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Fuck It, I’ll Do It Myself

Or, why on Earth would anyone start a sound art organization in Melbourne and call it JOLT?

Prelude: The Ladder Fallers

And so we fall — or then, there is that often shallow, sucked-out romance for DIY culture that cheap-assedly veneers over both the hardship that motivates many people to take matters into their own hands and the occasionally horrific consequences of such actions. Between 2001–2012, 78 Australians fell to their death from ladders in the home, some of them falling from disturbingly-OMG low heights (Oxley et al. 2014, 41).

As evidenced by our dear departed ladder-fallers, the DIY gods are the used car salesmen of the This-Is-Your-Life-and-How-Sweet-It-Could-Be pantheon. Ultimately those who sign up for DIY acts must accept the fine print that states: “This may not work out.”

Trial By Ordeal: Founding and Managing a DIY Sonic Arts Association

Oh God, It’s Boring

Technically speaking, JOLT is a registered sound art organisation —‹ an incorporated association. In Australia, and then within the State of Victoria, JOLT is registered with Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV). According to the CAV website, as of early October 2016, there are over 32,000 incorporated associations in Victoria:

They are clubs or community groups, operating not-for-profit, whose members have decided to give their organization a formal legal structure.… When a club or community group incorporates, it becomes a “legal person” — that is, a legal entity that stays the same even if its members change. It can enter into contracts in its own name; for example, to borrow money or buy equipment. This protects the individual members of the association from legal liabilities. (Consumer Affairs Victoria 2016)

In the context of Australia and the arts sector, becoming an incorporated organization gives you access to greater government funding and to different modes of taxation. (I am officially sleepwriting now.) To be a legal incorporated association, the organization must have a board and adhere to what is called the “Model Rules For an Incorporated Association” (published by the CAV). If you can’t sleep at night, read the rules. Clutched in the headlock of extreme sleep apnea —‹ as I am nightly —‹ I have come to know the rules quite intimately, like robots who dream of electric sheep.

This is not a viable commodity.

The document wafts into the stale corduroy funk — or the steam-pressed slacks — of bureaucratic nonsense. That a small sports club or music group has to wade through the detritus of administrative forms and other lowbrow modes of punishment and coercion is a monumental drain on the economy of the nation. Remember there are 32,000 of these entities in Victoria alone — and most of them are tiny-bit JOLT-sized things.

When organizations are that little, it is perhaps an exaggeration to refer to them as an “organization”, as they essentially function thanks to the dedication of one individual, or a tiny handful of individuals. JOLT, for example, has a board of five volunteer and long-suffering-die-hard-sonic-art-serving members, then there’s myself as director and general all-round art slave, the bookkeeper (who always gets paid) and, when the bigger events are on, other short-term contracted organizers occasionally materialize from the ether. Everyone involved in a JOLT production is a freelancer.

But the reality is that JOLT exists primarily by my own rock-breaking hard labour. If I wasn’t there it would probably end. I’ve stopped pretending otherwise.

Figure 1. Phew performing during the JOLT Festival Asia (Tokyo, Hong Kong and Macau) organized by JOLT in 2015. Image by Satomi Ito, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

Funders and governments perpetuate the cat-chasing-string-type fantasy that art can be systematized. It gives the individual bureaucrat a job. There have been various attempts by people within and without the JOLT community — myself included — to turn it into a full-fledged organization with employees and all that jazz. It hasn’t worked.

There are reasons why it hasn’t worked. The epic fail here is quite simple. JOLT is the antithesis to everything that bureaucratic institutions desire. Did I mention that we make and present cutting edge sonic art? We are not selling gold bullion here. This is not a viable commodity. The supermarket of life is not interested.

Hence the sound artist’s put down: “What’s your other job?”

The other thing that institutions really can’t stand is someone demonstrating to them how much of a waste of time some of their bureaucratic processes are. At JOLT, we put on often quite large programmes with itty-bitty tetchy-stitched funding, a few unrealistically dedicated freelance organizers sewn in tight, and a rich tapestry of some pretty stunning artists. They are all paid. For example, I co-directed the 2015 JOLT Festival Asia with Tokyo’s Test Tone Series director, Cal Lyall, and Hong Kong’s Kill the Silence Festival director, Dennis Wong. It was a relatively small festival over five nights, presented at SuperDeluxe in Tokyo, HKSC in Hong Kong and Live Music Association in Macau. The festival featured 33 artists from Japan, Hong Kong, Macau and Australia, including some seriously significant sonic art acts: Phew (Fig. 1), Yumiko Tanaka (Fig. 3), Haino Keiji, Otomo Yoshihide (Fig. 2), Philip Brophy and The Amplified Elephants (Fig. 4).

