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Decolonial Hacker
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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.

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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.

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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.
Collective Bargaining Agreement between The New Museum and Local 2110, UAW. Source: https://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/New_Museum_CBA_2019-2024.pdf

Severance

29 August 2021
Decolonial Hacker
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
Words
Dana Kopel
29 August 2021
Decolonial Hacker
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
Words
Dana Kopel

contents

When the New Museum Union voted to ratify our contract in the fall of 2019, it was a bittersweet victory. The entire fight—winning our election, the hearings that determined who would be in the union, nine months of contract negotiations—had been brutal, draining. It demanded collective strength and endurance in response to New Museum management’s ongoing retaliation. I’ve spoken and written about this pretty extensively, as one of the union’s organizers, a member of the bargaining committee, and a New Museum employee from fall 2016 until I was laid off in June 2020. And yet, sometimes it feels necessary to repeat myself: not only because I am still dealing with the consequences of this retaliation—I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder last year as a direct result of it—but because the museum seems intent on pushing a revisionist history in which their retaliation, hostility, and union-busting never happened.

The critic Nora N. Khan shared an Instagram story last summer in which she wrote, “Gaslighting is the psychological mindfuck common in abusive relationships—and our relationships with institutions are fundamentally abusive.”1 I think about this often. Though the term’s frequent circulation online has all but drained it of meaning, I can’t come up with a better way of describing New Museum management’s behavior than gaslighting: a form of manipulation in which an individual or institution makes you question the reality of your interactions with them and the legitimacy of your feelings arising from those interactions. Gaslighting is, for instance, reporting to the HR representative—as I did in 2019—that you felt as though you’d been coming to work every day with a target on your back and being informed, in a brief email a few days later, that the museum did not tolerate retaliation. (Even under bare-bones US labor law, retaliation against workers for organizing is prohibited; this email was clearly intended to minimize the museum’s legal liability.) It’s the museum’s attorney insinuating that those of us on the bargaining committee were delusional for proposing that the museum offer healthcare to part-time employees—a proposal we kept on the table until the final days of contract negotiations—and then, less than a year later, the museum sending out a self-congratulatory press release announcing that they would begin to cover part-timers’ healthcare (no mention of the union, natch).

After nine months of negotiations and the threat of a strike, we won a strong first contract—a huge accomplishment. My comrade on the bargaining committee, Lily, told me a union organizer friend of hers, upon hearing about our contract win, asked, “Isn’t it such a complicated feeling?” A combination of pride at the material improvements we’d won for ourselves and our colleagues; disappointment that despite all our efforts, we knew we still deserved more than what this first contract offered; exhaustion; and relief that such an intense process had finally come to an end.

As one of the union’s spokespeople, I’ve shared highlights of our contract with press and the public: in the first year of our five-year contract alone, we won average salary increases of 8.2% for full-time staff and 15.7% for part-time front-of-house workers; we reduced employee healthcare contributions and won a healthcare stipend for part-timers; we pressured the museum to finally let our union meet at the museum; we put into effect a grievance and arbitration procedure, increased paid time off, and implemented a pay increase for employees temporarily taking on someone else’s work.

Here, though, I want to delve deeper into part of the contract, to draw out the context in which it came together and the implications it has for past, current, and future New Museum employees. As Mark C. Suchman writes, “To make sense of a contractual practice, one must understand both the economic and the cultural environments that gave it birth.”2 Suchman treats contracts as social artifacts—lenses through which we might understand the relationships and social, cultural, and political norms that underpin these documents. He writes:

“Contracts evoke normative principles and illuminate social experiences—at times expressing identity, solidarity, forbearance, and faith, and at times expressing differentiation, inequality, domination, and distrust. ‘Best efforts’ clauses become signals of goodwill, and security liens become statements of suspicion; negotiated revisions become shows of mutuality, and preprinted forms become indicators of oppression; warranties become emblems of quality, and disclaimers become marks of deficiency.”3

At the New Museum, our contract attempted to rectify numerous workplace issues, from the obvious (extremely low pay, high turnover, lack of diversity in better-paid positions) to the more intangible: few avenues for dealing with abusive managers, a toxic culture that glorified overwork and deemed low-level staff easily replaceable.

With so much to bargain for in our first contract—and so much resistance from management to even the most basic union proposals—we had to prioritize certain parts of the contract over others. Our priorities in negotiations were determined through an extensive survey sent to all union members and conversations with our colleagues throughout the process. Unsurprisingly, the top of the list featured proposals for higher pay, lower healthcare costs and extending healthcare to part-time workers, and improved time off policies (especially parental leave, since the museum only offered three weeks of paid leave to new parents when we unionized). Management’s attorney, a partner at a white-shoe law firm, repeatedly claimed that there was only “one pot” of money at the ostensibly small New Museum; it’s unclear if his fee of around $1,500 per hour (our estimate) was coming out of that pot too. As a result, we were unable to devote as much energy to standard but less pressing proposals like layoff provisions and recall rights. At the time of our negotiations in 2019, there hadn’t, to our knowledge, been layoffs at the New Museum—or most museums in New York—in years.

