Embarking on soundscapes and sensory empowerment | Sunday Observer

Embarking on soundscapes and sensory empowerment

20 August, 2023

In a world that often prioritizes the visual, Isuru Kumarasinghe and Sara Mikolai are redefining the way we perceive art and engage with our surroundings. Their recent initiative, the Sri Lankan edition of The Listening Biennial, at the Bakeriya Space, captured the hearts and minds of like-minded individuals eager to explore the world of auditory sensations.

In an interview with Youth Observer, Isuru and Sara, the dynamic artist duo behind this artistic venture, shed light on their artistic journey, the power of sensory sovereignty, and their vision for cultivating a culture of deep listening.

Q: What is the concept behind the Listening Biennial, and how did the idea originate?

A: The Listening Biennial is a global exhibition with its origins in the creative vision of Brendan Labelle, an accomplished sound theorist, artist, and scholar. He presides over a sound art space in Berlin, and also oversees a publishing house known as Aaron Boddy’s and Aaron Boddy’s Press. Brendan is the driving force behind the conception and direction of the Listening Biennial, with its inaugural edition taking place in 2021 and the current edition being the second installment.

This Biennial is a unique exploration of the concept of listening, facilitated by engaging a diverse array of participants ranging from artists and curators to scholars and activists. Brendan identifies individuals and contexts where the potential for delving into the depths of listening is high. What sets the Listening Biennial apart is its decentralized nature, granting contributors considerable autonomy to tailor their involvement to their specific circumstances. This approach creates a rich mosaic of interpretations and experiences across various locations.

Typically, the biennial encompasses not only audio exhibitions but also a range of programming, including performances, workshops, and installations. This variety generates dynamic spaces for an immersive exploration of listening. For instance, in our case, Isuru and I collaborated to devise a three-day program that aligned with the Sri Lankan context.

This program featured live performances, open discussions, and activities tailored for the local community, including children.

Our journey with the Listening Biennial began two years ago in 2021 when we contributed a sound piece to its first edition.

Subsequently, we were part of the Listening Academy in Norway—an affiliated but more exclusive platform within the biennial.

Here, artists and researchers convene in a more closed setting to explore the broad notion of listening. While music and sonic practices are integral, Brendan’s inclusive approach extends to encompass activists addressing socio political facets and performers like dancers.

Q: Could you share the outcomes of the series of workshops and performances you organized during the Listening Biennial? Additionally, considering Isuru’s reputation in experimental music and his expertise in unconventional musical instruments, could you provide insights into the specific performance you presented, the unique instruments utilized, and the contextual significance they held?

A: Well, the concept of listening expands beyond the confines of mere sound. When we think about music, it often involves a selection of specific sounds and their arrangement – the very essence of music, you could say. Our approach, then, centers on introducing a listening perspective to unravel this complex scenario.

This forms the foundation not only for understanding the act of listening but also for delving into experimentation, the pursuit of new sounds, and even the creation of unconventional instruments. For instance, we question whether traditional instruments like guitars are limited to producing only predefined notes, or if they hold untapped potential for novel sonic expressions. This is the bedrock of our exploration.

On the opening day of the Biennail, we featured performances by two talented artists, Sarani Perera and Dinelka Liyanage. They each presented original compositions, tapping into their unique backgrounds that emphasize deep listening and a profound understanding of sound. Take Sarani, for instance, a guitarist who delved into uncharted territories by exploring the sounds generated by the guitar’s body and its vibrations.

Dinelka, on the other hand, demonstrated innovation by utilizing various objects to create distinct sounds, amplifying these using a wooden board. Our decision to include them was rooted in their ability to question and extend the boundaries of their instruments’ sound possibilities.

Q: How did you apply these insights to the workshop with the children, and why was this session focused on embodiment important within the overall exhibition and discussion?

A: The session with the children offered a unique exploration into the practice of listening through the lens of bodily engagement. My background lies in dance, and my journey to understanding listening took a detour from itself. I began to view everyday activities as opportunities for intentional practice.

When I started paying close attention to tasks like cleaning, cooking, and going about routine, I found that focusing on these activities opened up new dimensions of listening. This mindset naturally extended into my movement practices, and I discovered a profound connection between dance and music.

These two fields are deeply intertwined, practically inseparable. My dance background is steeped in the history of Bharatanatyam. In this traditional dance form, there’s an intricate relationship between dance and music. However, historically, the roles of dancer and musician were closely intertwined, especially in temple dance practices before the 17th century.

The separation between dance and music as distinct disciplines only came later. This reflection prompted me to explore the essence of movement and embodiment, not just in relation to music, but also in response to the array of sounds that surround us constantly.

The workshop we conducted today aligned with this personal journey. It was a dedicated space for delving into what it means to be in the body, and how movement and sound are intrinsic to our experiences. Whether I’m actively dancing or not, I’m perpetually immersed in sound, continuously responding to the audible environment, be it urban noise or any other auditory stimulus.

This theme of embodiment and sound was the focal point of our workshop, a deliberate shift from the discussion-oriented session we had in the previous day, and the predominantly auditory nature of the exhibition. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to offer a comprehensive exploration encompassing discussions, embodiments and deep listening.

Q: In the domain of listening, there’s a wide range of sounds that go unnoticed or unattended. Given your research background, I imagine you’ve into this area considerably. Can you explain the difference between passive hearing and intentional listening? How does paying focused attention to sounds reveal their complexities?

A: So, when I consider the concept of listening, two distinct aspects come to mind. First, there’s the act of hearing sounds-these are the sounds that surround us, existing in the background as we go about our day. This type of hearing is passive; the sounds are simply there, and we coexist with them. This is where the role of listening becomes crucial. Listening begins the moment I deliberately direct my attention towards the sounds. I begin to discern the various sounds around me, their nuances, origins and characteristics.

For instance, when we hear an engine sound of a car, we might label it as such and move on. But if we truly listen, we realize that sound possesses a dynamic quality, a rhythm, a rise and fall - that forms its own performance. By stripping away preconceived labels, I’ve discovered the richness of sound’s colors and shapes.

This, I believe, is the foundation of listening. Interestingly, practices like meditation and yoga also emphasize listening. They guide us towards centering ourselves through sound, whether it’s gong-related vibrations or even a simple sound to bring focus. In this exhibition’s context, the exploration of listening indeed delves into profound philosophical dimensions. However, there’s no necessity to consistently engage in such intense contemplation. Many modes of listening exist, even in everyday activities like stretching. Reflecting on my experiences, I’ve observed how sound significantly varies across locations.

Here in Sri Lanka, sounds are abundant – urban noises in Colombo and a symphony of animal sounds live together. In contrast, my time in Europe highlighted a striking absence of animal sounds, with industrial and city noises dominating the soundscape. This diversity of sonic environments further underlines the importance of active listening, regardless of the setting.

Well, another point to consider is the source of pollution, not just sound pollution but a broader awareness of our surroundings and their impact on us. Lack of awareness can lead to unintended consequences piling up without us realizing. Listening ties into this idea – understanding the sounds we generate in our daily lives and how they affect us and others.

Sara’s insight rings true; we don’t just hear through our ears; our bodies sense vibrations too. Having this awareness of the environment and actions is crucial.

Pix by: Priyantha Meegoda