Figure 2. Otomo Yoshihide performing during the JOLT Festival Asia (Tokyo, Hong Kong and Macau) organized by JOLT in 2015. Image by Satomi Ito, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 3. Yumiko Tanaka performing during the JOLT Festival Asia (Tokyo, Hong Kong and Macau) organized by JOLT in 2015. Image by Satomi Ito, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

Over the last decade, the number and scale of arts festivals in Australia has increased exponentially and is now at plague proportions. It helps to understand the politics here, which are bound to the fact that Australia has very generous government funding systems by international standards. On paper it can look much more attractive for a government funder to give a festival a smaller amount of money for 30 artists to present shows than they would otherwise have to give to those artists individually to self-produce events featuring their work. Also, festivals tend to be better at pulling a crowd than individual artists because they can obviously spread their marketing budgets across all the projects in the festival.

There are negatives to this process, which are massively amplified when festivals proliferate beyond a sensible balance with the rest of the arts sector. Governments can unwittingly (or wittingly!) anoint creative arts warlords in this process, when the power of programming choices is given to a select few individuals working for the festivals.

Major arts organisations and festivals in Australia tend to bloat their management teams. We know this at JOLT, because the size of the team required deliver the JOLT Touring Festival 2015 in Asia over five nights in three cities in Asia was miniscule compared with other Australian festival management teams. There are many reasons for the bloating. One reason is a workplace culture in Australia where you hire a person to do a 100% of a job and then they do 80% of the job. If you got 80 out of 100 for a mathematics test you’d be pretty happy — but it truly sucks as a culture for employers. In the end, you then need to hire someone else to do the other 20% of the job, do it the fuck yourself, or give the employee an employment contact that asks them (realistically) to be doing more work than you actually and secretly expect them to do. In small “survival mode” organisations like JOLT, this tends not to happen — our organisers tend to do 150% of the job — partly because it is about survival; but also because it is about community action, a passion for the artists and arts forms, and because in the end art will save your soul from your own fallibilities.

Another reason why festivals bloat is because government-funding applications are competitive. So the next event has to be bigger and better to beat the upstarts. It creates an unsustainable wheel of fortune that spins ever faster and bigger until it breaks. Everyone is to blame in that scenario.

Then there is perhaps the most damaging reason why festivals and major arts organisations bloat their management. It tends to be specific to festivals premiering new works — just as JOLT does. This bloating occurs because the management leaders and/or board members can’t accept that they will never fully understand the art, envisage what the experience maybe like, or be confident that the art is of top quality without having seen it presented first. If the work commissioned is a premiere, then this is an impossible desire to fulfill.

The foolish solution is to micromanage the artist. This happens a lot in government funded arts organisations. In the end everyone gets annoyed — or the micromanaging dilutes the intensity of the art itself. Sonic art is often inherently impractical, time consuming to make, unrealistic and fundamentally not logically definable. These qualities are exaggerated by the intangibility of the medium of sound itself, which inhabits the domains of real time experience and invisible physics.

As the director at JOLT, I happily accept that I don’t necessarily have to understand an artwork to present it. In fact most art isn’t comprehensible or complete until it is presented. Most of what I book I don’t understand when I book it! If I did understand something before it was presented, I’d either not be presenting “contemporary” — premiered — works, or the work itself would probably be lacking in depth. Presenters have to trust artists to deliver. Book the artist and get out of the way — rather than micromanaging artists with large management teams. At JOLT we trust the artists we book. We build long relationships with them — not just presenting once and see you later. Programmes and strategies exist where artists who are not well known can enter the JOLT community. That’s how we do it. It works really well.

And it is waaaaay less to manage.

Community ethics can be more efficient and save the day. You just need to believe. Major arts organisations and festivals would do well to remember: there can be no community well-being without trust.

There is this awesomely shit thing that happens with the bigger festivals, where programmers will say to local Australian acts: “You can present something, but you have to find funding for it.” In the case of the Melbourne Festival, we are talking about an entity that receives multimillion-dollar grants from various tiers of government — and yet they still can’t pay their artists. Clearly they are not particularly good at balancing their budgets with their ethics. It’s a horror-WTF moment for government funders who can end up paying twice for the production of an act that is programmed only once in the Festival: once to the festival management for the festival to deliver the multifaceted program; and then separately again for each small arts organisation or artist to deliver their individual show within the same festival. Oh my, ’tis a pretty mess.

The solution for the Melbourne Festival is simple in a straight-and-narrow, let’s-all-be-frank-about-this kind of blue, of course:

  1. Present fewer events;
  2. Pay collaborators and invited artists properly.

What the larger art bureaucracies tend not to understand is that a poor relationship between budget and ethics will corrode the quality of art that you can present. Why? Because the quality artists will find something else to do. Merzbow doesn’t need JOLT. He’s got plenty of other offers on the go. And so it is with arts bureaucracies. Presenting rubbish will wipe you out.

