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<nettime> Interview w/ Brandon LaBelle
tim jaeger on Thu, 31 Oct 2002 14:09:18 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview w/ Brandon LaBelle


INTERVIEW W/ BRANDON LABELLE
by Tim Jaeger

After moving to Los Angeles in March 2002 from the East Coast, NYC-metro
area, I was immediately pulled towards certain spaces that function here
for inter-media zones, especially combining sound-art, new media, and all
convergences of new technologies and people…places like the Electronic
Orphanage (electronicorphanage.com) in Chinatown, Beyond Baroque in
Venice, even galleries at SCI-ARC (the architecture school).

L.A. has a history of experimental music and art, including past
practitioners like John Cage and current artists like Carl Stone, who
combines digital synthesis, an absolutely frenzied sample-fest and Brandon
LaBelle, who has a more “passive” approach to art creation, working w/
“ordinary” instruments like contact mics to make his sounds …I wanted to
ask Brandon, whom I had met while living in Vienna, Austria, a number of
questions that confront our new relationship w/ ubiquitous digital
technologies, especially on the more theoretical tip of how to negotiate
around the peer-to-peer vs. proprietary dilemma, software/hardware in
music creation, and the question of authors/multiplicities in art-making,
and how to approach these questions at the macro-level…Brandon isn’t fazed
by the “new”, which is where the conversation landed at a few points.

One of the more interesting things I’m interested in is trying to generate
new types of social networks in and around these technologies.. potential
networks of power, or even people that can take hold of as many real and
virtual technologies to their advantage…Brandon has an interesting take on
things, and has shown in festivals, performed over the radio, and calls
L.A.  and London his home.  -Tim Jaeger, 2002

T: We first met at KUNSTRADIO (kunstradio.at) where you were doing a
project recording sounds of the city of Vienna w/ contact mics, and
walking in an ode to the Situationists' model of the derive...Darting in
and out of subway stations and falling susceptible to the effects of the
city upon you, but the project was to some extent a study in tenderness..
What do you think the role of tenderness and susceptibility play in
today's contemporary electronic music scene, especially in relation to
letting oneself be open to other cultures, musics, questions, etc.? Is it
becoming a hegemony of the machine?

B: Tenderness was this idea of “impressionability”—that the body was both
impressed by its exterior, and that itself makes an impression on the
outside world. Tenderness formed a kind of model, or vocabulary for
proposing such a dynamic as a “conversation” that is both physical
(bodily, material) and something intimate—tenderness being a condition for
the exchange of affection. As you seem to imply, tenderness can operate as
an opening in the exchange of difference—in this way, maybe it borders on
empathy, as a condition for susceptibility, vulnerability, and
interaction.

In terms of sound practice, at this moment, I was thinking a lot about
working with found objects and found sound: so, in this way I was
negotiating between myself (as subject) and that which exists around me
(surrounding space). This of course brings up both a certain kind of
“empowerment” (overcoming alienation, resituating the lines of behavior)
as well as “anxiety”, for this necessarily means one confronts the social
environment. Tenderness was an attempt to suggest a way to empowerment,
and through anxiety.

T: The discourse you're engaging in is very interesting, especially in the
non-musical elements involved (the writing, using found sounds..). How
much do you think you're picking up where John Cage left off and where do
you want to go w/ things (in the sense of taking music/discourses places)?

B: I think in many ways Cage looms as a kind of specter—will there come a
point when he just isn’t relevant anymore? Not that this is essential, for
certainly on some level I find myself interested and compelled by his
example, and can understand Lucier’s [Alvin, musician from the mid-late
20th century concerned w/ the visual representation of sound] comment that
the situation in the 60s (in terms of cultural experimentation) was in a
sense made possible by John Cage.

Yet, at the same time in reading some of his writings, and in
looking/listening to his work, it feels outside the scope of my own—that
is, I can’t get past the overly-romanticized and transcendental claims
about sound and listening he proffers (which is probably a left-over from
Modernism). Of course, he is a complex figure, and this is juxtaposed with
more pragmatic, revolutionary and materialist concerns, which I feel more
personally attached to (such complexity also prefigures Post-modernity).

So, there is a definite push and pull with Cage… In general, I always try
and see Cage as a conceptual artist, because in this way I feel he is
relevant: in setting up a certain platform by which “music” as a practice
is in a sense questioned, and through such questioning, opened up. But
what you seem to suggest is that the “multi-disciplinary” approach—that
is, writing, composing, etc.—is a Cagean feature. In this way, I’d say
Cage is certainly an amazing example of someone who recognized cultural
practice as both aesthetical (questions of form) and political (as a means
for pronouncing a certain agenda, or set of ideas). This would also
further the claim of Cage’s conceptual approach—for he recognized that
practice is both a process of composing and questioning the very
parameters of such an activity. It is both the thing and a reflection on
the thing.

