13.4 / Numbers Station [Red Record] / Julie Beth Napolin

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

8 minutes and 46 seconds.

“More than 200 times.”

11.1

Two figures sit side by side before two microphones and one computer. Already in its numerical values, one and two, Numbers Station [Red Record] takes up the fundamental units of being and relation. Encircling them, the audience occupies a position of minor space, a supplement to the Met Breuer’s main museum gallery held by a curtain.2 There is no stage. A screen hangs above the performers stating the name of the museum in red. Mendi + Keith Obadike sit, chant, and generate sound in this forty-minute live sonification of the data contained in Ida B. Wells’ 1895 book, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. To sonify: to transduce number into sound. The book concentrates on the year 1894, or twenty-five years before the Red Summer of 1919.3 An activist and journalist, Wells did not reproduce the photographic evidence that so often circulated as twisted mementos for the terrorizers, but rather recounted the first-person oral narratives of the terrorized that escaped official record. The book is an act of recitation made graphically legible by tabulation and statistics: violence in and as numerological code.

In its quantum content, the Numbers Station series takes up other ur-sites of Black movement, life, and death: the data provided by the NYPD during the state disciplinary practice known as “Stop and Frisk,” [Furtive Movements], and the data of slave ships’ hold, [Manifests]. The series takes its name from the short-wave radio stations broadcasting numbers to intelligence operatives.4 In each iteration, the essential structure of the Numbers Station series is invariant: the two performers recite numbers and the tone generator transduces numbers into frequencies.5  But history also cuts through this invariant face. The numerals 1-8-9-4 provides Numbers Station [Red Record] with its base drone over which other numbers pulse in relation to the recitation. The events of 1894 are communicated neither through narrative nor tabulation, but through the sense of sound. The audience is asked to hear the very fact of drone as it bears heavily upon the room and the listening body. The audience feels, if only through the drone’s temporal insistence, that something has accreted, even if we know not what. Mendi + Keith Obadike listen to and turn towards one another, responding to and resonating with each other as they produce sound. It is a work of love made against the brutalizing backdrop of the historical.6

Mendi + Keith Obadike performing Numbers Station [Red Record] in 2016 at the Met Breuer. Photo from the artists’ Facebook page.
An exercise in attention and duration, the Numbers Station series asks that one sit with the numbers.7  Performance and reception are a twinned, patient vocation. Against enumeration and drifting in and out of attention, a listener holds on to an anticipation that the two voices might “say” something, a remark or line. Instead, there is the performer’s unwavering devotion to listening to the numbers as numbers. No names or locations are uttered in Numbers Station [Red Record]. No image appears except a mental one.8 Just the mark of a hue: scarlet, cochineal, cermillion, rosa corsa, hematite, madder, dragon’s blood.

“Sound art,” as it is known in the European tradition, is a point of contact between sound and image. Sitting in the supplement to the museum’s entryway, the sounds of commotion, entry, and exit penetrate the curtain, and Numbers Station [Red Record] points to the insufficiency of that term, one that also masks a violence constitutive of the white cube museum space.9 “Sound art,” a supposedly neutral locution, thematizes a hypothetical space wherein the sonic and the visual make contact. But, as Hortense Spillers has expressed,  it is along the threshold between sound and image, also a cut, hemorrhaging or healing, that the captive body historically and repetitively materializes, in red.10 In the Number Station series—sounding in a world densely populated, at least since the birth of photography, by terrorizing images of Black death—the image stops short of color, and it is the sound that bleeds. In this sound bleed, we confront the material substratum of waves where sound and image share in vibration. At times the tones fall beneath 20 Hz, the lowest frequency of human hearing. Visible light spans from approximately 760 to 380 nanometers in wavelength, and its low-frequency end, where 20 Hz resides, corresponds to light that human beings perceive as the color red.

The work of violent reduction to numbers that Numbers Station [Red Record] so patiently documents, then, is not a series of “events.” The piece transduces nothing other than violent, ongoing negation of the difference between bodies by quantum forms of atomization and abstraction (the slave ledger, the surveilling machine): the captive body on the historical scene. This transduction sounds out the vibration shared by sound and the color red to inhabit an ultra-sensual dimension prior to and in excess of any quantitative violence, which separates things so as to count and compare them.

Formally, the natural vibration of the female and male voices, their timbral and pneumatic modulations, reach their limit in the electronic vibration of the computer. It is a duet. In form and content, the Numbers Station series strips down the basic structure of black music (antiphony, worrying the note, syncopation) so that one can sense and feel the force of repetition. Another one, another one.  In its seriality, quotidian violence cries out.  In response, the somatic character of Numbers Station’s incessant return to the bodily through drone and vibration invites you to lose yourself. Sound and image lose their integrity, and the redness of 20 Hz exceeds the bloody, historical ledger.  An oscillatory wave touches the singular surface of the listening body, and history quakes.

