The following interview was conducted with artist/writer Brandon LaBelle prior to the launch of his new publication Site of Sound Volume Two (Errant Bodies 2011). Special thanks to Mark and Lindsay at IMT Gallery London for hosting the conversation which took place on the 25th of November 2011.
ER. When did your interest in sound begin?
BL. I started playing drums when I was thirteen; this was in LA during the early eighties so west coast punk was a very strong influence at the time, and playing music became an important social experience, a way to break away from the family and school. I continued with it, drumming within a rock music format and playing in bands throughout high school. I went to art school when I was eighteen and at that time I was painting and making visual work, and I started to imagine different possibilities for myself, of being an artist.
ER. Were these two activities separate?
BL. I think for myself these were always separate activities. I was in a band touring, playing clubs and putting out records, and this put me into a very specific cultural context, related to rock music and that social scene. Studying art and painting and also moving into sculpture and three-dimensional work, all this occupied another cultural space which put me inside a totally different discourse and way of thinking about creative practice than with the music. At some point though I began working with the drum kit as more of a sounding device, attaching contact mics to the kit, starting to incorporate field recordings and other recordings I had been making at home. Through doing this I realised that I no longer needed the drum kit, I could attach the contact mic to anything, different objects, surfaces, etc. I started this in a very private way, to experiment outside of the band and art college, messing with contact mics, building objects and building collages with a Tascam 4-track recorder. I think this activity really introduced me to the idea that sound could be a material; that you could manipulate and work with it, that it was all around me and it was something I could use creatively. It was an extremely important process, and moment, to feel that sound was the right direction for me. From then on it wasn’t hard to see this work in relationship to sculpture and being an artist, and so sound became a focus which could also occupy a space between music and visual arts practice.
ER. It’s interesting to hear that you came to it through the tactile/material nature of sound. When thinking of your writing and artistic works now, for me at least, your practice leaks into so many varied socio-political territories.
BL. Yes, but what I would add is that even though there was a strong feeling of materiality, using a contact mic and tape recordings also immediately put me into a relationship with my surroundings, so whereas the drum kit confined me to the idea of the instrument, and the space of the rock club, the contact mic and field recorder were about where I was in the world; what materials are around me, where am I located, how do I feel in being here. So I think actually it was not solely about materiality but material contextualised within a social environment. I think that was what excited me about sound as an artistic practice, that it wasn’t only about me alone in the studio but it was me investigating where I was in a very exploratory fashion. And I always think this is the nature of sound – it brings us into contact with things.
ER. During this time were you writing as well?
BL. Yes absolutely. I like to think of my writing as an ongoing gesture that runs through everything. It’s a primary activity, something I always go to and rely on. I don’t know why, but language is extremely important for me – or actually, it’s more about conceptual thinking. This for me is really the heart of the imagination – to be able to think something, to give it a phrase, is already the beginning of change. I was always writing poetry as a teenager, keeping journals, existential reflections on life, erotic poems and angst-ridden rants. I think this also became an extremely private thing, which maybe I needed growing up and as a young adult, to have something away from others, a secret life. A space to talk with myself. So definitely, writing is always there.
ER. So this was at a time during the early nineties and in that time you set up your publishing press Errant Bodies?
BL. Yes, Errant Bodies began as a literary journal that I started as a student while at art school. I think the first issue was 1992. This was a photocopied pamphlet of writing by other students. But actually it started before, when I was an exchange student in London, in 91. I studied at Westfield College and my friends and I decided to make a publication. We called it Bedbug and we did two issues. It was also a photocopied pamphlet containing poems and stories from students. I guess I’ve always had this interest in creating contexts for others, to organize and make space for exchange, for creative sharing. But Errant Bodies was a literary journal until 1995 or 1997, but it really gained momentum by 1995. I felt it was a concrete project that I wanted to build on and connect with outside the college and being a student. It occupied a space between word and image, literary poetics and visual art, and as my own focus towards sound grew the press also drifted towards sound as a subject.
BL. Of course there is a way in which the two are very connected for me and they are part of a single creative project and at the same time there are also distinctions. Writing is a very different kind of practice than being an artist I feel. It’s extremely solitary whereas I always feel my artwork brings me into contact with others. But actually that has changed a great deal, and I wouldn’t say that’s always the case. But it’s certainly a different material process. They do remain close together though and at the moment I’m working on developing more creative texts, fictions, narratives, so I am drifting into a period of bringing the writing even closer to the artistic work and experimenting with language, voice and kinds of scripts. But yeah, for sure, what happens mostly is that the distinctions come from particular public contexts. For example, I am often invited into an academic frame as a writer and theorist, so in that case I feel I need to be a little more clearly defined in terms of engaging particular content, whereas as an artist I think there is something very free about it, very open and also, eccentric, but I like this sort of mix – I find it very generative.
