Brandon LaBelle is an artist and writer working with sounds, places, bodies, and cultural frictions. He is the author of “Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art” and co-editor of the “Surface Tension” series.

He teaches at the University of Copenhagen and is currently developing projects on “emotional geography”.

Z/ - Vibrö 4 (track 16)
Secret alphabets written between bodies – the skin is a surface a message a instrument a dialogue – working with the last letter, this Z, and transcribing its embedded definition, the one written by another for another, looping it back on itself, body onto body, letter onto letter – he wakes up in the morning and has an idea, and realizes this has been with him for many years… – have you seen the biscuits, I know we bought some yesterday? – he places a video camera toward the blackboard and connects it to a computer, using motion tracking software, the camera watches him writing and composes treats effects a series of sounds in reaction to his movements – musical / voices / codes / celebration or defeat / noise / law / stars / dreaming…
(the man discusses the cultural implications of bells) – he wishes for this other language found there on the body by the body as a reverberant sharing – she writes: ‘Z/ small sounds of dreaming, spoken from far away’

Interview with Brandon LaBelle for Oro Molido magazine (2005)

1. ”Social Music” is a work in your relationship with the music of other artists like Achim Wollscheid, Minoru Sato, Guiseppe Ielasi and Michel Henritzi. In this and other essays you always try to seek an interaction between different social aspects related to sound. In which way do you think these sounds are related to plastic and visual artists?

In general my process, or overall interests in working with sound as an artist, are influenced by my involvement with a more overt visual art’s arena, and history. This could be underscored as arriving specifically from my interest in Conceptual art, and performance-based practice as developed from the early 1970s, in which something like the “art object” is made into a critical intervention onto the scene of representation and social space. So already my belief in art stems from this understanding. This is very much how I understand working with sound – because sound for me is always about relational dynamics, between objects and spaces, between bodies and interactions, between this situation and that situation. Sound by nature is connective and disruptive, in that it always leaves behind its source while intervening into the presence of another source. In this way I find it extremely rich and dynamic as an opportunity to speak toward the specifics of contexts, while at the same time unsettling what we imagine are embedded and fixed conditions. Sound can point to, while at the same time point beyond. It can speak to questions of space, place, bodies, and information, while producing an open-ended experiment in finding answers.

2. The first thing one notices in your works is their architectural dimensions. How do you articulate that architectural aspects in relation with space and sound?

This depends really on the specific project, or context. That “architecture” has appeared in my work reflects an overall interest and concern for social relations. So, from my understanding, architecture is not really about static objects, but about relationships (like sound!) – between subjects and the material world, and how one navigates and negotiates through that world. Architecture looms as reference because for me it is about “performance”: how the built environment, as forms of design, and social relations, as bodies dealing with each other, are always intertwined in a difficult and surprising dance. But at the same time there is something extremely symbolic about architecture, about the built environment signalling an overall cultural value – that we may look towards architecture as a register of society’s current level of the “moral good”. But architecture itself is caught up in its own experimental project – where one architect may negotiate through the political and cultural channels that come to articulate their own version of the moral good, while attempting to spearhead another version of what the built environment should stand for. In general though we can recognize architecture as an imposition onto social space – whether it allows notions and experiences of “freedom” to come forward, it nonetheless, on a fundamental level, imposes its design onto the body, and subsequently, onto the movements and dynamics of how that body relates to others and experiences or embodies freedom. (This is something that architects recognize, yet few seem to approach it with humour, which to my mind may be a counter-narrative to the desire to continually ‘”improve” society through building – this is why I appreciate someone like Vito Acconci…). This is what intrigues me and impels me toward architecture, because it resonates with exactly how I understand sound: as a medium of relations. That sound above all is about conducting and generating relationships.

3. The process of transformation of the sounds obtained during the actions leads to the creation of somewhat arbitrary situations. Do you prefer that the passers by, in an aleatory fashion, are responsible for those sounds to be projected through the loudspeakers?

Yes and no. I prefer to create a situation where it may remain a question, rather than giving a situation that is clearly one or the other. So, a “passer-by” or a “participant” may be pulled into an unsettled relationship, to be put “off-balance” you might say. This though immediately means there is a definite appeal to the passer-by or the attending audience, to incorporate their presence into the work. For me that incorporation or appeal can happen on a number of levels, some that remain within the realm of thought (imagination, or work that directs attention, appeals to a poetics of thinking, acts of questioning) or enters into an overt physical space (action, or work that physically asks others for input, for movement). I cannot conceive of my work outside the overarching imperative of speaking with another.