In terms of where I personally want to go, well, to answer that would mean
that I actually know what I’m doing in the first place—that is, that I’m
master of my own voice, which I would actually say I am not, nor hope to
be.  I find it more interesting to propose a model of “reception” as
“production”, that is, I receive that which is given to me, and respond by
producing something that may converse with what has been given. The state
of this conversation, the register or pitch, possibly even content, then
for me is the process of art making. To maybe jump back to Cage, in
contrast to his “sound being about sound” I would propose that “sound is
about everything but sound.”

T: What do you mean by "sound is about everything but sound"?  Are there
specific examples of others artists/situations that relate to this?  Are
you familiar w/ Jacques Attali (attali.com) and his arguments about music
being society's sound track...where do you see this situation going
currently?

B: Well, this is obviously meant to push a certain polemic: between the
notion of sound referring only to itself (non-representational) and sound
as referential (meaning). On the whole, it seems this divides various
camps, one such example would be something like musique concrete and
acoustic ecology, for we can see musique concrete’s insistence on the
“sound object” as the antithesis to acoustic ecology’s emphasis on the
“context” from which sounds originate (environments). In general, I
appreciate the opportunity which the non-representational platform
offers—to move towards an “operational” viewpoint of sound’s function as
pure event, beyond signifying codes which may in the end only leave us
traumatized by meaning.

Yet, at the same time, what I value in a sense is to apply this
notion—rather than leave us dangling on the edge of non-representation, in
the euphoria of the “ecstasy of communication”, to somehow stage a
confrontation with sound and the very processes of signification—for
outside sound (and this space we call “electronic and experimental music”)
as individuals we still exist very much within language, the codes of
power, relations, etc. So, the idea that “sound is about everything but
sound” is about confronting the real—that the real may in turn benefit
from the philosophy and practice of sonic attitudes, I think may be its
ultimate space of operation.


T: On the question of Napster/Audiogalaxy, and peer-to-peer networks, it
seems like they're both filled up with shared music by people.. Many of
them have been picked dry of samples, DSP'ed, re-combined, and mashed up.  
Frequencies have been synthesized and combined, so what's left? How much
relevance does a sample hold when it can all be gotten for free on
peer-to-peer networks for free?

B: To just pick up on your last point, I’d say that a sample has no
relevance in and of itself as an original item because by nature sampling
sabotages the whole notion of “originality”. (Though I also feel like this
in turn may be an old view of sampling, for the term seems to become less
and less distinct as an idea or practice…while I keep holding on to some
notion of “taking from existing music, etc.”) Things like Napster I think
are a kind of wake up call for the music industry to something that has
been happening, within more experimental circles, for a long time. This
goes back to the notion of “propriety”, which I feel, quite gratefully,
seems non-existent in the more “experimental” circles—not that there isn’t
a sense of intellectual territory (certainly there is),but that this is
not connected to a form of profit by which propriety would be necessary.
Rather, intellectual territory is more about ideas as expressed in
material or sonic form, which garner a certain respect or cultural
currency.

What you are describing I think actually goes back to things McLuhan
talked about in the early 60s—basically, what he calls “electric
technology” enforces a kind of implosion of society because, whereas
previous technologies fragmented society, the electronic age brings
society closer together. This shifts from exclusion to inclusion because
suddenly individuals are “connected” in ways that collapse things like
distance and time, turning goods into information, etc. We could probably
see the entire situation of sampling, and the current networking scenario,
as part of this trajectory, or at least overlapping. As a culmination of
such an outline, we could also possibly imagine a time when things like
“originality” really are no longer necessary, and the notion of music
making becomes something else, possibly close to Markus Popp’s or Brian
Eno’s software/ hardware projects—where, its more about setting up a
structure through which participatory sonic action is channeled: artist as
producer or facilitator.

T: This idea is interesting, are there specifics where it is being
exhibited....I suppose in other words, what would you consider the
"beyond-Oval" to be of our 21st Century, considering that Popp/Oval are,
even though quite recent, still about 10 years old in creating and
performing this concept?

B: I have no interest in making prophesies about where we are going, or
what is the latest and greatest developments. This is because essentially
I am a passive body, which is why listening appeals to me, for as we know,
both passivity and listening are ways of being highly active without
subscribing to the function of power. Yet, passivity also distrusts the
notion of progress… In many ways I continue to think about McLuhan (which
means you shouldn’t trust my sense of the now, since McLuhan is quite
“old” stuff…)—in so far as a lot of his ideas seem only now to be
realized, or made manifest.  That we can read McLuhan and gain insight
into a present which is 40 years beyond his moment of writing, should only
reveal the degree to which ideas become fashionable, and fashion becomes
ideology—and ultimately, culture proceeds in syncopated rhythms.

