Where do sounds come from and where do they go? From this fundamental and central question, the different trajectories that make up Acoustic Territories. Sound Culture and Everyday Life, the new book by Brandon LaBelle – artist, theorist and editor, branch out. Through a particularly coherent research, the author has constantly devoted himself to the exploration of sound and audio culture from multiple points of view and different levels, giving birth to a large body of work, tests and projects.
His first book, Background Noise. Perspectives on Sound Art (1), is undoubtedly one of the most successful – and theoretically important – attempts to analyze the use of sound in contemporary art practice. Instead, in Acoustic Territories, LaBelle seems detached from the purely aesthetic field to analyze contemporary culture through an auditory paradigm, virtuosly crossing aspects of town planning, popular culture and sound studies.
The book is articulated by some “places” that determine the score in chapters. From the underground universe of the subway to the sky, passing through the house, the sidewalk, the street and the supermarket, LaBelle investigates the auditory dimension of the contemporary metropolis in order to give back the complex sound topography, considering the dynamics between public space and private space.
Between social exposure and individual privacy, individuals and communities, environments and the people that inhabit them, LaBelle outlines how, in these dynamics, the sound launches a process of redefinition on multiple levels involving both the private and collective identity construction, as well as space: “sound reroutes the making of identity by creating a greater and more beautiful weave between self and surrounding” (2).
Similarly, the artistic practice of Brandon LaBelle is not limited to the use of sound as an expressive medium but instead, it questions the nature of sound as a relational, social and linguistic process. Sound is not investigated as a pure perceptual phenomenon, but inserted into processes of meaning or through direct intervention in the sphere of everyday, crossing time to time issues related to language, architecture, memory, translation, interpretation, and the legacy of musical experimentation of the 20th Century.
Among his more recent works, Proposal To The Mayor II (2009) is a nomadic museum, an exhibition of frequencies that brings together the work of experimental music artists from the ’50s until today, thought to be taken around the city. Room Tone (2009) is a collaborative project realized involving six architects: the artist has recorded the sound of his apartment in Berlin documenting the acoustic reflection of the environment, the size and the materials. He then asked to architects to use recordings as a basis for building models of the apartment itself, investigating the possibilities of interpretation and translation of auditory data into the space building process.
Public Jukebox (2006), on the other hand, implements a process of individual infiltration into the library’s knowledge system of organization: “Libraries function as spaces of knowledge, structuring history and culture through the organization of published materials, from books to CDs, from records to archives […] and thereby dramatically shaping the circulation of information, data, records through social and cultural spaces “(3). Asking regular users of the Robert Desnons’ library in Paris to select their favorite CDs from the catalog, pointing out their memories and stories on the covers of records and sending out the songs selected by the library’s staff, the project creates a short circuit between institutions, private memories and personal views.
Brandon LaBelle presented Acoustic Territories in Italy last June 4th at the O’artoteca in Milan, while on June 7th he gave a talk in Piacenza at Progettazione Urbana e Spazi Sonori – conference sponsored by the Osservatorio Public Art of Milan Poltecnico by Ricciarda Belgiojoso and Valeria Merlini (who’s also member of Digicult Network). While waiting to see him again in Italy – this November he’ll be organizing a workshop for young artists and musicians at Raum, the Xing’s space in Bologna, inside of déja.vu, a project curated by Aritmia, that has been involving international artists from the past three years (the call for participation is already online) – we took the opportunity to interview him.
Elena Biserna: I would start from the book because I think that this will give us a way to speak of your artistic research as well. It seems to me that Acoustic Territories carries on some of the concerns that have gone through all your previous work: it traces a cartography of sound and auditory experience in everyday life putting sound in the broader dynamic of political and social interactions. Within this context, sound comes into play as one of the means of social transformation and interplay.
The relational and social character of sound is also one of the most interesting theoretical points of your previous book (Background Noise), and of many of your works such as, among others, Phantom Radio or Public Jukebox, which are driven by a quest for social interaction and participatory practices
Brandon LaBelle: Working with sound, as a material, as a subject, has certainly changed my practice as an artist. Having started mainly in painting and sculpture, I was always curious to look more towards what surrounds the art object, how it relates specifically to the viewer, and how it participates in the making of a cultural moment. Once I started working with sound all these issues become more pronounced, and I must say, I finally felt more fulfilled in my practice. Sound allowed me, or opened up a platform for making work that could more directly query the conditions of a given space, of a given time, while connecting to forms of social performance, of cultural identity, of people’s experiences, that is, an entire relational network.
