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Decolonial Hacker
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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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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.
Archival image of the Barbican, November 1979. Photograph: Peter Bloomfield.

Welcome to the Barbican

10 June 2021
Decolonial Hacker
Barbican Arts Centre, London
Barbican Arts Centre, London
Words
Barbican Stories
10 June 2021
Decolonial Hacker
Barbican Arts Centre, London
Barbican Arts Centre, London
Words
Barbican Stories

This essay is the introduction to Barbican Stories, a book which tells the story of institutional racism at the Barbican Arts Centre in London, through accounts of discrimination written by current and former staff of colour, from global ethnic majorities. It was put together between June 2020 and June 2021.

contents

An icon of Brutalist architecture, the Barbican has always been controversial. Voted ‘London’s Ugliest Building’ in 2003, people were so distracted by its stony exterior they cast their verdict before knowing what was going on inside (they might have cast it earlier if they had known!). Working with a site almost completely razed by the Blitz, the Barbican’s architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, seized the opportunity to propose a radical transformation of how we live—or, at least for the middle class who could afford a flat at the Barbican.

 

Some say that the result is one of London’s most ambitious and unique architectural achievements: a city within a city! But this conclusion usually leaves out the Barbican’s more important legacy: being the site of one of the UK’s biggest industrial strikes. In fact, as well as being a marvel of architecture, the Barbican includes many histories of collective action by workers who have demanded more from the centre across its 60 year history. This is the only way that the most precarious workers at the institution have been able to access the rights freely handed out to other employees. Not bad for a building with so many leaks.

The Battle of the Barbican

These radical histories began when work started at the Barbican site in 1962. The site was so big that each part of the project was split into segments and each one was overseen by a different building company. The workforce that populated the site was incredibly diverse and notably full of migrants—featuring workers from Ireland, Jamaica, the West Indies, India and different countries in Eastern Europe.


By all accounts, the health and safety measures on-site were poor (even by the already scary industry standards of the 60s and 70s). Demands for better working conditions ended up costing the City of London years of building delays, though it also cost the lives of some workers as well as irreparable physical damage to others. Guess all those names couldn’t fit on a plaque as easily as Chamberlin, Powell and Bon.

 

In those days, minimum standards needed to be set by the workers hard and fast if they didn’t want to be taken advantage of, which is, in part, why unions and union representatives (called stewards) were so crucial to construction sites.

 

Let me paint you a picture of what you could expect working at the Barbican.

The Turriff site was among the first sites of action in what would be a long term struggle between workers and management. There were no toilets, just boxes full of chemicals that workers fashioned into makeshift latrines. The employers refused to build flushing toilets until at least two floors of the site had been built up and, as a consequence, workers began walking to St. Paul’s Cathedral to use their public toilets en masse. It was not uncommon that the site was only ever half full, given that many workers were en route to the bathroom. It wouldn’t be long before all working rights followed them right into the toilet. In 1976, John Laing (one of the construction firms working on the site) tried to force workers who were building the arts centre to handle cladding material that had been proven to carry asbestos. Talk about needing a risk assessment! In protest of this, 500 workers walked off the site in an all-out strike lasting two weeks.

 

This is a story that ends with some kind of positive change—there are others that bore no resolution.

Take the Barbican’s iconic concrete texture for instance: well, you can thank a group of half a dozen workers (most of whom were Black) for doing that by hand using bush-hammers all across the Barbican site. This work was infamously horrible, extremely dirty and resulted in the majority of these workers suffering from ‘white finger’ also known as Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome, causing long term damage to nerves in their arms, wrists, hands and fingertips. No amount of union action could ever fix that. The building looks a little more brutal once you know how it was made so beautiful.

Archival images of construction workers bush-hammering the concrete walls by hand at the Barbican, November 1979. Photographs: Peter Bloomfield.
Archival images of construction workers bush-hammering the concrete walls by hand at the Barbican, November 1979. Photographs: Peter Bloomfield.

As you can imagine, big bosses and architects were annoyed that unions might ask for bathrooms and even have an opinion on what material could be used to clad their buildings. So, in 1965, they decided that they were done with it! First, they sacked 380 workers when some of them refused to show their union cards, then they tried to hire a few hundred other workers on the condition that they sign a contract giving up their right to strike. This “deal” led to a huge collective push against the document, not just by workers at the Barbican but across London. In that same week, 2,000 workers from across London’s biggest construction sites went on strike in solidarity with the Barbican workers. Unionised workers formed pickets on various Barbican sites, and construction came to a halt. The construction company attempted to bring other workers in on a bus, but this was stopped at the picket line by striking workers who smashed the coach to bits. As a result, and under mounting union pressure, the construction firm agreed to re-employ all previously sacked workers and scrapped the proposed contract.


By 1966, the architects were extremely behind on their architectural plans and kept issuing changes to the construction site, which in turn impacted workers’ abilities to operate, and more importantly, their ability to earn bonus payments (which made up for their low wages). Workers would build a wall, only to be told days later that the architects didn’t want the wall THERE they wanted it HERE. The Barbican’s concrete structure made this even more difficult as it meant that everything was more or less permanent. For the architects, the ends justified the means—especially when they weren’t the ones that had to pick away at dried concrete for months.

