Neither Good Nor Bad Sounds


Jonathan Larcher: Ernst, maybe we can start with the interview you and Veronika Kusumaryati gave for the Open City Documentary Festival in July 2020 (Applewhaite 2020). You were talking about an audio artifact in the first sequence of Expedition Content. I want to come back to two things you said. The first one is when you say that there are “neither good nor bad sounds.” It’s pretty much on our topic. And the second one is about playing with these artifacts, emphasizing them, as you “never ‘cleaned up’ the audio.” I understood from the beginning of the film that I will hear all these artifacts and materiality of the sound recordings. The “point of audition” (Chion [1990] 1994: 89) being not only Michael Rockefeller, the recordist, but first, and foremost, the microphones. 


Ernst Karel: In the context of rubbish, and whether sounds are good or bad, whether recordings are good or bad, it’s not that we didn’t include the recordings that were rubbish or compromised in some way. On the contrary, in a way, that’s what we were looking to include in the piece: those recordings that revealed the hand of the recordist, that revealed the interaction that Michael has recorded but tried to obscure. He was interested, of course, in a kind of transparent approach to location recording, like: “This is the world, and I’m just recording the world, and I’m not really here.” But what comes through over and over again, listening to the original tapes, is everything else. It is the sound of the machine, his interactions with people, his frustrations with people. There’s the section of the film where he’s verbalizing his exasperation with the people around him. It seems like what’s going on is – and he mentions this in his tape journal – he’s trying to record something that’s going on a little distance away, and the people who are near him keep talking, “ruining” his recording. And he gets to the point where he actually shushes them. It’s quite remarkable. And it says a lot about not just the recording process but also about his intentions, his goals as a recordist. But what’s also coming through a little bit is his own social status. I mean, he’s this extremely high-status individual in his own culture. And he comes to this place, and he’s not anymore. I mean, he is, of course, still, a member of the colonial expedition, but he’s not at all treated with the kind of deference that he's probably used to being treated with in his normal life [laughing]. I mean, that’s just one example of what we were looking for, in terms of when the recordings failed, or when there were these moments of revealing what’s going on in the whole recording process. 


Heikki Wilenius: When listening to it, I was wondering about all the different perspectives one can take regarding the “rubbishness” of the recordings. And you mix it into the narrative really nicely when – I think it’s about three minutes into the film – there is this discussion about the objectives of the expedition, or at least the naturalist objectives informing the work of documentation. And I suppose Michael also shared this ideal, shushing the people around him. He wanted to purify the recordings into a single layer. But as you mentioned, it’s actually very interesting when there are many layers, and you can distinguish them all, and a soundscape opens up. But I was also thinking that I can’t dub this “rubbish” in any sense of the word, because I just love the analog artifacts that are present there. [Ernst agrees.] Of course, it’s just a historic contingency that many people are fans of these kinds of artifacts. Maybe, 50 years from now, these bits will sound terrible to people. But listening to this today, I was thinking in which context we can equate rubbish with noise, or with unintended sound artifacts, and in which instances and contexts we can’t. It is also about questioning the analytic usefulness of the concept of rubbish. In a way, you and Veronika Kusumaryati are embracing the rubbish of Michael Rockefeller, but, again, to my ears, there is no rubbish. In your work, both the aesthetic approach and the representative approach – becoming a decolonial critique – flip everything over; it’s quite fascinating. 


EK: Yeah, I think that happens with some of your recordings that we’ll talk about too. Like the idea that the distortion in one of Jonathan’s recordings, the distortion on the mic –  or this is maybe a kind of saturation of the mic. It’s not clipping, but it’s like, the saturation on the mic of this incredibly loud, amplified music actually gives us more of the sense of, the feel of the thing then it would have been like with a nice clean recording, in some sense. Rubbish to whom is the main question. And then in the editing of Dead Birds, the Robert Gardner film that these recordings were nominally being made for, most of those moments would have not been appropriate at all, obviously. In fact, it seems as if Dead Birds uses very little of Michael’s recordings, partially because it’s just wall to wall narration; it’s just Gardner’s voice. But, the rubbish, like the sounds of analog tape, which we liked so much, wouldn’t have been what they would have liked to have at the time, right. So yeah, we’re looking back from this historical moment and wanting to hear all of those artifacts, and that tells us so much about the overall event, but not at the time.


HW: It also laces the whole thing with nostalgia, I don’t know, what could one call it? Perhaps “terrible nostalgia,” because it’s intertwined with all the social context. But I felt torn in two different directions when listening to it, because there are pleasing and interesting aspects of the sound, and then there’s the tragic history of West Papua ringing in the background also. So, it was a very powerful experience for me. 

Excerpt from Expedition Content (2020) by Veronika Kusumaryati and Ernst Karel