Q&A with Brandon LaBelle

In this regular Q&A series, we interview authors and major figures in the field about their work, interests, and overall thoughts on sound studies. This week, we spoke to Brandon LaBelle, an artist, writer and theorist working with sound culture, voice, and questions of agency.

Brandon develops and presents artistic projects within a range of international contexts, often working collaboratively and in public. This leads to performative installations, poetic theater, and research actions aimed at forms of experimental community making. From gestures of intimacy and listening to creative festivity and open movement work, his practice aligns itself with a politics and poetics of radical civility.

What are you working on right now?

My publication, Acoustic Justice: Listening, Performativity, and the Work of Reorientation, was recently released. The work considers acoustics as a political question, in terms of enabling or hindering the reverberation and circulation of particular voices and views. This includes moving from acoustics as a material issue, a topic grounded in the physics of sound and the culture of architecture and spatial thought, to acoustics as a social and relational practice or activity, for instance in how individuals and communities accommodate and foster listening and communal effort through a range of actions. It is my aim to pose acoustics as integral to struggles over social equality and justice, in terms of understanding how vital hearing and being heard are to processes of recognition. This includes questioning how acoustics participates in the making and unmaking of persons in terms of shaping who may speak and where, and further, how dominant norms of heteronormative, white or even hearing society condition the larger arena of the audible and how listening may perform.

Acoustics, from my view, contributes to shaping norms of audibility and ability, which greatly impact on defining “good,” “proper” or “permissible” sound. By influencing one’s sense of orientation and situatedness, acoustics impacts on how we capture listening as a form of agency: What modes of attunement or synchronization are made possible within particular contexts? In what ways do acoustic practices or gestures work at navigating through a politics of orientation? It becomes essential then to argue for a critical acoustics, to work at an expanded acoustic frame that can interrupt or detour normative approaches to listening ability, for instance by considering Deaf-hearing. In this sense, I move from acoustics, and a politics of orientation, to acoustic justice as what can enable greater critical thinking. Following acoustic justice includes reflecting upon how it operates within street-level interactions and daily life, in terms of actions that modulate the distribution of audibility and inaudibility, that work at forms of acoustic welfare, to thinking acoustic justice as an institutional issue, for instance appreciating the importance of sound within educational or legal settings, what James Parker terms the “sonic imagination” of jurisprudence for example. And finally, to think acoustic justice in relation to planetary life, entanglements of bodies and entities, and challenges around environmental justice. I elaborate this final perspective by appreciating how listening is often called upon as what connects us to other life and other things – listening as a capacity for nurturing relationalities that emphasize human subjectivity by way of interdependency. Here, I speak of bioacoustics, and even geoacoustics as models or frameworks which can help in struggles for social justice, as well as for honoring polyphonies of planetary actants.

What got you interested the field of sound studies?

I came into the field of sound studies through my practice as an artist and experimental musician, as well as through poetry (which I appreciate as a form of sounded writing, a writing aloud). Working with sound within experimental music settings and communities, and within the visual and literary arts, led me into a range of research activities and collaborative experiences. I continue to work with sound as an artist, though I tend to approach sound more as a method than a material; in my practice sound operates as a conceptual, relational framework or guide for nurturing forms of collaboration, experimental interventions, and performative pedagogies. It also guides me in my writing, where writing is very much shaped by listening.

I’m interested in how sound studies has been and continues to be informed by an intersection of theory and practice, with many artists and scholars working together in the field, and many scholars being involved in creative practice. I think this enriches the discussion greatly, and also says something about sound as an object of study: that it seems to inspire not necessarily an interdisciplinarity, but more along the lines of what Natalie Loveless understands as “polydisciplinarity.” Loveless further defines this by way of polyamory, suggesting that a certain “promiscuity” underpins polydisciplinarity – in terms of following what attracts us, and what we feel passionate about regardless of disciplinary methods or categories, a perspective that keeps us close to the body. I tend to approach and position Sound studies in this way, seeing it less as a discipline and more as a polydisciplinary and polyamory framework. At times, this can also get me into trouble, in terms of “straying too far,” maybe even “getting carried away” – a falling in love with sound and sonic thinking as a poetics of possibility. But, I also trust that such an approach is important and necessary, as one of many ways of working. I think, in this sense, sound studies can contribute to an approach to knowledge and education which is more transversal, more adventurous and promiscuous, more alive with feeling and aligned with what I feel sonic experience affords, in terms of instigating connections and entanglements, which are at times soothing and supportive, that help us sink into the world as well as retreat, and other times, interruptive and that helps in transgressing or defending communal bonds. I do think such a range of intensities and capacities is very suggestive for approaches to knowledge, as well as practice.

