(GRAPH)
(TEXT)
Rotate left circular arrow interface symbol

Please rotate your device to portait-mode to read the article.

Decolonial Hacker
ARCHIVE
ABOUT

Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

Email
Instagram
Twitter

Decolonial Hacker critically examines cultural institutions, their alliances, interests and behaviour. Born of a desire to entrench more consistent and collective engagement with institutional critique, Decolonial Hacker operates through a web browser extension that “hacks” institutions’ URLs with commissioned criticism, and an online platform that archives these texts. The extension activates when a user logs onto an institution’s website, dissolving their webpage to reveal an article that analyses certain problematics of that place informed by decolonial politics at large – for instance, pillaged colonial objects, funding sources and labour conditions.

Email
Instagram
Twitter

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. We acknowledge the ongoing violence and dispossession which characterises the so-called settler-colony of “Australia” and pay full respects to First Nations peoples past, present and emerging.

Archive
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
SHOBUN BAILE — TRUST STUDY #1 (2020)
Screening: 28 JUNE 2022 - 12 JULY 2022
No items found.
Blitz damage Greek and Roman Galleries, Room 69 towards 70. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Insurgent Spirits at The British Museum

02 May 2022
Decolonial Hacker
The British Museum
The British Museum
Words
Noah Angell
02 May 2022
Decolonial Hacker
The British Museum
The British Museum
Words
Noah Angell

There'd been a door sticking. A security warder on the overnight shift was making the rounds when, in one of the basement corridors, there was a door that just wouldn't open [1]. He concluded that something on the other side was blocking it and took a detour using the tiny, padded lift that goes up through the Prints and Drawings department instead. The tiny lift stuck and trembled, moved a bit, then stuck and trembled again. It took five or six minutes to move just the one floor. As the lift shook, his feeling of being obstructed intensified, until he shouted skyward at the ghosts, “Stop playing silly buggers!” When he stepped out of the lift and arrived at the other side of the door that had refused to open, it wasn't locked. There was nothing blocking it. It opened with ease.

He said that there were lots of times when these kinds of things happened—when doors wouldn’t open, and for no discernible reason. He attributed this to the “spirits of the place.”

contents

Since 2016, I’ve been collecting ghost stories from current and former British Museum staff, and can attest that on many occasions the British Museum’s passageways have been blocked or left open—doors positioned contrary to operating procedure, unnerving those tasked with maintaining order in the museum. Describing an episode involving the often uncooperative doors which enclose the Sutton Hoo Gallery, one warder marvelled, “When we reviewed the CCTV back, you can see me and my colleague walk through, and then these doors, you see them just go like that…”, unfolding their fingers and slowly spreading them apart, [opening] up inwards for no reason whatsoever. You’d need a very, very big breeze to open them up like that.

Another warder, recalling a separate incident that took place in the Sutton Hoo Gallery, rejected the possibility of wind blowing the doors open: “Someone tried to put it down [to] wind. Well, if it was wind, how is it that the other doors didn't open up? Where would the breeze come from? He shook his head, as if to restate his bewilderment, “That door should never have been open.”

The Sutton Hoo Gallery is thick with such trickery. According to yet another warder:

Between galleries 42 and 41, the doors were notoriously old and warped and difficult to shut. We got the one door, but then it just wouldn't quite meet the other, and so my colleague slammed it, and kept slamming it, and then all of a sudden, the door that was closed flung back open. He felt something push against his chest.” With this, the warder pantomimed his wrist thrusting forward, as if pushing his colleague’s sternum and launching him—“a big lad”—into the air. His supervisor watched helplessly as “He got knocked right back off his feet, and onto his backside. And then the doors slammed. Bang!

Patsy Sorenti, a psychic medium and historian of the Anglo-Saxon period, later asserted that at least some of the disturbances in Gallery 42 were caused by the conversion of the adjacent Medieval Christian Relics Gallery into the Islamic Gallery, spawning a rebellion among its incorporeal keepers, against the living guardians of the museum.

Whoever was looking after that, whoever was linked to those objects, maybe more than one person, has got the hump, because you swapped Christianity for Islam, and in the Medieval world, in those times, that was the devil. Because you represent the people who work here [you] are responsible. That’s why the doors closed on you, and that’s why your man was thrown. That’s what it is – you’ve replaced Christianity, you have replaced it with something that’s a devil to us. You displaced us for that.

