Artipoeus Episode 55 – The Ball Is Round

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Artipoeus explores sound artist Antje Vorwinckel’s audio sculpture The Goal, deconstructing the sounds of the World Cup

Pre-game game @ Z/KU Zentrum fur Kunst in Berlin | © Susie Kahlich 2018

Listen to the episode here:

Have you ever woken up from a dream that’s so intense, you’re not sure if it was a good dream or a nightmare? You know, because it was so strange and wondrous and vivid, it could go either way.

In the year 2001, a month after 9/11, I traveled from Los Angeles to Italy for a two week Roman holiday, planned and paid for months before anyone was even thinking about any potential terrorist attacks (except for the terrorists, of course. And Coleen Rowley in the FBI). After the attacks, the friend I was traveling with and I decided to go ahead with our trip, both of us in need of a vacation, a relief from our personal, emotional lives that had been getting really intense lately: she because she was ending a serious relationship, me because a relationship was getting serious.

We had heard news reports that airport security was heightened so we got to the airport two hours early. But checking into our outbound flight to Italy took the same time as it always did, about 20 minutes, from baggage check to security to gate. The newly heightened security was apparently only for people coming in, not going out. I guess,outside of its own borders, the American government didn’t really care what happened to you.

At LAX, it was the first time I saw armed soldiers in an American airport — I had seen that in other countries, but never my own. It upset me, I saw it as a restriction on my freedoms, but the friend I was traveling with felt protected and reassured.

It’s a funny thing: here was me, upset about my freedoms being restricted, who had spent a year saying hello to the guys at Ladder 10, the firehouse just across the street from the World Trade Center towers and that I passed every time I went to hang out out with my boyfriend at the time, who lived just around the corner. And here was my friend, feeling safer with armed security, who had only ever lived in low houses, in the Chicago suburbs where we both grew up, and in the suburbs of LA — 4,000 kilometers away, on the other side of the country, from where those mighty towers fell.

Welcome to Artipoeus: art you can hear. Artipoeus visits sound artist Antje Vowinckel’s piece, The Goal.

In Rome, there weren’t a lot of tourists of any kind, and no Americans except us. The Spanish Steps were empty. The Vatican was almost a ghost town. The Trevi Fountain was bare. We wondered if our wishes had a better chance of coming true with fewer coins in the fountain.

The Coliseum was on our itinerary simply because it’s the coliseum. Neither one of us were particularly interested in gladiator games or any other kind of violence — we had had enough of how terrible humans can be to each other, thank you very much. But we wanted to see it anyway, out of a sense of touristical duty.

When we entered the Coliseum, we found ourselves behind the seats, on the landings, a lot like the floors behind seating tiers at any sports stadium — big spaces designed for large crowds to move through, ramps leading up or down to other seating tiers, entrances that lead out to the seats themselves. And on these landings, there was a really great exhibit about football, or soccer, as it’s called in America. The exhibit compared soccer matches, which can get violent, to the gladiator games, making the point that, apart from the introduction of a ball and some beer, we haven’t really changed that much in the last 2000 years. We still respond to violence, as entertainment, as politics, as a way to make a buck.

In 2014, sound artist Antje Vowinckel answered an open call put out by Mexican artist Emiliano López Rascón, on behalf of the Mexican Center for Music and Sound Art. Rascon invited sound artists through the project Balón Babel Brasil, a project designed as a response to the 2014 World Cup. International artists were invited to upload recordings of the last 20 minutes from the final World Cup game into a common pool. From there, the challenge was to use the uploaded audio to express the match using points of sound, rather than points of vision or narration, and transcend the nationalism and commercialism that had infested the sport.

The 2014 World Cup was surrounded by controversy: hosted in Brazil, the country had built 4 new stadiums, one in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and renovated others that cost so much it caused a state of financial collapse. Violent protests, demonstrations and deaths across Brazil led up to the opening of the games. FIFA publicly demanded that Brazil lift its ban on alcoholic beverages sold at soccer stadiums — a ban put in place because alcohol-related violence and deaths at soccer matches had gotten out of control — all so FIFA’s partner Budweiser could sell beer. And the government complied, sacrificing the safety of its own people for money. The ugly cronyism and capitalism of the games were suddenly less opaque — or maybe people just started to care.

