Eavesdropping: A Reader - James Parker and Joel Stern (eds.). Melbourne: City Gallery Wellington in association with Liquid Architecture and Melbourne Law School, 2018


by Tyler Shoemaker




Fig. 1: Athanasius Kircher, Spy Ear (1650). Musurgia universalis (Wikimedia Commons)


If Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess-playing automaton, The Turk, now serves as a fraught emblem for the cultural politics of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service (Irani 2013), Athanasius Kircher’s Spy Ear would surely be an apt figure for the company’s voice assistant, Alexa, and perhaps even our entire post-Snowden era of ubiquitous surveillance, smart devices, and web tracking. Kirchers 1650 proposal for a gigantic listening system that could funnel the sounds of a city plaza up to the spying ears of Roman courtiers is a popular early touchpoint in histories of surveillance. And the recent explosion of speech agents like Alexa has made the Spy Ear seem especially contemporary. Consider: anthropomorphized regurgitations of public life pumped through thick coils of occluded infrastructure. The description works just as well for Kirchers proposal as it does for smart devices and their integrated voice assistants and, of course, for all the eavesdropping such devices perform.


Given this, it is fitting that James Parker and Joel Stern have displayed the Spy Ear alongside otherwise contemporary sound artists for their recent collection, Eavesdropping: A Reader (2018). The book is something of an amalgam. In one sense, its purpose is documentary. It compiles images, excerpts, interviews, and essays from and about the traveling Eavesdropping exhibition, shown first at the Ian Potter Museum of Art (Melbourne, Australia) in 2018 and at the City Gallery (Wellington, New Zealand) the next year; featured here is the work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Susan Schuppli, Sean Dockray, Joel Spring, Fayen d’Evie and Jen Bervin, Samson Young, the Manus Recording Project Collective, and, yes, Kircher. But “documentary” neither captures Eavesdropping: A Reader’s flirtations with the artist’s book genre (multiple artists use innovative textual designs to evoke sonic textures in their writing), nor does it convey the fact that Parker and Stern are in the middle of a larger investigation into sonic surveillance, of which this volume is only one part. Online at https://eavesdropping.exposed, one can follow their project for new updates, see and listen to more documentation from the exhibitions, and watch the many performances and talks given under the Eavesdropping umbrella. Eavesdropping: A Reader, then, indexes a wide array of multi-sited aesthetic practices, reflections, and original research – making it at once a thrill and a challenge to review.


In a compelling opening essay, Parker and Stern frame all these strands by unravelling the long history of eavesdropping, from its emergence as a legal concept in fifteenth-century English court records, to the recent infringements of algorithmic data capture. Throughout this history, they explain, eavesdropping has held an ambiguous relationship with legality. Despite the negative connotations the practice tends to carry, it has by and large remained legal. If, then, there seems to be something “excessive” or “unruly” about it, this is not because of some standing ruling on legal listening per se, but rather because we tend to call eavesdropping anything that threatens to breach the “aural contract” of listening (Abu Hamdan 2018). That is, eavesdropping has come to name acts of listening that inflect, enact, dispute, or otherwise contravene the norms by which we live. As Parker and Stern put it, the practice provides a “language for holding listening to matters of ethics, law, and politics” (p. 10). This means eavesdropping can serve as a “mode of art, activism, and critique” (p. 11): on the one hand, extending the practice to these activities indicates how we might “listen back” to the powers that be; on the other, such an expansion might (re-)open a means to “listen for” those voices and events that prevailing norms have largely rendered inaudible. Many of the works in Eavesdropping: A Reader, therefore, are concerned with elaborating the possibilities this expanded sense of eavesdropping offers.


