“To forge a society that listens is to forge a more just and equitable society.”
Anja Wernicke: Guely and Victor, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your work and thoughts around it. Under the roof of the Sonandes platform, you are doing many different activities like a biennial, research projects, laboratories, workshops. Could you tell us a little bit about how it all came into being, how it all started?
Guely Morató: We started in 2014 as the International Biennial of Sound Art. At the beginning, the idea was to share different sound experiences where practitioners worked with sound as a material to build their discourse; at that moment in Bolivia, everything was very traditional and classical. The underground scene was strong with people mainly focused on making noise or experimental music. On the other hand, there were people from the academy who were more into interpretation and contemporary composition. So, we decided to share the experience about sound art and different sound disciplines like objects, sculptures, installations, and other types of expressions. The first edition was only three full days long. It was small. For the second edition, we expressed it over a month. Our program grew a lot, with more seminars, lectures, workshops, and the opening took place in a popular market. The opening merged actions and expressions with the everyday sonorities from the open-air market. If you got it, it’s okay. If you lose it, it’s okay, too, because it’s a public space. It’s important to let it be free.
Víctor Mazón Gardoqui: I could add one thing. I see it more from a distance because I started to collaborate with Guely only in 2018. When you say that Sonandes is doing many activities, I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s all happening in La Paz, which is not a big city. I understand that Guely’s passion was to focus on this idea of working with the materiality of sound and bringing people together, a collective learning process as an academy. So maybe that’s why it’s very much connected to the workshops, to the seminars and to the public spaces. Because, generally, art in Bolivia is a privilege for wealthy people. The difference in Guely’s work is now—from my perspective—that she brings this idea of sound art to the public context, questioning what the public content is, making it free, open, and accessible to the people. And then, on the other hand, the invited artists don’t bring a finished work to be exhibited, but rather ideas and processes to work together between the international artist, a local artist, craftsmen, or a practitioner within a community. And for the audience, there is not a paid entrance. You find it suddenly in the street without a big advertisement, no flashing lights, and no seeking applause at the end.
GM: For the piece in the marketplace, we spent eight months working with and among the ladies, listening to their thoughts and sharing knowledge to establish a dialogue with eight artists. The aim was to spread the dialogue through 60 speakers over the market and broadcast a radio artwork.
AW: And how did the ladies from the market react to it?
GM: Amazing! The ladies offered all of us a big special meal to celebrate. It was like a party that day. And we invited our audience to go to the market and establish a dialogue with them, listening to each other and buying local products. An action that, due to supermarkets nowadays, has been lost. At the same time, other people never noticed the installation.
AW: That means the speakers were hidden?
GM: They were installed into the architecture and the selling stands. The speakers were two inches in diameter, very small. So, the sound behaved like a perfume. Not so strong. Not invading the place. It was liminal, very sweet and kind. Another example is the project by Augustín Genoud from Argentina; he was working with biosensors, electronics, performers, and sound in a popular viewpoint and in another market. Ozzo Ukumari and Felipe Gutierrez went through the city with small sound devices offering the experience to pedestrians in a one-to-one action. Those kinds of actions are some of the most important manifestos inside our curatorial work.
AW: And how are the reactions from the more classical scene in La Paz? Do they come as well?
GM: Yes, they also were invited and participated. I was skeptical about it, because when you alter the standard methodologies to bring sound experiences to an audience and do something new, it’s not always welcome. But it worked, and we got a lot of acceptance from different layers in our society from the academics to the citizens.
VMG: In the process that Guely creates, there are always different people attending and coming together, from old people to young people, full families from the grandmother to the child. And those people encounter it, and they ask: “What’s this thing?” They just call it “la cosa” —the thing.
GM: Yes, this thing! It’s amazing because outside the white and black cube are different rules. We don’t conceive it as artworks per se, but more as a collective process that creates an experience and that has a lot of value for us, the artists, and the locals.
