The Acoustic as a Pathway Towards Solidarity
Artist and theorist Brandon LaBelle talks about the implications of his acoustic perspective for the understanding of politics, identity, community, aesthetics and ecology.
Brandon Labelle is a multidisciplinary artist and theorist working in the field of sound, sound art, voice, listening and acoustics in terms of their social and political significance. He is the author of numerous studies, such as Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (2018), Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006/2015), Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (2010), as well as the editor of several volumes on sound and politics. LaBelle's theoretical work draws on Hanna Arendt's and Jacques Rancière's writing, whose theses on the intersection of aesthetics and politics he approaches from an "acoustic" perspective. LaBelle visited Zagreb as part of the Social Acoustics / Communities in Movement project, organized in collaboration with the Multimedia Institute, as well as numerous other organizations, institutions and individuals. From March 11 to 13, the first Impossible School – a series of lectures and workshops related to LaBelle's work – was held in Zagreb. We had the opportunity to talk to LaBelle about his acoustic perspective and its implications for the understanding of politics, identity, community, aesthetics and ecology.
KP: Could you give us a short introduction to the project you are currently collaborating on with the Multimedia Institute, as well as its key concepts?
The project is called Social Acoustics and it's primarily a research project, so the notion of social acoustics will function as a broad framework over the next three or four years, during which a number of partners and participating artists and researchers will join together in different contexts, cities and institutions and develop lines of inquiry. Of course, social acoustics in a quite broad sense speaks about sound, listening and social life and how those things enable and impact how we understand community, what community can be and how we might imagine it, particularly in relation to contemporary reality. Community for me is very much connected to ideas about world-making activity and types of resistance to certain conservative and neoliberal powers. So it will also lead to ideas about agency and collectivity.
KP: In your work on acoustics you draw on Hannah Arendt, her notion of the "space of appearance", and on Rancière's work and his "division of the sensible". The way these are grounded and understood is largely shaped by the rhetoric of the visual and the pictorial – what do we gain from approaching them from the perspective (again a visual concept!) of sound, listening and acoustics?
One of the aims or the things I was following a bit more and trying to argue for is exactly this point around acoustics. In a way I am interested in shifting the discussion from sound as something that we hear, towards acoustics, in order to start thinking more about questions of orientation, questions of alertness or attention, about ideas of balance and social composition. Acoustics for me emerged as a kind of a framework to give some of these ideas traction and also to re-think what listening is. Listening is often spoken about and used in quite a variety of ways, to also lead to other fields and experiences beyond that of sound. As we know, listening is often about attention, about giving one's attention to things, about nurturing relationships, about introspection, reflection, maybe even about a certain kind of consciousness. So I already feel like the ways in which listening is spoken about or what it refers us to really in a way invites a broader conceptualization of, for instance, what we think about as sound practices, whether within the arts or other fields. That is the direction in which I want to unfold acoustics in order to start expanding and engaging with this larger question of what is listening, what does it enable and how it might impact different types of practices. I was very struck, of course, by Rancière's work and I have gained a lot from engaging with it and this idea of the distribution of the sensible and understanding it, of course, as a social and political question. So I thought it quite useful to just draw upon that; maybe it's even a little bit of a shortcut to start thinking about acoustics as the distribution of the heard, that immediately positions acoustics as a political question and embeds it within a question about power and representation and similar things. Your question is really nice because it does maybe also ask for certain steps beyond that – how we might also extend away from Rancière's idea or even complicate it, if the acoustic actually complicates this idea of the distribution of the sensible. That's definitely something I try to explore in the book Sonic Agency when I start speaking about Hannah Arendt and the question of the "space of appearance" as the space of the political, and what happens when we follow sound, listening and the acoustic – how does the space of appearance correspond or relate to acoustic space and what happens if we focus on acoustic space as a political space, what kinds of politics emerge there.
In Sonic Agency I follow that through four acoustic figures of the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant and the weak. These become types of politics in a way and they are all based upon understanding sound as an ontology and asking what kinds of qualities does sound embody or express. Invisibility for me was a very interesting and important quality to highlight. Within an acoustic paradigm, sound is an invisible material. If we take that seriously, if we speak about social and political life and about agency and how acoustics may enable types of politics and agency, what might invisibility lead to? Of course, within Hannah Arendt's construct of the space of appearance, but also generally speaking, we have this really strong notion that to make visible is key to engaging with political struggles. Making visible is a very primary step. So I wanted to think around that, to think – well, maybe acoustic space and the acoustic paradigm, sound and listening as an invisible material also open up another opportunity and complicate this notion of appearance being kind of equivalent to political agency. I follow that and try in a way to understand what kinds of politics does that lead us to. So drawing upon Levinas' work on the face, and this moment of encounter with the Other as a sort of face-to-face moment, I came to an idea about what I call an "ethics beyond a face". I was wondering what happens when we are listening to each other, and whether this demands another kind of ethics. Ethics beyond a face for me really started to point in this acoustic direction to suggest other ways of relating.
