During the fall of 2018, Reading Edge celebrates current manifestos. The manifesto has a long history of being a format for artists in which to proclaim and visualize art, society, and what art can be (is), as well as being an art form in itself. This fall, we return to the manifesto as an art form to re-discover, investigate and mobilize, enabling the manifestations of today’s interdisciplinary art practices to be articulated. One of the manifestos that is already represented in the Reading Edge Library is Seroconversion’s queer noise project A Queer Noise Manifesto, which Seroconversion also performed at the opening of Reading Edge in August, 2018. In connection with this focus, we asked Seroconversion – Birt Berglund and Johan Sundell – about their work and manifesto.
How did you initiate and develop Seroconversion?
Seroconversion was initiated in 2013, after a long period of conversations about doing a project together. Our first idea was to start a noise project, due to our shared interest in noise music as a genre. As we discussed queerness, we found some interesting similarities between the concepts of queerness and noise, which we took as our vantage points.
Seroconversion is a medical term for when the body’s immune system starts to produce antibodies to attack the cells infected with HIV. In A Queer Noise Manifesto, you refer to the ACT UP movement of the 1980’s and 90’s, which tried to draw attention to AIDS and HIV. In the queer context of today – theoretical as well as political – the AIDS epidemic and the silence and shame that surrounded it can sometimes feel distant. ‘That era is over’, if you know what I mean. How come you refer to that epoch in your work?
For us, it’s been important to relate to queer history. Even though male homosexuality is no longer synonymous with illness and death, at least not to the same extent, the silence and stigma still remain. Despite medical progress, antiretrovirals and preventive medication, not many HIV positive people live openly in Sweden, since it leads to suspicion and social repercussions. There is still a lot of ignorance in the wider population concerning the fact that HIV today is a disease that you can live with for many years, and that it’s not contagious as long as you medicate and keep the virus levels down. We were looking for a name that connotated both queerness and corporeality, so the term ‘seroconversion’ was a perfect match. It also functions as a metaphor for queer, bodily resistance. As ACT UP showed, the silence from governments around HIV and AIDS literally led to death for us queers. The activism of ACT UP was a direct and urgent response to the deadly silence. With their slogan ‘Silence = Death’, they showed how the queer ‘politics of life’ must include making noise, taking up space sonically, bodily and politically.
One example of how the discourse around queerness as something dangerous and therefore unwanted has lingered is the fact that the policy of forced sterilization of transgender people remained in place in Sweden until 2013. In government investigation SOU 1968:28 concerning the gender affiliations of intersexual people, sterilization was motivated by reference to ‘a public interest for disciplined family relations.’ (It was deemed undesirable for a person with male genitals to be able to become a mother, and for a person with female genitals to be able to become a father.) The specific kind of gender trouble that the existence of transgender people created was portrayed as a deadly threat against Western civilization generally, and the Swedish ‘Folkhemmet’ specifically. To physically prevent trans people from reproducing became the bio-political way of curtailing the spread of queerness. It is somewhat ironic that this was maintained at the same time as the claim that homosexuality isn’t natural because same-sex couples are unable to have biological children, i.e. we can’t reproduce. If we can’t reproduce we are deemed unnatural, and if we can, we get sterilized.
A Queer Noise Manifesto investigates the relationship between queer desire and noise. How did those thoughts arise?
We are both interested in queer culture and all kinds of music or sound art that challenge conventions when it comes to song structures (verse, chorus, verse, chorus), themes and soundscapes. We realized that the basic definitions of queerness and noise had ‘unwanted’ as a common denominator: queerness as unwanted desire, and noise as unwanted sound. We played with the idea of creating our own (un)musical and artistic genre called ‘queer noise’, where these two different forms of unwantedness would be combined into (un)musical and artistic practices. Queerness and noise share some characteristics insofar as they both tend to generate feelings of unease, revulsion and anger. We asked ourselves: What does queerness sound like? And why, when and where does something become noise? Our A Queer Noise Manifesto became a way for us to draft the theoretical platform that the project is based on.
Two recurring references in the manifesto is Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler. What have they meant for your work?
As thinkers, they have been – and still remain – central to our project because of how they address the discursive production of (un)intelligibility and boundaries, as well as the social, economic, cultural and political consequences of violating those boundaries. The history of the (un)intelligibility is the history of repulsion, but Butler and Kristeva have both, in partially different ways, been able to rephrase (in terms of the ‘abject’) this history into a possible vantage point for undermining the normative. What is at one point in time understood as unintelligible, disgusting and disturbing could, at another time and in another place, be reimagined as intelligible, desirable and appealing. To us, this is about exposing the different boundaries that are constantly being drawn between the normal and the pathological. To use that which has been pathologized as a vantage point for creating queer music and art.
In ‘A Queer Noise Manifesto’, the reading of the text is accompanied by noise which grows louder and louder as the performance continues. How did you envision and stage this performance?
We wanted the kind of textual noise that our manifesto contains to be juxtaposed with actual noise. Through the escalation of this actual noise, we want to subject the audience to an exponentially heightened sense of unintelligibility, as all the ‘noisy’ information contained in the text of the manifesto is presented. We also find it interesting to use the manifesto as a format within the framework of a queer noise project, since the manifesto as a genre lays claim to clarity and conciseness, which is in direct contrast with the queer and the noisy.
Thank you, Seroconversion!
Among many other publications, A Queer Noise Manifesto is available in the Reading edge library, a place inhabiting a variety of divergent bodies and languages, interfacing with each other onto an edge where reading as knowledge is understood as labor of interdependency, by proliferation of difference, always singular, unavoidably borderline.
Seroconversion is a queer noise project initiated in 2013 by Birt Berglund and Johan Sundell, based in Stockholm, Sweden. Previous work includes interactive performance Desiring-Machines, performed at the Stockholm Fringe Festival in September 2017, and audio-walk Territorial Pissing (2016), a collaboration with writer and poet Kristofer Folkhammar and sociologist Arne Nilsson.