Story Is … Crypto Acoustic

A woman narrates recorded sounds in a way that is improbable, miles off the nose. In response to the sounds of banging and scraping, she explains: I never thought I would hear the sound of children building a television set, but I am sure that is what this is.

Of course, it isn’t.

This other worldly, poetic piece with the unwieldy title by Andy Slater was featured in McSweeney’s #64—the 2021 audio issue of the independent magazine—and a collaboration with PRX’s Radiotopia.

Along with the audio clips, there are notes and transcripts that Slater collaborated on with multi-media artist Shannon Finnegan. These describe a ‘monumental study’ conducted at Duke University in the early 1960s by Dr. Janet Herman, a research assistant at Duke’s Corrective Ocular Laboratory (COL). She was part of a team studying Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a type of visual hallucination experienced by people with vision loss. The patients are describing hallucinations that have been treated through ‘phasing transmorphization,’ which makes them audible.

In the physical component of Slater’s Crypto Acoustic Auditory Non-Hallucination is a dossier envelope with a logo of three overlapping rings. Inside are 10 or 15 loose-leaf sheets of paper. Its introduction, presumably written by Slater, offers an explanation of sorts.

When I was a kid I was positive I could hear ghosts. No matter where I was or what I was doing, strange sounds would crowd my mind. Once, while walking home from school when I was ten years old, I heard a sound I could only describe as “a broken radio.” … I couldn’t sleep for weeks, wore earmuffs in the summer. The sounds eventually stopped, I moved on, and the memory lay dormant for three decades. Until I came upon the work of Dr. Janet Herman.

Crypto Acoustic Auditory Non-Hallucination (2021)

Slater is a media artist and disability activist. He is blind, as it happens. Blindness being a spectrum, he has some sight.

His disability, which on one hand informs his work and world view so profoundly, on the other hand is besides the point. It is so purely audio, in the-pictures-are-better-on-the-radio way. It satisfies the quest for an approach to audio disconnected from image-‘splaining slavishness to format. It’s completely untethered from a listener’s second guessing, yet utterly compelling.

Slater speaks of ‘ocular supremacy’:

In Western culture, we’ve got a thousand million words to talk about image, to describe it, and sound is not as rich…(once) radio dominated, then silent films, then talkies…once people realized that they could look at stuff, that’s when it shifted.
Andy Slater, in his own words, on his own terms.
Photo: Tressa Slater
Q&A excerpt, artist & curator, 2023

The Crypto Acoustic project can fool completely. It is an art project, a concept in which Slater was the Keynote Speaker for the Chicagoland Culture and Disability Conference, presenting the syndrome, the study and the documentation. The audience would laugh gently at the patients’ descriptions—A hummingbird in slow motion. Certainly made of metal—then be struck by the interesting recordings and begin to doubt, but finally falling in line with the joke. Slater says that this is his way of “building up a frame for access,” of providing a way in for an audience that might not want to, or be able to, listen to his work and so engage them. It’s about access to technology as it develops exponentially, access in an uncertain world, in a blind future.

And it’s about controlling the narrative, which is hard to do in a world where “… we’re the last ones on the list for evacuation in case of an emergency…how is the world going to go…is my community going to be left behind?”

He acknowledges that he doesn’t always have that much time to worry about it: he has a job and is presented with wonderful opportunities that not all disabled people have. Slater began working with audio at a young age, as his Retinitis Pigmentosa degraded his sight and he could no longer draw. His work is rooted in science-fiction, the occult and a keen interest in otherworldly concerns. He draws on a natural fascination in his potential audience, to bring them into his ‘other world.’ Once he has the listener in his realm, then that listener—sighted, sight-impaired, blind—can experience his world on its own terms.  

I stumbled on the Crypto piece in total naïveté, without knowing the artist was blind, and without identifying the ‘science’ as fake. Knowing these two things matters little. I am admiring of the imaginative choices in the descriptions of the sounds, and of the creativity of Slater’s universe, as it confirms my belief that there is so much more in the cosmos than that can be seen by the naked eye.

—Marjorie Van Halteren, Story Is … curator, March 2024

Andy Slater is a musician, video maker, composer, performer and installation artist; a 2022 United States Arts fellow; and a disability activist. His work can be found in many places online, including dancing on stage to the “music” of his cane, recording alone in a notorious, haunted jail in Australia and designing a sound-only video game. He’s in a band called Velcro Lewis Group.

Marjorie Van Halteren is a sound artist, poet, composer and improviser. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she lived in NYC for two decades where she was active in creating documentary sound essays and radio drama with theater companies. She lives in the North of France and is a member of the Muzzix Collectif in Lille. 

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