Figure 4. The Amplified Elephants performing during the JOLT Festival Asia (Tokyo, Hong Kong and Macau) organized by JOLT in 2015. Image by Satomi Ito, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

In the context of DIY, JOLT’s greatest failure — that it can never be properly bureaucratized — is its greatest David-vs-Goliath-like strength. The fact is that we can far more easily balance the budget-ethics-art equation because we are DIY in our DNA, threaded through and through. In most DIY scenarios, you make what you can with the resources you have available. You find out very quickly that you must be ethical about those resources, because: a) they are so limited in the first place; and b) you will lose the support of the community that is keeping you alive if you don’t remain utterly accountable and transparent.

And there is ever-present danger of the flop: and if you flop too hard it can obliterate your happy, little sound art thang. In the making and presentation of sonic art, every performance really is your last show. If that sonic thang sucks, the sonic art community abandons ship and you are left with no reason to continue — and, quite possibly, a nasty little debt. Low-flying presenters in this paradigm must treat their artists well. Those artists are the life-blood future breathers of your thang, and they must be given every opportunity to present their very best work. Otherwise the whole thing falls apart.


When considering the occasional utter madness of Australian arts bureaucracy, one can see why something like JOLT was inevitable. As David Graeber writes: “Paperwork is supposed to be boring” (2015, 51). If you as an artist — or pretty much anyone in modern Australian society — don’t fill out the requisite forms, then you won’t get to taste the fat carrot so sweetly dangled in front of you. No form, no access. Paperwork can be a mode of exclusion and can wipe out a whole range of potential artists from the arts management system. Last I heard, being a great artist didn’t require a long and personal history of arts management training.

And yet the application forms must be filled out.

This absurd double standard always leaves me rubbing my eyes: artists don’t expect arts management people to spend years of their life perfecting an art form or technique, so why do arts management people expect artists to be highly skilled administrators? It comes down to exclusion: “You didn’t fill out the form properly. Your application is invalid. We will not support your work.”

Figure 5. Tom Oakes performing in the Noise Scavengers’ work THE DESERT at the Valley Mill in Geelong, Australia on 10 July 2010. Image by Tim McNeilage, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

So let me be really clear about this: At JOLT, artists strictly do not fill out forms to propose their work to us. Now you know why. It is up to myself and the JOLT network to make the effort to be actively engaged with the community so that we can learn about what people are doing and how it might be something that can be shared through JOLT.

This mode of action, though, comes at its own cost. How, for example, would JOLT find out about some remarkable, divine, shining-light artist, if that artist — being visionary and formidable — is struggling to get a gig in the first place?

We have strategies for that. In 2008, we started a sound art workshop with young people from Northern Geelong, a particularly low socio-economic-depressing-no-public-transport-nothing-to-do-on-the-edge-of-oblivion-shotgun-slung region of Australia. For most of the young people attending the workshops, the notion of tertiary education in any field — let alone the field of music — was an impossibility.

Entities such as JOLT are useful for challenging bigger institutions to be better at what they do.

Eventually the workshop became known as the Noise Scavengers, a name chosen by one of the participants, Tom Oakes (Fig. 5). In recent years, the Noise Scavengers (Fig. 6) have become an in-house ensemble at JOLT for emerging sound artists. Without JOLT, those young artists would have had few pathways into the Australian arts sector.

By its very nature contemporary arts practice is defined by processes of exclusion. A composer must consider the material they will not include in their piece. Compositional limitation is a virtue espoused quite famously by Stravinsky, who felt that great limitation makes great art (2003, 65).

JOLT exists exclusively for sound art — let’s not be coy about that. It’s a form of exclusion: we don’t do pop music or Classical or IDM. As an artist, I’m pretty touchy, maybe even slightly overstrung on the whole caper, as I have been particularly burnt by unfair modes of exclusion. JOLT has therefore been actively very inclusive about what sound art might be. Our mission defines sound art as an act that prioritizes sonic creativity. Our programming style has backed this up: we have presented a range of music genres as extreme as traditional Japanese music, gamelan, alternative rock, punk, digital glitch, DJs, hip hop, doom metal, indigenous Australian music, noise music, singer-songwriters, art music, orchestral music, opera and on and on. When considered alongside sound presenters world-wide, JOLT stands out as being one of the most inclusive.

Figure 6. Performance by the Noise Scavengers of their work THE DESERT at the Valley Mill in Geelong, Australia on 10 July 2010. Image by Tim McNeilage, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

JOLT delivers other forms of hardline exclusion. For example we refuse to present shit stuff. No thanks. It just pisses everyone off, including the person making the shit stuff. However, the difference between our modes of exclusion and those modes of exclusion that I consider poor form is that at JOLT we have thought about how our modes of exclusion fit into the broader arts sector fabric. Poor form exclusion tends to be thoughtless. It plays out like this: if mainstream arts bureaucracies are going to promote safe, popular, easily predictable, financially viable, bureaucracy-friendly work, then JOLT seeks to exclude all of the above from its agenda. As much as I respect her musical abilities, Taylor Swift is “never, ever, ever getting” a gig with JOLT — “Like, ever…”

Unlike the eons of networked rebels head-banging against pyramids of organization, JOLT does not view the bureaucracy as inherently unnecessary. JOLT’s position is that bureaucracies and DIY networks should coexist, and that they very much need each other. Being based in Melbourne, Australia, JOLT is accountable to numerous institutions, including Consumer Affairs Victoria and the Australian Tax Office. This is a good thing. It makes it really hard for us to be corrupt bastards. Conversely, entities such as JOLT are useful for challenging bigger institutions to be better at what they do. And yes, they do require just a tad of improvement.

