Queering the Tape Recorder: Transforming Surveillance Technologies through bill bissett’s Queer Poetic Voice

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Mathieu Aubin

    Concordia University / Université Concordia

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This presentation reports on my preliminary analyses of a digitized collection of literary audio recordings featuring poetry readings by Canadian sound poet bill bissett. As Canadian literary communities adopted audio recording technologies as part of their cultural practices during the 1960s, bissett developed a unique relationship to the tape recorder. At the time, the RCMP used this technology to listen to queer people’s conversations, including those of bissett, document their activities, and regulate their sexuality in order to ensure the nation’s heterosexual status quo. In the poet’s tape recordings ranging from the 1960s-1980s, we hear bissett read poetry theorizing this queer surveillance, documenting his lived experiences as a gay man, and fighting for sexual liberation. We also hear sonic traces of the location and social dynamics of the recorded event and the technology used to capture this moment. Until recently, when SpokenWeb began digitizing and making them available to the wider public, these recordings were kept in private collections and had limited circulation. Following the recordings’ recent shift towards digital public circulation, this presentation considers how listening to bissett’s queer tape recordings in SpokenWeb’s digital archive amplifies his voice, forges queer ways of listening to literary audio, and fosters new public dialogue about Canada’s gay history.SpokenWeb is a multi-institutional research network that digitizes and connects tape and reel-to-reel recordings through its online repository, while creating an online sound archive open to the general public. Audio objects such as these recordings, Canadian sound studies scholars have argued, are significant literary artifacts for investigating previously overlooked Canadian literary histories (Camlot and Marshall; Fong and Shearer). I suggest that SpokenWeb’s digital archive, featuring gay recordings, functions as a site of queer social resistance. As feminist and queer scholars argue, the archive can be a site for queer ethical interventions, allowing us to better understand the concerns and ways of being of queer people in the past and the present (Cvetkovich; Eichhorn). In developing a feminist close listening practice and applying it to digitized literary audio recordings featuring women within SpokenWeb’s collections, Deanna Fong and Karis Shearer have amplified women’s contributions to Canadian literature and determined how women’s labour has been erased from previous literary histories. Whereas Fong and Shearer’s work focuses on listening for women’s contributions within digitized recordings, this presentation shows how listening queerly to SpokenWeb’s gay recordings activates its queer activist potential.Digital humanities scholars have deployed a variety of digital tools to analyze audio by marginalized communities (e.g., pitch analysis [MacArthur]; sound visualization [Hammond and Dick]). However, critical race and sound studies scholar Nina Sun Eidsheim critiques the use of machine learning for engaging with people of colour’s voices, arguing that doing so reproduces racist assumptions of voice (115-117). Along the same critical line, I contend that the use of conventional digital sound analysis tools to analyze sound in bissett’s recordings would reproduce the essentialist stereotypes about gendered voice akin to those of the RCMP’s “fruit machine.” As an alternative approach, I suggest a qualitative listening methodology in which I listen for queer sonic resonances in bissett’s digitized recordings as well as new digital born oral literary history recordings that I produce with the poet. Here, the term “queer” reflects an identity marker for people who do not identify with heteronormative assumptions of gender and sexuality and the term “sonic” means what is audible to the human ear. Informed by queer oral historian practices (Boyd and Ramírez), listening for queer sonic resonances focuses on how bissett interprets and articulates his life through his poetry, uses queerly-coded language based on the event’s context, builds relationships with audiences through discussions of culture, intimacy, friendship, politics, and sexuality, and creates moments of dissonance through silences. To return to the poet’s subjectivity and let the poet speak in response to the archive, I have also conducted and recorded oral history interviews with bissett in which we discussed the earlier recordings’ personal and historical contexts and imagined how these new oral history recordings could provide new historical information by being placed in SpokenWeb’s digital archive. Thus, my research so far has activated the queer activist potential of SpokenWeb’s archive by imagining these recordings not as data to mine but rather as bodies of evidence of queer lived experiences that resist the heteronormative status quo.Through my presentation’s analysis of the recordings, I suggest that engaging queerly with the digital literary audio archive and producing new queer audio reveals contextual information not available through digital analysis tools. Specifically, I compare different performances of bissett’s poem “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” which documents his experience of being surveilled and tape recorded by the RCMP. This comparison shows how bissett accentuated different parts of the poem depending on the event, how audiences responded to his work, and how he engaged with tape-recording technology. I also demonstrate how conducting oral history interviews with bissett over the past two years and engaging with the recordings has enlivened them and provided important contextual information about those historical moments. For instance, in previous oral histories interviews when we discussed recordings of “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bissett spoke about his experience of being ostracized by Vancouver’s conservative publics and the Canadian government. These digital born recordings form oral testimonies that produce intergenerational dialogue about Canadian queer history. As this paper ultimately contends, listening queerly to the digitized earlier recordings and conducting oral history interviews with bissett activate the queer activist potential of SpokenWeb’s digital sound archive, thereby empowering bissett in this current moment.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2020
"carrefours / intersections"

Hosted at Carleton University, Université d'Ottawa (University of Ottawa)

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

July 20, 2020 - July 25, 2020

475 works by 1078 authors indexed

Conference cancelled due to coronavirus. Online conference held at https://hcommons.org/groups/dh2020/. Data for this conference were initially prepared and cleaned by May Ning.

Conference website: https://dh2020.adho.org/

References: https://dh2020.adho.org/abstracts/

Series: ADHO (15)

Organizers: ADHO