On curating the Listening Biennial

July 11, 2023
These tensions between sound and silence, speaking up and listening quietly come across in many of the works of the Biennial, in relationships between humans as well as between humans and non-humans, and between non-humans.
Luísa Santos

Brandon LaBelle: Coming together to share ideas, knowledges and practices is an essential part of The Listening Biennial, especially in ways that enhance local perspectives while finding connections across social, cultural settings and histories. I’m honored to be in dialogue with all of you, and it’s a privilege and a joy to have this opportunity for collaborating, for learning from your curatorial experiences and approaches. To begin this collective conversation, I thought to ask each of you to briefly introduce yourselves, and also to say a few words about your interest in listening – how does listening play a part in your work?

Dayang Yraola: I was born in an art-engaged environment. My mother was an ethnomusicologist and my father (and his entire family) are musicians. I attended the University of the Philippines area studies program, but my practice mainly is in arts management, collections management and curatorship. In 2007, I was hired by the UP Center for Ethnomusicology to design and manage the digital archiving of a UNESCO World Registered collection – which is the Jose Maceda Collection. At that time, I already had a curatorial practice, which was why I accepted the task with much hesitation. I could not say “no” however because the same collection contains the voices of my paternal grandparents. My parents actually met while doing field work, my mother being the researcher and my father’s family being her informants. The collection contains 2700 hours of magnetic tapes that had to be played in real-time while digitizing. After so many hours of listening to chants, gongs, and whatever else, one gets bored (no matter how interesting the subject). To entertain myself, I shifted my attention to incidental sounds that were captured in the recordings (such as a baby crying, dogs barking, a door creaking). This sparked my interest, which later brought me to find out more about sound studies, then later to sound art. To cut the long story short, this has brought me to study R. Murray Schafer, Pauline Oliveros, Brandon LaBelle, Salomé Voegelin, through the guidance of late Prof. Michael Brewster. This also led me to start focusing my curatorial practice on sound. My work now is more on documenting the ecology of practitioners who are working with sound. There is not one book written about sound practices in the Philippines. I have been (2 years in) trying to write this, which entails a lot of listening as we are still at the stage of “oral history”.

It was the same experience from the ethnomusic archiving that taught me to hear when a magnetic tape is “infested” by fungi and molds. I mention this because, just yesterday, I had a conversation with the group The Observatory, from Singapore, who were one of the artists I recommended for the Listening Biennial. Their work tries to reclaim the “collaboration” between fungi and mold and human-made music, in the now digital format. At this point, I have gone full circle from when I first realized the place of listening in my work. The value of listening is really what we make of what we hear, whether it is what we are listening to/for or something that just “came in.”
Luísa Santos: Unlike Dayang, I didn’t grow up in an artistic environment. However, for some reason, I was always fascinated by visual arts. A world made of various worlds, visual arts have always been a place that allows me to enter into realities and stories that I would never access otherwise. While, as a child, most of my friends wanted to become doctors, scientists, or veterinarians, I wanted to work with the arts. I knew, however, from a very early age, that I didn’t want to be an artist: I was way too frustrated by the mismatch between what my mind could see and what my hands could produce.

