Ultra-Red in Conversation with David Riff


Ultra-red is coming to Cologne to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the group’s existence. A lot has changed since the group’s beginnings; not only on the level of technology and communication, but also politically, where it’s almost like we’ve come full circle, perhaps even several times... In that context, I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about the group’s founding and what has changed over the years? How many of the original members are still in the group, and how open is it to new members? Does the group convene physically? How are decisions made? How did the group communicate in the beginning (pre-Internet) and how has that changed over the years? Which practices and concerns were added, what did you abandon, what has remained constant throughout? Which political struggles were important in the early years, have the accents shifted? Where do you see the biggest challenges but also possibilities for engagement in the next twenty years?

JANNA GRAHAM: So many questions! To begin at the beginning, Ultra-red was founded in 1994 by two AIDS activists: Dont Rhine, who is a very active coordinating member of Ultra-red, and Marco Larson, who is no longer in the collective. Both were involved in Clean Needles Now, an AIDS-activist project providing needle exchange and harm reduction services for injection drug users in Hollywood, Skid Row, and other parts of Los Angeles. An offshoot of ACT UP, Clean Needles Now involved a number of artists who conceived of the different elements of needle exchange drawing from queer, conceptual, and performance work.

The earliest Ultra-red projects involved making audio field recordings in the exchange, to document the surveillance by private security and to retain the anonymity of needle exchange users. These recordings were recomposed using what was then described as a “cut up” method, and performed in the context of Los Angeles’s burgeoning electronic music scene at Ultra-red’s club, Public Space, and at music festivals and events..

Bienestar (Los Angeles), 2007 Dub Grammar (Plymouth Arts Centre, UK), 2007

As HIV/AIDS activism and harm reduction as a response to the crisis took place at the intersection of many experiences and movements, Ultra-red became aligned with issues of low income housing in Latino/a communities in East Los Angeles through an encounter with organizers from Union de Vecinos. Members of this group were the next people to join Ultra-red, creating electroacoustic compositions about the struggles of low-income housing tenants and their fight against gentrification, which were released as albums on the Mille Plateaux label. As the electronic music scene grew, so did opportunities for the group to travel and perform at festivals internationally. Through this, new encounters occurred between Los Angeles-based members and European activists building analysis of racism and antiracism in relation to the experience of migration and new European border controls.

The three political contexts of AIDS activism, housing struggles, and antiracism have remained central for the collective, and it is usually through involvement in organizing efforts around these issues that new members enter into the collective. Now there are at least twelve people who have joined the collective through a fairly ad hoc process. What links each member is a committed practice vis-à-vis struggle and, usually, a past experience of working on an Ultra-red project.

You’re right that many things change, and that many circle back on themselves. The years between the group’s inception and now have seen us recontextualized as less of an electronic music ensemble and more of a sound art collective. This occurred largely due to our decision to release albums on our own free access label Public Record instead of with commercial record labels that limit distribution and reception of the work. This has been accompanied with invitations to work on longer-term projects with particular constituencies, often at the request of cultural institutions interested in working more politically. Both this recontextualization and a very concentrated engagement with the histories and ideas of popular educators, among them Paulo Freire, Myles Horton, and Ella Baker, and radical research methods such as Worker’s Inquiry and Participatory Action Research (PAR), have meant that in recent years our focus has changed. Ultra-red’s practice has moved from the composition and circulation of sounds to a deep engagement with the politics and practices of organized listening. And recently, this work on listening has developed further into direct involvement with the social struggles with which individual Ultra-red members are aligned.

Our readings and subsequent conceptualization of listening and what we have come to describe as "militant sound investigation" have grown out of many conversations across the Ultra-red membership base. In particular, these conversations have grown out of a desire to think through a less symbolic or event-based approach to the activism we saw taking place in wider social movements. In this, we have increasingly drawn from exchange between our own personal political formations. These exchanges have taken place over email and through particular projects, which have brought different international constellations of the group together. In 2007/2008, for example, members of the group from Los Angeles, Berlin, Plymouth, New York, and London worked together on a project related to antiracism. In 2009, through a residency at Raven Row in London, geographically disparate groups were able to meet in person and work together to produce a school for local activists and artists.

