DK   UK

Fences, political propaganda and acoustic activism


Fictive spaces/Cruel Fiction


‘A border, like race, is a cruel fiction’, says the American poet Wendy Trevino in her collection of poetry Cruel Fiction from 2017 (1), in

connection with President Trump’s construction of his infamous wall between the USA and Mexico, and she continues: ‘Maintained by constant policing, violence. Always threatening a new map.’

A border in Trevino’s optic is an artificial construct, like the notion of real ‘races’, where powers of state attempt to maintain a certain fiction around a political regime, most often by controlling diversity and the identity of marginalised people.

Hanne Nielsen’s and Birgit Johnsen’s video installation At the Fence, which is enacted at the recently erected wild boar fence along the Danish-German border construes and thematises various imaginary, fictive spaces around it.

One fictive space is the romantic notion of the forest and wild landscape which can stimulate ideas and fantastic tales. Here we see a variety of fable animals/masked figures: chimeras with hare, deer and wild boar heads running past in the background.

Another fictive space is the fiction itself that the fence will in fact be able to keep out the wild boars, as, in order to comply with the habitat directive, it has been provided with about 20 openings to allow the passage of e.g. wolves and deer.

Such a division between ‘desirable’ visitors and ‘others’ (2) mimes yet another fictive space, namely the differentiated territories that the EU, after the collapse of the borderless Schengen cooperation, tries to maintain. Increased control and patrolling, along with the re-establishing of territorial borders, causing the exclusion of some and inclusion of others – as can be seen at the end of the video, unless the torch belongs to ‘non-desirable visitors’ – is supposed to imbue Western countries with the stronger feeling of security and identity which they seek in a globalised world.

But the most important fictive space that At the Fence thematises, emphasises and dwells on is that referred to by music, more specifically the propaganda and military music that state powers make use of, partly in order to advance their ideologies and to strengthen patriotism, partly in order to create an emotional bond with their soldiers/population, partly in order to frighten the enemy (3).


Propaganda and military music: affective and persuasive


Now the wild boar fence is transformed into an acoustic border where we are excruciatingly slowly being tormented by an unending row of loudspeakers blasting their individual propaganda and military music from all over the world through the ages. It becomes a power struggle between regimes, despots and cultures – between those on one side of the fence and those on the other.

There are celebration songs for despots and ideological leaders such as Pinochet in Chile, Ceausescu in Romania, Lenin in the Soviet Union, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, march music from Japan, Mao’s China, the German Democratic Republic, Turkey, Iran and a united Korea during the Korean War, patriotic songs, such as the American Over There (‘the Yanks are coming’), and Viva Mexico (an American tribute to Mexico as thanks for their support in the Second World War.

But we are also introduced to the ‘dogma proclamation’ of China’s Internet Censorship, The Mind and Spirit of Cyberspace Security, and finally to the pop music, presented by K-pop, that South Korean troops ‘throw across’ the border to North Korea by means of  enormous loudspeakers to remind the North Koreans of the development that they have missed out on.

When the video ends, three of the songs emerge from horn loudspeakers on lit pillars which together with pieces of the wild boar fence form part of the exhibition in an otherwise dark space.


It is this function of music as persuasive communication – i.e. its power to persuade and seduce, combined with its ability to shape the possible as well as the fictive space (4) – which is so useful if you wish to engage in political propaganda.

If there is a sung text attached to the music it refers very clearly to the ideologies of the regime or to heroic actions of the past or a collective memory, as is often the case with national anthems. This music is meant to be affective, emotional, to be repeated over and over again, creating redundancy, until it becomes familiar, safe, while at the same time forming an identity where you feel part of a group (5).


The aim of political propaganda is to manipulate the behaviour of the citizens and to ensure that they do not experience ‘a cognitive dissonance’ between their own conviction and that of the regime. Thus the Nazis had loudspeakers installed everywhere: in restaurants, factories and the public space, with the state monopoly radio constantly reminding people which ideologies to adjust to for the population to become as homogeneous as possible.


