Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a consumer electronics catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous fourteen conversations, as well as additional articles and features, here.
“…the feeling tones of the affective soundscape produce attachments to and investments in a sense of political and social mutuality that is performed in the moments of collective audition. This process involves taking on listening together as itself an object/scene of desire. The attainment of that attunement produces a sense of shared worldness, apart from whatever aim or claim the listening public might later bring to a particular political world because of what they have heard.”
Artist, composer, musician, field-recordist, sound diffuser, label founder, theorist of listening: Lawrence English is all these things and more, yet any term we choose will inevitably be reductive, ill-suited to contain the many facets of his activities, let alone the complex ways in which they overlap. October 12 sees the release of Selva Oscura (Temporary Residence Ltd), English’s new LP in collaboration with William Basinski. Dedicated to the late experimental filmmaker Paul Clipson, Selva Oscura is the debut recording from this duo, years in the making. The title comes directly from the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, the “dark wood” in which the poem’s narrator finds himself, lost and disoriented at the midpoint of his life. Recall that the Inferno is just the opening third of a larger work, Dante’s Commedia, his Divine Comedy (the “divine” adjective was added to the title later by Boccaccio). What begins as a disoriented descent into Hell ends in Paradise, with a deep but ineffable understanding of the power of love to transform and transcend the mire of the mundane. To be lost in the dark is just the first step to returning to the light. While the second side-long track bears the eponymous title, the first side is called “Mono No Aware,” a Japanese concept which speaks to an awareness of the essential transience of life and the necessity of approaching the world with sensitivity and empathy.
Coming on the heels of 2017’s Cruel Optimism, and for that matter upon decades of intensifying global crisis, one might easily read more into both of these titles. We, as a collective culture, are disoriented and lost, and with the right guide orienting us we may find our way out, but first must descend further into the abyss and work through our confusion. The intervening months since the release of that superb record seem to have only compounded the timeliness of this sonic meditation on growing global unease, making both “Mono No Aware” and “Selva Oscura” fitting sentiments.
Cruel Optimism takes its title, as well as its conceptual point of departure, from Laurent Berlant‘s 2011 book Cruel Optimism. Berlant, a Professor of English at the University of Chicago, is best known for her work on Queer Theory and Affect Theory, two fields of critical analysis that have had an enormous impact on the broader culture in the last decade but which are seldom read outside the seminar room. If I may oversimplify her thesis a bit, Berlant argues that we become invested in things that are bad for us, and that this attachment itself is painful. This isn’t so straightforward as it seems at first blush. For Berlant, optimism is a belief in the possibility of the good (life), and Cruel Optimism attempts to demonstrate the way this optimism is, in fact, cruel, in so far as it keeps us stagnant, unable to make changes because of an affective investment in an object of attachment, the very thing which is in reality making us unhappy, from fantasies of romantic love to junk food and cigarettes. Berlant is not critiquing any particular ideology, but instead deploys the concept of affect to explain why an attachment to seemingly ineffective (and destructive and dangerous) ideologies persists.
As English draws greatly from this concept as inspiration for his latest solo album, I hope my readers will indulge me if I detour into a theoretical discussion slightly more than usual. It is important that we should understand what is meant by this term affect, not because these theoretical citations are somehow necessary to “understand” the album, but rather because affect helps us understand more clearly our own investment in music and sound, and the power that music and sound have over us. Sara Ahmed, another prominent scholar and theorist of affect, gives us a good account of what is meant by affect and how it is used. She writes that “a feeling becomes an instrument or technique,” and that we must pay attention to the deployment of such techniques to understand what is happening around us, how affect is instrumentalized to manipulate us. Attunements to such affects are not side-effects but help determine the mood and constitution of the larger social body through our mutual relationality. Ahmed describes bodies in tune as a vibration, and our ability to feel in harmony with others depends upon our leanings. It is when these attunements, or non-attunements, are manipulated for ill-ends that we should be especially concerned. (The growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment amidst the tragedy of so many refugee crises is just one example of how such attunements are exploited.) It seems to me she accounts for the way our particular leanings cause us to resonate with some people and environments more than others.