Encuentro (Plymouth Arts Centre, UK), 2007 We Come From Your Future papers (Tate Britain, London), 2008

Decision-making processes take place in the same way as exchanges of ideas, with some undertaken by members working in a local context, others sent to the entire list, and others taking place through informal conversations between members. Where possible, members working in one location will send out dispatches to others as a way of sharing what has been learned and the political analysis emerging in a particular context. But this is not always the case. We also share resources on a wiki and have recently attempted to have all members meeting on Skype, with varying degrees of success. Of course, none of this would have been possible pre-Internet and it is unlikely that the group would have been able to expand in this way without these developments.

Many things have changed within individual political struggles, and some not at all. Union de Vecinos, has, for example, gone from a small, militant grassroots housing organization to a strong lobbying organization for the rights of tenants in Los Angeles. The organization even saw some of its members take over the city council of one Southern California municipality, the City of Maywood. This and other recent tendencies have pushed some members to really consider their own politics vis-à-vis an analysis of the State.

At the same time, the kinds of gentrification that the resident-members of Union de Vecinos struggled against in the mid-1990s are now occurring at a rapid pace simultaneously in places like London and Berlin. And with these occurrences come new forms of racism as well as migrant solidarity. An example here would be the movement Kotti & Co, with whom the Berlin-based members of Ultra-red are currently working. AIDS activism, after a number of years of quieter and NGO-based work, is experiencing a revitalization, with projects emerging that revisit histories as a way of igniting new solidarities.

Our work is increasingly at the cross-section of these issues and surrounding what can only be described as an accelerated war on the poor.

The challenges and possibilities that these old and new formations present are at the heart of why we are coming together in Cologne next month. Both – challenges and possibilities – will emerge in response to a number of contradictions that we have outlined in the lead up to our encounter. Among them are questions related to the expectations of the art world versus our commitment to ongoing engagement with social struggle; the tensions between the high political and ethical aspirations we each hold and the limited time and resources available to develop projects; the blurry relationship between the work that many of us do as activists and organizers and our work as members of Ultra-red; the degree to which our political analysis is or is not reflected in our working practices with groups and in our own working processes as a collective; and how to address the problematic that neoliberal policies sometimes appear to be using the same languages and tactics we do. The questions, “What have we learned?” and, “How might we better impact the struggles with which we are involved?” will remain central to our dialogue in Cologne.

Protocols for sound objects No3 (collage), 2011 2011-Protocols for sound objects No2 (collage)

Ultra-red is a group that bridges very different but related fields: the worlds of political and social activism, sound art and music, social science – all of which are at times presented in the field of contemporary art. How comfortable or alien do different members of the group feel in the representative context of the art world? When I was once together with Rob, Elliot, and Leonardo, I had the sense we were all quite ill at ease in the situation of art world schmoozing over breakfast in the run-up to the conference. Is that generally the case? Do you feel at home in the art world, rather not at home, or is it perhaps a home you love to hate? I’d be curious to know how engaged or skeptical you feel with that field, or others? What about the music or sound art world, what about the situation of more direct social activism? How are the relationships to and between these different spheres?

ELLIOT PERKINS – It is probably fair to say that the majority of Ultra-red members would not describe themselves as artists, yet many of us work frequently in a contemporary art context. Operating in these spaces comes easier for some than for others as our work seldom “translates” into this setting. It is often expected that Ultra-red members will indulge the art world’s appetite for representation. Over the past twenty years and the multiple transitions we have made in that time, a good deal of mythology has grown around Ultra-red. Some of it will have undoubtedly been generated by us, evolving from our own naive understanding of what we thought we were doing at given moments in the past, only to find ourselves desperately mistaken.

Much of the misunderstanding about Ultra-red’s practice seems to emanate, however, from the art world itself. In some respects this can be attributed to the art world’s quest to construct the authentic political collective. That search is then in tension with a preoccupation with the different-but-related fields you mention above. Recently, for example, we were even told by a curator – obviously frustrated with the slow, tentative nature of one of our investigations – that “this is not the work of Ultra-red.” Such objective alienation from our own past is less a feeling of being adrift, as one might expect. Rather, it is a provocation to reaffirm our commitment to many aspects of our work: accountability, horizontality, affinity, conflict, duration. These often conflict with the temporality and predispositions of the art context on the one hand. On the other hand, the core commitments of the work take on a greater urgency in the fragile and uncertain environment of collaboration and emergent relationships.

