ORION SOUND STATION PROJECT OUTLINE
Orion Sound Station (17° 58' N 76°48' W) is a multichannel video, photography and sculptural sound system installation that explores the intersection of Jamaican dancehall culture and the DEA and CIA’s history of intervention into endemic Jamaican political violence. The installation also serves as a platform for live musical performances, and pre-recorded audio pieces from a globally diverse group of artists engaging complex narratives about the intersection and complexity of African and Afro-Diasporic culture with state violence. The video elements are a combination of US surveillance footage of Jamaica, FOIA documents about the DEA and CIA’s involvement in Jamaican politics, and archives of the Jamaican street dance Passa Passa. These pieces are presented alongside large scale photographs from Jamaican street dances, and large scale reproductions of FOIA documents.
On May 24, 2010 Jamaican security forces raided the Kingston neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens, eventually killing over 150 individuals, the vast majority of whom were summarily executed after being apprehended.
After demanding extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, a neighborhood leader or “Don” of Tivoli Gardens who also participated in the international drug trade, American DEA and Department of Homeland Security forces assisted the Jamaican government in their raid to apprehend Dudus by flying a P-3C Orion aerial reconnaissance plane over the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood.
Both governments initially denied US involvement in the massacre, but subsequent reporting work by Mattathias Schwartz including a FOI request, confirmed what many Jamaicans already knew, the US flew a spy plane over the Tivoli Neighborhood (coordinates 17° 58' N 76°48' W) throughout the duration of the siege and massacre, and has only released the hours of footage which took place in advance of the killing.
After the massacre the American embassy issued a travel advisory to Kingston, sighting the possibility of retaliatory violence. I arrived in Kingston for the first time a few months later to work for a prominent dancehall “artiste” manager Sharon Burke and to complete research and documentary projects about street dances and the networks of production and distribution that connect Jamaica and it’s largest cultural exports, reggae and dancehall, to the rest of the world.
While in Tivoli gardens after the massacre, I noticed that the two speaker towers or “columns” remained on Spanish Town Road where passa passa had been held. It’s a laborious process “stringing up” a sound system, and many neighborhood dances and bars keep their sounds ready to go strapped under heavy duty tarps used for trucking. The two columns felt like a macabre memorial both to the massacre and its victims, but also to Passa Passa, which like many street dances provided an economic hub for the neighborhood.
Despite the endemic gang violence in downtown Kingston, Passa Passa was considered one of the safest venues in the city and brought thousands of tourists and wealthier uptown Jamaicans out to a neighborhood otherwise often considered a no-go zone for both groups. As a center of dance hall culture DVDS and videos from Passa Passa would circulate around the world within hours of the sunrise conclusion of the dance. It was a right of passage for international DJ’s and dancers to experience the best of what Jamaican street culture and dance hall had to offer. Given the complex interchange between drug money, the entertainment industry, Jamaican government, and neighborhood dons, of course Passa Passa also served as a celebration of Dudus’ iron rule on Tivoli Gardens, a neighborhood that police essentially needed his permission to enter before the massacre. After the massacre a massive crack-down began on Kingston street dances, which continue to be the pulsing heart of global dance hall culture and the economic center of many deeply structurally impoverished garrison communities.
“Orion Sound Station” is thus a memorial to the Tivoli massacre, an acknowledgement of American complicity in mass murder through the war on drugs, and an exploration of the mystical elements of surveillance, mythology, dance, ritual and vibration.
The history of Jamaican sound systems has an unlikely catalyst: The British Royal Air Force. Black Jamaicans who served in the RAF during WWII as radio operators and repairman brought their advanced understanding of electronics back to Kingston where they became some of the first electrical engineers to create custom amplifiers, mixers, passovers, and speaker systems for the cities earliest sound system operators.