BALTIMORE: Certain stimuli pervade the urban landscape: sirens and car alarms invade and irritate the ear from afar. Add to this the constant hum of traffic and, in a city like Baltimore, the buzzing sound of the ever-hovering Foxtrot police helicopter, and the modern metropolis sounds like a cacophony conducted within a police state. Where is the order? The balance? Where is the justice?
We would much rather tune out most of what the city offers in terms of its many stimuli, but sometimes we cannot. Occasionally, there is far too much activity all at once for us to turn our heads away from, far too much stimulation for us to ignore. And even if we could block out the unwanted sites, we could never escape the sounds, as sounds engulf us from every direction. We may close ours eyes, but never our ears.
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) graduate student Andrew Keiper’s Rough Ride, a sound installation consisting of several loudspeakers arranged upon a shelf, demands our attention. Motivated by the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers, Rough Ride is an audio composition of found sounds, culled from the events that occurred in Baltimore in April 2015. The title refers to the brutal police tactic of punishing and subduing detainees who attempt to flee, resist arrest, or are otherwise insolent in the eyes of the arresting officers. Giving a “rough ride” means putting a shackled prisoner in the back of a police van and aggressively driving around with rapid acceleration and deceleration, throwing the victim around in the back. This is the sort of “rough ride” that killed Freddie Gray.
The title also refers to the far safer van ride Keiper went on to record sounds during and after the chaos following Gray’s funeral: the chanting protestors and the ominous sounds of the police helicopter, for example. The title works on a third level as well: the rough ride of experiencing Rough Ride. Listening to this sound installation is intense. The composition of found sounds infiltrates one’s entire being, forcing one to stop and listen to this arresting audio collage.
While walking past Rough Ride, which was temporarily installed in the main hallway of the Lazarus Graduate Center at MICA from October 12 - November 6, 2015, one’s ears begin to decipher the multiple levels of the events as they unfolded in Baltimore [two years ago]: frenzied media sound bites, boilerplate official responses, angry protestors chanting, and passionate organizers rallying, all of whom rival for attention “below” the whirring of a police helicopter seemingly flying overhead, a pulsating drone that cuts through the many voices. Keiper has produced Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” in audio form.
Unlike with the city, the sounds sampled in Rough Ride are deliberate. Keiper selects, arranges, and conducts his sounds, layering them like a hip-hop track: just as one level of sound begins to fade, another rolls in, leaving the listener constantly enthralled. Each level builds upon the last, progressively rising to an auditory climax at the end of the piece, before looping back to the beginning. At about four minutes in, the disparate sounds converge and get louder, leading to an uneasy atonal crescendo similar to that at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” I read the news today... oh, boy!
Rough Ride reminds us that while we may turn our backs on the social ills of the city, we cannot block out the sounds. Freddie Gray was but the latest fatality in the long and tragic history of racism in America. Just like victims of racial oppression, Rough Ride demands to be heard. And like Freddie Gray's "rough ride" in a police van, in order to truly experience Keiper’s Rough Ride, one must also suffer a little. It is unpredictable and sometimes painful to hear. It irritates the ear a bit, but you have to endure it to understand it. You can’t simply turn your head away. With Rough Ride, Keiper recreates what Freddie Gray must have felt on his ride through the city in the back of a Baltimore Police van, scared, alone, and soon to die.