In the late ’90s and early ’00s a superficial understanding of what it is we actually do resulted in an unproductive privileging of Ultra-red as spectacle or some kind of road show. This has only intensified in the absence of Ultra-red acting as “performers,” as was widely the perception a decade or so ago when our main output was records and CDs. Having this mythology precede us in the field of contemporary art requires that we are often at odds with the expectations of those who invite us as “artists” to bring expertise or authority. Undoing these myths is increasingly part of our work in art situations – something we gladly do. “Guaranteed to disappoint,” was the tongue-in-cheek observation made recently by one participant about the attendant expectations of Ultra-red’s work and the corresponding lack of any assurance that it will bear fruit. In the field of contemporary art, we are probably fairly comfortable with this.

For all of these contradictions, the field of contemporary art is able to offer discursive space, however conflicted this may be. The same cannot easily be said of the music or sound art context. Those spheres tend to be all too frequently structured around the rhetorical space of the performance or technological sublimity.

We do enjoy loyal support from and share mutual sympathies with artists, other collectives, and individuals in arts institutions who have repeatedly shown a commitment to privileging collective, emancipatory practice and radical education programs. Many of these people have shown enormous trust in Ultra-red’s methods and process. It is important for us not to forget this dimension. Over the years we have been fortunate to meet some remarkable individuals working in otherwise bourgeois institutions. To have the education programmer of a gallery take part in a week-long investigation on the very same terms as other participants, for us, belongs to the encounter at the intersection of art and organizing, the political and the aesthetic, which Ultra-red’s work aspires to occupy.

Whilst we could bemoan the discontents of the art world at length, the field of political organizing is often no less exasperating. Both are fields of great possibility. And Ultra-red, active in and between both, sees great urgency in using each respectively to challenge, interrogate, or antagonize the other.

Protocols for sound objects No3 (collage), 2011 War on the Poor (Drawing), 2011

Your project URXX is described as a listening session. I am imagining a “hearing” presumably not just of field recordings or audioscapes, but also in a more profound way, as a practice of listening out subjectivities to articulate a common plan or protocol for action. I am curious to hear more about the different protocols for “listening” as they have developed in Ultra-red’s practice. Could you tell a bit about the kinds of audio walks and field recording Ultra-red has done and does in urban space? How do more conventional social encounters and field interviews fit into these practices? Could you tell a bit more about how these different forms of listening and hearing fit into struggles and what they contribute? What is planned for the listening session in Cologne?

JANNA GRAHAM – As Elliot has suggested, the work of organized, collective listening is slow. Within Ultra-red projects, organized listening takes place through a process of many encounters, often beginning with sessions in which people are invited to “hear” in the context of a protocol through which they are invited to respond to the sounds we bring to a place or an issue from our past experiences. By moving beyond simply hearing, enabling listeners to inhabit and respond to these sounds, a number of things take place, including the possibility of projecting one’s own experiences, desires, and anxieties onto what has been heard. This is incredibly useful at the beginning of a process, and often exposes where there is and is not a will to proceed. Through organizing these responses we often begin to see a picture of some of the primary issues or contradictions within a group. From there we can map out the grounds for an investigation.

We often make use of sound walks later in a process, when we have developed strong relationships with our collaborators. The sound walk moves us from the room, or the collective space that has been created, into the local sites in which certain contradictions can be found; this grounds the practice of listening very specifically. It often also has a very important affective impact on ourselves and on the groups with whom we work. We might then, again, listen to what we have heard in these spaces. Often gathered together in a more closed setting, we attempt to develop an analysis that provides the basis for making new recordings. Composed in the course of that analysis, the recordings also try to map out possible actions. This all sounds very formulaic, when indeed, we sometimes find that the protocols we have developed do not work at all and other practices of listening need to be invented. At other times, as is often the case, processes might stay in an analytic mode, moving with great difficulty into actions.

In almost all cases, what is heard in such processes (both the sounds and the subsequent reflections) reveals the conflicts and contradictions of the conditions under which the project has been organized; that is, if the project takes place in a context that uses the language of political action but has no interest in acting politically, it becomes apparent in the earliest listening sessions and can be a source of great tension for us and our hosts.

