Overmorrow from Feminist Media Histories 3, no.3

Overmorrow is a sonification of American gun violence data.

The first iteration, Overmorrow (2014), is a sonification of the incidents of reported American gun violence that occur over the course of the 72 hours immediately preceding a performance of the piece as the incidents relate geographically to the place where that performance is held. The piece is scored for percussion duo and video projection. Each hour of the 72-hour timespan corresponds to 5 seconds of the piece, and incidents are represented within the timeframe of the piece proportionally to when they occurred over the course of the preceding three days at local time. The video projection visually marks the day and hour of the sonified incidents. Gunshots which were reported without injury are heard on the drum; gunshots which injured victims non-fatally are heard on wood instruments; and gunshots which injured victims fatally are heard on metal instruments. The physical distance of the incident from the place where the performance is held is mapped onto the representational sound by dynamic level; and the age of the victim is mapped onto the representational sound by pitch. The sonified data on the reported incidents is gathered from The New York Times, gunviolence.org, and Police Scanner reports on Twitter, and the score must be inscribed the day of the performance using the data specific to that performance.

overmorrow (2014) was performed by the Meehan/Perkins Percussion Duo at the University of Virginia on February 20, 2015. The video was projected onto a pop-up screen approximately four feet high by six feet wide placed between and a foot or two in front of the two players. The hall was dimmed with spotlights on the players.

After realizing the first iteration of the piece, I distributed a listener questionnaire. Through the questionnaire I realized that my representation of the sonified data was heavily laden with the cultural values that my white, female, young, urban, educated identity has instilled in me: I had privileged younger lives over older ones and afforded myself unrigorous editorial privileges in gathering data, among other failings. Most importantly, I had declined to include race as a factor in my sonification for no other reason than my own discomfort. Race is too significant a factor in the issue of American gun violence to be excluded from my representation.

The second iteration, overmorrow: no attack in progress (2015), sonifies the 257 fatal shootings of civilians by American on-duty police officers in 2015 where The Washington Post reported no attack was in progress or the threat level was undetermined at the time of the shooting. Each minute of the piece represents one month of the year, and incidents are heard within the minute in proportion to the date on which the incident occurred. From the audience perspective in the concert hall, the player on the left is sonifying the fatal shooting deaths of civilians reported to be White, and the player on the right is sonifying the fatal shooting deaths of civilians reported to be Black, Hispanic, Asian, Other, or Unknown. Incidents in which the civilian was armed with a gun at the time that they were shot are heard on the drums, incidents in which the civilian was armed with a knife, a vehicle, another weapon, or a toy gun is heard on wood instruments and incidents in which the civilian was unarmed or their armament was undetermined are heard on metal instruments. The sonified data is gathered solely from The Washington Post National Police Shootings Database. Because overmorrow: no attack in progress (2015) sonifies a year of data and is not temporally specific to the date of the performance, it need not be inscribed the day of the performance like Overmorrow (2014).

overmorrow: no attack in progress (2015) was performed by the Dunkelman/Lopez Duo of the William Winant Percussion Group at Mills College on February 6, 2016. The video was projected onto a large screen approximately 12 feet by 24 feet hanging above the stage. The hall was again dimmed with spotlights on the players.

In 2016 I began developing a third iteration of Overmorrow which would be a born-digital version integrating aspects of both the first and second iteration. Both the first two iterations of the project were realized in concert halls, which are inherently esoteric transmission infrastructures with alienating codes of conduct. As result, concert-goers are a self-selecting group of like-minded people and I was effectively preaching to the choir. In this third iteration, an algorithm developed in Python would automatically generate scores for visitors to my website for same-day performance using data specific to the day and the visitor’s IP address. The scores would look similar to the scores of the first iteration, I initially though, but race would be a factor in the representation. It was my thought that anyone interested in realizing the piece could do so easily in any context (in a classroom, at a protest, at the dinner table) and that the broader performance context might help broaden the debate of American gun violence. As I engage more deeply with the anti-racism movement, however, I have growing concerns with my direction in the project and am finding more questions than answers.

Some of the writings that have led me to reexamine my direction with a third iteration include Shaka McGlotten’s lecture at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory on Black Data [1]; Hari Ziyad’s Afropunk essay on the 2016 and 2017 Whitney Biennial controversies, ‘Why Do White Liberal Artists Love Black Death So Much’ [2]; and statements made by Ijeoma Oluo and Marc Mazique on empathy and the Black Lives Matter movement [3]. I am only including excerpts here that directly address my process of reexamination.

Shaka McGlotten writes that:

Assigning numerical or financial value to Black life, transforming experience into information or data, is nothing new. Rather, it is caught up with the history of enslavement and the racist regimes that sought to justify its barbarities. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries more than twelve and a half million Africans were transported to the New World. Two million, and likely many more, died during the Middle Passage alone. A typical slave ship could carry more than 300 slaves, arranged like sardines, and the sick and the dead would be thrown overboard, their loss claimed for insurance money… Of course, all of the statistics that I have just gone through are probably familiar, at least to some of us. And while useful, they tell only very partial stories, and they tend to reduce Black life to a mere effect of capitalism or to a kind of numerology of bare life.[1]

Overmorrow was not originally conceived of as a work about racism, but American gun violence disproportionately affects people of color. Because sonification is based on quantitative knowledge, I thought that Overmorrow could ‘speak truth to power’ about American gun violence (and, I too belatedly realized, the racism it abets) in the language of power: numbers, facts, and figures. McGlotten’s lecture, however, makes me question my logic: might the very act of speaking the language of power give more power to power and enforce oppression? As a privileged white woman, I benefit from racist oppression: might I not be more likely to ‘tell only a very partial story’ about race and American gun violence and wouldn’t that be dangerous? I think so.

