A woman, dressed in a dark blue dress and holding heavy bags of groceries, walks gingerly up the escalator from an underground train platform in Berlin. Her face, tilted to her left side, is pulled into an ambiguous, tense expression. As she approaches a pedestrian tunnel, her expression widens into a smile and she begins to laugh. Now cackling in uncontrolled rapture, her shoulder collides with the tunnel wall. The wet floor reflects up at her as she twists and turns. Her laughs turn into horrified screams. Eyes wild, she stumbles across the tunnel floor and strikes the wall with her shopping, milk, cream and eggs exploding across the wall, her hair and dress soaked. Her screams turn into guttural, full-body exhales as her head is thrown violently side to side. She collapses on the floor, still yelping animalistically, before rising to her feet again with dancerly elegance. Her screams reach a fever pitch and she collapses a second time, writhing on and rolling across the milky floor. Finally, kneeling beside her ruined groceries, she retches and vomits while small rivers of blood snake down her body, pooling grossly with the viscous white spew between her legs. (Żuławski 1981)
This scene forms a climax midway through Andrej Żuławski’s 1981 film Possession and stands as an iconic representation of a possessed body that is as ecstatic as it is repulsive. Żuławski’s film abounds with inexplicable changes in character that are in some way or another inspired by desire. Most explicitly, Anna, who is seen in the described scene and portrayed by actor Isabelle Adjani, is in the midst of a sexual relationship with a shapeshifting monster, who we can infer as the force behind Anna’s unhuman behaviour in the subway from nothing else if not director Żuławski’s instruction for Adjani to “fuck the air” in her performance for this scene (Bird 2011). The supernatural force that invites possession, here, is desire, which takes over the body and elevates it to a fantastic, superhuman physicality.
The legacy of Adjani’s performance in this scene continues to this day, for instance serving as a legible influence on Rosamund Pike’s performance in the 2016 video clip for the Massive Attack and Young Fathers' song Voodoo In My Blood (Ledwidge 2016). Pike, like Adjani, is located in a subway tunnel during the video and takes on an uncanny, unnatural physicality throughout the video, notably replicating the lean of Adjani’s head to her left side. However, halfway through, the video elaborates on the possession aspects of Adjani’s performance in a more literal way, with Pike moving violently in exact unison with a mechanical, golden orb that floats a short distance from her head. These two performances hold high significance in my mind as examples of movement work that de-centre the intentionality of the performer in pursuit of depicting possession, to an extent that they have come to impact deeply on my work as a composer and performer.
This article concerns the creation of my own work, also entitled Possession, an opera written for one performer who becomes possessed over the course of the performance by an unseen force, using this possession as a means of depicting the transforming effect of desire upon the body. While the opera also contains singing and pre-recorded electronics, the concept of possession is achieved more directly through the use of electro-acoustic feedback, the conventionally unwanted screeching, howling or humming sound that emerges when the electrical current of a live, amplified microphone couples with the air pressure waves emitted by a nearby loudspeaker (Van Eck 2017, 55-56). Possession uses the unpredictability of feedback as a parallel with the uncontrolled physical force of desire. The giddiness, nausea, trembling and other embodied compulsions I associate with being a desiring subject are replicated through a physical contention with the chaotic sonic force of feedback. However, like Adjani’s Anna, this force is invited in to change, move and possess my body during the opera. In this way, this opera seeks to depict the monstrosity of possession as a triumphant force for transformation, a horrifying or terrifying liberation from the mundane, everyday experience of the body.
The Possession opera draws from Adjani in my performance with microphones and speakers feeding back, in which I, like Pike’s character, allow my body to be moved by this outside, inorganic force. Like Anna, the possessed nature of my movements is ushered in by a relationship to the experience of desire that becomes monstrously embodied. Although the opera is mostly wordless, the text that begins the work describes desire as a feeling that “starts in the belly, deep in the tubes, a vibration” and “a sound, inside, becoming". #appendix-one The action that follows these words is an attempt to replicate these embodiments of desire by relinquishing my control to the indeterminate force of feedback, embracing being out of control as a way of being that is otherwise unimaginable.
The purpose of this project is to investigate how performing with feedback embraces a loss of control that resembles spirit possession, and analyse how this embrace opens up a range of cultural implications within the performance of Possession. Losing control in performing with feedback brings forth indeterminate, unknowable outcomes, placing my body in a dance of agencies with the feedback sound. In the sections of Possession that include performing with feedback, I let go of my ability to determine acoustic outcomes, instead responding sensually to the ever-changing vibrations that impress upon my body, creating an improvisatory choreography as spatial and embodied as it is musical. The embrace of this bodily indeterminacy is the means by which performing with feedback can resemble spirit possession like that we observe in Isabelle Adjani’s performance in the film Possession: triumphantly, ecstatically out of control.
