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Minna Squire

“If the land could sing, how might it sound?” – Megan Cope

Pathways to Reimagining Futures: Whiteness, Listening Methodologies and Sound Art.

'Untitled (Death Song)' by Megan Cope is a haunting symphony of beauty. Within the gallery's embrace, select musicians breathe life into unique 'instruments.' These creations, born from repurposed mining drills, 44-gallon drums, rocks, and industrial remnants, intertwine like scarred classical strings. Wire-clad rocks hang delicately, swaying in the space, whispering of colonial boundaries and ownership. Bows adorned with shells, a tribute to Cope's Quandamooka heritage, coax melodies from the instruments. Beneath the musicians' feet, a bed of small stones crunches, adding a mournful texture to the atmosphere. Through their sombre notes, these instruments release avian cries, echoing within the gallery's emptiness. They share tales of fear, loss, destruction, and death—a chilling chorus. 'Untitled (Death Song)' by Megan Cope emerges as a potent and contemplative fusion of sculpture and sound. It immerses viewers in an eerie ambience of decay and abandonment, its essence deeply rooted in mining and colonial devastation. In this immersive experience, the land's warnings resound, imploring us to listen and hear.

Your Whiteness Is Showing... Essentialist Constructions Of Sound In Sound Studies.

I use the term Indigenous, aware of its contested nature. I do this, not to homogenise greatly varied experiences across colonised communities, but , following the lead of Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2021, p.7), in recognition of the strategic benefit of this term in providing strength to the collective struggle for self-determination through the ‘collective voices of colonised people’. Furthermore, there is great diversity and specificity of thought between different First Nations people, groups, and contexts and by no means are the ways of thinking discussed here a conclusive or ‘universal’ representation of Indigenous epistemologies.

At this point, it's also necessary to acknowledge my specific positionality. As a white settler who grew up on unceded Wiradjuri Country in ‘Australia’, I am acutely aware of my role in the ongoing dispossession of land and culture from the Wiradjuri people. I live and work currently on Gadigal Country and I benefit daily from the privilege of being a settler living in a settler colonial state. I am committed to the decolonial project, listening to, and centring Indigenous voices. Therefore, many of the ideas I discuss have been extensively presented by Indigenous academics, artists and community leaders and may be intrinsically known by many others. I do not wish to speak ‘for’ any community, I simply intend to present settlers with an access point for reframing thought and experience. Furthermore, I recognise the colonial legacies and normative academic traditions which are embedded in my writing and research and the need to challenge and disrupt this in order to decolonise my work and create space for diverse perspectives and knowledge systems. This requires a continuous effort to unlearn and relearn and to engage in ongoing dialogue with diverse communities. It also means acknowledging and addressing power imbalances within academia and society as a whole.

Making whiteness visible is a practice of challenging the normalising structures which see race as anything Other to whiteness. ‘Race’, according to Moreton-Robinson (2004, p. 139) is a “categorical object...reserved for the non-white other” which ‘naturalises’ whiteness by maintaining its invisibility. Colonial ways of seeing rely on the invisibility of whiteness in order to ground itself as the assumed or ‘default’ way of being. Ahmed (2004, p. 9) explains that “the power of whiteness is that we don’t see those bodies as white bodies. We just see them as bodies.” In turn, this externalises and marginalises non-white bodies and, consequently, non-white ways of being and knowing. When we force whiteness into the critical light, we can clearly see the ways that colonial ontologies are embedded in the ‘normal’ and recognise the systemic violence enforced by this assumption.

When seeing (and listening) through a framework sensitive to whiteness, it becomes evident that contemporary sound art movements which attempt to universally characterise the ‘nature of sound’ within an essential and metaphysical construction (Cox, 2018) are failing to recognise the white ontologies which are deeply embedded in their analysis. Cox (as cited in Thompson, 2017, p. 272) argues that “the richest sound art does not tell stories but is avowedly depersonalized in its disclosure of the materiality and ontology of sound”, a claim which blatantly presents an uncritical, privileged boredom with an urgent ongoing sociopolitical crisis. Attempts to decontextualise the nature of sound and remove it from its sociopolitical and historical context reinforce and re-energise colonial systems of silencing and erasing history. Thompson (2017, pp. 266, 270) suggests that this movement is listening through a “white aurality- a racialized perceptual standpoint” which “risks uncritically naturalizing what is ultimately a specific onto- epistemology of sound that is entangled with, amongst other things, histories of whiteness and coloniality.” Similarly, Robinson (2020, p. 3) frames this as “Hungry Listening’, a form of ‘listening through whiteness’ which embodies the extractivist ontologies of colonial being.

