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Grrrltronica, Plasticity, and Friendship

By Wendy Hsu & Carey Sargent

We met Alex Juhasz at one of her “road shows” at Occidental College last fall. Her talk thwarted the norms of academic presentations by asking the audience to respond by making media, such as video or photos. As performer-scholars, we often experience a disconnect between making and (academic) critiquing, and we found a kindred spirit in Alex. Over dinner, we began brainstorming how we may enhance Alex’s academic road show by being her “house band.” We are especially interested in extending what we do as scholars into the realm of praxis and public scholarship. Trained as an ethnomusicologist, Wendy explores the interrelationship between ethnography and performance through experimentations with technology and media. As a sociologist, Carey examines the effects of digital media on the labor of musicians and academics.

We perform as Grapefruit Experiment (GFX), a name inspired by Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit (1964) that contains a series of whimsical and poetic event scores. We took the name Grapefruit to declare our interest in locating beauty and creativity in everyday life. GFX adapts the format of the Plastic Ono Band as a semi-open music project that invites collaboration. The Plastic Ono Band, with no set membership, countered the boys-club norms and celebrity fetishism of 1960s super-groups and instead “accommodate[d] anyone who wanted to play with it.” Of a similar ethos, we enact the open and collaborative qualities of The Plastic Ono Band to drive our mode of performance, inviting co-creators, incidental or not, to participate in the collective making of sound and music.

In the Road Show project with Alex, we conceptualized the plastic membership of our band to include Alex as well as the incidental content contributors of Alex’s Feminist Online Spaces (FOS). We challenged ourselves to make songs in the style of what we call Grrrltronica. With the goal to draw and transform source materials from FOS, we created electronic music that expresses, extends, and experiments with the feminist ideas that surface on the site and in the greater webscape.

“But I Like Kittens” is the first track of our Grrrltronica album. In this song, we processed the audio track extracted from a video made by Nicola Rowlands who attended Alex’s talk at UCLA. We thought that the fixation on cat memes, as expressed in the video, would make a compelling embodiment of the play element and the associated gendered notions in online spaces. We ask: Why is a cat meme considered to be a guilty pleasure? What is the impetus behind the virality of kittens and things that seem feminine and unimportant in virtual spaces? We created a sonic texture by foregrounding sounds and bytes of trivial but intensely pleasurable artifacts of cat memes [ex) I Can Has Cheezburger], and featuring the vocal stylings of our own cat named Hannah Arendt. Against this wildly meme-laden sonic party, we juxtaposed with the words of an anti-cat-meme, anti-SOPA message in order to challenge the binary between seriousness and triviality, a dichotomy that is often gendered in web rhetoric.

Our second song for the Grrrltronica album, “Kong Jian,” is a meditation on space across various cultural and linguistic, and sound production platforms. “Kong Jian” means “space” in Mandarin Chinese. Drawn to the lyricism of the text entitled “Ideas in Space,”(a response to Alex’s road show at the RE:Humanities conference written and performed by a duo of talk-attendees made up of an undergraduate student paired with Anne Dalke from Bryn Mawr), we reimagined the meaning of this text by placing it within a trans-lingual machine-made space. We used Google Translate to re-interpret the text in Mandarin Chinese, a language based in tonal inflections. With a curiosity for voice and music synthesis, we processed the sound of the text, as algorithmically articulated by Google; and embedded it in an O-Superman analog-synth soundscape that we fabricated from other rhythmically interesting audio materials collected from audience members at Alex’s road shows this spring.

We especially gravitated toward content that resonates with the quotidian and often trivialized and feminized constituents of life and culture. We also challenged ourselves to reconceptualize the practice of remix as a mode of production that resonates with the Riot Grrrl movement where women control the process of making and distributing of artistic content. Using friendly programs such as Audacity, Ableton Live, SoundCloud, and BandCamp, we extracted sounds and sonified texts from FOS and other sites of relevance on the Internet; and then delivered our songs to wide networks of friends and comrades. To encourage future remix and transformation, we licensed both of our songs under a Creative Commons License.

Social interactions are not programmable, but we did find a way to induce interactions that foreground gender equality as a mission through the exchange and remix of sound, text, images, and social media. Through this collaboration, we worked with Alex to foster collaboration and interaction beyond the immediate moment in Alex’s road shows when audiences make media. The “Kittens” album art was sourced by Marty Fink, a Toronto node of the FOS network, and the “Kong Jian” cover art was created by Jessica Villella, a student at Colby College in Maine; and other materials were sourced from nodes in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and western Massachusetts. These expressions then reached X more people, some of them present at the road shows, and some not but tuned in through Bandcamp and SoundCloud.

Grrrltronica and plasticity lead to friendship. We happily make things to inspire this intersection.