Acoustic feedback offers an opportunity to performers willing to work within its chaotic system. However, the factors that lead to the system arriving at this frequency are highly moderated by the proximity of microphone to loudspeaker, the level of gain and the resonant frequencies of the space in which the microphone and loudspeaker is located, as conveyed through the reflections of sound off surfaces in the space. This range of indeterminate factors allows the performer to enter a sound-making situation in which the precise conditions required to pre-determine the nature of the feedback sound are almost impossible to achieve. Even though the full range of acoustic possibilities in this system is empirically traceable, the level of complexity of each of these elements – the resonant frequencies of the space, the movement of objects such as the human body within space and the acoustic characteristics of microphone, speaker and amplifier – and their interaction with one another opens up the possibility of a different approach. An embodied interaction with feedback encourages improvisation, prioritising play and interaction over mastery and predetermination. Entering a performance with the space-microphone- amplifier-loudspeaker system requires a respect for the voice of the technology itself. I refer to this set of conditions as “the feedback situation”.
The performing situation in Possession depends upon feedback’s spatialisation and the transformative role a moving body plays in influencing the sound of an amplification system that is feeding back. In other words, when I play with feedback, my movements in relation to microphones, loudspeakers and the space they are contained within, all have an impact on the acoustic conditions that lead to the feedback’s sonic quality. However, unable to pre-determine these movements and their sonic result, I contend with the feedback by moving according to what I hear, my body’s shape and movement responding to the shape of the feedback sound in the moment. This approach emphasises the effect of non-human forces upon the human body, exploiting the instability of the feedback system to degrade my level of control over both the movements that my body makes and the influence that my movements have on the feedback sound. Thus, recalling Rosamund Pike’s dance with the golden orb in Voodoo In My Blood, the feedback itself shapes the movement language I adopt when I enter its environment.
If Possession contains some form of moral or lesson, it is that losing control, failing and not-knowing needn’t be frightening or horrifying. Furthermore, it’s through indeterminacy that the limited realm of the known can be transformed into the vast openness of possibility. While the situation and structures I set up in the opera itself may constitute a level of control or predictability, it is through the use of feedback within the opera that the sound and movement of each performance of Possession is determined in the moment because of my loss of control, requiring new courses of action each time.
As the sound operator turns up the gain to a sufficient level that the amplification system begins to feed back, I step into the performance space, not knowing how it will sound or how I will move. The space is arranged with three speakers circumscribing a circular space. #appendix-two I approach the microphones at the rear of the space, hearing the feedback change from my proximity, its unstable vibrations coursing across my body. As it changes, I feel tension, like a gravitational pull, between its sonic force and my body’s presence. I follow the feedback’s lead, moving my body to explore how we sound together, how we orient and disorient in the moment as one system. Like Żuławski and Adjani's Anna, whose body becomes transformed through monstrous desire, I allow myself to be overtaken by a force beyond me. My body, a vessel through which the feedback speaks, a material primed for shaping, a field for future possibility.
In Possession, I seek to explore the implications of the misuse of amplification technology and its potential to challenge existing understandings of human-technological interaction by figuring feedback as a force that influences and impresses upon the body of the performer, resembling spirit possession. This strategy seeks to relinquish some control and agency from the role of the performer, and instead understand the performer’s relationship to the microphone and speaker as one of interaction, a sharing of agency. The possibilities arising from the malfunction or misuse of audio technologies depend upon their unruliness, the inability for a human performer or composer to pre-determine the exact sonic qualities and in the process generating sounds inaccessible to human control.
Hannah Bosma’s article, “Gender and Technological Failure in Glitch Music” provides a possible vision for how malfunction might not only expand the possible sounds available to sound practitioners, but also divert from the dominant, control-centred, methods by which humans interact with sound-making technology (Bosma 2016). The article in particular critiques male-centricity in glitch music. Bosma’s claim emerges from an inspection of “audio-technical discourses” which are “pervaded with metaphors related to masculinity” (103). Such language is predicated on power relations and control, with “the practical discourse of electronic music technology” including “terms such as ‘master’ and ‘slave’, ‘controller’, ‘command’, ‘trigger’ and ‘bang’” (ibid). Drawing from a variety of female scholars and composers, Bosma outlines alternative understandings of audio technology that reject methodologies of control and ideologies of progress, providing a challenge to patriarchal structures embedded in the field. Instead, practitioners such as Cathy van Eck and Huba de Graaff focus on approaches to these technologies that stage them as “resistant materialities” and as “multifunctional media technologies with musical and socio-political impacts” (ibid).
