As part of my guest-editor series at The Sampler, I put electronic musicians Lisa Busby and Olivia Louvel in touch, eager to hear their views on everything from their music, politics, multi-media art and Scottish Monarchs… From that lengthy and fascinating discussion, I’ve chosen some highlights, below. I began by asking them if music can be political.
Olivia Louvel: Sometimes we need to go beyond the idea of creating sounds just for the sake of making sounds. The art of making music is not political, per se, but can be a conduit. The American artist Sarah Morris says, ‘artists are in a constant protest against reality’. This made sense to me, I am constantly protesting in my own way.
Lisa Busby: I love that quote – ‘Artists are in a constant protest against reality’. I certainly feel insecure in reality and often want to retreat from it. Maybe that’s why my work is a kind of awkward conflation of the outward and the inward, the social and the personal?
OL: Also, can we be political without talking about politics? Perhaps drawing circles and circles on a piece of paper on your own is political? It’s a moment where you are refusing to follow the common pace, where you extract yourself from all this information overload?
LB: A good friend once said to me, ‘I don’t know how I’d feel if I didn’t know that I could just go and make things I wanted to. Not for money or a job, but just making as an activity that makes stuff feel better.’ So, I love the image, Olivia, of drawing circles on a piece of paper on your own, that’s exactly the sort of activity he was talking about. Why shouldn’t the solitary act, or the invisible act, constitute the political, too? As Johanna Hedva puts it, ‘most modes of political protest are internalised.’ Thinking about your Data Regina work, Olivia, and my own work with historical artefacts or narratives, there is the exploration of the temporal, too, in that internal/external discourse.
OL: Yes, with Data Regina I am giving Mary Queen of Scots a voice in 2017 as history has ignored the fact she was a writer, a poet – one of the most read women in history. For me, the voice is the core. I began with my voice. Voice is the humanity colliding with machine.
LB: Yes, that sense of it being the core, that’s how I experience it. For me, my voice is the one thing as a musician that I can always use without anxiety, and without time-lapse between intention and action. It is the one thing that is truly mine, learned in a way that is different to the way I learned all other instruments or ways of making. I find the sensation of singing to be like a brilliant yawn, like the most sensory intensive form of breathing… Funnily enough, I was a bit obsessed with Mary when I was very small! Her story was so fantastical and brutal, but also real. I’m interested in those sorts of connections of voices and stories across time…
OL: Well, Mary is big in Scotland! A few years ago, I discovered her poems and essays and I felt a connection with her, in the sense that she documented her life through her creative writings. I similarly document, inscribe, and record events on a timeline. And you have also produced a work on the history of women and medicine, Ovarium, which is based on writings of two women researchers, giving new perspectives. Tell me more… The cassette edition looks stunning!
LB: Ovarium came out of a year where I had worked on some great collaborative projects – I presented a work utilising The Greatest Hits of the Spice Girls at a conference on Feminist Durations in Art and Curating; then later that work got expanded as I began to explore feminist performance scores during the Wysing Electra Residency ‘The Multiverse’. Ovarium tried to think about the history of women’s healthcare alongside the health issues I was experiencing at the time. It presents an instruction score for performance in the form of an action for a hospital; some quite abrasive turntable and voice messiness! I am fond of this work, it feels like it was a small thing I did that really opened up some new avenues for me, threads have emerged from this that are much more present in my recent works; the interest in somehow aligning the personal or intimate with some wider histories and experiences.
OL: You’ve been involved in many exciting collaborations! I am often in my own bubble, but I think we can’t just stay amongst ourselves, we need to cross over, cross fertilise ideas, and even better if collaboration can cross borders, out of our island.
LB: I like how you use the word ‘collaboration’ to mean a lot of things here – with people, but also as a sort of broader thing, a cross pollination or collision generally – media, but also approaches and so on.
OL: When I begin a new project I often think in terms of visuals. I enjoy performing with visuals, it gives me a frame, as I’m alone on stage. I write music; I see things. It happens organically and it often shapes as an audio-visual object.
LB: I like that! ‘I write music; I see things.’ I am super interested in Kembra Pfahler and her strategies of ‘All-ism’ (utilisation of various methods and media without hierarchy); ‘Availablism’ (making use of the resources available to you); and the ‘Feral-ist’ (the seeking out of undiscovered territories, ideas and methods unencumbered by capitalist concerns.)
OL: ‘Availablism’ that’s an interesting new word… I can totally relate to that strategy. Making use of what you have, yes. When I began all I had was a mini disc, a microphone, ambient sounds, my voice… It didn’t stop me, I made do with what I had…
LB: Exactly, sometimes the choice of media or multi-media is just a necessity, too. For example, I recently made a performance video because… well, at that time I didn’t have the confidence to do that work live, but it was a performance so I had to capture it.
OL: Yes, because of limitation (either skills or economics) the necessity to do things ourselves makes us investigate other areas, disciplines or methods.
LB: Also, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on some basic level just a magpie. I use loads of found objects and found sounds in my work – that’s definitely influenced by me being a ‘collector’ personality, I’m a total hoarder. I can’t help but see value in stuff that is probably largely trash to others. On that note, I saw artist Marlo De Lara talk about what everyday objects and recordings, and her deep study of them, mean to her and her practice. She said, ‘I collected various media and made recordings to curate a personal space where my observations could be expressed freely.’
OL: Technology has liberated us, also; it has certainly liberated me. There seem to be more women now in experimental electronic music, perhaps because with a laptop and ‘a room of one’s own’ you can liberate your vision, produce your own work. But, historically it was a male dominated world. Women did not get acknowledged in their own time… When you look at the musique concrete circle in Paris: it’s a man’s world… Eliane Radigue worked along side Pierre Henry as his assistant then took off to develop her own sound… In the UK, Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram got acknowledged only recently too, no? We’re finally catching up! For instance female:pressure has built a digital community whose purpose is to strengthen networks. Over the last few years, we have collected data to quantify the deficit in equal opportunity and visibility for female artists in the electronic music scene.
LB: At the moment there is a momentum in electronic music and sound-arts activism to make the historic and contemporary work of women and those female-identifying visible… but this is a relatively recent development. I think this can have a hugely positive impact and encourages new female-identifying makers into the space. For all artists, particularly those at the margins – whoever they are, whatever that marginalisation might mean or translate to for that person – I think electronic music today can offer a ‘room of one’s own’, a liberation. It’s worth saying, though, that it’s too simplistic to assume the laptop as an electronic instrument (or other electronic means) is actually something everyone can economically access (or indeed that this stuff is more affordable than a charity shop acoustic guitar), or that electronic languages and ways of making do offer liberation for all (for many people, whoever they are, they just don’t – those ways of making carry their own baggage that impinges). Electronic means of making are not the only ‘room of one’s own’ for me – improvisation also offers me that space, my relationship with my voice comes to bear in that equation, that space. So when it comes to power structures, how they inhibit exclusivity, and what any of us can do about that… trying to approach it in a pluralistic way (a polyphonic way, if we’re gonna get musical about it!) seems important to me… Without devaluing what commonalities we might have with others and understanding how identifying those commonalities can build communities, be encouraging and supportive… everyone’s ‘room of one’s own’ is exactly that: their own combination of strategies and tools that allow them to make.