Listening is about paying attention but in a non-transactional way

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Céline Gillain wants you to listen to the softly padded walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, not only for her sound collages that emanate from within but also for the breathy acoustic hum of their ‘silence’. You’ll hear a Massive Attack song following a spurious tale of empathy and radical attentiveness, then a witches’ chant which flows into the recounting of a dream of an impostor in an imposing museum. They ask: how can our modes of listening, far from passive, be exploitative? And how are privilege’s familiar walls sonically implicated in ways that we don’t yet understand?

Questions formulated by Anna Lancry

For you, what is the relationship between listening and the oversaturation and overstimulation of contemporary digital life that you talk about in your residency?

Questioning listening is an opportunity to think about how we manage our attention in the attention economy. In English, we say ‘paying attention’, like there’s some kind of deal involved. Listening is about paying attention but in a non-transactional way. I grew up in the 1980s in rural Belgium with little access to mainstream culture. We could say that my world was undersaturated. But I developed an obsession with distant pop culture, the capitalist American way of life. It’s something I explore in my work, this fascination with entertainment, this compulsive craving for distraction. I’m interested in questioning how the exploitation of our attention affects our daily lives as well as shapes our imagination.

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True, I heard accelerated snippets of TikToks and TV series soundtracks in your sound collage for this show. I also see an accelerationist text from the CCRU here. Your relationship with speed, stimulation and saturation is less simple than it first appears.

Yes, this CCRU Kodwo Eshun text ‘Abducted by Audio’ from the early 2000s is about the psychedelic power of electronic music. It is written with both the intellect and the body. It’s crucial to have this kind of writing about music; Eshun writes that different types of rhythmic music will accelerate in the future and that they will explode in genres and styles. That’s exactly what is happening at the moment. 

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How has your experience as a DJ and performer shaped your interest in a critical approach to listening?

I see DJing as a mission to sense the electricity of the people and to listen to the context. Performing is all about context too. In an experimental music context, for example, the attention of the audience is more acute than anywhere else but it sometimes feels like the body is dormant. It’s a more static way of listening, based on concentration and intellect. Contemporary art is also a privileged place to perform in because there are no predetermined expectations and as a performer, you can experiment like in no other place, the audience is particularly open-minded, but it’s also a difficult crowd to impress. If you perform in a more mainstream context, like a music festival, there’s a responsibility towards the audience to perform something recognisable. The time of the performance is also important. Usually, the vibe switches at around 11 pm and people’s attention shifts, often influenced by substances like alcohol and drugs. Then it becomes more about fun and less about content. These are just a few examples of how listening is conditioned by context. 

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You talk about the violence of the club in some of your work.

Club music comes from disco, from marginalised, mostly queer, black and Latino communities in the US. It’s originally music for bodies who have nowhere else to go to meet each other, and it’s social, sexual, cheap and powerful. But the mainstreaming of club music has stripped it of its subversive substance, in the process of making it a very lucrative business. The problem with the club today is that in order to be profitable, it requires the body to be young, healthy, good-looking and also kind of rich. But everyone should have access to the palliative powers of the club, not just those who can afford it.

The mainstreaming of club music has stripped it of its subversive substance, in the process of making it a very lucrative business

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Do you have any role models?

Maggie Nelson, Laurie Anderson, Shy One, Afrorack, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elvia Wilke, General Idea, Hito Steyerl, DJ Plead, … the list goes on and on. My role models are people whose practices are hard to categorise. The very idea of categorisation has always kind of freaked me out. Sometimes it feels like you’re supposed to choose a category in order to be taken seriously. And because I’m active in different fields, I always feel like an amateur. I partly work within different fields simultaneously in order to build my own ecosystem around desire and meaning. Navigating the in-betweens has become a strategy: being where you’re not expected to be is a way to escape being captured.

My role models are people whose practices are hard to categorise

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Elsewhere you’ve spoken about ‘feminine’ forms of language, listening, loudness and sonic acts… maybe this in-between mode of thinking can be understood as a feminine mode of art-making, in distinction from the ‘masculine’ concepts of solidity, unity, logic, technical specificity…

Yes, totally.

Navigating the in-betweens has become a strategy: being where you’re not expected to be is a way to escape being captured

<div class="editorial-banner"> <div class=“editorial-credits”> @gelinecillain 

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