The idea of “domestication” serves as a central prong of Bosma’s argument. Bosma points to a methodology of domestication in the music of prominent glitch artists such as Oval in which the clicks and skips created by damaged CDs are selected, edited and sequenced to create a sound world that is “easy to listen to, often lacking extreme peaks, long irritating piercing sounds or annoying noises” and is “often convenient as background music” (105). These methodologies utilise malfunction in the creation of “established musical style” rather than contending with the indeterminacy of failure and “loss of control” embedded in the process of interacting with malfunctioning technology (ibid.). In this way, “losing control in glitch music is actually at the service of regaining control,” erasing the critical potential of employing indeterminate or failure-based strategies (ibid.).
Bosma outlines how a patrilineality built on glitch music’s gender imbalance echoes the myth of male genius embedded in experimental music discourse. Kim Cascone’s essay “the aesthetics of failure” outlines a canon of male-led sound exploration including Cage and Russolo that passes “inherited prestige on to the emergent glitch movement” (Bosma 2016, 107). Caleb Kelly, meanwhile, describes the use of malfunctioning technology as forming a narrative that builds on existing sound practices: “This risk of sometimes great loss is turned to great gain as traditional and commonplace sound practices are themselves transformed, extended, and expanded” (Kelly 2009, 6). Using these examples, Bosma describes this experimentalism as a mere stage in the progress of the “classic masculine hero”; the “risk” and “great loss” that Kelly refers to is used primarily as a tool for “great gain” in this narrative. As an alternative, Bosma points to “glitch feminism” as using “aesthetics of imperfection” to enact “cultural or social intervention,” rather than as a contribution to a lineage of technological advancement for its own sake (Bosma 2016, 109). Bosma quotes the work of Jenny Sunden which thinks of gender as “technological” and outlines the potential for malfunction to destabilise gender norms. Sunden’s thesis accepts the inevitable breakdown of technology as a means for imagining understandings of technology that reject a narrative of progress towards “ever-increasing technological perfection” (ibid., 110).
In the spirit of Bosma’s critique, Possession seeks to embrace the indeterminacy that technological malfunction affords the sound practitioner. Such an “aesthetics of imperfection” closely resembles the aesthetics of failure outlined by queer theorist Jack Halberstam in the Queer Art of Failure. The embrace of a failure to control technology rejects singular, heteropatriarchal approaches, instead embracing the myriad potentialities created by a refusal to accept normative audio-technical practices that emphasise control and domestication. The embrace of indeterminacy through the liveness of an embodied feedback performance turns away from mastery and the knowable. Failure to control instead becomes a portal to indeterminate possibility.
Before any of this, before deciding there would be an opera, that it would be about possession and that acoustic feedback would be its focal point, I was a musician stumbling into other forms of performance, trying to find new ways to fold my sense for music through my undeveloped but enthusiastic ideas for how I might place my body into physical space. In 2018 I applied for Performance Space’s Stephen Cummins Residency, directed at early career queer performance artists, with an idea to develop a performance lecture that used feedback and its sonic articulation of distance to demonstrate the haunted feeling of unrequited desire. My application was unsuccessful, but I was instead given a shorter, week-long residency at the now-rebuilt Io Myers Theatre in the University of New South Wales.
I had set out to write a fifteen-minute text in response to a quote from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in which she describes falling in love as “a matter of suddenly, globally, “knowing” that another person represents your only access to some vitally transmissible truth or radiantly heightened mode of perception, and that if you lose the thread of this intimacy, both your soul and your whole world might subsist forever in some desert-like state of ontological impoverishment” (Sedgwick 2000, 168). By the end of the week I had failed at the task of distilling any intelligible text on this subject and instead had deferred almost entirely to the feedback situation in my response to Sedgwick’s quote. Sedgwick’s towering status as a queer theorist notwithstanding, the feedback that emerged uncontrollably out of the speakers I’d set up across the Io Myers space and the sensually-led movements created by my response to those sounds to me played out my experience of desire with more accuracy than I could have gathered from a textual response. By embracing the indeterminacy and solitude of my feedback situation, I made this “radiantly heightened mode of perception” accessible not only without any “thread of intimacy” – the presence of another person – but explicitly through its absence.
Appearing on NTS Radio in 2019, poet Ocean Vuong speaks about failure as a “praxis of self-knowledge" for queer people (Vuong 2019, 20:39). Not having “role models” forces queer people to “stumble” and “falter” in our path towards this knowledge which, then, allows us to “know how to be better with our bodies” (ibid.). Vuong’s sentiments mirror the many failures across forms of intimacy throughout my adolescence (and of course, into the present) – from following my libido into unresolvable or risky situations to idealistically falling trap to all-out online deception. Reflecting on my experience at Io Myers, it seems useful to draw on the physicality of Vuong’s metaphor here: “faltering” and “stumbling” seem like good descriptors of how my body approached the improvisatory task of making sound with a live feedback situation. “Self-knowledge” here perhaps might be better described as “self-making,” as feedback led me to move in ways I couldn’t even imagine, assuredly embracing my deficiency of control – the inability to know or determine what might happen next.