ER. Was this blend apparent during your time at art school in LA? Now the notion of ‘practice as research’ is a very commonplace activity within artistic/academic institutions?
BL. This was not a topic at all when I was at art school; in fact the whole notion of Errant Bodies was actually about embracing the idea of drifting away from any particular discipline and being contaminated, creating a hybrid platform. The idea was to stimulate a cross over, to stimulate relations between theory and practice. Dick Hebdige was a lecturer at my art school where he also started a writing programme in the mid-90s. I worked with him a lot, he was very inspirational for me and he was really supportive of this idea of cross over and contamination that I was interested in, which is what I was also doing with sound at the time, approaching sound as a relational project, something messy and leaky – Errant Bodies was definitely a cultural studies project in that sense and it has developed a lot since. I think overall I still maintain a sense of a cultural studies approach in terms of looking towards marginal culture and supporting the outside.
ER. Moving onto the two texts you have written in recent years, Acoustic Territories (2010) and Background Noise (2006). I would like to begin with your latest book Acoustic Territories; it begins with an anecdotal story of a father and son on a journey. The book itself is very much anecdotal/personal throughout as opposed to Background Noise which serves as more of an overview. Was there a conscious decision to move from one style to the other?
BL. It wasn’t such a conscious decision to adopt a more subjective voice or to change the voice between the two publications. I think it grew quite naturally and certainly it shifts simply due to Background Noise having been developed in the frame of my PhD while I worked on Acoustic Territories as a post-doctoral project. In a way I was much freer with Acoustic Territories, as well as more exploratory maybe, to also introduce a more personal, subjective voice at times, or to allow different voices in. With Acoustic Territories I definitely wanted to expand the frame of my research as well as deepen what I feel is sound’s associative reach, to find a related methodology.
ER. There seems to be an acceptance of the ‘I’ growing into academic discourse, particularly within sound studies. At the time of Acoustic Territories being published by Continuum there was, around a similar time, David Toop’s (Sinister Resonance) and Salomé Voegelin’s (Listening to Noise and Silence) publications on sound and listening. Both have a strong, subjective voice. Do you have an opinion on why this trend or acceptance of the subjective is merging into sound arts discourse?
BL. What I pick up from Salomé’s book is an intense interest in phenomenology and the experiential, so the subjective seems to be coming from this interest. Whereas I feel less strictly connected to the phenomenological but more to what I feel is the social or cultural territories which sound participates in. Though of course I wouldn’t make such a hard distinction or line between these two aspects. Maybe this idea of the personal participates or is challenged more within this social frame, which is to say, myself as a social being and how I’m negotiating this complexity around me, and using experience from that perspective. So for myself I don’t insist that it’s a personal voice, that the subjective carries a particular authority, but I certainly give myself the liberty to incorporate this.
ER. As I read Acoustic Territories certain words jumped out of the text quite consistently, words such as ‘weave’ and ‘transgress’. Do you feel you are contributing towards an expanding vocabulary in how we talk about sound and the words which are used?
BL. Absolutely there is a feeling that sound and auditory studies is an emergent discourse and field of practice, and so one of the questions that comes up is how do we talk about it? Is it important to talk about it? How do we share and exchange ideas about that? I think vocabulary is certainly a thread within the various works that have come out in the last five years or so, and for me maybe generally speaking, the idea of the ‘territorial’ in Acoustic Territories was also partly a notion of vocabulary or a framing device to talk through sound in everyday life, how we experience it or how it locates us. I was interested to explore sound as social material, and how it presses in on us but also allows us to press back – forms of social practice in a way. Sound is part of how social life gets territorialized as well as deterritorialised, so I try to research this particular codification, this acoustic politics.
ER. I am intrigued by the structure of Acoustic Territories. The way the chapters move from underground to sky. Was that a Eureka moment or something that just evolved?
BL. It definitely evolved. It does echo with Background Noise somewhat, in that I start at what I think of as a point and then move into architecture, and then into other larger networks and built environments, to finally end up with the sky. I felt like I was echoing a similar structure, as I definitely wanted to try and get at acoustic territories within the urban environment. The idea of ‘strata’ came about from moving from one particular location to the other – location itself became a structuring device, and what I think of as ‘itinerary’ acted as a narrative flow.
