On using cultural noise as a silencer

On using cultural noise as a silencer: reflections on Evil.16 (Torture.Musik) by Tony Cokes

I visited the RISD Museum in Providence this weekend with my partner during their visit from Boston. While wandering through the many floors of the museum, we walked through the The Phantom of Liberty exhibit (on view May 3 - December 29, 2018). Tony Cokes’s multimedia piece Evil.16 (Torture.Musik) was the first to catch my attention, more specifically my audition.

Evil.16 (Torture.Musik) features minimalist animated text excerpts from Moustafa Bayoumi’s article “Disco Inferno” from The Nation (published on December 8, 2005) with a soundtrack that is “a playlist of songs or artists documented as being used in U.S. psy-ops and torture programs” (from eai.org).

I was unfamiliar with Bayoumi’s original article on the use of American music in U.S. torture programs and was surprised that the playlist included seemingly innocuous tunes from American children’s TV programming such as “Sunny Days” from Sesame Street and “I Love You” from Barney. Those were the only two songs I was able to recognize from the playlist outside of the “let the bodies hit the floor” lyric from “Bodies” by Drowning Pool. All the other songs, amalgamated, sounded like a kind of “American noise” to me.

“Sunny Days” from Sesame Street

“I Love You” from Barney

Bodies by Drowning Pool.

After reading Bayoumi’s article from The Nation, I thought more about how noise becomes torture and how the use of American songs (American cultural products) within torture presents a case of using cultural noise as a silencer.

First, some thoughts on noise as torture. Bayoumi’s article “Disco Inferno” noted that American military detainees subjected to sound torture were taken to a room referred by soldiers as “the Disco.” In the Disco, Western music blasts out from a stereo, and it’s too loud for even the soldiers to be heard without additional amplification. Bayoumi writes that what makes this form of torture insidious is that no visible physical marks of harm are left on the body while the psychological trauma reverberates acutely long after people leave the Disco and detention; severe post-traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon for survivors. Here, the use of American songs as sound torture makes the symbolic violence of cultural oppression and imperialist conquest concrete. Culture becomes both a figurative and literal weapon, a vehicle for violence, one can be subjected to without consent.

While reading the entry for “Silence” by Ana María Ochoa Gautier from keywords in sound (eds. david novak and matt sakakeeny), I was struck by how silence can operate by targeting different forms of hearing and by determining what is normal hearing vs. abnormal hearing. I hadn’t considered that one could be silenced by being not allowed to “hear” or to “listen” to something or someone. Someone or something out there or within dictates what is and should be “audible”. To listen to—or to allow or choose to listen to—is one way to give voice.

While reflecting on Bayoumi’s article and Cokes’s piece, I thought more about how cultural noise is being used as a silencer in the context of interrogation and sound torture. What and who is being silenced? For the subject of sound torture, the “deafening sound” attempts to drown out self-hood. For the torturer, the act of using cultural noise as torture drowns out a capacity to listen, a capacity for humanity. Nothing can be heard above the noise, not even a conscience, not even you wanted to.

In the quiet of the museum exhibit, visitors too are subjected to the cultural noise and its attendant violence recreated in Cokes’s piece. You hear the work before you stand in front of the screened text. The text reveals the violence of the noise, and the piece invites you to consent to listen to the silence.