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Records of Displacement: the echo as a beckoning artefact


20 February 2018

If you were to apply an Anglophone conceptual frame to give an account of Lucreccia Quintanilla’s practice, you could refer to it as an inter/multi-disciplinary art practice. She dwells in multiple fields, as DJ (DJ General Feelings), writer/researcher (currently a PhD candidate at Monash University), installation artist, a mother, a co-conspirator in interrogations of whiteness and patriarchal dominance. However, her process cannot easily be placed within disciplinary fields that are treated as parallel lines; lines that only intersect as a consequence of willing a connection across institutional boundaries and partitioned thought. Each discipline is like a fragment of a system within a body: always embedded, isolatable in theory but not in practice, fused together as a holistic vision. Her approach is not tied to honouring cultural production as a form of individuated exploration of “universal” concepts, nor is it tied to imbuing the object of production with a representational or material quality that can be experienced abstracted from its cultural imaginary. It is a practice that invites a form of autonomy in deliberating place and historicity, by respecting the specificity of artefact.

Lucreccia describes her research of late as an investigation into how sound can be thought of as a mode of knowledge transference. This begins from the idea that sound is a conduit of information, containing disparate traces of complex histories and communal bonds that are not bound by the transience of time, because its voice is timeless in the sense that, in order to decipher when an echo commences and dissipates it is necessary to consider the contingencies of space—you might pull the plug on the effect but the delay rings on.

This conceptualisation of sound is a reminder that a conduit like a speaker simultaneously sends and receives signals, despite which action we might privilege as its central function. It is a metaphor for how information proliferates, mainly in terms of how significance is created and resonates. An output signal may at times be the most audible/visible/dominant sensorial aspect of a system, however it is not representative of the totality of the system in terms of its function, in terms of its potential and in terms of both the signal’s and the system’s significance. Because a system simultaneously absorbs while it outputs, rogue frequencies are not just a contingency, but a property: a system’s signal can inevitably project beyond the intended parameters of its meaning, resonating and accumulating significance, intersecting worlds and thus putting pressure on the points at which differing structures are joined. However, the escalation of a signal into feedback does not nullify its source but beckons it—thus an echo is not a sign of static individuation, or a property that can be grasped and possessed. Receiving, listening, sensing is a complex and shared experience; that’s why Lucreccia ended our conversation so eloquently by stating “understanding is a task you do together”.

Lucreccia’s research thus aims to challenge the fundamentals of Anglophone ontology and epistemologies that attempt to confine the mutable nature of space, time and place to a calculable experience and fixed truth. Her research has become aligned with the work of Louis Chude-Sokei and Julian Henriques, both of whom write from their experience of sound-system culture as a springboard for analysing how sound culture produces a non-linear and multi-directional signal. Their work is also always dedicated to unveiling how sound-system culture emerged, emerges and exists as a deeply specific cultural and political form.

I spoke to Lucreccia about her research into and experience of sound system culture and what it means for such a culture to take place in the settler colonial occupation, referred to as Australia.

F: Research tends to commence from a weird love affair with a voice that finds you and a path that opens up—what has been your story?

L: I found out about Louis Chude-Sokei in the South African culture magazine called Chimurenga Chronic—I just went “who the fuck is this person!?” Unlike a lot of theorists he thinks about tradition and begins from another epistemological tradition, one that is much more relevant to the way things function, rather than the way things can be thought of, or could be. In my own research I had already decided to skip Deleuze, so I went straight to Bergson because—Deleuze is Bergson. I looked at these books from the 1920s, but I had to refrain from delving in to his work and using him, or justify anything that I am doing through him because you end up having to refer to the fact that Bergson wrote an amazing book about humour. In this book he introduces humour in the context of how great it is that “sometimes you laugh at things in a way that’s so unpredictable and your body just reacts to things, for example in the way that your body wants to laugh when you bump into a n***** on the street”.