Sorenti implies that the ideology and worldview of the ghosts who ejected staff from Gallery 42 remains fixed in the paradigms of the Medieval world. Suspended in the prejudices of their time, these spirits are enlisted in a conflict catalysed by one collection displacing another, by their holy objects being put uncomfortably close to those of their enemies.

While curators at colonial museums are afforded the privilege of neglecting the energetic import of the collections that they work with, for the warders, cleaners, and overnight security staff this is not so easily done. As a member of the “permanent nights” once told me, “You get objects that hold energy, and [people] go with those objects.” [2]

While curators research, catalogue, and prepare artefacts for exhibition, it is the lower-waged workers who spend the majority of their working hours on the museum floor, closely observing both the displays and visitors. While the museum trustees sleep, insulated from the blowback resulting from their decisions, it is the security, visitor services, and cleaning staff being thrown from, and chased out of galleries on the night shift. Unsurprisingly, the once-airborne warder described above left his position at the museum soon after his encounter.

Second World War bomb damage to Greek and Roman Life Room (looking north) 1941. (Central Archive Photograph 146) © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Second World War bomb damage to Greek and Roman Life Room (looking north) 1941. (Central Archive Photograph 146) © The Trustees of the British Museum.

These occurrences inside the Sutton Hoo Gallery are part of a greater constellation of stories where British Museum workers have been subject to unseen presences whose auras are unmistakably threatening. For instance, alarms are sometimes triggered to lure staff in, only for the spirits to toy with them—to let them know who really holds power inside the museum. These spectral flexes occasionally prompt museum workers to quit or withhold labour.

There was a time when the cleaners refused to clean the cases in the mummy gallery because the mummies would move,” recalled Jim Peters, a long time Collections Manager. “So they refused. They genuinely believed that the mummies were moving, and refused to go in there. So, the museum had to do something about it, and get different people in.

What to make of the cleaners’ collective refusal to enter the Upper Egyptian and Sudanese galleries? That a meeting of the broader British Museum staff was held to address this disquietude is testament to the enduring taboo of the exposed corpse, even in colonial and ethnological museums where their display has been naturalised by centuries of presenting bodies—both exhumed and unburied—so publicly. Mr. Peters seemed unconvinced by the museum’s account of the mummies’ alleged movement:

The fact that the cleaners said they’d seen their wrappings rippling… The museum said, ‘Oh that was just the cleaners over-cleaning the cases! They’d caused a build up of static ‘cause the cases hadn’t been opened for awhile, so it built up the static charge in the air, and it meant things seemed to be moving, but they weren’t really.’ Everyone just went ‘Ahh thanks for explaining that, we can go back to work now…’ But you know, you’d have to be quite close, and they’d have to be quite light fabrics, and you’d have to be really aggressively over-cleaning… I never really bought that, but that was the resolution.

Here, an ambiguity arises. Is it the aim of the spirits to obstruct the museum’s day-to-day operations, or is this manner of disruption simply the most effective way to declare their presence? If, by a process of deduction, informed by innumerable nights spent on patrol, the warder can find no “rational” cause for an entranceway being closed off or left agape, their mind may well turn towards the many powerful, restless, and unruly presences long held captive by the museum. The agency held in these so-called objects taunts the museum’s order, showing over and again a willingness to sabotage its smooth running, daring those who serve the museum’s interests to police what they can neither touch nor see.

Bomb damage to BM roof [Central Archive, Second World War, Roof Looking East – 770] © The Trustees of the British Museum.
The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown), showing his skeleton. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Viewed through the lens of these hauntings, the museum appears as something akin to an object-prison: its hauntings like prison strikes, where cultural entities stage small revolts against their indefinite detention as stolen heritage, and their involuntary collusion in the public glorification of plunder and desecration of the sacred.

Since so many of earth’s sacred structures have been vandalised, dismantled and put on display in museums, perhaps the path to making them whole includes the slow, cumulative closing off of the museum’s arteries night after night—in a kind of ghostly insurgency.

Oral accounts are the substratum where the internal folklore of haunted museums tends to settle. Even the more senior members of staff shy away from filling out written reports of spirit activity, for fear of undermining their own credibility. “We try not to make fools of ourselves if we don’t have to!” one warder explained on behalf of his colleagues. Consequently, many such experiences go unvoiced. A previous director of the museum quashed attempts at collecting its ghost stories for publication, and so these stories are traded on patrol and at the pub, amongst those who know better than to speak dismissively of the “spirits of the place.

