Rene Francis-McBrearty [RFM]: In ‘Distend’ we see your interests in sculpture, installation and sound converge. How do you navigate working across different materials and the ways they intersect?
Ashley Holmes [AH]: It’s the first time for a little while that I’ve exhibited in this kind of way with sound and sculptural objects together in the same space, so I’ve been reflecting over this quite a lot recently. I’m interested in the many ways music and sound recordings can act as a sort of vessel for collective memory. The way I like to work with sound is often in response to specific places or locations and so ‘Distend’ loosely responds to some of these ideas in different ways.
I often draw on my own family lineage as a starting point in my work and have recently been thinking about the relationships I have to the rural landscapes of the Caribbean and Britain, through thinking about similar connections embedded in the stories told in music – particularly music from Jamaica. Without going into too much detail about it, I’ve been thinking about the constant threat of natural disasters and extreme weather that the Caribbean faces, which led me to some of the underwater images from the landslides and earthquakes that struck Port Royal, Jamaica in 1692. The earthquake caused most of the city to sink below sea level and from underwater excavations there are lots of photos that have been circulating online for a while of the forts and architectural remains that sit submerged on the bed of the Caribbean Sea.
Some of the sculptural works in ‘Distend’ are reference to the ambiguous looking objects from the nautical excavations that resembled defunct speakers and tannoys. I started collecting a montage of sounds that I thought responded to the site and became quite interested in ways of honouring the estimated one third of Port Royal’s population who lost their lives in this tragedy (of which roughly 600-700 were enslaved African people). The more I was working with all of this material, the more I began to think about the potential of sound to memorialise something lost. I got kinda fixated on imagining what would it be like if these ruins on the seabed were able to listen? If buildings and objects could share the things they were witness to. So the installation is centred around these imagined relics at the bottom of the ocean, accompanied by a mournful, distorted soundscape of vocals and field recordings that try to explore the potential of music and sound recordings to allow us to travel to different points in history, or into the future and reflect over what has taken place.
[RFM] In a conversation with Jared Davis you mention the importance of sharing and sampling in sound system culture and this negating western ideas of distribution and ownership. Do you see ‘Distend’ as functioning like a remix/ sample?
[AH] Yeah from very young I’ve enjoyed tracing the places that a song or piece of music originates from. I reckon growing up around the CDs, tapes, records and radio stations older family members were listening to probably opened up a curiosity for the ways music travels and is shared before I was ever really properly aware of it. In a way it has helped me to understand the influence that popular music from Jamaica has had on almost all of the stuff I’m interested in and listen to. A lot of the things I love about ‘copy’ cultures in the music I like today is that they have foundations in Jamaican soundsystem music and the concept of the Version. From producer aliases and bootlegging to covers, edits, chopped and screwed, and sample-based music, they find loopholes and are usually made without permission, operating outside of the legal and economic frameworks of traditional mainstream music. There’s something beautiful in the ways this pirate approach encourages creative new ways for people to tap into musical histories. I like the way it gives a new direction for the conversation to go in. And the audio element of ‘Distend’ is an extension of all of this really… a montage of my own versions and edits. A friend that visited the exhibition described it as ‘a pocket dub sea symphony’ which I kind of loved.
[RFM]: How do you use collaboration in your practice? Is there anyone in particular you’d like to meet or speak with?
[AH] I like to think about creative ways collective listening and conversation can happen, so collaboration is something I really value and try to give space to as much as I can. As there hasn’t been much opportunity for this to happen in person lately, I’m equally interested in digital cultures that encourage people to share and connect.
There’s an app on my phone that I’ve been pretty obsessed with for a while now called Voisey. There are a selection of instrumentals on it uploaded by musicians that you can overlay with your own voice to create short music tracks. It’s real fun and easy to use and lets you apply different audio effects to experiment with. I’ve mostly been using it to record my voice and mess around with auto-tune filters. That is how some of the audio in ‘Distend‘ was made. I think part of the appeal for me is that by being entirely focused around user-generated content, the app creates constant potential for somebody else to respond to what you record and share. In terms of people I’d like to speak with, at the moment I mostly want to continue thinking and speaking and sharing ideas with my friends, whose work I’m really excited by.
[RFM] How has your relationship to nature informed your practice, alongside histories of rebellion and resistance?
[AH] Thinking about the relationship of Blackness to the natural world has massively informed my practice over the last two or three years. Again, it’s quite heavily rooted in musical research for me. I also have been thinking a lot about an anthology of writing edited by Camille T Dungy called Black Nature (2009), in which she invited a series of poets and writers to share reflections on the places they lived. So both of these things helped me to recognise elements of my own experiences and connections to the land and to nature, as descendent from the values, traditions and testimonies in the music and writing of my ancestors from across the Black Atlantic. I’ve been interested in tracing where some of these traditions have historically emerged from and thinking about the English countryside and the rural areas of Jamaica my family live/d.
[RFM] Could you tell us more about your Open Deck series, particularly the iteration for the YSI summer programme?
[AH] Open Deck is a super simple idea that I became really interested in trying to facilitate in collaboration with different groups, organisations and communities. It’s been fairly varied previously. Most recently I worked with a friend and collaborator R.I.P. Germain to put together a request line where people could leave us messages, which we then broadcast as a radio show. I’m interested in finding ways to invite people to come together and bring their own choices of music to share in a relaxed, informal setting. When they happen in-person there’s usually a turntable, a laptop and aux cable setup to play vinyl records or digital files on a USB. Each session encourages group listening and conversation and tries to focus on the personal memories of things that people bring with them.
In September I worked with Sable Radio in Leeds to host an Open Deck event as part of the programme for ‘Distend’. I’ve been really excited by some of the stuff Sable have been doing for a while now, so I was eager to open up a conversation where we could explore different values, histories and personal reflections in an intimate space. We got together on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a small group of people. It felt so nourishing to spend a few hours in the company of others, listening and unpacking what ended up being a really wide range of music that people had generously shared. And I was also real grateful to Sable for welcoming everyone into their space and helping facilitate the first Open Deck in-person event for a little while (visit this playlist of some of the things people shared).
[RFM] What’s next for your work?
[AH] Lately I’ve been exploring the ways some of the themes I’m interested in can be recurring and come together as a wider body of work. I’ve been continuing to work with sound and moving image for a performance at this year’s Frieze LIVE programme, curated by Languid Hands (14 October 2021) and have a new sound commission in December that will feature in an online audio programme to accompany a conference by UAL, organised in partnership with Tate titled Consent not to be a single being: Worlding the Caribbean. I’m also really excited to open a new exhibition titled Trust Melodies at Humber Street Gallery in Hull, in January 2022.
‘Distend’ was at Leeds Art Gallery from 24 July to 31 October 2021. Open Deck took place on Sunday 26 September from 1pm to 3pm at Convention House, Leeds.
Rene Francis-McBrearty is an artist based in Gateshead.
This interview is supported by Yorkshire Sculpture International.