F: There are people that will take that comment with a grain of salt and contextualise it historically, as being of its time. However, such a strategy assumes a severance, between the racialisation of folk at the start of the 20th century and today’s context, which doesn’t really exist. Such a statement can also be viewed as an indication of a foundational and structural element in Bergson’s thinking, an indicator of the role of racism as an infra-political structure of his place and life, which makes his voice audible for us now.

L: Many feel they can just categorise such a statement as a theoretical flaw and put it to one side. But I thought—well, if I’m going to talk about Bergson then I am going to have to talk about Deleuze and if I talk about Deleuze I’ll have to talk about Lyotard and thus pay my dues to the entire western cannon before I get to my point.

Chude-Sokei and Julian Enriquez bypass all those thinkers and traditions. When speaking to a philosophy inherent in sound system culture, how it is absorbed through the body and is thus embodied knowledge, they refer to Platonic traditions, including feminist critiques. That’s where they commence from to ask the question of how an embodied sound culture functions to support and foster culture in diasporic communities. Julian is heading a research cluster at Goldsmiths that’s all about sound systems—it’s about the philosophy for him, but the amazing thing is how it is open to disciplinary crossovers. Chude-Sokei’s work is also like this, where there’s a crossover between thinking [about] how culture functions, watching and documenting and responding to it, and then directing the outcomes of those enquiries to question how philosophy functions.

DJing, sound system culture and the diasporic relation

F: Recently I’ve noticed a lot of people trying to re-insert a bracket between what a DJ is and what a producer or sound artist is. These arguments seem to be trying to diminish the creative role of a DJ, or define what a DJ does in a manner that distinguishes what they do from a creative practice. In your own writing concerning sound system culture, you prioritise the DJ and surrounding social worlds as aspects, or fragments, of a whole creative practice.

L: There is an antagonism. It’s interesting to me because when I started DJing I got asked to play Latin Music, though I was really into Dancehall. However, I noticed the similarities between the styles and I was thinking about their connections. And then Reggaeton hit and I was like—what the fuck has just happened, did I predict this? Or was it already in development and I have heard its embryonic stages? At this time I was hanging out with lots of reggae people in the early 2000s who were really into roots. We would order music packages from Ernie B together, the Jamaican distributor from LA, I’d always be purchasing Dancehall and they were like “what are you doing, that’s not roots, there’s no meaning in that!” And I’m like, there is meaning, there’s meaning for me in it. And I don’t know what you get out of roots! I mean no offense, but it was a particular time and place.

F: The meaning in your story is perhaps about finding a new way to connect with your own roots. And that was instigated through Dancehall?

L: I’m all about the story and I’m all about the connections—why is it through Jamaican music that I became closer to Reggaeton and what is African music doing in there?

I just wanted to play Dancehall but apart from Ms Butt (Artist Eleanor Butt), who got me my first gig playing dancehall at a night she was running where she encouraged young women DJ’s to play, back then no one was interested. I had arguments with people who thought Dancehall was “too culturally specific” and not “universally accessible”. People still tend to believe that music should be universal and understood by everyone. Having these experiences forced me to spend a lot of time to think about what my role in playing music was. In order to do this, I first needed to find my own space because I didn’t want to be DJing to people who would perceive the music I played as exotic. Because I would get questions like “why are you playing this music, how long have you been here for?” I’d been in Melbourne for 13 years, which is not a long time, but it made me realise the scenario was political.

F: They are literally asking why you haven’t adapted your whole repertoire to suit the tastes of the dominant local community and not assimilated.

L: Yes, assimilate! So I got people from that community who I knew liked reggae, but I also decided to keep playing whatever the fuck I wanted. Funnily, the more “fuck you” I became about just pushing the thing I wanted, the more people responded.

So I decided to just keep DJing my music, but then I had a house fire and all my records burned! Prior to the fire a friend got in touch about putting on a night called Collectors Set at the Recorded Music Salon, on Collins St. I had stopped buying vinyl, so began collecting music again via mp3s and I took on the role of a selector. I didn’t worry about the trickery like mixing—I figured that if I could maintain my rhythm, then I can trust myself to mix visually, I didn’t have any programs, I didn’t have money and I had an 8month-old. I just wanted to make money and play music I loved and get my friends to get paid to play what they loved.

