Brandon LaBelle from Los Angeles is an artist, writer and theorist. His artistic work explores questions of social life and cultural narratives, using sound, performance, text and sited constructions. This results in situational and contextual projects that create forms of intervention in public spaces, acts of translation and archiving, as well as micro-actions aimed at the sphere of the (un)common. Anna Raimondo confronted LaBelle with theoretical frames and talked with him about his messages, the chances of sound and the listener's perspective.
[Anna Raimondo]: As an artist, writer, curator, critic, your research is mainly focused on sound art and its possible social and cultural implications. Referring to the quotation by Anna Fritz «Becoming is desire» which desire(s) led your attention to sound art?
[Brandon LaBelle]: What led me to an interest in sound as an artistic project was certainly its relational potential – for me, sound is ungovenerable, that is, it is at one and the same moment, mine and not mine; it is exactly what may allow for expressions of sharing: it teaches us how to negotiate loss, and how to also be extremely present. Sound for me is always more than I expect, and this I find very suggestive as an artist, as a body. I’m interested in many of my projects to use sound as a vehicle for generating types of interaction, forms of narrative and knowledge production, that are often circulating around or base themselves upon the ephemeral, the transient, the migratory and the associative. Sound and listening are extremely related and generative of such experiences and ideas; they provide a platform for building out processes that question or unsettle the singular, the human-centric, the law and languages of the proper. In my projects I take this as a starting point, a medium, to develop materials and presentations, site constructions and conversations; sound gives me the courage to trespass the limits of particular languages, and especially, my-self.
[AR]: In your artistic and academic approach, it seems that you apply an «inclusive definition» of sound art. Not defined as «sound for sound’s sake». In your opinion, what does sound art include and what could it be made of?
[BLB]: Absolutely. I would say, a form of «radical inclusion». Because it also may include the excluded – not to speak in riddles! But what I take from sound is an opportunity to embrace uncertainty, interruption, the invisible, languages that migrate, being-one-and-different, associative knowledge, shivers, noise, voices of strangers, the radio within, formlessness, the quiet, you, and certainly, the future. These are also of course the very things a sound art could be made of.
[AR]: Aesthetically speaking, in your opinion, does sound art require any visual component?
[BLB]: I would never say it requires anything.
[AR]: I am thinking of the relation between sound art and silence. Let’s focus on your art-work «Diary of a Stranger». It is a silent intervention in public space in Oslo, in which you explore the social figure of the stranger. Participants carry one of ten wooden sticks painted different colours, each with a metal plaque on with written messages, such as: «You don’t know me», «I am lost in the city», «take me with you», etc. Those objects create a casual and participative cartography of the city, inviting people to circulate with the objects from one point of the city to another. In this case, silence and reading evoke the process of listening and the issue of strangeness between your invisible-silent voice and the one of the active spectator. Is this work a piece of sound art and if so, in which sense?
[BLB]: I appreciate your reading of the work, and as you point out, its relation to «sound» is not so direct; rather, it occupies or creates this space of silent recognition, or silent conversation. The object, this stick, for me is precisely a silence that asks for attention. And this is a direction, a path (not the only one…) toward the stranger, or a becoming-stranger, a coming close to the stranger – a figure that has the possibility to shift the lines of social life, that has as its central potential an ability to unsettle the perimeters of the status quo, because the stranger in a way is never fully knowable; he or she (if we can say this…) is a type of circulation, a body without a proper name, a body that migrates; that hovers around, to occupy a zone always on the edge of the center; a body in the dark, or even, at times, in the light – a body that can also be suddenly so close. I would say: it is a poetic-body. These conditions or characteristics for me also suggest the characteristics of sound: is not sound always somehow a stranger? Even the most familiar sound – my own voice… your voice – often appears as if from nowhere; it escapes me. Becoming-stranger is a moment of encounter, a moment of sudden listening.
[AR]: The idea of a silent (thus sound) intervention in public space makes me think about another project, «Calling Card» (1986-1990) by Adrian Piper. In this piece, the Afro-American artist distributed written cards in public spaces with specific messages relating to concrete situations. Those cards, without providing any opportunity to verbally react to her, caused the reader to have an inner-silent-debate with himself about specific issues. We face here, again, what Salome Voegelin defines as «sonic silence» or «beginning of listening» (2010) . What place does listening play in your interpretation of sound art and in your work in particular?
