sat 20/04/2024

First Person: novelist Pip Adam on the sound of injustice | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: novelist Pip Adam on the sound of injustice

First Person: novelist Pip Adam on the sound of injustice

Author Pip Adam describes how her time working in prisons and interest in the jurisprudence of noise gave life to her recent sci-fi novel, 'Audition'

Pip Adam: 'I never adjusted to the sound'Courtesy of Peninsula Press

I know it rattles me, so I try to prepare for it. But I am never fully prepared for the noise.

The correctional facilities I have visited over the last 30 years are noisy places. A secure building requires strong doors that are opened and shut – always with the noise of a heavy door returning to its frame but often with a loud buzz or beep. This airlock design creates smaller areas which offer constant opportunity for echo. Prisons are overpopulated and a lot of people make a lot of noise. In my experience, unhappy or upset people make more noise, but laughter and excitement and care can also lead to sharp, sudden sounds.

Incarceration leads to violence – to oneself, to others – so most rooms are minimal and stark. Any object that might be used as a weapon is removed. Softness is replaced with easy-to-clean hard surfaces. I’m struck how even the furnishings of a utilitarian office or classroom give a room a sense of relief, cutting out some of the top end of noise – rounding it slightly. The way the prison amplifies noise is a safety feature, it makes it easier to hear disruption. But the most worrying noise in a prison is none at all. Silence is never good news.

I have visited prisons and other correctional facilities for the last 28 years for all sorts of reasons. Most recently, and until a few years ago, I was part of a group who facilitated spaces for creative writing. The first time I visited prison I thought, "This doesn’t seem like it’s working." Over the years I’ve pushed this thought away in all sorts of ways. The noise has been a big part of this. At times when I have felt it’s possible to make a difference from inside the prison system, I’ve thought, "The noise is just an unfortunate by-product of the design that’s needed." Then I’ve had to push down the reasons the design is needed. The last day I visited a prison – to do the work I believed in less and less – we were told the only space available was a large store cupboard where brooms, mops and some of the books that had been donated were kept. The next day the organisation I worked for was sent an email asking us to write a statement about how our work was benefiting ‘prisoners’ so it could be included in a briefing to the incoming Minister of Corrections.

I’d often thought I was having a neutral effect on the lives of people who live in prisons, but these two days convinced me my effect was actually negative. Nothing real was changing. But our work was being used to support a status quo which had become worse when funding was pulled, as the "hard on crime" government was replaced by one who wanted fewer prisons but did nothing to reform the policies that had increased the prison populations.

AuditionBeing locked in prison buildings is an almost unbearable experience. For me to do the work I was doing there I needed to believe certain things about my "standing" in the prison. I was a person who would leave. At first, I needed to remind myself of this constantly as the panic rose and made it hard for me to work, but toward the end this "affirmation" had become something I understood implicitly about myself. I began to take entering and being in the prison complex in my stride because I had separated myself as a person who would leave.

But one thing I never adjusted to – or managed to justify – was the sound. It’s very hard to escape. I could calm myself all I wanted with thoughts of my outside life, but this internal world was constantly broken into with the sound. The soundtrack of the prison would constantly interrupt the imaginary world in which I was trying to find comfort.

This was particularly upsetting because sound is a large part of my creative process. Imagining a new work always feels more like a haunting to me than an act of creation. It’s a noise I can’t fathom the source of – wind when it’s breathless, voices from invisible speakers. Slowly through the process of writing, the ghost that is the novel makes itself known as I daydream the source of the noise. Never quite finding this source is an important part of the process for me. The trying to describe the noise without introducing a source from "real-life" that explains it feels like it creates a productive space for the kind of fiction I want to write. Fiction that makes room for readers to listen and add their own experience to the mystery that is the action making the noise.

In the locked, empty room of the prison I couldn’t hear any of my private and personal life. Above my inside thoughts and the work of the room was the constant reminder of the violence of the place around us. Sound without source is called acousmatic. It surprises us and disturbs us and even when we can’t hear it audibly it hums through our bodies. This is why sound is so effective in imprisonment, torture and policing.

James Parker, from the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (IILAH) at Melbourne Law School, has written mainly on the jurisprudence of sound. As part of this work, Parker has spoken about the use of sound in war, torture and policing. Panopticon prison design that amplifies noise. LRAD and MP3 players in sound torture and control. The use of music from a dominating force’s culture to annihilate a sense of self. Stun grenades. Drone and aircraft buzz as constant threat. White noise, brown noise, recordings of dogs barking played at high volume to disrupt or delay sleep.

I first came across Parker’s work when he curated an exhibition at City Gallery Wellington called Eavesdropping with Joel Stern. Eavesdropping addressed "the capture and control of our sonic world by state and corporate interests, alongside strategies of resistance" and included the work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan which documented his collection of "ear witness" testimony from released and escaped inmates of Saydnaya – a prison inaccessible to independent observers and monitors. One of the things that became very clear through Abu Hamdan’s work, was the extent to which Saydnaya’s was designed to create sonic torture. A combination of panacoustic surveillance and amplifying architecture meant it was an extreme example of what Abu Hamden describes as the acoustics of incarceration which created "prisoners who see nothing but hear everything, who were both completely confined and yet totally exposed". I visited this work almost every day of the exhibition and Saydnaya became the blueprint of the spacecraft of my novel, Audition.

In my novel I wanted to write a new structure of justice; but it became clear that I couldn’t imagine this in a world where this kind of technology is hardwired into our justice system. I needed to create something new. A planet which met threat with care, that pulled those who caused harm into the social structure rather than pushing them out; a quiet place based on a relational rather than transactional economy; a place called out from a source not visible to us yet. My job: to describe this noise even though, for now, I couldn’t see how to make it. In the hope it will call out more noise which would, in turn, pull us together in action toward a fairer justice system.

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