In this post, OHMA student Holly Werner-Thomas (2017) considers the theme of struggle in the life and work of Robert Sember, who is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, and a member of the international sound-art collective, Ultra-red.
In his October 26 talk at the Columbia Center for Oral History as part of OHMA’s 2017-2018 lecture series, Oral History and the Arts, New School Professor Robert Sember spoke about his early life in Durban, South Africa, the reason he left to come to the United States in 1987, as well as his lifelong work at the intersection of public health and art. At each turn, he spoke in terms of movement and struggle. Perhaps this is because his own life has been intimately linked to political struggle from the beginning: as a white working class South African who was thirteen years old at the time of the Soweto Uprising, who was gay but growing up in a country that considered homosexuality a crime, and who was eventually forced to leave his country after helping to establish the Durban chapter of the End Conscription Campaign as a young man. (The End Conscription Campaign was a powerful resistance movement among white male South Africans who rejected the system of apartheid by refusing to serve in the armed forces.)
“It all came down to a moment on the streets of Durban,” Robert said. “One day, when somebody called my name, seemed very friendly, somebody I didn’t know, and who just very quietly mentioned to me that they knew what my military call up was, and that I would be going through basic training, and there were accidents that happened during basic training, and maybe I wanted to consider leaving the country.”
While Robert did not want to come to the United States at a time when President Reagan embraced apartheid South Africa as an anti-communist bulwark, he arrived in Boston anyway in 1987 after his life was threatened at home. It was the same year playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and Reagan finally made his first public speech on the new disease, which by that year had killed 41,000 Americans. Not long thereafter, Robert’s own best friend, Jay, was diagnosed as HIV positive and died soon thereafter. Robert nursed him to his death.
Robert has over the past several decades contributed to ethnographic research and policy analysis related to HIV/AIDS and other public health concerns in the United States, South Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere. However, he explained, he didn’t so much become involved in working on the AIDS crisis, “but I just was. I was enrolled in this struggle by virtue of who I am.”
Robert brings the same sense of engagement with critical issues to his oral history work. He asked the audience: “Where does oral history sit within movement, and within struggle?” And, “How is oral history useful to the development of critical awareness within the context of specific social movements?”
Robert went on to answer that series of questions—what he called, “the big framework tonight”—in part by explaining that to him, and to Ultra-red, oral history and other forms of speech should be “situated in a context of dialogue.”
Robert and his colleagues curate those dialogues by asking groups of people – through active listening – what justice sounds like, for example, or the war on the poor. In one recent London-based project, Ultra-red worked in conjunction with St Marylebone School, a secondary girls school with a student body that includes refugees, asylum seekers and new immigrants. Over four years, they developed sound walks, audio recordings and listening sessions together, and underscoring each was the essential question: What is the sound of citizenship?
Through these projects, Ultra-red aims for participants to imagine new worlds. In the art world, this is called world making, which is, according to art historian and critic Terry Smith, "an art that issues from a very contemporary sense of what constitutes 'the world,' and from a radically expanded sense of what constitutes 'art'." This is a fascinating and challenging approach to sound, dialogue, and listening, one I will be thinking about for a long time as an oral historian.
As oral historians, listening is of course what we do. World making as such is usually secondary, because at least for me, the act of developing critical awareness – and I like to think that I will be able to do this through my oral history of gun violence victims and survivors this year – is inherent in the act of story capture and amplification. In other words, I believe it is in recording people’s stories – recording their personal experiences of sociopolitical events and economic forces and their response to them – that we capture the story of human struggle. By listening to what people have to say we learn about the oppression they contend with, and sometimes even how they manage to transcend it.
The notion of active listening leading to an expanded learning in which one can imagine new worlds strikes me, however, as more demanding, and in the best way possible, as if Ultra-red, founded by two AIDS activists in Los Angeles in 1994, is more insistent on bringing about social and political change now. The active listening Ultra-red asks of us is therefore more activist than most oral history, making their seemingly innocuous question, “what did you hear?” at the end of a reflective listening session both a tool for learning and a call to change.
To learn more about Ultra-red, please visit their Website at: http://www.ultrared.org/index.html
Holly Werner-Thomas comes to OHMA with a Master of Arts in American history from American University in Washington, D.C. Holly has previously focused on both institutional history, as for the National Building Museum, and on crisis, as with the Hurricane Katrina Oral History Project, in her oral history work. She is currently focusing on gun violence survivors across America.