Wednesday, May 08, 2013

On being a man & etc.

abandoned shop: blue and red

I was recently made aware of Susanna Caprara, an Italian sound artist and field recordist based in Dublin. From her blog I see that she was awarded the Grand Canal Commission by the Offaly County Council, an award for which I was short-listed. It's a small world in Ireland!

I read with interest her post "High heels & XLR cables" (witty title!) and drafted a short response that somehow took on a life of its own. Realising that my own blog is becoming rather derelict, I thought I'd post it here and hopefully encourage further dialogue. Consider writing your own personal response, so that greater awareness is brought to these issues.

First read Susanna's post and then continue.

Response

I enjoyed reading these ruminations, and hope that you get many responses that add breadth and strength to your own position. Regardless of anything else, sexism has to be called out for what it is. That's the bottom line, which I hope is held as a pedal note through the following considerations.

As you note, there are a great number of strong female practitioners in the sound art world. To your list I could add Hildegard Westerkamp, Janet Cardiff, Natasha Barrett, Katharine Norman, Wendy Chambers, Brigitte Robindoré, Maryanne Amacher, Daphne Oram, Ellen Fullman, Laurie Spiegel... If we expand this to include the many contemporary vocalists, instrumentalists, DJs, and other practitioners operating in the slipstream fields of electronics, performance, and composition, then the whole idea of such a list becomes counter-productive. Our field is not one that currently lacks for women!

But Ireland might indeed be a special, rather backwards, case. And as a male living here I am not free from this regime. Every time I see women referred to as "ladies" I shudder, and likewise have to repress a retort when referred to as "love" by a well-meaning older woman (who is nonetheless just as likely to be younger than myself). Yes, these are well-meaning gestures. But they are ignorant of the power of words to shape social convention. In my activities in support of feminism, starting in the early eighties, we soon learned to choose words carefully. And with much ensuing debate as to which words to use, when, and how.

Now, of course, all such niceties are decried as "political correctness" by those not even aware of where that horrid term originated. But it is waved as a flag by those who wish to forestall debate, finding comfort instead in ignorance and self-interest.

But I digress. Let me respond directly to one point in your article.

"I regularly see female artists across all disciplines annihilating their femininity for the sake of ‘being taken seriously’, I see others playfully and cleverly engaging with it, and others exploiting it, or depressingly trading it as a commodity. So where do I stand? (as I write this I can’t help but feeling a male artist doesn’t even have to bother himself with all this, and I am a little bit jealous.)"

There is no point being jealous; male musicians have to deal with these issues all the time. Where does a male guitarist stand in relationship to their instrument, with its long history as an adolescent phallus substitute? How does a person of colour (or from a non-European culture, or...) relate to the not-so-hidden hierarchies of a rock band, a concert orchestra, or even a recording studio? Can only bearded men bow cymbals? (Not entirely a joke!)

Further, how does a man with a disability manage when the other men around him are hauling amps and mic stands in the strenuous pre- and post-gig workouts? If you don't pitch in, you are not "one of the guys". Gender roles influence social inclusion/exclusion in a complex that includes labour and class structures. It's impossible to separate them.

There are also more radical reformulations of the gender dynamic. Given the understanding that femininity cannot be restricted to women if masculinity is not likewise to be controlled by men, how can a man relate to his femininity in a musical context? There are certainly artists who have chosen to explore these subjects directly: Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk, Antony Hegarty of Antony and The Johnsons, and Terre Thaemlitz are three who spring to mind.

In short, being a man does not free oneself from considerations of gender. Quite the contrary, if there is to be any fruitful process that leads to greater acceptance and plurality of expression.

Thank-you for your article.

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