We was on another patrol, different part of the building. I can't take you to these ones unfortunately, because it's in the back of house, in an area they call the old horse stables. It's primarily an old gallery that no one ever uses anymore, still objects down there, and a bit of a staff area. So I've gone up to turn the lights off. As I turn the lights off, it was like; you know when you get like a tingling sensation, like someone's right behind you? It wasn't dark at the time. The lights were still on, but it felt like someone…

Her voice scattered as she sought to convey the feeling of being violated in a makeshift storage space.

The only way I could perceive it was, someone had put their hand in, and grabbed my spine and sent the biggest chill up my spine… I kind of ignored it, and said to my colleague, 'that was weird, you can unlock that in the morning. I refuse to go back there.' He’s a Welshman, he was like, 'Don't worry about it, it's fine, it's fine...' He went back in the morning to unlock it, and I followed him. When we got back to the same area again, I got the same chills but he actually had jelly legs as well, for no reason whatsoever… It completely put me off that whole area… It was that feeling of, 'I'll get up your back. I want you out my area', and for him to say that he felt his legs go like jelly […] it even freaked him out, and we just went out of there as quick as you could say 'boo.' We were gone. We were gone.
The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown), showing his skeleton. © Trustees of the British Museum.
The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown), showing his skeleton. © Trustees of the British Museum.

At the height of the British Empire, beset by rebellions and revolts, the British considered themselves masters of counterinsurgency, but such tactics are toothless against combative spirits. Conflicts that are presented as cooled, hardened and relegated to history books, reawaken nightly in museum corridors and storerooms, in ongoing battles of attrition: if a ghost causes a museum employee to acknowledge their presence, or hastens the worker’s exit from the institution, these may be seen as victories. It may be that their grievances have been felt, if not entirely understood. Or it may well be that divestment from the institution of the museum is precisely the sort of outcome the spirits desire.

Though they may appear anecdotal, dwelling as they do at the precipice of the unspoken, such small victories are many. When I asked one warder if he had the contact information of a woman he was on patrol with years ago, when a disembodied voice spoke to them on the North stairs just after midnight outside of the China and South Asia Gallery, he admitted he wasn’t sure how to get in touch.

 “She's left here a number of years ago now. She was very uneasy. She always felt something in this museum.

Bomb damage to BM roof [Central Archive, Second World War, Roof Looking East – 770] © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Bomb damage to BM roof [Central Archive, Second World War, Roof Looking East – 770] © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Bomb damage to BM roof [Central Archive, Second World War, Roof Looking East – 770] © The Trustees of the British Museum.

2021 and beyond

In line with the Government’s COVID-19 roadmap to re-opening the country, the doors open on 17 May 2021.

 

Almost all of the Barbican’s casual staff don’t show up for front-of-house shifts. They have moved out of London or found employment in places that value them more. The Barbican’s creative upper class have to become hosts and invigilators to open the centre.

Barbican Stories is published.

 

Barbican employees are shocked at the stories and recollections of racism in the book. They can’t believe that this is all true and so they dive into their minority workforce to find out for themselves, once and for all. Unconvinced and under mounting public pressure, the Barbican hires an external consultant (a friend of a director) to publish a public race report that concludes that whilst the Barbican could do better, there is no systemic issue.

 

2,000 workers across London’s cultural sector create a picket line in solidarity with Barbican workers. The demands of the protest are impossible and necessary.

 

During the Barbican’s opening concert, as the conductor enters the stage to fill the auditorium with music, it is instead filled with the sound of 400 people standing up and leaving the orchestra on stage with no audience. A violinist cries.

 

All the employees of colour evacuate and the Barbican is left with a purely white workforce. There is a palpable sigh of collective relief: If there’s no one but white people, then we can’t be racist! 

 

Artists stop aligning themselves with backward institutions so cultural producers at the Barbican have to become artists to fill the programme.

 

Whiteness clings to the walls like moisture. Visitors are too ashamed to cross the picket line.

Coffees go undrunk, B R U T A L tote bags collect cobwebs, the conservatory grows wild. The ducks leave the lake in solidarity. Old Barbican guides litter the foyer. The orange carpet turns grey with dirt.

Eventually, audiences don’t need a picket to stop them from coming to the centre. A primed and ready-to-pay cultural audience now reflects the fastest growing demographic in London. Now, these younger and more diverse audiences that make up the city’s landscape find different and better cultural spaces that actually care about them and reflect their lives without skirting around the ugly facts. Why see another token diversity event when there are now whole institutions dedicated to the complexity of the diaspora?