Fast forward to adulthood, in 2015, when I was finishing the writing of my PhD thesis on Multidisciplinarity: Projects for Social Change in Art and Culture, I became fascinated by the potential of collaboration among diverse institutions. In 2016, when I applied for the position of Gulbenkian Professor at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP), I proposed to initiate a consortium of contemporary art institutions and Faculties of art and cultural studies. The notion of conflict was undergoing decisive transformations and Europe was more than ever – until then – providing a center-stage for these changes. That’s how the 4Cs: from Conflict to Conviviality through Creativity and Culture (4Cs) emerged. Co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union (2017-21), with a consortium of 8 partners (UCP, Lisbon; Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm; Vilnius Arts Academy, Vilnius; ENSAD, Paris; Royal College of Art, London; Fundació Antoni Tápies, Barcelona; Museet for Samtidskunst, Roskilde; SAVVY, Berlin), the 4Cs sought to respond to the challenges of migration, security, and freedom of expression by raising awareness about the role of arts and cultural institutions in the strengthening of European identity and European citizenship in a project of peace and conviviality. Later, in 2020, I had the opportunity to join a panel discussion with Ana Fabíola Maurício and Olivier Marboeuf moderated by Nav Haq at the conference “Considering Monoculture”, in the framework of Our Many Europes, organized by the L’Internationale. We discussed the symbolism of agriculture for describing monoculturality and power relations. As organizers ourselves, we also discussed our relations to institutions, particularly to which degree we can engage with them as a way to address hegemony, history and inclusivity. The work that follows is grounded in the transitioning of art institutions and how this process responds and acts upon current social challenges. The first time I became aware of the role of listening was when I met you, Brandon. I was studying silence as a tool of resistance and, when you kindly invited me to the Listening Academy in Bergen, I became fascinated by the transforming potential of listening as a methodological tool and practice. Since then, listening has become key in my research of art institution-ing processes.
Guely Morato: After years of being part of national theater groups in Bolivia, I began my work in the world of professional filmmaking, being part of national and international films that have achieved numerous awards and recognitions. Both cinema and theater are spaces strongly focused on the visual image. In those previous years I dedicated my work to the creation of images oriented to the retina, because we live in a society dominated by ocularcentrism. This led me to question whether the image is the exclusive territory of sight. 

Since then I have been linked to aural culture until I abandoned the visual world, during the first years I learned to control technical aspects of sound and then I got into the concept of listening; currently I consider that the most interesting aspects in terms of listening happens beyond cochlear listening and has to do with conceptualizing listening as a space conducive to empathy. After carrying out a series of listening sessions, actions and concert curatorship, in 2014 I decided to create the first edition of Sonandes: International Biennial of Sound Art, that year the curatorial line was dedicated to Memory and Listening, the following editions focused on: Public Space and Listening, Perception and Listening, Cosmotechnics and Deep Listening. A very important characteristic of Sonandes is that the processes and soundworks that are part of its programming are commissioned pieces made during the biennial, a result of the collective work between local creators, visitors and communities. Sonandes has been growing and mutating to other fields, it is currently a platform that carries out the biennial, residencies, research, exhibitions and publications but all linked to experimentation and research from listening and sound. Sonandes has meant both for the Bolivian society interested in sound and for me a constant learning process from self-management and in recent years evolved with the help of various international agents. 

Currently I am a curator, artist and researcher dedicated entirely to work and reflection from and towards sound. My process is self-taught; it is the result of the exchange of knowledge and research as a way of collective learning. That is why I link myself with locals, artisans, scientists and collectives of different specialties and not exclusively artists. This has allowed me to generate hybrid research processes that deal with composition, installation, printed material, symposiums, forums and exhibitions where the material that builds and weaves the experiences is sound and listening.
Rayya Badran: I have been a voracious listener of music since my childhood. This love of music took root and prompted me to keep searching for various musical styles and genres as a teenager and adult. But it was when I pursued studies in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College that cemented my interest in the practice of sound and listening. Since then, my practice as a writer and occasional audio producer has been dedicated to learning about the political and aesthetic potentialities of sound across disciplines and media. My first publication entitled Radiophonic voice(s) draws on two distinct filmed incidents from which I unpack the politics of a sonic interruption provoked by the sudden intrusion of an acousmatic voice. The research lays bare an experimental ‘radiophonic terrain’ in which I intend to unwrap complex moments of insulation, to find what lies beneath the voice’s many layers from its moment of irruption to its mergence with the image and beyond. My long-standing interest in radio and sonic practices in general emerged out of this publication and research. 

More recently, in 2020, I was invited to guest edit the first issue of The Derivative, an online seasonal publication by the Beirut Art Center in which I commissioned five artists, sound artists and writers to produce works and texts that explored notions of aurality and reverberation. In 2022, I edited and curated the Norient City Sounds Online Special: Beirut, which includes 17 contributions from writers, filmmakers, sound artists and composers and other practitioners whose practices prioritized the sonic, musical and aural. The special contains original works produced during a particularly difficult time in Lebanon’s history, after the 2019 popular protests, the Beirut port explosion and the ongoing economic collapse.

