I was unable to fit some subjects raised in the initial group conversation into the published text, one of which was a remark from Edwin Lo regarding his reading of the work of philosopher Gilbert Simondon on the relationship between technology and its “milieu”, specifically how that related to sound and field recording. So I met up with Edwin Lo again a few weeks later to ask him for more detail:
Edward Sanderson (ES): You mentioned Gilbert Simondon when we were talking about social engagement being a something of a fetish. You were suggesting that in some cases social engagement had become exploited as a theme or trend?
EL: Yes, because this kind of genre has become institutionalised. Of course, originally it was an artistic motivation regarding what an artist can do in society. Then it became more of a curatorial direction, which was fine until it became standardised into a theme. You can see in some biennale, for instance, there is a certain tendency for engaging with politics, and this approach is in itself a kind of political correctness.
But in some artists’ work such a concern with politics is not made clear in that way. For instance, even though Lee Kit is personally concerned with politics, in his artistic practice this concern is more internalised. I feel that how one deals with this as an artist is an open question, between so-called art-for-art’s-sake and art-for-politics’-sake. You know in Hong Kong people like to take sides (this happens everywhere, of course), but when I am doing my own projects, I don’t feel like I am doing some kind of political thing. I’m just concerned with the context in relation to my field recordings, the sounds, and my practice. But now art seems to have to be concerned with this kind of politics, and I think this relationship is the wrong way around. But I’m still questioning this myself.
Related to this, I recently have become concerned with the philosophy of technology. In our original conversation I mentioned the difficulties I faced with some of the students, for instance when I give a lecture or a workshop, I feel very strongly the acceleration of technology in social media. You can find everything through it, but it is becoming an enclosure for our senses. It’s becoming more and more difficult to liberate our senses. I want to liberate the listening, the senses, but for me this technology is an obstacle to doing this.
ES: When you say “liberate our senses”, what do you mean?
EL: Liberate, as in to try to open up our senses, to listen better. Not just phenomenologically as an internal thing, but also incorporating an external aspect that affects this internal perception of the world.
Technology is a problematic thing; it’s not a neutral thing. There are things like sound weapons, of course, but even when people use their phones to watch videos in a public space and turn up the volume. That is a technological and also a political thing at the same time.
I also studied some post-phenomenological aspects of philosophy – the philosophy of technology from a post-phenomenological perspective. But this is not enough for me, and this is why I like Simondon because he thinks about technology at a much deeper level. He talks about the Associative Milieu: this is the technological artefact working within an environment. This concept is related to my thinking about the practice of field recording in China. When I went to Europe for the first time on residency in 2013, the whole environment made me wonder why do people make “naturalistic” soundscapes instead of “humanistic” soundscapes? When we use the recorder, we are actually at the same time individually sensitive to the surrounding environment. I feel that while it’s the same technological artefact (the recorder), a totally different thing is occurring when it is in the hands of another person. So, when Simondon talked about his Associative Milieu, it’s not only about the environment, at the same time it has another meaning encompassing habit, gesture, and experience – they are also included in Simondon’s idea of the milieu.