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Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Where Ethnos Fear to Tread"

I would like to write a little follow-up on the previous blog on public space. I was in Kazakhstan this summer, at the bi-yearly world conference of the International Council for Traditional Music ICTM. ICTM is the worldwide organization for ethnomusicologists, and in spite of its rather old-fashioned name it is a conference where ethnomusicologists of all plumage from all over the world come together and discuss their very current research. Research which ranges from the traditional ethnomusicological (research into 'traditional music' from the 'non-western world') to a huge variety of other domains: pop musics in non-western countries; traditional musics in western countries; revivals of traditional musics; safeguarding of traditional musics; or - and that is where I fit in - simply the study of music in/as culture - the study of music as human social behavior. This last category is, when carried out in western societies, rather small, so small that I sometimes wonder whether I am not too much the odd one out at ethnomusicological conferences, but in Kazakhstan I found it reconfirmed that there are enough points of convergence between me and all those other ethnomusicologists to be part of ICTM. So yes, ICTM is my academic home; and yes, I am an ethnomusicologist. Good to know who you are and where you belong, academically speaking. And looking forward to the next conference, 2017 Ireland.

'But anyway.' A conference, and especially a world conference, is a specific form of public space. Public in the sense that 600 very heterogeneous academics come and visit each other's presentations. And public in the sense that presenters share their presentation with an unknown audience, who will come to listen on the basis of a very short written abstract, or, more often, just the presentation title. So in a sense, it is a meeting of people who often don't know each other, on terrain that is home to none of them. In that sense it has a form of publicness.

In my opinion it means that a certain carefulness should be in place. Carefulness in the best sense of the word, circling around the idea of 'care': care for those other people whose backgrounds you do not know and who are there not only as 'academics' (whatever that may mean) but also as full human beings. This form of care implies a certain cautiousness surrounding topics which you know may be socially awkward - 'sex and violence', for instance (which is, by the way, also the title of the second episode of the first year of Monty Python's television series).

Earlier I wrote about a presenter at the previous ICTM conference showing, without warning, the image of the head of a freshly decapitated sorcerer being carried on a stake by a mob through the streets. This edition, I witnessed a presentation which was far more cautious - and much more interesting - but still raised questions. So let me just share the questions with you.

A young scholar gave a presentation based on the famous 'Leekspin' video, which uses a Finnish song called the Ievan Polkka (Wikipedia tells us the words are from the 1930s but the music is - maybe much - older) in the version of a Finnish folk group called  Loituma (you see the connection to ICTM's 'traditional music' at work). The video, with a Japanese anime girl, went viral; it became an internet-meme, which gave the presenter the opportunity to use a beautiful quotation from Richard Dawkins concerning the superiority of cultural memes over biological genes: "We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world's culture, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool." The presenter had tried to figure out where the Leekspin video came from, and found out that it was based on a pornographic shock video called Meatspin. Funnily enough, the presenter said, most people seem to think Meatspin is based on Leekspin, but it seems to be the other way around.

But although this was interesting, the topic of the presentation was different. By presenting his example, the presenter wanted to draw attention to two phenomena which are under-studied in ethnomusicology: the virtual world ('cyber-ethnography'), and pornography. In his abstract he wrote: "The lack of study on music associated with pornographic images (...) provides an excellent opportunity to understand the motivations and biases behind all ethnomusicologists' choices of research topics." So the presentation (called "Where Ethnos Fear To Tread: Criticizing Our Aversion To The Electronic And The Erotic") functioned as a mirror, and although I cannot judge whether pornography and, especially, cyber-ethnography are really so underrepresented in ethnomusicology (the virtual musical world is rather a topic at present, and eroticism, sex and pornography may not be widely studied but neither are they absent, I think) the point the presenter made was worthwhile and courageous.

But now the thingy. In order to make his point, the presenter first showed various examples of Leekspin-videos and remakes of it, and then a very explicit still of the pornographic Meatspin video. When I talked with the presenter afterwards, he said that he showed a still because for some reason he couldn't get the video to play, otherwise he would have shown the video. He also said that he had given the presentation on earlier occasions sometimes with and sometimes without the porn clip, and both varieties yielded strong reactions: with he porn clip he was offensive, without it he was an example of the cowardice he tried to discuss.

Personally I felt that the pornographic still came too much as a surprise. The title of the presentation would not give you a clue of its coming - it mentions 'the erotic' which is at best a euphemism but probably something completely different - nor did the abstract; and in his presentation he did not offer audience members who might not want to be confronted with pornographic images the opportunity to close their eyes or look away for the time being. I considered it unfair, but I understand the presenter's point. In our talk afterwards het stressed that the point I tried to make was a concern for him too, with no fixed answers as yet for him.

At the back of all this may lie ideas that in research ("in academia" as some of my colleagues say, often pronouncing "academia" in the same way believers pronounce the word "church") we express the objective truth and therefore any topic or finding of research must be expressed freely anywhere, without restraint; a bit like medical doctors showing disgusting pictures of horrible wounds of sometimes very private bodily parts as interesting footage. I think this idea that research is beyond/above the norms of sociality - of which I do not suspect the presenter I write about in this blog - is wrong; research in the social sciences, indeed, has to shed new light on everyday life and may make implicit norms explicit and hence understandable; but at the same time the academic community is a community - a social community functioning in the same way as any other community.

