Tag Archives: ethnography

building design research

My audio sabbatical (and the economic reality of my creative work)

A little while ago, I was awarded with a flash grant from Shuttleworth Foundation, thanks to Shuttleworth fellow Sean Bonner for his nomination. If you’re unfamiliar with Shuttleworth, it’s a neat foundation with a mission to create “an open knowledge society with limitless possibilities” through funding projects that embody the ethos of openness.

As a believer, thinker, and doer of open knowledge, Shuttleworth’s progressive message hits me close to home. This flash grant affirms my sharing of what I do while I am doing it, a work style that I’ve come to develop over the years. This openness challenges the competitive norms of this society, a world organized by individualism, meritocracy, and institutional forms of privatization and policy protectionism. In academia and the art/music world, I have learned and unlearned many lessons regarding the social consequences of knowledge production and dissemination.

To me, knowledge production has to be checked with social reality of what it does to our community. How do we talk about what we know? Who do we learn from? Who has access to this knowledge? Who is entitled to this knowledge? With whom should we share our learnings? Who benefits from this knowledge? Who is harmed by this knowledge? Which institutional and economic contexts support (or regulate) the production of knowledge? (I’ve talked about some of these concerns in the context of open access publishing and ethnomusicology previously.)

These are complex questions (and many folks including Deb Verhoeven, Kimberly Christen, and Michelle Kisliuk have spent lots of time thinking about this). The idea of openness itself is further complicated by the fact that there are multiple publics in the society, some weak, some strong. These questions form an ethical compass throughout all of my professional and creative endeavors. Because there are political and economical concerns tied to all knowledge production and dissemination, we should consider each context thoughtfully.

Last month, I completed a two-year fellowship. The ACLS Public Fellowship was a tremendous opportunity in which I learned my ways as a public-sector researcher and digital strategist during my time at the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. The Shuttleworth grant came at a good time to help support my post-fellowship work in a few community sound projects that I’ve put on the back burner. Specifically the grant is supporting my time and labor while I make progress to deepen my sound-based research and creative engagement to re-make the public sphere in Los Angeles, a city that I came to adore and care for.

I’m making progress in LA Listens, a collaborative project that explores sounds of urban vibrancy in Los Angeles. In the last year, we developed a community-based methodology to engage with the social, ecological and experiential dimensions of the soundscape of city streets. Our methodology has contributed to the creative re-imagining of the acoustic public of particular locales and broader civic discussions about the role of sound in neighborhood changes and urban planning policy. Through a collaboration with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), We have shared research narratives including sound compositions based on our data have spurred a series of sound walks, location recordings, and sound-based provocations among urban planners and organizers in cities worldwide (summarized in this CityLab article by the Atlantic). I’m using my time to explore possible community partnerships and share our project reflection as blog posts and possibly a journal article. I’m also excited about funding a research internship for the project. Rounak Maiti, a former student from Occidental College, has joined the team to assist with field recording analysis and re-composition.

Soundwalk in Boyle Heights neighborhood, Los Angeles
Soundwalk in Boyle Heights neighborhood, Los Angeles

I have remobilized the Movable Parts team (a socially concerned maker collective) to produce a creative intervention regarding the collective mobility experience in LA. With a microgrant from Metro, we built a prototype for Movable Karaoke, a participatory multilingual system on a pedicab. During California Rideshare Week, we staged a series of karaoke events through the streets and at transit hubs such as metro stations, bus stops, sidewalk, parklets and plazas (documented on instagram). Residents and passersby in Koreatown, East Hollywood, Thai Town, Hollywood, Chinatown, and Pershing Square came to us, with adults sharing personally meaningful songs, children trotting along on the sidewalk and in the schoolyard. In the coming weeks, I plan to share my thoughts on rickshaw design along with some stories and experiences of collective mobility.

Movable Karaoke, Chinatown
Movable Karaoke, Chinatown

Working with fellow sound ethnomusicologist Yun Emily Wang, I’m co-designing a sound installation that will be included as a part of an exhibition at the upcoming Society of Ethnomuisoclogy meeting in Austin, Texas. This collaborative project will explore the meaning of  “雜 (dza) through materializing the mixed, blended, miscellaneous, and insignificant odds and ends of sounds in Taiwan.” This coming Wednesday, I will be recording a live video set with my ghost pop band Bitter Party for the Ear Meal Webcast series. This performance will feature field recordings collected from recent trips to Taiwan, adding a new context to the band’s ethnographically driven song arrangement.

Concept drawings for Dza, a sound installtion for SEM
Concept drawings for Dza, a sound installation for SEM

Labor and time are the building blocks in our creative economy. I give a shout out to Shuttleworth for playing a critical role in supporting me through this highly creative period, and for sustaining our broader creative ecology. Honored and thankful, I will continually share what I do in these exciting projects in the near future.







Rethinking the Ethics of Ethnographic Writing

I feel introspective about my dissertation today. After spending an eventful weekend with my cousin Sophia and her boyfriend Victor, a stream of dissertation-related ideas rushed into my head. Foregrounded in my consciousness is the chapter breakdown. Where do I fit these disparate ideas into the larger chapter outline? Where do the case studies related to the taqwacore phenomenon fit? In the chapter on transnational social networks or on racial melancholia? Or does the taqwacore narrative as a whole work better as a chapter of its own? The mathematical part of my brain began calculating the placement of data relative to the amount of space and information accumulated.

Quickly I became self-conscious of the puzzle-like aspects of this exercise. Is dissertation writing like a solving a puzzle? I began to second-guess the ethics of this endeavor. Ethnographic writing runs the risk of reducing people into “data” as examples or evidence to extend/challenge academic theories. It may be too late to question the social relevance of academic writing. But here’s what I’m thinking: how can I represent the experiences of the musicians involved in my study while avoiding the pitfall of objectifying them? How can I best position their stories relative to useful and socially engaged theories? What can I do to empower the musicians through academic writing?

Academic writing is a mediation of the field experience. Earlier today, a Google Alert directed me to read a review of the first album released by my improv trio Pinko Communoids. The reviewer Jack The Ripper of Heathen Harvest not only wrote incomprehensible prose. In particular, word choice such as “disgust” and “alien” came as a surprise. Pinkos’ aesthetics have never been intended to induce alienation or harshness. We sometimes even distance ourselves from the label of “noise” because of our discomfort with the aggression or violence implied in the genre. Surely, Jack The Ripper “understood” or mis-contextualized our sounds. This is tenable considering that Heathen Harvest as a site is devoted to promoting “post-industrial” music. The genre dissonance between our alleged position in “electro-acoustic improvisation” and post-industrial music could illuminate Jack The Ripper’s “misreading” of our tracks.

One lesson I gleaned today is to consider the position of the performer as discursively vulnerable. Cultural makers are often subject to critical and journalistic interpretations and misinterpretations. [Some people would even argue that a cultural performance in itself is a reinterpretation. No doubt.] The professional impulse to specialize often positions music scholars as music listeners and commentators. Many music scholars simply don’t have time to perform after setting off of the tenure clock. With that said, I have decided to continue my role as a musician (as opposed to be a music listener per se) not only to satisfy my inner desire to express my ideas and state of being. Embodying the role of the performer is a humbling process. It disciplines me to think and write with empathy.


This entry was posted originally on August 16, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.