In addition to the various sound-related activities I have been a part of in the past decade and which allowed me to learn how to listen in distinct ways, perhaps the most formative was a collective listening session organized by Gasworks during which a large group of people gathered to listen to Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s Londonunderlondon from 2005. I was already familiar with the piece but up until that point I hadn’t experienced how poignant a moment of collective listening could be. It was equally memorable to have discussed the piece at length with its authors. I have aspired to create and foster such moments of collective listening since then. 
Brandon: In preparing for the Biennial over the last months, we’ve been discussing potential curatorial directions, sharing questions and topics, and thinking through current issues across culture and society. One of the key aspects of the Listening Biennial is to organize a framework for addressing local debates and communities, while also creating links and connections on an international level. Can you say something about some of the topics or interests you’ve each been concerned with in your curatorial selection of artists for the Biennial? Are there particular local perspectives or investigations that informed your approach?
Luísa: At first, when we discussed the curatorial approach as a group, I was particularly interested in the ideas of sharing, collaboration, network and generosity because I feel that these are key in what we are doing at the Biennial. Some of us haven’t met in person and there’s always this sense of trust, mutual learning and exchange when we work together in our online gatherings and email exchange. Then, when I started looking at sound artists for the Biennial, I followed the same thread particularly with a focus on storytelling and oral (hi)stories, asking what listening does (listening to sounds as well as to silences), and modes of listening (or being silent) that undo power hierarchies. Quite a few art institutions seem to be transitioning quite rapidly everywhere, looking at their power structures and how these can (and why they should) be dismantled. This is not something that art institutions started on their own, it’s a response to what is happening in the world at large and, more particularly, they are following the voices of activists, artivists, and artists whose main raw materials are the conditions of the world in which we live in. The current discussions that are being held in / by art institutions follow artists’ investigations of non-human lifeforms and their interrelationships with humans; artists’ works and artivist practices on social inclusion and justice; artists’ takes on war and various forms of social conflict. Most of the work being done now shows that there is no such thing as an island in terms of social challenges, everything is related. This – just like social conflicts and challenges – is not new, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the idea of intersectionality in the late 1980s. What is new is the strength that it has gained in the last couple of years, particularly since COVID-19, #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, which were moments that translated the theoretical ideas into embodied realities and on a global level (despite the many local and contextual differences). And artists have been key in this translation. At first reading, the artists of The Listening Biennial seem to tackle very different themes and concerns. However, under closer inspection, they are all linked.
Guely: The curatorship I propose is articulated from three axes: feminisms, oral tradition and rituality. The dialogue processes started from the invitation to various feminist thinkers and creators, since Latin American feminisms are a fruitful space of intellectual creation that have managed to articulate from the experiences of the global south, in a highly sexist context such as Bolivian society. 

Andean culture cannot be understood without reflecting on how the oral tradition has evolved, interrupted by the colonial process and by the transmission of written knowledge by the chroniclers of the former kingdom of Spain. Songs, stories, medicine, landscape readings and myths have continued to resonate since ancient times and represent living practices in our society. On the one hand, there is a high rate of illiteracy and school dropouts, especially among women, which makes the spoken word the main means of communication. The Plurinational State of Bolivia has 37 official languages. I am interested in working against the hegemonic systems of language, which already finds expression in the first statement of intent I carried out during the curatorship BABEL – Stories of Listening in 2019, an exhibition dedicated to the linguistic diversity of Bolivia. 

I consider ritual as technology, as a space of resistance and collective emotionality. The spoken word has a very special place within rituality and sacredness, that is why the third key point of this curatorship is Ritual and Animism, a practice present in the Andean region and especially in Bolivia, which tunes us and establishes a communication between human and non-human. Many of the pieces for The Listening Biennial explore these relationships. For my proposal I am giving relevance to the spoken word and the whole universe that inhabits it. 