VMG: This also gives a different commitment, sharing time and space together while transitioning the urban space. You come across it, and almost instantly it opens a dialogue. And listening is about dialogue and empathy. Listening is about arriving at a community or a space and adapting to its rhythm and rules on a more horizontal level. In Bolivian society, everyday life happens on the streets, so it was important for us to offer cultural manifestations in these spots that are cohabitated by many different interests.
GM: It’s a very interesting exercise for the artists, too, because they need to express themselves with another vocabulary. Connecting with people, approaching “la cosa” or the nature of the piece becomes an important role.
AW: So, did you also encounter some problems along the way? How do you prepare the artists?
GM: We present them the ideas, discuss them, and they need to be active to react.
VMG: Normally, the biennial starts one year and a half before. At this time, we start to talk with the artists and explain the rules of this game: come up with an idea, start the dialogue with the locals, then with the community. Then, we see if everything starts to match. And failure is part of making it. Last year, we had Valentina Vuksic, and she was totally into it. She came to live in a community of Mujeres Creando, which is a special....
GM: …feminist house, a very important place in La Paz and widely recognized in Bolivia, due to their public actions and editions since the ‘90s. This long trajectory has happened in the highly patriarchal ecosystem that is Bolivian society.
VMG: They have an important community radio, they give social help, give many courses on multiple topics and have a local food restaurant and a hostel. So, we just started this dialogue and were like, let’s see where the magic goes. Valentina was really into it; she was even wearing a jacket of Mujeres Creando at the end. The problem is more with the fragility of the body, because of the high altitude. You need some days to adapt. The food can also be a problem, if you eat something unusual, you can be off for three days.
GM: It’s very important to take care of the artists and give the artists time to arrive in the city. It’s a difficult city because of the high altitude, over 3600 meters. And the culture is very different. It’s a bit chaotic, too, so they need to be permeable to new habits to get around town. In the process of adaptation, it must also embody collaborative work, moving away from an idea of solitary work to a more open structure that contemplates the ideas and work methodologies of more people.
AW: Tell us more about the different festival editions that you realized.
GM: So, each edition has a theme, a subject. The first curatorship was dedicated to memory and listening, addressing body and social memory in a pluri-national state like Bolivia. The second edition was dedicated to public space and listening, questioning the public space, and not just invading other spaces with actions. In the third edition, we turned to the different forms of perception, so we focused on perception and listening to incorporate different types of bodies into the act of listening, like the blind and the deaf. And the last edition we have been working on with Victor is dedicated to the diversity of technology, trying to imagine different ways of understanding technology. How do you deconstruct the criterion of mono-technology? In my work, the reflection around listening and sound studies is central. All the editions have made efforts to assimilate this concept. For me, listening is a very important collective space. To forge a society that listens is to forge a more just and equitable society. We live in an ocular-centric society; listening is an act of resistance. It is to lodge in the invisible and from there deconstruct the idea of the image. The image is a synesthetic process, and it is not exclusive to the eye. That is why I find much value in cultivating an aural society.
VMG: Yes, in these other ways of listening, we were into cosmotechnics and multi-naturalism. How different bodies listen, from the geologic body, the architectural body, the machine listening. How to create a discourse where those bodies cohabitate and juxtapose? The premise was to expand to the inaudible and towards a non-cochlear and multispecies listening. The most critical part was the cosmotechnics. How are all these technologies with their persuasive design, coming from a specific part of the world with specific kinds of engineers and developers, invading other ways of thinking. The question was, what listening technologies happen in other latitudes and how to imagine them from the South? These questions were treated in the talks and the dialogues to form an expanded edition with printed and sound archives.
AW: Great, thank you very much. And then you are working on a new project right now. Could you explain what it is about?
GM: Yes, in our new project, we are working on the Wak’a [which means “sacred place” in Quechua]. And there are two sides to the project like in a diptych. On the one side, there is the idea of the black hole which refers to the silver mines in Potosí that have been active for five centuries now, since the Spanish crown came to Bolivia. Their methods of extracting are still ancient. It’s a very poor place, with very hard work conditions and a short life expectancy. And then on the other side of the narrative is the white flat land, the Salar de Uyuni, from which lithium is extracted and which is located in the same municipality. And that’s a very strange situation to have this amount of lithium in the same place where all the colonization with silver started. For me, it’s something deep and strong. Why is this contingency and recursivity in the same area?
