An Interview with
Simon Hunt: 18th April 2000
(from a telephone conversation with Seamus Byrne)
Simon Hunt, aka Pauline Pantsdown, spoke to Seamus Byrne about the technical processes involved with the creation of his work, as well as the social implications of the technology itself that is involved with sound manipulation.
What experience and background brought you to the idea of creating a work such as the Pauline Pantsdown recordings?
Okay. I guess it was a bit of an intersection of different things I had done before. I have always been involved in a lot of different art forms, but sound and audio have always been my mainstay I guess. And I've done some performance work more in the avante-garde "Performance Space" type scene. And one of the constants has been that every year or two I have been doing some sort of a sound cut up involving voice, and doing some sort of performance to that. I did one of Fred Nile about 10 years ago and stuff like that. The sound cut ups are usually quite political things. Usually involved in gay politics and gender politics and stuff like that. I did one based on that TV show "Sylvania Waters" a few years ago. I did one of a cut up of those late night TV show ads for those 0055 "call me now" type numbers and the messages people leave on those lines. Did that as a multiple drag performance piece at the Performance Space. But I hadn't done one of those in a few years and had been working on a more serious work, having been writing a movie musical about the gay political scene in Germany just before the Nazis came to power and had been working on that for about 4 years and I just had to put that aside because it just got too expensive. I had lots of money from the government to write it but it got too expensive to produce. I was at a bit of a loose end and had just done this huge study of the Nazis and then Pauline Hanson sort of appeared on the scene and because she had such a distinctive voice I thought the best way to make my contribution here is to do a piece using her.
What education or training do you have in this area?
I don't actually have any training at all. I played in bands in the 80s, I played keyboards and guitar and stuff. From that I got into doing film soundtracks and then film sound, and then I became a lecturer in sound at COFA. Technically, after working with instruments and multi-tracking I got into samplers which most of the other sound cut up pieces were done with, and then I got into digital recording in ProTools.
This leads to the next question, what were the hardware/software systems used for this project?
Both songs, "Back Door Man" and "I Don't Like It", are both entirely done on ProTools. Where I have taken the recordings of Pauline Hanson which were mostly taken from videotape, and some from cassette, some from radio, but mostly from video of interviews I had taped from television and then I digitised into ProTools, which was then cleaned up with a plug-in called "Broadband Noise Reduction". Then with "Back Door Man", the music was made entirely from little cut up and looped bits from 80s dance songs. Whereas "I Don't Like It" was constructed from drum loops from professional drum loops CDs and things, and then all the keyboards and basses and things I did myself by MIDI through ProTools MIDI. A few things I touched up within another MIDI application called "Studio Vision Pro", but mainly just within ProTools. Then guitar which I played myself. That was the only acoustic instrumentation in the whole thing.
How long did the production process take?
Oh God! With "Back Door Man", it wasn't quite as long. I really can't remember as we're talking back about three and a half years ago now, I think I worked on it over about 5 weeks or something just using night time access. Not sure what kind of hours I was doing. But that song was much more little half phrases of hers, with the occasional word cut in and different phrases spliced together. And using and editing other people's music so it didn't take quite as long. "I Don't Like It" took about 3 months working about 5 or 6 days a week about 6 hours a night. I was starting about 10pm and going onwards all the way through the night so it was this incredible piece of labour, mainly because I wanted to be able to make her say anything. If you know ProTools, in the region list I had about 7000 Pauline Hanson regions in there of every sort of syllable and consonant and half words so I could cut and paste and make up every word. Like the word San Francisco, Francisco took 4 or 5 hours to make it was a 'fr' from 'friendly', an 'an' from 'plan', a 'cis' from 'basis' and a 'sco' from disco - with each syllable individually cleaned up, time stretched and pitched shifted and cross faded. I wanted it to be completely seamless but I wanted to be able to make her say anything at the same time, so I was very pedantic about having it really exact.
What were some of the surprises you encountered during production?
No, it is sort of a process when writing those songs of saying "I'm going to do a Pauline Hanson cut up" and then you see what comes out and then you plan something and try it for hours and then it doesn't work and then one little phrase will send you off in another direction. In the lead up to doing "Back Door Man", Hanson had been around for about a year and a half when I first put that out. I'd tried a few different times and I'd just done some simple reversals of having her say things like "we need more Asians in Australia" and it just wasn't funny. But the phrase "Back Door Man" just came out of looking at the region list in ProTools and seeing separately "Back" and "Door" and "Man" and thinking it sounds like a Blues song or something and going from there. Whereas "I Don't Like It" I just had one simple thing of her going "I Don't Like It" and it sounded like a little child, so that was the one decision on which it was based. Just this big long list of things she doesn't like.
