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To (Phase) Cancel the Cops: An Acoustic Science of Insurrection


Bridget Chappell, Zone of Offensive Opacity (2019), laptop, microphone, interface, speakers. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Lou-Lou Wheeler.

In 2017, the City of Melbourne installed 190 public address speakers at ninety-five locations around the CBD. The speaker system quickly became known in the media as the city’s ‘terror sirens’. They were installed to counter the spectre of a mass incident, or a ‘class 3 emergency’—a siege, riot, shooting or vehicle attack. When signalling an alert, they play a fast-paced, high-pitched emergency siren, followed by an authoritative and presumably male voice issuing instructions to the public. This newly developed system was part of a campaign to ‘fortify’ the CBD. Following an incident in November 2018, additional measures put in place included steel bollards, metal seating and car- proof planter boxes at the mouths of the pedestrian Bourke Street Mall.

The siren system can be read as part of the State’s rhetoric in the ongoing conversation on terrorism. Terrorist tactics are most commonly defined as politically motivated acts of violence and intimidation against noncombatants. Terrorism happens in civilian areas, outside traditionally recognised sites of combat engagement—not in the trenches, but in the streets. Not in the borderlands, in the heartlands. Counterterrorism — the State’s response to terrorism — employs the same tactics. And so we have our terror sirens.

The late twentieth century threw up another now-familiar paradigm: neoliberalism. Defined by the deregulation of markets and the re-regulation of human movement, it moves decisively away from our traditional understanding of ‘borders’. The border politics of twentieth century nationalism focused on protecting the nation state, manifesting most clearly along its perimeters. The neoliberal state, meanwhile, has located an infinite number of places, deep inside its boundaries, as potential sites of control. The freedom of movement for capital — enabled by the removal of taxes, tariffs, workers’ rights etc. — is accompanied by a dizzyingly complex web of control over human movement. Migrants who can buy the approval of the Australian government are granted expensive, carefully controlled, short-lived and most importantly ‘productive’ stays here as international students or skilled workers. Those who cannot but attempt entry regardless face another example of the border’s repositioning: offshore detention.

The tactics of terrorism thus in many ways mirror those of twenty-first century border control. The State goes a step further in often invoking the spectre of terrorism as its trump card in strengthening its borders (both twentieth and twenty-first century iterations). This is seen most recently in the Australian government’s pledge in late 2018 to revoke citizenship of any Australians convicted of terrorism. Anti-terrorism laws introduced under recent administrations have also empowered the government to cancel visas, passports and welfare payments, and to hold people as young as ten-years-old suspected of terrorism for up to two weeks without charge. Examining the Australian government’s ‘Counter Terrorism Strategy’ (2015) we see a comprehensive plan to target civilians: to profile targets and coerce them through intimidation (forced mental health programs, canceling welfare access), isolation (visa control) and violence (raids, arrests, and ‘preventative detention orders’—detention without charge). It also outlines strategies to tackle terrorist propaganda — with its own.

Soon after the material fortification of the CBD in 2017, the latest suite of counter-terrorism laws was introduced in Victoria. This included a streamlining of police authority in accessing and taking control of areas for searching people and premises. Victoria Police deployed these laws on Invasion Day 2019 to confiscate the mobile sound system used to address the rally organised by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. It is worth noting that this public address system was primarily used to inform demonstrators about directions of, and developments in, the march. Like the City of Melbourne’s speaker system, it was ultimately a safety measure. So we see State monopolisation of sound as power— a dovetailing of the spectacle of the terror alarm speaker system and the disappearing of protesters’ speaker system. Framing the new laws as counter-terrorism— that is, a mirroring— seems an admission of fact. It is a convenient set of laws allowing police to target not only persons of interest connected with terrorism, but also First Nations people and their supporters gathering on Invasion Day. The systemic violence of urban politics—such as the actions and indeed existence of Victoria Police—can be understood here as a ‘politics of disappointment’, the negative space perceivable to the attentive eye (or indeed ear) left by that which has been ‘disappointed’.1

State weaponisation of sound is nothing new. Alert systems are as much a flex of state power—or propaganda—as an incident response. The siren is a manifestation of the imperative voice: a command issued from an unidentified subject. Sirens themselves induce a state of alarm with connections to increased risk of cardiovascular arrest and hearing loss. In the context of counter-terrorism, or terror-mirroring, they
can be understood as part of the government’s strategy of counter- propaganda—to define what alarms and endangers the public, and who wields power in such circumstances.

