"I am interested in music expanding consciousness. By expanding consciousness, I mean that old patterns can be replaced with new ones."
— Pauline Oliveros
At the height of great unrest in the 1960s, legendary composer Pauline Oliveros retreated from public performing and dove into sound experiments meant to soothe and heal. She later coined Deep Listening®, an embodied practice in which we intentionally and actively tune into, versus tune out, the sounds around and within us.
In 1989, Oliveros composed The Witness three open strategies for listening, attuning, and responding to the natural environment and to one another. The score, along with Oliveros’s philosophies of community and collaboration and the practice and process of Deep Listening®, have inspired a vast constellation of projects over the decades. The Witness is both the seed of Openlab and the guiding principle around which the lab’s research projects are organized.
As catastrophic fires, drought, deforestation, extractivism, and other consequences of climate change and human action are radically and rapidly reshaping our world, Oliveros’s plea to attend to the sounds around us takes on greater exigency. The Witness provides a critical tool these times demand for guiding us toward becoming attuned to, rather than dominating over, the living world we share with vulnerable ecologies and their inhabitants, human and non-human.
Openlab The Witness is anchored in the idea that the arts can bring us together — by connecting us to our origins, raising awareness about the emerging and ever-shifting challenges of our planet and humanity, informing more sustainable solutions, and cultivating a deeper spirituality. Supported by cultural and educational institutions around the world, Openlab is gathering researchers to exchange observations and conduct sound-based studies and workshops. The research is also shared with a larger audience through Openlab's multimedia platform including an interactive global map, an archive of sound-based knowledge, an online radio, and an annual event in Zurich in December.
Openlab The Witness begins in 2022 with collaborations highlighting Subsaharan Africa and South Asia, including:
Punshilok Forest in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur was once a barren hillscape that had been burned to cultivate rice — until local volunteers began planting trees. They transformed it into a lush forest teeming with plant and animal life and restored its cultural and religious significance. Multidisciplinary artist Chaoba Thiyam will create sound and audio recordings of the forest throughout the year, drawing upon mediums including body practices, folk wisdom, and visuals, and collaborating with local villagers, a folklorist, and conservationist to cocreate the project.
For the Chopi people in the Inhambane province of Mozambique, the mbila (plural: timbila), a xylophone made of wooden slats and dried fruit peels or gourds, is more than an instrument. It implies a harmonious relationship with nature that permeates Chopi society. As climate change drastically alters the ecology, impacting agriculture, the Chopi’s main source of subsistence, this project seeks to understand and record how their ancestral beliefs, knowledge, and practices have established connections to nature. Led by a master timbila player, ethnomusicologist, and filmmaker, the team will document the often unnoticed sounds of the ecosystem, the manufacture of instruments, and how the Chopi’s strategies for mitigating change are reflected in their music and culture.
Recognizing the disconnect humans have with each other, the natural world, and within ourselves — and the dominating culture that creates and perpetuates these divisions — a project near Bangalore in the south Indian state of Karnataka seeks to bring people into a 2.5-billion-year-old rocky landscape to question how we inhabit our surroundings. Using film, sound, text, and the body, the project, led by performance artist and educator Shabari Rao, will invite participants to reimagine a new way of engaging with this geologically significant site that builds connection and balance. Can we move through a site more lightly, opening ourselves to the living and nonliving elements we share this world with?
Openlab will continue to expand as transdisciplinary research groups hailing from different regions are added over years and collaborations grow among the participants. The project welcomed South and North America in 2021. Subsaharan Africa and South Asia joined in 2022, and the project will continue in 2023 with a focus on East and Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.
__ Julie Beauvais, founder, director and curator of Openlab The Witness
To participate in Openlab:
Openlab The Witness is grateful to its partners and sponsors for making this project possible.