Sandra Kazlauskaitė is a Lithuanian composer, sound artist and researcher, who for the last decade has been based in London. In her artistic practice, Sandra explores aurality in conceptual terms, creates sonic collages, acousmatic compositions, audiovisual installations and compositions for theatre, and works for non-musical objects and gallery environments. As a researcher, she is currently studying for a practice-based PhD at Goldsmiths College, London. Sandra examines the embodiment of sound in relation to audiovisual art in so-called white cube art spaces. Both of her practices are very much informed by a phenomenological, first-hand experience-driven, embodied, feminist point of view on aurality, and sound structures that surround our bodies on a daily basis. For Sandra, as a sound artist and researcher, sounding environment and its rhythms are sources which not only inform us but also shape and influence us in various ways. In the following interview, we discuss Sandra’s practice, and how she perceives and uses sound to explore memory, spatio-temporality, and the historical, socio-political, ideological and personal underpinnings of our past and present realities.
How did you choose sound as the main resource in your work, and how did you start experimenting with this medium?
I began experimenting with sound in more expanded forms after moving to London in 2005. Having undergone Classical music training back in Lithuania, I was feeling increasingly limited by the institutionalism of the Classical music tradition. I wanted to explore sound outside its prescribed or expected norms, and instead immerse myself in its potential openness and fluidity: from noise, environmental sound to visual music. I was interested in picking up objects and making them sound out, visiting locations and extracting something sounding from them, and exploring histories and archives through sound; and that is why I decided to move towards a more abstract-sounding art practice. After moving to the UK, I started a sound-based course, which enabled me to explore aurality in more conceptual terms, and create sound installation works and performances. I have continued to develop my practice in those terms ever since.
You are also a researcher currently finishing a PhD project at Goldsmiths University. Can you tell us more about how you came up with the topic for your research ‘The Embodiment of Sound in Contemporary Audiovisual Art Gallery Spaces’?
My research interests emerged from my personal experience of encountering sound artworks in contemporary gallery spaces. Throughout my practice, I have discovered that white exhibition rooms, reverberant and sonically hostile in nature, fail to accommodate the auditory dimension of the artworks experienced. In the visual art context, sound is continually treated as less important, even though, considering its leaky nature, it contributes towards our overall aesthetic experience of the artworks perceived. In my research, I have increasingly turned towards forming a feminist critique of the so-called archetypal modernist ‘white cube’ spaces. The project explores the white cube project’s historical underpinnings and ideological framing, specifically its masculine, timeless, autonomous and disembodying nature. I argue that sound is able to unsettle the cube’s highly controlled and ocularcentric regime, mobilising and politically activating bodies when experiencing time-based art.
In order to understand what the ‘life’ of the white cube entails, I turned to the potential of all-sound as discovered in the architecture of the exhibition spaces: from voice, bodily movements, the sound of the artwork and accidental noises, and questioned how the totality of sound, one that is inevitable and ever-present, contributes towards the production of space and the bodies that inhabit it. All-sound and listening to it in such environments can transform the space into an expanded spatio-temporal ground, in which socially embodied inter-subjectivities are able to emerge. I have also been interested in discovering whether certain bodies, specifically the bodies of those who have been repeatedly excluded from the white cube frame, to use Nirmal Puwar’s term ‘space invaders’, such as the bodies of women, could feel more at home through engaging in all-sound. I have performed a phenomenological reading of my experience of exhibition sites from a feminist point of view, and have formed a rhythm-analysis of all-sound, as experienced through and by female bodies.
How much of your academic and artistic research is related to the semiotic approach to culture? Can you argue that sound in your case serves as a source for ethnomethodology research? Here I approach ethnomethodology from the context of symbolic anthropology and its advocates, such as Clifford Geertz, who saw culture as a spider’s web of certain meanings, disentangled only though interpretation.
My research project is very much built on interpretivism and experiential ethnographic approaches. It also draws from Clifford Geertz’s concept of Thick Description, and places my experience as a point of departure when building knowledge production in epistemological terms. When I question bodies and experience in my research, for example, I enter physical spaces to experience them. I argue that we cannot talk about sound unless we immerse ourselves in it using our bodies first. I perform as a feminist, phenomenologist and a rhythm-analysist: a methodology developed by the marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre, and account for the different bodily and environmental rhythms that emerge during my encounter with the world experienced. My work is very much informed by feminist practitioners and writers, such as Pauline Oliveros and Ursula Le Guin, who tell us to use our experience as truth. Le Guin once wrote about her initial encounter with Oliveros: ‘There was a short silence. When we started talking again, we didn’t talk objectively, and we didn’t fight. We went back to feeling our ways into ideas, using the whole intellect, not half of it, talking to one another, which involves listening. We tried to offer our experience to one another. Not claiming something: offering something.’ This encounter has informed my approach to research. As a female creator and a female body, I also decided not to claim, but to listen, embody and offer something. I do that through listening to all-sound and by offering my experience as truth.