ER. I particularly enjoyed reading the Underground chapter whilst travelling on the underground in London. It was like you were right in my ear commentating on the process of what I was listening to. What is your own writing process – do you make notes as you travel (on the underground in this instance) or is it a process of remembrance – sitting at a desk and thinking back?
BL. I’d say it’s both. I think there is definitely a moment where once you commit to a book, even if it starts with a collection of existing articles, suddenly you see the larger picture and you say ok, I see it – then you commit to it and the writing never stops. You’re writing in your head all the time, making connections with things you’re looking at, conversations with friends and so suddenly there is note taking all the time, napkins, going home quickly, getting it down. It definitely happened with Acoustic Territories. There was maybe a year when I saw the whole book and then it was this frenzy of accumulating and processing everything, and that is of course where you want to end up with a book, you want that immersion, that feeling of living with the book for months; this is how it appears to me at least.
ER. Going back to the two texts – Background Noise acts as an overview, in many ways answering a call to assimilate sound into the existing art cannons of practice/discourse. Acoustic Territories moves away from this as discussed. Do you think sound is now an accepted arts practice; its assimilation being pretty much recognised?
BL. Actually today (25.11.11) I was talking to Salomé and Atau Tanaka also, and Atau was pointing out that between 2000 and 2004 you had a series of major sound art exhibitions that happened on an international level, and he was thinking, ‘yeah what happened to that?’ And that there hasn’t been a kind of follow up to that. I mean in the last five years you might say there hasn’t been such major exhibitions, but I didn’t really think to hard about it, of course now it’s here, there and everywhere, sound as a subject, but that was an interesting thought, and I also remember this sudden institutional interest in the sound arts at that time. So maybe that was a moment also, and now we are in another moment, maybe something more pedagogical or research-based. But I can’t really say if the project of trying to capture and historicize sound art as a field is done. I think there are many people, like yourself for instance, researching, writing, and developing their own thoughts on sound art, so for sure we are in store for much more.
I was also in Braunschweig recently (art academy in Germany) talking to some students and they also have a sound arts programme and the students were like, ‘we’ve heard about Cage, we’ve listened to Alvin Lucier, but you know we’re interested in sound in relation to contemporary art in general. Why do we need to firmly define this specific area, you know, you have sound in video work, sound in theatre, sound everywhere and maybe it’s interesting to look at it like that?’ I was struck by that, and I think as sound art is brought more into focus, it’ll also expand as a larger discourse.
ER. I think that’s why your books are important because sound in art has been around for a long time, but the writing, the discursive element and the vocabulary is maybe the newer side of things? Going back to Acoustic Territories, it feels very much like a travelogue as well, the travelling you do with your work must all tie in?
BL. Yes, with that book in particular it came forward in relationship to the travelling I was doing, and certain fieldwork, and I think I also really walked away from Background Noise (if I can say that) feeling like I wasn’t done, and I wasn’t done in relationship to something outside of art, something which I needed to go out and find, which maybe brings us back to the personal. With Acoustic Territories it was a conscious effort to stay focused on sound but to move away from the art field and to ask more about all this other cultural life. About car culture, about underground culture, about urban infrastructures or about marching bands. For me that was important, so the two publications are definitely a couple, one completes the other I feel. That for me was also an important step in broadening my own thinking and how I work as an academic.
ER. In Background Noise you often write about performance art and conceptual art in relation to sound. Where does that come from?
BL. I certainly think that when I was trying to map out this historical development and how sound becomes a distinct category, it became apparent how the performative or performance art played such a huge role in this. Specifically once you start thinking about fluxus and how this takes the project of John Cage and moves it into a whole other area, which becomes, you might say, a much more artistic project and how this really opened up a space for conceptual art and cross over between experimental music and the arts. Fluxus is such an important contribution to that move. I always felt sound was an important opportunity for these artists at that time because specifically it is such a live material, it is already a performative material; so in trying to negotiate the legacy of visual arts practice as well as the legacy of certain music, two very particular practices and histories – performance became a way to negotiate those two legacies, to find another route, and sound was a means to continue, especially from Cage, but also Pollock for instance, but also to break away from aspects of representation, from the very static nature of the art object and the museum space.
ER. Jumping back a little but with the new Site of Sound (volume two) in mind, Site of Sound (volume one) was published in 1999. Can you talk a little about that text?