Jack Halberstam, in the introduction to The Queer Art of Failure, suggests that “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world" (Halberstam 2011, 2). In my experience of working with feedback, “failing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” are the very conditions required in contending with its chaotic voice. The indeterminacy for which Hannah Bosma advocates in the task of interacting with audio technology in a state of malfunction resembles the “unmaking,” the “faltering,” the “failing” that Vuong and Halberstam invoke in their writing. The “masculine control” and “disavowal” of “loss” that Bosma describes as central in audio-technical discourses is “unmade” in an approach to amplification technology in which the human performer has lost the ability to dictate the acoustic results (Bosma 2016, 103). In surrendering my power to pre-determine the sonic outcome of the feedback with which I work, I “unmake” my agency, from the sounds I shape to the shapes my body makes. This is a field of possibility that “undoes” the limited horizons of heteropatriarchal interactions with the world. As Halberstam continues, “failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development” (Halberstam 2011, 3).
Many of Halberstam’s examples of how queer failure might play out in cultural situations are drawn from popular culture, even choosing references that centre on seemingly heterosexual subjects, including a section on millennium-era frat comedy Dude, Where’s My Car. Failure in these situations effects the “unmaking” of the “punishing norms” presented by a world in which heteropatriarchal values and ways of being are compulsory. If the disruption of heterosexual supremacy can be located even in sites that seem deeply straight, then its precarity can be named and exploited. Like the masculine audio-technical discourses that Bosma names, heterosexual cultural artifacts can be read for their constructed and punitively imposed nature through the slippery gaps in the integrity of this construction. Failure opens up a “political map of paths not taken" (Halberstam 2011, 19). The “dominant history” of heterosexual culture “teems with the remnants of alternative possibility” (ibid.).
Bosma’s critique of masculine interest in technology as fixated on values of “activity, reason, control, independence, desire for knowledge” might provide an opening for the alternative possibilities Halberstam outlines. If failure diverts from such values, if it disallows “control” and limits what we can predict from a situation, it provides an opportunity also to embrace what Halberstam, as well as other theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman call “negativity” – the refusal of the “fixity of identity” and the generational legacy of dominant sex/gender relations (Berlant and Edelman 2013, viii). As Berlant outlines, the structures of heteronormativity “snuff(s) out libidinal unruliness” through the framing, shaming, monitoring and vanquishing of practices that do not align with productive sexual relations (ibid., 4). In each of these cases, negativity is the “unknowing” and “unbecoming” of these identity categories, failing to fulfil the requirements imposed on subordinated subjects and disordering the relations that require a queer foil to uphold heterosexual supremacy.
Failure in sound practices, then, generates what sound theorist Andrew Brooks calls “the potential for new relations to be made and remade within a given system” (Brooks 2015, 40). Such relations contain the possibility of stepping aside from the dominant, masculine relations of control Bosma outlines in her discussion of glitch music. The “unknowing” and “unbecoming” of queer negativity and what Brooks calls failure’s “mode of unbeing” is the portal through which the feedback situation might embody a queer art (ibid., 37). Writing about the introduction of virus into the code of a digital audio file in Blaster (2014) by James Hoff, Brooks describes the “interference” created by the virus as a rupture in the normative: “Interference and disturbance—figured here as noise—can rupture the fabric of normativity, revealing hegemonic power structures as ontologically unstable and chaotic. Foregrounding movement and relationality, queer failure is a space where alternative ordinaries may be constructed” (ibid., 39).
We might also think of failure as a temporal kind of rupture, one that forges a space for the speculative, by way of “interference and disturbance”, in a purportedly stable, knowable present. By allowing the voice of the feedback to sound itself, the performer must always be poised in anticipation for how their movement will affect this sound, unable to pre-determine the acoustic situation in which they have been immersed.
The anticipation of the feedback performer resembles what José Esteban Muñoz calls “queer futurity” in Cruising Utopia. Muñoz’s work exists across the fields of queer theory and performance studies, dealing with the specifically temporal dimension of queer aesthetic practices, distilling the visions and images put forth by DIY queer performance artists often working outside of institutional frameworks or in venues, club nights and situations that are temporary and cloistered from the straight gaze. In describing the temporal operation in these works, Muñoz draws on the utopian, future-gazing work of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, outlining a utopian vision of queerness as a “horizon of being” that is approached but never reached, allowing queer subjects to “see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (Muñoz 2009, 1).
