Interpelled: A Conversation with Victoria Estok
The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.
Hypersonic Sound (HSS) is a directional speaker that projects a narrow laser of audible material. If you’re in its beam, you hear it. It’s like hearing a message from one’s own conscience. Victoria Estok’s ongoing artistic intervention, Interpelled, employs technology that brings sound, seemingly out of nowhere, to beam onto a listener. Where and to whom she’s using this technology is key.
As a sound artist and environmental worker, I believe sound and voice can interrupt, influence, and ultimately intervene at key moments in ways other intervention art strategies can’t.
Estok’s sonic interventions span across a decade between her attending UN meetings—first in 2000 as a student activist and then in 2010 at the COP16 where she intruded upon delegates with her HSS technologies. At first, she beamed the sound of rhetorical talking points she recorded (and tediously slogged through) from her first COP.
“In the context of COP16, I saw—and continue to see—this strategy as having potential to yield poignant and surprising reflections and, hopefully, responses,” she says of her strategies.
Sounds needed to be recognizable to an international population attending the meetings. Consistent audio had to be simple yet poignant. It also had to be human-voice oriented because the frequency requirements of HSS limit other sounds.
“And then one night it came to me as I was walking downtown. Passing me in a car the brief sound of children’s voices jolted me out of my train of thought. I realized, in that moment, that the voices of playing children translates no matter what your nationality and was both a sound and a voice that speaks to the heart. Under the looming climate crisis, projecting the joyous voices of children laughing and playing at COP16 resonated both intellectually and emotionally.”
Experiences in presenting Interpelled are mixed: there’s confusion; fear of physical harm; disdain at potential manipulation given that HSS has its own history for military control and surveillance. Her ethics and aesthetics are being questioned. And yet Estok’s approach is towards the soul, the heart of the listener.
Pause and deeply listen
There’s a distinction between different kinds of protest: signage, as Estok explored in her first COP activism, and then, subsequently, beamed sound as conscious message. Rhetoric at political events was once innovative, but is now commonplace, easy to ignore, and arguably ineffective, Estok suggests. It seems the unexpected is more powerful.
Her goal with Interpelled is to call out towards attendees with poignant sound of children at play. To enter a dimension of mystery, she wants delegates to pause and deeply listen.
Try to imagine what it’s like to use this technology and one circles back to how we take for granted these communicative and sonic gear. There’s a bridge between what we do in everyday life and what Victoria Estok is intentionally doing with this project and these tools. Climate crisis seems to call for this urgency and this artistic intrusion. Delegates respond depending on what sounds were beamed at them. How to decide, artistically, what to steer their way, cannot be rushed. It is a quiet practice of intervention.
Estok says it’s like hearing an intuition.
It reminds of Dorothea Lange’s sentiment: A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
An Audible Gesture
On the crepuscular winter solstice, 2017, Victoria Estok and Earlid’s curator, Joan Schuman, explore Interpelled and sounds emanating out of nowhere, and a consideration of the heart of the listener.
Joan: What’s the first question people ask you about the project?
Joan: It’s interesting as it raises the question of are we being clear about our own relationships with technology. People may say your use is surreptitious, even a little spooky, and yet we’re being surveilled all the time through our technologies and people don’t question that, like it’s a fine place to be. How do you respond to people who say that what you’re doing sounds creepy?
Victoria: I try to get them to articulate exactly what they think is creepy about it. What generally has come up has been this idea of mind-control. They imagine I’d be using this speaker and putting thoughts in people’s minds and that it would be against their will. When doing this project, using this technology in different ways outside of the COP UN meeting in Cancun, revealed confusing reactions. It was hard not to get discouraged. But that’s where we’re at, as a whole, as humanity. We don’t understand auditory communication. All these confusing reactions are understandable. Listening is really hard. Really understanding where someone is coming from is even harder. It’s more about deeply mapping these behavioral responses in the hopes of getting us closer to understanding how we can use sound as artistic material.