Besides trying to create such a homogeneous population mass, the truly  effective quality of using music for political propaganda purposes is that music always manifests the narrative as an individual ‘narrative for me’, as the sense of hearing draws the world into the subject (consciousness) while the sense of sight draws the subject (consciousness) out into the world (6). It is part of the persuasive power of music that the way we experience it easily opens up for emotional sympathy and acceptance, and not for critical distance and resistance, especially if it makes use of stereotypes. Thus music becomes an eminent tool for promoting ideologies, as the emotional aspect evokes certain emotional reactions that are then transferred to the ideologies (7).

When it comes to military music, and march music in particular, it is precisely this bonding between the individual and the mass/community that makes it especially persuasive. The walking pace of the individual becomes enlisted in the historical and political time signature of the march (8). Moreover, when the march activates the soldier’s muscles and these muscle movements are linked to the music, the result is an emotional, affective and muscular response urging the body into action. The soldier’s own energy is absorbed by the collective into a highly effective war machine, completely unconsciously, just like heartbeat, peristaltic movement and breathing in an instrumental encoding of the body.


It is, however, possible to resist and transgress the propagandistic, persuasive culture of music. Fortunately, all music is always open to individual decoding and interpretation in a cultural and contextual recoding (9).


It is time for the acoustic activist to appear on the scene.


Acoustic activism and sound as testimony


In At the Fence, the endless rows of loudspeakers and endless propaganda music are replaced by two hooded persons/activists presenting a counter response in the shape of small handmade mobile phone amplifiers that they place on the fence bordering on ‘the others’. One of them plays the soundtrack from a women’s march in Washington DC on 21 January 2017, a worldwide protest against the inauguration of  Donald Trump; the other, the soundtrack from a scene with a group of women demonstrating in front of Hart Square Office Building, also in Washington DC, against the immigration policy of the Trump administration. Here the individual and the protest are given a voice.

A little later, one of the activists insistently drags a stick along the metal wires of the fence in one long, drawn-out rrrrrrrrrr-sound. An almost identical sound is heard from the small side installation piece Atlas at the back of the exhibition space, where a large map shows an endless row of walls rising in the form of toppled domino bricks played backwards. Jordan-born sound specialist and artist, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, researches into the political implications of sound. In his opinion, we lack a language for sound and therefore become involuntary victims of the politics of listening if we do not put up a resistance (10). As a lecturer in ‘Forensic Architecture’, he uses architectonic techniques and technologies to investigate whether state powers are violating human rights; for in our surveillance society ‘listening’ has become a political technology, a cartographic technique with socio-political implications; by listening to the accent of immigrants, for example, you can determine whether they come from a territory with asylum rights or not, whether they are ‘desirables’ or ‘others’.

In comparison with the above-mentioned propaganda music which keeps to separate sides of the fence, activists thus demand a completely different type of persuasive, collective sound and music universe: namely one that crosses borders in a solidary mobilisation of emotions. Giorgio Agamben calls this type of mobilisation ‘a community of “Whatever Singularity”’, i.e. a movement of individual subjects without a common denominator (11). Agamben is in no doubt that this forms the greatest threat to a state power, as a state power exerts control by classifying and generalising individuals; but in mobilising a common utopia across territorial borders we  also mobilise a common resistance to a given world order. So ‘we’ do not necessarily have to be close to one another to form the collective ‘we’ that Wendy Trevino calls for in her Cruel Fiction: ‘It demands that we fight back to literally change who the “we” is by changing the conditions under which “we” are reproduced’ (12).  In this fight, mobile phones and social media form a highly effective weapon, as state powers have difficulty controlling the formation of such collective resistance movements.

Jacques Rancière says somewhere that ‘the political activist is one (…) who makes visible that which had no place where it could be seen; the activist makes audible a discourse where there was only noise, makes  that which was heard only as noise ‘comprehensible’ as discourse’ (13).

And this is exactly what our stick-dragging activist in At the Fence is doing. She makes ‘that which was only heard as noise comprehensible as discourse’, a discourse about fictive territorial border drawing, whether upheld by acoustic violence and use of force or by a wild boar fence.


(for footnotes, see Danish version)