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Notes and Experiments in Audioethnography: Eastern State Penitentiary
Experimental sonic autoethnography of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia
by Florence Madenga
“In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into excursion, do not know what it is that they are doing.”
Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (p. 108)
Note 1: The Carceral and DecarceralI come with baggage. Unlike Dickens, who, in 1892, visited Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I do not need to observe any prisoners, or try to “picture to myself the thoughts and feelings natural to their condition” to be persuaded of the “torturing anxieties and horrible despair” that the prison’s structure imparts (p. 86). I cannot count the years served and years left on each prison term, or intimately describe every German prisoner, “English thief” or “strong black” I encounter behind the wall (p. 110). Unlike Dickens, I cannot note every incident from cell to celI. I certainly cannot maneuver my recorder through the spaces between the prison bars, hoping to “capture” the voices of my subjects and categorize them into archetypes.
There are no more prisoners at the penitentiary. It has not operated as a correctional facility since 1971. It has now been “repurposed” as a historical site, and I see it as a potential site for ethnographic exploration. Since its opening, many other dead white men like Dickens have explored, described, and theorized the space extensively; from literary figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont during a nine months tour of America (details are in the book On the Penitentiary System in the United States), to, perhaps most famously Michel Foucault's work on the carceral system in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
I am thinking about why I am starting with these men.
I come with an agenda. Part of it is working towards sloughing off notions of the type of "objectivity" that Donna Haraway critiques in "Situated Knowledge," and the journalistic norms and habits I have internalized over the years that require an unlocatable vantage point, a "voice from nowhere" or "everywhere." I have been trained these are markers of rigorous reportage. Unlike Dickens, I do not ask anyone for access. I do not talk to any benevolent gentlemen or program managers to explain how they are using this space. I do not interview anybody working at the penitentiary for this piece, or email the designated press contact to discuss the penitentiary.
I come heavily influenced by critical literatures of fugitivity, incarceration, decarceration, race, “panopticonism” and surveillance cultures. I return back to all my baggage. I look to the black feminist scholarship that Simone Browne says she is indebted to in her work in Dark Matters, where she explores the "interdependent and interlocking ways that practices, performances, and policies regarding surveillance operate" (p. 9). I grapple with how Eastern State as a “decarcerated” space is sometimes used to “repair” or “re-educate,” but also actually reinforces trauma, whether there are prisoners present or not. Following her lead towards shifting away from relying on too many dead white men, I abandon Dickens as my Virgil, and draw from other thinkers. I am looking at Simone Browne herself, Tyrone S. Palmer, Fred Moten, Erika Balsom and others as my guides through this place and space.
I experiment here with juxtapositions and transitions that highlight this penitentiary as entertainment space, from selected recordings from “Terror Behind the Walls” which turns the penitentiary into a haunted house, speakeasy events, as well as recordings from day tours and other visits in a much less “festive” environment. I have embedded some of the sounds in the words I am writing here (or is it the words that are embedded in the sound?).
The recordings and spaces within the penitentiary I describe below help me reveal how the way the site is structured and its materiality – the very characteristics that historically made it effective for torture and surveillance – also make the space “ideal” for violent and problematic events such as Halloween nights, through "prison guard zombies" lurking behind the walls, and old school speakeasies that offer a "taste" of Al Capone's decadent prison lifestyle. At the same time, the space's materiality makes it optimal for creative and educational uses of media to think about decarceration, structural violence, and fugitivity.
Note 2: OutsideBefore I even take both the 42 and the 49 buses from the University of Pennsylvania to the penitentiary, clunky recording equipment in hand, I have spent weeks practicing how to listen. It’s slow and painful work that continues for months and months throughout the fall. I have to begin again because of the way I have always thought about the ethnographic investigations and journalistic inquiries. I always heavily depend on the textual and the oral - rely on transcribed dialogues between a subject and I - to convey and cement meaning.
