6 Jan 1936
Dear sir i Receved
your Letter with Thanks
very glad you Receved
them all Right Jim i like to
Know you Receved them
all Right i am not in any
great hurry so long as i know
you have Receved them
from your true friend
alfred Wallis No 3 Back
Road W St Ives
I read the letter in a folder of letters in Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge, in mid January. They’re all sent from the artist Alfred Wallis to Jim Ede, the well-known art collector who lived in Kettle’s Yard and then left the building to the public as an open house museum. Downstairs, Ben and Clara (Emergency Chorus) and some of their collaborators on Something in Your Voice – Alex, Emma, Jemima, and Zoe, the show’s designer – are reading other books.
Later, in the big Spoons in Cambridge, Clara tells the company about The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.
According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is a system of power that developed in 2001, in which tech corporations – e.g., Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple – harvest information about our behaviour, through our use of the digital technologies they own (social media, search engines, smartphones, etc.). We think we’re using these technologies to communicate, to connect, but as a by-product, we’re providing Google, etc. with data that enables them to predict and manipulate our futures, to sell us things they now know we want, to control the shape and form of our lives under capitalism. Their goal is to automate us.
The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body. We have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves.
In the big Spoons in Cambridge, Ben tells us,
In 1929 two Princeton researchers, Ernest Glen Wever and Charles W. Bray, wired a live cat into a telephone system. They removed part of the cat’s skull, and attached a telephone wire to its right auditory nerve. The wire ran from the cat, out of the lab, to a receiver in a separate soundproof room. Bray spoke into the cat’s ear and Wever heard his voice through the receiver next door. The cat was the telephone, the telephone was the cat.
In the big Spoons in Cambridge, Ben tells us,
In 1929 two Princeton researchers, Ernest Glen Wever and Charles W. Bray, wired a live cat into a telephone system the same way the average person would use a telegraph. The order was put in by a Princeton employee. “There’s a cat here, and it’s (woo!) ringing.” The pager was a siren, of sorts, as they barked it out. Sure enough, no doubt due to the cat’s charismatic appeal, the order came through in a particularly pleasant tone. The Princeton boss, impressed by the urgency and the urgency that a well-trained cat could present, rang the cat’s pager and heard “a, a, a, a,
a cat is a phone is a cat and message is a message is a message.
Cybernetics theory proposes that everything (animal, human or machine; conscious or unconscious; biological or digital) can be understood as systems that send, receive, and respond to information. Everything is a system that is controlled (made to respond in certain ways) through communication (receiving information from and sending information to it, in a feedback loop). The boundaries between these cybernetic systems are easily collapsible, as long as information can travel across them. A human is a machine is a cyborg because information is information is information.
Surveillance capitalism is built on the understanding that organism (human or cat) and machine (telephone or internet) can be fused together in the same cybernetic system. This integration makes it easier for surveillance capitalists to know us (by receiving information from us) and therefore to control our responsive behaviour (by sending information to us). A more efficient feedback loop increases their power. To that end, they have found ways to make us dependent on digital communication technologies; to turn us into cybernetic organisms, or cyborgs. We have been encouraged to live our lives along- and inside an internet that they own.
@SzMarsupial recently wrote a tinyletter about changing cultural representations of fear. Once – in industrial capitalist societies – fear looked like mass production, like being spat out, anonymous, on a conveyor belt, in a cubicle, in identical genderless jumpsuits. It looked like The Stepford Wives: forced capitulation to conformity, suffocation of the individual self, homogeneity.
Now though, we don’t feel at risk of being mass-produced, bland and fully-formed. Under surveillance capitalism, our selfhood feels stretched, distended. We’re constantly aware of precarity and the risk of disintegration. Life seems to move so fast. Desperately, we try to construct an identity from the scraps of rotting wood – other people’s thoughts, political ideologies, social relationships – that stream past us on endlessly scrolling screens.
It is hard to imagine who is afraid, any more, of a life of too much structure, a life materially predictable, where we will after all be housed, be fed. The bad what ifs feel different now.
is not for me in your face in your face Progress Progress Progress Progress Progress Progress Progress Progress Progress Progress
We might turn towards the state for safety, but by now the state is itself dependent on – and in fact constituted by – digital communication technologies, the tools of surveillance capitalism.
Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms, your electronic arms. In your arms.
Our fear now looks and feels like a fragile, unstable, piecemeal selfhood. Our lives – as individuals and as societies – are now fundamentally intertwined with digital communication technologies in a cybernetic system structured and controlled by vastly powerful capitalists, who use it to predict and manipulate our futures. We don’t know how to feel safe in this system, and that has made us afraid of our own cyborgism.