In Muñoz’s vision of queer futurity, we can think of Bosma’s outline of a dominant, patriarchal scheme of control over sound technology as representative not only of the “normative” but also of the present. The present Muñoz aligns with “straight time,” a temporal state of being which “tells us that there is no future but the here and now of our everyday life,” and which holds futurity only for “reproductive majoritarian heterosexuality" (Muñoz 2009, 22). This temporal state is the realm of the dominant, the knowable and the determinable, conditions that are under the generationally bequeathed control of heterosexual supremacy. However, through the rupture of failure, the queer performer interrupts the value systems held in place by straight time, opening a portal to future possibility within “straight time’s always already flawed temporality” (ibid., 154). Failure here becomes an act that constitutes “more nearly a refusal or an escape” from the conditions of straight time (ibid., 174).
Muñoz’s project in Cruising Utopia centres on queer forms of performance and queer aesthetics, which produce images charged with potentiality that refuse and escape the “quagmire of the present”. Potentiality, too, is embedded in the feedback situation into which I’m immersed during the performances of Possession. My feedback performance is shaped by a constantly shifting relation between the feedback sound and my body that, at the point of its beginning, is always yet to be determined. In the act of losing control, my body becomes an anticipatory space charged with potentiality, its movement impressed upon by the chaotic force of the feedback situation.
The sixth chapter in Cruising Utopia locates utopian performativity in the intersection of queer and punk performance modes, specifically in the photographic work of his friend Kevin McCarty. Muñoz describes McCarty’s work, photographs of the empty stages of Los Angeles DIY punk venues (The Smell, etc.) and gay bars (Catch One, etc.), as generating “that anticipatory illumination, that moment of possibility right before an amazing band or performance manifests itself on stage and transforms the world for the performance’s duration and, for many of those in attendance, beyond” (Muñoz 2009, 104). Gay and punk venues are displayed side-by-side, an intersection that in the case of McCarty’s own experience, is also literal. Muñoz excerpts McCarty’s artist statement describing a Dayton, Ohio strip mall that housed an interconnected gay bar (1470’s) and a punk venue (The Chameleon Club), while also writing from his own experience as a queer punk growing up in Miami. Muñoz identifies this intersection as having a common amateurism that signals “process and becoming” rather than mastery, echoing Halberstam’s overtures to queer failure (ibid., 107). Whether trashy-opulent or trashy-functional, these spaces and the performances that take place within, create, with little means, worlds otherwise impossible for their minoritised communities and otherwise inaccessible to normative gazes. While many of these venues have been annihilated by gentrification, the performances anticipated in McCarty’s photographs imbue the memory of these venues with potentiality. As Muñoz explains, “utopian performativity is often fueled by the past” (ibid., 106). Past “ideality” contains a map for future imaginings (ibid., 1).
Like Muñoz and McCarty, my late teen years were deeply impacted by attending punk shows at DIY spaces. These often clandestine and temporary performance situations were more available to and safe for me as an underage queer person. More importantly, I found belonging in punk’s negative affect, its “rejection of normative feelings” communicating my own disaffection with a world that “cast me as hopeless” and “without utopia” (Muñoz 2009, 96). The anarchic attitude of these spaces often also saw noise, experimental and underground dance music nestle happily amongst punk and hardcore at Sydney venues The Pitz, Dirty Shirlows, Maggotville and the array of spaces in Hibernian House. In these scenes, I often found myself in a tiny minority as a queer person, but was continually seduced by the utopian atmospheres of these spaces. In watching the performances of Kusum Normoyle, for instance, whose high-gain screaming and feedback performances usually lasted no more than three minutes, I was transfixed by these aesthetics of excess, as well as the incisive simplicity of method embodied by her feedback performance. All one needs, after all, is a microphone, a speaker, and the boldness to turn it up, making it one of the most accessible possible ways to synthesise sound. The sonic force and chaos of feedback, its disregard for the conventional skill set of its performer, and the makeshift nature of its venue all contained a temporality that defied normative ways of being. Improvisation, outrageousness and sheer volume brings the feedback performer into places, spaces and visions that unfold in the moment and with no map for what might happen next.
Reflecting on these experiences of watching and doing feedback performance, I consider its processes to resemble Muñoz’s conception of queerness as anticipatory, and Halberstam’s vision of failure as a strategy that queers expected or predictable actions. The doing of queerness contained in Possession relies on feedback performance as an action that fails to follow predetermined or determinable pathways. Approaching the stage to perform feedback during this opera, I am not preparing to achieve a predetermined outcome. Feedback’s indeterminate voice instead presents an unimaginable sequence of bodily and sonic gestures that will unfold differently every time. It is, in this sense, always the process itself and never the outcome, a becoming and not an arrival. To quote Muñoz, “we are not-yet queer” (Muñoz 2009, 1).