Is the use of so many sonic metaphors—attunement, harmony, resonance, vibration—in the discourse surrounding affect merely a poetic indulgence, or does it gesture towards a deeper and more significant relationship? As English translates the lessons of Cruel Optimism into a sonic work encourages us to think this through further. To be attuned is to be in harmony, in accord with a plurality of voices. Attunement shares a common origin with atonement, which has come to mean a reconciliation but in its archaic usage refers to the “condition of being at one (with others).” Perhaps we can find atonement through becoming more attuned to each other as well.
Given this possibility, it is fitting that Cruel Optimism finds English recovering a collaborative approach to his solo work after a decade of working strictly alone. Like English’s previous solo albums, Cruel Optimism operates in the realm of hazy ambience and crushing drone, a dynamic fog of processed recordings amidst a shifting matrix of sonic space. Cruel Optimism features contributions from musicians including free jazz saxophone titan Mats Gustafsson (The Thing), cellist and double bassist Mary Rapp, and percussionist Tony Buck. Additional contributions come from, among many others, Chris Abrahams, Werner Dafeldecker, Thor Harris and Norman Westberg (both of the recent incarnation of Swans, and the latter of whom has released records on Room40, the label founded by English).
Lawrence English was born in 1976, and is based in Brisbane, Australia. He founded the imprint Room40 in 2000, which has released a great many classic records since, with no signs of slowing down. The last year alone has witnessed outstanding work from Yan Jun, Olivia Block, Pinkcourtesyphone, Nicola Ratti, and Rafael Toral. To mention just one older release, I feel compelled to point to the 2007 Airport Symphony compilation, which includes music by Tim Hecker, Fennesz, Toshiya Tsunoda, Francisco López , and many others, a veritable who’s-who which was downright ahead of the curve in so many ways. In addition to releases on Room40, English has also worked with such venerable labels as Touch, Digitalis, 12k, Crónica, Important and others. A prolific and enthusiastic collaborator, he has worked with diverse talents including Philip Samartzis, Janek Schaefer, Akio Suzuki, Grouper (as Slow Walkers), Ben Frost, Tujiko Noriko, and Tenniscoats. English has also explored his interest in the politics of perception through the production of auditory and kinetic art works, a form of artistic exhibition that can engage with the environment and aspects of site-specificity in ways that his recorded works cannot.
In 2017, English earned the title of Doctor, having successfully defended his dissertation, “The Listener’s Listening,” on the practice of field-recording, listening, and the politics of perception. This thoughtfulness is brought to bear on all his activities, and as one might expect, his writing in particular is characteristically serious and erudite. Earlier this year, English analyzed the past and future of “Ambient” in celebration of the coining of the term by Brian Eno 40 years ago, excavating its pre-history and concluding with the provocative “12 notes towards a future ambient.”
In a 2014 essay entitled “A Beginner’s Guide to… Field Recording,” English provides a synopsis of the diverse approaches to listening and field-recording, and also relates his own formative experiences with listening and the practice of field-recording.
…the reasons of how I became interested in field recording, took root not from recording, but rather, listening. When I was a young boy, I would go to an abandoned part of the Port of Brisbane, which has since turned into a string of lifeless condos. Back in the early 1980s, though this area was a wasteland of sorts, a refuge for animals and birds, and a favourite haunt of my father who would take my brother and I there for all kinds of adventuring. In this area was a particular species of bird, the Reed Warbler. It sounded incredible, like a modular synthesizer on steroids. Easy to listen for, but due to the bird’s size, colour and penchant for hiding in the reeds, it was very difficult to see.
All the hallmarks of English’s artistic work seem to be contained in this anecdote, an experience which would germinate into a lifelong practice: listening, sound, space, perception, environment, politics. While the use of field-recording within his compositional practice has been put aside somewhat in recent years, it has long been central to his approach to composition.