In reading a recent article by Achim Szepanski (label owner of Mille
Plateaux records), I am struck both by its incredible articulation of what
may be significant about current electronic music (and its varying
attitudes), and almost reiteration of something which feels quite
conservative. His descriptions of electronic music’s move towards digital
machines (“music is information”) provide a great basis for understanding
such music as grounded on the “non-representational”: clicks, cuts and
glitches form the vocabulary of digital machines inner-workings which
escape or move away from signification (meaning) and into the pure and
liberated flows of current digital music. In this sense, he is right in
saying this is not a “medium of messages” but rather could function more
with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”: the digital machine in its
operations deliver up transformations that have consequence, reshuffling
power relations, etc.

Yet, this in turn leads me to recall the highly Kantian notion of
aesthetics, formulated through Modernism’s move towards “pure form” as
Clement Greenberg articulates in relation to Abstract Expressionism, and
later Minimalism, whereby an artistic medium is understood in terms of
fulfilling its pure material potential: painting is about paint, sculpture
is about form, etc. Such formalist arguments in a sense rely heavily upon
a Humanistic, logocentric construct, in which the viewer, in beholding the
work of art, stands inside a self-contained and autonomous universe. Yet,
are we to understand digital music as an aesthetic consequence of the
digital machine, and a culmination of music’s move towards nothing but
itself? In other words, do “glitches” really announce a shift in
paradigms, a challenge to power, or simply continue a certain hegemony of
form making?  It strikes me that at the very moment we begin to champion
our own musings on the digital glitch, it might be worthwhile to actually
begin to question the very formulation of such a theory. Well, maybe that
is already occurring in the ongoing output of works themselves, which of
course, Szepanski is instrumental in making available.

T: There's a great quote from Kodwo Eshun, the author of MORE BRILLIANT
THAN THE SUN: SONIC FICTIONS, quoting Stockhausen as saying that we can
"create wholly new species of being from the simplest platform of DNA..it
is an atomic age. This is the same in music." Instead of going into
programs like MAX/MSP and sampling and fragmenting things further, you're
opting for a more humane, tactile, organic sort of musical atomics: small
contact mic as particle-board, etc. What kinds of phrases and questions
are you trying to bring up in relation to this practice, and do you see
the roles of artist and scientist merging further? (I'm thinking of
projects that artists like Carsten Nicolai of Raster-Noton have been
working on..)?

B: I don’t necessarily feel connected to any notion of “agenda” around the
question of “tools” or technology—that I use contact mics, instead of a
computer, doesn’t necessarily hold any personal weight or agency for me,
as a sign of a certain agenda. Though I can see how this may be read as a
commitment to some notion of the tactile as founded on physical exertion,
etc. That the tactile appears as part of my practice, as a concern, I feel
is made more apparent in the works rather than the means by which the work
is created.

In other words, the tools aren’t necessarily where I want attention to
rest (though they may appear as indicators of the work). I’m certainly
interested in “tactility” more as a relation to materiality, which I find
something like an overtly “electronic” practice often overwhelms—I
probably gravitate to contact mics because they simply do the job, and
they do it in such a way that corresponds to my understanding of
tactility, and performativity.

In other words, I don’t play synthesizers because I feel there is
something wrong with them, but because they just don’t produce the effect
I hope for.  I sort of see the work as a process of exploring tactility as
both material and social exchange, through a performative sonics that
brings in the body, space, and objects, and move outward to possibly
making conscious such tactility as micro-effects. I’d emphasize that this
does not reflect a non-digital attitude, on the contrary, it is a complete
product of it: for, as Derrick de Kerkhove proposes, the digital in effect
only pushes “tactility” to the fore, because it sabotages the more
“alphabetical” legacy of visual society (reading) to a more immersive,
total model of “connectivity” (sensual). I’d say, in terms of “phrases”,
this is probably where I’m leaning…

T: This is a wonderful thought, but could you just explain more about who
Derrick de Kerkhove is and how the digital really pushes tactility to the
foreground?  Are there speciific examples of projects you've worked on
that has worked off of this idea of music/tactility as "phrases"?

B: Derrick de Kerkhove is a media professor at University of Toronto. He
was a student of McLuhan (he is also the Director of the McLuhan program
in Culture and Technology), and worked directly with him, in writing and
translating his works. His notion of tactility is based a lot on McLuhan’s
understanding of “electronic technologies” as restructuring society
according to “the whole body” rather than a “fragmented body.” In this way
I think he moves away from an overly psychologized body—this may hark back
to our early thoughts on meaning and trauma—where one is divided as a
subject (between self and other, body and mind, soul and sense); in
contrast, de Kerkhove recognizes a shift in experience and paradigm:
network technologies bring the body into an “immersive” sensorial
environment in which meaning doesn’t necessarily operate through language
(here, we move toward the acoustical as non-representational), but rather,
we interact in a field of events in which meaning is operational.

