Oaxaca, the capital city of the state with the same name, is a beautiful, unique center of very rich and diverse cultural activity which might easily be called an epicenter of Mexican culture. It is one of my favorite places in the world. In my several visits over the last three years, one strong cultural element that I've noticed is the complex propagation and interaction of sounds in the streets of the city's Historic Center. Walking through the streets one can often hear a density of stereos, hawkers, machines, perambulating musical acts, conversations of all registers, firecrackers, sirens, horns, and construction among other sonic phenomena, all reflected and reverberated by the dense stone colonial buildings and plazas. I remember walking down the sidewalk at times (fueled by the region's glorious and electrifying mezcal) dancing manically in passing to a different song projected from each storefront, sometimes wildly different types of music; whether to attract customers or make the shopping experience more of a party, many stores in Oaxaca (as well as in many other Mexican cities) place big speakers in front of their store and project loud music and/or announcements. I continue to be fascinated by this undefined quality, an ambiguity regarding these speakers' purpose and effects, and a general feeling that this is just how things are done here. Ideas started to gestate once I contemplated this aggressive infrastructure of diverse audio gear.
Though the idea had emerged, the place was still to be found: I spent my first full day in Oaxaca hunting for the corridor with the most outward-facing speakers. Luckily I found this within a few hours and it was only a short walk in a straight line from the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, the institution that sponsored and hosted this special festival that invited me here. Bustamante is a bustling corridor connecting the Zócalo to several local transit hubs and boasts a wide variety of stands and stores from opticians to seafood. From here I put into action a skill cultivated from what I call Cigarette Life, a jewel of a day job that, among other things, requires me to convince store staff to do something mildly annoying for a short period of time-- and I do this all day, as much as twenty times a day, for weeks or sometimes months on end. And so I spent the majority of my working time for the next three days chasing down store owners, explaining the idea, its purpose, its logistics, why the store would benefit from participating, and noting each system's technical specs... until Friday morning when the last of 21 stores with outward-facing speakers on this three-block stretch of Calle Bustamante agreed that I could use their speakers for an hour on Saturday.
My map of Calle Bustamante and its stores with speakers
...Which gave me just about 24 hours to figure out the sound and bounce it to 21 USB sticks, SD cards and pocket-sized MP3 players-- whatever was compatible with each store's system. This turned out to not be a huge problem since Oaxaca is also the home of some of the world's greatest coffee. Between that, mezcal and the excitement of the other Festival Umbral events... I decided I would sleep when I got home. (At this point I should thank Lilly Rodriguez for enduring hours and hours of overnight synthesis and testing that kept her from sleeping peacefully in our hotel room.)
The sound that eventually made their way into the speakers of Calle Bustamante consisted of three elements: a low, slow click track, a stream of white noise, and three sine tones selected from the overtone series of 60 Hertz. The noise and tone tracks each had unique patterns of fading in and out, producing an undulating harmonic triad. Heard together, the 20 tracks (80 minutes each) yield a rich harmonic texture similar to this previous online piece that I made last year. In addition to the way these sounds carry and combine seamlessly, I chose them because they very honestly articulate the hardware that produces them, allowing each unique speaker to project its own peculiar signature.
One of the 21 raw audio tracks
At first I thought I could take my time around 5:15 on Saturday to start loading and playing the sounds from each of the 21 sound systems. Then the festival schedule changed its order at my request which resulted in an unexpected performance of scrambling to set up speakers faster than the festival audience could walk down Bustamante (they arrived about 20 minutes earlier than expected). The resulting documentation is a mix of photos, videos and audio recordings taken mostly by participants and producers of the festival who were kind enough to pass them along.
There are also a few stories and loose conversation transcripts, an equally important part of this piece. Once I returned to each store to pick up the storage media I was greeted by store personnel who looked at me a little differently. This led to some really interesting and sincere conversations about what noise is as opposed to music, what the purpose of a sound installation is, and how so much of sensory experience is just a question of perspective. I was moved by how honest and open the people of Calle Bustamante were, a very pleasant ending for this piece.
At various moments maybe three or four sites were taken offline from reasons ranging to "We couldn't hear it / didn't get it" to "The guy next door complained saying we don't have a permit, but let's put it back on anyway now." And I imagine one, possibly two places (one of which was appropriately named "FUCKERS") where they just said fuck this shit and put on their own music despite their prior commitments. Oh well. But the overwhelming feeling after was quite gratifying and humanizing.
Walking down Calle Bustamante with audio recorder in my shirt pocket while the piece was running
In addition to the aforementioned store, I'd like to thank the people of the following businesses for their participation:
Marcos y Fotos de Oaxaca
Opticas America (two locations)
Revistas (Francisco Celis)
Zapatería El Remate
Credit: Bill Dietz
And even bigger thanks go to my dear friends who invited me to participate in their phenomenal festival, Rolando Hernández and Gudinni Cortina; the wonderful people at MACO including Cecilia, Rosa and Adrián; and the truly awesome lineup of inspiring artists who presented dazzling work and were equally fantastic to hang out with before and after the official events. I have these people to thank also for the great range of documentation for this project.