Intimacy and transgressions thereof recur throughout the book. Susan Schuppli’s Listening to Answering Machines invokes eavesdropping’s entanglement with voyeurism and legal consent by presenting 25 hours’ worth of taped messages left on telephone answering machines. She finds these tapes in thrift stores and exhibits their contents as both sound works and transcribed conversations, complete with indexical voice prints of the first bit of each message that follows a machine’s initiating beep. Deeply intimate, sometimes haunting, these “magnetic remainders” relay an “entire network of relations” around a person (p. 73), inviting listeners to consider eavesdropping in terms of a wide, infrastructural sweep that constantly sifts out the significant from the banal, a signal from its surrounding noise – not unlike, from this perspective, the expansive listening arrays at SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute), one of the subjects of Fayen d’Evie and Jen Bervin’s Cosmic Static. In this latter piece, field recordings from SETI comprise one part of a multiplex of narrative recordings that tell the story of the Institute alongside those of radio astronomers Karl Jansky and Grote Reber, two founders of the kind of extraterrestrial eavesdropping SETI undertakes. For the Eavesdropping exhibition, the artists ultrasonically projected these recordings into the gallery, suffusing the space with a “dustcloud of narratives” (p. 133), an effect the print publication maintains with a four-column layout. Read one narrative at a time, or skip across them: a whir of textual noise accompanies either option, inviting the eye to traverse the page in a way that mimics the “kinesthetics of close listening in community” that Cosmic Static, when exhibited, puts into play.

Fig. 2 Susan Schuppli (2018). “Listening to Answering Machines.” In James Parker and Joel Stern (eds.), Eavesdropping: A Reader.


With its ultrasonic projections and kinesthetic listening, Cosmic Static also explores eavesdropping’s relation to normative audibility and deafness. For a book concerned with the norms that inform our capacity to listen to others, this is a powerful alignment. Another piece, Joel Spring’s Hearing, Loss, uses it as a frame with which to audit the bodily effects of institutional racism. Spring interviews his mother: activist, researcher, and health worker Juanita Sherwood, who relates her experiences with otitis media in Sydney’s Redfern suburb. A painful inflammation of the inner ear, otitis media has a high rate of incidence among Aboriginal children, and it can result in permanent hearing loss if untreated – a threat especially acute in Redfern, explains Sherwood, because of under-diagnosis. A child’s inability to pay attention in school was often written off as disobedience rather than as a sign of the disease: “The most common term for these kids was that they were naughty […] and they were not listening. Of course they weren’t listening because they could not hear” (p. 125). Misrecognition racializes mishearing, turning the ear into an embodiment of colonial relations, something Hearing, Losssymbolizes with otoscopic images of ear exams, the only visual components of Spring’s piece.


Samson Young’s Muted Situation 5: Muted Chorus offers something of a counterpoint to Hearing, Loss, not because it poses a point of dissent but because it works from the point of blocked sound to probe structural hegemony. Young détourns music from the Western canon by instructing members of the Hong Kong Voices choir to suppress musical notes in the work of Antonio Lotti and J.S. Bach while retaining those notes’ inflections and dynamics. The result sounds like a strained pneumatic machine, hissing and wheezing under the weight of overplay. But in a departure from the eavesdropping theme, Young stresses, these pieces aren’t whispered, they are muted, a distinction he considers crucial for negotiating the canon’s center and periphery, because muting, he explains, preserves, even clarifies, the structures in which such negotiations take place (pp. 159-160). In other words, muting still articulates canonical music, keeping its general shape and dynamics intact even as this suppression may bring other sounds to the fore. The messy, ambiguous form of participation that results from Young’s reckoning with the canon is elsewhere echoed in how are you today, from the Manus Recording Project Collective. Part of the Collective is comprised of asylum seekers detained by the Australian government on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Every day for the 14 weeks of the Melbourne Eavesdropping exhibition, a member would make a ten-minute sound recording of their daily routine – we overhear them doing dishes, practicing guitar, sitting in the rain – and send it “onshore,” to be played at the gallery. For what these recordings do to transport listeners into life on Manus, they also perform in the reverse, calling into being (like Muted Chorus) community, citizenry, and mutual implication: “Sometimes we exist in Australia,” says Collective member Behrouz Boochani, “through these artworks, you know. That part is very surreal. That is the important thing about this work. That it allows us to say: here we are” (Manus Recording Project Collective 2019).


