Protocols for Listening

Kynan Thian Chai Tan

An Unfolding

I’ve been trying to listen to process rather than content. Sounds contain within them their own process of becoming. We hear fragments of actions, traces of conditions. I tune into these; accentuate, select, and filter them out.

I listen to the hum of my computer and pick up on a vague, faint feeling of paranoia and worry—the networks of machines operating beyond what I can sense here and now.

On Zoom calls I pick up on the dimming of a voice due to background noise, or the speeding up and slowing down of the feed to synchronise human time with the modulating computational-network time. I get a faint perception of the networks of fibre and copper, the servers humming away in data centres, the activation of data by algorithm—all briefly coalescing into a distinct, human voice coming through my computer speakers.

In video calls with activists I sit back and soften my awareness, hearing voices as tones and harmonies, rhythms and tempos. From this vantage point I can make out effort and concentration, boredom and restlessness, excitement and enthusiasm as the participants build and organise. In their voices I hear the weariness of needing to speak out against things that should not require speaking about: refugees trapped in limbo, Indigenous land rights, the collapse of the arts and university sectors—asking for equality against a backdrop of individual and corporate greed and wealth.

A computational system of wired and wireless networks; a system of corporations exploiting for financial profit; a system of political oppression. These systems control possibility—I listen out for their tonalities.

I try to observe how my mind reacts to these sounds, how it tries to connect them with things I’ve experienced in the past or turns away and represses them. Feeling the complex affects of these struggles resonates within and fills me with determination.

Alfred North Whitehead writes about two simultaneous modes of perception that are always operating together. Presentational immediacy discloses separate and definite sensations, distinct objects that appear in the current moment. In contrast, causal efficacy is vague and associative; it is the sensing, in every act of experience, that the sensation includes its own relations. It is through this we sense continuity, the passing of time, and causality. It is the acknowledgement that ‘there is nothing which “simply happens,”’ but instead everything arises out of a causal, efficacious background.

The sensible and the nonsensible are brought together within perception as a relational process, always evoking each other.

When we listen, we hear not only distinct and clear sensations—the interplay of frequencies and amplitudes that comprise distinct tones, sounds, or words—but also the interconnections that directly lead to them.

Listen to the external world. Trace the sounds back through their origins. Hear the qualities that make up their relations. These relations appear as complex feelings; a palette of contrasts, drives, and resistances.

Each event of perception is an active process that changes both the perceiver and the perceived. An act of listening is both the collapsing of waves into the human body and the arising of sounds as mental activity.

Each sound has some resonance with the body and mind. Our conditioning becomes a momentary acoustic structure to vibrate along with, or in opposition to, this incoming sound. Opening up to an expanded listening—of experiencing and feeling deeply, rather than of fragmenting, separating, and conceptualising—creates the opportunity for this resonance to shift the world in different directions.

Every act of perception is an act of experiencing our own body and mind as a process that unfolds in relation to everything else.

I listen to my mind. It speaks: at different times a yell, a whisper, or a cacophony of voices. I trace the conflicts in my mind outwards. What systems and structures, actions and inactions, relations and negations make up experience?

That which causes us to act can’t be located in conscious awareness, so it must come from our subconscious, which comes from everything. We hear the echoes of our own past as well; each act of experience reverberates with our conditioning to either amplify or dissolve.

We then begin the work of undoing, of breaking down these structures. To do this we need to dismantle both our own egos and the systems that produce inequality. We listen to what others are saying, but also listen beyond to why and how they are saying it—to listen with causal efficacy.

It reminds us we are a small part of the unfolding of the world, but a part nonetheless.

Kynan Tan is an artist interested in the relations and conditions of computational systems, with a focus on data, algorithm, networks, materiality, control, and affect. These areas are explored using computer-generated artworks that take the form of simulations, video, sound, 3d prints, text, code, and generative algorithms.