I am trying to do some “location recordings” sometimes involving non-humans, and I want to follow Steven Feld’s call towards the “anthropology of sound” to grapple with questions of sonic ethnography. This apparently also includes languishing for hours on end in a dark classroom in Van Pelt library, huddled with nine other graduate students. We start with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2012 film Leviathan, an overwhelmingly sensory and disturbing documentation of the North American fishing industry. Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell describes the experience best: we are indeed "plunged into the sights and sounds of this visceral business," and follow "tiny waterproof cameras that could be clipped or rested upon people, fish or objects to capture the film's raw images and natural sounds" so that the film creates "a briny immersive effect that is almost hallucinatory."
We progress to long sessions listening to titans of the field. They are plucked from a plethora of existing sound studies genres and techniques, from Hildegard Westerkamp’s meditations on the environmental "soundscape," to Chino Amobi’s “Airport Music for Black Folks,” . Amobi’s piece is a response to Brian Eno’s ambient, electronica take on “Music for Airports.” It is also in conversation with Lawrence English’s “Airport Symphony” and various other renditions of airport “ambient sound.” There are heated debates about the role of sound mixing and “reality” and how we should “critically listen,” but the expectation for our projects seems to be it’s better to “capture” the sounds of a space as best as one can through the recorder and careful sound monitoring, instead of aggressively “altering reality” in the studio.
During these conversations, similarly to Haraway, I am asking:
How to listen?
Where to listen from?
What limits to aurality?
What to listen for?
Whom to listen with?
Who gets to have more than one point of view?
Who gets deafened?
Who wears ear plugs?
Who interprets the sonic field?
About “Hearing Airports” and the racial politics of ambient noise and sound recording, Marie Thompson lays a few things out on page 277:
“Soundscapes of Airport Symphony for the most part remain ‘locationless:’ there is very little that marks these sounds as being of Brisbane Airport, beyond the accompanying liner notes. Rather, these nominally site-specific sounds – of lounges, runways, shops – could be taken from any airport.”
Meanwhile, she posits that in Chino Amobi’s “Airport Music for Black Folk:”
“…alternative racialized experiences of airports are gestured towards amplifying that which remains imperceptible to white aurality in the process...If Airport Symphony can be heard as noisily evoking a Deleuzian ontology of flow and flux, Airport Music for Black Folk might be heard as noisily evoking Fred Moten’s paraontology of disorder…..”
“A propos to Moten, Airport Music for Black Folk might be understood to claim blackness parallax as-fugivity: instead of flow and flux, it can be heard to pursue turbulence, or what Moten describes as ‘troubled air.’”
“Airport Music for Black Folk can be heard to make audible the strain of blackness against itself: it sounds the violent securitization and surveillance of black bodies-as-objects, but refuses this by giving voice to - and thus rupturing - blackness-as-objecthood and the object/subject distinction."
“The ‘troubled air’ of Airport Music for Black Folk works to denaturalize and situate whiteness as a perceptual schema, stripping it of its ‘modesty.’”
I write it all down. A guide.
When we are finally released into the field, neophytes, I don’t know what to do but I am still struck by the concept of “troubled air.”
What about it?
Moten says: “Perhaps the thing, the black, is tantamount to another, fugitive, sublimity altogether. Some/thing escapes in or through the object's vestibule; the object vibrates against its frame like a resonator, and troubled air gets out. The air of the thing that escapes enframing is what I'm interested in—an often unattended movement that accompanies largely unthought positions and appositions” (p. 182).
I let it sit.
Stepping off the bus, I am holding on to the Zoom H5 Handy Recorder for dear life, fearing that it will drop from my sweaty palms. Outside the walls, I am fiddling around for 15 minutes with the headphones, and the windscreen muff (I write in my notes that I don’t know whether to call it a blimp or a fuzzy). It takes me 25 minutes to walk around the entire wall twice, and I realize I can’t stop hearing the handling sounds. My presence in this recording is frustrating, the aesthetics messy and noisy. I stop at a playground, where children are periodically gathering and scattering by one side of the wall. One asks me if I need privacy.