4. How does the audience react to the sounds? Or, how do you see the social impact of the sounds and images in relation to the conveyed message?

I think at times, and maybe this comes from a current obsession and belief in ‘”interaction” being based on witnessing an actual physical response on the part of the participant or public, in contrast, I still linger over the idea that the effects of a work can exist on the level of the imagination – of how a work effects or speaks to another’s thinking, as a kind of appeal to the imagination. This for me can function very well as a form of social impact. So, of course the work is interested in the sounds having an effect, but such effect for me is more judged according to what it leads a listener to think about, or to consider, whether that’s something like architecture or social meaning. In this way, the idea of a message is really built into the work as a conversation, and that conversation is both physically present, in the meeting of the physical work and the physical decision on the part of a public, as well as an exchange of the senses, between the works sensual information, as in the sound, and the incorporation of this sound into a listener’s cognitive world.

5. Starting from the transformation of an object, you create a piece of sound in which this sound of the object is conditioned by the reverberation of the space. In this process, contact microphones and amplifiers are the devices which capture the sound sources before their distribution through the loudspeakers. Sometimes a feedback takes place, or a residual particle, in which new sounds are generated from others already present. There is a transformation of the sound sources, as a result of the residual recycling of different textures of sound. How do you carry out this process of parasitical effect which joins a kind of movement fluctuating through space?

Such movements in a way can take place in various ways, from setting up a feedback situation (which could be said to operate through acoustic reverberation), or through the appropriation of found materials (which is possibly more related to investigating the traces of past events), or re-presenting the space back to itself in the form of field recording (which is more a kind of sampling of space), or through an interactive process (which is about asking for input). I guess I travel across all these aspects, in varying ways, with the idea of paying attention to context: context being that which is always already there, and which absolutely plays a part in determining how we understand location, and the informational structures that effect relationships, exchanges, and also how we might imagine potentials. To engage with context, really, on some level, is to become a kind of thief, or smuggler: one has to be slightly under-cover, a shadow to the space of concern and what it supplies and what it keeps secret. To be a shadow is to remain slightly mysterious, while absolutely interfering with what’s there. But like all shadows, they lend to fully appreciating the object of which it is bound – we can only fully appreciate an object as three-dimensional through the subtle and profound operations of its shadow.

6. In works like “Automatic Radio” or “Social Music”, radio becomes a source in order to narrate indeterminate stories. What is your definition of radio art?

For me radio is absolutely about psychic flows, and this is something that has a long history – what Marinetti called the “wireless imagination”, and what more recently Allen Weiss calls “phantasmic radio”. I understand this recurring theme of the imagination and the phantasmic as being based on the idea that radio is actually just as much about the internal as the external. Radio is not so much out there, in space, but in here, operating inside the head. Radio then comes to represent, through an active embodiment, the split modern subject: radio as schizophrenic machine. Schizophrenic because the voice that speaks through radio, that really arrives because of radio, is both here, and everywhere; it is on the threshold between the living and the dead, a ghost in the machine transmitted into the cosmos, to return in the form of white noise, static from the stars. So radio is about the conduction and transmutation of bodies and voices; and in turn, it is intensely about territory, public space, and the tensions and struggles of capital (corporate radio, military control of the radio spectrum, and the community-building happening through local broadcast): radio as an early form of media network (McLuhan’s electronic revolution). To move into radio art is to move into performing radio’s potential as physical and spatial, as well as psychic and ghostly.

7. Stories for radio in which text manifests itself through voice, reminiscent of phonetic poetry, futurism, lettrism, dada, fluxus, or other trends which seek the freedom of language, disforming meaning. How do you understand conceptual arts?

As a critical engagement with ideology. Language of course is the primary arena through which ideological tensions manifest themselves, in movements through and against notions of freedom—of what may lie outside—and the recognition that such freedoms are always in dialogue with the impossible. To speak another language, to speak in different tongues, is to sculpt out a space within language for speaking the unspeakable.

