I’ve been working with AICA-UK and PEER on STUDIOAUDIO, a series of new audio commissions that were premiered on Resonance FM in October.
Artists include: Andy Holden & The Grubby Mitts; Fabian Peake; Hardeep Pandhal & Joe Howe; Hamish Fulton; Toby Christian & Good Gear; Merlin James; Phyllida Barlow; Marion Coutts; Jadé Fadojutimi; Sally O’Reilly; Emma Biggs & Matthew Collings with Ian MacMillan; Maria Zahle with Blue Lake
The twelve artists were each invited to create a new sound work between three and eight minutes long. Encompassing scripted performances, music, poetry, sound-works and diaristic reflections, the artists have explored their relationship to the studio as a place of solitude and creativity. As the UK eases out of lockdown, the commissions respond to the new complex realities that the artists are currently navigating. The responses vary widely as some have embraced the time and space that lockdown has delivered, while others have been severely hit by its consequences including loss of exhibition opportunities and income. The project aims to provide a platform for new forms of work that engage with the format of radio and online distribution.
The audio works were premiered on Resonance FM on 21 and 22 October 2020 and you can hear them HERE.
My text on the project:
Writing about 2020 is like trying to sculpt with smoke. When you’re in it you can’t see it, it disappears as soon you touch it, and it refuses to stay still. I’m not sure what you’ve been up to, but I’ve spent most of the year in my spare room shouting “hello, can you hear me” at my laptop screen. My puzzled colleagues looking at me; their pixilated faces frozen because of dodgy internet.
While my life feels like groundhog day, the world changes shape outside my front door. It is ironic that as society’s problems seem to get bigger, my experiences of it becomes smaller, mediated through a screen no larger than an A3 piece of paper. The mouse has replaced trains and planes as my favoured mode of transit; the airless glow of Zoom replacing the bright city lights.
On balance, I’m okay. Others less so. The fallout from the pandemic has been felt deeply across society. It has shaken an already fragile museum and gallery sector, left vulnerable and precarious by years of public underfunding and inequality. If, for some, the cultural sector feels like its on fire, for others it always was, and Covid-19 is merely the kerosene that has sped up a process already in motion. At the time of writing there have been roughly 3000 job losses across museums in the UK, and the number of artists who have lost commissioning and exhibition opportunities is too many to quantify.
At this moment of crisis, how do we respond? STUDIOAUDIO started life during lockdown in spring this year when Sacha Craddock, Ingrid Swenson and I were reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on the cultural sector. The three of us are members of the executive committee for the UK section of the International Association of Art Critics, an organisation that promotes art writing and criticism. At moments like this, it feels important to go back to basics, use what is at hand and support your community.
In spring 2020, I hatched and dropped various plans, dusted off old ideas and explored them with renewed impetus before hastily forgetting them. Yet, unlike many conversations I had, STUDIOAUDIO — and it gives me great pleasure to write this — finds its place in the world. While much has changed since our initial conversation we still find ourselves in the midst of the pandemic and it is clear that we will see the effects of Covid long after a vaccine is discovered.
STUDIOAUDIO is a very simple project. Twelve artists who have writing as part of their practice – either entirely or experimentally, or a combination of the two – and are at different points in their career were invited to produce a short audio work that reflects on their experiences of 2020. From the outset of the project, radio felt like the right platform for the commissions, with its ability to create intimacy and be broadcast into people’s homes.
While we posed a series of brief provocations to each artist, asking them to reflect on their relationship to the studio and the role of solitude, we gave the participants relative autonomy to produce what they like. What has come back is varied in tone, content and approach. From the comedic to the melancholic, the various commissions grieve what we’ve lost, translate what has happened and imagine what could be next. We worked with artists who have differing relationships to the studio, and we hoped that STUDIOAUDIO would form a time capsule of immediate and conflicting responses to lock down and the pandemic. The commissions were originally inserted stealth-like and unannounced into Resonance Extra’s programming and then broadcast on Resonance FM before being hosted on PEER and AICA-UK’s websites.
Galaxies and other objects by Marion Coutts combines cosmic and domestic imagery with the artist ruminating on the lockdown, (the inability to) work, dying stars and deep time. She sits at her laptop looking at, and filing images of galaxies. The commission evokes a sense of stationary transit; imagination orbiting the earth while the physical body struggles to make it to the studio. Repeller by Toby Christian with Good Gear is characterised by an attentiveness to minutiae. A descriptive monologue maps an enigmatic object sound tracked by a spare lap steel guitar. The work feels like a lament, drifting in and out of focus as the text attempts to ground us in details.