[BLB]: I think of the listener as someone who is curious but does not know; a body that is searching for what lies behind the scenes, that is suddenly touched by something – a voice, a fiction, a labyrinth to nowhere or to somewhere; I think of listening as a condition of finding association: every sound is already asking us to leave behind who we think we are. To say more about this: we have that feeling that sound comes at us; that it moves into our body, that it floods us. While this is true, I also tend to think that sound beckons us; it calls us toward it, and we move in its direction. It demands from us; it takes us toward a horizon of listening. In this way, sound is really a meeting point, a point toward which I move – yet where I will end up is never really knowable in advance; and further, this meeting point is never only mine. I like to think of it – this sound – as a space inhabited by a community of strangers. We meet here, as bodies associating, assembling – an assemblage… – and yet already on the way to something else, toward another listening. (But something can happen, along the way; this association does have consequence – sound changes me, this community can make something together.)
[AR]: I would like to come back to your piece «Diary of a Stranger», which ended with a performance based on notes you made during the process. One of the enounced sentences was: «To share – to be». I would like to connect this sentence to the spirit of your last book «Diary of an Imaginary Egyptian» in which you ask for an «agency of the intimate«, «outlining a tender map of the transnational» (from the presentation of the book on the web site). Can we speak about your general work as a «poetic of strangeness», as a condition of constant discovery, as a desire to engage toward the other from the difference? Strangeness interpreted as a condition of constant discovery, as a desire to engage through difference, bringing with it a potential for intimacy.
[BLB]: I find this very interesting, and very thoughtful; your perspective definitely resonates with me, and I appreciate this notion, of a «poetics of strangeness». I think difference is about being recognized: there is always that idea that identity is formed only through separation (from the mother…), through a cut, a break (from wholeness…from attachment). To be «self» is to be a body set against a horizon; a figure on a ground, outlined; it is to have a proper name, and to inhabit it, like no one else. Difference then is also the beginning of sharing; for it is what we give to the other – it is what we can offer, and it is also what we can receive: the difference of the other. Intimacy.
[AR]: Does the fact that you are yourself a stranger in the place where you are based influence your artistic research and your political arrier-plaine? Does being a stranger allow you a more analytical perspective?
[BLB]: I would say maybe something more personal here: being a stranger can also be about carrying a certain loneliness with you (I’m always thinking to write a «history of loneliness»… what can we learn from loneliness, as a thread stretched throughout culture, the body, thinking, etc.? I think there is a great deal of loneliness at the center of all our endeavors…) – so maybe loneliness is the driving force, a backdrop to the necessity to «find the other».
[AR]: What is your relationship with American mainstream culture? And in particular, with your Los Angeles (sub)cultural background?
[BLB]: It is in me like a thirst.
[AR]: Another interesting point of your work is the relation with the objects you transform. I am thinking now of your work Counterparts, that you realized in Curitiba (Brasil) in 2006 with Ken Ehrlich & Octavio Camargo . In this project, the final object of the table built with the recollected wood synthetize the whole process. In this case, do you agree with me that the table – the final result – is at the same time the documentation of the whole process? Often working with the ephemeral, time-based or site-specific works, what is your approach to the documentation? Could it be a second artwork?
[BLB]: I would say, yes, it’s interesting to think of the table as the documentation, embodying the process of the entire project. Its material body is the very thing that captures the intention, the imagination, the development of the work. But the table also performed as an event – it stood at a particular location, and generated different interactions; people ate off the table; they talked across it, touched it and also, didn’t notice it. So the table was also a machine for producing conversation.
Generally, I must say that I do not obsess over «documentation»: my focus is on the specific situation, and creating work to speak toward that situation. To document this will always be «less» than the situation; it is a trace, for sure, and in that way, I am ok to let it be a trace. I don’t need another artwork.
