INTERVIEW With BRANDON LABELLE
by Tim Jaeger, October 2002

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 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.

* We first met at KUNSTRADIO 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?

BL: 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.

* 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)?

BL: 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.”

* 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?

BL: 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.

* 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?

BL: 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.

* 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 the concept?

BL: 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.

* 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..)?

BL: 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 Kerckhove 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…

*This is a wonderful thought, but could you just explain more about who Derrick de Kerckhove 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"?

BL: Derrick de Kerckhove 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 Kerckhove 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.

* 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?

BL: 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”.

* 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?

BL: 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?