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An Animal Skin Turned Inside Out

A Conversation with Mattin and Miguel Prado

Improvisation as a genre tends to be associated with a certain liberation from entrenched, traditional forms, and by extension, a process of innovation in this motion outward. Suspended from the canon in the liminal territory of the unfolding present, the artist creates without intermediary and directly to their will. Here, we might locate an understanding of freedom, an aesthetic freedom that has often been interwoven with the representation of political freedoms since the earliest forms of improvisation in African-American slave work songs or the free jazz of black musicians like Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong. In “Evacuation of the Voice”, sound artists Mattin and Miguel Prado use the instruments of the human body to turn the nature of improvisational freedom on its head into a political question in and of itself; namely, of the notions of freedom improvisation takes for granted.

Disembodied voices speak fragments into the darkness, like the pitch black of a pit. Throughout 2014 at the Serralves Museum, Mattin and Miguel Prado performed ten sessions in which they attempted to evacuate their voices through a process of “subjective depersonalization”, with an urge to scrutinize the conditions of unfreedom the individual self of the artist is subject to. This improvisation has been recorded and produced into a CD box-set with accompanying theoretical analysis. Upon releasing the box-set, I caught up with Mattin and Prado to discuss their reflections on the project in a conversation that ranged from geocosmic theories of trauma to commercially-produced subjectivities.

You’ve mentioned how “Evacuation of the Voice” has been a project in development since 2011 and that it descends from your previous separate projects – Mattin’s “Object of Thought” and Miguel’s “Geotraumatic Evacuation of the Voice”. How did those two points converge?

Both projects share a lot of common ground. The recording “Object of Thought” as well as the “Evacuation of the Voice” pay attention to the Out-of-Body Experiences analyzed and described by Thomas Metzinger (within his Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity) as a trigger for depersonalization or distantiation processes from the self.

One might point out some possible aestheticization problems in how the voice is treated in "Object of Thought", but in "Evacuation of the Voice", we tried to be rigorously explicit about how every aesthetic element is a constituent part of the whole process.

An extremely important reference for us has been Ray Brassier's insights regarding subjective depersonalization, as can be read in his conversation with Mattin in "METAL MACHINE THEORY #4".  Brassier points to “subjective depersonalization” as a precondition for collectivity. Depersonalization resides in the experience of oneself as if this were an outside observer of mental or bodily processes. This can have negative consequences such as feeling “detached” from the body or the world and can commonly be found in cases of anxiety, panic attacks, or the use of psychoactive drugs. As part of our research, we came across the "derealization disorder":

"Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you're observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren't real or both. Feelings of depersonalization and derealization can be disturbing and may feel like you're living in a dream."

When I asked my cousin, who is a psychologist, about the origins of this pathology, he blamed competition in contemporary life and the influence of virtual reality. It is not surprising that this is perceived as a pathology under today's conditions because, to function in society, we need to have a clear and stable idea of the self. But these same conditions generate the stress and pressures that produce these pathologies.

As Brassier points out in MMT #4:

"The alienated individual can be seen to embody the objective contradiction between social ideal and social pathology. But what is required to prevent this from lapsing into a sentimental "outsider" romanticism is imperative to individuate through conscious depersonalization. What is necessary is to achieve an objective or cognitively enlightened, which is to say, impersonal self-consciousness about one's own pathology; i.e., detached insight into how the pathological nature of one's own personality indexes the objective discrepancy between what exists and what ought to be realized at the collective level. By achieving an objective perspective upon her own pathology, the antisocial individual becomes more social than her well-adjusted, properly integrated peers. This is how individual de-subjectivization becomes the condition for collective subjectivization: one relinquishes the pathological markers of one's psychosocial individuation the better to achieve that depersonalized state in which subjective agency coincides with collective capacity."

And this is precisely what we tried to do in the “Evacuation of the Voice”, a “subjective depersonalization” to generate an “objectivization of the experience consciously”. As Ray Brassier points out, this is interesting in relation to the “possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity”. But also, taken in the context of sound performance, it can be the ideal complement to accompany the hypothesis of a vocal apparatus that reverberates with the geocosmic trauma.

The essay "Geotraumatic Evacuation of the Voice” investigates the possibility of performatively evacuating the voice from our body. “Object of Thought” is reviewed within the text as a good starting point for the project we now have here. Miguel tried to push the boundaries of the idea approaching Professor Daniel Charles Barker's Geocosmic theory of trauma as a terminal form of Freud’s speculative biology presented in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle". This was present in the text "Barker Speaks" by Nick Land. While discussing Land's concept of geotraumatic evacuation, and its further developments by Robin Mackay and Reza Negarestani, both projects were dragged together.

