What I Do, Know and am Thinking About: Lou Barnell
“Dreams, always dreams! and the more ambitious and delicate is the soul, the more its dreams bear it away from possibility… Shall we ever live, shall we ever pass into this picture which my soul has painted, this picture which resembles you?”[i]
What I Do
I am a Sound Artist and Composer. My practice focuses on extended vocal techniques and using found objects as a way of knowing and illuminating spaces and our bodies. Experimenting with digital and analogue processes to see how they interact is integral to my work.
Whilst I also work collaboratively, my solo work follows the body as a thread. The body both knows and does not know. The body is both a marker of our experience and our fabulously, fleshly, clumsy naivetés, from which there can seem to be no escape, except in dreams, or listening. As the late composer Pauline Oliveros (and a hero of mine) would put it, “Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing...Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is…”
I grew up in Hastings via South East London where an underground rave scene shored up a constant backdrop against dilapidated arts activism, beautiful nature and an active Wood Craft Folk movement.[ii] In regards to the latter, my family were all original members of the ‘Down From London’ Morris Dance Hippy crew. To this day, these influences of where I grew up are surprisingly stark in my work, largely through claustrophobia, of being pushed up against the shoreline once we get off at the last stop on the Southeastern line. My current audio-visual soup sounds and looks like the lurid memories I have of the town, complete with rafts of shitty £3 an hour jobs frying eggs, donuts, bacon, peeling spuds, stealing candy-floss and running away from muggers . Nature and dreams are seeping through the cracks of big bass drones and everything I write tends towards a rave up, after going on a beautiful walk.
I use elemental objects, experimental instrumentation and assemblage in my new live work. I have a habit of collecting and attaching a totemic relationship to things. Feathers, leaf skeletons, fossils, drift wood, metal and old clay pipes all make their way inside my house and present themselves in my compositions as a kind of invocation or a transmission device from past to present or from earth to body. Objects are played against a backdrop of electrified lo-fi field recordings and drones to explore clashes between hi-fi and lo-fi parameters of analogue timekeeping and recording devices.
My latest composition ‘REX’ uses randomised lengths of tape loops and the singular quality of some cassette tapes I’d been given and collected over the years.[iii] It has ended up being a homage to the extreme and precarious nature of the jungle rave scene in the late 90’s and a typically wonky interior of a notorious club called Stratford REX we used to go to when we were far too young. I think it is also about dreaming. Fast-forwarding tapes, playing them backwards by mistake, stretching them until they degrade and finally break, is creating a reality that was never there before. The dialogue between digital acceleration and limitation is always there, just like the long white cloud hanging between our bodies and our unconscious vocabulary.
‘STASIS’ goes back to use my original instrument- the voice- as a symbol of embodied environment and its disintegration, interface and deterioration with time. [iv] Non-moving shape and tone is shaped inexorably by its environment. It is a composition made entirely from vocal recordings of my voice singing the same tone using a technique partially inspired by Alvin Lucier maintaining semblance of a note as it disintegrates into a wider resonant fabric.[v] I was struck by how our embodied acts such as singing are shaped by time and shifting environments.
My current journey was partly inspired by my work as a founding member of ‘Breathing Space Collective’.[vi] We fuse voice and experimental instrumentation with techniques of improvisation, deep listening, assemblage and field recordings. The result is site-specific performances exploring architectural acoustics, uncovering the social and physical resonances to shape content and form. Our upcoming piece ‘VAPOUR’ is part of Inspiral Festival called ‘Ghosts and Spirits Walking by Nyght’ at Gravesham Arts Centre curated by artist Sarah Sparkes.[vii] Located in a small, former church nestled directly on the seafront, it is perfect for our intended outcome: exploring the nature of ghosts both metaphorically and practically. We will invoke the sea surrounding the church with the audience. We will explore how voices become part of the sea and water connects us, meandering through all of us.
What I Know
I know that I don’t know a lot of things. I know how I feel. I am excited about exploration, frightened of being exposed (for a myriad of things I may or may not be) and I am happy to be asked to think about all of these things. I know that you can talk yourself in, or out of anything. At that point you need to stop talking and simply decide whether to be in or out. I know that being a woman does change how you are treated when you make art and music.
What I’m Thinking About
At the moment, I’m thrashing around in my own creative crucible. A critical massing of loud and quiet, electronic and analogue, body versus mind, dreams versus reality, the gut versus the eye. I was a front woman for a long time in various bands. With no classical training, my body has been my primary instrument. I realised when I embarked on a solo sound art journey, that my body and my voice were my crucial materials. I also realised that would need to say goodbye to dancing and using physical performance for a while in order to listen properly to what it was I wanted to say vocally.
Having gained some distance from it, my current work has now begun to renegotiate the body in relation to time in order to better understand how they interact. Alva Noë ‘s belief that ‘dance is a way of knowing… a recapitulation of our histories’ resonates with me. One way of experimenting is through testing wearable sonic costumes and listening devices. Most recently they have been made of paper, with a (working) title, ‘Wearable Aural Paper Fauna’. I’m thinking about what is wearable, and enhances or augments the listening experience but that is also beautiful.
Time is important subject material for me and in previous work with Breathing Space Collective. As a dyspraxic, it is essential to satirize classical compositional notions of time and timing. I feel like it is a form of payback. Time has always taken the piss out of me. The work I am making at the moment is always cyclical. It has no discernible beginning and can be performed with no end.[viii] Theories and phenomena such as French Revolutionary time and Sorokin’s sociological cyclical theory are fantastic examples of the fact that the way we harness and observe time, has more harm in it than time itself.[ix]
I think of making work as a series of iterative experiments, a process where 'drafts' continually re-write one another. ‘STASIS’ is pebble in a pool of wider exploration. I was inspired by ice-melt due to climate change, which has unveiled long forgotten national boundaries marked out by war, hidden bodies, smells and resonant spaces, that were frozen in stasis but revealed by the ice melt. I am thinking about a collaborative investigation into echoes and reverb in shifting, melting environments and communities and the dual meanings of resonance both in terms of space and human connection.
Finally, I am testing blue-tooth beacons, Kalman filters and adaptive technology. This is the very same technology that is used in missile interception and surveillance to fuse dance and live composition. They may enhance or inhibit one another. Either way I will enjoy flying, stumbling, drafting, listening and raving.
Image Credit: Lou Barnell, Wearable Aural Paper Fauna, 2018. Photo by Hannah Lovell.
[I] Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs Du Mal, 1925.