Ziyad is writing specifically about art made by white women about racism. The Shutz and Moore that they refer to are the two white women artists who depicted the bodies of Emmett Till and Mike Brown with their works included in the 2017 and 2016 Whitney Biennials – Dana Schutz and Ti-Rock Moore. Ziyad states:

“I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby” is often read as though “they” is a faulty pronoun that does not refer its antecedent, “the world,” and instead only to the white men who personally lynched Emmett. But it was white society that let his murderers off the hook and those belonging to it were therefore willful co-conspirators in the barbaric act. “The world” is the perpetrator of the violence Black people have been bearing since even before being stolen and shackled, and this is the same world Shutz and Moore belong to.

A white artist “showing the world” Black suffering in an artistic statement would necessitate a look in the mirror, not at the Black bodies on the ground. It would show Schutz and Moore over the bodies of Till and Brown, holding the gun and barbed wire. Mamie’s statement was so powerful because Emmett was her baby. She chose Black media specifically to reprint the images. But under the hand of the likes of Schutz and Moore, Black death becomes less a call to awareness, more a titillating spectacle, using non-Black media and galleries to recreate images of it with no regard to the fact that they were once lives–once loved. Einstein once famously said “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” This type of work does nothing but encourage more looking and nothing–more danger for Black people.

By now it should be clear that these type of well-meaning artists don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. What they are doing with capitalizing Black death.[2]

Ziyad's writing leaves me with three questions. The first is of general concern: does art made in sound rather than image have a different relationship to the kind of spectacle that Ziyad describes?

The other two are for myself. Am I capitalizing Black death? I think the answer is yes. I am garnering praise and attention for my work: my first journal article is on this subject; I won a cash prize from my university for giving a presentation talking about the piece. I am capitalizing on Black death with academic achievement. Which leads me to question: how can I ‘look in the mirror’ instead?

Finally, this statement by Oluo and Mazique’s reading of the statement:

[Oluo:] “It’s not about empathy. It’s not about “walking a mile in someone’s shoes.” I hate that phrase so much. Because you just can’t. How am I supposed to walk a mile in the shoes of a migrant worker from southern California? In what way? I had a summer job I hated once…that’s in no way comparable. So if they tell me what they’re going through, I just have to look at them and say, you know what, you’re a human being capable of communicating what’s happening to you, and I believe you because you’re a person. And that I think, is the number one thing that I see throughout feminist movements, women saying, believe us, this is happening to us, we are being attacked, we are being belittled, you know, we are being killed. And Black Lives Matter is black people saying the same thing, believe us, this system is destroying us. And you just have to.”

[Mazique:] Oluo thus identifies a central flaw in the practice of the politics of empathy as a basis for anti-oppressive politics: that different identities, different experiences, different levels of social power will always affect people’s capacity to identify with the experiences of others. The validity, the very reality of oppressed folks’ experiences is diminished by this requirement to translate them to match the experience of folks not targeted by that oppression. A sometimes insurmountable burden of proof is required to make oppressed folks’ stories believable and “real” to those with greater social power, and it has to be presented in a way that recenters the experience of those with greater social power — in the case of folks of color and discussions of racial oppression, on whites.[3]

Overmorrow presents a reality of Black life – increased vulnerability to American Gun violence – in a way that centers whites: both me and my white listeners. I center myself and my whiteness with how I sonify the data; I center my listeners and their whiteness by weighing the sonification towards their specific experience in the concert hall; and I center capital and whiteness at large by using a quantitative metric to represent qualitative knowledge.

I believe Oluo. Empathy is not enough, and it is especially not enough when it is expressed in a language of oppression. I am looking in the mirror, and I do not like what I see.

an acknowledgement/postscript:

I am lucky enough to call Marc Mazique a friend. Marc generously responded to this work and my grappling with these issues by parsing apart the questions I have raised here in correspondence with me.

He raised two further points that I continue to process.

The first is to point out that ‘call-to-awareness’ political art by those with low or no stakes in the issue at hand rewards artists for effective inaction, and he likened the process to socially-responsible consumption. His point made me think about the reward process and part of that process, I realize, is self-soothing. When I 'shop local', I am not principally rewarded by the actual slow-down of global climate change. Rather, I am rewarded by the self-perception that I am doing something about global climate change. I can tell myself I am not part of the problem by miming part of the solution.

Marc also hopefully proposed that artists may be able to make political art about issues they have low or no stakes in if they can represent the gap between their experience and the experiences of the actual stakeholders in the issue. I am trying to represent such a gap with this writing, but I am not writer. My medium is sound: this writing is not 'the work.' How might I represent such a gap in sound?

[1] Shaka McGlotten, ‘Lecture: Black Data. March 15, 2015’, Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, http://ccct.uchicago.edu/events/2015/3/5/black-data-with-shaka-mcglotten

[2] Hari Ziyad, ‘Why Do White Liberal Artists Love Black Death So Much’, Afropunk, http://www.afropunk.com/profiles/blogs/why-do-white-liberal-artists-love-black-death-so-much

[3] Marc Mazique, ‘The Tyranny of Civility’, Black, Whole, http://www.black-whole.org/2016/06/22/the-tyranny-of-civility-part-3-in-a-four-part-series/