Mattin and Miguel Prado
Mattin and Miguel Prado

What is this concept of geotraumatic evacuation, in brief?

Land tried to typify all earthbound actuality, from bipedalism to human culture, as relays of primal cosmic trauma. If organic constructions such as our body are (as the aforementioned authors suggest) to some extent a concatenation of accidents in the process of evolution, we can use our vocal apparatus as a tool for an evacuation that echoes this compendium called 'geotraumatics'. We can use our glottic cavity, our vocal cords to make audible this planetary scarring via the dysarthria, dislalia, the diglossia, the lisp, speech abnormalities, irregular articulation of phonemes...

If that is the case, what then are the implications of stripping or separating the voice from the human and the body?

We are thinking about our body, ourselves as a "vehicle" for geotraumatic evacuation; we could think about the voice as a process as such, leaving aside the particulars of each body and subject. If you search for the origin of the word person, the term's origin is not completely clear, but persona could be related to the Latin verb per-sonare, literally “sounding through”, where it originally referred to a theatrical mask. This is really interesting since its origin is rooted precisely in the mask itself and not in the mask-bearer, the subject, the human.

How else were you influenced?

Improvisation and reductionism (in those early days of the project) were a very important influence but negatively. We were concerned about how these forms of praxis were being developed and getting consolidated in a specific genre of music with a very specific relationship with the instrument as a technique. Aesthetic and formal problems in improvisation and reductionism are important for us and how we are embedded in the process of subjectivization which promotes individual mastery of an instrument. At the same time, people were practicing a more conceptual form of improvisation critical of its development, like Taku Unami, Diego Chamy, and the Scottish organization Arika. We wanted to question our capacity for agency or at least promote open processes where our own questioning was practically a form of improvisation. This goes through a critique of authorship and subjectivization, and in this respect again, Brassier's critique of the individual was really useful to develop a technique (in the tradition of Shklovsky, Tretyakov, and Brecht) in which we can denaturalize ourselves to see oneself from the third point of view or perspective.

The piece's title lends itself to a certain sense of urgency; evacuation as the procedure following a state of emergency. What is “Evacuation of the Voice” responding to, and where does the evacuation move toward?

There is an obvious relationship between the voice, the act of speaking as a form of evacuation, and we wanted to play with this. This was done as a response to the individualistic project of aesthetic self-fashioning or ironic distance from the current conditions of cultural production. We thought about the idea of a voice evacuation outside of the body during the development of 10 concerts/performances in which we deal with this evacuation until the point of our voice becoming a digital registration on the computer and now on the CDs. This material distance that occurs through recording, making the CDs, distributing them, and now talking about it is itself also a process of evacuation. As we are using ourselves both as material and instruments, the process of production of subjectivity becomes much more obvious and direct. We tried to evacuate the production of social subjections where one tries to develop a coherent persona through professionalization, artist's integrity and trajectory, power of self-positioning, entrepreneur of the self, and so on... Our intention was to develop the negative picture of this through a process of open source subjectivity by showing how the process of subjectivization is more and more entangled with the capitalist mode of production. We can also think here of social networks, our relationship to them, and how they shape us. The documentation helps us to socialize these processes.

So the commercial process is being turned inside out, in essence.

It is not turned inside out in the sense of being reverted –that would be too naive or ambitious on our part. However, you can think of an animal skin turned inside out, how the innards (the commercial processes) are exposed within the fabric of our thinking and through the texture of our voices.

Through the lens of this piece, Alienation is a bearer of hope, interconnected with the possibility of freedom from capital. This is a break from a Marxist understanding of alienation. Where do these two notions of alienation lie in reference to each other?

Alienation, in the sense that we are talking about it, understands that there is no human essence to come back to. There are no original human qualities that we should strive for. Everything needs to be made, and we can socialize and achieve certain degrees of freedom and self-determination. Our critique with “Evacuation of the Voice” comes from understanding freedom not as a determination of the self but as a process of collective self-determination which inevitably requires an awareness of how the self is produced.

Through an awareness of our alienated condition, we can start the process of demystification, understanding how value is produced in commodities and how the self is produced in our brains and by a system that promotes a cult of individualism.