Just a big whinge…
Yeah, just a big whinge about absolutely everything. Then when I came across the "disco" and "dance" parts I thought that could be the middle 8 - classic pop format. It was heavily planned in that it was musically not the kind of music I would choose to listen to. But I felt the most effective way of getting at her was to be a mainstream popstar and to appear in the same media as her. So it was specifically designed around being a Top 40 pop song. Even some of the guitar sounds at the beginning I put in specifically because it sounded like the old Triple M themes. You've got these 40 year old DJs who'll listen to it and it'll remind them of that and they'll play it and it'll get to the 20 year olds who listen to the radio station. It was very planned in classic pop format with retro sounds that would appeal to the DJs, because the radio DJs on commercial stations are much older than the listeners. I was being quite scientific about it thinking that the more mainstream I could make it - there were a couple of more radical lines within the song and I thought the only way to get those into commercial radio is to cloak it and to put all these silly lines in their as well so that they could go "oh we're just playing that silly song about shopping trolleys and all that". That is the only way you can get a line like "please explain why can't my blood be coloured white" onto 2MMM and stuff like that.
You kind of answered this before, but where did you get all the source materials for the songs?
Video interviews and a few radio interviews with Pauline Hanson. A few news items as well. So several long form interviews on 'Witness', 2 from '60 minutes' one from an ABC program. About 5 or 6 major profiles on her from within the media. There was actually one website where I got the "dancing" and "disco" from which was a website called "Pauline Hanson soundbytes" where you could download Pauline Hanson phrases to use as error messages on your computer. "I like dancing" actually came from that so I emailed the people who ran that website and asked them if they could send me the original tapes to actually get the words 'dancing' and 'disco' from that because they had pretty low grades ones there for people to download.
The author of a work often notices imperfections well after completion. Do you notice points where you'd like to tweak the edit further when you hear them now?
Yeah, a couple of tiny little ones. Like when she goes "video killed the racist star, Howard wonders what you are" the "what you are" sounds like it was definitely cut up because I just couldn't get things that were slow in the pitch enough. It's interesting, because she's got a very wide range of melody in her voice and she goes up and down and all over the place but you've got to follow her characteristic paths well. So there are a few little rough bits when I was getting a little bit tired of it, because if you are spending 6 or 7 hours a night over 6 day periods over 3 months listening to Pauline Hanson after a while you get a bit tired.
You have used sound manipulation in a way that is obviously not really Pauline Hanson speaking. Do you think there is reason to be concerned with this technology being used to manipulate people's words in more subtle ways? Could this be misused?
Concerned about the possible misuse of that? I think that the laws are pretty solid on that sort of thing. I don't think that the new technology actually makes any difference to that. I did as intricate works as these 10 or 15 years ago, its just they'd take me much longer using tape manipulation and that kind of thing. I don't have any fear particular fear that the new technology can be misused any more easily than old technology.
Does the more basic form of manipulation, through selective use of sound bites, concern you at all? In relation to bias in the media?
That is the essential structure of media and has always been. I don't think there is anything changing within that. I think that the main change is in public perception in that I think the public are much more aware of media construction than they would have been in the past. If you go back to the classic Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" scenario. Some of that couldn't happen now as people are more aware of media manipulation. Even in a really main stream publication such as the Sydney Morning Herald, on their backpage they have these digital collages every couple of days where they throw people into situations - sometimes they credit it as such and sometimes they don't. There is some sort of assumption that the public is more aware of these processes.
Over the past 10 years people have become much more visually literate as CG has improved. Do you think more sound manipulated in the media will lead people to become more sound literate too? Or is there a fundamental difference between sound and visual senses?
They are definitely less aware of it in situations where you've got a combination of audio and visual simply because we are living in a visually privileged culture. Sound works on more of a subconscious level, so with an audio-visual combination people can get away with a lot more without people directly being aware of what is being done to them. That is not just within the media, talking in terms of manipulation it's being done in narrative film-making and with the development of sound techniques within narrative cinema, people are not really aware of the way they are being played with with the audio. (Does that answer that?)
If you were to give a couple of points of wisdom on similar projects, what would they be?
On a couple of different things, I think people… within the broad scale of political art, using the arts to make a political point, you need to be aware of… if you are placing politics within an entertainment medium, you need to actually be entertaining as well in order to gain people's interest. You need to understand the nature of media and the way that people take in media to be able to use that medium to actually make a point. A political point by itself is not enough. Just because you have a strong belief in a certain brand of politics doesn't mean that people are going to pay attention to that at all. To me the most important thing happening in the world at the moment is that people are starving to death in Ethiopia, all the news of that in the last couple of days is that the West is doing absolutely nothing about that and they constantly have these Ethiopian aid workers talking about how nothing will be done until we get more of these images on television of people starving. The fact that people are not paying attention to that shows that just because something is important politically doesn't mean people are actually going to notice it in some ways. I think people need to be savvy of media style in order to use it properly. I'm influenced a lot in my sound cut ups and constructions, because all of the political sound cut up works I have done in the last 10 years have been humourous ones, and I've been influenced in that by an AIDS activist group I was involved with in the early 90s called "Act Up" which was very much modelled on the American original branch of that. The AIDS activists in New York at that time where they were people really with their lives on the line of getting drug clearances and being blocked by church groups who had majorities on medical boards and things like that. This group used the media, poster media, postcard media, TV media, they mimicked and stole all the slick methods of advertising and of other forms to be able to get the point across. Some people might think that you are diminishing a point by presenting it within a glossy surface, but sometimes that is the way to get through to people.