Lucreccia Quintanilla DJing as part of Caroline Garcia’s Art Bar at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Image by Del Lumanta.

F: In your work you talk about the difference between mythology and fetish, between representation and immersion—you put these terms into a relation that doesn’t affirm one term at the expense of the other. The relation you put any two terms in is generally presented in terms of trying to understand their in-between. For example the difference between creation as a shared and thus social praxis, and the artist as a producer that shoots signals out into the world for the purpose of attaining an immediate and calculable form of currency.

L: The way I have been thinking through this [mythology-making process] is that I know community needs to be founded in an actual functioning space, that first activates something within a community in order to go somewhere. There are cultural genealogies contained in sound; they are immersive, sensorial pedagogies that transfer knowledge through sensation—impacting the body not through representation, signs, images or fantasies, but through energy, rhythm and resonance. So, sound systems relate to the diaspora, they developed out of that to articulate the diaspora and they continue to do so.

F: How do you think a diasporic culture can activate and respond to space, while also experiencing a disconnect from familiar space and familiar imaginaries?

L: I have been thinking about how that may apply to the Latin American experience as a diasporic culture. It’s a culture that is not purely about geographic space but also about ancestral space. When King Tubby speaks to the African ancestor and African Voice, I recognised that the way it is presented in his music sounds so much like Cumbia, but there’s also a Middle Eastern influence, as well as Indigenous sounds and rhythmic structures. Take for example the similarity in the beat of Cumbia and African beats and even the way instruments weave in and out in Cumbia.

In El Salvador we love Cumbia and where I’m from there’s been a history of African slavery. At some point that was dismantled. That whole history was somehow covered up and the whole dialogue became really racist. Yet, the national instrument is the marimba, which is an African instrument, it originated in West Africa in Ghana, Mali and West African regions. So I was wondering, why is it that El Salvador has forgotten about our African heritage? The Marimba and an instrument which is called the Caramba but is pretty much like the Berimbau have become Indigenous instruments. The Berimbau is a bowed stick with a string on it and half a gourd on the end of it. The most important part of it is the amplification, which echoes out of the gourd. Take note that this is a sound system!

F: So, these instruments are evidence of the diaspora, evidence of the connection between cultures whose connection came out of the slave trade. However, this connection is not articulated as a historical narrative of national or collective belonging?

L: It’s not, but the connection and the history is inscribed in the music and it’s exactly the same thing that King Tubby is talking about—this music is inherently speaking about a particular context and heritage, and for me it is a better avenue to think about decolonisation than just apply a theory to a context like it’s static. These connections between the African slave trade, Indigenous peoples and the Latin diaspora, are still functioning. When someone says, “the last Mayan has spoken—well, there’s no such thing as an end to Mayan culture. There are so many Black folk in Honduras and Guatemala and even though there’s no strong narrative to articulate this presence in El Salvador, the music speaks to the existence and intersections of people and continues to speak to people even when they don’t want to speak to it.

F: In public discourse here, there is very little out there that specifically details and upholds the important role of cultural engagement and communal creative practice in maintaining the trace of complex, ignored, or even silenced histories and worlds of knowledge.

L: But there are musicians who work and rework what they are doing according to how culture naturally works—with culturally meaningful content. For all the talk about sampling, I think all contemporary writing on sampling is detracting from the fact that this action is something that has always gone on!

F: Sampling is not that different from the action of sharing. It is very much analogous to talking, or forms of intercultural exchange and dialogue.

L: And it’s like—people are trying to articulate how sampling could be something new, well it’s not new at all. Yet there are so many books about sampling that came out in the 90s talking about it like it’s this recently formed incredible language.

I lived in Brisbane when I first migrated here and there’s a Dutch lullaby that is a part of Indigenous ceremony there. That is one of the ways that we know the Dutch came here—it’s a record of cultural contact and sharing, without having to look at a map. And it betrays every single “rational” Western form of understanding cultural groupings and how humans function in the world. This is why the language of identity politics can really let this process down, culture functions outside of identity politics and racial denominations, like those set up by the Spanish which created the Mulatos and the Mestizos—it is beyond that.

