Over Yonder Horror
Images transfix and anesthetize. Susan Sontag considered photography’s role 40 years ago, and, now, we have social media’s ascendance to buffer our blissful distance snapping us further away despite the clobbering, in what feels ever closer. We’re complicit in merely watching the horror. We have the power—and the option—to look away.
Art of the woundspace and, in particular, artistry absorbed through the ear, offers an intimacy that allows for more compassion rather than the addictive pull to witnessing, in real-time, moment-by-last-gasping-moment because someone had the temerity to film it on their phone.
The specter of sound unsettles the idea of visual stability and involves us as listeners in the production of an invisible world. —Salomé Voegelin
Two artistic approaches gesture our ears towards deep sonorous spaces. One studies the wounds obliquely through a fierce song-like voicing; the other is a kind of sober transcript of uncertainty. This artistry gives us ample expanse to think about others’ pain rather than move to another viral video dosage of daily horror, to cringe or to sob. These composed, wordy worlds invite us to lean in closer to conjure faraway brutal realities via the ears instead of the eyes. They allow digestion, to rest the eyes and open the mind.
They are incredibly calm pieces given the enormity of their subjects. They are beautiful in their own construction, though the content smashes through the oblique scrim. Beauty can obscure and it can wallop your heart. Guard it if you will. That’s as close to a trigger warning as there can be.
I am certain that in the chanted version of the torturer’s interview, a different understanding emerges … and by bringing it into my own voice, I try to open a possibility for the listener to hear the profound ethical vacuity of this dialogue with fresh ears. —Gregory Whitehead
Gregory Whitehead’s On the Shore Dimly Seen sings a libretto of a day’s worth of interrogation—literally the log of Detainee 063 held at the U.S. Guantánamo Bay facility. Entwined are rabid, glottal vocalizations of the national anthem and a quietly evolving narration about what continues to be a profound silencing of those enacting state-sanctioned torture.
Voices beckon, but also repel. This stylizing holds a mirror to the content. If essayist-poet Em Strang suggests of the news that it’s a super-ego constantly whispering of violent acts, Whitehead’s work might just be a channeled whisper that allows the listener to step in for a moment’s eerie verbiage so as not to be completely ransacked by its content. Imagine hearing this unfurl in the radio space of ABC/Australia’s Soundproof where it was originally commissioned to air.
Scott Carrier’s work also channels. Here it’s the voices of refugees he encounters crossing the inky sea as he rides with them in On the Ferry from Lesbos to Athens, one episode of a four-part series he unveiled in late 2015 on his independent podcast, Home of the Brave. Both he and Copenhagen-based photojournalist, Camilla Madsen, trekked the Balkan Route—a refugee trail traversing trains and buses and on foot for the many risky crossings north.
There’s something gracious about taking the time to think and feel a way into the pain and suffering of others, and to transform that contemplation into a work of art. —Em Strang, “Over Yonder Horror,” Dark Mountain Project
Both American radio artists take on a witness role, documenting in various ways through testimony or observation or performance. Carrier reflects an earlier conversation, but offers it like translation; Whitehead poured through the 500-plus pages divulged from the Wikileaks CIA logs, now, in his voice, a whispered song.
We’re bogged down in an ‘over yonder horror’ relationship as it relates to witnessing the daily thrashing of tragic events. Not that direct witnessing must happen in order for any kind of change to manifest. And certainly, seeing video after video uploaded anesthetizes most viewers rather than energizing into change-making protesters. Translation and art allow for nuances and new understandings, for radical listening.
Through the mists of the deep.
On the surface, these are stylistically different works (length being one obvious contrast). But at a thematic core, the similarities prevail around uncertainty and passage and stasis.
Whitehead’s performance documentary unfetters discordant voices. The vocals shift and morph. They become grotesque, especially Gelsey Bell’s improvisational singing. Early on, the narration, spoken ever-so calmly by actor Anne Undeland, asks:
So who is that singing?
Do you feel safe? We want you to feel safe.
A salient question nudges and unnerves. There is an eerie synergy to Carrier’s words as he offers a sense of certainty for refugees begging him for insight into their future trek. Safe passage: now they can eat cheesecake on the ferry. It’s an incongruous reality that is situated between horror and sanctuary.
Carrier’s latitude in the middle of the Aegean at midnight is the sound-stage for a stripped down artistry, even a stripped down piece of journalism that allows us to step in readily to an ongoing story as a kind of witness. Most of us are safely elsewhere, sleeping. Fear tends to stick around. Carrier lingers on this line. It can be what blankets us or it can propel us towards something different, new.
If this is radio or this is oral storytelling or this is performance documentary, then this is what can be achieved with the voice and a slow, slow inhalation of breath.
—Joan Schuman, Earlid