What do you think of sound art in museums? How much can and should a museum become a place for sound conservation?
I have been thinking about issues around archiving and preserving sound in the museum context for some time now. I actually spent a few months in the autumn of 2017 in Iceland, at the Living Art Museum, exploring their sound and video collections, and looking at the methods and political implications of collecting and archiving time-based art. I was interested in questioning when sound art begins or stops being an artwork, and whether that distinction is even possible. Does its life end when it becomes a record and a trace? What other forms and shapes can it develop once it is in the archives? Does sound deteriorate and age? It is certainly an ongoing question. It presents practical but also more conceptual and abstract considerations, especially with regard to the temporality and the spatiality of the medium, as well as its physical and institutional surroundings, and whether it is frameable and conservable. I believe sound does deserve time and space, like any other medium in a museum, but, as expressed earlier, there are a number of issues that make exhibiting sound in so-called visual settings still problematic.
In your opinion, what place does sound art occupy on the contemporary art scene?
Sound art has certainly become the art form of the last decade: it’s booming! As the sound theorist Jonathan Sterne suggested, we have already undergone a form of ‘sonic turn’. However, I am not a great supporter of the term itself. Here, I echo the media historian Douglas Kahn, who has openly chosen to call sounding art forms as ‘sound in the arts’, rather than the former. I think this specific term somewhat institutionalises sound, making it more marketable, like a commodity. The fear is that if sound becomes too embedded in the art institution, then the experimental nature out of which it has emerged may become more controlled and limited. Sound has always played an ‘anarchistic’ role in the arts, and I believe it should continue to do so. In addition, I find the way the historical narrative of sound art practices is currently conveyed is very masculine, something that also unsettles me. We keep hearing about all the important men in the field, yet ignore women and queer artists who have also contributed immensely to the evolution of this medium. I have recently been working on a chapter for a publication trying to address this very specific gap, and consider the histories of sonic thinking through the practice of women sound artists.
In 2011, you initiated the online project Unmute, where you explore audiovisuality by inviting audio and visual artists to challenge their disciplines, and, by collaborating with different sound and moving image artists, to create themed artworks. Can you share some thoughts about this project?
Unmute is a curatorial project by which I tried to explore a number of things: collaborative and interdisciplinary work, and the idea of audiovisual synchresis. The project asks: what happens when you put images and sounds, created by different artists who do not necessarily work directly together to develop a single piece of work, but then get to experience as collaborative when conjoined and exhibited in a single experiential space? What sort of audiovisual language can emerge, and what new meanings can we discover by following this method? The experiment is very much inspired by Michel Chion’s writings on sound/image relations, and was launched with the idea of bringing sonic and visual artists together to explore various themes through their own respective disciplines. The two disciplines then meet in a single virtual space, and form a synchresis: the final outcome is built on chance and experimentation. In line with Wassily Kandinsky, Mary Ellen Bute, and others, I have repeatedly argued that visual art is never purely visual, but always audiovisual. My interest in audiovisuality has grown since initiating Unmute, and is now a crucial part of my academic research.
In your work, you make extensive use of soundscapes recorded in various geographical locations: you have recorded in Iceland, and abandoned Soviet urban locations. How do local sound parameters form and influence us?
Recording soundscapes and collecting field recordings have been a crucial element of my artistic and my academic practice. I have explored the soundscapes of different politically and ecologically fragile locations. Working with environmental sound, I have drawn my inspiration from artists and sound ecologists, such as Maryanne Amacher, Pauline Oliveros and Hildegard Westerkamp, who have all addressed the concept of soundscape in their own ways, through engaging in deep listening practice, imagining soundscapes, or using their bodies as recorders to learn about our lived environments. Inspired by the experimental music composer and feminist Pauline Oliveros, I am an advocate of social listening, as I believe that listening to the world not only informs and shapes us, but also expands the whole of the space/time continuum of the sounding world. Thus we are not only perceivers, but also producers of our sonic environment. It is simultaneously important to point out that while soundscapes can be immersive and enriching, they can also be controlling and oppressive. Places where sonic forms of weaponry are deployed, for example, can affect the well-being of a listener: they can immobilise, but also injure and incapacitate.
