When we think of a cyborg, we typically picture a person part-human, part-machine—someone with powers beyond those of a normal human being. The idea has been around in science fiction and entered the popular imagination through movies and television shows like Star Trek and the Six Million Dollar Man.
Now, two Penn graduate students are exploring the concept of the cyborg through the lens of everyday interactions between people and technology—specifically sound technology. In March of last year, Roksana Filipowska and Maria Murphy began to formulate an idea for collaborative workshops on sound that would be open to graduate students from various disciplines. They held the workshop series, called Listening (to) Cyborgs, on Wednesday evenings in the Lerner Center during the spring semester.
Murphy and Filipowska met in the fall of 2012 in a graduate seminar on film theory led by Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor in Film Studies Karen Beckman, chair of the Department of the History of Art. “Maria and I bonded over our shared focus on sound and voice during the seminar,” says Filipowska.
A Ph.D. candidate in music, Murphy is writing her dissertation in part on the pioneering performance and multi-media artist Laurie Anderson. She focuses on Anderson’s work during the 1980s, which used sound technologies to address issues such as war, censorship, and the AIDS crisis. Filipowska is pursuing a doctorate in art history and is a current long-term Doan Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Her dissertation analyzes artists’ experiments in thermoplastics and the way that theories of plasticity—or the propensity for change—found a material basis in synthetics between the years 1965 and 1975.
The women describe their workshop project as a “media archaeology” of communication technologies, looking especially to the beginning of the 1980s and the gradual transition from analog to digital technologies. They received funding from the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA), where they found a sympathetic ear in Akshay Walia, who serves on the GAPSA Research Council. Although GAPSA typically funds one-off events such as conferences, Filipowska says, “We went to Akshay and said, ‘Our goal is to create a community at Penn of people interested in sound and technology,’ and he really believed in the project.” When it came to understanding and purchasing the necessary equipment, Filipowska and Murphy turned for guidance to Eugene Lew, an instructional technology specialist for Penn Arts and Sciences. Among their purchases were a vocoder and harmonizer, a synthesizer, a looper station, microphones, speakers, and various cables.
Funding and equipment in hand, they began to flesh out the content of the workshops. “We started thinking about the aural technologies that infiltrate our lives on a daily basis,” Murphy says. “We wanted to look at the implications of this technological infiltration—including political implications.”
Take Amazon’s “Echo,” a new voice-activated device that functions as kind of home command center. It plays music, reads the news and weather forecasts, controls lights and thermostats, and much more. “It listens to you and takes commands and it’s a very cool piece of technology,” says Murphy. “But when we met with Professor Jessa Lingel of the Annenberg School to bounce ideas around, she raised provocative questions like, ‘If it is in our homes listening to our voices, who can it report back to? What else can it listen to?’”
Filipowska adds, “The voice service on Echo is called ‘Alexa,’ so it’s a female voice. The image of the cyborg in popular culture has often been gendered as male. But what we actually encounter in our daily lives are these female voices that are made subservient to the user of the technology. Our workshop explores how operating systems—the cyborg voices we interact with—are gendered and charged with affect.”
Guest presenters at Listening (to) Cyborgs have included SCRAAATCH, a collaboration of artists E. Jane and chukwumaa, who are M.F.A. candidates at Penn; Mara Mills, an assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University who investigates the intersection of disability studies and media studies; and Nadia Botello, a sound artist who creates such sonic environments as underwater operas that can be sensed with the entire body.
Filipowska and Murphy are thrilled with the diversity of students the events have attracted. “We have people coming from engineering, Penn Design, art history, music, Annenberg, and linguistics,” says Murphy. “And they’re all coming to the table with different ideas and goals.”
Each collaborative event raises thought-provoking questions, but the project also serves other purposes. “One of our greater concerns is promoting more interaction between the humanities and the sciences at the graduate level,” says Filipowska. In addition, given that graduate education places a strong emphasis on concrete outcomes such as papers and dissertations, Filipowska and Murphy sought to create a space where students could come together to simply explore new interests and find a creative outlet. They hope the series will have a ripple effect and encourage graduate students to continue to investigate their own ideas using technology they have on hand, such as smart phones.
Ultimately the women’s aim is about imagining alternative learning spaces, says Murphy. “Akshay and Roksana and I, we all believe in the importance of addressing the changing landscape of 21st-century education, and that we have to imagine and excavate new pedagogical spaces to teach each other and to learn in new and exciting ways.”
The series culminates with an “anti-performance” on April 1 at Vox Populi, a contemporary art space and collective located in Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood. Why anti-performance? Filipowska explains, “The evening will blur the boundary between performer and audience by inviting all to participate in the sound-making. We did not want to put emphasis on a singular performance. The anti-performance is a way of sharing the process of the workshop with a broader community in Philadelphia.”
The Listening (to) Cyborgs anti-performance will be held Friday, April 1, at Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th Street, 3rd floor, in Philadelphia, from 8:30 to 10:00 pm.
For more information, visit: http://www.listeningtocyborgs.com.