Collective Bargaining Agreement between The New Museum and Local 2110, UAW. Source: https://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/New_Museum_CBA_2019-2024.pdf

The layoff provisions in the New Museum Union contract are as follows:

1.  In the event of a layoff among employees in Visitor Services or the Store, the least senior employee in their respective department shall be laid off first. Such employees are eligible to elect to fill any vacancy within their respective departments that occurs within twelve (12) months of their layoff. In the event that there are fewer vacancies than eligible laid off employees, preference for election shall be by seniority.
2.  In the event of a layoff in other departments of the Museum, where employees’ skill and ability are equal, the least senior employee among those in the same affected classification within a department shall be laid off.
3.  In the event that the Museum fills a position within twelve (12) months of a layoff, the Museum shall offer the position to the most senior employee laid off from the same department and classification in which the Museum is filling the position.

Clauses (1) and (2) distinguish between front-of-house departments, where most workers share the same or similar job titles, and other departments at the museum, which are primarily based in the office and where there are only one or two employees per title. For the former, straight seniority enables those who have been at the museum the longest to retain their jobs amid layoffs and to return to work first if the museum rehires for laid-off positions. For the latter, the contract avoids straight seniority, including the phrase “where employees’ skill and ability are equal” to account for the fact that office staff often have very different duties, even those who work in the same department (a designer can’t simply take on the work of an editor, for instance, although both work in External Affairs). Clause (3) concerns recall rights, which require the museum to offer relevant open positions to laid-off employees before opening those positions to other applicants for a year after the layoffs.

We also eventually agreed on the following severance provisions for laid-off employees:

Any employee who is laid off shall receive severance pay in the following amounts:

Length of Service Severance Pay Amount
Less than two (2) years of service Two (2) weeks
Two (2) years of service but less than three (3) years Three (3) weeks
Three (3) years of service but less than four (4) years Four (4) weeks
Four (4) years of service but less than five (5) years Five (5) weeks
Five (5) years of service but less than six (6) years Six (6) weeks
Six (6) years of service but less than seven (7) years Eight (8) weeks
Seven (7) or more years One (1) additional week for each year of service above seven (7)

Collective Bargaining Agreement between The New Museum and Local 2110, UAW. Source: https://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/New_Museum_CBA_2019-2024.pdf
Collective Bargaining Agreement between The New Museum and Local 2110, UAW. Source: https://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/New_Museum_CBA_2019-2024.pdf
Collective Bargaining Agreement between The New Museum and Local 2110, UAW. Source: https://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/New_Museum_CBA_2019-2024.pdf

Considering that many people did not stay at the museum for more than a year or two—a direct result of being underpaid and overworked—some of the severance provisions we won might seem insubstantial. Vox Media Union’s contract, for instance, provides for a minimum of eleven weeks’ severance pay for laid-off employees. But severance seemed abstract to us, contingent upon an unlikely situation, whereas increases to our salaries and implementing guaranteed annual raises would have immediate material effects on all of our lives. Management had also tried to make severance contingent upon employees signing a non-disclosure agreement, a proposal we vehemently refused and successfully kept out of our contract.

Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York. In mid-March, our union sent a letter to Lisa Phillips, New Museum’s director, encouraging her to allow employees to work from home if their jobs permitted to reduce the likelihood of infection for all staff. Shortly thereafter, museums across the city closed to the public as increasing numbers of COVID cases cropped up in New York. I was able to work from my apartment, where I continued copyediting exhibition catalogue materials until April 2, when I was furloughed. Most of my colleagues in the union, particularly the outspoken supporters, were furloughed or laid off as well. At around 9:30 AM that day, the president of our local union received a call from management’s attorney informing her of the job cuts (a legal requirement rather than a courtesy), and by 10 AM, most of us had received calls from our bosses informing us that we were no longer employed by the museum, whether temporarily or permanently. All of us lost access to our work email accounts by noon.

Because of our contract, New Museum management had the right to institute layoffs and furloughs as needed, but it also stipulated that the museum must negotiate with the union over the effects of these layoffs and furloughs. In several meetings with management representatives and their lawyer—no less antagonistic than they had been in bargaining—we pushed them to justify the specific positions terminated (some of which, like the Marketing Associate and Grants and Corporate Sponsorship Manager, still had plenty of work to do) and to extend healthcare for those of us who had lost our jobs (we were, after all, at the start of a global pandemic). Since we had won severance provisions in our contract, no one was forced to negotiate severance for themselves in an economic downturn and, in many cases, with unsupportive or actively hostile supervisors.

