Bodies Review: Non-binary code: rebooting the body system

I am caught off guard when Dan says Simone is wearing a silk slip.

Simone’s existence is a performative narrative: one of two ongoing projects for Naarm based, non-binary musician Daniel Ward. Speaking to them about these projects, we sit in their front yard with takeaway coffees. I had been at a fashion show when I first saw Simone–an electronic two-piece, consisting of Ward and their brother. Mid-sip drinking coffee, Ward mentions the slip and Simone suddenly seems to materialise. Yet her body isn’t flesh; instead it’s circuits and codes which travel through computer software, make stopovers at an interface, and arrive in full form as a wave of frequencies.

Rethinking the body is an intuitive part of Ward’s approach to making sound. Alongside Simone, Ward’s other ongoing project, and occasional pseudonym, is Bodies: it’s an experimental act with a fluctuating line-up of members, ranging from five people to Ward performing solo. This is, if you don’t count what they refer to as the “little band members”–the tech orchestra of machine pads, synths and pedals.

Experiencing Bodies, I forged a fatal attraction to the network of machines, connected by serpentine bundles of coloured leads. My intrigue was further coupled with the relationship of this music to its name: the body is contained but constantly in flux, much like the project itself. Each live performance differs in its form. You could expect Ben Sendy-Smithers to be sending sax melodies that mesh with the synth lines of Alexander Thomas. Or maybe Cameron J Goodwin is on synth, and Alex is on bass, holding rhythmic borders with Ru, who is on percussion. Though the makeup is unpredictable, Ward stresses that the contingent theme is the ‘listening’ element. For Bodies to work, the members must be aurally tethered–this is especially so if the objection in the sound comes from a digital collaborator, which the human collaborators need to cooperate with.

Like many emerging queer artists, Ward turned to electronic sound to find “some rigidity in the fast-paced inconsistency of the present.” What they found was unexpected: that non-humanness could be surprisingly versatile.

Their recent debut release, Take Me With You, epitomises this paradox. It consists of live recordings, layered with vocals and samples to form a progression. Haunting cacophonies always travel forward: the tracks unroll and elongate themselves into one another. The instrumental call and response simulates a sense of movement, only taking pit stops to flesh out certain ideas. Any detection of a specific genre is departed from before it can be certified, much like the process of Ward understanding gender paradigms.

Ward recognises that the body is inherently political: “It is the one thing we all share. Everyone’s body is their own protest–sometimes physically, sometimes it is a framework.” Yet the way Ward mobilises the term ‘bodies’ renders it as an unfixed terrain. Bodies could be referring to the physical container of organs, muscular tissue and skeletal scaffolding. It could delineate a societal segment: a group of people who make up the varying contents of a word like ‘community’. It could be the ecosystem of synthesisers, computers and pads, or the eventuation of their combined sounds.

It could be the cumulative works of Ward themself–a multidisciplinary artist, oscillating between music, poetry and visual art. In the same way our bodies engage in daily performances of identity, Ward’s externalisation of sounds, narratives, and physical objects, link together as a connect-the-dots portrait of the performative queer body.

The opening track of Take Me With You, titled ‘I breathed a mystery’, captures this point. It begins with a hollow, reverberating sample of a crowded room, juxtaposed with a curving synth drone. An older person’s voice addresses us. It’s someone with benevolence and wisdom:

“It’s strange that it’s come at this time–but if it encourages us to rethink, well then its good.”

From this sample, I am reminded of my conversation with Ward. They mentioned their mothers, one of which explained that prior to progressions of gender terminology, these nuances were indicated in other ways. Before the common public usage of words like ‘cis’ or ‘trans’ or ‘homonormative’, Ward’s mother identified with gender through being referred to as ‘Frank’ in their younger years, presenting in a way that reflected past norms of ‘butch-lesbianism’. The voice of reason in ‘I breathed a mystery’ seems to be looking at the transitory nature of these negotiations at present, with equal parts awareness and optimism.

The digitised backdrop of the voice spits modulation and gritty distortion, pointing at our increasingly cyborgian nature. In conjunction with this notion ‘to rethink’, we experience a technological shift in creative possibilities, as well as a further shift in how to identify one another structurally.

When listening to Bodies, it’s as if a code is being modified and updated. It’s like a corporeal growth inside an electric container. What we could learn from the machine is that sometimes reconfiguration is necessary, even when the machine may not be overtly dysfunctional.

Until now, Bodies has maintained an elusive online presence. Its official resource was a Soundcloud of occasional uploads stretching back over years, serving as both a journal and an address of public space. The spectre of past events are instilled by sampling. As Ward tells me, one of the tracks features the sound of a housemate (also an artist) sawing into a metal cage. Prior to I Am With You, the live tracks were not named through song titles, but rather articulated through recalling a beat or melody–a word is plucked from the lyrics, providing the songs with a birthmark. In conjunction with Ward’s recording method of creating lo-fi material (by “quickly smacking ideas through a single channel”), these processes indicate a departure from standardised musicianship: the codes of hyperawareness, consistency, and marketing. Even more, it’s a departure from the notion of a ‘standard’ at large.

The standards which enforce binary narratives are largely imposed through language. It is a Western structure compounded from opposites, which limit our capacity to accept ambiguity, or even recognise how complicit we are in legitimising restrictive social boundaries.

I currently feel a queering occur in the language of music itself, yet such a language’s decipherability is often hard to pin down. At a Bodies gig, I had come to Ward wanting to wrap my head around where sound is coming from in the machine. Recently, they remembered this: “I couldn’t tell you [where the sound comes from],” they said “But I’m glad I don’t have the language.”

In this case, being able to articulate how the sound happens is less important than the fact that it is happening. Our associations with electronic formats are still youthful, and queer artists have a freedom to invent the language and codes of conduct. The lyrics in Bodies are often difficult to decipher, though the metallic fuzz of the vocal tones still effectively communicate. Perhaps this is an intentional blurring of specificity, in which meaning can be shared communally as its concrete limitations are unlocked.

This is not to suggest that our identities are inextricable from sound–that this is ‘queer music’ above all else. Rather, it is the revelation of identity as a fluid substrate, and how this affects creative processes: the queering of both identity and electronic mediums are feeding one another interchangeably.

In queering spaces, new avenues of communication can only surface within pre-existing bodies. Among the many homophobic slurs relating to the origin of the word ‘queer’, one which seems to be effective in reclamation is the German root quer, meaning “oblique, slanted.” Imagine travelling along a straight, horizontal line, and coming to a series of diagonal cross sections. Suddenly there is space to move, there are new directions in the mix.

This freedom of movement is akin to the sensation of being an audience member at a Bodies show, or watching and listening to acts like Papaphilia, Kandere, Habits, Pikelet and Infraghosts. The sonic walls constructed by these artists are assembled as a diagonal slant, cutting the centre of what is familiar. They reveal a dynamic cross-section of experience, which is spoken through circuits, loops and midi tracks.

I wonder if binary codes, as a numeric system, reduces the social value of gendered binaries? An X to a Y is as significant as a 0 to a 1. Yet the code does not, and cannot, calculate how we should think or feel about the result. If this numerical system encourages us, in it’s strange paradoxical way, to rethink–well then, its good.

Take Me With You
Independent Release in March 2018

Agnes Whalan is a Naarm based musician and artist. They are a brooder in both senses of the word: deep thinker and egg nester.

Photo credit: Margaux Jones.

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