I wonder what you think, so let's have a chat about it when we meet. And what do you think: should I have incorporated the Meatspin video in the blog? Or a still? Or a link? Or should I not even have mentioned its name but spoken about "a pornographic video on YouTube"? Is the solution I chose careful, or is it cowardice?

Let me know.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Live and Let Live

It is summer, which means it is the time of the aggressive occupation of our public aural space. This implies that at least in the weekends, but preferably also during the week, at least from one but often from many directions one hears a subdued or sometimes less subdued 'whoomp-whoomp-whoomp' - the amplified bass drums of an open air music festival, and when the source is not too far away also amplified voices, bass guitars, guitars, coputers, turn tables. And if there is no open air music festival, there will be some whoomping because the local soccer club has its 40th anniversary and includes 'background music' - mostly so loud that one has to shout at the top of one's lungs to communicate over this 'background' - as an important feature. And if by chance there are no such festivities, than at least one of the neighbors will have decided to spend the entire 'evening' (which in this special case is defined as the time between17.30 pm and 02.00 am the next morning) organizing a barbecue and chatting happily away, not realizing that you can - and therefore must, you know how it works - follow every single word they say.

You may think I am a grumpy old man who wants to live in a silent world apart from his own noise. The thing is, I am not. I am fully aware that all this noise makes up the sound track of modern life. It is inevitable, and because I do not live in the ideal world and never will - also because my ideal world is a very particular one in which most other people would feel very unhappy - I accept all this with relative ease, within limits. It is only very seldom that I ask other people to lower their volumes, like last night, when the street next door had its annual party which meant the accompanying whoomping became louder and louder as the evening progressed - contrary to what one would expect in a street where many kids at some point go to bed - so that at a quarter past eleven I went out to ask my neighbors if they could lower the volume a bit because not only my kids but also me myself and I would like to get some sleep, whereupon one of the neighbors said they had a municipal permission until midnight - I didn't dare to quote Monty Python by saying "I am sorry, but this is irrelevant, isn't it?" nor did I tell the neighbor that a permission to have a street party until midnight did not imply by necessity the obligation to whoomp at intolerable high levels and then scream your conversation on top of it until precisely midnight. And I must admit they did lower the volume after my request. A bit. And they stopped at midnight precisely.

I exaggerate. But not much.

But anyway (as I am prone to write in this blog). All this has to with the idea of the 'public space' in which we share our lives. It is a contested place, this 'public space'. It is - or should be - owned by everyone, and it is the territory where our capacity to live a social life is played out in full.. It is the testing ground of our democracy, one might say - the testing ground of our capacity to "live and let live" without one part of the population doing the living and the other part doing the letting live, as it were. Food for thought, therefore - it remains an incredible mystery how it is possible that more than 16 million people in the Netherlands are able to live their daily lives in relative peace in spite of all the differences they meet. Something to cherish, and good to realize that this relative peace is never straightforward but is continuous 'work in progress'.

It is with this in mind that I want to draw your attention to a little incident. Noorderzon festival is taking place in Groningen these days. An art work by an artist called Harma Heikens, as our newspaper assures us "an internationally renowned visual artist", was exposed at the festival terrain, which is accessible to everyone for free and is, outside the festival season, a nice park in the middle of the town. Two men were shocked by the art work, finding it offensive, and threatened some people of the festival, after which the festival direction decided the work should be replaced at a less public place.

I am not going into the question whether or not the festival directors were right or wrong (I guess their decision may be defendable given the fact that the festival terrain temporarily is something in between 'public space' and 'museum space' - I think in a museum one can - or must? - exhibit offensive art whereas in public space this is less straightforwardis; at the same time the decision may be questionable given the fact that it was the festival who invited the artist to expose the work in the first place - they might have been concerned about the publicness of their space a bit earlier), or whether it is good civil conduct to threaten people (obviously it is not). But I would like to draw your attention to the reaction of Harma Heikens - at least to the description of it in our newspaper.

According to the newspaper, Heikens did not think the art work - described as "a phantasy figure with an artificial penis and sagged knickers" - is offensive, telling that it was shown at the RAI and a group of kids were sitting around it drawing without being offended or shocked. I showed a picture of the art work to a good friend, and she remarked that of course Heikens could not imagine this image would be offensive because probably it depicted the artist herself in one of her daily public poses and of course people would find this a completely acceptable and normal public pose.


What worries me in all this is the self-evident way in which a visual artist claims that she may take possession of something - public space, and our gaze in public space - that is ultimately not hers to possess. Public space is not an artistic space, and the fact that many artists (and some musicians) think they are there to work at the boundaries of the offensive does never give them the right to imply others in their offense by force. Which is what they do when they work in public space (the argument "you don't have to look" - or listen - is invalid in public space, of course). And which, I think, in the end can sometimes amount to wittingly and from a very egocentric standpoint jeopardizing that so fragile work-in-progress which is the relative peace most of us strive to live in day by day.

Artists may, or maybe must, play with fire. And it is fine if they set their own house on fire. But deliberately setting fire to public space and then denying they lighted the match has nothing to do with art. And if it has, I don't like such art because of its hypocrisy. And you may quote me having said that.