Techno Intersections: An Aural Account of Research in Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh (UK)
Techno Intersections is an audio essay presented in the form of an MP3 file on Soundcloud. It is comprised of my spoken voice interspersed with a small number of audio clips extracted from video recordings, in addition to excerpts of music that I have performed (as a DJ) at the club nights in which I conducted most of my field work. A complete transcription of the audio essay is provided below. In the piece, I reflect upon some of my doctoral research experiences of participant observation in Edinburgh techno club nights. While I am wary of turning too far inward, to the point that the “boundaries between subject and object” might be negated (Davies 1999: 5), exploring a phenomenological aspect of ethnographic research has not only allowed me to better engage with experiences of my participants, but also to understand more profoundly that which I observe (Barz and Cooley 2008: 68–9).
Given that the nightclub is a sound-centred space, the medium of sound for the form of the essay may reveal some additional facets of this research experience. During the process of re-reading my written notes, I tend to remember how the night sounded—including the overwhelmingly loud music, the people I spoke to and the fluctuation of sound according to where I stood or danced in the venue. This aural memory of events allows me to gain further meaning from the words on the page. I find it difficult to relate to others’ accounts of field work in club spaces because I cannot hear the same sounds that they could. By way of compensation, I often attempt to superimpose music from my mind’s ear into the text, however I find myself somehow resistant to this imposition on another researcher’s personal experiences. Thus, the written accounts of what is an embodied series of interactions seem disappointingly flat when devoid of the aural bombardment that is an essential component of clubbing. By presenting through sound I am not aiming to capture a complete sense of what it is like to research in a club; I am still only providing an impression, as would a written account. However, my method hints more directly at the sensory aspect of the encounters, that are probably quite familiar to many who do research in nightclubs. The use of my spoken voice as a mode of exploring these experiences allows an unbroken flow to the essay, that might not be realised by switching back and forth between writing and sound (and consequently between sensory modes and different tempos of thought).
The “intersections” explored in this piece are based on my view of differently directed paths—whether people, philosophies, ideologies, events—encountering each other during the course of participant observation. The literal analogy of various vehicles meeting at intersecting roads is useful to bring to mind. This does not necessarily suggest conflict. Intersecting in the nightclub as a researcher can happen in the form of a gentle nudge, such as a meeting between two friends or acquaintances, or it can, at the other extreme, occur in the form of a collision, such as a struggle between “the ethics of friendship” and academic rigour (see Taylor 2011), or dealing with unwanted sexual advances. If used in the purely conceptual sense, it can be understood as a process of negotiation of two contrasting or problematic ideas, such as the way in which a desire to be a non-gendered, neutral researcher contradicts the socially constructed and embodied reality (see, for example, Gurney 1985; Perrone 2010). One example of an intersection that is taken for granted is the pre- or intra-dancing “banter”—a word that I learned since moving to Edinburgh to mean “chatter”—that occurs near the bar, on the dance floor, in the rest rooms, in queues for the door, at the door with the bouncers, behind the DJ booth, and during outdoor smoke breaks in the wind-chilled, rain-soaked streets. Banter acts as an essential social lubricant ingredient as much as drugs or alcohol, and it was this realisation which transformed its status for me, from being unworthy of my attention, to being among the more illuminating and meaningful interactions in which I participated.
Techno Intersections is made up of eight short “intersections” that are entitled as follows:
The first intersection depicts the habitual patterns of my attendance at techno club nights, and introduces the possibility that these patterns can be perceived as problematic for research. The second, fourth and sixth intersections deal with encounters with people, in addition to conflicting or contrasting notions that I attempt to reconcile or confront. These include my invasion of people’s personal space, the interruption of my own habitual patterns and comforts through switching to a researcher “hat”, and what I perceived for some time to be the impossibility of using intellect as a researcher while using intuition during DJing. The third intersection deals with coming to terms with researching while dancing, and the fifth reluctantly but necessarily exposes the reality of sexism in, and around the field. Finally, the concluding episode returns to the theme of comfort and familiarity as a techno participant, if only to note its breakdown when that role is combined with that of researcher.
