The Accidental Archive

The #demilit workshop was a great success last week. Bryan, Javier and I led a small group of people into the vast hinterland of military space. The discussion ranged from buildings in former Yugoslavia as evidence in war crimes to walking tours to examine the remnants of nuclear militarization. It was an intense 90 minutes that could easily have spun off ten more workshops. We are excited about the future possibilities between the three of us and with those that we met in the workshops.

There is a curious tangent to this effort of producing an archive of military space that I'd like to share, before I delve into the content and future directions of the workshop in a later post. I am fascinated with ways of archiving military landscapes which could produce a documentation of a non-military landscape. Put another way, how does a peripheral vision, or if we think in audio terms, the background noise, code the landscape in ways we might otherwise not detect? The military has its own means of extracting signals from noise, which began with sound mirrors and continues today with a myriad of listening ears, satellites, etc etc. As citizens, equipped with microphones, recorders, and free means of disseminating the content of an archive via archive.org or freesound.org, how might we also decode signals from the 'noise'? Without knowing what to look for, could we actually stumble upon useful archives and linkages of soundscapes?

I owe these thoughts to one of the participants in the workshop, Nicholas Kaufmann, who pointed us toward the documentary The Tailenders. This film "examines a missionary organization’s use of ultra-low-tech audio devices to evangelize indigenous communities facing crises caused by global economic forces." These missionaries were recording stories from the Bible in other languages, which had an interesting by-product of recording the background environment in which these indigenous communities lived.  So, you could take the recordings and listen to how the language of the Bible stories translates, or you could forget about the language and just decode or 'foreground' the background sound content, what R. Murray Schafer might refer to as the 'soundmark' of a place.  Nicholas brought it up because he was interested in how to subvert the archive or at least bring awareness to how archival projects can archive other things inadvertently.  It is the accidental archive, not dissimilar from the military's accidental archiving of native birds which I mentioned in a previous post here on Soundscrapers.