KP: Some of this reminds me of an episode of a popular Yugoslav cartoon Professor Balthasar in which a young man named Martin has a big problem: he is literally invisible to his fellow citizens of Balthasargrad. When he leaves town on the instructions of the wise Professor, a strange thing happens – all the people who never noticed him now start to notice his absence. Finally, the townsfolk erect a monument commemorating the Invisible citizen to mark his importance for the community. Last year Behzad Khosravi Noori, an Iranian artist based in Sweden, did an exhibition in Stockholm, Malmö and Timisoara that focused precisely on this episode and the notion of the Invisible citizen, raising questions about political agency and participation. Could you expand a bit more on this relation between invisibility, sound and their political implication?
There is of course this moment in which absence can become generative and become a driving force. One of the questions could be whether we make visible that which is invisible – should we mark invisibility, as with this monument, or do we need to suspend that act and occupy invisibility or engage it on its own terms? Of course, this is a conceptualization that is challenging, but I am interested to follow that and see where it might go. Coming back to the ideas of practice – what kind of invisible practices might be found by staying within this framework? Of course, we have a whole history of underground cultures and secret societies, masked criminals, in which invisibility is a practice. There is an interesting cultural field there to guide us into invisibility.
One of the things that I talk about in the chapter is the acousmatic. As Mladen Dolar reminds us, the voice is a fundamentally acousmatic phenomenon. Maybe in fact we are already very close to invisibility with our voices in terms of there being a kind of complex, paradoxical feeling of disembodiment that happens with the voice. Again, my voice is me, but at the same time it's leaving me behind. So there's this gap, and this gap, like the one between the signifier and the signified, is exactly where Judith Butler says we find agency. So I think we are closer to invisibility than we think, and this idea of the gap is something that we're performing all the time. The voice and the notion of the acoustic is very connected to that in a strong, palpable way. So, maybe we are all already invisible. (laughs)
KP: Liberal rhetoric and politics, especially in this time of the refugee and migrant crisis, are leaning on this patronizing notion of "giving voice" to another, usually understood and applied in a sense that individualizes and decontextualizes the issues these "voiceless" people face. How would you understand this notion in the context of your theory, how could a voice be given in a politically productive, emancipatory way?
One of the things I was working with lately is listening as a form of activism, going back to Hannah Arendt and the space of appearance, the political space and political agency, making another and their struggles visible, the necessity to allow that space to be inhabited by those without voice. Coming out of readings into the work of Kate Lacey, one of the things that I was trying to think through is her notion of freedom of listening, which she draws out in a lovely book called Listening Publics. She writes about freedom of speech, which is of course so central to our liberal democratic societies – this emphasis again on voice, speech, giving or allowing voice. She beautifully reminds us that it is one thing to speak, but who is listening? She poses the idea of freedom of listening as a right that needs to be argued for, enacted and practiced, a right that is fundamentally equal to freedom of speech. So I started to do different kinds of workshops and projects in which we explore listening as a form of activism, as a right that we enact, that we argue for, that we make present somehow in the public sphere. Working with small groups and going to different sites and collectively listening to those sites, which are often politically contested, we were really curious to see what happens if we bring our listening into them – is there an effect, an impact, does anything change? And again it's a kind of an exercise, a sort of a conceptualization that is hard to fully realize, but I feel it's really important and necessary to follow that and to try to capture and explore it because it does turn things around slightly and it does upset these equations that we have about giving voice or about making visible. In a really lovely lecture that I attended lately, Achille Mbembe, a wonderful writer based in South Africa, was talking very much about the migrant and refugee crisis and the moment at which a stranger knocks at your door. Leading us again to listening as almost a metaphor, he said that it is one thing to answer the door, and another to have the courage to listen. I really thought that was beautiful. And I think that this is an answer to this question of how we respond to and how we understand this gesture of giving voice, of letting others speak.