Muñoz focuses on Italian philosopher Agamben’s “means without end” in outlining the utopian potentiality embedded in queer performative modes. As Muñoz describes, “an emphasis on means as opposed to ends is innately utopian insofar as utopia can never be prescriptive of futurity”(Muñoz 2009, 100). With the simplest of means, the stage of my feedback performance is one that is being constantly made, a road set in space before me as I twist and turn in tandem with my co-conspirator, the feedback situation. The means, without end, is the work I undertake each time I perform. In Possession, the play of feedback becomes my “horizon of being”, the sonic process that moves me along paths unknowable.
I’m in the middle of Pact Theatre in Sydney in the midst of a work-in-progress showing for Possession, my body crouched, facing away from the audience and I’m holding two microphones at close proximity with the front of my body. The loud, droning backing track accompanying the section titled “Feedback Aria” has faded out and I’m trying to keep the feedback present without letting it escalate beyond the influence of my body. I’m not sure if my audience of friends can see but maintaining this level of sound requires me to move and stop my limbs and my torso in tiny intervals to coax the sound into being there, but not too there. If I move too much, I might lose the sound. If I move too little, it might escalate beyond this tight relationship between sound and movement.
At this moment, in order to maintain this situation, my position is tense. All of the muscles I use in this position are engaged and poised to respond to how the feedback behaves. I have also found myself closer to the floor in order to bring the surfaces of my body closer together, to create a more intimate relationship between the space my body is creating around the microphones and the sound of the feedback. Here, I am orientated entirely within and by the contingency of the feedback. Its voice is shaping me, how I got here, how I am staying in place and in the way that I am ready for its future possibility. The specific sequence of movements that I follow cannot be predetermined, but unfolds moment-to-moment. Recalling Muñoz’s “horizon of being”, the feedback situation shapes me into what can be called a “bodily horizon”, a line poised for indeterminate future action.
The idea of a “bodily horizon” originates in Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology which draws from the theoretical field of phenomenology in describing the ways in which queerness can be understood as a deviation from the “line” of straightness. Ahmed defines a “bodily horizon” as “a space for action, which puts some objects and not others in reach” (Ahmed 2006, 66). This concept draws from the approach in phenomenology of centering of the human experience of the body, with perception as the means by which to describe the world. Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, for instance, makes “simple meditations we can best carry out in the first person” the standpoint from which to describe objects in the world and our spatial relation to them (Husserl 2012, 51). This approach gives consciousness an intentionality – what we are able to bring into our field of perception forms how we are in the world. As Ahmed explains: “we are turned towards things. Such things make impressions on us” (Ahmed 2006, 27). Throughout Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed shows how, in this process of turning and impression-making, “bodies are gendered, sexualized and raced by how they extend into space” (ibid., 5). Ahmed builds an argument for how diverting from normative orientations (normative ways of turning towards objects) opens to other orientations that might be “the source of vitality as well as giddiness” (ibid., 4). Such other orientations might recall Halberstam’s description of queer failure – those “undoings” and that relinquishing of control that diverts us towards “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being” (Halberstam 2011, 2).
In developing Possession I have drawn on the idea that queerness is spatialised and action-based, a turning that leaves an impression, a thing that is “done” rather than a given state of being. After all, as Ahmed identifies, the etymology of “queer” is linked to the word “twist” and is thereby, at its core, a spatial term, as is “sexual orientation” (Ahmed 2006, 67). Performing with feedback allows me access to a “vital” and “giddy” way of moving myself, “twisting” through space in a way that is otherwise difficult for me as a musician first and an untrained dancer second. If the patriarchal regime of control over sound technology outlined by Hannah Bosma might be considered a “normative orientation,” following a metaphorical “straight line”, feedback disorients, allowing me to literally spatialise myself in ways otherwise unavailable to me. Feedback instead moves my body, turns it in any possible direction, my movement impressed upon by an outside force. “The hope of changing direction,” Ahmed explains, “is that we don’t know where some paths may take us” risking “going astray, getting lost, or even becoming queer" (Ahmed 2006, 21). By leading my body into new and unknowable directions, feedback generates a “departure from the straight and narrow,” making “new futures possible" (ibid.).