In Something in Your Voice, Emergency Chorus address themselves to these fears. How can we resist this form of control without losing our ability to communicate? How can we resist it but still find ways to develop emergent and necessary forms of society and solidarity?
what i do mosley is
what use To Bee out of
my own memery what we
may never see again
If late capitalism has appropriated our lives largely through the internet, could we look back to older means of communication? Could obsolete technologies and aesthetics offer a way of opting out of the narrative of progress engineered by companies like Apple and other smartphone designers? Each new iPhone comes with a planned obsolescence, an invitation to discard it in the near future when the next iPhone comes along. Maybe there is some measure of resistance in continuing to use old things.
And maybe those old things give us access to what has since been lost: certain forms of intimacy, the sound of something in your voice.
Think about how often – before cell phones, before any kind of caller ID – you answered the landline as a child and had to have an exchange, however brief, with aunts or uncles or family friends. […] Now you never speak to anyone unless they call you directly. I love FaceTiming with the girls, I’m not just mourning the older technology, but I think it’s actually a profound shift, even if among the subtler ones; maybe you should write about it.
Hi Cla, it’s Ma.
Hi Alex, it’s Dad, it’s five past three.
In a rehearsal room in Cambridge Junction, the company share their initial thoughts about what the show might look like with Zoe. Ben and Clara describe the world just pre-internet: the 1980s. Big grey suits, a row of cubicled offices, headsets and aerials, swivel chairs, the Cisco hold music. Emma plays a clip from The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, set in the 1950s: the perky hubbub of the female telephone operators in the basement, a ballet of spinning wheely chairs, two huge walls of blinking coloured lights. Sitting in a circle around a pile of chunky Nokia brick phones and beige plastic handsets with their curly piglet cords, I can see the appeal of the stolid materiality of old phones, their pixelated screens and round buttons, the simplicity of connection they offer.
In the work-in-progress as part of Ferment Fortnight at Bristol Old Vic, Zoe’s design patterns light and shadow, threat and innocence. The stage feels somewhere between time, in limbo. Alex, Ben, Clara, Emma and Jemima dance, and their too-big grey suits flap around, suddenly awkward in unexpected positions. Their trouser hems tangle in the microphone wires, like children dressing up in their dads’ clothes. They’ve slicked their hair back. (I write Everyone’s hair! Oh no! in my notebook.) Amidst the grey, there are pops of colour: red and yellow and purple wires, a green pot plant. Above the stage, the words ON HOLD light up in angelic white. They have a kind of adorable spindly homemade look that makes it a little hard to believe in their authority. But then the performers leave the stage, and words stay there, and people start to shift in their seats. Are we being told to leave?
In a recent review of Portents (a show that shares a significant proportion of its creative team with Something in Your Voice), Darker Neon questioned the production’s interest in phone operators, phone-signals, radio-signals etc. that felt to me almost nostalgic […] nobody on the team can plausibly have ever said “operator” into a phone, so it sent big signals that I was finding it hard to read. I understand these doubts, I think. Emergency Chorus’s aesthetic ideas are playing with old fears and horrors of grey interchangeability and bakelite blandness, of endless repetition. They don’t have a naive or Luddite nostalgia for the accessories of 80s corporate culture. But maybe it’s slightly too easy to imitate subversive (and excellent) critiques of that culture, like David Byrne’s giant grey suit on the 1983 Talking Heads tour. Now that capitalism has morphed into something that feels less tangible, less material, is there a need for a new critical aesthetic?
My notes are a record of the rehearsal process: phrases and ideas and attempts and early runs that would be forgotten, discarded, lost, ruled no longer fit for purpose, left behind. This piece of writing relies on the obsolete.
a nightmarish stuffed Jesus in a village phone box
a shredded novel
All these things are versions of the others
Emergency Chorus’s faith in the value of recording their process feels like a belief that returning to the obsolete might give space for something new to grow: divergent paths, alternative futures, work-in-progress.
I often get asked, “What is this show about? What is this song about? What is the message, what are you trying to tell us?” My preferred answer would be to refer them to the quote from old-school Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union!”
Jemima and Alex stand at either end of the room.
Jemima says something like Hi Grandma, how are you?
Alex says something like jarring replaced by a 20-minute mix of eight in Middlesbrough
Jemima says something like Oh no, I’m sorry. Have you been taking your medicine?
Alex says something like after the Vivaldi is benefits introduced
Jemima says Have you spoken to the doctor?
Alex says Stamford Hill
If she wants to keep control of the conversation, Jem notices that she has to stop listening to Alex’s responses – or she has to assign his words new meanings. The experiment depends on breaking the rules of conversational exchange.