My overriding intention for Techno Intersections is to contribute to conversations on a complex set of challenges which are unique to researching in nightclubs. I wish, above all, to highlight the possibility that these tensions, and more specifically, the search for the equilibrium between closeness to and distance from, are irresolvable in any given moment. This impasse—which implies that insider researchers are always in flux between states—is one of many challenges which add nuance and fascination to the task of researching in this setting.
[AUDIO. Pig & Dan, “On A Train (Big Room Dub)”. 5:20–5:50. From On A Train. Mixed with AUDIO FIELDWORK, October 2012.]
At an Edinburgh techno night, I feel immediately at home. At home, because of the familiarity of this environment, the bodies, the rhythms, the intersections between those bodies and mine, and between their rhythms and mine. One of the key things I have learned to do during field research is to listen not only to the music, but to the people for whom this music means something.
[AUDIO FIELDWORK, April 2012.]
I am at home here, because these rhythms are a part of my own rhythms. I am at home, because the moment I am engulfed by sounds with which my muscles immediately fall into rhythm, I am cocooned in this blanket of floor-shifting sound. I strive to be invisible to anyone outside of myself, in my fantasy of disappearance. I feel at home, because the moment I close my eyes, I can reverse this fantasy to the notion of not my own disappearance, but of everybody else’s. That is, I am attempting to engage almost wholly with my senses, while disengaging from people around me. My goal is disconnection. This fantasy, while it lasts, is the mental place from which I think I must remove myself, in order to learn anything, in order to label what I am doing as research. How wrong I am.
[AUDIO. Back Pack Poets, “Objective T”. 4:00–4:30. From Objective.]
April 2012, Edinburgh. I am doing something a bit different tonight—I am filming a club night that I periodically play at and always attend. I have undertaken various fieldwork exercises at these events, but never in the form of filming, as I generally do not have access to a camera, and this form of observation has its limits, practically speaking. I notice a number of things that make tonight different to other fieldwork nights. On the one hand, the presence of the camera is making my activities visible, which is, I feel, a way of ensuring that people know what I am up to—although not necessarily what I am using the video for. Most of them, after all, would assume it’s for promotional purposes. On the other hand, it’s a blatant and unusual invasion into people’s personal space—the only filming that tends to happen at this club night is by clubbers for sharing with their friends. I did not anticipate the extent to which this camera would alter people’s behaviour now that they are realising its presence. Oddly though, there are some people who appear not to react, acknowledge, or respond to the object in my hand at all, as if they cannot see it. The following banter arose from my camera’s apparent invisibility to this clubber:
[AUDIO FIELDWORK, April 2012.]
On most nights I cannot hear more than half of what is said to me. Tonight however, we are far enough from the speakers to be able to hear each other. I yell back into my friend’s ear under no illusions that he can hear too much of what I say, unconsciously altering the way I would normally pronounce words (that is, like an Australian), in order to be better understood. I also talk louder than I should because I am wearing earplugs and cannot hear myself properly. In this conversation I am assessing whether the beginner DJ playing his first public set is doing a “good job”—what right do I have to judge him on this? When I leave these nights as hoarse as ever, I always vouch to talk less at the next event, feeling that talking is a waste of time and energy in these spaces, particularly as I recall what I have said as being embarrassingly redundant. Yet, my regular vocal injuries and cringing recollections rarely stop me from trying; it is an automated process for me when researching at events, a part of my philosophy of being with people as I would on a normal, non-research-related night out. This philosophy, in its essence, is to behave as a participant because insight can be gained by, what James Clifford (2004: 386) refers to as “indigenous ethnographers”, or “insiders studying their own cultures”. At any rate, my effort at talking to people at the start of an event is critical to the social make-up of the night, despite its being at odds with the sound system, whose voice inevitably triumphs over my own.
