Fare protest!

On December 20th of last year, I made the attached recording at a subway station in Mexico City.  On it, the normal voices of travelers resound a bit more loudly than usual through the expansive above-ground station.  There is shouting and a man on a megaphone.  Other organizers (like the one you’ll hear on this recording) were jumping turnstiles without paying and explaining their protest to others.

The transit protests came to Metro Ciudad Universitaria  as they came to many Metro stations in Mexico City this winter.  Police stood by to watch, a coterie of journalists followed alongside them with boom mics and video cameras, and a small crowd held their phones up to take photos.

Photographing the protest

Ciudad Universitaria, or CU, is a busy Metro stop at the southern end of the Green Line that runs all the way down from Indios Verdes in the north of Mexico City. It is a main access point to both the working-class neighborhood of Santo Domingo (made somewhat famous by anthropologist Matthew Gutmann in his 1996 book on masculinity in Mexico) and the massive campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México, which sit to either side of the station, as well as to buses that take passengers even further on.

Metro prices have been low.  In 2011, when I first began to visit this city, a ticket cost $3 MXN ($0.26 USD at the time)* with support from the municipal government.  That rate is still available– to female heads of households, unemployed people, and poor students willing to stand in very long lines and file paperwork.

They are not, however, available to anyone else.  At the end of 2013, Manuel Mancera’s PRD city government put it to a vote and 55.7% of voters supported an increase in fares to cover basic maintenance and expansion of the Metro system.


Fares went up to $5 MXN from $3 MXN.  It’s not much: in USD a ticket costs $0.38 now.  But it’s enough. Minimum wage in Mexico is $64.76 MXN per day in high-paid areas like Mexico City, which does not allow much room for even a small increase in the cost of daily transit.

The chart to the right, which demonstrates the constraints of living on such a budget, made the rounds on Tumblr.

I’ve  found notes all winter stuck to official notices about the fare changes in Metro trains, listing hashtags or naming stations, dates, and times for people to come and jump turnstiles.


Which leads us back to the protest at CU underneath the huge mural of Mexican revolutionaries.

The protest I saw was nonviolent, like many other transit protests written up in the local papers this winter.

The sounds you can hear on this recording were made by maybe 30-some protesters, most dressed like students.  They echo a bit threateningly, and were an overwhelming sensory experience for me after a day in the archives.

All the official reports I’ve read are about peaceful demonstrations.  In the past months, though, I’ve also heard stories about protesters abusing people verbally and physically when they chose not to hop turnstiles and join in during an event like the one I’ve recorded here.  

These stories are apocryphal but ominous.  I paid my fare, and so did plenty of the people in the photograph above, standing with their cell phones aloft.  But do you think you could hear it, in this recording, if the protesters were harassing passersby?  I wish I had recorded more than the urgent voice of the protester here– I wish I could present you with eye rolls,  sympathies, and worries that come up in conversations about these protests, too.

The stories of violence are, I think, an undercurrent to everything that I’m giving you to listen to here.  I heard the first one only a few days after I recorded this.  The rumors, though, are harder to capture than the roar.

*The $ sign is used to designate prices in Mexican pesos the same way it is used to designate prices in dollars.
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Seashell Sound: Eerie and Eary Doubles

Mural by Robert Reid in Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, ca. 1896.

Mural by Robert Reid in Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, ca. 1896.

At Cabinet Magazine Stefan Helmreich speaks shells and:

“puts an ear to popular science and poetry, following a history that has, first, shells singing, speaking, sighing, and echoing distant oceanic and communal pasts, and next, shells reflecting back the personal and present moment, and, then, as we approach today, delivering sounds imagined deep inside, rather than outside, human bodies. At stake are changing models of the relation between hearing, the world, and the self, with the avowedly mystical and communal gradually replaced by the secular, scientific, and individual—though, with the arrival of the blood-in-the-ears interpretation, infused anew with an element of the mythical.”

Read on for “blood music,” “eerie and eary doubles,” “ethno-conchology,” and more.

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Performing the Sound Ethnography Project, Concord


I was recently invited to curate and perform the Sound Ethnography Project at Concord, an artist-run gallery and trans-disciplinary collective in Los Angeles, for the opening of their PS 1010: Road Felt exhibition. I selected and mixed fieldrecordings produced by colleagues and myself  for the Project. I appropriated a DJ-style setup to perform and mix the recordings. The sounds of a technologically-assisted ghost hunt seeped into the static-saturated radio of a bus in Beirut. A televised South Korean computer gaming championship faded into bird calls in the Brazilian Amazon. I also projected associated images and film to accompany–but not overwhelm–the sounds. I experimented with an ethnographic surrealism to try to highlight the importance of sound in our research, environments, and day-to-day lives.