One by one, lights are cut from the Barbican’s many rooms and offices, as they grow dusty in the absence of people. Moss grows between the cracks in the concrete.

 

The only room that remains open is the directorate office.

 

The directors maintain a throne of old catalogues, leaflets and newspaper clippings, in a never-ending meeting where the only thing on the agenda is to dust. 

 

One unremarkable day, the Barbican ruins collapses in on itself. The debris blows away to reveal an ON SALE sign.

 

The only thing worth anything at the Barbican is the land it used to occupy (and even that won’t cover the debt left behind by the brutal beast).

 

Blitz Property Developers find EC2Y 8DS and they love a bargain.

 

Once again, the site is raised by the Blitz.

[1] “Warder” is the term commonly used to refer to a guard at the British Museum, either to Visitor Services or Security staff. Derived from the Anglo-Norman French wardere, and from Old Northern French warder ‘to guard,’ “warder” is more closely associated with prisons than museums.

[2] “Permanent nights” is the vernacular term at the British Museum for those who regularly work the overnight security shift.

No items found.

II. Listening

Today, the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection of wax cylinders reside in an annex of the Ethnologisches Museum in Dahlem, a building constructed in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) during an expansion in 1973. Before entering the building, we register ourselves with a security guard and await the arrival of the collection’s archivist. Brought through catacomb-like corridors, doors of mountainous weight and stairwells painted white with pale green lacquered handrails, we arrive at the resting place of Jaap Kunst’s wax cylinder.


Not dissimilar to other institutions, the depot we found ourselves in is an environment of conditioned circumstances. It has a temperature of nineteen degrees celsius and a relative humidity of fifty percent, a syncopated soundtrack of humming neon lights and murmurs from an air conditioner, all of which when taken together attempt to mimic a neutral space. Here, in this performatively coy room are musical instruments from gamelan orchestras, whose only emitted sounds are those of silence. Originating from the Southeast Asian islands of Bali and Java, these instruments are accustomed to a climate of high temperatures and humidity. Their primary functions were spiritual: to be played at religious rituals and ceremonies, as well as traditional performances. Now, however, the ensemble is attuned to a spiritual decay—conservational poison is used to ‘preserve’ their function for archival purposes only—inside storage within the depot of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum.


Neighboring the gamelan storage room, the first audio recording of a Balinese Sanghyang resides here. An inventory of empty, ‘silent’ wax cylinders necessary to capture this event had been allocated to Kunst by the Phonogramm-Archiv’s then-director Erich von Hornbostel in exchange for his act of sonic collecting. These cylinders embarked on an extended journey—from Berlin to the Sunda Islands and back—as Kunst went on to produce 300 or more recordings on his trips to Indonesia, documenting musical performances and rituals. We seek arrangements for listening to this performance, and attempt to move as close to its recorded event as the wax cylinder allows.

In Bali, times where it is forbidden to play gamelan are rare. One hundred years ago, however, deadly pox epidemics repeatedly infected villages on the island, forcing the inhabitants to close all temples and lock the gamelan instruments up. No rituals and ceremonies were permitted, the kinds that were believed to hold power in halting the spread of precisely such deadly disease. And though the temples fell silent, abandoned by their priests, village communities gathered at them each night to create a cacophony of noise, orchestrated through the quotidian: buckets, bamboo and wood. Noise was believed to be the only medium left to banish the demons of disease and cast the people’s fears away. According to the renowned dancer and sculptor I Made Sija from the village Bona, during one of these dark nights a man became possessed by the familiar rhythms of the gamelan. Yet the sounds he was enchanted by did not originate from bronze cymbals and gongs, but rather, human voices.

cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak –––
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak –––
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak
cak ––– ––– ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak –––
cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak –––
––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– ––– cak ––– cak

From that moment, disease began to ease as death and illness were overcome by sheer oral percussion. To this day, the people of Bona believe that the chanting and dances in trance outside the temple walls saved the village from the epidemic. This moment also marked the emergence of Bali’s most popular dance performance: the Kecak.

In its history from a sacred to a secular chant, the most famous Kecak dancer is I Wayan Limbak from the village Bedulu. When interviewed in the 90s about the origin of Kecak, he recalls a story with a similar arc. Already in the early 19th century, before the Dutch colonization of Bali and in the era of Bali’s kingdoms, Kecak dances accompanied trance rituals, the so-called Sanghyangs. These Sanghyangs were held every year to prevent the cholera pandemic, a rite of prayer performed every night around the village that was believed to ward the disease away.