Bolivia is a country of screams and silences, and this is reflected in the curatorial direction that I propose for this edition of The Listening Biennial.

Native languages are definitely a space of resistance and the exercise of a very important autonomy that is disappearing with the passage of time. I wanted to open a space for this diversity that strongly resists in my country.
Guely Morato

Dayang: The Listening Biennial that is being programmed for Asia subscribes to the understanding that listening is a political act that enables a community to move forward in their collective agenda. Sense of community is pretty strong in Asia. Prior to the pandemic, I have been very active working with networks of artists in Southeast Asia and East Asia (some projects include Project Glocal, Media Art Kitchen, Composite Noises). More than a network of scenes however (as proposed by scholars who did studies in the region earlier than I), Southeast Asia and some countries in East Asia have a community of practice. It is a kind of sociation where trust and camaraderie are as much a currency as resources or talent/skill in creating art. It is a barangay, a kampung, a muban, a ´å, or a village, where one lives and not simply where one does his tasks. In other words, people come together not because it is their preferred genre of art; most of the time their presence is because their friends or family are there. The other keyword then is connection. Connection is a relationship that is nurtured and nourished by shared participation. This may not always entirely be about and for art. It could simply be coming together at a party, hanging out in a bar, commenting on each other’s posts on Facebook, among others. This is perhaps one of the most important elements of the SEA community of practice. Prior to the pandemic, with the prevalence of cheap air travel, backpacker’s inn/airBnB, and the popularity of residencies (especially artists-run residencies) and festivals (or festival-like events, with “international” participation), the connection extended beyond cities of each country, and onto cities of whichever country in the region. This was made obvious with the introduction of artists via the cities they represent rather than the countries they came from – e.g. I am a curator from Manila. Connection then is achieved by hanging together (tambay) (tembayan in Malay is to reminisce, which one also does in tambayan – talk about the past).

In this Biennial then, we are working to explore listening as a discursive act of coming together in moving forward from the ashes of the pandemic and the ills that it brought upon humanity. But where is forward? And how can listening do what it is assigned to do? To find out, it is proposed that we answer two questions:

1. What is it that we hear that we would listen to?
In asking this question, we become aware of what information or issues we are aware of, and therefore, have more tendency to react to.
2. What is it that we do not hear that we should listen to?

In asking this question, we try to dig deeper into our experience to find out what we might have missed, that may or may not be important for us, which may or may not require a reaction from us. In trying to answer both questions, we will be confronted by where we were, where we are and where we want to go. It will likewise make us aware of what we are or what we are doing and what we are not (doing) for how or what, and the implication of this doing (or non-doing) to where we aspire to be. I further propose tentative answers to the questions above. Such that, at the height of the pandemic, there have been many moves to fix severed connections using different means; of how this is different from what we were used to; of how it can (or cannot replace) what we are used to. This we heard. Proposals, attempts and acts of trying to fix severed connections. The Biennial proposed that we revisit how we listened to these and how we acted on them.

Emerging from the pandemic there have been conversations of fatigue in using online platforms and starting to engage via hybrid or hyflex arrangements. Which part of this was heard? Which part wasn’t? What was lost in translation? Or how did miscommunications unwittingly enlighten confusions? I am just guessing there are paradoxical situations like this. Now in the new normal, there are those who constantly refer to the lockdown days in determining their present affairs; others refer farther back to just-before the pandemic started. Regardless of how far people look back, they would either be seeing the new normal as a lesser version of what was or an opportunity to make things better. These positions aren’t always contradictory. On some occasions they may even co-exist.

The two questions asked above, should be asked in these three “locations”, to be able to discern where our community is at the moment and where we want to bring it.