The decontextualisation of space has a long history in colonial ideological violence, which disembodies and displaces Indigenous relationships to land and culture. Cultural geographer Matthew Sparke (as cited in England, 2019, p. 9) speaks of the ‘disembodied map’ which serves to establish colonial spatial ontologies through the removal of Indigenous bodies and connections to land. However, England (2019, p. 8) argues that Contemporary Indigenous art responds to this through situational, relational, and spatial sound-based work that “introduce alternatives to settler cartographies and imagine other forms of communication with the world.” When discussing her work Untitled (Death Song) Megan Cope (as cited in Hinchliffe, 2022) places colonial extractivist ontologies of ‘I think, therefore, I am’ in conversation with the ontology of the Quandamooka people, “I am located, therefore, I am. I belong to this place and this place belongs to me. And therefore, I am accountable to it and responsible for it.” The lamenting sounds of the threatened Bush Stone-curlew played through the mining equipment in Untitled (Death Song), work together to communicate place-based stories of violence and destruction. Cope’s engagement with situated sound in her work presents this challenge to disembodied and colonial ways of being. A clear departure from the depersonalised, essentialist practices of other artists in contemporary sound practice who continue to listen through whiteness.

Situating The Settler In Decolonial Listening Practices

Considering that those who are socialised within colonial onto-epistemologies are likely to reinforce and re-enact colonial violence through unconscious bias, committing to deconstructing, interrogating, and reconsidering what and how we know, see and listen is essential. Indigenous academics, artists and thought leaders such as Megan Cope constantly present settlers with alternate epistemologies to consider. In the video documentation of the performance 'Untitled (Death Song)' at the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres, Cope explains that the work is a warning for,

“The monster that has crept across ancient lands and seas for a few thousand years now. Leaving no stone unturned or waterway safe or sovereign...The process of eventual elimination of all living things on earth... The little Bush Stone-curlew, now endangered because of colonisation too, is the harbinger of death in our community and many others across this continent.”

Cope deeply engages with the sounds of the land, and the contextual suffering of the Curlew, and positions the suffering of the human alongside the non-human in collective resistance and warning. Cope (2020) asks, “if the land could sing, how might it sound?”, an example of Indigenous epistemologies which refuse to limit the reception of sound to the human ear (England 2019, p. 20). Curator Lisa Meyers explains (as cited in England 2019, p. 20) “Within Aboriginal Australians’ belief system... songlines are a means of mapping and describing the land, but the act of singing these songs is also necessary for keeping the land alive and expressing gratitude.” However, without an engagement with decolonial listening methodologies, the settler is unlikely to understand the nuance of Cope’s interrogation.

*** It is important to note that the musicians performing the work are often white Australians.***

Robinson (2020), Stoever (2016) and England (2019) all propose methodologies for practising listening outside of colonial spatial constructions. Robinson (2020, pp. 2-15) suggests relational listening, a self-reflexive interrogation of the “space of sonic encounter as a space of subject- subject relation” (p. 15) where the listener is not alone in the act but rather remains accountable to the sound-er and the socio-political context of their relational positionality. Similarly, Stoever proposes a consideration of ‘The Sonic Colour Line’, in order to make visible to the listener the ways that sound “operates as an organ of racial discernment” (2016, p. 4). England also proposes a methodology that positions the settler as listener. They argue that deep listening is based in the Indigenous epistemological practice of attentiveness, which allows “the possibility of a mutual relationship between noise and attentiveness in spatial decolonization” (2019, pp. 11, 15). In the Adelaide Biennial performance, Cope encourages us to be curious about “how and what we are listening to”, she asks, “Can you hear the warnings and the distress signals?”. To deeply understand the lament in Cope’s Untitled (Death Song), listeners must engage with these decolonised listening practices.

Sound As A Tool For Disembodying The Colonial And Reimagining Futures.

In the context of colonial systems which dominate spatial and ontological relationships, sound provides a unique and potent opportunity for resistance. Megan Cope (2020) positions sound as “the last frontier in our emotional landscape. It enters the body in ways that other artforms may not.” She enrols the power of sound in her work to create a unique moment where the listener has the opportunity to disconnect from Western hysteria surrounding the climate apocalypse and consider that “Our people have already seen the apocalypse... We’re still here” and that “maybe this is the end of extractive capitalism. And with the end of that comes a rebirth, or a new way forward. We have a future, perhaps” (Cope, as cited in Hinchliffe, 2022). This is precisely the power of contextualised, spatialised sound, it creates moments that decentre the intrinsic logics of the rational and the body, allowing a re-interrogation of possibility (England, 2019, p. 24). Decolonial listening methodologies allow us to hear through unconscious bias and “to activate trajectories that sound new alternatives and futures.” (Sosta, 2020, p.1). As Nyberg (2011, p. 57) argues, the capacity to reimagine futures is a privilege that allows us to describe an ‘autonomous alternative’ to the dominant system which, in turn, creates the possibility for change.

“If we can learn to listen, we can learn to dream, we can learn to hear the worlds and futures that are calling to us. We engage in liberatory studies in the dark. We can exercise our imaginations and build the elasticity and stamina necessary to imagine expansively about the spatio-temporal possibilities of our love.”
(Thompson 2021 as cited in Sosta p. 19)