In Conversation with Brandon LaBelle
An interview with the co-editor of Surface Tension: Problematics of Site
Molly Sheridan: So, let’s start with the basic background question. Can you walk me as briefly as possible through the creation of the book, from the idea to selecting content through publication? (I refer here to the evolution of ideas more than nuts and bolts construction…)
Brandon LaBelle: The idea for the book came about through informal conversations between Ken [Ehrlich] and myself, and essentially our shared relationship as artists to the legacy of site-specific practice as developed in the late-1960s. We felt that an anthology that probed this legacy, while casting a glance forward to the present so as to register how such a legacy has played out in contemporary forms of practice, beyond strictly the visual arts, was desperately needed. So, the book veers across performance, dance, sound/music, architecture and design, as well as art. In terms of selecting the specific works and contributors, this again oscillated between the historical and the contemporary—wanting to somehow initiate, within the book itself, conversations across generational, disciplinary, and geographic locations. The book intentionally spans a large territory while maintaining a central focus.
Molly Sheridan: Do you see this as an extension of earlier book projects or set up for future ones?
Brandon LaBelle: Of course, both. The earlier projects and publications (Site of Sound and Writing Aloud) focused more specifically on sound, but always with a slight bent or leaning to larger questions, whether that be of language or architecture, or more social questions regarding public space. The lingering question as to how to produce as an artist in relation to the larger world I think is the paramount concern—and what I have been interested in highlighting is that this relationship in effect is the content of work itself. Well, this is the field that I’m engaged with and the publications also look towards.
Molly Sheridan: The language used in the book seems to make it not for the uninitiated. Who is your target audience?
Brandon LaBelle: The book definitely assumes a certain knowledge or understanding of site-specific practice and certain discourse surrounding contemporary art of the last 40 years. Though I think it also aims to contaminate such discourse with other perspectives, other voices, other influences, by introducing peripheral figures and questions, geographies slightly outside the “New York School”, as well as veering into other forms of practice and writing, from the more fictional to the biographical. So, for us, I think we tried to temper the overtly theoretical with the overtly practical, the intellectual with the visceral, the academic with the vernacular, while at the same time resisting such dualities.
Molly Sheridan: One thing that struck me as soon as I picked up the book was how good it looks. A lot of times I wonder about books directed at creative people that are not visually very attractive. Was a lot of planning and effort put into that part of the book’s creation?
Brandon LaBelle: Yes, definitely! The book was designed by Louise Sandhaus, a designer based in Los Angeles, and she put a lot of energy into designing the book so as to playfully and intellectually underscore aspects of the content and editorial agenda. Plus, to simply make the book irresistibly beautiful. We also wanted to use the space of the book as a site itself by inserting a few more performative and site-specific works. In this way, the book functions as a possible space, not only for reading but for experiencing the specifics of the page.
Molly Sheridan: How did you intend the CD to work with the text?
Brandon LaBelle: The CD at times illustrates a written text, and at other times proposes sound itself as a medium that may add to the discussion around place and location, and how such things might contribute to forms of practice. So, the CD is also a kind of live event performing within the book, something to take out and play on your stereo to vibrate the air, to register place itself through sonically stirring a reader’s direct location. In this way, the CD illustrates the book in general by performing its content more actively.
Molly Sheridan: Relating site specificity directly to music/sound, can you talk a bit about some of the historical highlights?
Brandon LaBelle: The historical legacy could be taken in various directions. Certainly, the idea that music/sound functions acoustically in given spaces can be heard in a vast number of religious and spiritual contexts: the voice housed within Gothic cathedrals builds a drama of sound by raising the voice vertically, the chanting of Buddhist monks moves more horizontally through Japanese temples and trickles beyond its spatial borders and into the garden, etc. This then can certainly be elaborated in more acoustical articulations in which specific compositions or sound works are designed for given spaces, such as Stockhausen’s work for the World Expo in Osaka in 1970, or the Phillips Pavilion in 1958 designed by Le Corbusier (and Iannis Xenakis), which presented work by Edgar Varèse through a 400 channel speaker system. The specifics of space to sound is also highlighted in the legacy of musique concrète, though in a sense by blacking out space, adopting the cinematic architecture of pure illusion and no reference to outside information. From here of course we could move through a whole range of more electronic works and contemporary artists that work directly with space, architecture, and location: Maryanne Amacher’s structure-borne music, Michael Brewster’s sound installations, Alvin Lucier needs to definitely be mentioned, and methods of soundscape studies which promotes a direct understanding of sound and environment.
Molly Sheridan: In your introduction, you acknowledge that this type of art often raises more questions than answers. What types of questions do you feel it should be raising currently?
Brandon LaBelle: It could certainly ask itself: does site-specific practice actually operate according to the same terms it did 30 years ago? I think essentially the book proposes that it does not, and that one way for it to address the conditions of today is to move more radically across disciplinary borders and become more active in situations beyond art. I think that is essentially the work the book highlights and in a way promotes. To slightly contradict myself, in the broader sense it could also be asking less about itself, and more about others, particularly in terms of addressing people. I think the role people play in social and cultural productions features in much site-specific work, though I wonder at what level this could be taken further. Again, some of the work in the book certainly highlights this (WochenKlausur, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Lize Mogel).
Molly Sheridan: What can a composer who writes principally for the concert hall and maybe has not previously considered the role site could play in his/her work take away from a reading of this book?
Brandon LaBelle: Well, obviously they might not find it of interest at all, and that would certainly be O.K. Though what might become more apparent is that their music could have an added dimension by approaching the site-specifics of a given concert hall in the writing of composition. This happens on occasion already (Stockhausen, Kagel, Xenakis, Lucier), though in general I find site-specific practice is not a terminology or concern you find in the conservatory, or even in some of the more experimental music programs. Ultimately, what might come from reading the book is the role music could play in addressing architecture, public space, and an audience in more experimental and interactive ways, so as to make music more “conversational” and less about the musical argument. I think this is something that would add to music greatly.