Nat, the sound designer, is on his laptop in the corner. The company speak into the mics and their voices lag and buzz. Speaking faster, you end up talking over yourself, echoing, until it sounds like there’s a crowd in the room, a crowd in the room, impossible to tell questions from answers, where sentences end or begin.
noise pollution, glossolalia, gibberish, garbling, babble, echo, indecipherability, emptiness, interference, distortion, mixed messages, repetition, silence, forgetting, crossed wires, nonsense, new languages, other tongues, mistranslation, idiosyncratic grammars
Since late capitalism has learnt to appropriate our communications, maybe we need to make ourselves harder to understand, harder to hear, harder to read. To interfere with the signal.
You’ve just got two listen two me for 1nce listen two me for 1nce 1-2 1-2 testing you’re breaking up I think we need to break up one-two one-two
Maybe we need to find a new language with new rules.
6 DAYS TIL DAYTONA
Maybe we need to abandon ideas around how meaning is produced – the expectation that there are rules to follow and at the end there should be a neatly self-contained message, available for anyone to take, translatable into any language.
I wonder whether it’s helpful to model this idea in performance by refusing to give an audience a crystal-clear, decipherable message, if that’s ever possible. Whether it’s useful to refuse them narrative and linearity and consistent characterisation and a fourth wall and grammatically correct dialogue. Whether critics should participate in this project, and write noisy and illegible and looping texts. Or if that only means we’re failing to really, honestly, try and build new forms of communication. Are we just shutting people out?
This is being transmitted to you it is not being spoken to you.
On seven your feet go left and your head goes right
Up on four down on five
One two three back
Two three four Pinocchio and right
Sevenn andd one
One two three four five foot dun-dun-dun
It’s three four together jiggle
Five six sev-en right
I watch Alex, Ben, Clara and Emma teach Jemima a dance. Sitting against the wall, my own body feels stuck, made strange by its lack of learning. I wonder a bit about what I’m doing here, an unsmiling unmoving thing.
And then they’re dancing, and I feel a sudden swell of joy as they hit the beat, a well-oiled machine, one-two one-two. Everybody makes mat. Alex bends down and pats his hands fast against his legs for a count of eight. I think of a cat piddle-paddling a sofa cushion.
Later, I realise he was probably typing on a laptop – but because the message was communicated in a language I hadn’t learnt to speak, now it means both things, and I think the gesture feels a little bit fuller and noisier and (what the hell) better for it. In the end, I think the task of performance is to try and trust each other without translation, to try and find new rules of conversation and exchange, to try and move outside a capitalist framework of transaction.
i am not in any
great hurry so long as i know
you have Receved them
from your true friend
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet. [But] [f]rom another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once.
What if it begins with our death
but continues with our voice, or our words anyway:
emails scheduled to send at regular intervals, first giving away the passwords to our social media accounts, and then just checking in on our friends, writing into the future tense, until eventually they die too and all our relationships are maintained by machines, sending messages to each other in a post-human world – and maybe that’s all life is anyway, relationships, blah blah, you know.
In their tinyletter on fear and fragmented identity, @SzMarsupial looks to mulch and fungal networks for another kind of afterlife:
Maybe if we give our bodies to the soil the disintegration of these times – so much of which cannot now be undone – will feel less threatening, when we trust that we might reknit ourselves into new, alive, intelligent shapes. I like to think that the mulch is hope. Not a distant far hope that is reached only through utopia, as individuals who may be lucky enough to be saved. But a hope that carries within it the necessity of reconstitution, of reorganising our ideas of self and selves, of reordering our convictions about how our realities come about, and by which mechanisms.
It reminded me of the way Emergency Chorus’s last show, Landscape (1989), looked to mushrooms. I think their work repeatedly asks how we might find new ways to live – and insists that this is possible, even if it means finding new forms and definitions of life, reconciling ourselves to permanently partial identities and cyborg kinships. In Something in Your Voice, I think one of the most important ways they explore this is by bringing in three new co-devisers and performers, as well as other new collaborators. It feels necessary and worthwhile for a young company to invite expansion and reconstitution (even at the risk of disintegration), to trust other voices, to continue to make themselves anew.
There are five trees and an audience, and the trees say
can try it.
We can try it.
is the plan?
Other voices, in order of appearance
Alfred Wallis, letter to Jim Ede (1936) (I really like Alfred Wallis)
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) (spooky)
Marshall McLuhan, ‘The Medium is the Message’ (1964) (prescient)
Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (2012)
suzemarsupial, mulch (2020) (can recommend reading in its entirety)
The Chap, Pea Shore (2019)
Laurie Anderson, O Superman (1982) (cannot recommend this song highly enough, tbh)
Alfred Wallis, another letter to Jim Ede (1936)
Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (2019)
Darker Neon, Portents or A bit of hallucinogenic free-rangingness (2020)
(if you’re reading this, you’ve probs read this already, but no harm reading it again)
David Byrne, note on American Utopia (2019)
Guardian article on the DWP’s hold music (2020)
(run through this https://projects.haykranen.nl/markov/demo/)
Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) (this is batshit and complicated and a classic but also so so good, I keep thinking about it)