As much as I hate filling in unnecessary forms, I am quite happy to fill in the necessary ones. So while there is an anarchistic streak to JOLT, that streak is really about giving the art the space it needs to be great. We are not an anti-establishment mechanism. We are thankful that many bureaucratic interventions have done enormous good in the world:

The European social welfare state, with its free education and universal healthcare, can justly be considered — as Pierre Bourdieu once remarked — one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. (Graeber 2015, 82)

DIY Is Not Necessarily a Choice

As the Noise Scavengers will tell you, some choose DIY and some have it thrust upon them. Indeed, it has not been by choice, but rather by necessity that I have haunted the DIY sales yard of the Olympians. The bald fact is that as a young composer, fresh out of university, no one was interested in my music. These were pre-social media times — the Dark Ages in living memory — and that keyword “exclusion” was thick in the air. At that time you either had to write a letter or call someone if you were hunting for some space to get something on. The simple task of contacting a venue’s booking official was outrageously tough and extremely time-consuming. In fact, it was often quite difficult to even know who to contact at the venue. If you wrote to them or tried to call, you rarely got through. Or, if you did manage: “We are not seeking any new bookings at this time.” In the end you had to know someone who knew someone. And that is a popularity contest.

Figure 7. Courtney Hall and Matt Hall performing in the Noise Scavengers’ work Dark Light Meditations at the Courthouse Arts in Geelong, Australia on 4–5 October 2013. Image by Leiko Manalang, ©JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

As a young composer in Australia, with limited prospects, I came to the realization that I would either have to give up my art or get on and organise it myself: find the musicians, pay the musicians, book the venue, advertise the event — you know the rest.

Having signed up with the DIY gods — with their gold rings and their cheap suits — and having hightailed it out of the parking lot of broken composers, I soon found myself surrounded by all manner of irrational societal roadblocks.

Upon departing the bosom of the music institution the soon-to-become alumnus is bequeathed the one and only universal truth: that Australian society absolutely, and quite actively, does not want you to be a composer. Everything else in the arts is mildly tolerable — but not the composer.

One particular obstruction that continues to feed into Australian culture’s general composer-hate malaise became a prime motivator for the creation of JOLT. I call that particular roadblock “the researcher’s inside voice”.

Don't Use Your Outside Voice

It is truly bizarre that academia still aggressively seeks to use the researcher’s inside voice to write and research a range of social activities that by definition are antithetical to the very fabric of the researcher’s inside voice: keep your sentences succinct, remove the poetry, keep your interpretation of the data to a minimum, footnote the context, be scientific.

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. (Cage 1961, 3).

Not every academic submits to the “researcher’s inside voice” agenda, of course. There is Instructional Technologist Jim Groom, with the Edupunk DIY education agenda; and there is Open Space Magazine, led by Ben Boretz, dialogist of all things sonic thought-related.

And this is not to dismiss the immense value of traditional academic modes of writing and sharing ideas. Rather, I suggest that the perceptual field and scale of knowledge exchange can be massively expanded by including the rigours of academic language amidst a diversity of communication forms and idioms — and under the banner of legitimate hard-fought research.

We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of “sound effects” recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any one of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. (Cage 1961, 3)

There is also the issue of relevance. How relevant is it to discuss DIY culture in the researcher’s inside voice? And is it not the case that research lives and dies by its relevance?

Researchers should understand — and indeed many do — that for those practitioners in the field of sound culture — and specifically DIY sound culture — the colonizing attitudes of academic culture can be a little offensive. Whilst celebrating the value of rigorous research, we must also acknowledge that sounds from the street were born there for a reason.




Big Dollar Bills, Please

There are serious economic inequalities at play here: between the subject and author; between that which is researched and the privilege of being paid to research. I understand them well, as I maintain an ongoing merry-go-round relationship with the practitioner and researcher career paths.

Australian Researchers on a full-time, paid fellowship contract can receive upwards of AU$72,000 per annum. That was my income in the first year of my own fellowship at the University of Melbourne (2012–14). This figure sits, however, at the low end of Australian research fellowship income. Conversely, the average wage of an artist in Australia (across all art forms and genres) was AU$32,000 in 2006 (Cunningham et al. 2010, 4). This figure includes megastars of the art world with massive earnings. If you were to remove this very small percentage of high-paid artists, then the average artist’s average income is negligible for the year 2006.

Did I mention that sound artists in Australia aren’t megastars?

