Regardless is an exhibition dedicated to pioneers of electronic music and sound-art, most of whom have been disregarded throughout history. It first happened in GAMU in 2019 and it is now presented here in an extended online format.
The context of pioneer electronic music is, of course, a privileged one. To create music of this sort, the composer needed tools that were only accessible to a niche of society. In the words of Tara Rodgers, “[t]he very act of making electronic music thus unfolds with reference to high-tech combat, shot through with symbols of violent confrontation and domination”.1
The same is to say that these tools were heavily dependent on economic, geographic, and political conditions.2 Still are. Naturally, one can try to understand the mechanisms that led to a very narrow set of examples of pioneer electronic music, because “modern technology has become symbolic of male domination. Technology, far more than science (in which women are better represented), is about control. Harnessing nature to serve man’s needs, exploiting natural resources, diverting the flow of rivers, manipulating the physical world – all of these are controlling activities. And in our world, control and domination are masculine prerogatives.”3
Fortunately, issues of gender have been widely addressed in the past years within this context, simply “by attending to previously unexplored aspects of its history and by shifting the focus from individual innovators to less well-known participants”.4 Many factors play a role here, and the recent efforts to decolonize history in general, and music, in particular, are long due.5
Ironically, this too is a sign of privilege: it results from more women (and other misrepresented groups) having access to positions in which their voices can be heard. Concerning gender, the “notoriously unstable terms women and men […] significantly affect the organization of electronic music histories and the distribution of resources”.6 These terms (women and men) are as unstable as uninteresting. Isolating women as one category dismisses the actual value of their practices, what Andra McCartney calls a “cultural non-entity”.7
As explained by Rodgers in a long-term dedication to “social justice” in electronic music, history has constantly edited these women out.8 As we can see, this happens a great deal because many producers, promoters, curators, and cultural agents, in general, will not take responsibility for their positions of power and will not set-up a fair access to history and, more importantly, to opportunities. And while it was our belief that nowadays we all have sources of information that did not exist before and therefore we could counterpoint this tendency, our research was a paradox: we found much information indeed (from biographies to great music, which we could include in our exhibition proving it to not be so difficult for anyone else who would try), but we also realised we were perpetuating the same usual content, favoring contexts in which there was already a certain level of privilege and accessing the same information as anyone else. In a way, there is a handful of names that have contributed to this pattern of isolation. In this light, we had to make an extra effort to further our research – while at the same time having little to no resources (or expertise) to do so. We tried to overcome the biases in the research itself conditioned by language and geographic power. Along the process, it was also proven that a sense of community can only be beneficial as both of us often recurred to friends and peers to obtain either more information or the compositions themselves.
At the same time, this is not a problem exclusive to electroacoustic music or sound art, and the same issues can be addressed in other (not necessarily) artistic contexts. Paraphrasing Danielle Sofer, the visible biases only demonstrate the coincidence.9 It is not even just a question of gender. According to Sheila Kunkle, Kathi Weeks “posits a universal demand that would […] open a space of freedom to configure both a life and a post-work politics beyond the reach of the capitalist work ethic and its totalizing system of production and consumption,”10 while Jean Fisher argues that “the experience and use of language and representation was in part defined by notions of ethnicity, gender and class, suggesting that women’s art practice (and that of other marginalized groups) rejected a fascination with the static and autonomous art object, recognizing that it was inadequate as ‘a model of subjectivity in a world of ever-shifting identities’”.11
This becomes more severe because, as Sofer points out, “beyond a lack of representation, the databases’ absence of non-white men and non-men reflects a superficial boundary grounded in who creates music rather than how. That is, rather than aesthetic, stylistic, or technical differences, the relative homogeny of search results reflects an as yet unflagged characteristic of electroacoustic music”.12
When it comes to electroacoustic music, it is particularly problematic because, as Federico Avanzini and Sergio Canazza state, “the preservation of works involving technological means differs from that of classical music, mainly because they are stored not only on paper, that is, scores, but also in other formats such as magnetic tape, which are more susceptible to destruction and require new approaches as regards their appropriate preservation”.13
Additionally, if a certain country has well-established research and archiving infrastructures, the artists within that context will be promoted widely. It is an exercise of privileged “bracketing”.14 Bracketing is “wholly contingent upon the invisible privilege that comes with what Foucault (1970, xi) termed the ‘epistemological space’ of our sedimented histories, and is therefore not necessarily traceable in the work of individual practitioners but nevertheless coincides with a shared attitude among a discipline’s most influential members”.15
All this leads to a constant perpetuation of the same examples in detriment of other relevant examples, which again is dependent on economic and educational conditions.
