ps/o3 public housing | structural adjustments | re/developing the new urbanism
by Josh Kun
When urban designers explain the cities they study, they usually talk in visual terms. Kevin Lynch's 1960 Image of the City -- a classic of the genre that has Boston's crooked congestions battle it out with decentralized Los Angeles sprawl -- measures the quality of city planning and urban layout in terms of its "imageability," the extent to which cities are legible to the people who navigate their streets. The more imageable a city is to its residents, the better. Good cities should be good homes: egalitarian, democratic maps of living that give us all a sense of where we are in the world.
The Los Angeles sound-art duo Ultra-Red are urban theorists equally concerned with egalitarian imageability, but they don't read cities in traditional ways. They don't see cities as zoned districts or geometric grids -- they hear them as sound maps where public space and public housing are being forced into regrettable silences. Their latest project, Structural Adjustments (Mille Plateaux), is a terrifying document of urban renewal and community redevelopment that zeroes in on the LA Housing Authority's proposed demolition and promised reconstruction of the Pico Aliso and Aliso Village housing projects in East LA, a move that would affect more than 1200 Latino households.
Although the primary sound material dips back to 1996, Structural Adjustments' 2000 release gives it extra weight in light of Seattle's WTO riots -- an aftershock reminder that free-tradism and globalization steamroll local lives in the balance. Ultra-Red combine tweaked and twisted layers of sound samples from the Aliso projects' self-appointed lobbyist group of mothers, fathers, and children, Unión de Vecinos (recorded on-site at protests, city-council meetings, rallies, and demonstrations), with icy, forbidding whirs of electro-circuitry.
To their credit, Ultra-Red never manipulate the voices of the Aliso residents beyond the point of intelligibility and never exploit them for the sake of electronic wowing. From Ana Hernández's Spanish-language city-council testimony on the track "a Pico Aliso (hemos bastante)" to the multimedia project occupation of "Architecture versus Housing," Structural is an activist project first, a musical experience second, with its haunting sonic compositions put into the service of progressive social critique.
On "Canción de la posada," you hear looped Spanish chants of "I don't want gold or silver, the only thing I want is a home" gradually sequenced into a melody line ready for a four-on-the-floor rhythm crunch that never comes. On "Weasel Pop," you have plenty of time to register that the chimes you hear belong to an ice-cream truck -- that reliable artifact of a functional neighborhood -- before it's chopped up over jump-up beats.
Ultra-Red's concern for the real-time materialism of their sound sources is especially surprising when you consider that Structural is available through Belgium's Mille Plateaux, a high-minded, idea-driven label that has long pushed the theoretical and intellectual importance of sound art without much follow-through on the front of everyday praxis. Structural also bucks another trend: the two minutes of concrete drilling that open the album immediately separate it from electronica's recent fetish for apolitical architectural utopias. Caipirinha's Architettura series, for example, asks avant-garde electronic composers to design soundscapes for major completed building structures: London's Waterloo Station, Japan's Museum of Fruit, and, in their next installation, the buildings of Brasília. Ultra-Red finesse a dystopic anti-Architettura project that focuses on the government-sponsored destruction of residential architecture, not its realization. And they do so not with music to fit a man-made space like stylized aural wallpaper, but with music to mirror man-made spatial disappearance through violent gurgles, viscous clogs, and the voices of the people meant to disappear along with it.
This systematic destruction of public space was a major concern in City of Quartz, Mike Davis's landmark exposé of LA as the ultimate laboratory for late-20th-century urban implosion. Davis proposed the anti-myth of noir as the counterpart to the myth of California sunshine. And he wasn't talking about private dicks searching Chinatown for murdered heiresses; he was talking about N.W.A and Blade Runner, art that talks back to capitalist development by scouring its underbelly: police states, homeless underclasses, and enforced geographical segregation.
Structural Adjustments would be perfect as a soundtrack to City of Quartz. It is, to borrow an idea from Davis, the embodiment of electro-noir. But be warned, there's little aesthetic pleasure in listening to it. I can only suppose this is part of Ultra-Red's point. The sound of people fighting for their right to dwell should never be easy listening.