A researcher in the sonic arts field will typically have to meet a range of publishing Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to pass their annual employment performance review, which is a standard assessment in Australian universities. The researcher will be expected to publish in leading academic journals — and specifically in journals that only publish the inside researcher’s voice: no outsider gallivanting allowed.

The reality is that the sonic researcher needs the sonic practitioner to undertake their practice — and to take all the financial and career risk in delivering that practice. The researcher also then needs the artist to share their highly precious knowledge, attained by the artist through often agonizing sacrifices made for their art. Researchers therefore need to be very sensitive to the ethics of the practitioner-researcher relationship — and specifically to the implicit economic imbalances.

One could argue that research is like journalism: that the researcher should have no obligation to the subject of the research; that the researcher should be a detached observer. But the laws of quantum physics have exploded in Hadron colliders: we know that the observer can never be separated from the observed.

Mindful of this 21st-century take on reality, I offer that there is a time for the distanced (though never fully impartial) observer and there is a time for the embedded participant, and that both modalities can yield high-quality research outcomes. It’s not that the DIY, punk approach should annihilate all other forms of research articulating DIY. Rather, if we are seriously intending to broaden our knowledge base, then we must be prepared to broaden our articulation base — and our language. The ways in which we value and talk about ideas should be worldly and expansive in their lexicon, and diverse in their manifestation.



It is also about power. If, unlike Donald Trump, you accept the notion that qualified knowledge is power, then mechanisms for the creation and dissemination of knowledge can become instruments of control. Artists, as with many disenfranchised demographics, are particularly susceptible to being exposed to the underbelly of such knowledge control. All it takes is for arts sector bureaucracies — and particularly government arts funders — to set a programming agenda “based on research” for whole communities of artists to fall out of vogue, and into debt.

Knowledge control has many manifestations for artists. One instance that sticks clearly in my own mind is that, as a young artist, I was essentially ineligible for a credit card. Then, at the age of 39, I took on a research job. My, how the bank gods smiled: “Welcome to the real world, my formerly false, unwanted composer son.” And thus they verily bestowed upon my noggin a real passport and a true citizenship — in the form of my very own and very, very real credit card, with real borrowed money, from the real Neverland of real pretend cash, for a real boy like me; all in luminous genuflection.

So what, then, is the real language of research? Is it enough to write up a shopping list of chosen facts? A book of articles about punk culture written entirely in uptight academic prose does seem to be missing the point in a Stepford Wives kind of way. These are very important questions — and especially when considering the rising academic investment in researching DIY culture.


Clearly the solution is to more actively include the artist and their work in the processes of the research. In the present article about DIY culture, we could argue that JOLT has been an art experiment in which DIY methodologies have been applied to the presentation of sonic arts events. In articulating the knowledge learnt from this process I am quite comfortable with naming artists such as Phew or Merzbow here, because JOLT paid them properly and included them in the JOLT DIY process. Artists such as these have advised JOLT — either directly in dialogue or through their arts practice — on how they wish to be presented, on their concert programme structures, on what DIY culture means to them, on cultural inflections within sonic art, on audience engagement, and so on. We were incredibly grateful to those artists for this opportunity. I am of the well-informed view that it is this sort of engaged and embedded action that will underpin the most useful arts research into the future.

Somewhere along the potholed road of my life, having witnessed institutions colonize arts practice, and then having witnessed them delegitimize independent artists through instruments of exclusion, bureaucratization and research, a blood vessel burst in my brain and thankfully slapped me into action.

Making JOLT — Making It Sound Real

And so it was, as a PhD student embedded in the nonsense of institutional-think, that I founded JOLT Arts — a sound art intervention — in 2007, which was registered officially as an association in 2008. JOLT is DIY in its soul and is literally made out of repatched artists, gaffer tape, audio cables, broken instruments, recycled junk and previously loved office furniture.

The reality is that JOLT was born in a pique of desperation. With limited outlets for my music, with grave concerns about the legitimacy of arts management systems and research practices in the sonic arts, with little faith in collegiality of fellow sound artists and supreme disappointment in mainstream institutions for the arts, I came to that most inevitable of DIY epitaphs:

Fuck it, I’ll just do it myself.

It shall sit writ stubbornly upon my stone.

There was a self-centredness to my initial JOLT agenda: I wanted to write music and have it performed. As I sit here I wonder why this ambition could be thought a problem in the first place: “Oh, you started your own organization to play your own music? How selfish of you!” In the arts scene they call it “vanity programming”. So that was the problem: people didn’t like the entrepreneurialism of it. But isn’t that what people do? What if I had instead said: “I wanted to create Italian cuisine, so I opened an Italian restaurant.” Would that be considered vanity programming too? Why is it that artists are asked to create businesses that serve everyone else? Aren’t they allowed to run their own arts practice as a business?

Under rational inspection, none of it makes any sense.

However, when I started booking acts for our 2007 JOLT Concert Series, I soon learnt that the majority of sound artists JOLT booked felt similarly disenfranchised and disillusioned by arts and research institutions.