F: You’ve said before that the thing about sound is that it’s not particularly representational, at least when it comes to how the body experiences it. This notion is evident in your installation-based work, where the presentation of aspects of sound culture—in their somewhat material forms—escape being purely bound by visual modes of representation and interpretation. I see it in your exploration of the amplification of cultural knowledge through cultural objects, like in the piece entitled If you close your eyes you will see what is really there that was part of the group exhibition Everything Spring. Of course, there are visual aspects that shape how one engages with this piece; you have put an iPhone in a ceramic conch shell that is painted black, on a bed of weeds.

L: I made those shells in Banff while I was reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and I was in the ceramics department wanting to make something that could carry sound, or was involved with amplification. My favourite object at the museum in El Salvador were conches made by Mayan’s out of clay. Either they were aesthetic objects or to play, I never found out, but of course they play shells and conches as instruments. So I made a ceramic conch that was intended to be an instrument. During this time I had told my child, Ruben, that when I was a child I believed stars were tiny windows into light. Like a mantle, the night was pierced to let the light on the other side come through.

In the Parable of the Sower Octavia E. Butler writes: “When I was your age my mother told me that the stars—the few stars we could see—were windows into heaven.

Windows for God to look through to keep an eye on us.” These words were said by Corazon, the stepmother of the central character, who like me is from Latin America.

F: Something from your past connecting with another history, that emerges from memory while you are engaged with an aspect of it thematically in another mode. In a way, it is an analogy for the echo, or delay—the repetition of a motif running over a loop, feeding back and moving through cerebral space over time—eventually becoming audible because it is reverberating off something in your immediate state.

L: That’s it. What is also amazing is, usually it’s played from the tip and you blow, but I tried to make it so you could put the phone into the space where the shell opens. So when you put a sound source in the shell, it not only amplifies the sound from the phone—it echoes! It echoes more like reverb, but in a gallery space it also echoes because it’s in an empty space, so the sound goes into the pipe, it goes around and bounces out the tip.

I walk towards you (2013). gouache, collage on paper.

F: There’s a strong element of having to trust yourself, your process and work through what comes to you, regardless of whether its relevance is immediately clear. That sort of process means that you allow something to connect and grow, which is just as much about the people in it, as it is the product that may be birthed.

L: When you’re in that zone and you just let all the things that you are thinking about take over the creative process? Well that’s never really happened to me before and this time it happened. This is especially difficult in the academic world where things have to be empirical. But there is an actual rational, intellectual basis in the creative act of aggregating lived knowledge, which is a crucial ingredient in making culture.

Assimilation and decolonisation as a migrant

F: The pressure to assimilate is something that I assume has been an aspect of your reality and I want to bring this back to thinking about how sound-system culture is strongly associated with diasporic culture.

You have said before that there’s a strong sound-system culture in Australia, which you interrogate in your research. You have also expressed the necessity to employ a decolonizing methodology in your research. Given that a decolonizing methodology demands we challenge fixed or definitional forms of heteronomy, say typical of the master/ slave relation, it requires we confront the structures, systems and rationales that ultimately maintain colonial forms of governing power, in their socio-historical specificity. How do you engage socially, culturally, politically and historically to the specific colonial context/reality you are situated in, that is, how do you respond to the Australian settler colonial occupation context? And has this informed how decolonizing methodologies feature in your praxis?