[AUDIO. Bart Skils, “Observer”. 4:20–4:55. From Walking At My Girl.]
Edinburgh, April 2012. I am acutely aware of as much of my environment as I can perceptually digest, but not like the fly-on-the-wall role which I naively thought I might be able to occupy before actually embarking on field work in club nights. If this fly-on-the-wall role were possible, it would be significantly less stressful, and might give me insight into certain things that I could not get from being stuck on metaphorical and literal ground level. However, it would also remove me from the very essence of clubbing experience, and from the most meaningful and significant insights into the world of people who dance to dance music, one such being that banter is a reliable way through which these techno nights maintain their sense of community, togetherness and familiarity. It could be helpful to conceive of the abstract and theoretical nature of dance while not dancing, but as I begin to move again to the music, I find myself observing, understanding, appreciating. This focused, brow-furrowing struggle of thinking whilst listening whilst standing seems like a futile attempt at being objective. The standard reflexive paradox for me, tends to take the following course: I might notice the effect of a particular sound on my body. Immediately upon re-emerging from this inward world, I remind myself of what I think I am supposed to be paying attention to, that is, how phenomena are impacting everyone else. At this point, I then have to, in turn, remind myself that I am one of the participants, and thus it is artificial to ignore how phenomena affect me. This zooming in and zooming out continues periodically throughout the night. It is not only important to observe what happens between and amongst people, and people and the music, but also between people and myself, and the music and myself.
[AUDIO. Anton X, “Klubnacht”. 4:25–4:45. From Klubnacht.]
Edinburgh, April 2012. This feeling of being at home, after all this zooming in and out, has now been replaced with the perpetual discomfort and over-consciousness of being a researcher in quite an anti-intellectual environment. The discomfort sets in for the remainder of the night and again, my response is to interrupt my automatised flow of behaviour, and disconnect from the other clubbers. Again I have the fanciful notion that in some way the zoomed out researcher lens will allow me to see a life-changing phenomenon, a panoramic view of the dance event—that fly-on-the-wall view. However again I am blinded almost entirely to the occurrences directly in front of my nose, or indeed, behind it. I have extracted myself from my fantasy of disappearance, although the fantasy is frequently interrupted and far from utopian.
[AUDIO. Gary Beck, “Before The Crash”. 3:00–3:30. From Before The Crash/Hopkin.]
January 1, 2011. I am on my way to work in a nightclub. I am in Berlin. I am walking the streets at eleven at night on my own, and carrying a map—the latter rendering me even more vulnerable as a foreigner or someone who does not know my way around, and I am acutely aware of this vulnerability. I am followed out of a train station and attacked by two men, and I never make it to the club night.
[AUDIO. Nicole Moudaber and Victor Calderone, “The Journey Begins”. 4:30–5:00. From The Journey Begins.]
The before and after—the getting to and from a nightclub—is a hazard of nightlife fieldwork that I have not heard discussed or read about in ethnographic accounts by women ethnographers such as Gurney, Perrone or Davies.
[AUDIO. Nicole Moudaber and Victor Calderone, “The Journey Begins”. 5:00–5:30. From The Journey Begins.]
Edinburgh, April 2012 again. I am dancing, but I decide to withdraw from myself, back out into the room, and I stop dancing for a moment to try to gather my thoughts, watch, concentrate. I am focused on watching the DJ, then on one particular dancer, then on the whole room. This focus is suddenly interrupted by a man who is using my relative stillness as an excuse to harass me. Go. Away. One of the key reasons I choose to stick mostly to one particular club night is that it is a reliably inclusive and respectful environment, compared with other events that I have attended. This may be because clubbers increasingly recognise me as one of the DJs of this club night. The personal space that I am afforded might result from the respect that being a DJ has earned me.
[AUDIO. Jeff Mills, “Late Night”—10 second excerpt. From Late Night.]