Joan: The project has an air of mystery. People don’t know where the sound is coming from, it’s disconcerting. That relates to intentionally making it mysterious. What’s the impact when you hypersonic laser them with COP talking points vs. when you steer sounds of children laughing, playing and giggling? The divide between the two would have a different impact, I imagine.
Victoria: For sure. I thought a lot about these divides. I wrestled with getting access to meetings. At one point I thought there would be collaboration with NGOs until I realized they were more fascinated with the technology. That they just wanted me to hand over the technology to them, to blast, rapid-fire, these propaganda talking points, or these updates coming out of these meetings, in order to influence outcomes.
Joan: They wanted to take on your technology, to steal it away from you without realizing you were making a statement, an artistic statement? What was your response?
Victoria: We didn’t collaborate. We did not work together! It was important to me that this not be used to promote propaganda. I wanted to create an experience that a listener would feel compelled to sort through and make sense of on their own. There’s a place for talking points; I wanted to reach to a different place inside my listener.
There were many people I reached out to while I was researching the project. In the end, it was just me. There was a lot of consideration. To have collaborators would have been so encouraging. By the end of the project, I went inside myself. I was confused by all the reactions, to the technology itself, that I became depressed by it.
Joan: There’s pressure to do the project, there’s also pressure to affect change, somehow, to see if the project has an impact. You have suggested that you have your own haunting voices about climate crisis. I find that a compelling part of the motivation for the piece, but also a compelling part of the ongoing experience of attempting to do this project.
Victoria: Even in some of our correspondence for Earlid you made the point of how both Anna Friz and I approach the idea of environmental ruin in our work. That’s where we exist. The best we can do at this point is connect our hearts and minds, connect to other people, try to be as least destructive as possible.
Joan: You had this 10-year window between the two UN meetings that you went to, from 2000 to 2010, and now, almost another 10-year period is passing. What has changed and what has stayed the same, for you as an artist, for using these technologies and sonic materials, and dare we ask, environmentally?
Victoria: I think I used to have a lot more hope that we would move in the right direction environmentally. I don’t have that hope anymore.
Joan: Did it get worse this year?
Victoria: Oh yes. There was a time where the evidence wasn’t so in your face. Based on what scientists were saying at the first COP meeting I went to in 2000, I learned that the 10-year window would reveal the effect of climate crisis. If you were paying attention, you’d see it. Now it’s 2017, and if you follow any environmental reporting, the question comes up, “What can we do?”
This is going to feel like a weird tangent. Within the past few weeks, I’ve heard from several loved ones who are going through incredible tragic circumstances. A friend has Stage 4 lung cancer; another friend’s brother died suddenly; another friend was expecting to have a healthy baby girl and delivered a stillborn; another old friend is succumbing to Alzheimers. In all those situations, they’re tragic and heart-wrenching, but the hopeful side is that our humanity shows more, we’re really present, aware of our being alive in this very instant. Who we love and hold dear becomes clear. The veil is lifted.
Joan: In earlier writing about Interpelled, you ask, “If we associate personal experience with what we hear, then those unexpected sounds take on figurative existence.” You could switch words out of that sentence and replace with these personal tragedies you’re talking about. And yet climate crisis is an enormous tragedy and it’s affecting everybody.
There’s a connection, then, too, about the very sounds that you chose to steer towards people. First the talking points, but then this idea of future humanity represented by the sounds of children at play. I thought this was the most poignant approach that nobody could possibly miss that. Was there a moment when you were steering one kind of sound towards people vs. the other, that you saw any change in their demeanor, their being intruded upon by those different kinds of sounds?