Elena Biserna: Another aspect at the base of your artistic research which has a central role in this book as well is the link between context and sound, the contextual nature of sound events and auditory experiences. Can you talk about this issue and how it manifests itself in your artistic practice?
Brandon LaBelle: I always feel particularly drawn to how sound conditions our sense of place, and how it participates in relational exchanges, in our daily experiences. Sound is so immediate and direct, as well as being collective and shared. The ways in which sound brings us into the present is for me a very dynamic condition, and listening to sound in this way has definitely led me to particular projects and a way of working that is contextually oriented, and sensitive to being in a certain place at a certain time.
Making sound becomes immediately also about constructing sorts of “staging”, so it also becomes about the place of sound, the architecture, the social narrative of the event. I’m very interested in how sound connects us to other people, how it makes links or how it moves from one body to the next.
Elena Biserna: and all this is reflected in parallel in your artistic practice and writings. At the beginning of Acoustic Territories you write: “Much of my work as a writer and researcher is inextricably tied to my practice as an artist”. In fact, you seem to move very freely between theory and practice: you are artist, theorist, publisher and teacher. What is the relationship between theory and practice in your work? Do you deal more often with issues initially arisen from theory in your work as an artist, or on the contrary is your theoretical work the result of a need to address questions emerging from your artistic activity? Or, instead, the two levels are perfectly in parallel?
Brandon LaBelle: I think in many ways I have been extremely influenced by sound itself, sound as something that also makes no distinction between the cultural and the informal, between you and me, between what is inside and what is outside: sound is a rather non-hierarchical, anarchic and ambiguous material or event. And I feel drawn to it for these reasons, that it breaks these seeming boundaries while also creating or revealing new connections; sound is that which introduces us to the other, as a continual project.
In this way, I also feel very much that there is in fact little difference between theory and practice (maybe I fail to fully understand how they are somehow separate?) in this way, I feel close to Hélène Cixous, and her work, which is such a refreshing and suggestive blend of the poetic and the political. For myself, the activities of writing, of researching, of theorizing particular viewpoints is really not so far from making creative projects, or developing material objects or installations. I feel they are both about the imagination, about creating situations in relation to an audience, about investigating where we are and where we have come from, and about creating critical encounters.
Elena Biserna: And you are not the only one: in the field of so-called “sound art”, most of the historical or theoretical researches which have been recently published are written by artists or artist-theorists, rather than by art theorists and historians(think of Sound Art di Alan Licht (5), for example, or recently In the Blink of an Ear di Seth Kim-Cohen (6)and Listening To the Sound and Noise di Salomè Voegelin (7)). What reasons do you think are behind this so-called “anomaly”?
Brandon LaBelle: That is an interesting observation. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that sound art has a very limited established discursive foundation, and that maybe those working artistically with sound have a deeper sense of what is at stake in the practice of those also working in the field, and its various historical referents, more so than others who are more academically involved. Artists in a sense may have greater insight at this point into this rather contemporary practice.
Elena Biserna: Coming back to Acoustic Territories, you use some sound figures as a filter in order to analyze the different acoustic territories of the urban environment: echo, vibration, rhythm, feedback and so on. Could you talk about these figures and about their relationship between these real and imaginary places?
Brandon LaBelle: These sound figures in a way function to open up my listening, and my writing, to engage a greater perspective: to give my analysis a specific vocabulary through which I may also discover in more detail how sounds are occuring within a particular site, or geography. It is my feeling that these sound figures function as micro-epistemologies, each giving way to specific perspectives onto the world, whether in the differentiating break of the echo or the challenges found at the heart of silence: the use of this sonic vocabulary definitely influences and infects my writing with something closer to sound.