Being a female researcher in environments which can range from very inclusive to highly misogynist, can also, logically, vary from being no issue at all, to rendering my research practice impossible. Garcia does this topic concise justice in his blog, observing that the club is an environment in which outside world norms are somewhat relaxed, or at the very least shifted. Thus, what can already be hazy understandings of boundaries regarding intimacy become even more confused. In my view, the only difference between the sexism experienced when I am attending a club night as a participant and that experienced when I am researching, is that the irritation is augmented. Interruptions of my work seem somehow so much more insulting than interruptions of my leisure time.
Sexism has affected my observational research profoundly. Doing ethnography in a discriminatory or threatening environment is disabling and exhausting for anyone who is perceived as a potential victim. These issues necessarily and unfortunately impact upon the breadth and quality of research that happens.
[AUDIO. Art Bleek, “Dweep”. 2:20–2:55. From Other Lane.]
For some time I was convinced that because I was intensely focused both inwardly, on the musical and technical aspects of my DJ set, and outwardly, on the responses of the crowd dancing to my music, all my attention was “used up”. I did not allow for the possibility that I could be analytical or intellectual whilst DJing, and thus did not include anything about my DJ sets in my writing. However I soon realised that I devote a very large proportion of my energy and attention to being behind the DJ booth, and because of the intensity of my focus, I recall my DJ sets in great detail. Thus, at an unfortunately late stage of my research, the question of what exactly constitutes this DJing “intuition”, creeps into my writing. I begin to reflect more on the process and routines I undertake and undergo in order to achieve what I deem to be a successful DJ set. Being situated behind the decks, therefore becomes an integral component of the object of my inquiry.
[AUDIO. Stanny Franssen & Soren Aalberg, “I’ve Been Lucid”. 3:15–3:40. From My Air Space.]
I am partaking in an endless tug of war, between trying to be the most rigorous researcher on the one hand, and the most ethical researcher on the other. I always have permission from the promoter of the night, and their friends and associated crew in advance of the night. I always guarantee participants anonymity, yet not everyone who enters the room knows they are being observed and there is no practical way for me to tell them in advance. Through informing participants when I am researching as opposed to when I am only participating, there are signs that they become self-conscious in my presence. In the instance of the video camera, this is at its most visible, when participants move from immersion in musical and physical pleasure-seeking, to acting, performing for the lens. Their movements go from being loose and undefined to being actual “moves”, sometimes mocking, at other times self-consciously nonchalant. However given that the alternative would be at the expense of honesty, it would not even qualify as better research. Harming the participants even if only to break their trust, is not an option.
[AUDIO FIELDWORK, October 2012.]
Edinburgh, April 2012 again. I am here, in the space that I know, DJing, or dancing to music I love, around people I love. And yet, because this process of researching demands of me a hyper-awareness and hyper-analysis right now, I am displaced from my comfort—I do not belong, I am stuck between being an insider and my attempts to step outside of my usual roles. I feel ex-communicated from a space that I would normally claim as my own. These moments of estrangement allow me to better appreciate those moments of familiarity and cosiness. Those moments of comfort which ultimately deserve to be researched as much as what I can observe during my alienation routine.
And then the breakdown starts, and the build-up happens, and the bass drops, and before I realise anything, my objective researching has been interrupted, and I have retreated yet again into my sensual, aurally-driven, non-thinking disappearance...
[AUDIO. Pig & Dan, “On A Train (Big Room Dub)”. 2:30–3:00. From On A Train.]
I am a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, studying under the supervision of Simon Frith. Using ethnographic research and musical analysis, my thesis explores musical and social triggers for dance movement, focusing on Edinburgh techno scenes. I am also founder of the Edinburgh University Dance Music Society, tutor in music at the University of Edinburgh, and am in my tenth year of teaching piano. In my spare time I DJ for the Edinburgh-based techno collective Animal Hospital. <email@example.com>.