AW: Yes, that’s crazy.
GM: So, the second concept of this research is sacredness, because the mountains here in Bolivia are considered living beings, the elders. They are alive for our culture, during the rituals, people even offer food to them. We establish a long-term relationship with the mountains. They are called Wak’as. Wak’a is a sacred body or a sacred territory. Through our practice-led research, we found that these Wak’as deal with a great energy and are also places with substantial amounts of commodities. And for the inhabitants of those places, it is really an identity conflict, because they live by the need to extract minerals from the mountain. In the Andean worldview, you need to offer something back, as an act of reciprocity. But what happens when instead of extracting resources for your own family, you work for a transnational enterprise and need to abuse the resources? That means everything gets out of balance. The people in Potosí have an internal fight because of their worldview on the one side and capitalism on the other side. The Enlightenment placed the human figure in the center, and that’s very different from the Andean worldview, where ideas establish a horizontal relationship with other beings. And that’s something interesting for us because it’s a reality. Our people there live in that way. It is important not to romanticize the situation and think that there is innocence in the eyes of the locals; they understand the capitalist world and move according to its parameters, but they also understand the unbalanced situation proposed by a large-scale extraction. On this point, we find the research very interesting because it is a reality that the extraction poses disadvantageous situations for the communities that must suffer the contamination of water and their territories.
fig. 4 Víctor Mazón setting up the work Bramador, 2020, objects made of melted bullets and coins from the Chaco War.
VMG: Through our research, we realized that in this Potosí region, the first coins in America were minted and the dollar -$- sign was coined. In 1573, Potosí had the same population as London and more inhabitants than Madrid, Rome, or Paris. With more than 160,000 inhabitants, it was one of the largest and richest cities in the world. It was sophisticated and developed, with the first cinema and locomotive in America. Nowadays, the Cerro Rico (rich hill), from which its different minerals are still being extracted, is different; the existing resources are minimal, and the pollution and human traces are huge. Now, this same region cohabits a new narrative, as the flat salt from Uyuni has around 65% of the world’s lithium reserve, and a new loan of extraction of 70 years was signed with a German company. This governmental decision will run and have an impact for more than three generations and become a loop of previous nondemocratic actions that have happened in the region.
AW: Do you work together with other people on this research, too?
VMG: We started this long-term research with a hybrid team: anthropologists, historians, scientists, and locals from Potosí. Then, later, thanks to a collaboration with Solidar Suiza and the Witness Project, we expanded it and presented this ongoing research in a network between different universities in North and South America like Portland, Harvard, Columbia, Labverde, and McGill. We all worked together towards sound-based research on the impact of the Anthropocene in inhabited and uninhabited places. During the pandemic, we decided to move there. We abandoned the city of La Paz, because a major city was not the best place to stay during the pandemic. So, we moved to the countryside, and we were living with the silver miners, we were working with them, establishing a dialogue, getting into the mine, being part of their daily activities and recording the different sonorities and conversations. They were very intrigued and questioning why we were there. And the first days were a bit strange. But after two weeks of sharing, we became friends, and the project now has been running for three years.
AW: And from the sonic point of view—What was interesting for you in this region during your research?
VMG: It was important for us to reflect in a location where the orality and oral tradition is so important. At the same time, there are only two seasons on the plateau: the rain season and the wind season. And the instruments replicate the rain to call the rain, or replicate the wind to stop the rains. On a plateau desert at 4,000 meters without vegetation and small hills, everything is sonorous. The music is present from the acousmatic experience of sound systems in the street to the live bands and festivities. The rituals, composition, and storytelling do not follow a linear discourse; they will follow a circular narrative. Also, a circular disposition of the interpreters and audience and a continuous repetition create an acoustic totem that stays on time. We were interested in implementing these circular narratives, and we decided to work with first-order ambisonics. Through it, we can record sound in a sphere and have deeper recording and reproduction experiences.