Consider Kiri No Oto (2008), his first solo album after rededicating himself to working alone after an extended period of deep collaboration. Meaning “listening in fog,” Kiri No Oto mines the liminal state in which field-recordings and instrumental passages blur; what sounds like an organ may actually be the sound of the ocean, while a recording of an actual organ contains such detail that it is perceived to be a field-recording instead. The joint digital releases Songs Of The Living / And The Lived In (2012) present a similar phenomenon, an edited selection of evocative recordings made over the prior fifteen years of traveling around the globe. These include miniature sonic portraits of an Australian carnival, bird calls in Brazil, scraping cemetery gates, an air conditioner in Tokyo, and noise on a New York subway platform. Each title simply telling the listener the “what” and “where.” They seem to be ostensibly divided into nature recordings and environmental recordings, respectively, but like the work of his collaborator Francisco López, it is not always so easy to draw such firm distinctions. This is driven home by the fact that, as digital releases, they lend themselves to listening on shuffle, a mixture that in no way detracts from the work. English compares these vignettes to Polaroids, for their ability to capture “an essence and unique quality of a given moment.” Here English’s field-recordings may often seem to be manipulated or combined with instrumentation, when instead he is working in the tradition pioneered by the great Luc Ferrari, what English describes as “a kind of open listening to environment, in which the events of any given space can reveal meaning should the listener be open to it.” Like a Polaroid which can transcend its seemingly cheap and disposable status through careful composition and framing, English’s recordings present mundane sounds in ways that elevate them to the level of music.
English paid homage to Luc Ferrari directly with 2016’s Approaching Nothing. Working under the blessing of the late composer’s widow, English returned in 2013 to Vela Luka, the island village on the Dalmatian Coast in what is now Croatia, where, in 1967, Ferrari recorded Presque rien n° 1 [Almost Nothing #1], the founding document in phonography. English draws upon his own concept of “relational listening,” a creative process “intended to make one’s listening audible to an audience.” Using creative editing, mixing, and juxtapositions inspired by Ferrari, Approaching Nothing pays tribute to this Ur-Work while looking ahead, not trapped by tradition but driven on by it. Unprocessed field-recordings feature very prominently in other work not for their mundanity but rather their extraordinary remove from the quotidian. Each side of the LP Viento (2015) is dedicated to the sound of the wind captured in the frozen tundra of Antarctica and vast plains of Patagonia.
I suspect many of our readers might rank the trilogy of The Peregrine (2011), Wilderness of Mirrors (2014), and Cruel Optimism as English’s crowning achievements. Interestingly enough, field-recording takes a diminished role across these solo full-lengths. The field-recordings which distinguish so much of English’s practice are mostly lacking within the hazy, dense, and dynamically evolving layers. Still, English does not discard the lessons learned from years of listening via the practice of field-recording. Listening is a practice, a way of perceiving physical space and relationships between bodies that goes beyond the limits of vision, and on a more metaphysical level which can relate the listener with phenomena in unique ways. This approach to perception carries through English’s work, regardless of the origin of his raw material.
English’s well-documented interest in theory and his nuanced attention to detail is perhaps nowhere more explicit than on Cruel Optimism. While the sense of global unease was already channeled on earlier records, the events of the preceding years have lent English’s work an increased sense of urgency. The photograph of poor little Alan Kurdi, drowned in Mediterranean as his family fled violence in Syria, struck English particularly hard, his own child a similar age. If Wilderness was seen as a protest record (NOISE IS POLITICS IS NOISE IS…), then Cruel Optimism only ups the ante. The three records each take inspiration from texts (J.A. Baker’s unclassifiable nature writing, a T.S. Eliot poem, Berlant’s critical theory) which influence the compositional processes which give each form. Baker’s The Peregrine was mined for details that informed the direction the music took, as computational guides. “Wilderness of Mirrors” refers to both the concept of the album and the process behind it, as English began with a layer to react against, which would later be deleted, living on as an echo or absence. When field-recordings are employed on Wilderness, they’re not heard but exist as a kind of spectre, sidechained to control a processing parameter or part of the scaffolding which was later removed. Cruel Optimism takes English’s desire to make meaningful work to the next level, translating theoretical insights into an aesthetic practice.
While English’s output has remained rather steady over the years, he is not the kind of artist who constantly releases new music. Rather than be prolific for its own sake, he has been happy to step back and let the work come when it comes. This has also meant touring less, however his interest in touring also began to shift somewhat between the release of The Peregrine and Wilderness, as he became increasingly interested in the physicality of sound, particularly in live contexts. In a 2014 interview with with John Twells for FACT, English recalls a tour of Italy the previous year with Alberto Boccardi. Over the years I’ve heard from a number of ambient and experimental musicians that touring Italy is great for the food and the people, but can be very frustrating on a technical level. In the interview, English describes the performances on that tour as “total punk rock shows” and points to this experience as an epiphany that what he “does” as an artist is not suited to such settings. English’s long-running interest in perception of spatial environments manifests in performances that are carefully attunes to the diffusion of sound in space, and thus physicality is about more than noise, more than “feeling” sound as much as hearing it, but in the kinds of awareness that can only be triggered through sound.