Concord’s Road Felt an exhibition based on their recent “research adventure” in a teal school bus traveling between LA, New Orleans, Memphis, and Oakland. They “returned with a mess of memories and documents (photos, notes, soil samples, rips in our clothes). Somewhere in between memory and this documentation is our archive.” They then organized their by feeling:

Feeling is a peculiar mode of organization. It can’t be disagreed with, like place or date. But unlike intuition or chance, it can be explained, explored, and justified. Feeling is neither subjective nor objective—a contradiction the difference between emotion and affect is supposed to clarify. Rather, feeling mediates the divide—a feature that capital enjoys poaching as a technology and a commodity.

The exhibition really impressed me with how they embraced the excess and the messiness of the archive, seeming to question its boundaries. Photographs, sound recordings–pick up those unmarked headphones on the wall–pages from books, video, various documents were displayed to dizzying effect.

I also was lucky to share the evening with  Bitter Party an LA-based band which “celebrates the melancholy of life” experimenting with “ghost pop” from Asia. They “thrive on musical adventures across media. Parsing and mixing content from dusty tapes, vinyls, songbooks, and YouTube channels, they enliven song memories across the Pacific to haunt their post-cosmopolitan, post-digital living.”


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Preserving Sound: A documentary on the British Library’s Sound Archive

The Wire goes underground into the vaults of the British Library’s Sound Archive.

“The 20th century was about audiovisual material, our memory of the 20th century is heavily audiovisual, but our sense of the 21st century is going to be a different kind of audiovisual…. archiving is not going to be so much about what we can bring in, but about what to exclude. Otherwise you’re going to end up with a white noise of information which is completely incomprehensible,” says Will Prentice, British Library Audio Engineer and Conservation Specialist.

This  documentary presents an insider tour of the Library’s vast archive and of its digitization and curating activities with key sound specialists. Nathan Budzinski interviews Popular Music Curator Andy Linehan, Audio Engineer & Conservation specialist Will Prentice, and Wildlife Sounds Curator Cheryl Tipp.

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Inhabiting the (aural) Aesthetic Dimension

A practice space at rest, in between bookings.

A practice space at rest, in between bookings.

Numerous memoirs, social-scientific studies, and anecdotal tales of passion and failure reveal cultural work to be a profoundly ambivalent affair. On one hand there are – at least superficially – numerous opportunities for self-expression and self-actualization compared to many other occupations. Work as a musician, sound engineer, animator, comedian, model, computer programmer, or graphic designer often affords a modicum of autonomy unavailable elsewhere. Beyond that, producing cultural objects seems – again, superficially – inherently meaningful in ways that garbage collecting or steel manufacturing do not. The flipside of this is of course exploitative internship practices, low wages, long hours, precarious employment, and what often amounts to a negative income (i.e. at the end of the day, you’re losing money in these occupations). Much of my recent research on work life in U.S. media industries builds on these observations in order to see how these opposites resolve themselves in the everyday experience of cultural work.

Now, the inherent “meaningfulness” of cultural work seems to stem from the fact that people in the music, film, or literary industries work and toil among the objects of our everyday leisure activities. Why wouldn’t you love playing video games as part of your programming job? Why wouldn’t you love being around music all day? Everyday? Perpetual, unrelenting, exposure to objects of sensorial excitement comprises an integral, though perhaps understudied, component of work within cultural industries.

What for the bulk of us, as consumers, comprises our most joyful aesthetic experiences constitutes the bulk of the material environment within cultural or “creative” firms. The sounds and images of our pleasure appear as someone else’s workaday world. Given working lives fully suffused by the objects of our joys as audience members and consumers (i.e. the culture in cultural industries), does this pleasure in aesthetics, sonorous or visual, carry over into the workplace, engendering positive relations between firm and employee? Or does culture in these cultural industries drift into the background, becoming nothing but an incessant flickering of frames or droning of sounds.

With this bundle of admittedly impressionistic questions, I’d like you all to contemplate the following recording from the hallways of a “full service creative space” in Los Angeles, CA. This company provides recording and rehearsal studios to a variety of musicians at various stages of their career. This recording represents the sonic backdrop for the employees. Listening to the clip, I think that you will find a bit of pleasure and a bit of dreary droning. You will hear thrashing hardcore punk blending with bluesy indie rock and then transforming into a group of Korean businessmen noodling over MIDI backing tracks.

Everyday the studio rents out eight rehearsal rooms to a wide variety of musician clients. Some of these clients, you might recognize from your own music collection, others you will never hear. Demanding divas with major label contracts and comically inept teenagers make use of the same spaces to hone their craft. Traversing the hallways while working here presents employees with an ever-shifting sonic topography, the volume of which seems not unlike the experience of a steel mill or manufacturing plant was for a previous generations of blue-collar employees. “After work my ears are ringing,” said one informant. “After a full day, I don’t want to listen to music. You’ll find me watching TV or reading,” said another. With that in mind, give this sonic walkthrough of my field site a listen.