So if drowning out the State becomes too difficult, how then to mute? Drawing on Tiqqun’s Zones of Offensive Opacity, Michel Foucault’s heterotopias and the practical science of phase cancellation, I set out to conduct an experiment in response to the State’s monopolisation of sound. To create an acoustic Zone of Offensive Opacity—an ungovernable space one could stand inside of and be protected from the sonic weaponry of the State—I used the acoustic science of phase cancellation as a line of flight to achieve immunity from police. In using their own frequencies against them, I saw the possibility of creating moments of tactical defence, moments that mute the police and associated sounds of State control.

Phase cancellation is perhaps most familiar to us as the technology used in noise-cancelling headphones. Like counter- terrorism, phase cancellation works on principles of mirroring. One sound wave travels in one direction and is met by a facsimile of that wave coming from the other direction. They meet and cancel each other out. It is the maneuverability in this negative zone left by the opposing waves that is interesting; after all, it took the State a long time to craft its power-sounds. All we have to do is flip them.

This approach to blocking out unwanted sounds is in its relative infancy. In practice, it works only in very short range and in controlled situations (such as headphones), and we have not yet mastered the ability to cherry-pick and cancel individual waves in our environments. Looking to the future however, we can conceive of a long-range acoustic device that will allow us to neutralise sounds we have identified as undesirable (the State), unnecessary (the State) or simply unpleasant (the State).

The concept of the Zones of Offensive Opacity (ZOOs), put forth by the French insurrectionary journal Tiqqun, expands on earlier theories of spontaneous autonomy. While previous iterations of the temporary utopia provided modes of escapism, the ZOO seeks to forge paths to truly escape from oppression. A range of movements have embraced this approach to strategic withdrawal, movements mobilised under the recognition that trying to match forms of State violence will result in defeat. Illegal rave scenes have historically employed such approaches in creating and holding their spaces — including those that grew me up, namely the gabber raves of Sydney in the early 2000s and punk raves in Melbourne in more recent years. Perhaps most famously, the ZOO informed French insurrectionary movements such as la ZAD (Zone To Defend) blockade against an airport’s construction in Notre-Dames-des-Landes. Notably, anarchists connected to Tiqqun were arrested on charges of terrorism some years after the release of publication The Coming Insurrection (2007) by The Invisible Committee.

ZOOs have the potential to manifest as a network. By creating a ‘line of flight’2 out of the signifying chain we can evade surveillance and control through the flow of a sound wave. ZOOs present the opportunity for liberation through an expanding field of invisibility. Imagine a space—a virtual or hyper-reality—where one captures artefacts of power then turns them back on themselves and, in so doing, becomes unreachable by State power. The ZOO addresses the temporality of utopia, not as an undefined point in our futures, but starting right now. Now, in this second and perhaps only for this second, sparking a field that billows out through future moments, creating infinite possibilities to follow.

Phase cancelling the police creates a potential heterotopia, Foucault’s notion of spaces that are somehow ‘other’. A phase- cancelled zone of invisibility may be at once a heterotopia of ‘illusion’ and of ‘compensation’. A heterotopia of illusion exposes ‘real spaces’— in this case the un phase-cancelled zones that are seemingly safe as sites of police terror. The safety of our pockets of phase cancellation highlight in clear terms the extent of State presence throughout the rest of our environments. How palpable—how immediate—is the relief we feel inside these zones? A heterotopia of compensation, meanwhile, creates the possibility for a real alternative to the policed spaces we inhabit. These heterotopias are highly ordered—in this case, all sounds could be accounted for, giving us the power to turn back any wave that seeks to control upon itself. Heterotopias themselves are not time-specific but exist in tandem with the biologically-oriented concept of ‘heterochrony’. Heterochrony facilitates a temporal change in the rate of events that lead to embryonic transformations, as opposed to heterotopic transformation via spatial positioning. The ZOO creates both a heterotopia and a heterochrony — locating one brief utopia in an expanding network of future utopias.