Naturally, we find it important to hold this discourse without segregation. As asserted by McCartney, “women composers of electroacoustic music resist the categories that place them in this paradoxical position and struggle to think of their relationship with computers in different ways”.16 In fact, both of us resisted the feminist subject for very long precisely because it is reductive. We were never fond of the category as such, until we realised that the so-called “regular” sources would indeed exclude all women. Hence, the most efficient way to find what we were looking for was indeed to add “female” or “women” to the research keywords. So, while we are not content with a list of female composers, and while we have tried our best to show that the value in their work is greater than the sociological constraints, which they may have surpassed to make it, it also seems this is the only way (for now) to say “yes, they exist”.
But by doing so, we still have great hope of setting the emphasis on their work – regardless of their gender. This gender bias is so obsolete and solvable that it makes it hard to believe it is still in operation. As Queen of the Neighborhood observes, “the mixture of gender and race as integral to how we form our identities can depend on where the most pressure and the most prejudice is felt”.17 Finally, Trinh T. Minh-Ha suggests that we “let difference replace conflict”.18 Voices that do not oppose (or replace) each other, but are different, demonstrate that the dominant culture is “neither homogeneous nor monolithic […] just an other among others”.19
Regardless first happened in 2019 at GAMU as an on-site exhibition dedicated to pioneers of electronic music and sound-art. It had two main purposes: first, to address many composers and artists who have been disregarded in the historical assessments of their craft. Most of them are undeniable pioneers in their creations and leaders in their innovations. They changed the path of music and electronic art. And yet, somehow, their work is often ignored. Second, to approach the process of installing sound in a gallery in a way which would do justice to the medium’s specificities: very often, sound installations fail to respect its own content, to embrace the architectural and acoustic properties of the space and, therefore, to engage the audience. This happens because space and time are two crucial factors for sound, and they need to be considered in the experience. Too often, the only solution is to resort to headphones, and this changes the relationship with the space, alters the perception of time and, most importantly, isolates the visitor within a social experience and limits their body.
For these reasons, every detail of that exhibition needed to be inviting. Promoting these artists could only happen if people actually got involved with their work. The audience ought to be willing to spend a large amount of time listening to the compositions on display. Our goal was either that they would return after the vernissage, or they would look up the content by themselves. Having said that, we are under the impression that the exhibition achieved its purpose, for most visitors seemed to engage with the sonic content in-site but also with the message behind the curatorial choices. By no means was the exhibition advertised as a “female” exhibition. The visitor would only realize the content was, in fact, exclusively from women on site. Here and there, we had to explain that. And the answer was simple: are any of the male-exclusive exhibitions called such?
While this is a very reductive way to address the issue, particularly in a generation surpassing binary understandings of individuality and identity, we have got at least to debate the extremely biased assessments of electronic music and sound art history. In this sense, the exhibition became a “pandora’s box” – once one opens up to this perspective, there is no way back: the same reasoning that led us to create the exhibition also led us to refer to it afterwards every time the same issues were found. Been there, done that, we thought. But it was not enough. The exhibition initiated a path on which we found many other people dealing with the same issue. We had to share our findings in a broader way.
In this line, the online version of Regardless emerges from the need to re-gather all the content and make it available to a wider audience. And by doing so, we also have the chance for a wider contextualization. There are many hidden implications in such a compilation. For example, the fact that the “pioneer narrative” is, in part, the cause for discourses of exclusion. As Frances Morgan posits, “archival images of gendered bodies with machines that illustrate the female pioneers narrative can provoke a particular disquiet, intensifying boundaries rather than dissolving them”.20 Additionally, such a compilation bears traces of “gender-mainstreaming” which, according to Sally McArthur, “reintroduces the syndrome of the ‘exceptional woman’, with which it works in tandem to foster a new sense of isolation among women and hence new forms of vulnerability”.21 In the words of Laura Mulvey, it contributes to the “fetishization” of the subject.22 In our case, the point was proving that these works are as relevant as the usual paths. It was also a matter of establishing a curatorial criterion, of making a selection. We ought to start somewhere. Truth be told, all this information is already available online – we are only compiling it. We are only giving one less excuse to those claiming they never came across any of these names.
Navigate through the exhibition below or click here to open it another window.