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Olivia Louvel
SculptOr [Hepworth Resounds] Antonio Poscic , March 10th, 2020 08:27

Olivia Louvel spins the words of sculptor Barbara Hepworth into an intoxicating and highly conceptual composition

“There is no spoon,” a child sat in a Lotus position proclaims while using psychokinesis to bend said spoon during one of The Matrix’s most enduring scenes. Amidst the film’s mush of self-help revelations and gestalt philosophies, this vignette about the nature of virtual reality and our ability to shape it remains relevant even today. Not thanks to its pseudo-Buddhist parables and strained metaphors, but because we’re fast approaching a world where it has practical implications. Absorbed by digital tools, we use them within the constraints of their technological dogmas, unable to subvert them. This holds equally true in art and music, as digital instruments are often set in rigid and mundane contexts delineated by skeuomorphism.

But then there are artists like Olivia Louvel. The French-born British composer, researcher, and sound artist shows an utter disregard for such boundaries and instead understands just how bendable the digital medium is and how plastic and malleable our new reality can be.

Still, there is something unequivocally human in Louvel’s work, centred around the voice and its manipulations. These flow freely, as if laws neither material nor digital were applied to them. On SculptOr [Hepworth Resounds], she uses IRCAM’s AudioSculpt – a graphical sound moulding software – not only to mimic the physical act of sculpting, but to augment and reframe it. And unlike musical experiments in which technology dictates aesthetics, here it allows an uncanny organic approach.

“Sculpture is a three-dimensional projection of primitive feeling: touch, texture, size and scale, hardness and warmth, evocation and compulsion to move, live, and love.” Armed with an algorithmic chisel and mallet, Louvel repurposes writings by the late English sculptor Barbara Hepworth. At first, we hear sequenced samples of the sculptor discussing her art. The narration is distorted but pristine, undisturbed by Louvel’s subtle and timid touches. Then, as the piece gains confidence, Hepworth’s voice bounces around, clips, and shapes feather-like beats. “Walk around it, then towards it, walk away from it”, it repeats and repeats and repeats, until it is Louvel’s own singsong voice invoking this mantra, forming an expansive and layered harmony encircled with glitched and boxy noises.

‘Must Carve A Stone’ Olivia Louvel from Cat Werk Imprint on Vimeo.

SculptOr is a highly conceptual and meta-referential piece, a sort of meditation on artistic practices, but it curiously turns the tables on Marshall McLuhan’s notorious aphorism. Here, the message becomes the medium, a mass to be moulded and directed. The album’s concept is thus manifest, exposed through Hepworth’s musings and amplified by the music they birth. “I rarely draw what I see, I draw what I feel in my body”, we hear Louvel make Hepworth’s words her own, underlined by an unnerving, constant frequency. Her recitation attracts and generates spiny sounds like a quasar, refracting the newly born electronic effects around the heaviness and tactility of the narration.

Louvel’s delivery and inflection are sparse but sharp edged, casting dark and eerie moods. Like a reversal of the geological explorations on Lucrecia Dalt’s Anticlines, the words and noises carve out a vast, lonesome space for themselves and for us to get lost in. “I detest a day of no work, no music, no poetry”, Hepworth sings through Louvel, before finally revealing the captivating substance of SculptOr: “The sound of a mallet or hammer is music to my ears, when either is used rhythmically, and I can tell by sound alone what is going on”. In the end, an unexpected, insidious bass drop implodes it all.