Protest Aesthetics

Last week I attended a rally in Berlin to draw attention to the longstanding issue of Aboriginal deaths in police custody in (so-called) Australia. It followed on from mass protests in Australia in affiliation with Black Lives Matter. At Platz der Republik, directly in front of the Reichstag, the organisers had set up a small but effective sound system, consisting of a self-powered speaker on wheels, above which was raised an Aboriginal flag. Coincidentally, the colours of the Aboriginal flag are also those of the flag of the Bundesrepublik. A placard proclaiming ‘Stop Adani’, a mining giant planning set to build one of the world’s largest coal ports on the Great Barrier reef, was strapped to the bamboo flag pole. Two soundbwoys (soundboize, to be gender non-specific?) hunched behind the speakers, fiddling with smart phones and wireless microphones shielded from the light rain under a lime green umbrella.

The ad-hoc quality of this installation was reminiscent of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. The make-shift embassy was first established under a beach umbrella on the grounds in front of Parliament House in 1972 by a group of young activists, many of whom were part of the Black Theatre in Redfern, Sydney. Artist Richard Bell, who is of that generation claims, it is possibly the first and longest-standing piece of durational performance art in Australia. So it seems apt that its envoy in Berlin would be compact, portable, and also expandable—taking up space as material (flag) and as sound; piquing my interest in sound as ‘public address’ in making space, and indeed in taking space.

A small crowd lingered on from a rally for gender justice and trans rights that had just taken place on the other side of the Platz. When given the OK by the police, the organisers turned on the music, signalling that the demonstration would soon begin. I was curious to observe how music calls people together; sounds out, signals, perhaps interpellates and certainly corrals those gathered into a temporary attentive community. The music that came out of the speaker was a track that I could not name, or could not honestly say that I had heard before, but was nevertheless familiar. A thumping four-on-the-floor dance rhythm underpinned a swirling didgeridoo or yidaki sample, that mingled in the same frequency range of a looped sample of people chanting in a language I cold not recognise. The track was punctuated by a startling sample of a kookaburra laughing, quantized to the beat the bird call rings the alarm, like police sirens might do on productions composed of more ‘urban’ sound palettes. It’s a kind of music I associate with ‘bush doofs’; outdoor dance parties often held in remarkable and often secret locations in Australia. Part of cultural phenomena I associate with movements that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s like ‘Reclaim the Streets’, psy-trance parties (often organised by Israeli expats who had spent some time after their compulsory military service decompressing in Goa) and Rainbow Festivals, alongside blockades such as Jabiluka. It’s a sound that on reflection brings together a number of interests that have informed my politics; right to the city activism, Aboriginal land rights and anticolonial activism, Blak and Green solidarity and psychedelic hedonism (and associated interests such as neuroplasticity, trauma and transformation).

I was video-documenting the event at the Reichstag, and some days later Shazaamed the track, turning up Kookaburra (2014) by the Coober Pedy University Band, a duo of Tom Wallace and William Paxton. The first release of the Animals Dancing label, it is listed under the genre of ‘tribal house’ with the endorsement of being ‘a bit too mental for me’. The Melbourne-based producers describe their collaboration as Krautback (I suppose a reference to Krautrock), so there is some sense of completion when bringing their bush aesthetics (or a simulacra of the bush) to the German (cultural) capital.

While the track brought a knowing smile to my face, and I shared some knowing glances with others at the protest, it left me wondering about its politics. Who are the voices chanting? What are they chanting? Isn’t the track ultimately a kind of kitsch — Aboriginalia?

Arguably to a DJ, such music are not songs per se, but tracks; DJ tools to be mixed and potentially subverted (depending on context). Kookaburra also brings to mind Yothu Yindi’s Treaty (Filthy Lucre remix) (1991), yet without, at least explicitly, making the same political demand. Nevertheless, here in Berlin it was put to use to call attention to Aboriginal rights and ongoing colonial genocide.