What do you write about?

Across my different works, I would say that what binds my writing is an overarching argument that sound provides a model for thinking relationality – how sound and listening put subjectivity, for example, into relation, or better: relationality into subjectivity. The focus on relationality is grounded in an understanding of sonic materiality, as a particular matter (and energy) with certain properties and propensities, as well as listening as a subject position that is profoundly relational. What becomes of subjectivity from a sonic or acoustic perspective? If sound puts subjectivity into relation, if it elaborates a relational understanding or experience, how does that impact onto understandings of space or language? Or how we understand the political as a space of appearance – what becomes of appearance from the position of sound? Such a questioning includes research into architecture, spatiality, place and environments, the spaces and territories defined by way of acoustic and sonic actions or cultures, as well as issues of voice and speech, which includes the paralinguistic and kinesthetic, an engagement with embodiment and situatedness. I suggest that if we place sound and listening at the center of how we think subjectivity, along with space and language, speech and action, we arrive at relational understandings that are distinct and dynamic. In my work, I follow this overarching relational argument, or general inquiry, so as to capture and construct an acoustic paradigm or episteme from which an array of more specific perspectives and research are developed. For instance, to ask how sound and listening influence experiences of displacement, within diasporic communities for example, lending to deep forms of acoustic memory and the crafting of sonic escape routes or fictions by which to recreate home or forms of passage; to consider how movements of social solidarity today, which often work at being heard, rely upon an acoustic imaginary and range of related techniques. Or that work at the project of decolonization, which as Rolando Vázquez convincingly argues, is supported by posing listening as a critique of modernity (and its dominant western voice). This includes reflecting upon the different acoustic, sonic or technological expressions found within sound art, and how sound art manifests an ongoing experimentation with resonance, the politics of frequency, the auditory unconscious, or ways of relating to otherness that often destabilize normative understandings of recognition. I’m generally motivated by what sound and listening offer in terms of relationality, the performativity of subjectivity, the enactments people make to support each other, particularly in situations of social and political struggle. And how sound can allow for ways of pondering the nature of human agency that open many compelling perspectives.

Sound and listening become ontological, epistemological, relational and political actants that capture a breadth of potentialities. From issues of embodiment and psychic life, affect and emotionality, to spatial and temporal articulations and imaginaries, the social and ethical enactments guided by listening, and finally, to ecologies of attention, co-habitation, and the capacity to orient in collaboration with the more-than-human – all of this is mobilized by way of sound and listening. For myself, an acoustic research, an acoustic knowledge and poetics can actively work across these areas. Finally, I work and follow all these perspectives in order to articulate an anarchic position.

Who in this field inspires you?

I recently read Dylan Robinson’s Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, which I thoroughly enjoyed and found very inspiring. He brings forward so many important perspectives which can help challenge the field of Sound studies. From an Indigenous framework, many normative assumptions about listening are problematized in a productive manner, allowing for ways of thinking more plurally about listening. By emphasizing the issue of positionality, Robinson generously asks of us to question listening, how it may impose itself onto other cultures, and how it carries or wields a form of violence. Hungry Listening makes an intervention and contribution to sound studies in terms of impacting on how we continue to research listening and its relation to culture and agency.

What is a misconception about sound or sound studies that bothers you?

I’m not greatly bothered by any misconceptions, though I do think it’s important to understand that sound studies can be approached in a way that doesn’t always have to speak about sound. I think it’s crucial that sound studies continues to position sound not only as an object of study, but as an episteme, a knowledge framework that can be applied to other topics. This tendency is present in sound studies, for instance readings into histories of literature or cinema, where listening may be applied to how we “look” at images or how we approach the archive. It is my feeling that there are opportunities here, in terms of positioning sound studies so we do not always have to wonder: is there enough sound here? I think there is a lot of room for going in-depth, in terms of analyzing sonic phenomena, or inquiring into the particularities of a sonic case study, as well as for utilizing sound as a methodology that can move across different lines of inquiry. I’m always interested to ask: how far can sound take us?

What is a book that you don’t want to write but really want to read?

