In an origin story fit for the sort of ficto-critical headspace it inhabits, the group known as AUDINT (short for “audio intelligence”) was originally formed in 1945 by ex-members of the Ghost Army, a mobile World War II-era deception unit populated by enlisted artists and theater technicians. Using inflatable battle tanks as props and pioneering proto-DJ techniques to remix reality with simulated sounds of war, the Ghost Army was a real, historically documented diversion operation used to confuse Nazi forces on the whereabouts of Allied troops.
Since the group’s mysterious revival in the form of AUDINT in 2008, Toby Heys and Steve Goodman have been mainstay members, with others floating in and out. Goodman is best known as the electronic-music artist Kode9 and as the owner of Hyperdub, a record label based in London. He was also the author of the brilliant book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, published by MIT Press in 2009. Heys serves as a member of the collaborative sound and video enterprise Battery Operated, teaches digital media, and leads the Future Technologies Research Centre at the Manchester School of Art. Both artists, together and on their own, explore the more sinister applications of sound through writing, gallery installations, and record releases that include limited-edition objects that reference the history of playback media.
AUDINT’s most recent project appeared in December 2016 in the form of a small manila archive box exploring the story of “outsider trading” experiments by a purported former group member named Nguyễn Văn Phong. The black-velvet-lined box contains a clear “prison cassette tape” and “bespoke-printed ghost money” in a €48,000 allotment. Side A of the tape contains short woozy audio tracks titled “Inverse Rites” and “Yin Yang Turntable,” both presented as funeral rites and gong loops recorded by Văn Phong between 1955 and 1960. Side B’s “Channeling the Market” reveals sound collages that are said to have played a role in a strange financial consultancy of Văn Phong’s creation in the 1970s. The two sides serve as bookends to different technological eras in Văn Phong’s story: the first with the claptrap of a gong and the spin of shellac, and the second with wiggly loops of magnetic storage media used by the portable IBM 5100 computer from 1975.
Văn Phong’s narrative defines him as a bio-acoustics expert interested in the interplay of Buddhism, science, and inaudible subsonic and ultrasonic frequencies. In his early research, AUDINT writes, the mysterious figure explored the vibrations of gongs. Some traditional Asian cultures believe that ancient deities inhabit these instruments and that ringing one forms an intermediary bridge between the planes of living and supernatural worlds. The pure waveforms of the gong were recorded by Văn Phong and played back as mutant records on his “Yin Yang Turntable,” for which discs were formed of two halves cut in two by following the snaking sine-wave curve of the yin-yang and rejoined so that one sample played forward and then collided with the same sample playing back in reverse. The split LP formed a sort of infinite sonic loop—a Möbius strip of tension and release finding its way into the consciousness of the listener in order to open the metaphorical “third ear.”
As AUDINT’s members began to bridge the analog-digital divide decades later, modern forms of channeling made use of devices that could keep up with the exchange speed of contemporary culture. In the ’70s, Văn Phong’s research is said to have tumbled into the zone of reified technology when he developed an economic trading program called IREX, for “irrational exuberance,” after Alan Greenspan’s warning of the impending burst of the dot-com bubble. If we are to believe Văn Phong’s intended goal, IREX divined the stock market by using a modified IBM 5100. An unsettling bio-hack worked in tandem with IREX to turn fellow AUDINT member Eduard Schüller into a sort of computer-age Frankenstein’s monster. The tape from the IBM’s drive was looped out and around his head, with the intent of exploiting his “third ear portal” and collecting data from the underworld.
Like the ancient gong, Schüller—a real person, it turns out, as cited in the AUDINT publication Dead Record Office—acted as a conduit between the dead and the listening. His channeling allowed for pragmatic forecasts of the future stock market—and for Văn Phong to reap the results.
The latest cassette-and-text box is the second of AUDINT’s archival releases on Reel Torque, a record label based in the UK devoted to experiments that range from electronic and industrial music to hip-hop and jazz. The first release paid homage to second-wave AUDINT member Magdalena Parker, who was described as a Chilean performance artist and filmmaker interested in the power of the cut-up collage and ritual incantation. The Parker archive box similarly houses a clear cassette and is accompanied by a tape-loop encased in resin “to ensure that it is never heard,” according to text on a card included in the set. Parker’s research, like Văn Phong’s, also claimed to induce “third ear” sounds hidden in plain earshot, hearable only to those who work to be attuned to deep forms of listening. Parker used the oscillating difference between ring-modulated signals to create a mutant layer for trance states; Văn Phong used tape to unleash the spectral economies of the underworld through the automated channeling power of a computer.
Included in the Văn Phong set is a piece of “hell money,” a form of cryptic quasi-currency used for ritual purposes in China and East Asia. More traditionally known as joss paper, hell money (or ghost money, as it’s also called) is burnt as an offering to venerate the dead. In its purest form, the currency appears as square sheets of bamboo or rice paper decorated with stamping and metallic foil. Today, hell money often mirrors American currency, carrying over its symbolism—Ben Franklin, the pyramid eye, hues of Department of the Treasury green—and often marked in absurdly large denominations.
In February 2016, a Vietnamese couple traveling through America with a large stash of hell money met with a case of unsympathetic culture-clash at the airport in Detroit. Carrying a suitcase packed with $4.6 million in the ritual currency, they were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. They were released after convincing authorities that the hell money was not intended for spending, but the ghost funds were confiscated all the same, and news outlets continued to report the non-legal tender was “counterfeit money” or “bogus bucks” meant to game the system.
AUDINT’s reworking of a hell bank note in the Văn Phong box is subdued, in muted tones of green and blue, with a portrait of Văn Phong on one side and his IBM 5100 on the other. Held in hand while listening to sounds meant to divine spectral market forces at work all around us, it marks a start on an investment worth making.