No items found.

Inside the Phonogramm-Archiv, the room we’re in is just large enough for three. Monochrome, ethnographic photographs from a non-European continent decorate otherwise plain walls, while drawers are labeled by geography: ‘Afrika’, ‘Asien’, ‘Amerika’ and 'Ozeanien’. On the table we’re led towards, a Hi-Fi receiver is connected to a pair of speakers and a myriad of playback devices for a variety of mediums—vinyl records, magnetic tape, analog audio cassettes and compact discs. We immerse ourselves into Kunst’s recording of the Kecak via the wax cylinder’s digitized successor, a DAT cassette tape.

Every transferred sound begins with a short, customary introduction which signposts from which cylinder and collection the listener is about to hear:

Es folgt die Übertragung der Walzen der Sammlung “Kunst, Bali”. Es folgt Walze 1. 
[Coming up the transfer of the cylinders of the collection “Kunst, Bali”. Coming up, Cylinder 1.]
No items found.

Additional materials of correspondence, provenance and consignment accompany the phonographic recording. Yellowed papers of different grammage, typesets, handwriting and signatures compose together what feel and appear as the past breaking into the present. A watermark shines through one prominent sheet: a mark which signifies the longing of its maker, towards the distant islands the sounds of these cylinders were first captured on. Another sheet of paper reveals terse descriptions of all fifteen wax cylinders recorded by Kunst in Bali: 

Abridged from numbers five and six: “Sanghyang dedari. Male choir (at the end gaggling [Schnattern])”, “mostly gaggle [Geschnatter]”.

It remains uncertain who exactly wrote these descriptions. Scribed in German, the curators of the archive assure us that both the director of the Phonogramm-Archiv at the time Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and his colleague Curt Sachs were diligent in avoiding disrespectful formulations. Whoever it was, these words reprise another compression of the actual acoustic event.

 

Confined to this room at the Phonogramm-Archiv, one’s listening to Kecak is directly produced by the archive’s prefigured auras of hospitality and hostility: the latter feeling affected through the bureaucracies a visitor must face to be given permission to access the collection’s hold. Given the inability to revisit the recording’s original event, any act of listening to its field recording will forever reanimate the conditions in which a colonial gaze captured it. Though, in this space of re-listening, the hands of coloniality and premature technology are easily forgotten. The field recording we listen to operates not only as a narrow range of frequencies, but narrow-minded vectors of power: it comes to represent a recording of an assumed, objective reality. The DAT cassette dislocates the event of Kecak and echoes its sound further away. Is there room for narrative to diverge inside the Phonogramm-Archiv?

No items found.

III. Diverging

In recent years, the act of listening to the wax cylinder had been temporarily transposed outside of the Phonogramm-Archiv listening room—though this public display was only down the corridor.9 In 2013, as part of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem programme the exhibition Seeing Music: Lichtklangphonogramm transformed the optical and mechanical characteristics of the archive’s wax cylinder collection, producing novel installations that facilitated an alternate perception of listening. The artists behind the exhibition—Melissa Cruz Garcia, Aleksander Kolkowski, Matteo Marangoni and Anne Wellmer—produced a mixture of site-specific installations: magic lanterns that visualised a cylinder's textural grooves, self-made ‘gramoscopes’ that hacked a gramophone’s tunnel by transforming it into a projector of light and image, and a multi-body listening booth of selected recordings from collection. Described as an artistic treatment of ethnographic material, the artists facilitated an ocular engagement with an event originally recorded as something purely sonic.10 When asked about the exhibition’s potential to inform the Humboldt Forum’s unconfirmed future display of wax cylinders, Ethnologisches Museum director Lars-Christian Koch appeared skeptical of the presence of artistic intervention within this space:


“As an ethnological museum, we have an educational mission. We are not an art museum. If we want to seriously convey what other music cultures are like, how they treat sound in their processes, how they shape sound, then the question is, how much art or artistic design we require to optimize this conveyance.”11

 

Koch’s hesitancy to open up room for such narratives in the space of the Humboldt Forum is unsurprising given the long-standing aversion between ethnographer and artist.12 His intention to ‘optimize’ artistic interpretation neglects the reality that both the music and cultures recorded were done so on the aforementioned colonial terms. Silencing the noise contained in these field recordings omits its glaring context from the museum’s “educational mission”, not too distant from a former ‘civilising mission’. If Seeing Music’s artistic intervention of re-interpreting the wax cylinder is not welcome at the Humboldt Forum, another means of listening must be sought out beyond the confines of the listening room. By decentering the diegetic sound of Kecak heard within this particular wax cylinder, we turn instead towards the recording’s incidental, underscored noise to listen to its other realities that were present at the time of recording. 