GM: Bolivia is a country with a strong oral tradition; the word plays a central role in the social and political organization of society. The word is surrounded by rituals, while writing is not developed before and lately after colonization. People need to speak more than to write to communicate. It is a tradition, but also simply a necessity. That’s why we are interested in the universe of the spoken word.
VMG: As Guely said, before the Spanish came, it was a culture where there were no writings. Information was passed through listening to the elders. Everything was, again, in a circle. We adopted those concepts when we compose and when we arrange sounds to create a narrative. The Salar de Uyuni—the salt flat—measures more than 11,000 km2, and that salt contains a percentage of lithium. We have named it neo-extractivism, and it’s the third concept behind the curatorial research. Five hundred years ago, it was happening in the black hole of the mine, and now it happens in this white salt flat. Now, everything is there in front of us, in front of the naked eye.
GM: In a country with no education, with no technology, with no structures, it’s like a loop. We can perceive it. The same thing that happened 500 years ago will happen again. We are facing neo-colonialism and neo-extractivism.
VMG: There is the promise that this is the Saudi Arabia of the new world, that the country will become rich. But at the same time, there is the 70-year loan of extraction that the government gave to a German company, as I had already mentioned. And there are mostly engineers working in the lithium mine, while in the silver mine there are over 10,000 workers. These engineers fix the wash machines that, through density, decant the lithium and potassium chloride. The orality and the acoustics are totally different compared to the black of the mine where you have detonations, explosions, dynamite…there you have machinery, engines, and motors moving water in a desert. At the same time, the research facilities where the production of the batteries will happen will be located outside Bolivia.
AW: That’s very interesting. Coming back to the sonic projects that you realized in the region, could you name some examples?
GM: In terms of sound praxis and actions, we connected with different inter-scalar communities and started different projects and collaborations. We were working for a few months with recordings from different mines and transducing these sounds into the salt flat. We were also working with the materials we found on site and at the same time in a further process creating site-specific sculptures; for example, we connected the salt miners with the historical silversmiths’ academy, and we produced silver bricks using as a mold a salt brick unity (salt adobe of 40x25x20cm) that is used for all architectural buildings in the area. The objects behaved as microphones that capture, through long recordings, the winds that cross the salt flat without other friction. At this point, one of the things that most interested us was connecting with different layers within society. We understood that the more people are involved in our proposal, the more public reach we get. We understood that it does not become public by being in the public space, it becomes public when there are several layers of society involved.
VMG: For these actions, we traveled with a group of composers and artists, making workshops in different locations. We were traveling with two cars into the salt flat. Through these actions without the public, we were interested in strategies of awareness of extraction, human traces, and man-made landscapes. So, we did concerts for the space, the Wak’as, and for us. Now, we are using the recordings as material for composing with different artists and musicians.
AW: Are you planning to do something with the audience in the salt flat?
GM: Not in the salt flat probably. It’s complicated to go there and a very arid location, dangerous to move around due to the morphology of the floor and intense ultraviolet radiation. That’s why we chose to work around the Salar with different communities and share this work afterward. We worked, for example, in a place that is called Pulacayo that used to be the biggest mine in the world. But now it’s abandoned. Due to the road infrastructure, there is the local school of all villages around, and there is also an historical museum. We shared a lot of time with the students of that school, making pieces and recordings with them. We also developed VR experiences to connect the real narratives with local worldviews. Another relevant project was with the Young Potosí Philharmonic Orchestra. We worked with the imagined sounds of the mine and made a workshop with silent footage we filmed in the mines, and the young musicians composed with musique concrète, folly techniques, and their instruments. This process was very nutritious, as most of their parents are miners or work in relation to the mines, but none of them had visited the mine due to the dangers of going there, and it was the first time they actually saw the inside.
VMG: We were presenting the videos and were playing with the acoustic imaginary: How do you think it sounds there? And then we produced the sounds with special self-made microphones, amplifiers, and reused materials, from wooden and cardboard resonant bodies to quinoa and stones.