I’m curious about the relation between sound and memory, as well as the phenomenon of inner voice. There are certainly existing materials and literatures on these topics, which I’ve only touched. I would like to spend more time researching around these topics, for instance by looking into neuroscience, as well as psychology and psychoanalysis. (Alexander Stein offers interesting insight into the sound of memory – as “phantom echoes”.) This may also relate to oral histories and story telling, which carry cultural memory by way of speech and listening, not to mention how music acts as an extremely powerful emotional archive. While I was doing research for my book, Lexicon of the Mouth, I did engage with the psychoanalytic work of Donald Meltzer, which I found fascinating; this included some readings into the work of Eric Rhode, who proposes some interesting and eccentric perspectives on the oral imaginary: how the mouth operates as a site of fantasy. I’d be interested to return to their work, and to find others who are reflecting upon their ideas from a sound studies approach. I’m also interested to read more about acoustics from an indigenous perspective, or how acoustic design takes shape following indigenous principles. Joar Nango, a Sámi artist living in Norway, gives an indication of this in his architectural-artistic works, also in conversation with the artist Elin Vister, reflecting on the ways in which indigenous practices of building suggest relations to the sound world. Finally, I wonder about masculinity, and in what ways we can approach masculinity (as a study, a field of inquiry) from a sound studies perspective – how masculinity is constructed around ways of listening and sounding. The scholar, Maria Malmström is doing work in this area, in the context of Egypt, which I’m very interested to follow.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) sounds?

I’m not sure I have favorite sounds. I find myself being interested in all sounds, and generally appreciate being exposed to a diversity of sounds. I think what’s compelling to me is the feeling of sound being a surprise – sound as what emerges from out of nowhere, or that continually moves and evolves, changing patterns and shapes, dynamics; how sounds relate to each other, overlapping and figuring an omnidimensional world. It is an ongoing flow which moves me. Of course, there are times when sounds disturb, that is without a doubt; but still, I feel it’s important to accept this, even embrace it as part of the diversity of sonic experience – I am talking from a personal perspective here, in terms of the sound worlds I regularly encounter. There are certainly sound worlds that are deeply harmful, and at times made intentionally violent, for instance within situations of war and imprisonment. The weaponization of sound in this context is something to reckon with.

In my own experiences, I’m also approaching sound as a type of teacher or guide: sounds continually tell me things, they teach me about where I am, about life around, which is always greater than imagined; and they act as a partner in terms of how I orient myself, how I can be responsive to things and persons around me. Sound teaches in terms of being ethical, sympathetic, how to be responsive and responsible, as well as accepting of the temporal or contingent quality of things (if sound is an indicator of life, in all its vitality, it is also extremely close to death, the ephemeral, and may keep us close to the fact of the body as what I am slowly losing). In that sense, I think it’s our responsibility to listen to noise because noise is often what is deemed “deviant” and “unwanted”. As listeners, it becomes an obligation to listen to that which disturbs, in order to listen out for what is also silenced, or to listen against often dominant ideologies or orientations that position some sounds over others. Noise helps us, in many ways (not all), in fighting for a more just world.

I’ve also been circling around the notion of the unlistenable lately. While I’m often arguing for an expanded listening, for positioning listening as what can extend ourselves and relationality, there is also a limit to listening, where we have to say: I can’t listen any longer. Faced with many terrible realities today, and an intensely polarized public and political sphere, the anger and rage over what we hear, and what we are asked to perpetually hear, incites a questioning in terms of listening’s limit. The unlistenable might act as a line, a threshold, as well as the basis for action, where the audible becomes unbearable.

In your studies, what has surprised you most? 

I think what has surprised me is how sound (and its study) seems rather inexhaustible. Sound as a general framework for thinking and doing, for partnering with, continues to be extremely generative and challenging – I continue to feel enlivened by what I discover or experience through sound as a research, artistic and collaborative framework. It continues to help in many things, in celebrating the joyfulness of the social adventure and for contending with the absolutely brutal challenges surrounding – but probably the most significant would be in how sound assists in the day to day art of living by keeping me close to the outside, the experimental.

Works by Brandon LaBelle

Works include “The Impossible School”, Klub Mama, Zagreb (2020), “The Other Citizen: Archive”, Club Transmediale, Berlin (2019), “The Autonomous Odyssey” (with O. Camargo), Kunsthall 3,14 Bergen (2018), “The Ungovernable”, Documenta 14, Athens (2017), “Oficina de Autonomia”, Ybakatu, Curitiba (2017), “The Hobo Subject”, Gallery Forum, Zagreb (2016), and “The Living School”, South London Gallery (2016). He is editor of Errant Bodies Press, Berlin, and Professor at the Department of Contemporary Art, University of Bergen.

Publications with Bloomsbury: Acoustic Justice: Listening, Performativity, and the Work of Reorientation (2021), Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary (2014), Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (second edition 2019; 2010), Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (second edition 2015; 2006).

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