- Do a Number:The Facticity of the Voice, or Reading Stop-and-Frisk Data
Fill the void. Lift your voice. Say her name.—Motto, #SayHerName movement
Listen to the story told by the numbers.
A man and a woman take their seats at a table, put on headphones, switch on a radio transmitter, and take turns reading aloud a series of numbers into microphones (Figure 1). The recitation of numbers is both machinelike in its rote regularity and intimate. And it is amplified by the feedback of radio transmission as well as by an overlay of electronically generated tones, mixed and processed in dub fashion. After the half-hour live performance is over, Mendi and Keith Obadike's work, Numbers Station [Furtive Movements] (2015), exists as an installation with a recording of the performance played on loop, the Obadikes' voices echoing back and forth from loudspeakers positioned at opposite ends of the room: a sonic parentheses.
The audience is told that the series of numbers have been excerpted from logs of self-reported stop-and-frisk data from 123 New York Police Department (NYPD) precincts. Each number, then, is a sign of presumed criminality, and the order of the logs refers to an order imposed on the streets of New York City. However, [End Page 397]
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throughout the performance there are no names, nor is there any relating of a number to a name, a face, or a place—an identity. The numbers appear even more abstract in the unvarying evenness and repetition of the artists' vocal delivery, as the difference from one number to another becomes increasingly difficult to apprehend, much less to absorb and remember. Each number follows the other according to an indecipherable order, apparently random and meaningless. The repetition in its indifference frustrates and lulls. Difference becomes but a matter of spacing, of taking a breath, in a series that seems to continue and continue. In other iterations of Numbers Station, the Obadikes read aloud numbers from slave ship manifests and lynching statistics. Our experience of listening to the numbers from one station to the next seems not to differ from one or the other, all eerily, awfully the same, as if the history of the violence that reduced black bodies to a matter of accounting was not so much a story as a static, unchanging condition of modern life: not history but still life. [End Page 398]
Why the numbers? Why not the visceral reality visualized in videos of police violence, such as the widely circulated cell phone video of the killing of Eric Garner, who died on July 14, 2014, in Staten Island, New York, during an all too familiar stop-and-frisk procedure, under suspicion of selling loose cigarettes on a sidewalk, a so-called quality-of-life offense? Why not the sight of his body pinned down on the pavement by five NYPD officers, the strained sound of his pleas of "I can't breathe" ensuing from an officer's choke hold? Why not the witness testimony, the autopsy report, or the various postmortem examinations—and interpretations—around the "cause" of Garner's death? By giving voice to the self-reported stop-and-frisk data, compelling the audience to listen to what the data claims to say and how, I argue that Numbers Station [Furtive Movements] confronts the challenge of documenting not the finality of a death but instead the structural violence that caused it and other deaths, not a past event but a present and ongoing condition that continues, not an event but a condition experienced and lived at the level of habit. At stake is the capacity to breathe, that is, the rationality according to which the habit of breathing becomes a capacity to be measured, regulated, and controlled as a matter of race. How does the politics of breath change the parameters of what we perceive to be a "voice"?
For Documentary Audibilities, this special issue of Discourse, this essay offers another chapter...