BL. This was an important work in collaboration with Steve Roden. We were working a lot together at that time and he was a very important friend and collaborator, and as an artist working with sound we shared a lot of activities and interests. In particular an interest in architecture, or space, but also art in general. A lot of our activities at that time were tied to field recording, again, to this relational project, of working with found objects, contact mics – what we thought of as contact music, and what Steve later would call lowercase music. And we started to connect to a larger international sub-culture, of other artists around the world working in the same way. We thought making a book would be a way to bring all this together, to also speak about this artistic work, this specific practice. Besides the book we also organized exhibitions in Los Angeles, and music festivals. We were active in trying to make a space for artists at that time who were definitely in the margins.
ER. Has volume two always been in the pipeline since volume one? Did you expect it to be such great distance in time between the two?
BL. I definitely did not imagine volume two until I think 2009, when I suddenly realised it was ten years. Maybe it came a little bit in 2008, I had actually talked to Steve about doing volume two together but at that time he was too busy, so I kind of kept it with me. In 2009 I really took it on as a project, but it took time.
BL. We wanted to stick with the idea of artists speaking for themselves. The first volume is very much focused on artist writings and documents from artists. So not a lot of essays talking about work. That was definitely something I wanted to stay with. So the book contains only roughly two essays by theorists, and also one of the things I wanted to try and get more of that I felt the first volume didn’t quite capture was more from the architect’s position. Volume two brings this forward more and in this way Claudia Martinho (co-editor) was extremely important in connecting with this culture. But generally, the second volume tries to assess current projects and practitioners working in this cross over between sound and architecture, and that actively research this relation. I always feel that the sound arts often function as spatial research, a very active experimentation with spatiality, and the book aims to capture this.
ER. Which has gone on to be a huge part of your practice.
BL. Yes, it felt important to pull that out more and of course the architects we have in there are quite experimental but I think that’s typical of the field. You know if they are interested in sound they are already a little bit to the left.
ER. Where do you see Errant Bodies as a whole now? It has a long productive life span already, do you keep it by your side or do you want to expand it further into other domains?
BL. It definitely requires a lot of time and this is becoming more difficult so I have to be much more strict or precise with what I take on in order to feel I can continue to develop, to keep the work going. What I am trying to do now with the press is to actually integrate more people. Right now I am talking to two colleagues about being editors, up until now it’s been very ‘me’ centred you know, I’ve had collaborators but nothing really happens unless I do it. Now we have an office and project space in Berlin, we are doing events there. I want it to be more project-based, much more materially textured and collaborative, discussion oriented. I’m excited about developing one particular series of books with a colleague in Berlin, Riccardo Benassi, called Doormats that will focus on the ‘contemporary political landscape’. We want it to be almost pamphlet oriented, quite fresh and of the now, kind of reporting from different situations in the world and addressing what is happening with our social structures, our ways of sharing in this transnational environment.
BL. I do tend to do everything at the same time, but there are two projects that I want to spend more time with so these will probably be exhibited in the spring or early summer of 2012. One is actually related to the talk I’ll give tonight about interference and the idea of interference as a generative moment. I’ve written a text, that now I’m starting to model spatially. I am seeing it as a kind of proposal for architecture based on this story of interference. Right now I’m building these models and then I want to use those for installation structures and will also include sound works that are related to these structures. So it starts with a personal story, about a moment of interference, of overhearing strangers, and then you might say it becomes abstracted as a form, but then I want it to be very suggestive for a particular space or spatial imagination based on interference. So, the idea is to use this moment of interference as a suggestion for a new form of domestic space, a new encounter.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
BL. For sure I think it becomes a position for investigating the conditions of sound, so as an artistic project how do you explore what it means to listen. I would say this is probably a primary theme that I would imagine sound art dealing with. But what I think is important is that in that model it doesn’t have to be a sound, it’s about sound. So for instance Steve Roden may make a painting that has everything to do with listening. And I think that’s really key for me to distinguish sound practice from music, music is a sound production but it doesn’t necessarily ask us to think about sound, it can of course but I think generally it doesn’t strive for that. So I think Sound Art for me starts to ask those questions.
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Brandon LaBelle is an artist, writer and theorist. His artistic work has been presented in numerous galleries and spaces’ throughout the globe and explores questions of social life and cultural narrative, using sound, performance and sited constructions. He is an active theorist and lecturer and is also the author of Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (Continuum, 2010) and Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (Continuum, 2006). Through Errant Bodies Press he has co-edited the anthologies Site of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear Volumes 1 & 2 (1999, 2011), Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language (2001), Surface Tension: Problematics of Site (2003) and Radio Territories (2007), along with a series of monographs (Critical Ear series) on sound and media artists.