Violence of a Different Kind (I am a Conquistador)

  • ©ISEA2016: 22nd International Symposium on Electronic Art, Ariel Huang, Violence of a Different Kind (I am a Conquistador)
  • Wound copper coil array used to pick up electromagnetic waves from cellular phone


Session Title:

  • Music

Presentation Title:

  • Violence of a Different Kind (I am a Conquistador)




  • Having observed that people often times get upset when things are taken from them, it is probably safe to say that humans take ownership quite seriously. In fact, one could argue that a majority of our conflicts, big and small, do actually revolve around trying to negotiate ownership over something. But as the very idea of what can be owned has expanded to include things such as ideas and culture, those engaged in cultural production have also been tasked with considering the morals/ethics of ownership in relation to the creation of their work. As a musician that primarily works with digital signal processing and digital audio recordings, it is evident that many of the materials I work with, such as synthesizer presets and sampled audio, can be attributed to someone other than myself.

    And in the process of wrestling with ideas such as intellectual property rights and the power relations that lead to the misappropriation of culture, it occurred to me just how easy it was for one to occupy a position that is offensive. Continuing my reflections on moral/ethical concerns in regards to creative practice, I began to wonder what these considerations would look like beyond our sentio-centric value system. In the fields of environmental ethics and the ethics of technology, ethical considerations are often expanded beyond humans to include animal life, plant life and perhaps even non-organic entities. Drawing from their discourse, and risking sounding like an animist or a pantheist, I began to toy with the idea that perhaps all manifestations of human will, even upon materials such as metals and electromagnetic waves can take on a dimension of violence. The performance Violence of a Different Kind is a piece that looks to highlight how in the expansion of our ethics, one can interpret a certain violence in the taking of materials and shaping them to fulfill our desires.

    Artwork Description
    Borrowing and taking ideas from others plays a significant part in how culture furthers itself. In the global-villageof-a-world [1] that we live in, it is increasingly easier for one to know about cultures far removed from their own, and thusly much easier for one to take from another. In light of the ease in which information or resources can be transferred as such from one party to another, conflicts in regards to ownership and propriety inevitably arise, which in turn could raise certain moral/ethical questions – When is it okay to take? Who has the right to take? What are acceptable things that we can do with the things that are taken? Initially, the potential answers to these questions were meant to serve and protect the interests of people, but in recent discourse the boundaries of ethics has gradually expanded beyond ourselves to include animal life, plant life and perhaps even non organic entities. The performance Violence of a Different Kind is a piece that looks to highlight how in the expansion of our ethics, one can interpret a certain violence in the very act of taking materials and shaping them to fulfill our desires.

    One notion related to ownership that society has come to more or less agree upon is that theft is inappropriate – or that it is not appropriate for someone with no right to an object, to take it without the consent of the rightful owner. While this social agreement may be quite straightforward, it is more complicated when identity and power relations come into play in determining who does or does not have a right to something. A good example of this can be seen in outsider participation in hip-hop culture. Despite how hip-hop has been accepted into the hegemonic mainstream, certain outsider adopters of hip-hop may still be perceived at times by those within the culture to not have the right to do so; such as in the case of chart topping white rapper, Iggy Azalea, who is originally from a small town in Australia. Iggy Azalea and other white rappers have been placed under scrutiny for exploiting the form of hip-hop when they themselves have not experienced or demonstrated empathy towards the historic oppression, institutionalized racism and other struggles faced by African-Americans. [2]

    Another example of this kind of propriety has less to do with the identity of one who does the appropriating and more with how the manner in which an object is appropriated may offend or go against the will of those who have a claim of said object. To illustrate this inappropriateness in terms of treatment, let us take a look at the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by American cartoonist Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes is about a little boy and his stuffed toy tiger and the comic has gained quite a bit of popularity since the 80s and 90s. Yet despite Watterson’s syndicate putting continuous pressure on him to license the characters in Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson has steadfastly refused to do so. Beyond finding the commoditizing of his work offensive, Watterson disagreed with his creation taking on other forms, as he felt that if Calvin and Hobbes were to begin appearing on T-shirts and cell-phone cases or in TV-specials and animated movies, these characters would then be stripped of a certain innocence and honesty that was embodied in the original comic strip form.

    [3] So if one were to go ahead and appropriate the likeness of Calvin and Hobbes in manufacturing place mats or car bumper stickers, it would of course first and foremost be a breach of copyright law, but it could also be considered ethically objectionable or at the very least disrespectful, since the treatment of his characters in such a way would be in direct contradiction of Watterson’s intentions. While these standards of propriety mentioned above are typically established in relation to another person or to another group of people, in the field of environmental ethics, it is recognized that beyond humans, other living creatures including plants and animals also play an integral part in society, and thus certain ethical considerations that are normally reserved for other human beings ought be extended to also include all organic life. This extension of ethics can be seen in the art world with the debates elicited by Eduardo Kac’s transgenic artwork involving the genetic engineering of a glowing fluorescent rabbit [4] and Damien Hirst’s work that actively puts animals in harm’s way.

    [5] Furthermore, scholars working in the field of ethics of technology have suggested that ethics can be extended to also include non-organic life in the way of artificial intelligence and robots. [6] In continuing this trajectory of finding commonality with that which is around us, it can be argued that non-organic, non-life may one day also possibly fall within the bounds of our ethical consideration. Thus as one who is engaged in creative practice may need to pay attention to power relations relevant to the context of their work to prevent a misappropriation of culture, perhaps one may also need to reflect on the ethical implications of using non-sentient, inorganic processes and materials to avoid misappropriation of a different kind.

    In the performance of Violence of a Different Kind, I will be using the electromagnetic fields generated by electrical and electronic devices such as electric fans and cellular phones as materials for making music. Tightly wound copper coils will be used to pick up these electromagnetic fields and generate a current that will then be amplified and converted into a digital audio signal via an audio interface – laptop computer setup. As the copper coil pick-ups are hovered over different devices, as well as different parts of these devices, a diverse soundscape of hums and patterned glitches will emerge. These sounds will then be sampled, processed and “played” by the performer in the context of musical performance. In the context outlined above, the enactment of music in this way can be seen as a violent act in that objects and processes, which in this case is electromagnetic noises, are reappropriated according to established conventions and aesthetics of electronic and digital music making.