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Sounds of South Korean e-Sports

This recording was made at the I’PARK e-Sports Stadium at Yongsan station in Seoul. It documents one ‘set’ in a professional StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty match, a real-time strategy game developed by Blizzard Entertainment, as part of the 2012-2013 season of the SK Planet Proleague, the premier professionalStarCraft league in South Korea. Since 1999, e-sports (particularly StarCraft) have been contested competitively in South Korea. Although there are some twenty-five different professional ‘e-sports’ (a term that encompasses video and computer games that are the basis of competitions) in Korea, StarCraft is the most well-established of the bunch, has the most history, and arguably has the largest global fan following. The Proleague is organized under the auspices of the Korean e-Sports Players’ Association (KeSPA) and is comprised of eight teams, each with about twelve top-tier players. Each team is sponsored by a company/companies and houses its team members in a ‘team house’ somewhere in Seoul (the locations of these houses are kept secret for the privacy and security of the players). Professional gamers can make upwards of $100,000 per year in salary and prize money. They spend between ten and fourteen hours each day solely practicing StarCraft. Right now, the only players in the Proleague are male, although there have been female players in the past and are currently some female professionals in another Korean StarCraft league. The players range in age from their mid-teens to mid-twenties, typically.
The Yongsan stadium is located on the top floor of a well-known electronics market and mall. The ‘stadium’ is more like a large theater, with a raised stage at the front, floor seating for 120 fans, and team ‘benches’ at either side of the floor. Matches are held every Saturday and Sunday and are broadcast live on OnGameNet, a Korean cable television channel devoted solely to e-sports and gaming-related programming. Matches are free to attend and attract casual and ‘hard-core’ fans, as well as the legions of ‘fan girls’ (sonyeo paen in Korean) who make up the official fan clubs for each team. Two ‘casters’ and a commentator provide running commentary of each match, analyzing the participants’ strategies and reacting with energized shouts and cheers whenever a player pulls off a remarkably good move or, alternatively, makes an inauspicious mistake. The players face off one at a time in 1 vs. 1 sets, and the team that can win a best four out of seven wins the match. When playing, the designated players take their stations inside of a soundproof booths and are monitored by KeSPA referees who make sure that they don’t break the rules of fair play. A typical set last between eight and twenty minutes.
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This recording was made at ‘Action PC Bang’ in the Huam-dong neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea. Korean PC bangs are similar to what we might call an Internet cafe in the United States. While a few customers might frequent PC bangs simply to surf the Web, print out documents, watch online media, or even do some day trading of stocks, the vast majority of customers come to play any of the hundreds of computer games (both on and offline) to which every PC bang in Korea provides access. PC bangs are independently-operated businesses usually taking up one floor of a commercial building and containing between 50 and 200 computer stations. Action PC Bang is located on the third floor of this particular building and has about 140 stations. Each station is equipped with a custom-built CPU tower, a widescreen, high resolution monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse, as well as a high-backed, leather padded desk chair on wheels. The stations are aligned in rows, some facing each other and others facing the walls. Each row has a single long desk with short dividers set along it which separate each individual station. The PC bang itself is divided into smoking and non-smoking areas by a wall of glass, although the walkway between the two sections is open and cigarette smoke inevitably seeps out into the non-smoking area. The room is well-ventilated with fans in the ceiling that more or less filter most of the smoke. The desk at the entrance to the room is manned by an attendant (usually either the owner of the PC bang or a part-time employee, typically a university student) who handles customer transactions, provides customers with ashtrays and occasionally complimentary drinks like green tea or coffee, and prepares ramen noodles for customers who purchase them. The noodles are kept on shelves in front of the desk along with other snack foods like chips, cookies, and microwaveable hamburgers. There is also an instant coffee machine, a water cooler, and a refrigerator with chilled drinks such as iced coffee, energy drinks, and soft drinks. Like most PC bangs, Action PC Bang is open 24 hours per day and although a few customers may spend dozens of hours on end bust at their station (in extreme cases some customers might spend multiple days in a PC bang), most patrons spend a couple of hours. Many customers arrive together in large groups while others arrive individually and then socialize with the other ‘regulars’ there at that time while still others keep to themselves entirely. The clientele range in age from elementary school-aged children to retired pensioners, although the median age is around 30. Although the majority of customers are male, there are many female customers who frequent these places as well.

In this recording, one can experience the typical sounds of a Korean PC bang: the cacophony of discordant sounds of different games being played simultaneously; ongoing conversations between patrons, or between a customer in the PC bang and his or her interlocutor in another location, connected via a voice chat function in the game that they are playing; the near constant clicking and clacking of keystrokes mouse clicks; and the sound of the PC bang attendants cleaning the equipment after a customer leaves a station, especially the sound of keyboards being wiped down with a towel.
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