[AR]: I have the feeling that anyway, and anyhow, your voice (your silent voice or your physical one) is always present in your work. And here I would like to mention Adriana Cavarero «The voice manifests the unique being of each human being, and his of her spontaneous self-communication according to the rhythms of a sonorous relation».  Would you like to comment on this quotation in relation to your artistic research?
[BLB]: I certainly appreciate Cavarero’s thinking, and learn a lot from her writings, on voice and histories of western logic. Her notion of the uniqueness of being is really quite beautiful (and brings to mind also the work of Walter Ong…) – at the same time, I miss something from her work as well. She tends to always move towards ideas of «communion», that voice has a certain purity in establishing positive relations; that voice is the essential part of a human. While all this is very enriching and important, I’m also keen to hear in voice aspects of argument, disagreement, lack – voice in other words as «negotiation». In this way, the sonorous relation at the center of voice is also full of struggle, where we don’t necessarily commune, but rather we conflict. This doesn’t move away completely from ideas of «uniqueness», but it does suggest another perspective to the voice, another tonality: that it is not always a given.
[AR]: Sound is always inside and outside of the body. It is in between isolation and participation. Sound intimidates and requires intimacy. Starting from these points, in 2010 you edited with Errant Bodies «Manual for the construction of a sound as a device to elaborate social connection» , a reflection of a residency you and other artists made in Oslo in 2010. What were the main intentions of that project?
[BLB]: The project was aimed at exploring sound as a public material. This was done by bringing together a small group of artists to develop new works, specific to the city of Oslo. We functioned as a working group, expanding on different questions on public space and public life, while each of us worked on our individual projects. Topics such as collaboration, noise, politics of listening and public art generally circulated through the projects, and took shape through public events, interventions in the city, workshops and recording. We thought it important to create this process also as a way to invite public interaction and input. This was given expression also by locating ourselves in a storefront in the city for the final period of the project. This space became a studio, a discussion and presentation space, a meeting point, but also, a potential open space toward the street.
[AR]: In my opinion, «Dirty Ear» (January 2013), the last project you organised at «Errant Bodies» during «Transmediale» seems to be a continuation of the reflections that arose in «Manual for the construction of a sound as a device to elaborate social connection». In both projects, it seems to me that the main questions are how sound can be a tool, a method, a device to engage political landscapes. In both projects, there is a collaborative space-time among artists, in where to build new knowledge through a work-in-progress. Can you tell us more about if and how the last experience you had in Oslo guided you to the articulation of «Dirty Ear»?
[BLB]: Certainly part of all this work is really about developing strategies and methods of self-organizing, and of collective process, and over the years I’ve had the chance to experience this in different ways, in different locations. You might say it does become an education on how to facilitate and also direct informal collectivity and collaboration. This also appears in Errant Bodies, as a publishing platform, as well as Surface Tension, from which the Manual project grew. I’m not sure about any direct links between the Dirty Ear Forum and the Manual project, but of course there are resonances, in terms of a focus on sound, on questions of publicness, or group work. And the attempt to expand practices connected to this. In this way, how listening can function as a platform for a type of social and political engagement.
[AR]: Coming back to «Dirty Ear», it was mainly a working-thinking space in which you invited another seven artists to join you in a reflection on sound as a social tool. Can you describe how you structured the project and why? And how did you select the invited artists?
[BLB]: I find it increasingly important to focus more on process, and to create platforms for types of experimental research, and this definitely requires discussion and exchange with others. The Dirty Ear Forum was an attempt to nurture such exchange, particularly on the question of sound and listening; I’d say it was about fostering and collecting a diversity of working methods and issues, and to do so by structuring it around the notion of «multiplicity», or ideas of «publicness» – the «public» being an arena for diversity, interaction, processes of conversation: searching for commonality through difference. These then became also the themes for the Forum, and I thought of each participant as representing a certain perspective. To bring together a diverse group of practitioners whose work is also infected by discursive energy, by curiosity and inquisitiveness, and by an engagement with process. I didn’t want to get rid of these differences, but to amplify them in the work itself, in the sharing and occupying of a single space, together.
[AR]: The project, in different phases, ended with a collective sound installation made of eight speakers, one speaker for each artist. From a curatorial point of view, it was an interventionist, provisional setting. How does the curatorial approach reflect the relationship between multiplicity and isolation?