My approach to enacting a ZOO used a methodology of psychogeography — the situationist praxis that encourages participants to hijack and experience their (usually urban) environment anew. Through dérive (drift) and détournement (turnabout) we can play a prank on our physical space by locating and appropriating something within it (like a police siren) and rerouting it in a way that negates control. This approach provokes us to drift through our physical spaces and to catch our emotional reactions to what we encounter. How do sirens enter our spaces and psyches? How do they oppress us (a state of terror) and how do they make us repress ourselves (a state of guilt or paranoia)? Like any command, sirens may also induce a state of contrariness, to go against it for the sake of it. This is the response we can seize to manifest détournement, both in the metaphorical sense and the literal—that is, phase cancellation.

The experiment was conducted at two sites in the City of Melbourne: in Federation Square and on Swanston Street, just north of Flinders Street. My rudimentary phase canceling system was comprised of a microphone, a laptop running Ableton Live (an audio software), my own speaker system (two large monitors, which formed a nice physical barricade too) and an audio interface. These were connected to a car battery and an inverter. The simplest way to phase cancel in software works like this: a sound is picked up by the microphone which transports it into two audio tracks in Ableton. Here, the ‘utility’ effect is placed on one of the tracks, with the phase flipped. Now the same sound wave is occurring in two tracks simultaneously, but as mirror images of one another. They cancel each other out.

Unfortunately, out here in the world, in the sun, in Federation Square, on a 38-degree Celsius day, our phase canceling technology has to address the fact that we can hear sounds all around us—not just output that we’ve programmed into Ableton. We can use the software to flip the phase, but then we have to direct that wave back out into the world to meet its source. So now we follow the sound with the microphone. It transports it into a single audio track, where the phase is flipped and sent back out through the speakers which are aimed directionally at the sound — just as we aimed the microphone initially.

It sounds simple, but have you spotted any of the holes in its execution? Maybe, like me, your mind’s eye is already crafting a sleeker design of the Cop Canceller ZOO. Are you, the canceller, encased entirely in a chamber of speakers and microphones that can catch a siren incoming from any angle? Is this whole setup mounted on a wheeled chair so that you can follow the siren as it moves? Does the computer boast enough processing power to combat the latency that may prevent inverting a sound wave in real time? And can you see a way to address the fact that real-world sound waves’ lives, though short, are incredibly complex—difficult to match and kind of impossible to isolate? Please tell me if you do! It’s true—we could all just put noise canceling headphones on and be done with it. But the idea of a collaborative and liberated space is a whole lot juicier ...

Avenues conducive to the Cop Canceller ZOO 2.0 are waiting to be harnessed, such as the use of stationary noise barriers (like walls) as vibrating noise-cancellers themselves. Installing a network of audio transducers—the device used by both microphones and speakers enabling the conversion of kinetic sound waves into electrical energy, or vice versa—into a wall, or indeed if a wall itself was able to be a transducer, would then vibrate the same signal straight back at its source, but out of phase. A few products have filtered through military research and development into the general public, enabling walls to vibrate as speakers that could be used for such purposes. However, up to this point, such technology has yet to be combined with noise (phase) cancellation. Once this technology is developed, traditional soundproofing would become obsolete to those who could access these literal Zones of Offensive Opacity.

This experiment imagines a future that opens up the possibility to hijack the policing of urban spaces and to reject the repression sirens cause us to self-inflict. As the old saying goes, to ‘kill the cop in your head’. Its low-res success in practical terms is overlaid by its realisation in our consciousness nonetheless: a future-ing of ACAB3 technologies and a police-free utopia.

Bridget Chappell is a sound artist and activist working in Naarm. She is the founder of Sound School, an organisation upskilling and celebrating marginalised voices in electronic music. Under the name Hextape, she produces hardstyle music and co-runs the biannual drain rave, Vapor Noir. Shes tudies classical cello at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. She has composed works for the City of Melbourne and Melbourne Fringe Festival and was an artist in residence at Bogong Centre for Sound Culture.

1. Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997.
2. Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1987
3. All Cops Are Bastards