To what extent do you think sound can be political?
Like anything and everything, sound is inherently and always political: the sounds we emit and the sounds we are subjected to are shaped according to certain political, social and cultural codes. I published an article in the Politics of Sound Art issue of Leonardo Music Journal exploring the political underpinnings of soundscapes of the post-Soviet world. In my research project, I also discuss sound and soundscapes in gendered terms, and look at how power dynamics, agency and inequality are shaped by sound, in my case, the soundscape of the art institution. The politics of sound can also be felt in very direct material terms. For example, it can be used as a weapon and as a form of resistance. Just consider the recent uprisings in the Middle East, the rise of the Occupy movement, riots in Europe and America, or the protests against Trump … Sound and the noise of the crowds, people chanting, marching, singing and smashing became a tool for amplifying the collective body’s political position. Simultaneously, sound can be explored in terms of labour, inequality, power relations: it can act as a point of departure for thinking about these issues in more interdisciplinary terms.
In your video work ‘What Happens when Something Happens’ (http://thedeepsplash.com), you talk about your childhood memories and your relationship with the sonic environment. Do you think that sound can be part of the so-called collective subconscious?
Most of my memories are sonic to begin with, and only then become visual. I have not explored sound in psychoanalytical terms as such, but I would like to think that again, returning to the point I was making about soundscapes, whether it is experienced consciously or not, sound shapes us as beings in the world, psychologically, socially and politically. In that sense, my approach to sound is phenomenological, social and historical. I am very attached to the sounds I grew up with: certain sounds emitting from the radio, the records of Lithuanian and Russian fairy-tales that my parents used to play, voices echoing between the estates I grew up in, the river nearby, the conversations of old people who used to spend hours sitting and talking on benches next to my flat, the sound of the central market, my mother cooking. All of these are still very much present, and inform my responses to the world. I am not sure how collective such individual subject-led experiences of sound can be; however, in broader terms, the collective sonic presence, in a more direct political and historical realm, is something that should be explored further. I believe that collective experiences of sound contribute towards the formation of community and the collective identity, as experienced and shaped through people’s shared history.
What interfaces do you see between sound and the construction of memory?
I would argue that sound and memory interconnect and shape each other in different ways. I agree with the writer Sean Street, who suggests that sound memory can unlock the senses: it can certainly heighten our visual and tactile awareness of places and encounters. Sonic media, such as phonograph, radio, tape or CDs, play a rather significant role in planting sonic memory in listeners. I grew up listening to radio a lot, recording programmes, voices and noises on tape. I go back to those tapes sometimes when collecting material for my sound performances, and I do get the sense that sound has the capacity to transport me to different environments in which the sound was first experienced in its spatio-temporal totality. Kittler, Ernst and other media theorists explore the effects of media on one’s ability to store memory, suggesting that while the audio recorder picks up the uninterrupted, or what Kittler calls ‘the real’ and everything that comes with it, including noise and interference, it simultaneously limits our capacity to think and imagine. While to an extent I agree that we are always subject to a form of mediation, I would also like to think that bodies are more powerful than machines, and they are able to store sonic memories beyond the capacities of the recording apparatus. Sounds enter and inhabit us from different sources, the human collates it all.
What are you currently up to? What are your future plans?
I am currently in the final stages of my PhD research project, which I hope to submit in the summer of 2018. I am also finishing a chapter on the histories of feminist sonic thinking for ‘The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sound Art’, which is due to be published in 2019. In June, I will be travelling to Art Villa Garikula in Georgia, where, in collaboration with my research peers, I will be running the interdisciplinary research project ‘Tracing Displacement’, exploring issues around migration, citizenship and identity in the Georgian context, through collaborative multidisciplinary work. In November 2018, my collaborators and I will be running the November Film Festival, showcasing experimental film and moving image works by artists in London at Close-Up Cinema. In terms of my art practice, I am currently working on a number of visual scores, which I am planning to publish in the form of a book and a collection of recordings. I am also working on a few experimental radio podcasts for Resonance.fm. In the summer, I will be working towards producing a concept music album, and spending some time constructing a set of new sound-based archive performances, and will start my new practice-based research project ‘Listening to Post-Soviet Homes’, an initiative that I hope to develop into a postdoc. But for now, I am at Nida Art Colony, spending hours in the reading room, walking and recording, while simultaneously trying to finish my PhD.
Sandra, thank you for the interview.
 Ursula K. Le Guin, Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (Hachette UK, 2018).