KP: What artistic practices come to your mind that can be related to your theoretical, social and political understanding of sound and acoustics?
In my own work I've been trying to develop projects that are very much about bringing together groups of people and developing certain processes of working together. These are a combination of discursive activities, discussions and readings alongside types of performative activities. I try to construct the whole thing as a performative process so that everything is participating in this emergence of community. The idea is this nurturing of togetherness and of what this togetherness can produce or enable. I'm really also trying to figure out methods for nurturing those kind of processes without overdetermining them, so I also try to figure myself as a participant within the larger collective. It's a challenging process which requires different kinds of methods and different types of understanding of oneself and others, so listening in those kind of situations really becomes fundamental. So I almost feel that even though in the end we may not be producing a sound in terms of a sound art object, it is an acoustic space that we're building and helping to generate. That moment in which we attend to each other and give certain kinds of attention to each other for me is very much a listening practice. In a way, sound and listening have become more of a method than a material for me. These things lead into different directions, but in the end I think they're a type of a theater. There are certain fictions that we as a group construct, inhabit and perform and then produce different performative, movement and spoken narratives. These are then captured and documented in video and sound and lead to types of installations that really are artefacts of this community that was, and maybe still can be again. That is what I am very interested in in these projects – these sort of temporary, emergent collectivities while not trying to overdetermine or prescribe what they represent. This is all of course very much defined by who is participating or the space, the city we're in, what's going on around us, and letting those things influence what we end up expressing together.
KP: The context of the climate crisis reminds us of the importance of sound in understanding and tracking the dramatic environmental changes we face. How important is the domain of bioacoustics for your work?
Of course, we have this history of acoustic ecology that gives us some tools and notions of the soundscape. One of the things I'm really excited about and interested in are the ways in which this whole acoustic argument leads us to the relationship with the non-human. Sound and listening really are almost a form of a planetary material. Maybe it also produces a non-hierarchical disruption of the human-centric worldview if we think that my voice is just one sound within a planet of sounds and in a way doesn't have any more value than the sound of water dripping in this room where we are. It is a sound in a sound-world which all sounds occupy equally, we could say. Of course there are conflicts and tensions, but I am very interested to think that in a way the acoustic model really provides an opportunity to relate to the non-human and to the agency of things. The materiality around me has a certain agency and participates in this sound-world. So I think the acoustic opens us up in a dynamic, palpable way and invites us to resituate our subjectivities and to nurture these extended relationalities away from the human. That is to be embraced and followed through. Now how that might lead to questions about climate change or questions about environmental injustice, that is to be found out in specific ways and contexts. But I think that fundamentally there is an ethos of sensitizing to the life of things through sound, that can be very rich.
KP: To continue along the lines of subjectivity, how do the figures of sound and acoustics help us depart from conservative, closed notions of identity and community?
Of course, invisibility already opens up an interesting challenge to how we construct our identities. So that sort of immediately complicates this question also of who am I, how do I know myself as an acoustic subject. Of course, we do know ourselves very well and the voice gives us a medium for performing that identity and negotiating it within the world; I think this is something very fundamental with sound and the acoustic model, this idea of being in between oneself and another so it's no wonder that sound and listening are used to talk about things like empathy, practices of care and giving attention to the other, this courage that we spoke about earlier, because it is very much something that extends oneself to others, and of course we receive the other quite strongly through listening. So sound and the acoustic is also a spatial question of what's between bodies, what sound fundamentally is as a relational, connective medium and experience. This naturally puts my identity into question in a really productive manner, I think, because it makes me beholden to the other, it puts me into relation with an exterior. For me, this is something to be embraced and I often think about this through the question of noise, noise as something that interrupts us, that comes from outside, annoys us, interrupts our subjectivity, upsets us. And that moment of being upset in terms of sound, as something that upsets me and interrupts my subjectivity, enables me to come out of myself or to know myself as an Other. This is in a way constantly happening with sound – we live the sound-world as a noisy world. Noise provides us with an opportunity, almost with a model, of subjectivity that again places my identity elsewhere. For me this is what I really want to bring into the question of identity politics. I really want to take acoustics and offer it to identity politics as a way to help it in giving voice to another, to help us with our struggles with identity because at the same time I often question how identity politics can become sort of self-fortifying. It is understandable because communities who need to find their voice and to find agency often fortify themselves, build themselves as a unit. But I think this is only successful if it finds alliance outside of itself. And we need alliances, we need solidarities and I think the acoustic can be a pathway for these solidarities.