The first half of this interview was conducted in the spring of 2017, the second half in the spring of 2018, over email. We discuss the nature of collaboration, what it means to translate theory into practice, the important of diffusion in distinguishing live performance from studio recording, and much more. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Many of your works have a strong conceptual grounding. Works responding to a particular composer (Cage, Ferrari), utilizing field-recordings from a particular location (Antarctica, Australia, Japan) or of a particular phenomenon (wind, winter, fog). Despite the deep conceptual grounding, however, my first reaction would be to compare Cruel Optimism with Peregrine and Wilderness. These too take inspiration from literary sources, but Berlant’s book is rather different in genre from a poem or nature writing. So I want to ask about how you view the connections between your work and these works which have inspired you, and how your approach to Cruel Optimism may differ (or not) from those of the past.
When I start working on a project, almost always the process of making the work is born out of something that is largely unrelated to the material content of the sound. I know plenty of wonderful musicians who can just create music from nothing. That is like magic to me and in many ways the exact opposite to to how it is I operate creatively. For me, there’s generally some kind of framework that is developed that constrains the ways in which the work might be realized. I find the tighter the frame, the more I can feel the binds around me, the more creative I can become over time. Instead of having everything available, I have a restricted range of elements so that means I need to drill into them and extract everything I can from them. It’s challenging, but somehow in the tension it creates there’s a great satisfaction to be found.
With specific reference to Cruel Optimism, the relation of Lauren Berlant’s wonderfully provocative text to the sound is both direct and tangential at once. The book very much helped me decode the experiences and concerns I had whilst examining all the raw material that fed into the record. I was deeply affected by this global sense of unrest and discontent that was breeding such diabolical political and social relations. When I announced Cruel Optimism, Drew Daniel [of Matmos] wrote me a lovely note talking about the application of theory to practice. I hadn’t necessarily thought of it in that way at that stage, but I think his reading of the record drawing on the text of the book is spot on.
I also wonder what it means to translate the lessons of Cruel Optimism regarding our (unhealthy) attachments into an artistic response. For Berlant optimism is a belief in the possibility of a good life, but she sets out to show the way this cruel optimism is what keeps us stagnant, unable to make changes because of an affective investment (in the object of attachment, the thing which is in reality making us unhappy). After leaving NY I lived in Montreal for years before coming to Minneapolis, and it has struck me how different the social scenes around similar styles of music are or can be. Observing, for instance, younger people invested in the hardcore and punk scene, as I was as a teenager, or some of my old friends who are still doing the same thing in our 30s we were doing in our teens, I can’t help but wonder if music, or the social scene around music, might be one of those unhealthy objects of attachment. Where is the line between music as something which can be liberatory and cathartic, and music as another unhealthy affective investment keeping us from changing our lives?
I think that’s a really interesting question. Music and any form of entertainment that fosters notions of fame can be a locus for the conditions that could be analyzed through that lens of cruel optimism. Obviously it’s a case by case situation, but from my thinking, the clear example I can think of is this notion of fame as it relates to music. I think this is a very peculiar attachment object for a lot of people coming to music and can be incredibly damaging to people if they aren’t able to navigate through it reflexively.
In the first instances fame is problematic as people simply don’t have a working definition of that. That lack of clarity around how it’s understood is cruel in that it remains elusive and unproductive. Really though, the cruelty lies in the fact that the notion of fame is essentially hollow and reflects only the paper thin veneer of a life. I’d argue it’s a kind of temporal broadcast that doesn’t accumulate anything meaningful across time. It doesn’t speak to the practice or the quality of engagement you maintain with the work. As an attachment object it obscures and distracts people from their primary goal which should be making work that speaks to them, and potentially to others.
I’d argue if you are engaged in music making and art practices more generally as a means of self-reflexive practice that is likely not going to be a cruelly optimistic setting. If however your focus lies in the trappings of what might be in a life such as that, then surely cruel optimism is a critical point of analysis. There are of course many other conversations to be had around these topics, such as the nature of precarity that rules so many lives in the arts, but that’s a whole other issue.