How does feedback shape my body as a specific response to its situation? And how is this dynamic a queer way of “doing” my body? Ahmed’s discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology provides a possible answer. Rather than “a thing in objective space” Merleau-Ponty defines the body as “a system of possible actions”, that responds to tasks and situations (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 291). In turn, Ahmed identifies sexual orientation as “an effect of the repetition of bodily actions over time” (Ahmed 2006, 66). In particular, Ahmed draws from the “queer effect” Merleau-Ponty identifies as occuring when the world appears slantways (for instance with a mirror mounted askew.) The normative dimension is generated when one orients themselves to “straighten” this slantways perspective into a vertical axis – this straightening allowing the space for bodily action. However, the vertical axis is not a given situation in the world, but rather a reality that is produced through this re-alignment: “Think of tracing paper: when the lines on the tracing paper are aligned with the lines of the paper that has been traced, then the lines of the tracing paper disappear: you can simply see one set of lines. If lines are traces of other lines, then this alignment depends on straightening devices that keep things in line, in part by “holding things into place". Lines disappear through such processes of alignment, so that when even one thing comes “out of line” with another thing, the “general effect,” is “wonky” or even “queer“ (Ahmed 2006, 66).
In Possession’s middle sections, “Feedback Aria” and “Feedback Duet” I am constantly re-aligning my body in response to the sound produced by my immersion into the feedback situation. However, rather than landing on the stability of the vertical axis, there is no real hope of a stable alignment once I dive into the live feedback situation – sound can modulate, escalate or disappear with even small changes in the space. The “tracing paper” is constantly “wonky”, beyond the reach of full control. Feedback performance is a dance with this “queer effect” in which movement is generated by being “out of line”.
In the feedback situation, we might trade the “tracing paper” analogy for a “teetering” on the edge of a cliff – in my case, on the threshold between silence and sound on one end and between (relative) stability and exponential escalation on the other. If I am teetering, rather than throwing myself off the cliff entirely, or gravitating safely onto land, I am struggling to balance in this midpoint – causing me to raise my arms, to lean in all directions and shudder under the tension.1 While the situation is intentional, these movements themselves are not predetermined and are, rather, produced by the balancing act. This “queer effect” is an “unsettling” of the body, a disorientation that produces “bodily experiences that throw the world up, or throw the body from its ground” (Ahmed 2006, 157). In this way, the feedback situation exemplifies Ahmed’s claim that bodies not only take shape through contact but may also “take the shape of that contact” (ibid., 54).
How, then, to locate “queerness” within the shape that my body takes while performing with feedback and how does failure constitute a queer orientation? In the second chapter of Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed outlines how heterosexuality is “instituted” as “the form of sociality through force” (Ahmed 2006, 84). This heterosexuality is made compulsory in a hereditary and reproductive way, through “the presumption that the child must inherit the life of the parent,” as well as “the endless requirement that the child repay the debt of life with its life” (Ahmed 2006, 85-86). Compulsory heterosexuality also makes impressions on the body: “bodies take the shape of norms that are repeated over time and with force” (Ahmed 2006, 91). Hannah Bosma’s critique of the “domestication” of malfunction in 90s glitch music centred on its “patrilineality”, invoking a canon of male-led experimentation that passed “inherited prestige” onto the glitch movement. Bosma described this “domestication” as editing out the indeterminacy and loss of control involved in working with technological failure (Bosma 2016, 105). “Domestication” as a term also invokes the family home, placing the control of technological failure in sound practices alongside the institution of reproductive heterosexuality. In this way glitch music sits alongside both the patriarchal line of the male canon, as well as the vertical lines of heterosexual inheritance in its inability to embrace failure’s indeterminacy.
By contrast, the feedback situation illustrates a way to rehabilitate an “aesthetics of failure” from the “domestication” and “patrilineality” Bosma identifies in glitch music. Whereas a “failure to orient oneself ‘toward’ the ideal sexual object” represents the “refusal to reproduce” and a “threat to the social ordering of life itself,” (Ahmed 2006, 91) the failure to control the sound of amplification technology threatens an order in which the technology is fully bent to the will of the human user. By disorienting the flow of control in the conventional use of amplification technology, the feedback situation generates a bodily horizon beyond the reaches of the heteropatriarchal line. Instead of predicting, depicting and following a line, instead of bending the tools at play, the body itself is bent, its line twisting here or there in the moment. It is a “giddy” feeling generated by the disorientation, the “queer effect” of not knowing where I’m being led. After all, as Muñoz famously outlines in his introduction to Cruising Utopia, “we are not-yet-queer” but rather “feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality” (Muñoz 2009, 1). Feedback emerges as an undomesticated, indeterminate voice of which future effects are unimaginable in the pre-determining regime of control. Moving into the feedback situation, I am prepared to be moved as much as I move, my body poised, ripe for the turning.
At the rear of the stage, an otherworldly outline moves from stage left to stage right and back again in front of a backdrop lit by orange light. The figure stops at the centre, turns, and begins to vibrate, their bodily material taking on the sound of rustling. The figure comes forwards, emerging from the darkness, as an opulent, layered cloud of grey silk and red and white cotton. The movement is alien, unhuman and strangely slow. The cloud of material seems to open outwards, growing in stature. Finally, a human voice penetrates the drone: “Say I.” Humanoid arms emerge from either side and a petrified face is revealed at the centre of the cloud.
