To Be Moved by the Intelligence of Our Processual Becoming: An Interview with Katrina Burch
by Chelsea Rozansky
At the time I came across the electro-acoustic music of Katrina Burch—aka Yoneda Lemma, a sound artist, computer scientist, and archaeologist—I was reading about Messianic Jewish theories of storytelling, which had motivated much of my preliminary research on history writing and archiving practices, especially the notion of distortion in writing. Distortion “is at the same time a form of oblivion and a form of memory,” writes the scholar Agata Bielik-Robson.1 Language reveals just as it conceals: our awareness of forgetting always implies the possibility of remembering. The idea that language is a kind of distortion or abstraction makes me fear writing’s infidelity—its likelihood of missing something. Written history should be approached suspiciously. It begs the question of what’s left out, what was left behind, and hopefully elicits a rigorous reading, or rewriting. This suspicious mode may be thought of as a world-building project, in preparation for freer futures.
Burch is a founding member of the international feminist art collective Laboria Cuboniks, which invigoratingly builds a feminism from the roots of alienation, abstraction, and artificiality. In a 2017 C Magazine interview, Laboria Cuboniks member Lucca Fraser mentioned the work of collaborators, which led me to Burch’s music and philosophical writings. I assumed that Burch’s archaeological background would teach me something about archiving practices, but it was her electronic compositions—these haunting, dissonant soundscapes—that resonated most. Listening to layers on layers of sonic abstraction makes me feel almost like I’m moving backwards, or participating in some process of deconstruction.
Burch’s essay “Xenolistening: Skhismasonic Growing Pains” (2016) may be read as something of a manifesto for the music of Yoneda Lemma. “Xenolistening” is a portmanteau of listening and the molecular-biological term “xenotype”—which identifies a class of molecules foreign to the species it’s found in, and is a fancy way of saying variant, or anomaly. Burch suggests that from such variants arise patterns (like sonic compositions, or like histories and pedagogies), which she calls “typo logic.” “Xenolistening” means listening for errant moments; what’s revealed within them is the instability of the entire structure and thus space for free thinking.
In that essay, the artist explains how she matches abstraction in sound with abstraction in thinking in order to carve out psychic space for building a politics of listening. She outlines a kind of productive failure as necessary for reaching this space. For instance, when listening to serial music, the listener—attuned to the pattern of a song—makes a mental leap upon hearing glitches in sound or a skipped beat. We almost seamlessly fill the gap in our imagination with the pattern we’ve come to recognize.
It reminds me of the reproductive tendency of citation practices in history writing. Atonality (music which doesn’t conform to a tonal structure) shocks us out of our patterns and calls us back to the act of listening, bringing us back to our senses. When we pick up on something we perceive to be an anomaly in historical reading, we’re also shocked backed to our senses, to an awareness of the activity. “Failure”—which is to say, failure to conform—“is a potent tool for the imagination,” Burch tells me. It distinguishes “what is truly revolutionary and creative in practices of speculative world-building from what is mere revisionism.” Telling stories through noise, the artist activates her politics of listening: creating distortion and abstraction in sound to carve out what she calls a “dream space” for new thinking, for imagining possible futures.
This conversation has been condensed from its original form.
Chelsea Rozansky: Why did you choose your moniker Yoneda Lemma?
Katrina Burch: In 2012, at Miguel Abreu Gallery in NYC, I was introduced to the Yoneda lemma, a mathematical proof for a synthetic object of/for geometrical thinking, during a talk by the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani. The mathematician Nobuo Yoneda wrote perhaps the most important proof for category theory (my bias) in the mathematical field of abstract geometry (jokingly sometimes called “abstract nonsense”), known as Yoneda’s lemma, bringing mathematics as far afield as musicology. [Negarestani] explained that the modern rational project was not in itself a reasonable project [and] proceeded to sketch out a new method of abstraction culled from fields of contemporary mathematics and computer sciences [including the Yoneda lemma]. He called this philosophical trend a form of mapping, a transcendental task that involves searching for the universalization of concepts through mathematics—specifically, through the synthetic, or unstable and malleable, nature of abstract geometry.
Reza’s “performance” transfixed us, the audience, revealing how seductive philosophy can be, revealing the kind of abductive thinking that artists [can achieve]. It was precisely [from] that rush to think outside my own habits of thought that I ended up coming to envision the ideas for the Yoneda Lemma project. I felt compelled to follow all these white rabbits to discover in my own way (not through the university) what might be at stake for philosophy today and how it is that we can change the way we think through abstraction and intersubjectivity. Connecting philosophy to archaeology and my musical background, I used my knowledge of excavation methods and music composition analogously to understand category-theoretic concepts and vice versa.
CR: I’d love to hear more about how the Yoneda lemma figures in your practice.
KB: Let’s consider the possibility of a “global structure of knowledge” (to use Negarestani’s terminology). A global structure of knowledge could be the synthesis of logical structures in thought and practice; when we imagine it, it will immediately become apparent to us that [knowledge] is something that is temporalized, historicized, and not entirely fixed. Can these new conceptual gymnastics provide a template […] that helps artists and social scientists articulate how the cultural (or the sonic) imagination (through listening) can be transformative thought production itself? Can we learn different models for how we can listen by translating between different maps of thought, and is this not beneficial for amplifying a diversity of voices and being heard? In short, I was interested in how the Yoneda lemma generates or transforms ontologies.
CR: In “Xenolistening: Skhismasonic Growing Pains,” you discuss a productive kind of failure. “Failure” to listen as an opportunity to generate new thinking, and recognizing failures in philosophical thought opening up space for new possibilities. You refer to failure as a “dream space.”
