Thinking Outside of the Box
by Ken Taylor
Mark Laliberte, a founding member of Windsor's Thinkbox, a collective of sound artists dedicated to creating new context for new sounds, has released his first record entitled Pillow Scenes Soundworks 1996-1999. The record is composed of sound accompaniments that he recorded for his black and white photo series of the same name. The exhibit depicts humans in varying states of consciousness and each photo has its own intentionally frightening soundtrack that plays simultaneously from a pillow that is ìconnectedî to the wall-hung photograph. This disc is essentially a compilation of those sounds though some of the tracks have been manipulated to better serve the CD as a coherent listening experience. The project deals with taking those sounds from their original state and putting them in a new context (CD format) that will, inevitably, be reinterpreted by non-gallery participants of the exhibit.
When Mark Laliberte's telephone rings in his West Windsor photo studio, there is rarely a music writer on the other end. He hardly considers himself a musician and definitely does not classify his latest record Pillow Scenes Soundworks 1996-1999 as music.
Of course, he probably wouldn't accept responsibility for breathing life into Windsor's electronic music community either.
In 1997, Laliberte and a group of like-minded artists founded Thinkbox, a media collective and record label that's mandate is to "explore technological works and contemporary media in relation to both gallery and commercial distribution networks." Academically, they do just that. Sonically, they are a bunch of forward-thinking, post-techno deconstructionists set on making new sounds heard, be they in a gallery, on a record, or in the back of a crowded and smoky bar.
Maintaining a separate identity from Detroit, known for bin-shaking boom-shock techno rhythms that make their way across the border with volume alone, can present a few challenges. For Laliberte, repetitive dance music is more an element for examination than a hedonistic indulgence. "I feel it's a very interesting scene but I'm not interested in participating in dance culture proper. I keep waiting for audio artists to slowly leak into that world in a vogue way. There are opportunities to overlap art gallery and techno culture," Laliberte says of Detroit.
At the risk of sounding too cliché, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
As the collective began to branch out, Laliberte and company started featuring American performers at their events and Thinkbox now includes members from Chicago and Ann Arbor. Their Signal evenings have become a staple on Windsor's growing electronic music scene and are even attracting the attention of Detroit techno aficionados via the 313-list, an internet forum for all things Detroit tech.
This isn't a story of Mark Laliberte vs. techno, though. In fact, he's very much a part of the ethos that early techno pioneers set forth ñ the artist's experience in technology. But outside of Laliberte's social context lies an artistic context that his record, Pillow Scenes Soundworks 1996-99, only begins to hint at.
Over four years ago, Laliberte began photographing human subjects in varying states of consciousness. His starkly contrasted black and white photos depicted everything from tarted-up young girls suffocating in makeup to gauze-wrapped, brutalized war victims. Some appear in a state of deep sleep. Others appear dead.
The original exhibition consisted of a set of photographs hung on a wall, each with a pillow-lined speaker placed on the floor in front. A wire (psychologically) connected the photos to the pillows that echoed the horrifying dreams and inner monologues that now comprise Laliberte's first audio release for the Thinkbox label. In the gallery setting, voices, instruments, and noise overlapped as viewers walked from picture to picture while the repetition of sounds would merge and collide around them. The phases of sound shifted and locked as patterns emerged.
On record, Pillow Scenes Soundworks brilliantly recontextualizes that sonic element of Laliberte's photo series, made up of found sounds, telephone recordings, atonal electro-acoustics and discordant noise. His previous showings of Pillow Scenes (the visual exhibit) offered viewers a monograph or small publication that highlighted the photo images but none could capture the elusive sound element that was essentially 50% of the show. The viewer walked away with a good representation of the photographic side of the exhibition but had to rely on their memory for the layer of sound," says Laliberte of the initial impetus for the CD compilation. The Thames Gallery in Chatham offered Laliberte a solo gallery exhibit and he convinced curator Carl Lavoy that what was missing from previous publications was the audio element. A book, along with compendium CD slip-in, was originally proposed but they ultimately decided on a CD collection of sound accompaniments for the photographs.
A key to Soundworks' success was reconstructing and arranging the sounds to make for a fluid listening experience, one that would both maintain the association with its visual counterpart but that was also strong enough to stand on its own and serve the function that most audio CDs serve ñ to work as musical compositions that entertain or satisfy aurally. Some sounds retained their original shape but others would not translate without a bit of manipulation. In some cases, sound bites were added to the mix to enhance the drama that subsequently fell out when the picture track was lost. Pieces such as 'Dada Chemical, 1970' (the audio partner of a photo entitled 'Furnace') had an explosion added to the soundtrack to create the theatrical scenery of people being trapped in a burning building. Others tracks were extended, shortened or looped as needed and a number of them were bled into one another, recreating the experience of walking through the exhibit as the photos and sounds are juxtaposed in their intended manner.
If it's true that the viewer's interpretation completes the artwork, then by listening to the CD, the sounds lend themselves to new thought while extending the art's statement that much further. Many of the pieces deal with miscommunication, thus the art constantly mimics its own interpretation.
What's still hard to grasp, though, is Laliberte's denouncement of the project's musical merit. "Music is one possible layer that is used to create these singular audio environments for every character in the photo series. Text and ambient sounds are another layer," he argues, indicating that the soundtracks are a bricolage of many influences. He's certainly a fan of collage, both sonically and visually (most recently presented in a show of paper works entitled New Beauty Constructs) and he admits that his visual training does occasionally find its way into the sound work. Generally, the tonal colour and minimal composition, which make tracks like 'A Moment of Sadness' both subdued and brilliant, make for incredibly eerie and beautiful music. Yes, music. But perhaps it's philosophical challenges like these that keep him coy.
"I think I'm still pretty naive," he admits.
Ken Taylor has written about music for XLR8R, URB, Paper, and BPM Culture;
he is a correspondent for CBC's Brave New Waves | email him here