8. This way of working is present in most of your installations. I am referring to “Learning from seedbed”, where you create a work which recalls “Seedbed”, carried out by Vito Acconci in New York (1972), in which the artist remained invisible under a ramp, while masturbating and his shouts and moans were projected through loudspeakers placed at the rear part. The audience was perplexed without knowing where the sounds come from exactly. However, in your version, the audience itself perceives how the sounds produced by those present in the installation are captured by contact microphones, altered and modified in real time. Besides, the audience can enter the lower part of the ramp, thus becoming the absolute protagonists of everything taking place there. Acconci, creating this installations, stated how each individual radiated a field of energy including every possible interaction with other people or objects in a given space. How do you assume real and spiritual time in space? How do you view human presence in the space of the installation?

The idea was to consider Acconci’s work as a performance on a number of levels that had to do with bodies and their relations, as well as space and the built (here, I’m thinking about the ramp that was built into the gallery). While Acconci remains on the level of the individual relation – one might say, the “one to one” sexual mingling which he fantasizes… and which is further amplified in him remaining the “masturbator” (ultimate form of singularity) – I wanted to push his work, and generally what it teaches me, into another form, which was overtly more about the group dynamic. So, the ramp here, which for Acconci generates sexual fantasy, for me, generates public play: human presence here is about working together, in a discovery of what the alteration of the space opens up – the opportunity to occupy a different space, a space which really is only made apparent when there is a body there. I imagined that masturbation here would be replaced with public involvement.

9. All your works bear a certain relation as regards structure and content. These transmit a poetic quality full of emotions and sensations which immerse the listener in a deep perception where the senses are put to the test. They are pieces with a powerful dramatic content. Do you want to make the listener a part of it, so that he/she searches around him/her rescuing every positive attitude that makes him/her advance and not to stop in the process of self-discovery?

Well, I guess I hope the work may generate an active participation in the listener, in so far as a listener may consider sound as a lens onto the world. Sound here is conceived as a real generative force, in that it moves bodies, in the form of dynamic volume, intense listening, complex auditory space, and also it engenders forms of relating, from body to body, from voice to voice, from inside to outside. Sound is both medium and its message, in that sound is the basic ingredient of the artwork, while at the same time it on some level is also what it speaks about: so, it may create a sound world which will in the end underscore sound as a potential route toward constituting the self and its place in the world.

10.Concrete sounds are used to develop images which are prone to words. Sound pictures and visual poetry. Two elements which are metaphorically compatible. How do you conceive images and sounds?

I don’t think it’s really possible to pursue a purity of sound, devoid of the visual, or the visual cleansed of any noise. For myself, I see them as operating hand in hand, lending support by either contrasting or complementing each other. Sound can problematize the visual, or graphic information, by supplying an excess—by adding too much; just as visual images can pin down sound, supplying the referent to what one hears. Recently I’ve been speaking to a friend about narrative, and how narrative can lend to working with sound, for both could be said to engage in a temporal or time-based progression. Maybe the visual can also participate in this narrative development, by adding an element of the face, that is, by giving a face to what one hears: maybe an image can give us something to hold on to, whereas sound is always leaving behind the source, the object, the body.

11. In this computer age we are living, do you not think that action (conduct or behaviour) which is intentional and the approach to oneself is still the only possible way for overcoming human suffering?

Well, probably more than ever it is a question of behaviour and undertaking self-conscious acts of care, welcome, and attendance—as the computer age is marked by an unavoidable presence of the stranger, the foreigner, the one that is always uninvited. So, it’s really no longer feasible to retain a moral dimension to these terms, that is being a stranger is no longer a moral violation onto the status quo, but rather an inevitable intrusion onto the field of the local. To act it seems is to shift at first the very moral underpinning of terms, then to put into practice forms of social welcome.




riots marching bands public speeches street sellers church bells traffic shouts overheard music food vendors street musicians secret dances whispers foghorns cycles buses street fights demonstrations singing in the rain flea markets block parties radio broadcasts public ranting daydreams pedestrian meetings neon lights alarms signals traffic lights cross walks construction demolitions street cleaning graffiti midnight phone calls thieves in the night dogs water pipes rowdy kids fountains helicopters waterfront picnics bass systems jugglers bumping into strangers talking advertisements public art outdoor cafés coffee on benches circuses coming to town audible interventions footsteps plastic bags in trees water clogs ducks in the park corner football games broken bottles laughter handmade wagons cobblestones under the feet or in the air sleeping on benches dropped keys puddle splashes eavesdropping imagined silence tapping the knees


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