Reverberations: Laetitia Sonami on Entrapped Sounds and Complex Austerity

Laetitia Sonami’s sound performances, live-film collaborations, and sound installations focus on issues of presence and participation. She has devised her own gestural controllers for performance, and makes use of new technologies and appropriated media, all in order to express immediacy through sound, places, and objects. Recent projects include Sound Gates (2011), a public sound installation on a pier in Rijeka, Croatia, and Sheepwoman (2010-11), a live-film collaboration with SUE.C based on a Murakami novel. In this interview, Sonami, who performs worldwide, reflects on her 2010 L@TE performance. She will return to L@TE on November 4 for a collaboration with Paul DeMarinis.

Talk a little bit about your performance/installation.

I had recently found these large pipes (sonotubes) discarded on the street in San Francisco and desperately wanted to build a sculpture with them. I wanted to create a snapshot of some frozen, exploded infrastructure and encapsulate sounds in it. Instead of a network of wires, it would be a network of tubes - a change in scale. I was very fortunate that BAM/PFA went along with the idea. It was challenging to create an installation that would also work as a performance. It made me think a lot about how these differ and how expectations and relationships are created. While the installation would require people to get close and be surprised by the entrapped sounds (sounds of the city, sounds of the museum, and abstract sounds I had created), the structure became more of an instrument for the performance. I had two actors probe the structure with microphones at the ends of antennas. They “pulled” the sounds out and created various feedbacks.

Did you have a sense of the space/acoustics of the museum before you performed here?

While I was not sure how the space would respond to sounds, nor which sounds would be most effective, I could tell that it was a highly complex and responsive place - somewhat like a peculiar, giant music box. While I knew I wanted to create an installation with the large sonotubes I had just found, my idea was very much molded by the space. It was definitely a collaboration between the space and myself!

Did anything surprise you as you constructed the sculpture, as you prepared for your event, or at the performance itself?

I was surprised that the space was not as “live” as I expected. I guess the various chambers create complex refractions. As for the performance, it was a great surprise and fun. While the installation itself was supposed to be a subtle sonic imprint, something to be discovered, the performance ended up being very festive, with a lot of children making sounds through the tubes and sticking their heads in the openings. I loved it, as it took on a life I had not predicted.

What feature or features of the environment stand out for you?

First the concrete. I just love concrete, and the mix of the simplicity of the material and the complexity of the spaces is very beautiful. Yet that complexity is not precious, it keeps a certain austerity. I guess one could say a “complex austerity”! It is one of the most beautiful museum spaces I know. It is alive and transforms itself according to your vantage point. I like that you can have a sense of other rooms while you are inside one of the galleries. You are always connected to other spaces and other discoveries; you are not isolated in a white box with art.

Were there particular challenges about adapting your original concept for the installation to the space? What strategies did you use?

It was the first time I was creating this installation, and working on that scale. I did not have much time to build it, so I simplified it somewhat to 16 tubes or so. I tried to take advantage of the high ceilings and the various listening vantage points.

My strategies were practical: how much can I do without driving everyone crazy and yet get to explore the idea I had in mind. I became very efficient and created a model at home so I would not be too surprised (the tubes were too large for me to install them anywhere beforehand). I also made a digital model so I could modify it in space. The museum’s installers ended up being wonderful and gave me advice for hanging the tubes

Are there unique qualities about the space that you’d want to explore or take advantage of if you were to return?

If I had a chance, I would take advantage of the architecture better, and build a system which would allow me to capture the sounds live, from the street around the museum and various locations in the museum itself (the cafeteria, the entrance, the bookstore, etc.), and encapsulate these in the tubes. The tubes would appear and disappear in various rooms, like some exploded/discarded infrastructure, exposed veins of the building. They would also reach the outside, seeming as if they were coming out of the walls or the ground. Even just a large tube coming from the inside to the outside, filled with mysterious sounds, like some rich sonic exhaust system!

The suspension of the tubes in space could be worked out better so that one really has the sense that they are caught in mid-air.

I would very much like to do this again and push the ideas further, surprise people into listening to where they are.