This can clearly be seen in our own contemporary move towards things like
“multi-culturalism”, plural histories, nomadism, etc. These necessarily
challenge the linear and master narratives of absolute thinking, replacing
them with multiple viewpoints, accounts and stories that may in effect
move us toward a different relationship to knowledge—one that may operate
as “tactile” and “experiential”. The acoustical here, and music by
extension, obviously can offer a great deal in this regards (which
Szepanski also points out), because it seems to demand another form of
attention, outside the “alphabetical” (reading), though at the same time I
don’t think we should veer away from “interpretation”. Maybe the
interpretive act actually benefits from the acoustical in reminding it of
its limitations. But again, for me, this tension is where I prefer to
position my own practice, and which I’m interested to actually amplify,
make explicit—rather than veer into the pure euphoria of the
non-representational, what if you push this back into representation, not
with any overarching harmonizing outcome, but as a conversational event.

T: You write about 'becoming-social' in certain areas, and how music acts
in this regard, as well as 'social space'...are you observing/considering
the possibility of sampling an entire city, or tracing the city and its
vicissitudes (similar to the way the flaneur of Baudelaire's time did) as
source material to be amplified? What kinds of new responsibilities emerge
from this predicament for the young sound/media artist?

B: I feel both aligned with something like the tradition of flaneury, and
also critical of it; so, there is definitely a mixed relation. That is,
something like the legacy of walking as a form of agency I find involved
with, and yet, this absolutely requires some form of contemporary update:  
for where can such a legacy take us? The question of “social space”
increasingly rises to the forefront of my concern and practice, and
increasingly I’m interested in working in such a way that engages with
questions of social space, and in a way, tries to align itself with the
social, as a kind of model for practice itself—complex, self-organized,
difficult, intimate, and anarchic: this of course takes me into what can
be called “contextual practice”.

Contextual practice is something like “site specificity”, but it’s not
necessarily tied to “physical space” but can also refer to existing
legacies of ideas, previous works, the presence of an audience, etc., that
is, the cultural practice, and its setting, as a “context”. Working with
context is about addressing the “pressures” which inform every action or
object and yet which may go unnoticed: the space in which work is seen,
the organizational framework that allows work to happen, the very networks
which allow us to correspond, etc. These, while existing as features not
necessarily available for scrutiny, can be recognized as part of what
makes the work itself, on some level of information or input. When you
actually start drawing upon these “pressures” in the very fabrication or
construction or organization of an artwork, one moves to a kind of
“networking” of information, material, interaction and input. Maybe you
also become a kind of “researcher” rather than “artist”? Such a process,
and ultimate shift, for me is increasingly a “social process” whereby
sound, performance, space, objects, and audiences manifest themselves in
the actualization of work, and the work itself possibly functions more
“conversationally”.

T: If through the Internet entirely new sound worlds/programs (freeware,
8-bit tracking programs, Max/Msp, etc.) are opened up for sounds to be
sampled, processed, recorded, and reproduced quite easily, what new
challenges arise for creating new subjectivities, musical genres, etc..  
through this?

B: Well, I think in this regard, though not to hammer away at this point,
we move toward the “social”—for network technologies I think operate
increasingly as social spaces whereby identities play out in the formation
of connective exchanges that sustain themselves over time, and also,
determine their own self-organizing laws, through practical and
fantastical drives. This certainly poses challenges, as well as
opportunities, which I think cross over both aesthetical and philosophical
proposals—what I think needs to potentially happen is an increasingly
dissolved model of the singular artist in order to promote more
collaborative forms of practice, for it seems the very connectivity of
current society should point the way to a shift in artistic attitudes
about the artist in his or her studio, and the world outside.

And yet again, the artist I think is in an extremely promising position,
for society in a way expects the artist to “be strange”, and that can be a
very powerful position to use. Ultimately, though, in terms of challenges,
I’d say it really is up to the individual what challenges they put on
themselves—what choices are made, what kind of practice one attempts to
define, etc. Of course, this is also an incredible luxury of choice and
freedom—to entertain available subjective positions—which probably
elsewhere could be not as easy. This is potentially an even greater
challenge: as things like the Internet “implode” society, how do we
contend with the Other? And should something like experimental music be
concerned?

Brandon LaBelle:
kaon.org/brandon_labelle/index.php

Tim Jaeger:
thelast100years.com (in progress)









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