Our ears hone in: the Dutch colonial rule of Bali began in 1849 and reached full control after two puputans (mass suicides) by the royal houses of Badung and Klungkung, in 1906 and 1908 respectively. At this juncture, a cultural policy known as Baliseering (Balinisation) was enforced to prohibit the ‘modernisation’ of Bali and maintain it as a ‘living museum’. Such realities were inaudible, beyond sound and the Phonogramm-Archiv’s collection, and stand to be heard in the noise of Jaap Kunst’s recording.

 

In More Brilliant than the Sun (1998), artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun advocates for a methodology that enables another kind of listening. Eshun’s alignment of Afrofuturist frequencies with jazz, breakbeat, as well early techno productions, drove him to propose a means of listening to artistic compositions outside that of Western theory and its canonical methods of analysis. Instead, he carves out an idiosyncratic guidebook for “dense personal narrations of imaginations” that emphasises an auditory experience’s material output: vinyl grooves, record sleeves and liner notes included.13 Sound artist Pedro Oliveira has framed sonic fiction’s potential through its ability to voice previously unheard stories, to modify the perception of sound and its effect/affect, in ways that are as much political as they are aesthetic.14 He writes:

 

“Eshun’s sonic fictions are...a means by which the subaltern speak, sound, and unfold their knowledge as theory and culture. Sonic fictions are the proposal for a radical divorce from so-called universal (metropolitan and/or Eurocentric) theories of musicology and social and cultural studies, to make room for other systems to claim their space.”15

Utilising Eshun’s methodology of sonic fiction onto the colonial artefacts in the Phonogramm-Archiv comes highly charged, however. We must first decouple artistry from artefact, renouncing Jaap Kunst—and any field recordist complicit in the archive’s creation—from the role of artist in their production of the wax cylinder’s recording. Doing so allows us to listen with the noise and not with its producer: a reminder of the place and context through which the cylinder was first inscribed, a reminder of the spatial and temporal distance between listener and event—the listening room and Bali. In other words, we decenter the ethnographer as producer and compose a means of listening beyond their control.


A step further, our interest in sonic fiction is woven and informed by Saidiya Hartman’s notion of ‘critical fabulation’: a discursive practice that deals with representing what the archive deliberately omits. In Hartman's essay Venus in Two Acts (2008), she attempts to tell an impossible story: the account of an enslaved young girl, brutally killed whilst captive on a British slave ship. The personhood of Venus, named only once in the legal documents from the trials that followed, emerges at the very limits of the archive. Hartman's writing is at times autobiographical, leaning into a similar empiricism to that of Eshun’s sonic fiction that reveals her authorship in (parallel to) the story of Venus. As much a counter-history as it is critical theory, Hartman welds the gaps between silence and noise. In our own undertaking, such gaps—marked between Jaap Kunst’s original recording of Kecak onto a wax cylinder and our own act of listening today—establish an opportunity to compose a historical narrative counter to that which was originally inscribed.

Woven together, a sonic fabulation is one that must tell one of many impossible stories contained within the Phonogramm-Archiv. To displace Jaap Kunst’s gaze and mediation, we drum up another imaginary. Widening the aperture for analysis beyond soundwaves alone, a sonic fabulation of the wax cylinder and other, similar objects departs from the depot and listens with the yellowed documents left behind, the broken wax seals of colonial correspondence, and the haphazard commentary made by archivists which are bundled up with preserved recordings. With each act of sonic fabulation, the wax cylinder’s suspension inside the archive might then be slowly loosened.

 

To tell a story ‘against’ the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, as Saidiya Hartman might say, is to tell a story of the wax cylinder’s sonic debris. What was once consequential, the unintended and immovable residue of its mechanical recording, is felt out differently as a sense-making tool for critical ways of interpreting the sonic artefact. Turning directly towards this space in between silence and noise, other subjects for listening emerge.

 

Throughout the wax cylinder’s unstable course of living, revolutions may result in death. At a rate somewhere between 80 and 250 per minute, their divergence narrates its own story.

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.

Noah Angell is writing a book on haunted museums, which takes the British Museum as its case study. For inquiries or to offer contributions, please contact: gsbm.contact@gmail.com