Thinking about it further brought up a memory of a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs with some friends from an inner-city warehouse community. We bought a second-hand station wagon and drove for three days west and then north, where we met up with some friends just south of Uluru. We transferred across to a fleet of ‘troopies’, former army-service four-wheel-drives, and drove to the edge of the Simpson desert, where three states meet. Amongst the crew were Izzy and Marc from activist hip-hop outfit Combat Wombat. I learned on that trip that Izzy and Marc first attempted to escape Melbourne in a reconditioned army tank powered on bio-diesel. Their second album Unsound System (2005) was recorded on the road using solar-power.

One night, it might have been a full moon, we camped out near a water hole and danced to rock ‘n roll under a desert sky. Chuck Berry and Little Richard blared out from the troopie’s speakers, and probably not so far from a US military base. The vehicle was parked on a road of loose pebbles, which we kicked up as we danced. They would scatter and collide, sparking off each; bright, brilliant flashes about the troopie’s twin beams of light.

To think further about DJing as a political practice, I want to turn attention to Berlin-based ‘post-club’ producer Ziúr, and specifically a mix from the 2018 Soft Centre Festival at Casula Powerhouse in Sydney. Clearing the space with a sequence of juddering digital noise and tweaked urban field recordings, Ziúr then raises the voice of actress Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (star of Jedda (1955)) lifted from John Pilger’s documentary Utopia (2013), punctuating the elder’s jeremiad with bursts of arrhythmic digital percussion.

Ziúr’s mix points to issues for further investigation concomitant with the ‘decolonial turn’ in art and about curatorial practice as activism. Are such practices another trend of aestheticising or performing politics, including discursive trends, or evidence of the politicisation of the arts. If so, towards what ends?

Black Power / White Noise

I used to daydream about releasing a 7″ vinyl record split between a free noise band I infrequently play in, Antipan, and the Aboriginal ‘postcolonial death metal’ band Dispossessed. Antipan is made up of a group of settlers in so-called Australia (white and first and second generation immigrants) that emerged out of Sydney’s improv/experimental music scene around 2004. Dispossessed were labeled as ‘Fanon’s children’ by Daniel Browning, the long-standing host of AWAYE! on Australia’s Radio National. The band have described themselves as as ‘vessels carrying our ancestor’s wrath, sorrow and vengeance’ and as a platform for a wider movement of Aboriginal resistance and struggles for justice. While Antipan arguably take great pleasure in loud, unbridled sound. These bands have little in common in terms of life experience and are positioned differently along the matrix of settler-colonialism, but they both extend a genealogy of punk rock, hardcore and metal. Given the uncompromisingly sensibilities of several influential groups in these genres, I imagine that our release would be a material-sonic testament to anticolonial solidarity.

At the risk of over-emphasising binaries, my fantasy split 7″ raises a number of ideas concerned with sound: signal/noise, meaning/message (medium), didactics/aesthetics, which lead me to think about noise in relation to politics.

Tuesday 2 June 2020 was declared ‘Black Out Tuesday’ by USA workers in the music industry, ‘a moment of solidarity that unites the music industry against racism, injustice and inequality experienced by the Black community’ according to a statement on Soundcloud.

While many on social media replaced their profile pictures with black squares, others on were critical of the initiative, claiming that social media was a crucial source information for those resisting racism and fascism in the USA. There were also concerns that as people uploaded black squares they were using the hashtags associated with the Movement for Black Lives and thus obfuscating the flow of important information.

A surprising intervention came from legions of K-Pop fans, who over the week of protests and uprisings following the public lynching of George Floyd, refrained from Tweeting not insignificant news about their idols, such as the release of BLACKPINK’s collaboration with Lady Gaga, Sour Candy. Instead, they turned their social media savvy to take on those opposed to Black Lives Matter (eg #whitelivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter) and went on to flood US police and FBI channels had called for evidence of the protestors’ violence with K-pop content. Music scholar and critic Josh Kun described these actions as an act of solidarity and acknowledgement of the influence of Black performers on Korean popular music.

