise.
In the Sunflower Movement, for example, parents often slept in groups in the occupation site while their children grew frustrated with the noise from the Untouchable’s Liberation Area during the late-night hours around the Legislative Yuan, which had higher tolerance for noise at night. During Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, frustration eventually mounted because the drum circle were continually drumming, 24/7, and refused to stop during hours when other occupiers were sleeping. Some were fine with the 24/7 drumming, with the view that a liberated autonomous zone from capitalism should not have imposed noise ordinances, while many others could not accept this because it disrupted their rest.
In the current set of demonstrations in Hong Kong against a Beijing-backed extradition, ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord’ has become ubiquitously sung across the city. Originally this was a way of protestors claiming that demonstrations were ‘religious gatherings’ rather than ‘unlawful gatherings’ conducted without a permit, and so the police had no right to disperse them because this would infringe on basic freedoms of religion. This defense of the protests occurred so frequently that the sounds of such songs opened up a kind of humorous point of mockery against police, with demonstrators holding up signs stating: ‘Stop or we sing Hallelujah to the Lord’.
We might discuss how certain forms of noise are replicated mimetically in a movement, whether that be the human mic, constant drumming in Zuccotti Park, ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord’, or electronic music around the Legislative Yuan.
That is, perhaps the precise point of demonstrations is to break apart the rhythms of the everyday and establish new rhythms, to point towards the repressed possibilities immanent to society. To resist being swallowed up by the rhythms of urban modernity requires making noise, being disruptive, and in this way establishing new rhythms.
Indeed, the rhythm which emerges from protest movements is often reflective of their politics. It may not be surprising that protests by Christian groups in Taiwan, primarily conservative demonstrations against gay marriage in recent years, involve singing not only hymns but also speaking in tongues. Or that demonstrations by Taiwanese indigenous groups, usually calling for the return of traditional territories, similarly include performing traditional songs. This gestures toward alternative modernities that movements hope to realise.
The noises of a movement are disseminated through society by the media, as paired with the images of a movement. The aural has come to play an increasingly important role in the means by which movements disseminate information, with the development of newer forms of media increasingly incorporating the aural as well as the visual.
One observes the gradual incorporation of the aural into media with the advancement of technology. Newspapers may be one of the oldest form of media in Taiwan and still, in many other places, remain widely disseminated. Noise, as paired with images, is incorporated into television and video, while radio consists solely of sound — and radio productions usually seek to capture snapshots of the aural environment of a protest for their broadcasts. There has become something of a regularity to the sounds of protest incorporated into Taiwanese television news reporting in recent years — one can usually hear the telltale format of a protest news segment without having to watch the television screen.
To this extent, in the age of the Internet, the aural dimension of sound from the movement also develops online, particularly through clips which circulate online and involve memorable statements or soundbites. The circulation of such sounds in truncated form likely contributes to the dissemination of noise and image from demonstrations, as a means of furthering public awareness of a demonstration.
In this way, another rhythm often emerges from the movement, as in continual chants during the Sunflower Movement like ‘Police! Back up!’ or ‘Journalists! Move away!’ or ‘Oppose the Black Box CSSTA!’ Namely, an aural language itself develops out of the movement. The movement becomes a sort of temporal life-world in itself, a world characterised by temporal, aural markers of tense moments during the protest, rather than simply pointing to a world beyond the current one. But in general, this social movement would be a life-world of long silences, with just the noise of the city, or the sound of gathering crowds punctuated by spectacular noise: protest chants, songs, and the noise of clashes with the police. Because while the most attention may go to the spectacular noise of protest movements, the truth is that the aural texture of protests more often consists of the absence of noise, or simply ambient noise.
While protests may appear to be constant activity, the majority of time is simply spent standing or sitting around, particularly in occupation-style movements. Whether you are alone or with others, conversation only goes so far, and usually dies out quickly. Protests are oftentimes quite boring. Protests are long and slow, and exciting, glorious moments of direct action are preceded and followed by long blocks of empty time. Not everyone is willing to spend such long periods just waiting around, knowing that this time might not lead to anything.
The sound texture of social movements, then, primarily consists of empty, ambient noise listened to in the process of whiling away empty, homogeneous time. Or, given that the majority of protests are an urban phenomenon, simply listening to the sounds of the city in silence. The moment that silence gives way to noise is charged with the urgency of a particular moment. These are moments with a sense of the now in social movements — moments of the spectacular in which homogeneous time becomes charged with a sense of the immanently possible, of the realisability of a different spatial, temporal, and aesthetic arrangement of reality. But such moments are few and far between, even if it is usually only these moments which are remembered in the recollection of a social movement.
Moments of this kind are usually at night. Day is when protests are respectable: when slogans are chanted and songs sung peacefully. It’s when night falls — when some demonstrators refuse to withdraw and instead engage in direct action, or police take more extreme measures against demonstrators –– that you have the shouts, yells, and screams of clashes with the police; the noise of police loudspeakers warning demonstrators to withdraw or they will use force; or police marching in with riot shields, batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas, of calls to make way for medics or ambulances.
When night falls, all expectations appear to tune off and enter into the necessary need for rest. But other nights, silence is not neutral and it still wins out. The night is not simply empty noise but a gesture that silence is possible and necessary when resistance requires rejuvenation. A protest, most protests, are an attempt to raise one’s voice (for the collective voice) in the face of overwhelming silence. In overwhelming white noise there is still a frequency of presence. Regardless of whether the capitalistic sounds of a city appear to win out — submerging the disruptive noise of protest in the sound of everyday traffic — the sounds of those present, the sounds of human voices raising themselves up to the city’s volume, will pass on meanings of resistance. Unlike the image, the sound of a movement, even if it appears transient or ephemeral, exists within the throats of those who will voice sound regardless of recognition.
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.