 

Long story short, architectural delays combined with issues relating to non-standardised bonus payments (which were, in part, based on how quickly workers could finish architectural plans, though difficult to do if plans change every other day) led to a unilateral walkout by workers on all sites controlled by the construction firm Myton. Myton responded with a six week lock out, closing the site and halting work. This turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise, giving Myton an opportunity to renegotiate bonus standards with the union. Another blessing, perhaps, is that the six-week lockout gave the architects time to catch up with their site plans. Of course, the construction workers were not paid during this time as the site remained fully closed. In this period, Myton agreed to rehire all but six stewards that had been most involved in the initial walk out. Workers refused to return to the site without these six stewards. What was supposed to be an unpaid holiday for the workers became a yearlong battle between them, the construction companies and the City of London, halting the Barbican’s construction for 14 months and making it one of the longest labour disputes in British history. You probably won’t find that on the Barbican’s website. 

 

What’s impressive is that union bosses actually tried to re-open the site, although they were outmatched by the workers’ solidarity with the stewards. Myton tried desperately to sneak people on-site in buses and with police escorts, but the workers stood their ground and scared them away. Crowds of between 700-800 workers would surround the buses and rock them backwards and forwards, and, in other instances, workers from nearby sites would throw bricks at the buses. These tactics kept the site closed for over a year.


By 1967, however, the site was still closed, with both the stewards and strike committee calling for an end to the strike as it became clear they would not win. The architects never took responsibility for the disputes, and never once communicated with the workers. You will find this to be recurring behaviour for the Barbican’s so-called “creative upper class”.


Despite the delays, the Barbican Arts Centre finally opened in 1982 in an opening attended by the Queen and Margaret Thatcher—great! Unfortunately, this is not the end of the labour struggle: it seems that the people doing all the work on site at the Barbican are always overlooked.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!: Cleaners Fight for Equal Pay at the Barbican

In 2013, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) campaigned for a London Living Wage for cleaners at the Barbican, most of whom were migrants earning £6.19 per hour—what one might call poverty wages. Many workers at the Barbican, who were employed by the sub-contracted company Mitie, reported being racially abused, insulted and threatened. At this point, the City of London and all its official employees were proudly receiving a London Living Wage—though not the cleaners!

On 21 March 2013, the cleaners went on strike, followed by a protest on 27 April and an occupation of the Barbican's foyer on 4 May, amongst other actions throughout the campaign. In 2014, the City of London finally caved and said that while they REALLY wanted to give the cleaners a living wage, it was really REALLY difficult to negotiate with Mitie. They promised that once they started a new contract with Servest, they would make sure to renegotiate their wages.

By the time 2015 rolled around, wages were still the same and Mitie continued to refuse the Barbican cleaners a living wage. The cleaners began to organise again—this time with IWGB’s sister union United Voices of the World (UVW). Cleaners working during this time reported regular racial abuse from management and were only entitled to minimum legal sick pay (which means you get nothing the first three days off and then £96.35 per week, which is maybe just enough to pay your rent, your food, your transport and any other needs you might have, including the needs of your partner, your parents or your kids! That’s about £13.76 per day which won’t get you much further than a lunch from Pret when you live in London.) The result of this was that workers were faced with the Dickensian choice of staying home and falling into poverty or going to work sick. Not much of a choice when you want to survive.

In one instance, a cleaner came to work on crutches as they could not afford to lose their wage. The Barbican team responded by calling the police—throwing the worker out of the arts centre. When UVW's campaign started, Mitie threatened to sack any cleaner who joined the protests.

A view of a pedestrian passage to the Barbican Centre, taken on the day the centre was opened in 1982. © Historic England Archive. John Laing Photographic Collection.
Original archival film of the Barbican Art Centre's first Director, Henry Wrong, November 1979. Photographs: Peter Bloomfield

Amongst other actions, on 25 April 2015, UVW staged a protest in the centre and another on 31 October 2015. As a result of this three-year struggle, in April 2016, the London Living Wage was finally “won”  for all cleaners employed by the City of London, including those at the Barbican. A full two years after this wage was not so much “won” but rather bestowed upon all other staff at the Barbican. That same year, the new cleaning company, Servest, tried to sack all the UVW members who had campaigned for the London Living Wage.

 

This was one of UVW’s first wins as a grassroots union, and led to many similar campaigns across the country and other institutions in London. They became one of the first groups of unionised workers to ask for full sick pay, as well as being one of the few unions to represent the rights of migrant workers. Again, this perhaps is one of the Barbican’s most unsung achievements—being a location for radical union organising!

Exhibit B: The Human Zoo

While cleaners campaigned for rights that are given to most producers, curators and directors at the Barbican, in 2014, the Barbican programmed Exhibit B. Exhibit B was a performance installation conceived by the white South African artist Brett Bailey that looked to—in a “serious and responsible manner”—showcase the atrocities and racism experienced by enslaved Black people in Europe and the UK. How? By re-staging Human Zoos of the 20th century and filling their spaces with Black actors in tableaus of racist subjugation. The Barbican felt it was an installation that highlighted the inequality and abuse that had happened, emphasising racism as a thing of the past, rather than providing opportunities to think through how this inequality might subsist at the institution exhibiting the work. Bailey instrumentalised the histories and memories of pain from Black communities to create art that was meant to “challenge” the viewer—but at whose expense?

