In conversation with Lawrence English

Curator Contemporary Katie Dyer talks to media artist Lawrence English, whose commissioned work focusing on the power of listening and the collective voice features in the exhibition This is a Voice

Portrait photo of Lawrence English. Photo by Traianos Pakioufakis.
Lawrence English. Photo by Traianos Pakioufakis.

You have selected historical gramophone horns from the MAAS collection to incorporate into your work for This is a Voice. What was it about these objects that captured your imagination?
There’s a number of reasons why these horns are so enticing as objects. We were able to recognise our audition, the power of hearing, for the first time when Thomas Edison created the phonograph in 1877. What was critical about this creation was that it opened up the way we could listen, and we realised that our listening was selective. The phonograph heard everything, as Douglas Kahn (Professor of Media and Innovation at the National Institute of Experimental Arts, UNSW) suggested.

The phonograph also relied on the horns as a means of amplification. Metaphorically, these objects represent the intent to have our voices heard. They allow the quietest utterance to be brought into audition, and I feel that this is a wonderful reminder about the power of voice and the importance of recognising that not all voices carry the same amplification. It’s critical to remember, especially at complex political times such as these, that many voices are not listened to and in some cases not heard. This is a Voice is about recognising this fraught situation.

You have called one of your commissioned works A People’s Choir for This is a Voice. Can you explain how this concept and title evolved?
In a recent text by philosopher Judith Butler around performativity and public assembly, she outlines the implications of the use of ‘the people’ as a construction; specifically, that when we say ‘the people’, what we do is set up a position of inclusion and exclusion. ‘The people’ refers to a grouping that is in opposition to other people; it creates an ‘other’ through the use of the definite article. With my work, I am very interested in refusing this creation of the other. In contrast, I am inviting people to contribute to the work and join together to create the piece. A People’s Choir is a sound sculpture that is constructed from the voices of thousands of people who are all contributing to it by using their voice to record an aspiration, desire or dream. It’s a work that considers the collective potential of individuals coming together to implement change. It’s a work that celebrates unity in diversity. A People’s Choir reflects on the beauty of polyphony and the richness that it brings.

Your work has often been described as ‘drawing attention to sounds on the periphery of our hearing’. Why has this been an area of enquiry for you?
I’ve always been fascinated by our capacity to reduce the experience of the world around us. With audition that reduction is, for the most part, ceaseless. It is uncommon for most of us to listen with great intent. More often than not, we’re simply operating at a very basic level with our audition. So for me, I’m interested in exploring that threshold of capacity. I want to invite people to recognise their own capacities as listeners and, through that, recognise the potentially new ways of approaching the world that’s opened up when we push away from the ocular-centrism, the focus on the visual, which is our status quo today. In a very modest way, these works ask audiences to engage their listening, to reach into the sound and explore what exists there, with vigour.

You started the project with the MAAS team by working on an outreach program with St Clair High School in Western Sydney to develop A People’s Choir. Can you describe the idea behind this?
Simply, I was interested in starting with the voices of the past and the future. St Clair is a wonderful school full of students who represent the new generation of thinkers and doers shaping Australia’s future. These students are from all backgrounds and nationalities, and there’s a strong Indigenous presence at the school. I think these voices — of our next Indigenous leaders — are a critical starting place for the work. These children are the link to the human history of this continent, and their voices are vital now and into the future.

A People's Choir, sound installation by Lawrence English.
A People’s Choir, sound installation by Lawrence English. Photo by studioplusthree.

You have said, ‘I’m interested in the idea of the body as an ear.’ Where do you think this deep engagement with sound and listening has come from?

Since I was a child I have been interested in how our senses operate. As a pre-teen, I had several pivotal experiences with sound that really brought the relevance and potential of listening into focus for me. Across my time making sound works, I’ve come to realise that the dimension of sound extends beyond the compression waves in the atmosphere we usually recognise as sound.

I am constantly seeking ways to transcend the psychological engagement of audition and move towards the physiological. There is a wonderful point of synaesthesis that occurs where sound shifts from the sense of audition to a tactile, touch-oriented experience. Sound moves between the senses in this way. It’s a powerful recognition of its potential to occupy us at so many levels.

Voice production and sound seem something that we very much take for granted. Is your work an attempt to change our perception of the world through sound?
Yes. To know the world, we can’t prioritise just one sense. I’d argue that our eyes dominate our worldview. I believe so strongly that audition and other senses, such as touch, are critical to engage with if we are to know the world, and each other, more fully. It’s simple — no matter how much you see two people hugging one another, that can never truly reveal the sensation of actually hugging someone. Our audition is equally profound,
if we let ourselves engage with it properly.

You are an artist, composer, performer and founder of the label and multi-arts organisation Room40. Do you approach these areas of your work separately, or do you see them all as integrated?
Lives are complex and beautiful things. I like to celebrate that complexity every day. So why not weave all these interrelated threads into a tapestry?

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