AW: Do these ideas develop in the process, or do you come with a fixed concept?
GM: It’s part of the process. Because it depends on the people that you meet. And what happens in that encounter. So, first we ask for permission to enter the areas and communities, presenting ourselves and listening to their circumstances, and then understanding if they are open to share, communicate, and collaborate. One thing is very important—as I said, we live in an ocular-centric society. If we put a camera in front of people, they start acting for the camera, or being cautious of seeing or being recognized for what they say. But when you have a recording device, people just forget it. And that helps us a lot in connecting in a better way with them. We want to involve more people in the process, trying to share all this knowledge and all these ideas with a different audience, from children to elders, to engage in a dialogue about these topics and this research. We want to form a community rather than be working with a community.
VMG: For us, there are different intentions. On the one hand, it’s about sharing an experience. Let’s say there is the act of listening, this act of empathy, this moment to share, this time to preserve. This is towards the creation of an archive; it’s important because we are creating and preserving memories for the future as an open archive. We work with free, libre, and open licenses. We share what we create together with them and with others. Then, it’s also about different strategies to bring awareness to these worlds that are invisible. There are many people from Bolivia who have no image of these things. And we are finding ways to present, sensitize, digest, and learn together.
AW: So, actually, it’s very political or activist work. Why do you think it’s important to have the artistic approach in it at all?
GM: Why is it important? Because it’s a way to communicate with another sensitivity. There is an urgency to connect with this issue; it is a very important moment in which we must take part in the possible solutions and part of this is to communicate in order to understand the magnitude of the problem and from there develop new strategies to improve the situation.
VMG: There are diverse strategies—we could create an academic paper, and some people would read it. We could create audiovisual content for the media, and others will receive it (but the media is populated with such bad news that it is saturated). And through the arts, we find strategies of awareness and strategies for discussion.
GM: And Switzerland is a great place to share this research, and open a dialogue, because here people start consuming clean-green energy. But on many occasions, we have a wrong idea about what green or clean means. It’s clean here, but not in our country. We need to understand the whole process and then redefine what is green and clean. Green energy comes from renewable energy resources that can be renewed naturally and have the least environmental impact, but the term least is very controversial, as lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite are crucial to battery performance and are mostly extracted in third countries with few regulations and by transnational companies interested on the maximum rentability and reduction of costs. Clean energy is created without emitting greenhouse gasses, though it isn’t necessarily naturally renewable.
AW: Yeah, that’s so true.
GM: If you don’t have up-to-date information and you wish to help to save the world, you might fail using strategies led by the energy lobby. It’s important to share what has happened and happens in the Global South and to look at what happens in the North at the same time. And then try to find the best way to do things. We really are in a hotspot moment as humanity, as a planet. So, we need to develop multiple strategies because one strategy is not enough. We are also conscious that we are part of the problem, and hopefully part of the solutions. That’s why we are trying to offer ways of thinking beyond the obvious things.
Guely Morató Loredo is a curator, sound artist, and researcher. She has a master's degree in education and technology (ES) and a bachelor's degree in social communication sciences, specializing in cultural studies (BO). In 2014, she founded and began directing Sonandes: Platform for Experimentation and Research, which organizes the only biennial specialized in sound art in Latin America. Sonandes has also developed Puertos: Creation Residency Program (2018-2021), as well as publications, laboratories, and exhibitions specialized in sound art and listening studies. Her work has been shown in different festivals and museums in different countries of America and Europe. She also has won awards in America and Europe.
Anja Wernicke completed master's degrees in cultural studies with a focus on music in Hildesheim and cultural mediation in Marseille. An internship at the Gare du Nord brought her to Basel, where she has been involved in various projects and organizations, including the festival ZeitRäume Basel – a Biennial for Contemporary Music and Architecture (2014-2021) – and the research department of the Hochschule für Musik FHNW (2016-2021). She teaches courses on music curation and published the book "Musik machen" in 2023 (Vexer Verlag). Since 2022, she has been working in the music department of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.