 

To no one’s surprise (other than to the Barbican programmers and directors, apparently) this show triggered many visitors and workers. The result was a petition calling for the show to be cancelled (which gained a total of 22,800 signatures) organised by the Boycott The Human Zoo campaign, led by Sara Myers, a journalist and activist from Birmingham. This was followed by a protest of 200 people blocking the performance entrance on the opening night. The show was cancelled.


This was the Barbican’s response:

 

“We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work.”

 

We hope that they feel similarly about Barbican Stories by platforming it in their own bookshop! Lest we forget they were so passionate about staging work that critiqued racism in 2014.

Original archival film of the Barbican Art Centre's first Director, Henry Wrong, November 1979. Photographs: Peter Bloomfield
Original archival film of the Barbican Art Centre's first Director, Henry Wrong, November 1979. Photographs: Peter Bloomfield

2020: Again? Really?

Fast forward to 2020 and we see the catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic intersecting with—among other things—the global uproar following the murder of George Floyd in the United States, which was followed by the performative circus of “anti-racism” responses by the Barbican and the whole arts sector in general. Most memorably, in June 2020, “A statement from Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican” was posted on the Barbican website which includes the following line:

 

“The Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated the urgent need for us to take action in showing an active commitment to eradicating racism in all its forms.”

 

A tall order for an organisation built on discrimination!

 

In November 2020, it was announced that the Barbican Centre’s front-of-house staff, who are on precarious zero hour contracts, would not be receiving a 20% furlough top up from the City of London, which they received throughout the first wave of the pandemic. They were expected to get through a pandemic on 80% of the London Living Wage, which is not a living wage at all, especially when it doesn’t include sick pay. This does not include staff who did not work during the re-opening period (due to sickness or otherwise), who will now have to reapply for their jobs. The administrative staff and creative upper class of the Barbican continue to receive 100% of their furlough and the benefits that come with being a contracted employee.

Front-of-house staff were the people who opened the centre when the country came out of the first lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the staff that make up the majority of the Barbican’s non-white workers, many of whom are migrants. The fact that our lowest paid workers are migrants or marginalized people cannot be disentangled from the mechanics of racism, and definitely does not live up to the commitment of eradicating racism in even the most basic forms, let alone “all” of them.

In November, the GMB Union created a petition to ask that the Barbican Centre’s front-of-house staff receive full top up—at the time of writing, this petition has been signed by 3,045 people. The Barbican’s response has been to say that nothing can be done.

Management continues to wash their hands of responsibility and tell workers that this has been a difficult time for e v e r y b o d y.

A view of a pedestrian passage to the Barbican Centre, taken on the day the centre was opened in 1982. © Historic England Archive. John Laing Photographic Collection.
A view of a pedestrian passage to the Barbican Centre, taken on the day the centre was opened in 1982. © Historic England Archive. John Laing Photographic Collection.
A view of a pedestrian passage to the Barbican Centre, taken on the day the centre was opened in 1982. © Historic England Archive. John Laing Photographic Collection.

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.

Histories, texts and interlocutors that have marked our thinking: 

“Communist Carpenter” - Barbican Archive Mixtape: A History of the Barbican Estate by Jack Wormell (2020)

Building the Barbican 1962-1982: Taking the industry out of the dark ages by University of Westminster Researchers: Christine Wall, Linda Clarke, Charlie McGuire and Olivia Munos - Rojas (2012)

The Barbican Archive

Building the Brutal - How we built the Barbican

CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF THE PRODUCTION OF THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT (PROBE) - University of Westminster 

Barbican Living 

IWGB cleaners occupy the Barbican Centre for a Living Wage, For Worker’s Power (2013) 

“Fuck off back to your own country!” - Video: IWGB cleaners occupy the Barbican Centre for a Living Wage (2013)

BARBICAN CLEANERS FIGHT FOR A LIVING WAGE AFTER CATERING STAFF VICTORY, The Multicultural Politic (2013) 


The UVW Archive:

“The City of London's artistic and cultural megaplex was mistreating its cleaners, but they fought back and the tables were swiftly turned.”

#Barbican

Campaigns: The Barbican Centre

We are all Alberio

Reporting on Exhibit B: Barbican criticises protesters who forced Exhibit B cancellation, Guardian, (2014), #boycottthehumanzoo

Editor's Note: The original version of this essay forms the introduction to the book Barbican Stories. This essay has been edited for the purposes of Decolonial Hacker.

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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 ––– ––– –––
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––– 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.

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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.]
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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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Barbican Stories is home to a collection of first hand and witnessed accounts of discrimination at the Barbican Centre, written anonymously by current and former employees who have experienced racism. These experiences are not unique to the Barbican, because systemic racism is endemic in the cultural sector and in society. Barbican Stories was funded by white colleagues and friends.