Brandon LaBelle’s name is linked with the contextualization - theorization of the emerged art form of sound art, apart from others. To do so he is expanding on the fields of philosophy, anthropology, sociology but mainly architecture and urbanism. Apart from his installations, his books and writings are a great source of information on subjects that are not widely explored that is dealing with sound and its relationship with space, culture, body and language, within a range of geographical and cultural territories. Our talk with Brandon LaBelle focuses on architecture as a perception of spacial awareness and its relationship with sonic realities, filtered through his work and his personal experience.
Short audio part from our interview with Brandon LaBelle.
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Nota Tsekoura We decode influences of different philosophers in your work. Going back to the emergence of your interest to deal with sound and space, what came first the reading or the interest on these elements?
Brandon LaBelle I have always felt like there was a very strong integration of those things. I often find however that I never want to make such a strict distinction between a theoretical or textual engagement versus a sensual or experiential version of it. I tend to think that these things are much more integrated than we imagine. My interest in working in this area was very much about how sound can make this connection stronger, perhaps through that sort of mind - body divide, or the idea of intellectual engagement leading to something much more bodily. What is really wonderful and interesting about sound, is the meeting point between those two things to the extent, where that distinction is not so clear. I also think, that it has immediately allowed me to elaborate my practice in a more dynamic way, both in terms of writing as well as in different artistic projects.
NT Thinking on space and time, thus architecture and sound, is there a starting point analogy that you use to build up your installation projects?
BLB Yes, of course a lot of the projects are developed out of what you might say responds to particular contexts, so I am interested in trying to relate them to a given situation or try to consider what I could do within a particular environment or within a particular institution and for a particular audience. I would say that my work is very responsive in that way. It tries to be sensitive to a particular situation, however I sometimes love the idea of being totally disruptive. You can respond with different strategies to create different types of interaction and intervention and even use supplements to a particular space or experience. So I think, my work really develops out of that notion, which is then using sound as a medium to develop itself, in order to elaborate those types of experiences and interventions.
Mirto Xenaki Your audience is often participating in your projects. Do the projects sometimes evolve from this interaction?
BLB Sometimes it is all about creating a framework for others to participate. There are times that I prefer the framework to not be over-determined. In order for someone to enter, there needs to be a kind of space to express their own imagination, for their own input. Sometimes it is more important to be rather generic and create a frame or stage for others to clearly define their work on their own terms. This is another strategy that I am interested in and I always like to explore.
NT Have you witnessed any architectural-generated sabotage towards the possibilities of sound expression of its own space?
BLB I am always looking for it and I am always very interested in that kind of architectural point of view. What people might be exploring, proposing or researching. Maybe you know more about it than I do. Suddenly there is a very strong activity in the architectural field that relates to the question of sound. I am always very interested to learn from that and engage with that community.
Maybe in a way that’s the wrong question because everything that I have discovered is only in the level of concept, which is interesting too, so it makes me question myself whether it has any practical ability beyond any acoustical work.
I came upon the work of Joel Sandels, he is an architect in New York. He made a project called The Mix House, which exists strictly as a proposal. I thought it was an interesting project. He was applying a microphone and speaker systems to a house, a kind of domestic setting, using it to expand the perspectives of the house towards its environment. So the house immediately became a listening device, a sound house. It may be nothing too radical about it but I appreciated the material that I saw and thought it was something worth sharing.
NT Can you recall any really bad, almost “traumatizing”, experience from architecture?
BLB Yes, of course. I think it doesn’t necessarily pertain to any particular building, but has more to do with the spatial experience and its properties of being a very influential operation; from our sensing subjectivities to questioning our social life and politics. Of course I think the issue of spatial experience is something that I definitely carry around with me and I am always intrigued to question and materialize in my own work. So in terms of that traumatizing architectural experience, for me they come out of very ordinary experiences and everyday events. It might be more pertaining to confrontations like being in a particular place or in a particular city, which brings us back to psychogeorgaphy making it difficult to identify the source of that trauma in relation to space. We could therefore interpret it as an atmosphere or as a manifestation that surrounds us, but without knowing where it exactly comes from. I have always thought of architecture less in terms of an object and more in terms of the experience it generates, or how it is put in larger spatial conditions.
NT In your book "Site-Specific Sound" you state the question: Does Architecture exist without a body? How defined should the postmodern body be by it's subject in its relationship with architecture & urban space?
BLB I think you already made a point towards this answer. However, I will go back and see it from a sonic perspective. The body is something that we cannot contain within a singularity, so for me this already suggests an expanded body, a body that becomes a subject and at the same time a medium. I like the way the body exists for itself but at the same time how it becomes connective and multiplies itself. Following that, its relationship to architecture is more like a kind of network. Once again it is more of a spatial question since for me architecture is notalways the right word, at least from my own viewpoint.