Mattin and Miguel Prado

Through his work, Marx changes his perspective on alienation. It is true that in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844, he refers to alienation as the loss of Gattungswesen (usually translated as species being or species essence). Marx’s understanding of the concept comes from a critique of Feuerbach, which described the alienation of people from their essential being in the attribution of their human qualities to a god who is then worshipped on account of these qualities. Instead, Marx’s concept of species-being is the materialist appropriation of the German Idealist notion of selfhood. In the manuscripts, he describes how workers through work are alienated from each other (losing their sociability), from the product of their labor and the capacity for their own production. This led him to a careful and long study of the capitalist mode of production and the development of different capitalist categories such as value, exchange, and money that produce different forms of mediation or alienation. As a matter of fact, in Capital, he refers to money as the ultimate form of alienation as it is completely exchangeable and universal.

The critique that one often hears of the early Marx is that he is still moralistic, while in later writings, he develops a more scientific methodology.

Getting back to your question, we can connect these two perspectives on alienation; today, we can see a perverse reversal on Marx’s critique of industrial capitalism where repetitive and brutal work made human activity inhuman to produce objects of no direct use for the workers themselves. Instead, nowadays, more and more we are producing ourselves as brands — especially as artists — and here we only need to think of the current predictions of how in the US, 50% of people will be partly freelance by 2020*. As we have said before, with this project, we attempt to offer a negative picture of this process, in which an artistic form of self-alienation allows us to have some vantage point to understand a bit better how this process occurs. We have learned the need for the construction of subjectivity, which does not bear the self as the agent of freedom, but this freedom needs to be constructed, generating new I/we relationships.

Is this alienation understood as coming outside of the self as a discrete “individual”, a clearer way of seeing?

We are concerned that we can fall into a similar critique as Aufheben made of Guy Debord and Georg Lukács by having too much of a subjectivist perspective on the notion of alienation.

What do we mean?  There is a danger of focusing too much on alienation from the perspective of capitalism's effects while not taking so much into account specific analyses of economic processes, wage labour, and class struggles within capitalist structures.

However, there are helpful points of connection: here we can take as an example the Situationist's construction of situations which very much connects to the ideology of improvisation (where we come from) in which the notion of agency is connected to active participation, which takes for granted the relationship between freedom and collective unmediated self-expression. We understand that at the time - let's say from the 50s till the 70s — these experiments allowed for extremely interesting interventions.

However, today we live in different times. We are trying to understand how the self is constructed in our contemporary conditions that are more complex and less utopian. Why do we think this is crucial? Since 2011, there has been a call from the 15M movement to Podemos for greater and better democracy in Spain. But can we achieve greater self-determination through greater democratic demands within a specific nation-state in global capitalism?

The next logical question is: what is the relationship between democracy and capitalism? And why is democracy in crisis (as we have many examples today: Spain, Austria, Brexit, Greece, and the FARC peace vote)? In the "Evacuation of the Voice", we explore that the self is not such a stable term or notion. Still, nevertheless, it is very much integrated into capitalist production and crucial for the trust and belief in democracy. Therefore, we think there is a connection between this lack of agency at the individual level and the democratic crisis that we are experiencing.

Marx starts Capital within an analysis of the commodities because they embody the whole capitalist social relation. Therefore, he proves what Hegel means when he says: what seems most concrete, in particularity or sensible immediacy, is precisely what is most abstract - and what seems most abstract, in universality or conceptual mediation, turns out to be the most concrete.

Today when creativity and the general intellect are supposed to squeeze value where automation cannot yet do, we need to complement the focus of analysis of commodity production with an analysis of the commodification of the self, without losing sight of the criticisms made by Aufheben.

Mattin and Miguel Prado

You describe the I/self construction as a crucial part of this capitalist social subjection - I wonder if you can relate to this entanglement further. How is it produced in new technologies, and how does it relate to the body and voice?

In capitalism — in opposition to previous modes of production- the ability to buy commodities and food allows the individual (as long as they have money) to think that they are self-sufficient. However, there is an image in mind that reverses this idea of the individual as self-sufficient. My daughter is starting school this week. When I started school, each child had their own table, but now in school, they sit together. Collaborative processes seem more and more relevant and necessary.

There is a huge discrepancy between how capitalism promotes individual narcissism and our social capacity, which gets intensified in certain ways through technology.  This is what I called "social dissonance". The only problem is that we let capitalism — this self-interested chaotic force — be the agent of this sociability. Our question would be: how can we gain control?