Detainment, muting, whispers, political suppression, intimacy, and infrastructure: all these threads come together in the harrowing Saydnaya (The Missing 19db), an audio-forensic investigation conducted by Lawrence Abu Hamdan into the notorious Syrian prison, where guards have extrajudicially executed thousands of people since 2011, mostly by hanging. Abu Hamdan investigates these hangings and other events at Saydnaya using the “earwitness” testimonies of survivors and escapees. For example, even before the prison became a death camp, guards would use silence as a technique of control, putting inmates into a sonic “stress position” by demanding that they not speak to one another or make any other sound (p. 47). But while inmates could sometimes manage an occasional whisper before 2011, after that year any communication that a guard might overhear became punishable by death. Inmates’ whispers, in turn, had to become even quieter, if chanced at all. By asking survivors to recall the level at which they remember a whisper being safe, Abu Hamdan has identified the magnitude of the stringency of this sonic enforcement: inmates confined at Saydnaya after 2011 had to whisper four times more quietly (19 decibels) than those there before this time. The epoch of the suppressed whisper, then, marks that of the gallows.


When Saydnaya guards moved inmates through the complex, they would blindfold them. Ironically, doing so sharpened inmates’ sense of hearing, and with careful interviews Abu Hamdan attends to this sharpened sense to reconstruct the prison’s layout. This reconstruction now provides investigators from Amnesty International with a model of Saydnaya as they continue to build a case about the site. Such activity on Abu Hamdan’s part is vital for holding those involved in the killings to account. Further, it crystallizes a shared, conceptual move that many of the artists in Eavesdropping: A Reader make as they plumb the power and sociality of overheard sound: to consider eavesdropping in the expanded field that the book opens is to animate what Parker and Stern term “sound’s essential leakiness” (p. 12). While Abu Hamdan, for example, is unquestionably a sound artist, the roundabout ways by which he audits and reconstructs sound make it paradoxically difficult to determine what medium he works in; the same could be said of the ultrasonic projections in Cosmic Static or the otoscopic images of Hearing, Loss. This dilemma also extends to the place of listening in eavesdropping, as in Sean Dockray’s Learning from YouTube, which juxtaposes a YouTube video of the artist speaking to a Google Home Assistant next to a browser image of Nicolaes Maes’s 1657 painting, The Eavesdropper. Just where and how sound functions in the event of algorithmic eavesdropping remains an open question, especially when, as Dockray explains, sounds captured by Alexa and company feed into broader, non-sonic data lakes to flesh out portraits of our personalities, moods, and future behavior (pp. 109-110). “You seem merely content to listen to words in the air,” says an Amazon Echo device programmed by Dockray. “To listen to outer speech. I prefer […] to listen to inner speech” (Dockray 2018). “This is no message really,” we hear from one of Schuppli’s tape recordings. “I just don’t like to hang up when your recorder answers” (p. 60). Perhaps listening, indeed even sound, doesn’t quite convey eavesdropping of this kind. Here, as with many pieces in Eavesdropping: A Reader, the many frames, media, thresholds, and agents that abound and abut seem to detach eavesdropping from sound itself.


What, then, is the medium of eavesdropping? “Not sound, not even listening,” Parker and Stern write. “The medium of eavesdropping isn’t just the wall or window through which one listens, but also the conditions of access and invisibility the eavesdrop entails” (p. 22). The analytic and aesthetic payoff that expanding eavesdropping under these terms obtains is, I think, the ultimate achievement of Parker and Stern’s eclectic gathering. For the works they have brought together, eavesdropping accesses a persistent social potential in sound, unintended but inevitably emitted and thus sensible in and through the infrastructure of life. Eavesdropping: A Reader, in turn, attunes us to this potential, showing us how to listen for, and back at, this ineluctable condition of being – overheard.



Abu Hamdan, Lawrence (2018). “Aural Contract: Investigations at the Threshold of Audibility” (Doctoral thesis). London: Goldsmiths College.


Dockray, Sean (2018). Always Listening. Melbourne: Ian Potter Museum of Art.


Irani, Lilly (2013). “The Cultural Work of Microwork.” New Media & Society 17/5: 720-739.


Manus Recording Project Collective (2019). Manus Recording Project