It would be easy to blame the institutions for the woes of struggling artists. Part of the problem that JOLT has faced throughout its life is that many sound artists themselves are apathetic. Perhaps the abuse has been so complete for these artists that they have felt annihilated and unable to act.

It was in the worst behaviour of my sound artist colleagues that I saw a mirror to myself — of what I could become if I folded to the temptation of hopelessness. These thoughts challenged me, and others working through JOLT, to only make sound art born of right motivation. We therefore emphasized our work with community arts — the Noise Scavengers for example — and placed acts from community backgrounds alongside hard-nosed sonic æsthetes.

In some ways this was a challenge to the sound art scene in Melbourne — an ethical jolt. If the Noise Scavengers were delivering work that was consistently more engaging than that of an established sound artist, then you might find that sound artist reconsidering their chosen career. It’s brutal in a way — but undeniably healthy for the sonic art community in the long run.

DIY In Sonic Action

So what form does this breed of sound art take? What is right motivation in sound art? What sort of event embodies the DIY non-institutional modus operandi?

Sonic Flock (2013) was partly a response to these questions and partly a response to John Cage’s Musicircus. In Cage’s 1967 work, musicians, bands and ensembles of varying sonic afflictions are invited to perform separate works simultaneously, creating a rich, postmodern tapestry of stylistic collisions. Each performance of the work can be thought of as a snapshot of a sonic arts community at a given moment in time. The score deliberately leaves the performers’ choice of content entirely open and free. It also suggests that the performer play for free, something with which I entirely disagree.

As JOLT Artistic Director I meditated much on the notion of community action in sonic art: Musicircus was a beginning for this thought process, but it wasn’t an end. Through listening to various performances of Musicircus, I came to understand that the overwhelming cacophony of competing interests could — quite justifiably — be interpreted as manifesting the horrors of communities who don’t listen to each other — for societies who don’t value their sonic cultures.

In creating Sonic Flock, the JOLT organisers deliberately turned away from this horror — preferring to deliberately hold the artist up as someone that JOLT wished to thank for their years of toil; and for their miraculous artistry. This was, from JOLT’s perspective, sonic articulation of right motivation.

Was it also research?

“Sonic Flock” — Artwork as Mythic Essay

On some subliminal level I have always found the desire to methodologize artmaking and the practice-led research of artmaking as almost erotically violent. Art won’t submit to the repeating thrusts of methodolization. The inherent nature of contemporary art — and contemporary sound art — is that the ways of making are constantly in flux. This flux is a necessary by-product of the milieu of individual artists seeking to find their own unique voice and way of making.

We need to let go of the 20th-century academic obsession with methodology. There is a difference between thinking creatively about a methodology and using methodological systems as mechanisms of legitimacy, control and power mongering. At JOLT we seek to think about the methodology or process as it is unfolding: focus on what works and do not problematize the process. But don’t take it from me — Paul Feyerabend wrote about it more than 40 years ago:

The idea of a method that contains firm, unchanging and absolutely binding principles for conducting the business of science meets considerable difficulty when confronted with the results of historical research. (Feyerabend 2010 [1975], 7)

Then I was a young man reading To Kill a Mockingbird written by a young woman as if she were a girl who could write like a god. And lured I was: and ignorant somehow. Or the gravity of Bo Radley — that urbanely mythic form at the heart of the Mockingbird’s tale:

Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions. (Lee 1974, 17)

Sonic Flock (2013) was a Trojan Horse project, designed to engage with the mythic and to pick the locks of consciousness guarded by our often unwittingly innocent audience members. The Melbourne Festival (who didn’t pay the artists — JOLT did) promoted the event in their delightful festival way (see Sidebar).

The fundamental premise of the work was oxymoronic in that the “spirit of community” — of the collective gathering — was told through one-on-one artist-audience engagement. This project was designed to be a mythic experience that could not be fully understood by the rational mind.

We find then that there is not a single rule, however plausible, and however firmly grounded in epistemology, that is not violated at some time or other. It becomes evident that such violations are not accidental events, they are not results of insufficient knowledge or of inattention which might have been avoided. (Feyerabend 2010, 7)

The capacity for the audience to predict outcomes was constantly subverted. Artists were rotated through the teepees according to a detailed schedule, but audience members were not informed about which artist was to be in which teepee at which time. Once having seen an act, an audience member would not be able to revisit that act. Literal repetition of experience — predictability — was avoided in the content of the sound works performed. Performers, who were responsible for generating their content for the work, prioritized change over literal repetition, focussing their energies primarily on free improvisation and structured improvisation. Performers received instructions from me as the director for the project as to what material they could play. Instructions were delivered in ways that allowed performers freedom in interpretation, but were also designed to focus the broader argument of the collective experience as a whole.