This I found very productive in writing Acoustic Territories: that in recognizing for instance the underground as both a physical and imaginary place that often gains its energy or suggestiveness from experiences of echo really opened my examination: to in a sense bring my writing more into a place of listening, while retaining a deep sense for cultural analysis. The echo then immediately also becomes about acts of transgression, of doubling, of a sort of collective unconscious image related to voices in the dark often found in the underground, in the subterranean and in organizations of resistance.
Elena Biserna:You mentioned silence it seems to me that one of the most interesting turnover that you propose is related just to the interplay between silence and noise, an issue at the core of the numerous debates about noise pollution politics: on one hand, you interpret noise in a positive way, as a means to establish a contact with the other (in a social acceptation) (8); on the other hand, you underline how silence is also linked to instances of control and coercion
Brandon LaBelle: It has been important to problematize certain assumptions around silence and noise, to try and unpack a more dynamic complexity to these concepts, and to try and suspend our pre-conceived understandings of these. Silence and noise act as sorts of “book ends” to understandings of sound, operating as strong reference points for talking through our experiences of sound, and so I felt it necessary to challenge the notion that noise is always negative, and that silence also somehow deepens our listening.
By suggesting alternative views on these notions that noise is a productive social force and that silence is often also about control is a definite attempt to push our relationship to listening, and how it may operate to generate future understandings of community.
Elena Biserna: Telegraph and telephone first, then mobiles and iPods, seem to have changed the way we perceive and manage acoustic space. It would seem natural to interpret these dynamics in terms of a progressive “privatization” of auditory space (following Jonathan Sterne, for example – (9)). Your book, instead, suggests a rather different and interesting perspective. How, in your opinion, personal audio technologies have influenced and are influencing the relationships between auditory space, public space and private space? And how these dynamics enter into your work?
Brandon LaBelle: I definitely take personal audio technologies as a dynamic way in which much of contemporary culture experiences music today. How things like mobile phones and iPods have become dramatic appendages to our bodies, to the ways in which we receive information, how we carry along our own mobile connecting device. This for me is not only about the privatizing of experience, but also, and importantly, about generating new ways of listening and also sharing: the iPod for instance is also a new collective feature through which new forms of audience are being created, as well as acting to turn the consumption of music into a creative action that circulates well beyond the individual body.
Elena Biserna: Radio instead an apparently older technology seems to be one of your favorite areas of research: you have curated a series of events called Social Music for Kunstradio, you have realized Phantom Radio, a collective archive of memories linked to listening to the radio, and you edited Radio Territories, a volume released by your publishing house, Errant Bodies Press, that examines the role of radio from an aesthetic but also historical and cultural perspective. Would you like to talk about these projects and about the reasons at the base of your interest in radio?
Brandon LaBelle: Radio remains a highly interesting theme, and cultural practice. I always find that radio can be appreciated as contouring sound with a heightened sense of drama: it comes to territorialize the phenomenon of sound as a material around us. It sculpts sound with particular messages, with medial energy, with ideological intensity. It takes the body and reshapes it, throwing the voice and unfolding the unconscious. Radio is a kind of public space made up entirely of strangers: it is a social environment that is also intimately tied to fantasies of otherness, of contamination, and of alternative organization how radio can also operate undercover, secretly, as covert transmission.
I’m always amazed at radio as a special form of background especially, and the Phantom Radio project for instance explores this theme: the project is a collection of radio memories from all sorts of people, and exists as a written archive. The memories speak about important events in which particular songs are deeply connected, yet songs that mainly come from the background, from a source of broadcast that comes to occupy or condition the given moment. The archive starts to suggest that background music is extremely generative, shaping poignant moments in life through its ability to emotionally charge the environment. Radio may in the end be a conductor of emotional life, a map of an emotional geography.
Elena Biserna: In Acoustic Territories sound is considered not only as a crucial phenomenon in the everyday experience of the world, but also, interestingly, as an epistemological tool. Would you like to explain why you think that auditory knowledge could be a useful interpretative model and paradigm of the contemporary condition?
Brandon LaBelle: I’ve always been touched by sound as a connective and temporal movement, a sort of intensity that immerses us within the environment, delivers us into a form of sharing that is also full of tension and negotiation, something that is extremely intimate how it comes into the body while also being deeply public how sound also leaves me behind as an individual, it moves past me as well, to be overheard here and there. Such behavior, or condition, for me starts to resonate with how the contemporary situation is unfolding: the intensities of temporality, of being in the now, while also drawing upon so many channels of mediation, electronic sharing, that allows forms of both personal and collective expression, these aspects indicative of today’s cultural and social environment start to echo how sound functions.