In the case of Cologne, the listening sessions will be of the first type: sessions in which we bring our analysis of our own work to a new group with the hope that we will learn something of the context we are in and the issues that intersect with the struggles with which we are engaged, but also the struggles of collectivity that we will be addressing in closed sessions through our time in Cologne.

ELLIOT PERKINS – At the risk of making it sound like the listening session is a hermetic affair, I am really looking forward to the process of sharing amongst Ultra-red members, from their respective sites and constituencies. Hearing about all of the work being done in the different Ultra-red locations is a real privilege, as it provides for a convergence that we have, to date, never really managed to pull off. The element of storytelling as teaching and learning is also something which we have, of course, done within processes over the years. But structured into a performance protocol as in this occasion is, for me at least, something novel. So I’m eager to see how this might contribute to new formats for listening in our work.

The Academy of the Arts of the World is coproducing a DVD box set of Ultra-red’s different projects over the last years. Booklets with descriptions of projects come together with DVDs of source material, as I understand. Could you tell a bit more about which projects are on the DVD, and what kind of projects it represents? What kinds of materials will the reader find here?

DONT RHINE – Janna mentioned Ultra-red’s residency in Raven Row. When the collective came together five years ago in London, a number of questions came into relief. Those questions both named where we were in our practice but also put forward some propositions. For example, if Ultra-red’s practice had indeed shifted from organizing sound to organizing listening, then what does that shift make possible in terms of specific contributions to the listening practices of political movements, cultural formations, communities, and community-based organizations? It is a question of intentionality. Over the subsequent years, different teams within Ultra-red have been testing that question in various contexts.

Although the collective turns twenty this year, the box set focuses on the years since Raven Row. We have described the box set as a curriculum for sound research. The nine workbooks in the curriculum document many of Ultra-red’s investigations of the last five years. Each workbook includes the protocols developed and then tested within the investigations. While text scores have a long precedent in experimental art and music, we use the notion of protocols. If you think of how they function in experiments or diplomacy, protocols exist in a middle temporal zone between documenting what has already taken place and scoring actions that lie ahead. They function like minutes from a dialogue as much as guides for future relations. A large majority of our own protocols are not speculative. They bear the traces of having been tested in social situations.

A number of the workbooks cover specific inquiries within concrete situations, like Ultra-red’s long-term involvement with New York’s House and Ballroom scene (workbook #1), or more short-term partnerships like Ultra-red’s research collaboration with the Dundee, Scotland group, Art Angel (workbook #3). Other workbooks fall somewhere in between, such as the Radical Education Workbook or the research collaboration with Berlin’s Kotti & Co – both of these booklets come out of specific initiatives but sit within the context of Ultra-red’s decades-long political involvement with radical education or antiracism in Germany, respectively. Finally, a number of the workbooks are not rooted in any one sound investigation but put into conversation a number of different inquiries and processes from diverse geopolitical contexts.

The DVD included in the curriculum supplements the workbooks. It contains an archive of a large number of moving image and sound objects used in these various sound investigations. Some of the objects were developed by Ultra-red while others come out of processes with community groups. But all of the objects have a function within the protocols of sound research: generating collective reflections in response to the question, “What did you hear?”

As Elliot mentioned earlier, it is important to keep in mind that the videos and audio recordings are not on the order of representations. Neither are they meant to be heard as artworks in themselves. Often very short in duration, the sound objects in particular function like single frames in a film. You can guess what comes before or after. The frame in itself is contingent and unresolved. If the listener allows herself to enter into the complex matrix of listening practices (e.g. in the sense of identifying the source of sound, registering the bodily experience of sound, as well as the associations and semantic meanings of the sound), then a tremendous amount of reflection can come from something that is otherwise relatively banal and ephemeral. This is how these objects have been used, as documented in the workbooks. It is also how we hope the curriculum gets used in a larger field of cultural producers, sound researchers, and political organizers.

All of this work stems from a basic proposition related to the praxis of sound research. How do processes of organized listening generate both a collective analysis of lived experience and new forms of action? But also, how does the sound research process contribute to literacies of political listening? And do those literacies bear the inflection of specific politics regarding anticapitalism, the preferential option for the poor, and so forth? These are questions that very much exceed any one Ultra-red project and which we, as a collective, are only beginning to understand. The curriculum helps us in our own critical thinking as well as inviting other collectives to join us in pursuing a horizon of militant sound research.