Sound Art and Arte Sonoro: Reflections on Sonic Practices as Decolonial Devices in Latin America
The definition of sound art’s remit, domain, or context, which is largely framed within contemporary Sound Studies (Licht 2009; Vélez 2018), involves a series of complex arguments. Its issues transcend those of pure terminology and cross over into paradigms emanating from the cultural, academic, and artistic traditions that generated this label. Several reflections on sound art’s definition have recently been developed within the latter discipline. Certain curators, critics, scholars, and artists have focused on a practice-based, non-Anglocentric, and non-European context (Pisano 2017: 38-39). Their debate involves both post/decolonial epistemological issues and the possible access of practices to these issues. In particular, they ask how and why voices and places that exist beyond geo-referenced space – more precisely the Euro-Anglo-West, linked to a tradition of studies, knowledge, and academic research – are excluded. The term arte sonoro as opposed to sound art defines the alterity of the Latin American Southern Hemisphere.
This paper is conceptually based on postcolonial/decolonial theory. It analyzes how sonic art practices might enhance enfranchisement strategies by exercising memory, archiving, and addressing history’s resignification. The sound experience, including its sensory, sonic, and affective aspects, is considered a methodological means of interrogating places and histories. Hegemonic impositions on Latin America’s historical discourse, which have turned it into what has been called “another great ghost of history” (Hernandez 2019), are questioned. Even today, the entire region and its diaspora endures the trauma of dominance, exploitation, and looting. The encounter and entanglement of indigenous peoples of America, the African diaspora, a core European presence, and even an Asian legacy has resulted in a complex syncretism that is not a “happy melting pot […, because] the transposition of ways of seeing the world and the imposition of one upon another have left a visible wound in the social fabric of [these] countries” (Hernandez 2019). As a result, many reflections on the Latin and Ibero-American world’s modernity and coloniality do not focus heavily on the multiple nuances of migratory phenomena, which are considered central to the representation of increasingly diasporic and deterritorialized peoples. On the contrary, they are rooted in the continent’s history of implicit resistance. Such distinct territoriality requires analysis of the geo-historical instances that built Latin America’s image as it is today.
The Modernity/Coloniality/Decoloniality group began developing this central line of critical thinking in the 1990s. It has since been furthered by Aníbal Quijano’s notion of “coloniality of power” (2000), which more thoroughly explores a decolonial perspective related to power relations instilled after Europeans arrived in what became known as America. Other indigenous Latin American scholars – such as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Julieta Paredes, and Adriana Guzman – have recently begun actively contesting the “logocentric and nominalist version of decolonization. Neologisms such as decolonial, transmodernity, and ecosimía proliferate, and such language entangles and paralyzes their objects of study: the indigenous and African-descended people with whom these academics believe they are in dialogue” (Rivera Cusicanqui 2012: 102-3).
Given their claim that post- and decolonial studies do not provide adequate methodological and theoretical frameworks, indigenous activists suggest that to explain “interrelationality and intersectionality – we may need to think about ways to make sure we do not objectify and thingify these processes – of art, culture, politics, and sovereignties” (Miner 2016). Rivera Cusicanqui argues that “decolonization can only be done in practice” (2015: 29) beyond any possible “academic canon, using a world of references and counter-references that establish hierarchies and adopt new gurus” (2012: 8). She states that the decolonizing process involves a reflective and communicative practice based on the desire to recover one’s own memory and corporality. Her theory considers that such memory would not only be action but also ideation, imagination, and thought. She underlines the fact that the entire human body – and not only the mind and Western ocularcentrism in general – is a cognitive organism. Therefore, in Cusicanqui’s opinion, a relationship with all of the senses should be reestablished, reconnecting the gaze with listening, touch, and olfaction. In this respect, sound, as a bodily vector of materiality that unveils the invisible relations and movements between objects, bodies, and matter, invites us to imagine other possible truths, values, and realities. Listening is an affirmative social, historical, and ecological act. It is a political and cultural action that questions and exceeds authorized and accepted visions.
When the narration of a territory and its memories is expressed sonically, an entire community can be involved in reactivating a sonic approach that recalls different territorial stories dispersed over time and space. This process confronts history from another perspective, revealing its hidden sides. It could be said that sound not only triggers the resonance of anti-narrative resistance by contesting colonizing narratives but also draws attention to the materiality of processes, implying “a democratization of material and human voices, in that materiality is granted a far more powerful voice in understanding organizational action” (Jørgensen, Strand and Boje 2013: 45).
Recent sonic art practices have become increasingly connected with political positions. They have become critical devices for deconstructing and unsettling power relations that influence forms of knowledge and social relationships, including the collective imagination. As Christabel Stirling has written:
[sound installations have] produced and exposed the existence of resilient personal, social, and cultural differences as well as institutional milieus, and thereby revealed people as historical. Further, this did not necessarily lead to the reproduction of wider social stratifications, but also created affective-social struggles in public space that put those strata into question […] The dissent and negotiation arising between relatively robust individuals and groups as they came into contact with the sound-works itself portended a politics. (Stirling 2015)
Latin American sound art has a lively, expanding, and sharing research and application environment. Artists, particularly those working south of the Isthmus of Panama, have been developing work for at least the past three decades. Their practices experiment with methods and processes intersecting sound with digital technologies and unconventional approaches to listening. Community spaces, festivals – such as Tsonami and Encuentro Lumen in Chile and Sonandes in Bolivia – independent spaces, academic contexts, and specialized online platforms – such as Sonic Field – provide many artists with the opportunity to develop an aesthetic praxis that critically engages with local territories and dimensions crossed by sound. Works that forge methodologies, as the Italian sound art curator Beatrice Ferrara suggests, can
prove to be very important for other micro-territories as, even in the differences, they share the urgency to question their own maps, readings and landscapes, such as our ‘marginal’ territories, the rural areas of the South of our country, similarly affected by complex processes due to the continuous tension between the global and the local. (Ferrara 2019, my translation).
Many Latin American sound artists firmly evidence connections between sound and territorial contexts, local and global tensions, and political and aesthetic processes. Their work creates other sound narratives, which define trajectories that intersect and exceed those of the Euro-Western sound art matrix. They operate across a vast geographical and territorial space from Colombia to Argentine and the Chilean Patagonia. Their sound narrations approach the complexities associated with their respective local contexts through practical enquiry.
The text presented here focuses specifically on two works developed within this extended context: Temporal de Santa Rosa by Brian Mackern, a sound recording and installation project that reinterprets popular, religious, and traditional elements in a post-digital key; and Antarctica 1961-1996, Alejandra Pérez Núñez’s installation that investigates the imperceptibility of national political processes that have appropriated Antarctic territory in recent decades. The analysis of these two case studies suggests a critical approach to notions such as new geographies, boundaries, and the materiality of sound, as well as proposing possible ways of approaching a sonic dimension of the South (Steingo and Sykes 2019). It suggests a journey along unusual listening trajectories through a series of acoustic routes towards a geographically fragmented South, which questions the relevance of a linear story via listening points that allow hidden aspects to be heard and captured.