From the score for Sonic Flock:

Sound from within each tepee will be audible outside the tent. People walking through the Atrium will hear a texture of muffled sound coming from the tepees, and this effect is a deliberate feature of the work. The volume will not be loud…

Artists should perform something that has a degree of space (i.e. silence or long notes) so that the sounds from the other tepees can interlock together: This contrasts the work with the accidental sonic crash and bash of John Cage’s Musicircus. Artists should listen to each other across the tents and think about how synergy can be preferenced amidst the random combinations of sonic events that will necessarily arise. Artists can be amplified but the amp/speaker should be small enough to fit in the tent, and must be battery powered. Acoustic sound is preferred over amplified sound. Individual performances should generally be on the quiet side, but I don’t want to limit artists too tightly here.

Here are some requirements to do with the functional limitations of the performance:

When no audience member is in the tent, the artist inside the tepee will occasionally strike a bell. Neil McLachlan’s Federation Bells will be provided. The ringing of bells will create a collective spacious texture across all the tents. When someone enters the tent the artist allows the bell to ring out and then performs their piece for the audience member. Pieces should be relatively short — not longer than 5 minutes. This boundary is given with a little freedom. For some improvised ideas, once started, may resist the 5-minute limitation. Serve the idea first.

Ushers will guide audience members in and out of the tepees, and a large gong will sound every 20 minutes to demarcate time and cue tent changes.

The result for audiences was that — as proposed by Søren Kierkegaard — no experience could be recalled, or literally repeated, as it was — only experiences new in their moment could be found. Perhaps this is true of all experience. Kierkegaard’s argument was that no experience could be revisited — that all phenomena are constantly in flux and that everything is evaporating with each passing moment (Kierkegaard 1983).

Sonic Flock embodied the transitory nature of existence — and from a mythical basis. Being large black pyramids, the Sonic Flock teepees promoted the archetype of the semi-permanent “private” space associated with pre-industrial, nature-spirit cultures (Fig. 8). From my own perspective, the teepees conjured childhood memories of inventing elaborate adventures around sand castles and dug holes by the sea. Those games for me were a playful form of passing over from the corporeal world of the hot summer beach to the mythic world of embodied imagination.

Figure 8. James Hullick’s Sonic Flock (2013) at Federation Square during the Melbourne Festival 2013. Image by Tim McNeilage, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

Thus our Sonic Flock teepees became little spaces of psychic teleportation — places of passing over. The shamanic was something celebrated through the planning of the project. I was careful to choose performers who were shamanic in their own way. Here we have a challenge for the empiricists: by what criterion does one select shamanic performers? I relied on what I would call qualified instinct. I chose performers who I had personally experienced as shamanic in their way, but I also chose performers who were sonic adventurers — people who were committed to discovering new sonic methods, sonic vocabularies and modes of auditory expression. In this way I would ensure that the average street level punter (probably not an aficionado of cutting-edge sonic creativity) would receive an experience that was alien to their normal sonic life. In providing an aural context for leaving “known experience” behind, the spirit of sonic adventuring assisted the individual audience members to travel through the gateway of the shaman performer — our Minotaur: half human, half myth — to a refined abstract creative space. In this way, the lock of the conscious mind (both of performer and audient) could be “picked” and the deep well of the unconscious mind potentially revealed.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of recent discussions in the history and philosophy of science is the realization that events and developments such as the invention of atomization in antiquity, the Copernican Revolution, the rise of modern atomism…, the gradual emergence of the wave theory of light, occurred only because some thinkers either decided not to be bound by certain “obvious” methodological rules, or because they unwittingly broke them. (Feyerabend 2010, 7)

One secret to maintaining the shamanic openness of my fellow Minotaurs was to never mention anything to do with the mythic, Minotaurs, shamanism or the unconscious. To ruminate on such things would have killed the magic. As a director, I trusted my selection of shamans and respected that it might be important for them to find their shamanic natures through the handling of the material itself. In this way our Minotaur (performer) and our Theseus (audient) could share the moment of adventure together in a non-didactic and non-bullshit way.

Figure 9. James Hullick with a listener in James Hullick’s Sonic Flock (2013), presented in Federation Square during the Melbourne Festival 2013. Image by Tim McNeilage, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

The space within the teepees was carefully designed. I created an initial model, which was about three-quarters the size of the final model. I then engaged my colleague Richie Allen (one of the Sonic Flock artists and also a mechanical engineer) to help me complete the task. It was DIY all the way. Together we resolved teepees into their final form. The teepee walls were made of thick black car carpet. The carpet was bolted to an aluminum frame in such a way that the aluminum could not be seen from the inside of the teepee. Thus the performer and audience member shared a primordial, undefined space (Fig. 9); clarity of form within each teepee space was muddied due to the dark black and slightly concave walls. The roof of the space was open to the heavens. Archetypally speaking, this heavenly orifice could be thought of as a doorway to the mythic. These design features enhanced the poetry of the teepee’s inner space, which encoded the performer with the context of shamanic rite and which allowed the transition from the tiny teepee space to the infinite realms of the untethered mind. Just as people might be listening together across our clustered little black booths, they might also be flying together against the infinite blue as one sonic flock collectively imagining.