Especially given the collaborative approach that seems central to the record, Cruel Optimism seems to me to take a different path. And this collaborative nature is also something unique in your oeuvre, is that right? Your past collaborations seem to often take the shape of duos.
The dimension that collaboration played in the creation of Cruel Optimism is an exception in recent times. But early on, say with the first three or four solo records, collaboration was a central mechanism for me to achieve the kinds of sounds and ideas I was interested in creating. At that stage, I was very much interested in making those connections I had in my life weave into the music I was creating. In about 2007, for a whole range of reasons, I tended to move away from collaboration in that way and made a decades worth of music largely on my own. With Cruel Optimism I wanted to radically reposition myself and my expectations for the work. Collaboration was one of the tools I used to do this.
I really enjoyed your record with Stephen Vitiello for Dragon’s Eye. How did you approach working with Stephen? Or with Werner Dafeldecker? Were these remote collaborations or did you meet and record/perform together in person? You’ve also done splits, like with Alberto Boccardi for Gianmaria Aprile’s Fratto9label where you each worked from the same recordings of a choir, or with Francisco López, but these are of a very different character.
Every collaboration I have done has been a pleasure. Each one of them too has revealed new approaches or methodologies for creating work. Each artist is different, we all share an interest in sound, but how those interest manifest in the work itself is very different. I’m fortunate to have learned so much from the people I have worked with.
Can you tell me more more about the collaborations on Cruel Optimism? This LP doesn’t feel like a departure for you at all, so perhaps you can also speak to the technical or formal elements that went into its creation, and how your collaborators played into this? How has your approach to working with sound changed over the years? And to what extent has your formal approach changed in response to the growing sense of malaise and global catastrophes?
The collaborations in Cruel Optimism took place across the whole period of the record. Some of the collaborators such as Mats Gustafsson and Tony Buck were amongst the first contributions to the record and their work helped frame up some of the raw character of the album. The collaborations continued all the way through and even in the final days of mixing the record, some of the pieces were still quite dynamic. Heinz Riegler played a series of guitar layers on “Object Of Projection” that entirely solidified that piece. Up until then it was unclear if that piece was going to be part of the record. So it was those kinds of moments that made the collaborations so valuable.
I think what was wonderful about the contributions from people like Thor Harris, Chris Abrahams, Norman Westberg, or Vanessa Tomlinson was that each of them are so very directed and focused in their own right that they bring a huge amount of musical personality with them. That mean new relations within the work were always bring brought to light. My sense of harmony is not that of Thor or Chris, so I am constantly having to consider how it is those contributions mesh into the music. It was a wonderfully dynamic process.
Speaking of social connections, I had read in an interview with David Toop about his relationship with Room40, and it struck me that in your capacity as a label head you’ve played an important role collaborating in very different capacities. I was very impressed by the fact that you know Herzog (!), and introduced him to J.A. Baker. How did that come about? Did you also share your album with him, or just send him the book? I’m very interested in the relationship between different art forms, the way that social relations and institutions can work to separate (or gather) work that may have affinities that are more central to their meaning than their differences in media.
I’ve had the great fortune to come in contact with some wonderful artist and writers over the years. This most recent tour of North America [in 2017, now the second most recent], I’ve made time to visit with folks like Genesis P Orridge and Mark Pauline from Survival Research Labs, to discuss possible projects. I also met with Lauren Berlant whose work has been so very important for me. When you make those connections, you’re reminded that this whole cultural ecology is just that, an ecology. It’s a network of interrelated parts that needs each other if it’s to flourish.
So in saying that, when I read The Peregrine, I was really motivated to share it with as many artists as I could. People whom I felt would extract something positive from it and potentially draw a little of that creative energy I did from it. I must have bought 100 or more copies of that book and shared them. One person I sent it to quite early on was Werner Herzog. To me, Baker’s writing shares Herzog’s intensity of observation and celebration of the incidental. My dear friend Douglas Quin kindly made an introduction for me and I sent the book and an LP off to Werner. A few weeks back he wrote back and said how much he’d enjoyed the book and that he didn’t have an LP player any longer. I ended up making a CD-R for him. For about 4 years there he was the only person with an original digital copy of the record apart from me as it was only available on vinyl in its initial pressing. I’m glad he found it so inspiring and has subsequently shared it. That’s what needs to happen with great works!