Nowadays, even our cognitive processes are technologically mediated and structured; it is obvious that the embeddedness of our cognitive processes in privately-owned information networks limits autonomy and freedom. We know that knowledge is produced by the transmission of new forms of media, of memory. But, since our memories have become stored in hard drives and storage clouds, and our experiences are often immediately captured and shared all over the planet, our conceptions of the world are mediated through information networks. These networks are under state and increasingly private control. The dynamics of these networks are oriented toward goals that are not of our choosing. This brings into question the degree of autonomy that our minds, in the very dynamics of the mental processes themselves, have. We should stress the fact that any (industrial or abstract) non-biological processes are machines of/for cognition (from computers with internet access to smartphones with accelerometers, GPS, etc..), a product of perception and intuition to disentangle problems, and it comes to shape our very cognition. Thus, it isn’t difficult to relate these new technologies to the body or the voice since the gap, nowadays, is almost inexistent.

What’s the process of subjectively depersonalizing your voice from yourself? It sounds like a deliberate contradiction — like a case of voluntarily seeking the involuntary, to consciously be out of control.

To subjectively depersonalize our voice means ventriloquizing ourselves, basically using and hearing “our” voice as a weird and alien process. However, this ventriloquizing was not done theatrically precisely because we were using improvisation. This means that the production and the reception are happening simultaneously; therefore, we could not anticipate what we would get out of doing this evacuation. Martina Raponi referred to it as "performative research".

But also, we played with the materiality of the different stages of where the sound of the voice is going through. When we performed, we were there, and there was an audience, so the voice was in the room, but it was also recorded. Through the 10 different sessions, we emphasize these different stages of the voice separating from ourselves. For example, in the first session, we started to become aware of this ventriloquizing by breaking away with our normal habits in using our voice and expressing a maximum vulnerability in our tone of speech. While in the last session, we played with the awareness that we were being recorded through digital means by exploring how analog-to-digital converters work.

Rather than voluntarily seeking the involuntary, we tried to show how involuntary processes are constitutive of what we mean by "voluntary". To do this, we tried to consciously show what is out of our control and how we are determined in many different ways – which we still need to identify.

Mattin and Miguel Prado

We used reasoning as a vector to go through this identification. Having said that, reason is not already inside a person's brain; it is a process that transcends ourselves. We cannot isolate an individual and ask her to produce rationality. Through the whole social structures, actions, and our development in language, we can produce rationality. We put ourselves in a laboratory kind of situation to precisely show how consciousness depends on collectivity.

Listening to the piece, you do get the sense of the laboratory and the scientific method; very much process-focused rather than performance. How much attention did you give to the collective, the audience? Did you consider this an interactive performance?

The aim of this project was a process for both of us to go through and try to make sense out of it slowly. While performing, we could say that it was not very interactive, even though there were some unexpected contributions from the audience. As the performance was very quiet, one could also hear a lot of sounds of people moving, coughing, and so on. There were also a lot of interesting comments by the audience after the performance. However, through the documentation, this project becomes more interactive by trying to understand what it is that we did together with other people. It is interesting to hear you talk about how this feels more like a laboratory situation than performance. There might be some truth to that in the sense that the performative qualities of our interaction were not shown as some kind of artistic craft or some developed techniques, but rather seeing improvisation not just as sound production but also in relation to subjectivity production. I guess "Evacuation of the Voice" is a playful collapse on the notion of "experimental" in both musical and scientific terms.

Mattin and Miguel Prado

For me, I found the shifts in what you were saying – the content itself – and the silences between quite gripping and occasionally moving. What were some of the interpretations in the collective discourse that surprised you? In saying that, what was your own sense in listening back to it?

It was a surprising fact that both we and the audience observed significantly altered states of awareness. Florian Hecker was present the first day, and he felt it being "so pleasantly dissatisfactory" that he found it very generous that it continued in the same setting the next day.

Allusions to claustrophobia, synesthesia, hypnoid, or “phenomenodelic” experiences were common in the discussion after the end of the performances. Marta also described the scenario and the situation from Von Calhau (who attended 9 of the 10 sessions) as “the pitch-black bottom of a pit”. The setup that we had during the performances was almost like a black box with light only in our mouths that could alleviate this claustrophobic feeling. Of course, it is different if you compare it to the a posteriori listening experience of the CD recordings. Nevertheless, we must say that we found rational activities the most powerfully psychedelic, in the way in which practical reasoning and rational motivation enable the perception of what was previously unknown to our minds. The recordings allow us to alter the perception of temporality; by choosing, for example, one particular moment from the irreversible flux of time. The spatial context is always being rearranged, and the points of view can differ from one listening session to the other. At the same time, the recording itself retains the capacity to respond to difference and particularity within the established theme of each CD. We hope the box-set lends itself more readily to analysis than other artistic contemplative behaviors. We also hope that it triggers further conversations and similar experimental situations: taking the daring attitude of punk to push the boundaries of scientific methodology.