Victoria: It was logistically tricky to project these sounds and not be detected and find these moments when I could intervene between their head space and their heart space. The COP meetings would go late into the night, so I would look for a moment when the noise of these conference halls was quieter (there were side events I could get into, so I was lingering about). So when someone would be leaving late at night—one or a small number of people, walking to a bus or back to their hotel or to the cafeteria for a bite to eat—I noticed that often there would be a pause. There would be a looking up, a looking around with the sounds of children laughing and playing. A slowing down.
Joan: It seems perhaps how you decided to use that sound was your own slowing down? Sometimes within the artistic process we try so hard to nail it down. Often, it just happens. Is sound something that allows for that to happen? The aleatory random approach? Or maybe you’re just astutely a good listener?
Victoria: I think it’s something about sound.
Joan: What do you think it is?
Victoria: With other artistic mediums, you’re always aware of the distance. When a sound really strikes you, or a phrase really strikes you, it’s speaking to that interior part of you, in a way that I don’t think film or theater does. With those mediums, you’re more the audience, you’re not the composer.
Joan: You attempted some artistic intrusion earlier in the project that was solely visual and then 10 years later you began to focus on sound as ‘interpellation,’ basically, a ‘calling out’ to people who might need to be ‘called out to.’ Not to be black-and-white and suggest that sound is going to be better than visuals, because visuals can have quite the impact. But for you as a sound artist, sound has been the way to intrude, in potentially the greatest impact.
Victoria: It speaks to an inner realm. It’s the first sense we develop, it’s the last sense we lose. It orients us in space. It’s very powerful and not well understood.
Joan: Not well understood, especially if you can’t tell where the sound is coming from and that’s the power of this project. You are stepping in ever so quietly and yet you’re beaming sound at people. When I learned that you encountered so many challenges, I wondered, “Why not? This seems like a perfect place to do this.” After a while, I forgot you were ‘intruding’ with these sounds since it feels so natural to do so, in some way.
Victoria: I wonder how much of that was the technology I was using, how much of it was sound as a medium, how much is it just anxiety and a real reluctance to think about the climate crisis? If you’re feeling that kind of overwhelming anxiety about all of that such that you can’t even look at it, then someone making a project about it, who’s stirring it all up, then you’re going to want to push it away.
Joan: And then people’s own private tragedies, private crisis and chaos, how do we steer all of that? Do you feel so overwhelmed by this ongoing project that you’ll put it down at some point?
Victoria: No, though lately I’ve been trying to gather people together and listen more in public space together. Trying to figure out how to meet people where they’re at. It’s like my approach as a human being, too.
Joan: You talk about meeting people where they can be met, especially in communities where people are resistant. And you’re diving into a conference where people are deeply steeped in these issues. And yet, what it took for people to fly there, and all the technologies it took to get them there. Every time you look at this project, it must change, inevitably.
Victoria: My head is … or my soul is focused on how do we love each other in these times, how do we make the best of what we have left?
Joan: How do we counter the world of productivity and these ideas? Do art-makers, or people who think about these things, or those who try to make communities around these things, is that where the real work takes place? As opposed to a COP filled with rhetoric, with all those talking points? You’re doing work around an emotional response to climate crisis, but the world doesn’t support this. Your project isn’t so much overtly suggesting, “Pay attention to your heart,” but your beaming the sounds of children playing offers such a response.
Victoria: Right, that’s what life’s about—playing, joy in the purest sense.
Joan: Your own process on this project required that you sift through those talking points from the preceding 10 years’ worth of COP meetings. But then you landed upon this sound, a really relevant response. Are you considering in future versions of this sonic intrusion of not using those COP talking points at all, but just using the sounds of children’s voices and play and any other sounds potentially?
Victoria: Yeah. That matters more. I haven’t come up with any other sounds to use. But I’m open to it. I was in a different head space, different channels in my head were opening up when I landed on those children’s voices. As time goes on, and we’re all getting older, we’re seeing all these environmental changes, experiencing shifts and loss, different perceptual realities are opening up to us. That’s when I’ll hear it more.
For more sonic interventions and artistry, visit Victoria Estok.