Davies, Charlotte Aull. 1999. “Reflexivity and Ethnographic Research”. In Reflexive Ethnography, 3–25. London and New York: Routledge.
Barz, Gregory and Cooley, Timothy J. 2008. “Phenomenology and the Ethnography of Popular Music”. In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology. 2nd ed., 62–75. New York: Oxford University Press.
Clifford, James. 2004. “Partial Truths”. In Social Research Methods: A Reader, ed. Clive Seale, 384–8. London: Routledge.
Garcia, Luis-Manuel. 2011. “Chapter 2, Part 2: Gender, Sexual Touch, and Rethinking Intimacy”. LMGMblog. 17 July 2011: <http://lmgmblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/touching-strangers-part-2/> (accessed 2 October 2012).
Gurney, Joan Neff. 1985. “Not One of the Guys: The Female Researcher in a Male-Dominated Setting”. Qualitative Sociology 8(1): 42–62 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=10868648&site=ehost-live> (accessed 15 October 2012).
Perrone, Dina. 2010. “Gender and Sexuality in the Field: A Female Ethnographer’s Experience Researching Drug Use in Dance Clubs”. Substance Use and Misuse 45(5): 717–35 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=48491009&site=ehost-live> (accessed 15 October 2012).
Taylor, Jodie. 2011. “The Intimate Insider: Negotiating the Ethics of Friendship When Doing Insider Research”. Qualitative Research 11(1): 3–22 <http://qrj.sagepub.com/content/11/1/3> (accessed 30 October 2012).
Anton X. 2012. Klubnacht. Freshin Records (MP3). FRESHIN029. <http://www.discogs.com/Anton-X-Klubnacht/release/3865898>.
Art Bleek. 2011. Other Lane. EevoNext (MP3). NEXT29.
Audio from original fieldwork. April 2012; October 2012 (MP3). Edinburgh.
Back Pack Poets. 2011. Objective. Electric Deluxe (MP3). EDLX019. <http://www.discogs.com/mp3/Back-Pack-Poets-Objective-EP/1839225>.
Bart Skils. 2012. Walking At My Girl. Tronic (MP3). TR84. <http://www.discogs.com/Bart-Skils-Walking-At-My-Girl/release/3610407>.
Gary Beck. 2012. Before The Crash/Hopkin. Soma (MP3). SOMA 344D. <http://www.discogs.com/Gary-Beck-Before-The-Crash-Hopkin/release/3843749>.
Jeff Mills. 2010. Late Night. Tresor (MP3). Tre10183. <http://www.discogs.com/Jeff-Mills-Archiv04/release/3250789>.
Nicole Moudaber and Victor Calderone. 2012. The Journey Begins. Drumcode (MP3). DC98. <http://www.discogs.com/Nicole-Moudaber-Victor-Calderone-The-Journey-Begins/release/3826346>.
Pig & Dan. 2010. On A Train. Boxer Recordings (MP3). BOXER 079. <http://www.discogs.com/Pig-Dan-On-A-Train/release/3880875>.
Stanny Franssen and Soren Aalberg. 2012. My Air Space. Rhythm Converted (MP3). RC 042.
I recorded my narration of the audio essay using a Zoom H2 Digital Recorder. The audio footage derives from two club nights that I filmed using a Sony Hard Drive DCR-SR55 Camcorder, handheld in the first of the two sessions and mounted on a tripod for the second. The video files, which had been uploaded to a Windows PC hard drive, were converted to the a file format that allowed editing in Windows Movie Maker, were cropped in Windows Movie Maker to an appropriate length, and then converted into an audio format using Zamzar. I then used the software Audacity to edit and mix my narration with my fieldwork audio files and short sections of tracks purchased from Beatport during 2010–2012.
 Techno Intersections on Soundcloud: <http://soundcloud.com/tgadir/techno-intersections-an-aural>.
 This is a full transcription of the audio essay that is available for listening on the Soundcloud link above.