Jan 2013 – interview for BLICK

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Here my answers to Luiza Mogosanu’s questions regarding some of my recent works for BLICK, an online publication about berlinerpool artists.

Fusing work strategies that often fit into the “relational aesthetics”, Swiss artist Gilles Aubry engages in a reflexion upon the politics of the audible and the potential of the sound as an alternative representation. His main medium is phonography or field recording. A medium which conjures up constructed situations along with vivid experimental overture. Hence Aubry’s projects entail a multi(meta)layered approach: he is the author and every so often protagonist of his recordings, amongst his other subjects. He then invites his audience to listen to his productions and ponder over startling topics grounded in an up-to-date, dynamic, changeable environment. Launching our journey into the artistic life of the berlinerpool members, we’ve met Gilles Aubry in Berlin where he resides since 2002.

Gilles Aubry BLICK


Luiza Mogosanu : You were born in Switzerland, a country which has served as a shelter for the historical avant-garde and refuge for several artists escaping political threats during wars. It has nowadays some sort of a privilege to be at the same time inside and outside Europe. What does Europe look like to a Swiss artist ?

Gilles Aubry : I think of myself as being part of Europe even if technically Switzerland is not part of the EU. I am somewhat in between, still legally based in Switzerland and working in Berlin, but of course I don’t see myself as an outsider in European terms. The Swiss « neutral » position during World Wars is quite arguable. Of course it’s a good thing that it allowed an alternative for artists and anarchists to the political context back then, but if you look closely, Switzerland was not aside but inside the thing all the time. In that context, neutrality meant dealing indifferently with all parts involved in the conflict and consolidating its wealth through sometimes obscure businesses.

Nowadays it is quite difficult to define Switzerland as a single entity, the same way it is hard to say what Europe really is about, because you have all these layers, administrative, institutional, cultural, which make the whole extremely fragmented. It is part of an ongoing process of transformation, as is the entire world at a larger scale. Compared with other places, Switzerland is still of course a privileged country, but its society is also getting more and more polarized under the effects of globalization : the rich gets richer and poor poorer. There is a sad tendency about Switzerland to become a reservation for ultra rich people.

LM : Speaking about Europe, I was curious about the Hi-Fi Borders project. What was its aim and how did you realize it concretely ?

GA : The installation Hi-Fi Borders was the result of an artistic research which followed the initial « Belju Sound Bridge » project. It started in the summer of 2009 as a series of site-specific sound interventions at the Swiss-French border area between Delémont and Belfort, not far from Basel. The idea was to invite local people to collect sound recordings and play them back via loudspeakers in the public space at various locations. The purpose was to examine and discuss collectively the nature of transnational exchanges in this region, and to question the renewed significance of the border in the context of the Schengen agreement.

I also became interested in the work of historian Francesca Falk, who was working on the politics of visibility of the border in terms of visual evidence, transparency and contingency. She was focusing on mass-media image production related to the drama of illegal migration at the outer EU border. I decided to carry my own research at the Swiss-French border using similar concepts : was it possible to create evidence through sound recording ? What type of other representation of a frontier would it create ? What sort of legitimacy ?

It was a real experiment : I went along the border line and made some recordings using a quadraphonic equipment which allows one to record 360°. I ended up with a collection of panoramic audio recordings

which captured sounds from both the Swiss and the French side, which were later presented on a quadraphonic speaker setup as an installation. When listening to these recordings, one would hear very rich and interesting sounds, but most of the time one wouldn’t be able to distinguish between both sides.

I also spent time documenting examples of visible signs of the border in order to compare them with my own recordings, like signboards, border stones from the Napoleonian era and the more recent surveillance video cameras, as well as rivers and mountains presented historically as « natural borders ». Altogether, the Hi-Fi Borders project was raising questions about what is a border that can be seen but not heard and about the way listening can affect our political understanding of the world. Ultimately, it became also a reflection about the failure of documentation and the very documentation of this failure.

LM : How did the people collaborate or contribute to your project?

GA : The sound bridge project was extremely diverse in terms of collaborations. We would approach people in the field, in the city or in the country side, but also call people to contribute with their recordings via the website and invite other artists to move around with us in the area and make specific interventions. We would bring loudspeakers into the forest, collaborate with theatres, art-centers, etc. There were different configurations and I guess it was something like a « relational » art project…


Gilles_Aubry_The_Laman_Encounter_blick [Image: Delphin Kapay, Gilles Aubry, Sylvain Bongese, Bienvenue Nkelani, Innocent Kabesha and Jean-Claude Elumba during the discussion for "The Laman Encounter", Kinshasa, July 13, 2011.]


LM : You anticipated my next question. While listening to The Laman Encounter – your project made in 2011 – the relational aesthetics, came straight to my mind, such as this term is defined and analysed by Nicolas Bourriaud, and I wanted to ask you whether it matches your own idea of approach ?

GA : There’s a difference between my practical researches in the field and its actual display in an exhibition. While the research methodology certainly has a « relational » dimension, including encounters and discussions, the exhibited works rather use classic display formats like the dark cinema room, the auditorium or printed publications. Phonography, the practice of environmental recording, is in my understanding highly relational because of the medium which always includes both the subject and the author. From this perspective it probably is more relational than traditional visual media. My phonographical practice is very much about creating a situation and at the same time documenting it,  always as a kind of experiment. This includes possible risks, like failure or confrontations that may arise during the experiment.

Gilles_Aubry_Laman_photocopie_blick[Image: “K.E. Laman (around 1910)”, reproduced from the catalog of the exhibition “La mémoire du Congo. Le temps colonial.”, Musée Royal de l‘Afrique centrale, Tervuren.]


LM : In your work Pluie de Feu, one of the protagonists says : « il y a que du son, donc il peut en prendre » (i.e. « since it’s only sound, i’m fine with him recording…»). In terms of privacy and its public display, do you think that we are less cautious with our voice than we are with our visual appearance ?

GA : Yes, this happened in Kinshasa. These women were afraid of being pictured as « poor African women » for European spectators – it’s exactly what they have said. People there are very aware of the negative consequences of being miss-represented only in terms of « misery » or « backwardness », hence their refusal to appear in pictures or videos.

LM : Yet, they wouldn’t mind being recorded…

GA : That is where it begins to be interesting… I suppose it has to do with the fact that people believe that a voice does not reveal as much about one’s identity as an image, and also that voice alone cannot convey the idea of poverty. It is tricky and it’s actually where my work starts. As a matter of fact, some principles of visual representation also apply to sonic ones, albeit with interesting differences : a recorded voice can for example give us some informations about someone’s age, gender, ethnic origins, level of education, etc., but always with a degree of uncertainty. In some cases, this very ambiguity may qualify sound as an appropriate media for the production of alternative representations. I’ve included this African woman’s phrase in Pluie de Feu, because it pointed to this potential of sound, how it can convey reality, an idea which is at the core of my work.

LM : How would you describe Berlin in one sound ?

GA : I’ve spent much time recording courtyards in Berlin, so for me one signature sound is the one of resonating vastness. There’s definitely something about silence in this city.

[5.12.2012, Berlin]

- See more at: http://blick.berlinerpool.de/gilles_aubry/#sthash.OC6sK9in.dpuf