Fantastic. Now to some more traditional Sound Propositions questions. Do you have a current favorite piece of gear you’d care to talk about? Not necessary from a technical standpoint, but as a piece of equipment that you’ve developed a kind of personal relationship with.
You know what I love, a patchbay. I know this sounds like a frivolous thing to say, but honestly, I can’t praise this enough. For me, the patchbay is this matrix of possibility…so much of my work is process oriented, in that I start with one element and then transform that element across time through a variety of treatments. So much of this is made possible by the patchbay and being able to really deeply explore the interactions between various kinds of inputs and processors like pedals and the like. Quite often I have moments where sounds arrive, say some of the material for For/Not For John Cage or even the first couple of minutes of “Another Body” from Wilderness Of Mirrors, where they results far exceed what I expect from the process leading to them. The patchbay allows this fluid, flowing possibility and for me that’s really quite valuable.
Photo: Alba Ruperez
One of the tensions I’m interested in exploring through Sound Propositions is the difference between working as an artist in the studio (producing records and compositions in “fixed,” recorded form) and in performances. So, how do you approach recording versus performing? How much do you conceive of these as distinct practices, and how much do they overlap for you?
The studio and the stage are two entirely different zones of engagement, each with its pleasures and pains. Temporally they are very different; in that the studio is about an accumulation of time, things worked and reworked, drilled into, buried and then exhumed. The studio encourages a kind of endlessness to time, which is wonderful if you can know how to control it. The studio also is about a selfish use of sound in space. It is a restricted exchange as you create the work and it’s not until publication that the sharing occurs. At that point too, any sense of control is handed over as the music enters the world as its own object, to be used by others in the ways they see fit.
The stage by comparison is about the momentary nature of time, in that the performance unfolds around you, and audience and within a place. This is, under the right circumstances, completely consuming and spellbinding. I know I have been both a performer and an audience member and been wholly swallowed in time and place, lost in this connection of moments that collide into one another. It’s pure magic!
I’m especially interested in live performances that break away from the typical stage-oriented approach. The “stage” – both literally and metaphorically – has generally dominated the live and recorded presentation of music. That is, audiences orientated visually towards a performer on stage, albums mixed as if the listener is seated in the ‘sweet spot’ in an auditorium, reverbs modeled after various concert halls or rooms, etc. Do you have a very different approach to a live situation in terms of improvisation as opposed to how you work in the studio?
I do. Quite often I perform diffusions in spaces. I think though for certain types of music, mine included, every concert is site specific to a point. Working with electronic music, the instrument is in many respects the PA and knowing how the PA can articulate a space and bring it to life. The music, as an input, is the material gesture in some respect.
Can you provide us with a breakdown or walk-through of a particular track? My interest isn’t necessarily in any particular track, but instead to illustrate how your creative process develops.
I think each piece of work emerges from quite unique circumstances in some respects. The starting points might be the same, in that I have some go to instruments and ways of treating sound materials, but after that things usually are a one to one basis. On Wilderness Of Mirrors and Cruel Optimism, many of the pieces have only come together at what you might say is the last minute. They are processes of extreme iteration and transformation. The starting place and where they end are usually radically different.
A pieces like “Negative Drone” for instance really only took form, to my ears at least, when Norman Westberg played some baritone guitar on the piece for me. It was in that moment, listening to him play that I suddenly realized what the piece would become. It was one piece of the puzzle that unlocked the rest. Similarly, Heinz Riegler’s work on “Object Of Projection” completely refocused that piece for me and added some critical tonalities that made the piece actually become cemented. Before his contributions that piece was destined for the graveyard of delete, so to speak.
Cruel Optimism seemed to take a pretty explicit position with regard to the crises currently facing our world, and so I’d like to ask about the relation between art and politics with this in mind. Not in the sense of electoral politics or policies, but rather if you understand your work as having some broader relationship to these questions. Is there a politics (or an ethos, perhaps) to your work? And considering the society we live in such an artistic labor of love as running a record label and producing art, a dedication to qualities that can’t be measured or reduced to an exchange value, seems to be significant (at least to how I understand “politics”).