The whole process had a rather beautiful effect on audiences and performers alike. For many, the archetypal heart of the project — this gathering of sonic dreambirds — was magnetic.

The Radley Place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner, a safe distance from the Radley gate. There he would stand, his arm around the fat pole, staring and wondering. (Lee 1974, 14)

Just like Dill, captivated outside the Radley Place, visitors to the Sonic Flock would float about the general area of our teepee stampede before being reeled in by gentle mythic reckonings.

The great experience for me as a performer within the project was having the opportunity of performing for my two little daughters, aged five and two-and-an-itty-bit at the time. Their eyes were wide like moons as their father made primordial vocalisations and activated a tray of little-boy hoardings to fill the pockets picked: small motors and found sounds. I gazed upon their giant, leaping imaginations drifting about celestially, arcing through the “undiscovered country”.

Richie Allen, who built the teepees with me, also performed, and he included in his array of handmade electronic gadgets a rather cheeky Merlin doll. This little Merlin was a prophet of sorts. The user could ask Merlin a question and then push a button for an answer. In one particular performance Richie encouraged a couple to ask Merlin a question:

WOMAN: Will my business survive?


WOMAN: Oh no! What should we do?

RICHIE: Maybe it’s just that the business won’t survive in its current form. Maybe you should ask Merlin something else.

WOMAN: Ok. Will my business succeed overseas?

MERLIN: Absolutely.

[Cue argument between the woman and her partner about moving overseas.]

And somehow it seems healthy that people can unlock themselves through the safety of creative cultural experiences. Maybe Merlin was a healthy way for the woman and her partner to have what might otherwise have been a far more difficult — or, alternatively, avoided — conversation.

Shamans come in many forms; indeed, if Joseph Campbell’s view that all beings are manifestations of the essential force of the universe (Campbell 2003), then all beings become potentially shamanic when their locks have been picked. This point informed the choice to include The Amplified Elephants in the project. The Amplified Elephants is an ensemble of sound artists with intellectual disabilities that I work with at the Footscray Community Arts Centre (Hullick 2013). The Elephants have performed in JOLT events since JOLT’s first concert series in 2007.

Individual members of the Elephants have each had to find ways around their cognitive challenges so as to get by in life. As a result, many members of the group have developed heightened imaginations — such that their imagination, can, at times, dominate the reality of their daily existence. While this trait may present problems for some of the pragmatic activities in life, the power of heightened imagination is incredibly useful for sonic art making. It is also incredibly useful for unpicking the closed minds of the rest of us. I think here of Jay Euesden’s performances for Sonic Flock — with a whistle, some chopsticks and a few bits and bobs (Fig. 10). Jay (Amplified Elephant extraordinaire) played one work — a structured improvisation — throughout the two days of the project. It was the sort of piece that anyone could play — but that no one could play like Jay. French composer Erik Satie (1866–1925) became obsessed with writing minimal “naïve” music — particularly for piano. In comparing Jay’s performance with the intentions of Satie’s minimal works, I would say that for Satie sonic innocence was an unachievable desire, whereas for Jay, his innocence and emptiness of affectation was utterly embodied: nature expresses a liberation from consciousness through Jay. This points to why Jay and the other Elephants were crucial contributors to the mythic agenda.

Figure 10. Jay Euesden of the Amplified Elephants performing in James Hullick’s Sonic Flock (2013), presented in Federation Square during the Melbourne Festival 2013. Image by Tim McNeilage, © JOLT. [Click image to enlarge]

These comments give some insight as to how a sonic work can be constructed as an essay articulating a contribution to knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps the most unconventional feature of the Sonic Flock “artwork as essay” is that the audience is not expected to comprehend the essay’s experience consciously. Sonic Flock was not a rationalist thesis, but a quietly designed, intuitive experience, where the ambition of the work resided not in James Hullick (Fig. 9, above) — director and vision master imparting knowledge from the mount — but in an ambition that performers and audiences might unlock knowledge of themselves together, and as a community — knowledge that might never find its expression through words or pictures. Indeed, the whole Sonic Flock project was a machine to encourage inner realisation: to seek thyself. Isn’t this, after all, the great mission of the research institution? To learn of ourselves communally through the pollination of education, research and the making of things, experiences and ideas; to come to know our individual selves more intimately through the works of the many and our own personalized, reflective DIY hard work.

Reflecting on Sonic Flock, now some years passed, I recall the magical wonder of people making culture — situated in a busy city square, with the machinations of life roaring all around. In pondering that memory I see a golden thread that passed through our humble project, stretched out into millennia hence of auditory gatherings, and woven stretched back through the ages to the dawn of these maddening sapiens.

And so I am reminded: there was DIY sound before there was institutionalized sound: the ancients will tell you so, through artifacts made by hand and spun in eons; those forgotten hands that have incrementally made your precious abilities so possible and real.

Remember them gratefully. And be careful when you’re climbing ladders tilted uncomfortably on their backs.


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