Rayya: I was really inspired by the distinct interests and approaches of my peers in this edition of the biennial. I was drawn to the ways in which you all address the relationship between sound and locality, particularly in terms of rituality and oral traditions, which have been particularly difficult to harness or access — however present they may be through different forms — in the past four years in Lebanon. The curatorial directions that concerned me and some of the artists I have worked with reflect questions around sounds and stories that we cannot ignore. To that end, how can sound be perceived as being at once transformative and alienating: is there a way for us to learn from the recesses of the eerie, the weird or the fantastical? What can collective imagination produce in instances of duress and chaos and how can that emancipation be born out of darkness? My proposition challenges how we perceive connectedness to land and resources, to others through sounds and emerged from prolonged conversations between myself and the artists to attempt at capturing the poetic sensing which we are all committed to in this biennial. I also think Dayang’s question here is crucial: Where is forward? And in what ways does listening contribute to a collective shift towards a different ecology of attention.

Brandon: It’s extremely moving and inspiring to hear your different experiences and positions, and ways of approaching the Biennial. I greatly appreciate the sense of passion and urgency and imagination all of you are bringing to the curatorial work. The focus on building community and connection, addressing social challenges and where we are, creating rituals and situations to hang out, to talk and listen, and also to dream together, is admirable and vitally important. And something I also feel is central to the Biennial as a project. A friend in Canada recently shared this quote from John Holloway: “…if the starting point is the dignity of all, then this leads to a dialogical politics, a politics not of talking, but of listening, or, perhaps better, of listening-and-talking... We advance not by telling people what to do, but by asking them what they are doing and what should be done.” This seems to echo the focus on orality that Guely is proposing, and the dialogical practices Luisa and Dayang also mention. I start to wonder about the issue of voice, and questions of how we speak – how do we talk as listeners? Is there a certain listening-voice needed in supporting a life of dignity as Holloway suggests? In your work and conversations with the participating artists, have there been any reflections on voice you’d like to share? 
Luísa: I think listening-voice-silence are interconnected ideas and practices. In order to properly listen to someone / something, one needs (to make some) silence. This relates to power relationships as well – how much are we willing to give up power to make others powerful? It’s about generosity as much as it is about curiosity and the willingness to learn from / with others. These tensions between sound and silence, speaking up and listening quietly come across in many of the works of the Biennial, in relationships between humans as well as between humans and non-humans and between non-humans.

The issue of voice also came up in the curatorial process. At some point, we decided it would make sense to have some sort of intervals between the audio works, with their corresponding titles and names of the artists announced by the artists themselves. This was important to us because, in presenting purely sound-based works, without any visual or sculptural / installation component, there will not be any captions for the works. Even if we do make captions, there is nothing to “see”, as such. It was quite important for us that each artist could speak their name and the title of their work rather than having one single voice communicating all names and titles. However, not all artists felt comfortable with this, some have asked if this could be skipped or if they could have someone / something (i.e. a software) speaking their name and title. I found this particularly interesting – this tension between the single voice and the multivocal and how this, to me, reveals a tension between grand and micro-narratives and, in turn, how this tension has other meanings for other people involved in the process.
Dayang: This issue of voice is curious. In recent conversations, while preparing for this Biennial, it is quite common that an invitee’s immediate reaction is: “but I am not a sound artist”. Then I would go on explaining that the Biennial is not a sound art festival anyway. Highlighting that the events in the Biennial hope to create opportunities of listening that are otherwise untapped or unfamiliar. Then a recurring rebuttal question will come up, asking: “but who is our audience?”. More than one generic answer, this string of questions prompted the Manila Curatorial Team to think of where these questions are coming from. So far it reveals that although the idea of community is generally warm and sparkly, it also creates borders (some are harmless invisible borders, while others are more combative). By these I mean that there are some “communities” that only recognize themselves and their members – musicians play for their music audience; issues of indigenous people are talked about in IP colloquia, not on art talks; scientists talk about science to science audience/ forums; etc. This is of course an oversimplification of the situation. This is just to illustrate why it is important that the activities we are planning for Asia should include “other disciplines”, “other practices”, “other communities”. It is an attempt to bring together as many voices to as many hearers (and hopefully listeners). 