On the pitch, Germany pounded Brazil 7–1 in the semi-final, scoring goal after relentless goal like cruel, first world machines to the point that even German fans were getting uncomfortable. But as someone pointed out at the time, the players are paid to score goals, and they were just doing their job. To the German’s credit — my beloved Mannschaft — they did not celebrate on the pitch after their win, not wanting to rub salt into the wounds of their host country. They handled their win with tempered grace, Germany’s top scorer Klose even offering condolences to members of the Brazilian team still on the field.

Germany went up against Argentina for the final, and it was the first time facing each other since 1990. The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is so great, that Brazil actually backed Germany for the game. It was a thrilling match — tautly played, most of the ARgentina team simply back-up for the star Lionel Messi, who was expected to carry the game all the way to the win, apparently pretty much on his own. The match was billed as the best player in the world against the best team in the world. David vs Goliath, or in the case of the 2014 German team, man vs Machine.

For the full 90 minutes, no goals were scored and the game hung in the balance, going into an additional half. The Argentinians scored a goal, but it was discounted for being off sides. And finally, the Germans sunk a beautiful pass right into the back of the Argentinian net and became the world champions, for the first time as a reunited Germany.

One of the things I love about soccer is it truly is a beautiful game. The precision of passes, the power of shots on goal are incredible, but the true beauty lies, for me, in the moment when the players on the field sense their opportunity, when what can look like chaos or even stagnation organizes itself into a beautiful web — you can see it on the screen if you know what to look for.

It’s the most thrilling thing, this communication across a giant field, players running at full speed, an entire stadium of roaring fans and suddenly in all of that, the individuals on the field somehow connect, become parts of a whole, and that whole moves like a delicately balanced machine to set up and score a goal. It doesn’t always work: shots go wide, defense does its job, the keeper executes a heroic save. It’s an anti-climax when that happens, but the set up is always gorgeous.

If you listen to Vowinckel’s piece about the Germany-Argentina final as a German fan, or a German player, it sounds like remnants of memory weaving together into a wonderful dream: of victory, of elation, of the best moment of that guy’s life — Neuer, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Götze. But if you listen as an Argentina fan, or a player, the sound piece is like a nightmare — haunting, mocking, replaying calls and plays over and over again to taunt and tease and remind you of your shame.

[It’s now or never Mr Messi]

The first time I heard Vowinckel’s piece, I was immediately transported back to 2001 and the Colosseum in Rome. When we had had enough of the art exhibit on the landings, we stepped out to the ampitheatre itself, first up in the seating. We speculated on how loud we’d have to yell to influence a thumbs up or down, if public opinion really did affect whether anyone got thrown to lions, and if all the gladiators suddenly refused to play, announcing “I am Spartacus,” would we take a knee too? Oops, different kind of football. That’s why we call it soccer!

We climbed down through the construction netting and past the signs telling us not to enter the arena, and entered the arena, walking out onto the packed dirt and looking up into the stands. The amphitheatre is huge — it was built to hold 80,000 spectators, still reverberating around the walls 10 centuries later: echoes of shouts and cheers and screams, laughter, terror, warrior, stamping of feet and clapping of hands and chanting and spilled drinks and thrown food and… blood. And death.. But we could only hear it because it was October 2011 and we were the only two people in the Colosseum. Because tourism was down all over thanks to a different kind of violence… or was it the same violence… it’s so hard to tell sometimes.

In Vowinckel’s The Goal, the artist blends the voices of the announcers across multiple sports channels, languages and countries. This mix makes them sound like a pantheon of gods, setting us poor humans on the giant pitch of the Earth, introducing something everyone wants — a round ball — and then sitting back and watching us fight for it, sprinting, pulling, jabbing, kicking, diving to try and change the course of events, pushing people down to make sure they don’t get there first, arguing or acting and trying making it look like none of it’s our fault so we can avoid penalties. Occasionally seeing an opportunity that can only work as a team, or being thrust into the forefront as an individual and trying, against all odds, to save the game.

In the actual World Cup game, Germany’s heroic midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger collapses to the pitch from a bad cramp in his leg, and Vowinckel captures the sheer anxiety of the moment: the announcers repeating his name with just a hint of urgency, the tiniest morsel of compassion, the feeling that they’d really like him to get up again. You feel anxious listening to it, if you were watching it you’d feel anxious watching Basti writhe around on the pitch — Basti Schweinsteiger has been the hero of so many games he’s called a Titan in the papers, and now he’s fallen, mortal after all. And you can feel the anxiety of Schweinsteiger, gripping your leg in cramp, the sound of player’s feet thundering by, the roar of the crowd, the very acute awareness that these are the final minutes of the game, the anxiety of pride.