KB: In the politics of listening, I place emphasis on the corporeality of listening and the “failure” to listen—or active listening—which leads to revisions in both listening and thinking. Through listening, we see how many possible worlds of thought help to generate “the story.” We see ambiguities and long, unfinished processes/patterns. When we hear something “impossible,” do we automatically identify it as […] at least comprehensible on some level […] and therefore a resource for conceptualization?
I think a lot of contemporary artists working in electro-acoustic music understand this to mean that tipping point in the process of sound production where the actual timbre of a recorded instrument becomes unrecognizable, sometimes becoming a different object of thought, and thus is a carrier of new information that can then make [new] meaning. We can think of the speculative act of world-building as a kind of anti-world […] that carries other possible imaginary aesthetic worlds. Through listening, we pick ourselves up or are thrown out of an already bent-out world, and because of this insightful inspiration, develop new ears for listening.
That’s why I’m interested in telling stories through music, making these futuristic worlds with strange sounds that evoke parabolic entities—the “as if” possibilities with the sonic—to produce something unheard of before.
CR: I’m curious about the affective language you employ in your writing; the first line of “Xenolistening: Skhismasonic Growing Pains” is: “Intoxication, likely.” Or, later on, “achingly hypothetical.” Throughout the text, theory is punctuated by sensation. Is affect a channel to bridge music and theoretical practice? A conduit for xenolistening?
KB: In general, I grapple with philosophical language that flattens affect or “softens” anything relational into the immediacy of the sensuous. I do not think theory needs to be punctuated with sensation, but when sensations and theory weave together, it could become more multivocal—let’s say inspiring—since assuming a poetics of thought (rather than a unified theory) might speak to more bodies or spaces at once. Something that moves through us—as in music, if we follow the path Sun Ra shared—brings us closer to the complexities of the affective.
What plays a larger role for me in regard to the intelligence of affect is imagination, [and using it] to create intersubjective opportunities by recognizing that fantasy is a collective act (a social intelligence), as is drawing upon collective memories and intergenerational storytelling. [We need] to give legitimacy to the role of dreaming in our intelligence as it is being shaped over time [and be] moved by the intelligence of our processual becoming (including internal world-making).
CR: You write that in both listening and philosophical thinking, “acute abstractions meet general abstractions. To abstract an understanding of abstraction is to conjure a space of thought that (un)folds into itself.” I’m listening to a set you did in São Paulo on your SoundCloud page as I read this, and I notice the file is given the hashtag “abstraction.” A beat starts to form after about 15 minutes of dissonance and I’m nodding my head to the beat as if I understand. I intuit some sort of intimacy between listening and thinking, but I’m not sure I get it. This experience feels sensual; it makes my head hurt. How exactly does abstraction figure as this link between listening and philosophical thinking?
KB: The relationship between listening and thinking is an expression of how entwined we are with each other, how deeply impacted we are by our fictions, by our stories. The ability to listen means to share in this act of exchanging our virtuality. [Otherwise] thinking for thinking’s sake runs the risk of leading to fruitless (uncritical/apolitical) idealism. I make a distinction between acute and general abstractions to show that listening can be navigated in a general way, for example, by navigating the fluidities of a global landscape undergoing movement, or in an acute way, by navigating the contours of particular sounds, spaces, and/or ideas—to feel the possible cliffs and valleys, so to speak.
CR: My good friend Max Lester is a sculptor who is sort of obsessed with how sensation reveals failures and boundaries between planes of thought and planes of experience. The term he’s been using to describe this is “fault lines.” Don’t fault lines create cliffs and valleys?
KB: Yes! Exactly. Those moments of failure are paradoxical: when the banality of the mind feels hopeless because of the continuous hum of fictions or fantasies (what we naively call reality), or with vibrations of simple impressions, like passions or emotions, this is also a moment for greater release—[because] every experience, idea, object, and impression is situated within a context that is subject to revision. Understanding the ramifying paths of failure helps [us distinguish] what is truly revolutionary and creative in practices of speculative world-building from what is merely revisionism. Failure is a potent tool of the imagination. It touches the human soul in importantly embodied modes of historicity, thus it is very valuable for all forms of insight: political, fictional, religious/spiritual, technological, grassroots, etc.
CR: I love your idea of listening as a work in progress. In my research into history writing and archiving practices, the metaphor I’ve used to explain my work to myself is something like reading between the lines to draw out the stories and efforts of not-yet historical figures, often rendered invisible by the oppressive nature of the text itself. Another metaphor you could use might be about silenced voices, and archiving practice as listening for their calls.
KB: I love how you’ve put that. I agree that [listening] is a bit like being caught in the middle of something so highly energetic as not yet to be historicized.
CR: This, I think, is why imagining history writing as a Marxist dialectic project is so challenging and revealing. The blanks on the page—that which has been left out, left behind—are like chasms that reveal could-bes, or fictions, or futures.
KB: We should shine on every chance we get to see the failure of modernity—perhaps the political lesson of capitalism—to learn that this socio-economic system fails at its core to offer the fulfilment of or any promise to human dignity because of its coercive commitments to racism, sexism, and the continued decay of its occupations through wage labour and enslavement. Grappling with this megafailure complexity is what is at stake in the construction of freedom, to build possible new worlds that reinsert the ecological concept of dignity—a knowledge situated at the symbiosis of life and abstraction—back into the manifold of individual and collective individuation.
Katrina Burch is a classically trained musician turned electronic and experimental music producer tuning in to a range of arts practices alongside ambitions to mentally break down desire capitalism. She’s currently finishing two albums and collections of VR music videos to appear on the Belgium/Chile-based label Nonlocal Research. Katrina is a new mother recently living in Tio’tia:ke (Montreal).
For the introduction and previous parts to this series, please visit: Shifting Spotlights