[BLB]: I thought the idea of the eight speakers occupying a single space would operate to generate a sense for individual work, for individual process, while also forcing this into a process of negotiation, of sharing and of working together. I always have this sense that sound is always crossing over between the private and the public – we might say, it shows us this as a dynamic event, as a channel for the relational; it reminds me that my body is not my own. The structure of the Forum in a way was simply an analogy to this: that to make a sound is already to enter the public sphere, and so the question becomes, what can be made from this collectivity?
[AR]: In the text that accompanies the project you mention that «Dirty Ear» was also about Radical listening. What do you mean by this definition? Is there a connexion with political movements?
[BLB]: I would not insist on any specific relation to political movements – part of the project was not to pre-determine a particular affiliation, a particular politics, other than a type of «anarchy». But more, to insist on the potentiality of listening to act or contribute to today’s political environment. A method of inclusion that also does not insist on cohesion.
[AR]: What are the next steps of this project?
[BLB]: I’m very interested to continue this project by relocating it within different places and different contexts. I think what’s important is to continue – it’s clear that one of the most difficult things is how to sustain the conversation, how to extend the project so it might grow and in a way, realize some of its embedded complexity. There is always this great unfolding of energy at first, of perspectives, of sharing that goes with these projects, and that in itself is extremely enriching and significant. But I’m searching for what can happen once that energy is there, once we know each other: what can we do next.
[AR]: Errant Bodies is a publisher based in Berlin, with a multi-disciplinary interest in sonic and spatial practices. How would you describe it?
[BLB]: I think of Errant Bodies as a project of publishing in the expanded sense – of making public, which definitely includes a politics of association, a type of active poetics, which takes shape mainly through the book. The experience of the book is something I’m very interested in, and I find the book to be an extremely powerful tool, a powerful weapon, a powerful space of gathering, and for poetics – precisely what Edouard Glissant calls a «poetics of relation». It is a public space, a shared space, of the page and its reverberations, into conversations and the civic. So, the book has a particular resonance that I do think offers an important opportunity for deepening reflection on society, as well as for leading the imagination. I like the slowness of the book, which in relation to the quickness of digital culture may offer a valuable counter-balance today.
I’m also interested in how Errant Bodies can operate as a platform for collaboration, for extending the idea of «authorship» – this has been developing through different project series, for instance, the Setting for an Open Source series, which is staged as a performative installation where visitors contribute to a collective writing action. For me, the physical book, and the act of publishing, is also a perfect articulation of the union of the actual and the virtual (and always has been) – the book is already so palpable, and yet so immaterial; it invades this room with its silent energy, while remaining always already elsewhere; it is pure network, pure potentiality, whose materiality is both fixed and yet entirely open to sampling, referencing, reading. For a multiplicity of uses, and certainly, for types of action.
For the last two years we’ve also had a project space in Berlin. While the publications function as platforms for collaboration, for sharing and disseminating, for developing conversations and extending work into the space of the book, the project space for me is important as a platform for more direct meeting. I see it as a way of supporting artists and the processes of research and experimental production, in sonic and spatial work, in text production and critical and poetical thought, and also, a way to invite the influence of these artists into the work we’re doing. So, the project space is about opening Errant Bodies up to others, to also contributing something to the city of Berlin, to act as a meeting point, and to extend Errant Bodies as a platform, and to be surprised by what may still happen.
 The project took shape in relation to the city of Curitiba’s recycling program, and specifically how this relates to “unofficial” waste collectors living in barrio communities and functioning within an informal economy.
Researching this community and culture of trash and recycling the work functioned as an act of shadowing. This involved building a cart similar to those used by the “unofficial” collectors and circulating through the city to collect discarded wood.
The cart was built in collaboration with a local craftsman and aimed to intervene within this circuit of trash collecting, which comes to normalize the cheap and partially forced labor of an impoverished community. The cart functioned literally as a vehicle for creating interactions, and was finally exhibited at a local gallery space, along with additional works and artifacts, such as a table built from the collected wood and used for meals served during the exhibition.