In addition, besides recognizing the multi-vocality of networked communities of practices, like with Luísa, the issue of silence (and noise) have been a recurring point of interest. Not as a binary, but more as independent actors (or actions) that determine inclusion/ exclusion in what is heard. I personally have only explored silence and noise (and muting) for their aesthetic qualities. Like the work of Wantanee Siripattananuntakul (part of The Listening Biennial 1st edition), where she sings without a voice. So this issue too is of great interest to me. This is also the reason why there are now invited resource persons in the Biennial who will focus on sharing their research and experience in relation to these two other points, and how it forms or deforms voices. 
Brandon: The inclusion of the artists’ own voices has been an exciting and important element I think as well, as it adds much to accentuating the particularities of each work – that there is a person, a place, a body behind what we are hearing; that the works come from somewhere, and I think these small moments where the artist speaks their own name, the title, and even a few thoughts about the work, is very dear and evocative. Often, these short recordings can be heard to clearly come from a different time as the work itself – many of them are obviously recorded using more low-fi means, or done at home or in-between daily tasks, and that’s also a nice quality, something intimate and direct. This also gestures toward your interest in micro-narratives Luísa, and the importance of hearing diverse voices and views across society. How can we create the conditions for micro-narratives to be heard and appreciated? Or to have impact onto the dominant narratives that often shape identity and discourse? 
Luísa: That’s a question that I find crucial in our times and to any practice – artistic, curatorial and any other that involves humans. A few years ago, while working on a book-exhibition titled “politics of silence”, someone asked me something like “are you trying to give voice to the voiceless?” The problem with that question is that it puts me, as a curator, in a position of power, which we, curators, specially when working in an institution, do have. We should give up that position of power and listen rather than “give voice”. Listening means – to me – a position of someone / something who / that is willing to learn, to grow, to give up on his / her own viewpoints. Giving voice, on the contrary, is about deciding on when to listen, what to listen, whom to listen to and then, what to validate as the right things to retain from what was said. Listening is plural, multivocal and, as such, opens to all micro-narratives that want to be told / listened to / shared. If we give up the power position of the one who “gives voice”, the learning potential is infinite, as infinite as the number of micro-narratives by the humans and non-humans that make up our world(s). 

Furthermore, many biennials have this nationalist focus with pavilions and / or artists from this and that country defining national identities. On the other hand, the impact biennials have on the environment is massive – from the material production to the mobility implied. The Listening Biennial, on the contrary, puts together a manifold of people and institutions across the globe and shares the works digitally. While the digital does have an impact, there is nearly no material production as such and no mobility is implied as it relies on local presentations and developments. This points to a transitioning of art biennial culture and maybe a transitioning of art institutions as well, towards more collaborative, multivocal, and ever changing practices that respond to the constant changes of the world we co-inhabit. 
Dayang: I agree, the inclusion of a voice introduction for each of the works adds more context, if not actual character to the audio work, particularly the circumstances of its production. Adding voice intro is also something that Garlands Magazine (Australia) did recently. According to the editor, it adds more connection between audience and reader. This brings me back to my response to the first question, of how paying attention to incidental sounds brought me to my current curatorial interest. 

Creating micro-narratives that can impact dominant narratives echoes one of the questions I posed to the artists selected for the Biennial. I asked them which of their works is personal or that comes from an exclusive place but would allow people to understand what they are listening to, where the context of articulation is contained in the work. For example, the work of mamoru focuses on himself thinking out loud as to how to produce a work for the Biennial. It is a narration or monologue which captures his current transient situation in Europe, coming from Japan. His is a micro-narrative that reflects on expected works or productions that are to be presented in an international festival. 
Brandon: It strikes me that micro-narratives are what make up individual lives, the stories and memories we each hold, and that arise out of the contexts of families and friends, communities and localized settings. I appreciate how such narratives are given room for sounding their particular meanings throughout the Biennial – they are like seeds being planted at each participating venue. Maybe in nurturing an ecology of attention we can support the emergence of a new culture of listening as well as that of storying.