For the web residencies by Solitude and ZKM on the topic »Engineering Care,« the artist and researcher Pedro Oliveira proposed the project On the Apparently Meaningless Texture of Noise, in which he examines accent recognition software in asylum procedures, and challenges narratives of care around it. »Reimagining care must begin with reimagining institutions. Can we think about the future without addressing matters of care left behind by acts of dehumanization and dehistoricization?« For the web residencies he created a »sound essay,« to serve as an entry point to or a conversation piece on the instrumentalization of voices and accents, on bodies as the site for the production of »evidence.«
Schlosspost: Your project On the Apparently Meaningless Texture of Noise (2019) for the Web Residencies by Solitude and ZKM is a continuation of your work A Series of Gaps Rather Than a Presence (2019), which deals with accent recognition software in asylum procedures. Could you introduce us to your artistic practice as a sound artist, and based on that, elaborate on your inquiries with so-called accent recognition software and explain where did this interest for voice biometry technologies comes from?
Pedro Oliveira: Despite being originally trained as a designer, my work has always been rooted in exploring, studying, and producing sound. It emerges from a deep interest in listening and its relation to articulations of power. I had the honor and luck to do my undergraduate degree in a public university that hosts one of the best design courses in Brazil, with plenty of possibilities for experimentation and discussion of design as a language so my shift toward sound and listening as a way of thinking design (or vice-versa) was more of a natural process that followed me all the way through the completion of my PhD here in Germany in 2017. I do not consider myself a designer, though, and I still have a bit of uneasiness in calling myself a »sound artist« because I think that my work is heavily research-based, albeit conveyed through sonic/artistic means. I say this because I am not interested in sound as sound, but more on the contingent arrangements of sound, meaning, power, affect, and so on. What sound does to bodies and how, and what such doing constructs in the world.
My interest in what I call »sonic biometry« emerges within this idea of what sound does to a body, but also as to how sound becomes this site in which discourses around the production of subjectivities and a so-called »objectivity« often overlap. I make it a point of disconnecting my work from the notion that listening is a purely subjective act, or that sound is more «pure« or »primal.« There is no primacy of sound – there are contingent arrangements (cultural, political, social, material) that inform what it is that sound can do, how, and to whom. In my PhD dissertation I explored these ideas by analyzing the articulation of sound and racialized police violence in Brazil, unweaving the colonial construction of a racialized listening (something that other scholars e.g. Jennifer Stoever in her book The Sonic Color Line have also explored) through designed artifacts (in my case a sound bomb, a jukebox, and an acoustic wall). However, me being a Brazilian researcher working from abroad also entails the idea that I am talking about coloniality as an ontological force that (supposedly) can only happen »there,« whereas the sustainment of coloniality has its origins and concentrates its power »here.« The use of accent recognition software against asylum seekers in Germany, and within this so-called »refugee crisis,« is a clear example of this concentration and articulation of power, so when I stumbled across this information I decided to focus on it and explore it in relation to what I had done before.
»My interest what I call »sonic biometry« emerges within this idea of what sound does to a body, (…). There is no primacy of sound – there are contingent arrangements (cultural, political, social, material) that inform what it is that sound can do, how, and to whom.«
SP: Through an evaluation of the language profile by an accent recognition software, the human voice becomes evidence, and the accent becomes a placeholder for the detectability of the body. Why do you perceive this software as »acts of dehumanization and dehistoricization«?
PO: The idea that human traits are in any way measurable, classifiable, rankable, and taxonomizable is a violent, colonial construct. It emerges from the notion that a) certain populations and their ways of being are somehow »closer to nature« than others, but also that b) the lives, bodies, objects, languages, and practices of these populations had to be collected, extracted, and »made sense of« by European colonizers. This desire for »understanding« the native denies agency, denies the right to opacity (as Glissant would say), and creates a narrative which is purely told by eyes, ears, and words of these so-called »experts« who had to develop fictional grammar and vocabularies to be able to speak about things they could not (and still cannot) fathom. It is a denial of agency, of the very possibility of agency, and thus a removal from history.
Accent recognition software or any other biometric technology for that matter, in its attempt to essentialize human traits and classify them according to specific mathematical principles under the guise of »objectivity,« is basically a continuation of this process. For instance, any database containing samples of a specific language or accent is bound to be a congealment of a specific articulation of an accent, connected to a specific geopolitical situation and a specific time period. It is not, in any way, an »objective« or »accurate« representation of that accent, let alone of an entire group of human beings. However, this method of identification becomes but a placeholder for identity. Identifying becomes an act of producing a contingent, fictional identity that denies, deconstructs, dismantles any possibility of agency. It only exists insofar as it remains exterior to itself.