NT You refer to architecture as a stable medium and to the body as a mobile force. Considering the possibilities of responsive architecture, in what direction could you see the relationship between physical space and the body be driven?
BLB Lately, I've been interested in the idea of architecture and its relationship to energy. I think there is some wonderful work that has been done around the topic of architecture being less stable than we imagine. If we imagine all the particular energies that are assigned not only into the production of space but its maintenance as well, whether that has to do with thermoenergy or social energy, we might say that architecture is less about the form and more about its animation. It makes me think of works during the 60's about mobile and wearable architecture. So perhaps we should just carry it around until it becomes a prosthesis to the body. However, I also like the idea of getting away from the body. Particularly getting away from the body as the central defining object following the notion of energy and animation. It is important to leave the human body behind and think more about the things and objects that surround it, as if participating within that spatial environment. The energetic model therefore suggests that what we understand as inorganic, inanimate materiality, is also full of animation. It is full of agents that need not be the human body, but rather a series of relationships between materiality.
NT From your everyday urban activities, which is the most exciting for you? Is there an urban activity that you like but you are not able to do due to time limitations?
BLB I would like to dance more! What I like about the city is the fact that it surprises me a lot. It is great to be a body within a city that is surprised by what may come. Of course such things can be of no importance at all, so I am also attracted to the ordinary and the extraordinary.
NT Is provoking "synesthesia" one of your goals? How do you relate the senses in your projects and what kind of offspring do you expect from their interaction?
BLB I always feel very connected to every particular project. At the moment, I am working on a project that will be hosted in a house where the English poet William Auden used to leave during his last years of his life just outside Vienna. He is actually buried in this small town and his house has now become a small museum. They want to make an exhibition focusing on voice; voice as a medium, as a material. So at the moment I am focusing on how to respond to the house and of course the voice. I am thinking of building some kind of open space within the surrounding landscape. Maybe a shed to use as a research center on voice and poetry. I am thinking about the poetic as a term that doesn't always have to be about language but it can also be about relationships. Edouard Glissant , a Caribbean author and a great influence of mine, wrote the book The Poetics of Relation . He is talking about the poetics of relations as a way of dealing with difference, as a way of understanding the other that is not necessarily about antagonism, but rather about a poetic moment. The poetic is exactly that moment of experiencing the different. For him, it is some kind of model, a kind of a social structure that can also be transnational, that doesn't need to be about stable communities, but about migrating. I find it really interesting to try and bring all these ideas into the shed. Since it is a very small town, I imagine the audience will be quite local, so it is also about trying to relate all that to being in Austria, to being in a small town and to being at this house, in this particular neighborhood. I find it really challenging to know what people will take from that. I always feel that all I can really do is guess what will happen and try to project a positive outcome. But on the other hand, I find that it is also nice to be surprised as if you were in the city. At such times I am almost certain that something good will happen. Something that can also be connected to particular memories or to particular actions.
MX How often do you use other people's stories or sensational approaches as an inspiration for your projects? Could you give us some insides on the external story that influenced you the most and in which part of your work?
BLB I feel that in the last few years, some of the stories have become much more important and present in my work with a certain kind of relationship to voice and text. So I have been doing a lot of script-writing lately, that is writing text and then either get it read or record it and then integrate it into a project. I was really touched by a particular story that came out of the recent conflicts in Libya. I read a story about a fighter pilot that crashed in a farm in Libya. The injured pilot came across a group of farmers who offered help. I appreciated this story as a moment, when the pilot and the farmers confronted each other. I used this story for a recent project that was presented last month in Berlin at the Nordic embassy. I placed it within a conference room as an imaginary meeting between the farmer and the pilot. You can see that I used a story to then write another story, so it became a dialogue between the pilot and the farmer. It is all about being motivated or inspired by one story to then imagine how it can be used for another type of interaction or another imaginary meeting.
NT What is you favorite location on the globe and how often do you visit? How important is the sonic environment for your choice?
BLB I don't have a favorite city, I like every city. And I am absolutely obsessed with sound as a topic but sound is also something that I am not so pure about. Of course I am interested in the sound of the city and how this controls our experiences and of course how sound is integrated into everything, into all our senses and experiences. I am not a purist in that way and I don't exclusively focus on that. But I am always into discovering new things, so now I am trying to go to the Caribbean, to Jamaica and Kingston and learn more about them. I strictly see it as an impulse...
MX Is there a story, a song or a video that you like to hear or read again and again?It is interesting how something you hear becomes a sensation that is actually triggered by different types of sound... How emotional life could be connected to these sounds, these songs or voices. For instance I have an old memory of hearing the wind and the trees. I know that it was when I was young, in the backyard of my house, sitting under two oak trees. But it feels like that sound was not only on those trees. So I cannot really define it so directly, but I would say it is more a vocabulary together with a sensation that we may carry with us.