I think any art is in fact rooted in politics. The way that relation is examined and understood is something that is both for the artist and those approaching the work, whether that be as audience or critic, to interrogate. I think it is important to recognize what the political means in these terms. It is, as you say, not rooted simply in the ideas of government, though certainly the actualization of policies developed by governments can be a very inspirational and powerful thing to respond to.
For my work, I am interested in questions of agency in the broadest sense. How agency and a sense of the political become meshed and the potentials for work to be actualized out of this situation. I’ve used this phrase the ‘politics of perception’, as that for me is perhaps a good summary of how I feel the work relates at a political level. In some basic way it asks who is allowed to listen and to what and by default who is allowed to speak, of what and to whom. The music I make exists at a multiplicity of levels in any one moment and the depth to which the work can speak is articulated by the person encountering it. To some, the work is merely noise, or a background, to others it is a statement of intent, a way of opening out oneself into the world; a gateway to embodiment in the moment. The work also acts as a catalyst for conversations such as these, where the opportunity to speak to the root of the work is made available. Cruel Optimism has offered me the chance to speak to how important I feel critical theorists like Lauren Berlant are in the world we find ourselves in. I still love Carol Hanisch’s notion of ‘the personal is political’. Today, I don’t think anyone could believe it to be otherwise!
To further complicate this last question: I lived in Montreal for many years and still spend a few weeks there every year and may very likely return to live in the future. And over the years I know many artists have struggled with the question of accepting state funding, especially in relation to their political positions that are deeply critical of the state as an engine of imperialism and environmental degradation and so on. And cities like Montreal tend to use artists to raise their hipness profile and encourage real estate development and to lure tech companies and tourists and the forces of gentrification and so on. So, Australia has a generous grant agency for artists, does it not? Do you have any thoughts on this quandary?
I think the question of artists as the vanguard of gentrification is a very important question. I’ve spent some time in Los Angeles over the past half decade and the changes there speak to this crisis really acutely. I think it’s a hugely complex issue that extends beyond those individuals seeking some capacity to maintain their lives. The issue speaks to the commodification of property; to have affordable and secure housing is a fundamental right in my opinion. The fact that we’re in the midst of this enormous and global exercise in flipping properties speaks to some significant failings in urban planning, government policy and the like. It speaks to the success of neoliberal agendas however and the redefinition of how it is we perceive and utilize things like property.
As to the question of funding: Here in Australia, at a federal level at least, our funding body (the Australia Council For The Arts) is arms length from the government. That however does not mean the government isn’t consistently interfering with the guiding principles of the organization. I was a board member on their music board for almost 5 years and in that time I came to respect the potential of what good people in organizations like this can do. After all organizations are simply shells, like governments are simply shells, it is the people that make them valuable. I believe there is a value to taxation and to that taxation being used for things like art, as well as for things like road maintenance. I feel the huge challenge for art, operating in the current economic and politic environment, is to reconcile the qualitative impact the work has when we are so wed to quantitative tools for assessment of meaning and value. This is a fundamental point of conflict, and extends well beyond art into areas of education, the environment and other core social functions. The fact that we rely so heavily on quantitative methods of deriving value is one point of how we find ourselves in this giant mess we’re in right now.
Yes, Los Angeles is a really interesting example, both because of the increase in foreign capital flowing into the city, but also as the area has continued to attract educated / creative young people from around the country priced out of other cities. And we’ve also seen methods of possible, and seemingly successful, resistance to art gallery-led gentrification in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, a historically Chicano area.
And to bring things to a close, I always like to ask about an artist’s favorite work outside of sound art or music. What books, visual art, plays, films, etc you are inspired by, or find common cause with? Are their artists working in other media (past or present) that you feel an aesthetic kinship with?
Most certainly. J.A Baker’s The Peregrine remains a source of immense pleasure for me. Masahisa Fukase’s Karasu and Yasau Higo’s works around maternal shamans in Okinawa make me love having eyes!! In film, I am still haunted by so many wonders, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil for example leaps to mind. But seriously, I only need to look out my window or at my cactus garden to realize just how damned amazing this place is. Everything is a wonder if you let it be!
Beautiful. Thank you so much for your time, Lawrence.
(Unattributed square-format photos that are not album covers are courtesy of Lawrence English’s Instagram account.)