On Saturday 6 June 2020 a anti-racist gathering occurred at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, promoted as a ‘silent protest demo’. In the morning I was arranging to meet with friends from the Black Earth climate justice collective, who were critical of the premise of the demonstration given that Black people had been silenced for centuries and they had no intention of suppressing their outrage. Soon after I received this pamphlet from another friend:

Noise demos, casserolado … Noise can be thought of as dissonance, an undesirable or disagreeable sound that must be filtered out from the message (as medium) in order to discern meaning. Noise might also be that which is not ‘on message’, drawing attention to the affective, material and textural qualities of what is being announced. Improvised noise as dissonance — dissensus — is arguably an opening; an attempt to break into an experience that is not predetermined. Free noise is potentially liberating, uninhibited by the strictures of formalised music or what is recognisably organised sound. Free noise might seem out of control, yet it can also be purposeful.

As I write, I am thinking about a report describing members of a Latinx punk band Vandalize, who mounted a generator, drum kit and guitar and into the back of a pick-up truck to play a ‘literal soundtrack for the oppressed’ during Black Lives Matter protests in downtown LA.

I’m also reminded of Steve Reich’s tape collage Come Out (1966), built from a four second loop taken from hours of recordings of interviews and testimonies about the Little Fruit Stand Riot in Harlem, New York, 1964. The incident occurred when a group of school children started to throw around the spilled contents from an overturned fruit stand. The vendor whistled for them to stop, alerting the police who allegedly descended viciously upon the children. Daniel Hamm, an eighteen-year-old local Black resident intervened upon hearing the children’s screams, as recalled in a 1966 report filed by James Baldwin:

…we heard children scream. We turned around and walked back to see what happened. I saw this policeman with his gun out and with his billy in his hand I like put myself in the way to keep him from shooting the kids. Because first of all he was shaking like a leaf and jumping all over the place. And I thought he might shoot one of them.

Hamm and another Black resident Wallace Baker were taken to a police station for their efforts to stop the violence, where groups of police took shifts to beat them for several hours. It is Hamm’s voice around which Come Out is composed. Severely bruised, the police refused to take him to hospital because he was not bleeding. Hamm speaks to tape: ‘I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.’

Hamm and Wallace were eventually released, pending charges over the fruit stand riot, despite the vendor testifying they had nothing to do with it. Then ten days later, Hamm alongside five other Harlem youth were charged with the murder of Margit Sugar, a local used-clothing merchant. The group became known as the Harlem Six and Hamm served nine years despite a ‘paucity of evidence’, according to Andy Beta in his essay marking the 50th anniversary of Come Out.

Beta notes that despite the Civil Rights movement in US being one of the biggest issues of the time, Reich by his own admission ‘wasn’t doing anything about it really’. By chance he was contacted by a civil rights activist, Truman Neslon, who had recorded interviews with the Harlem Six and their mothers for a book, The Torture of Mothers (1965), to raise awareness about their case. Nelson asked Reich to edit a story out of the recordings to played at a benefit, which Reich agreed to do pro bono on the proviso that he would be able to use the recordings for his own compositions.

I keep re-reading this paragraph from Beta’s text, in which he asks Reich:

Was Come Out made as a piece of agitprop? ‘I think a lot of ‘political pieces’ are, to put it kindly, a waste of time,’ Reich says. ‘If it’s a really good piece of music, then the political purpose to which it’s put is betrayed by the sense in which music will just vaporize, and the theme will vaporize along with it.’

I’ve long been a fan of Reich’s piece and much of his oeuvre, yet there is something about his sentiments expressed in Beta’s essay, also published in 2016 in the midst of struggles to counter anti-Blackness, that makes me feel uncomfortable; that Black pain is the source for white/non-Black production and consumption and as the material upon which we leverage our careers. I’m disturbed by Reich’s claim that good music ‘vaporizes’ any political purpose to which it may be put, although as Beta emphasises immediately after, the history and context in which Come Out was made is often acknowledged by those who cite, sample or refer to it in their own practices.

Reich describes to Beta how Come Out was received as ‘pass-the-hat music’ when premiered at a benefit for the Harlem Six at Manhattan Town Hall:

I don’t think people paid a great deal of attention to the music. They just thought it was some kind of funny sound effect that was atmospheric to get them to contribute. It wasn’t a concert situation at all!