We can definitely see this within developments in the arts, that move from questions of representation, of semiotics, of identity politics, which in the 80s and 90s were very much occurring on the level of “readability” to challenge or perform the codes by which identity is mounted and made legible; in contrast, today you find a deeply radical sense for “experience”, for collective work, for affect and also meaningful togetherness, which has led to a deeper sense for notions of “publicness”. These movements, of networking with others, of opening an elaborated space for involvement, to engage “the other”, might be best appreciated, as well as examined and theorized, according to an “auditory” perspective or paradigm: that auditory thinking can lend to engaging with these contemporary forms.
Elena Biserna: maybe this is the reason of the fact that the emerging landscape of Sound Studies is becoming increasingly important (at the point that I don’t even know if it is still appropriate to call it “emerging”). I think that we can see a further “acceleration” in the last years: for example, the publishing house Continuum within a few months has published three books that may fit into this macro-category. Where would you put the roots of this interest? What do you think could be the reasons behind the (re)discovery of the auditory paradigm? What are the prospects?
Brandon LaBelle: I think this can be understood again as something very tied to our contemporary experiences, that the legacies of discourse related to sociology, cultural and media studies, of art theory have opened up to a deeper sense for shifting the lines between high and low culture, to undo much of modernism’s colonial base by considering and appreciating hybridity, masquerade, otherness, and by underscoring everyday life, the terrain of global urban experience, as complex and signaling a new sense of political subjectivity based more on temporary action, open source media, micro-discourse.
Sound Studies for me is embedded within this larger sweep, and may be accelerating as you point out especially because our sensory relations to the world are increasingly itinerant, supple and full of social and complex energy, where “representation” is no longer only about markings and signs, but also about voice and dialogue. Network culture, the deep flows of immaterial and virtual life, demand more imaginative forms of understanding and engagement that Sound Studies may also come to supply.
Elena Biserna: Coming back to you: you will be back in Italy in November in the context of déjà-vu a project based in Bologna that involves two artists every year asking them to conceive and conduct a workshop for young artists and students. The workshop formula seems to be particularly related to your artistic practice… Maybe it’s a bit early, but can you tell us more about this project and about the issues in which you will involve the participants?
Brandon LaBelle: I’m only now starting to think through how to approach the project: how to find a point of contact with the city, and with people there. One thing I’ve been starting to work with is this process of distributing objects in a particular city or situation, and allowing them to be carried along, to be incorporated into the life of the place, to take on a character that also starts to collect modifications from others, that is incorporated into different functions or cultures of the city. What might happen if you made a sound and distributed this as the starting point for a larger and more collective form of exchange that would also modulate, transform and reposition that sound .
(1) Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise. Perspectives on Sound Art, Continuum, London-New York, 2006.
(2) Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories. Sound Culture and Everyday Life, Continuum, London-New York, 2010, p. XXI.
(3) Brandon LaBelle, http://www.brandonlabelle.net/public_jukebox.html.
(4) Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories. Sound Culture and Everyday Life, cit., p. X.
(5) Alan Licht, Sound Art. Beyond Music, Between Categories, Rizzoli, New York, 2007.
(6) Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear. Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, Continuum, NewYork-London, 2009.
(7) Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence. Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum, New York-London, 2010.
(8)“Noise may offer productive input into community life by specifically disrupting it. Causing disorder, noise grants the opportunity to fully experience the other, as someone completely outside my experiences”; Brandon LaBelle, Acoustic Territories. Sound Culture and Everyday Life, cit., p. 62.
(9) Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003; Sterne, nel secondo e terzo capitolo, indaga come il concetto e le possibilità di applicazione pratica di uno spazio sonoro privato siano strettamente legati agli sviluppi delle tecnologie audio. Si veda anche Jonathan Sterne, “Urban Media and the Politics of Sound Space”, in Open, n. 9, http://www.skor.nl/article-2853-en.html.