The figure in the finale of Possession is neither the possessed body overtaken by a foreign force, nor the foreign force itself, but rather, the fusion of both. In the dramaturgy of the opera, this moment represents the solo human figure’s embrace of the foreign, unhuman force that moved the body in the previous scenes through the use of feedback. The dance of feedback is one of disorientation, in which the human body relinquishes control over the sonic situation. To dance with feedback is to embrace the indeterminacy of its voice, to enter a situation in which both the sound of feedback and the movement of the body are poised in an enmeshing of agencies, each shaped by the other.
Sara Ahmed suggests moments of disorientation, “bodily experiences that throw the world up, or throw the body from its ground” are vital (Ahmed 2006, 157). Disorientation unsettles the body, “shattering confidence in the ground or one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support the actions that make a life feel livable” (ibid.). This failure to re-orient provides the possibility of disturbing the given order, a “disorientation in how things are arranged”, in which “what is familiar, what is passed over in the veil of its familiar, becomes rather strange” (ibid., 162). The project of Possession is to take these moments of disorientation, the “uncanny effect” of making strange what was once familiar – my typical human body – as the starting point for unknowable ways of being. Embracing feedback’s outside influence on my movement constitutes a refusal to re-align with the “upright, straight, and in line,” (ibid., 59), allowing this strangeness (or “queerness”) to pervade my physicality. I lose and fail to regain control.
Working with feedback has always excited me for its chaotic intensity, and for what I have consistently thought of as its “aliveness” across my years of using microphones and loudspeakers to generate sound. Previously, I had dealt with feedback as an unusual creative tool, a malfunction rich with possibility, exploiting its indeterminate voice for aleatoric results. While indeterminacy is embedded in any contention with a feedback system, Possession involves profoundly immersing my body into this situation, allowing the feedback sound to make impressions upon my movement. The experience of destabilising not only my creative process, but also my body itself, is a giddy, exciting and nerve-wracking one. However, in letting things become “out of control”, even my own body, I enter the warm embrace of a future of unknown possibilities, a world that opens me and my body up, rather than restricting and re-aligning along the straight axis.
Embracing this loss of control, following Hannah Bosma’s schema for contending with, rather than domesticating the indeterminacy of malfunction, allows for transformation in place of the fixity of the known and determined. The conclusion of Possession constitutes a failure to assert control over my movement and the feedback sound, a possession that is not repudiated, but rather embraced. The fusion of outside force and human body is welcomed by the backdrop of a sunrise, recalling José Esteban Muñoz’s warm horizon of possibility. Feedback unseats the body from its human control. I emerge from the darkness in a cloud, the boundaries of my skin breached and strewn behind me as I sing. Alchemy, new life and rebirth are the purposes at play. The other has not been defeated and was never separated from me in the first place. Instead, I am triumphantly subsumed, born anew.
It starts in the belly, deep in the tubes, a vibration.
I wake before dawn, I can’t move.
A sound, inside, becoming.
When a spore of ergot infects a floret of rye, it does so, like many fungi, by sabotaging the reproductive functions of the grain.
In disguise, it behaves like the grain of pollen that would otherwise have grown into a fertile ovary.
When the rye is ready to reproduce, its wholesome green discolours, hacked by the ergot spore.
Ergot mycelium now established within the grain destroys the ovary and begins to feed on the nutrient-rich xylem and phloem.
A sugary slime seeps from the infected floret, each drop containing millions of further spores, open and ready to possess the next grain.
The rye is harvested, and the infected grain turns black.
This is the hard, dry sclerotia shell from which the mycelium slides its fingers into the earth.
And when I eat this grain, this whole nutrition, perfect from germ to bran to endosperm, I become myself infected.
It starts in the belly, high in the tubes, a vibration.
And then, in the night, you come to me.
All of my want, pulling you inwards
like a voice entering me.
A sound, inside, becoming.
A sound, inside, becoming.
A sound, inside, becoming.
In the long slow night the sound cuts a road in the shape of your breath
My body thickens, the blood rises, let it be infected.
Let the whole of my blood rise like a map in your name.
Coalescing from the dark's ink, your whole slender length, just like I dreamed.
I hear your voice.
Sing me a portal, enter my holes.
Ecce vidimus eum non habentem speciem, neque decorem:
Aspectus ejus in eo non est:
Behold we shall see him having neither form nor comeliness:
There is no beauty in him.
Say I. Say I. Say I. Say I.
His body flowing endlessly.
Our body flowing endlessly.
Say I. Say I. Say I. Say I.
He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.