L: In terms of the academy, it is difficult to pursue academia given that its institutions are predominantly governed and framed in terms of what you called Anglophone. But theorizing is part of culture, everyday culture even. Culture has an element of theorizing to it in order to understand itself in a self-reflexive manner. It’s when this process is separated from the way that we live, when it’s divided into something, it then becomes intimidating to those who aren’t embedded in that world. In terms of making, that last work, If you close your eyes you will see what is really there, was about how I walk to the studio via Merri Creek and it is based on a realization that I can’t just walk down this path and be romantic about it, be that oblivious settler that just thinks about beauty. I bumped into a lot of council workers that were cleaning up the introduced species and I started to realise that all the plants weren’t native. So, I thought I’d engage with the place that way: the sounds there are not the sounds of native birds, there’s so many introduced birds, but when you use a sharp microphone you don’t pick up what your eyes tell your brain to see. This is important because I had to force myself to not see some of the beautiful Australian landscape. Most of the blooms that were hip-high and had beautiful flowers and herbs like rocket. I could say I am just foraging, but I need to account for the fact that they are an introduced species encroaching on the habitat and that needs to be accounted for. So, I collected those and then made a sound piece just recording all the layers of the things immediately—you do hear some native birds but they are hard to pick out amongst all the Miner birds. That, so far, has been my way of engaging with my surroundings and space around me.

F: Your engagement with and experience of the Merri Creek habitat, while decontextualising it from the horizontal aesthetic of landscape that is typical of the settler-colonial visual cannon, also allows the elements involved to be containers of multifaceted narratives

L: Technically the piece is very basic. Like my DJing, it’s not like I am using amazing equipment. It’s all super basic, which is part of my method and thinking too. To be able to hear something, for what it is, is a simple gesture. There are no native plants in that piece—the rule was they had to be things that I could pick out and thus it couldn’t be native. If I picked it up, I had to take the root out so it wouldn’t grow again, because it would eventually seed given that it was spring. As a rule, I could not create more seeds for the growth of an invasive species.

F: This transposes to thinking about people and place as introduced species. I think a question that is being asked now is, as a settler-migrant, can you settle roots in a place that is not yours? This is a pertinent question when you are so preoccupied with questioning your inhabitation of space, resources and forms of capital here. What does, or can, putting down roots mean?

L: I don’t think anyone here has been capable of really putting roots down. That’s why those Nazis are always up in arms and so reactive, because they know they have very shallow roots. They may not know it intellectually but they can certainly feel it and that’s why they are so defensive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sacrifices that first migrant generations make. They come here, have a family, but in order for that family to thrive they work their butts off. So that sort of talks about a temporality that involves more than one generation. Some have had to think in terms of the longevity of the lineage, for whatever that means to them. You have to think of the past, the future and what you stand for at the present time in relation to both those things. So, if we were to think about that in terms of the migrant and us right now as a generation of migrants that negotiate what making place is (and in a way that means not having roots, given that we are not invited to make roots), we are the generation through which place is being sorted out, we have to figure out what that means. Because I see mothering as a practice that draws from cultural practice, just like writing or music is, I am focused on my son going to Indigenous ceremony and festivities. It is important for Ruben to understand himself in terms of the impermanence of being here; it’s a state of being that requires cultivating. We are here, but it is just about how we live here.

There’s no echo in any of us being here, but there is for Indigenous people. I can’t have an echo here, I have an echo that belongs somewhere else but it resonates through here. We all have an echo but we are not part of, or grounded here. It is just being overlaid over something.

If you close your eyes you will see what is really there. Exhibited as part of the group exhibition Everything Spring curated by Julia Murphy. Image courtesy of André Piguet.

F: How then do you figure the sound system, as a space-making conduit for diasporic cultural formation, in the settler context?

L: You can interact with a sound system if you are able to be vulnerable with it and engage with it.

In some ways, the sound system is a bit like the Mayan pyramid dedicated to [the/a] bird called the Quetzal: all the little steps to this temple are amongst bigger steps, that make up a pyramid shaped building. Some archeoacoustic researches say the steps going up to the top chamber of this temple are designed so that when you clap underneath it the sound of your clapping ricochets from one step to another and is amplified by the chamber in a way that mimics the sound of the call of that bird.

So, you go to a sound system event to engage with something, a narrative. Whether you want to understand it that way or not—that’s a choice, but that is its origins. As a DJ you are there to receive something from people and to give to people, it’s a cyclical thing and a sexually charged space that you are creating—a sensual space, as well as an auditory space. It’s a space where you create meaningful collective place.