Case Studies

Appearing here will be details of artworks, performances, events, etc. that relate to the subject of the social-engagement of sound.

ADDENDUM: Edwin Lo on Simondon and “Milieu”

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.

Field Recording

“Field recording” is the practice of capturing sound from outside of a recording studio.

The use of this term proposes a distinction between a controlled environment (the studio) and a more or less uncontrolled environment (not the studio), implying that each environment provides a different set of sonic characteristics. Consequently this distinction suggests that the recordings made in each space will reflect the characteristics of each space, therefore be characterically different, and therefore tell us something about each space’s unique characteristics.

The studio environment is understood to be a controlled and standardised environment, that actively seeks to efface its own presence, on order to allow the sounds created within it to be isolated and captured without distractions. This description adopts a wording that deliberately hints at the writings of Michel Foucault and other post-structuralist thinkers. Because of that the implication is that a studio represents a regime of power seeking to act in secrecy, with all the social and political consequences of that that Foucault seeks to reveal in his own case studies.

This might therefore suggest that field recording, by being placed in contradistinction to studio recording, represents a response to such regimes of power, at the very least a move out of those particular environments. But while the outside environment may certainly be different, the technological apparatus for capturing that environment as a recording is its own characteristic environment that seeks to efface itself. In many cases the field recordist seeks to capture a “reality” that they hope to transfer to the audience’s ears with some kind of fidelity. However all recording involves translation from one form to another and some kind of loss in the original. If that is the case, then an artist’s deliberate adoption of the practice of “field recording” is in itself a framework that presents the work in a certain way that says as much about the apparatus as it does about the sounds.