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This is one of four essays from the thirteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 13.1 / Braids tuh’da flo(w) / Amy Herzog
b.O.s. 13.2 / The Throne of the Third Heaven of Nations Millennium, General Assembly / Taylor Renee Aldridge
b.O.s. 13.3 / Vivid Seams / Genevieve Hyacinthe 

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. The first epigraph is the opening of Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage International, 1987 [2004]), 3. The second epigraph is the amount of time that Derek Chauvin, an officer with the Minneapolis police, placed his knee on the neck of George Floyd. The third epigraph is the number of times, as reported by NPR, that the United States House of Representatives has attempted to pass anti-lynching legislation. The fourth epigraph is the number of times Eric Garner stated “I can’t breathe” while being asphyxiated by Daniel Panteleo, an NYPD officer who put Garner in a chokehold.
  2. At the invitation of composer Vijay Iyer, Mendi + Keith Obadike performed Numbers Station [Red Record] in 2016 at the Met Breuer in New York City.
  3. The “Red Summer,” as it was called by James Weldon Johnson, was marked by hundreds of murders of Black people by white supremacists across the United States.
  4. For a discussion of the history of these clandestine stations in relation to [Furtive Movements], see Soyoung Yoon, “Do a Number: The Facticity of the Voice, or Reading Stop-and-Frisk Data,” Discourse 39, no. 3 (2017): 397–424.
  5. The synthetic tones Keith Obadike has generated from the data are preprogrammed. The improvisational element has to do with when and in what ways they will correspond to the utterance of the numbers. If the numbers are unchangeable and already determined in their course as historical fact, then what is not determined is the way that the numbers will resound in the present.
  6. Describing Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin], Mendi Obadike writes, “One important thing about the voice in the piece for me is that I don’t think of the vocal inflection in the piece as mine, but rather ours. [. . .] That it feels intimate is [. . .] a great degree a result of our turning towards one another in the process of making the work.” See Julie Beth Napolin and Mendi + Keith Obadike, “On Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin]: A Conversation with Mendi and Keith Obadike,” Social Text Online, August 21, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/on-blues-speaker-for-james-baldwin-a-conversation-with-mendi-and-keith-obadike/.
  7. Mendi Obadike writes, “for us the narrative is in the numbers. [. . .] The difficulty of staying with a way of listening, of attending to the data, is part of the work” (Napolin, Obadike, and Obadike). Sitting with the dead is known to many spiritual traditions, one origin of Christina Sharpe’s polysemous notion of “wake work” in the Black diaspora. In Numbers Station, the Obadikes are listening in the wake. One does not listen to the wake, for it cannot become a direct object; there is only a listening within it, as if caught in the reverberant surface of water that reflects and refracts other objects. See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke UP, 2016).
  8. Keith Obadike writes, “The primary question in my work is: How can the sound of our music and speech comment on or create an internal mental image?” See “What’s in a Name! Seeing Sound Art in Black Visual Traditions,” Art Journal. Winter 2001. http://blacknetart.com/ArtJournal.html
  9. In color, Carolyn Purnell suggests, we “lose” ourselves. “Prejudice against color,” Purnell continues quoting David Batchelor, “‘masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable.’” This fear of contamination is one origin of “the highly minimal, white spaces of contemporary architecture [that] mark an attempt to rationalize and strictly limit an interior, to stop its merging with the world outside.” See Carolyn Purnell, “Color, Chromophobia, and Colonialism: Some Historical Thoughts,” Apartment Therapy, March 5, 2013. https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/color-chromophobia-and-colonialism-some-historical-thoughts-185710. Keith Obadike writes, “This European-centered narrative of sound art is no help in explaining my practice or that of many American sound artists” (qtd. in Jennifer Lynn Stoever, “Origin Stories: Race, Silence, and What We Call ‘Sound Art,’” in Oxford Handbook of Sound Art, ed. David Prior, John Matthias, and Jane Grant [New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming]). In a related Obadike work, Fit (The Battle of Jericho), wall-mounted speakers vibrate the museum in a sonification of data drawn from online searches for the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
  10. The New World is “written in blood,” writes Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (Summer, 1987): 67.
Julie Beth Napolin
Julie Beth Napolin teaches literature, culture, and media at The New School. She is a musician, radio producer, and the author of The Fact of Resonance: Modernist Acoustics and Narrative Form (Fordham UP, 2020).