I also shuffle around the bars nearby to release some nervous energy. I sit in the OFC Coffee House opposite the entrance, and record everything there. I even spend three nights sitting right outside the wall on metal risers, looping through documentaries and animated films made by currently and formerly incarcerated artists in Pennsylvania. They are projected onto the penitentiary wall as if “talking back” to free, white, and powerful audiences to disrupt. Is this sousveillance? Dark sousveillance? Is this form of media use opening up what Simone Browne calls “the possibilities for fugitive acts of escape, resistance, and the productive disruptions that happen when blackness enters the frame?” (p. 164).
Yes and no. There are few people here listening, and not necessarily the people who “need to hear this the most.” But I need to hear it. As I watch, listen, and record, I also decide that Erica Balsom is right when she says Foucault was right when he “deemed visibility a trap” (10). When Balsom says this, she is drawing from Glissant’s demand for opacity, but also trying to avoid romanticizing invisibility. Here, at “Hidden Lives Illuminated,” these stories show, sound and feel like there is an agency in having the incarcerated, especially those in brown and black bodies, make themselves “voluntarily visible” in order to expose the trauma that comes with mass and state surveillance.
I have at least read that the objective here is to “deepen the conversation about real criminal justice reform in the United States,” so that the penitentiary’s walls “illuminate the lives of people living inside these institutions that are often misunderstood, or worse, ignored.” After the screenings, they share their stories and we listen, moved. But visibility can also be “deeply ambivalent” in the sense that if something is “being seen clearly--comprehended in its totality,” this can, as Glissant argues, be “itself a form of violence” (Balsom, p.10).
Tyrone Palmer is also right when he points to Claudia Rankine’s text in Citizen as one which “consistently demonstrates” that “Black opacity often serves as a prerequisite for violence and functions to further entrap the Black in objecthood” (p. 4). To not be seen, Balsom reminds us, and to not be heard, “is to be cast out of the body politic, into the precariousness of ungrievable life” (p.10). There is no way to encapsulate the trauma, the pain, the blackness, the complications and complicities here. There are no words. Palmer adds: “While strategic opacity often serves a crucial, invaluable function as a means of survival and psychic self-protection, of getting by in a world that mandates your destruction, often what is made opaque -- Black interiority, feelings, desires -- already cannot be thought within the onto-epistemological order of the Human-as-Man” (p. 4).
Note 3: Inside
I do everything but venture beyond the wall.
By week three, I am told that my recordings are sounding “too diffuse.” There are questions about when it is I will be exploring the actual site I promised to explore, not just its outskirts.
The truth is I don’t know if I am ready to look at the cells. I have baggage. It is the kind that Simone Browne says: “can be accrued over time, something that is in excess, heavy, or overweight, or what one gets weighed down with, like emotional baggage, as in, ‘Still!? Let it go. You really should move on.’ Baggage can be an inconvenience. Sometimes it’s material; sometimes it’s memory; sometimes at the airport it’s the weight that gets put upon certain bodies” (p. 132).
I am thinking about troubled air, I am looking at the security at the entrance, I am fearing being told I cannot enter. I dread those conversations. “Just walk in” almost all of my classmates say, as a form of encouragement. None of them look like me. “This is embodied research” the literature nudges. One day I finally do it. I need to pass the class. I need to come back next week with some “material sounds,” with a different aesthetic.