For 42 Carlton Place, Merlin James takes us on a tour of his home in Glasgow. It starts off with the sound of his paintings being picked up by a courier to be transported to an exhibition in New York. James then takes us around his house which doubles as a gallery space and studios. James briefly mentions his partner, the painter Carol Rhodes, and the reasons they chose the house together. Rhodes died almost two years ago. James’ tour moves through an empty studio and a world gone awry. Here, the audio, like many of the commissions, feels estranged and pregnant with uncertainty; the comfort of home becoming unsure.
WithNotes for a Poem – Lakes and Islands Fabian Peake takes us on a journey around landscapes. In it he pairs the language of geology and open space, lakes and islands, with the language of the incidental, cracks, leaks, doors and staples. Peake’s practice – as an artist and as a poet – feels particularly material where his language is infused with the musicality of the everyday.
Specialist Safe Space picks up the pace with Hardeep Pandhal rapping over the music of Jon Howe. Pandhal’s humorous and biting lyrics use pop cultural references to touch upon cultural identity, tackling assimilationist rhetoric: ‘pissing on me and my family tree’ and the claustrophobia of being ‘trapped in the safest safe space’ made by white people.
In Sally O’Reilly’swork we encounter an imaginary pub during last orders, ‘built from bricks of effort and boredom and carpeted with geniality throughout’. When local boozers are increasingly under threat from lockdown and curfew, O’Reilly invites us into the unruly Open Arms, complete with a pub cat, broken jukebox, resident musician and a cast of intoxicated regulars, each rendered with a mordant wit.
Jadé Fadojutimi reflects on the importance of the imaginary to ‘expand our world rather than hold us in place’ and – in the context of Black Lives Matter – to imagine a world where ‘people don’t have to die to live’. Fadojutimi’s imagination oscillates between retreat and responsibility. It ends with the sound of her painting. She reminds us that imagining a world that doesn’t already exist is a political act as much as a creative one.
Biggs & Collings with Ian MacMillan similarly reflect on the social from the position of the studio. Encompassing discordant and fragmented sounds and episodic monologue, the artists’ take on Covid-19, politics and formalism underpinned by the rhythm of what sounds like masking tape being ripped off a work in progress. Andy Holden and the Grubby Mitts O.S is constructed from whispered vocals and plucked acoustic guitar accompanied by swirling strings and static and vintage movie dialogue. There is an intimate, underwater quality that provides the song with an enervated restlessness that encapsulates 2020.
I Started Dying My Own Yarn has a similar sonic make-up to O.S with heavily treated audio and submerged production by Maria Zahle with Blue Lake. Looping and repetitive, with a keen attentiveness to surfaces and colours, the work translates Zahle’s sculptural practice for radio. The whispered monologue, underpinned by light percussion, intimates a sense of making and process.
WithA Walking Artist, Hamish Fulton provides a sonic equivalent for his practice as a walking artist who addresses the cycles of nature and existence at a time of climate emergency. Fulton communicates a syncopated language of navigation through a lexicon of measurements and coordinates. Fulton’s evocation of faraway places takes on a melancholic air during our current restrictions.
Night Trains was recorded by Phyllida Barlow over successive nights at 3am, capturing the sounds of freight trains going past her house and studio. What might in some circumstances be disruptive, can also be almost barely there – a particularly rooted accompaniment to working late at night in the studio. The work references the years in which Barlow would often spend her nights in the studio when her family were asleep, an art practice fitted into other responsibilities, the artist beavering away in solitude as part of the world sleeps and another part keeps turning.
There are many threads that connect the commissions in STUDIOAUDIO. 2020 is a time of purgatory and each commission encapsulates the conflicted sense of uncertainty – the opportunity to reflect on what is lost and what might be gained. Artists are perhaps best placed to make sense of a world bent out of shape. Will it ever return to the same shape? What is the new normal? STUDIOAUDIO privileges the intimacy of the artist’s voice, placing us with their thoughts. Art is like a weather vane. In this current turbulence, art may well help us see which way the wind might be blowing.