In her fittingly titled book Contract and Contagion (2012), Angela Mitropoulos calls contracts “future-oriented technologies”: mechanisms for anticipating future conditions and attempting to control or account for their outcomes.4 At the New Museum, our union contract was shaped by our understanding of existing issues and our desire to mitigate them going forward. We didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, predict a global pandemic that would reshape economic relations well beyond the art world. Mitropoulos writes,

“The contract is capitalism’s most cherished axiom. It is a projective geometry of obligation and its interiorised calculus. Emerging simultaneous with capitalism, it has been crucial … to the organisation of private property and the subjective dispositions of capitalist legal architecture. It is also, I would suggest, the very sense of the performative. Briefly put: contracts are preoccupied with the transformation of contingency into necessity as a specifically capitalist problem. … [C]ontracts are part of the making of what they say.”5

A contract is a way of structuring the present to account for—and determine—what’s to come. Inevitably, a union contract operates within the capitalist framework in which we all live, yet workers use union contracts to push back on the profit motive, growth imperative, and devaluing of workers’ labor that define institutions under capitalism. In this, the contract is one tactic among many, from petitions and social media campaigns to work stoppages and strikes.

Though no one in our union anticipated the pandemic, few of us were surprised at New Museum management’s response: using the closures and economic downturn as a pretext to purge museum staff of union supporters. While museums across the country instituted layoffs and furloughs, the New Museum’s job cuts disproportionately targeted those involved with the union: our entire steward committee (including myself) was laid off, as were four members of our six-person bargaining committee (the other two were furloughed for months). Of twenty-five total layoffs, sixteen were union members; many of the others were low-paid security and maintenance workers. Every single executive and all but three mid-level managers retained their jobs. As a union, we bargained with the museum over the effects of these layoffs and furloughs, pushing for extensions to our recall rights (which the museum denied) and our healthcare coverage (which they agreed to extend for an additional month).

We also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regarding the museum’s discrimination against union organizers and supporters—a violation of our contract as well as US labor law. Filing charges with the NLRB is a lengthy process even without a pandemic raging, and the Labor Board, then headed by Trump appointees, sent the charges back through the grievance and arbitration process outlined in our contract rather than hear the case outright. This is how I ended up, just a few weeks ago—more than a year after the layoffs, our recall rights freshly expired—in a Zoom conference with a handful of union comrades and as many still-employed New Museum managers, listening as their lawyer yet again attempted to rewrite history. His opening statement lasted half an hour: in it, he made dubious claims about our work no longer being necessary during the pandemic. Who was posting to social media? Who was editing the newsletters and the catalogues that were still in production?

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.

“It’s easy to throw around allegations of discriminatory animus,” he noted patronizingly. “Supposedly there was all kinds of hostility against the union by the museum. Supposedly it says it was a hostile and tense negotiation.”6 Supposedly—a word meant to cast doubt over my and my colleagues’ experiences of condescension, outright hostility, and retaliation at the bargaining table and in our day-to-day work. It was enough to force out a number of organizers even before the layoffs, enough to leave us with lasting trauma—and according to the New Museum, it never happened.

Afterwards, the arbitrator called a ten-minute break, during which I planned to prepare to testify but instead collapsed on the floor in a panic attack. Ultimately, I didn’t have to testify—given the unpredictability of an arbitrator’s decision, we agreed to a settlement with the museum in which they will recruit some of the laid-off bargaining unit positions. This agreement doesn’t bring employees back to work, nor does it compensate us for being unfairly dismissed; the museum flat-out refused the latter and, frankly, none of us wanted to work there again. But the settlement offers us a means of rebuilding the strength of our now-decimated union. Like a contract, it looks to the future.

Collective Bargaining Agreement between The New Museum and Local 2110, UAW. Source: https://www.2110uaw.org/cbas/New_Museum_CBA_2019-2024.pdf
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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?

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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.

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  1. Union arbitration notes, July 13, 2021.
  1. Ibid., 19–20.
  1. Angela Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (New York: Minor Compositions, 2012), 23.
  1. Ibid., 100.
  1. Mark C. Suchman, “The Contract as Social Artifact,” Law and Society Review 37, no. 1 (2003): 92–93.
  1. Nora N. Khan (@paranorarising), Instagram story, August 6, 2020. [DEACTIVATED ACCOUNT]
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Dana Kopel is a writer, editor, and union organizer with OPEIU Local 153 in New York. Her writing appears in publications including The Nation, Art in America, Frieze, SSENSE, and several exhibition catalogues. She is the former senior editor and publications coordinator at the New Museum, where she helped organize the New Museum Union-UAW Local 2110.