Upon surviving an afternoon behind the walls, I send a note and a one minute recording to the instructor:
Title for Now: Phyxius
Keeping last week’s critique in mind, I recorded inside the walls. Fortunately, security didn’t ask me any questions. Also surprisingly, you can request for some of the padlocked cells to be unlocked if you want to sit in them. Anyway, because the building is in “ruins” and isn’t completely insulated from the outside, there are parts of it that sound like a hybrid space, including the cell I was in. I also tried to focus on fewer sounds this week, not sure if I was at all successful in recording more “intimately.” But given our class conversation on Thursday, I was still interested in the idea/illusion of one sound beginning and another one ending, this sense of separation and isolation, and found the juxtaposition of the two “main sounds” somewhat compelling. In terms of challenges, I did notice that I was struggling a lot more with handling sound, not sure if it’s the way I’m moving or if it’s that it’s just much more audible indoors than outdoors. As for the title of the piece, this happened to be the first thing that came to mind – from my shoddy memory, Phyxius is one of Zeus’s surnames as the god of flight (in the sense of fleeing), and protector of “fugitives.” *
*Here is my one source from a peer reviewed academic journal on classical philology:
Williams, M. (1996). The Character of Aeëtes in the 'Argonautica' of Apollonius Rhodius. Hermes, 124(4), 463-479
I can’t escape my obsession with Greek mythology, and the fact that I’ve already read too much Dickens. I don’t like it, but I can’t help but think of a passage in American Notes, where Dickens describes the state of one captive,” who “when he is in his cell by day, he fears the little yard...when he is in the yard, he dreads to re-enter the cell” (p. 117). I walk between these two spaces and record, and my footsteps still crunch along, refusing to be unheard, troubling the ambient air.***Note 4: The Terror Behind the WallI come back at night. This time the air is heavy with anticipation, as people are funneled through two security checkpoints to experience what happens when this space becomes a haunted house. I am asked about my recording device, and I offer a vague answer. “I need it to hear.” I have a feeling there are assumptions that I am hearing impaired, and I do not correct anyone. I feel guilty. Past the gates, I clip two mini-omni mics on my headphones, one above an ear to make the recording sound as close to how I am hearing the space as I can get.
The project is expansive over space and time. It is marketed as such. This event takes place over two months of weekends and weekdays, and also travels back generations -- there are heavy handed sound effects of ghosts and ghouls of centuries past howling through the walls, and zombie prison guards and nurses freshly resurrected, but also mid-decay.
The attraction made of nightmares takes up at least 11 acres of prison space. If one was looking at the panopticon structure of the prison from above, they could map out how the nightmares are divided between the cell blocks. Upon entering the gates, the cell blocks to the lower far left side of the panopticon make up the Lock Down, where “Rioting zombie inmates have taken over, and zombie guards have lost control.”
Above those cells, moving clockwise up the panopticon structure is the Machine Shop, and “evil pervades this space - an evil with one mind but with many bodies.” The next set of cell blocks in the upper left side of the panopticon house the Infirmary, where visitors are sure to “encounter maniac surgeons, dentists and nurses who are sharpening their scalpels for some unusual, unnatural operations.”
The Blood Yard in the upper right side of the panopticon is audibly marked by drum sounds, and visually marked by male, female, and non-gendered “savages,” adorned with bone necklaces, horned helmets, and other artifacts. They are thirsty for sacrifices, they are cannibals, they are humans made strange and other – sub and non-human. That space supposedly “sends a clear message – you could be next!”
The next cell blocks to the right side of the panopticon, Quarantine 4D, transport victims closer to the present and future via “mind altering effects” and “hallucinations:” the flat walls “appear to have depth,” there are “creatures emerging from (seemingly) nowhere,” and the lights and space looks like an EDM concert gone awry in a Black Mirror episode.
Finally at the lower right side of the panopticon is the Break Out, where “inmates surround you using every way imaginable to escape” and you must “keep an eye out at every corner, as inmates may even be using YOU to aid in their attempt to gain freedom.”
Peppered around the panopticon I experience other “surprises” I cannot place on this map, including a dark cell block with laser tripwires that I must duck and leap over to escape (recorder in hand), and a clown room which takes me back to my childhood fears. I must laugh to keep from crying as a particularly sinister clown face almost makes me drop my recording device. After all this, I decide I need a drink and head off to Cell Block 18 for the Speakeasy at Al Capone’s Cell.