In the 112th minute, Germany finally scores a goal. Vowinckel again evokes a forum of ancient gods, as if they’re whispering the news to each other like gossip: Gotze, Gotze? Gotze…

[Goetze!]

On a very human level, I love picking out the accents of the sports announcers: the authoritarian voices of the Americans, the giddiness of the French, the swing of the Nigerians, and pure, unbounded joy of the Mexican Andres Cantor, which Vowinckel uses as a form of leitmotif and reminds me of the French horns opening the 5th movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral, the call that begins the final leg of our hero’s journey.

[goal]

In the final minutes of the game, the gods are laughing.

They’re taunting Messi, the world’s greatest soccer player, sometimes called Messiah. But the gods are counting down the seconds — my favorite being the French, foretelling the future: soon it will be 15 seconds! your time is running out!

And when Germany is pronounced the winner — in German “Weltmeister” World Master — they laugh again. Vorwinckel emphasizes the laugh, adds a little reverb and makes it mocking and sinister, as though that title — like the game — can be lost in the blink of an eye.

Vowinckel brilliantly — and sparingly — isolates and amplifies the most important sound in the whole game: the sound of the ball being kicked. Each one sounds like gunshots, warnings or fatalities.

Hearing it now, each shot reverberates all the way back from 2014:

! gunshot from Ferguson Missouri
! mic drop from Hannibal Buress
! birth of the ISIL caliphate
!! ballot boxes close for Erdogan and Assad
! car door slams on three Israeli teens
! Israeli air strikes on Gaza
! Boko Haram kidnaps 300 girls.

These kicks sound so crucial, deadly, killer — an explosion that starts something that’s too late to stop now. But maybe they really started a long time ago.

[what do we do now]

Back in Italy, my friend and I went on to Florence and Venice. In Florence, we had a fight because I wanted my friend to take more initiative, while she mocked me for being able to pronounce Italian. I only remembered too late that she was actually quite shy, and she forgot to remind me. I stormed off and roamed the entire city looking for the spot where Savonarola was burnt at the stake (because, you know, when I get mad, I go looking for false prophets), only to finally discover it in the center of town, right beneath my feet.

I only remembered too late that my friend was quite shy, and she remembered too late that so am I.

In Venice, I broke down on my umpteenth attempt to quit smoking and finally lit up, unhappy with myself, my friend, and my trip. Months later, on a cold spring night on the eve that America announces it has invaded Iraq, my friend announces that she’s ready to plan our next holiday together because we’re such great travel partners. I announce that I preferred to travel alone.

Our friendship ends not long after that.

[sound]

One of the things that’s always struck me about September 11 is the weather that day. America is a big country, surrounded on two sides by ocean, and lots of different landscapes in between that can affect weather systems: mountains, deserts, rolling plains, the swamps of the bayou and the rugged cliffs of Maine. Winds from Canada, El Ninos from the Gulf of Mexico. But on September 11, 2001, it was a day of clear, blue skies, early Autumn sunshine and just warm enough, across the entire country, from the mountains to the prairies and from sea to shining sea. A perfect day.

The guys at Ladder 10 were enjoying the crisp morning air, joking around and sneaking peeks up at the slice of blue sky visible between the tall buildings and towers of the World Trade Center. And then one of them saw a plane…

This summer, it’s the World Cup again, with Germany defending their title, or giving it up to the next generation Weltmeisters, whoever that will turn out to be. I watched the early stages Germany vs Mexico game with my brother while in Chicago recently. In the US, the 2018 World Cup is broadcast on Fox Sports, and the Fox Sports announcers for this game were like jaded Greek gods, so disengaged and dispassionate about anything Germany or Mexico were doing, they seemed like they really don’t care. Do you?


Antje Vowinckel’s piece The Goal went on to win Best Soundmix in the Balon Babel Brasil 2014 competition. You can listen to the entire piece and learn more about Antje Vowinckel’s work at her website.

Featuring the original music track The Way to Go, composed and performed by the Russian composer and musician Liliya Danieva. You can hear more of her music on Soundcloud and at Bandcamp. Tracks used with permission of the artist.

Crowd noises are original recordings made at Z/KU Zentrum fur Kunst in Moabit, during their broadcast of the Germany vs Sweden 2018 World Cup match. And in the spirit of that match, this episode of Artipoeus is dedicated to my Swedish mother and my German father, who are hopefully finally meeting for a friendly on Elysian Fields of their own.

Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus

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