Arguably Come Out is the piece that broke Reich as an artist and has become a canonical work of process music and minimal art, yet Reich’s recollections make me wonder more about how music, sound, noise, performance, reception and discourse produce publics who perceive events in different ways. To me Come Out is not so much proof of good music ‘vaporizing’ political intent, but rather raises issues about historicisation (and specific bias or privileged perspectives that I could label ‘white noise’).

Beta concludes his essay by paraphrasing Reich discussing Picasso’s mural Guernica (1937), which depicts the bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War: ‘Good art preserves the stuff it’s about.’

Again this idea of preserving, embalming, fossilising history strikes me as quite odd, when police violence continues to shapes the lives of racialised people today. For me, Come Out serves as a portal into the Little Fruit Stand Riot and the case of the Harlem Six that it draws from, and the contesting understandings of this history. It rides on the political momentum of the Civil Rights movement, the ‘long hot summer of 1967’ and vividly bursts into the present as I read Baldwin’s words:

The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

Come Out viscerally catapults Hamm’s voice into whatever situation it is being played in. I also note that Bexta managed to contact the now elderly Hamm who declined to comment for his commemorative essay. Bexta observes that the Harlem Six, once a significant flashpoint for the civil rights movement has disappeared from ‘popular culture’, yet Come Out still resounds; according to the music scholar Sumanth Gopinath as its ‘most prominent historical memorial’. Might the history of Daniel Hamm and the Harlem Six outlive Reich’s hagiography or will they remain irrevocably entwined?

Barraca do Sound System

Today is the first day of a year-long artist-research project Barraca do Sound System and I want to mark the day with a clearing gesture. Given the current climate of anti-Blackness I want to begin by acknowledging my debt to Black culture, Black ingenuity and Black resistance. As a project that proposes to investigate and develop anti-racist media activism (initially in Europe), it makes particular reference to Afro-Brazilian practices and innovations.


The above Instagram post is from Daddypus Rex AKA Lee Richards, a multidisciplinary artist/poet/stand-up comedian and yoga teacher here in Berlin, which they published after the Black Lives Matters rallies following the lynching of George Floyd. Listen to Lee and Camille Barton speak about decolonial practices of healing, connection and pleasure during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Anti-racism can seem too general a term as differently racialised, and thus privileged people, confront anti-Blackness in their own families, communities and indeed in their own thoughts and perceptions. As the curator and scholar Kathy-Ann Tan recently demanded on Facebook:

non-Black People of Color need to step up and stand together with Black people to decry anti-Black violence!!! That means you, Asians in the diaspora — you who know only too well, and have internalized, the reductive and infantalizing cultural stereotype of the model minority.

This is a time for radical love, empowerment and care, for the force of anger and the erotic as power. It’s a time for re-connection to those who came and fought before us, because they believed in justice and deeply understood what solidarity meant at all costs. Because they knew that no one is free until Black people are free, no one is safe until Black trans people are safe.

Tan posted an image sourced from Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers (1968) to emphasise a history of solidarity and revive a slogan that remains appropriate today: ‘Yellow Peril Supports Black Power’.

Howard L Bingham, 1968

With Barraca do Sound System I would like to extend an ongoing process of Black, indigenous and people-of-colour (BIPoC) solidarity that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of with the Berlin-based climate justice collective Black Earth. Even in the context of white supremacy, BIPoC solidarity cannot be presumed. I understand it to be a careful process that unfolds in ways that are particular to the communities, places and spaces in which it occurs. Barraca do Sound System proposes to develop such spaces, platforms and infrastructures where such solidarity can develop, online and ‘in real life’.


Barraca do Sound System is a practice-based research project, investigating the overlap of migrant media activism and urban music culture. It combines practice-based ‘DJ-as-method’ media experimentation with urban research and academic scholarship. The project is funded by the Kone Foundation Finland and is being developed in collaboration with Pixelache, a transdisciplinary platform for emerging art, design, research and activism based in Helsinki.