In the third cell Dickens visits, there is a “strong black, a burglar, working at his proper trade of making screws and the like” (p. 112). Curiously, this prisoner is the only one not portrayed as dejected, heart-broken, and full of regret. Unlike Dickens’ feelings towards the German prisoner, his heart does not “bleed” (p. 112) for this black man. Instead, this black man is not only a “very dexterous thief” but shamelessly proud of the number of his previous convictions (p. 112). This prisoner doesn’t stop there, he entertains Dickens and others “with a long account of his achievements,” which he narrates “with such infinite relish” that he actually seems “to lick his lips as he tells racy anecdotes of stolen plates, and old ladies whom he had watched as they sat at windows in silver spectacles” (p. 112).
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), I meet a version of the burglar at the speakeasy. This time he is not “a black,” though now “technically,” for the purposes of his story, he is neither raced nor human, he is dead and back from the 1920s (“dead jokes” are his favorite). Unlike the black burglar, he is named; he introduces himself as “Mr. Silly Bones,” after an upbeat jazz number about mariticide from an actress dressed up as a zombie flapper. The performer threads his comedy bits with themes of escape, fugitivity and fungibility, and I am troubled.
Mr Silly Bones has been in a lot of correctional facilities “in his time,” and he delights the audience with accounts of his escapes. He calls the police “the fuzz” and uses the cells and the space around him -- the way a stool scrapes the penitentiary floor, his proximity to Al Capone’s cell -- to playfully take the audience through the “context clues” of prison life. He moves his phalanges (“fancy for fingers” he tells us) in flexible twists and turns that elicit groans from the crowd, to show us how he snakes his way out of handcuffs. Whereas C. Riley Snorton sees “fungible flesh” becoming a mode for “fugitive action,” another reading of “fungibility” here, a specifically “raceless” one, or at least presented as such, begins to take a different and grotesque turn for me.
But this only happens after I leave the penitentiary. During the act, it is hard to feel sorry for Mr. Silly Bones, for him to make my heart bleed. He is indeed silly, and I cannot stop laughing. He is also so removed from me in time (he’s not even real!) that it is easier to chuckle, and harder to grasp the tragic fungibility of the very space he is occupying -- that these very cell blocks in decades past housed despair, and during the day communicate that despair, but in this moment make it possible for a comedic act about an imagined prison life to be this funny and “interactive.”
The characteristics similar to the black burglar here are shrouded away, I don’t immediately make the connections to the horrors of prison life and systematic violence (the beer, wine cocktails near Cell Block 18 don’t help). At this moment, I am not putting down the recorder, or my wine cup. I am not taking notes furiously, “taking up blackness in surveillance studies” to read this scene critically, to “locate blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and enacted” as Simone Browne encourages (p. 9). Because this character seems unraced, devoid of it, I find the act more palatable at the moment, an escape. In this moment, I feel complicit, and after I leave, I am troubled, and I try to make the connections and juxtapositions more explicit.
Balsom, E. (2017). The Reality-Based Community. e-flux. doi: 10.1515/9789048517763
Browne, S. (2015). Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.
Dickens , C. (1842). American Notes for General Circulation [Volume 1 A. and W. Galignani]. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=62nr5gPU2EUC&pcampaignid=books_web_aboutlink
Eastern State Penitentiary. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.easternstate.org/.
Feld, S. (2015). Acoustemology in Keywords in Sound (ed. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny). Durham: Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575. doi: 10.2307/3178066
Howell, P. (2013, March 14). Leviathan a Fish-Eye View Aboard a Commercial Trawler: Review. https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2013/03/14/leviathan_a_fisheye_view_aboard_a_commercial_trawler_review.html
Moten, F. (2009). The Case of Blackness. Criticism, 50(2), 177–218. doi: 10.1353/crt.0.0062
Thompson, M. (2017). Whiteness and the Ontological Turn in Sound Studies. Parallax, 23(3), 266–282. doi: 10.1080/13534645.2017.1339967