One of the main drives of these Sura Medura residencies is to push and take risks with our practice. The residencies are hosted by Neil Butler, who’s got strong form in making and producing radical art, and we’re all experienced artists, so it feels like a really supportive environment for embracing that challenge.
We had a catch up session over dinner last night, briefly hearing about what people have been exploring and what each of us might be heading towards showing. I’m a massive nerd for process, so I love hearing about these different investigations. I think we’re all feeling the pressure of time – the desire to be open and responsive to the culture and landscape around us, but also aware that we’ll need to focus down pretty soon in order to actually get stuff made in time to show. Broadly speaking we have 4 weeks to develop our own projects and 2 weeks to grow something(s) collaborative. The collaborative exchanges are already happening pretty organically in different ways, which is helpful.
Given the time pressure, my natural instinct is to retreat into my comfort zone rather than push at my edges, so I thought I’d use this blog to help me identify where I really want to extend my practice and take risks.
Me, myself and here
Both Tim and I are working on writing pieces that reflect on our personal experience in and in relation to Sri Lanka. Neither of us have done this before explicitly, in terms of art making. Of course our personal experience informs the perspective we bring to art making, but we’ve neither of us placed ourselves as the subject of the story before.
I can’t tell you how much of a professional risk that feels like for me. I wrote this article last year, about being a British Asian artist who doesn’t make work about being Asian, and the challenges of how that makes me seen and not seen. And I wrote recently about the challenge of making a career as an outsider with a UK theatre industry that seeks to box you up before it lets you in. The idea of writing myself as the subject in a way that fits those pigeonholes I’ve been fighting against professionally all my career, is, frankly, terrifying.
But here in Sri Lanka, there is something pulling me to address this. I have a sense of its focus, but I don’t yet know how it will manifest publicly. Whatever it becomes, I suspect it will be quiet. I know it’ll be hard for me to do.
It’s probably why I haven’t started that writing piece yet… (I’LL START IT AT THE WEEKEND OK I WILL I WILL)
Laying down tracks
All y’all Sleepdogs fans might have noticed that we’re fans of using field recordings in our sound designs. Our piece, Circadial, is an improvised gig entirely built from field recordings local to the gig venue. We’ve always resisted requests to record Circadial sets because we’ve always felt that the liveness was so important, and that the improvised sets just simply wouldn’t stand up as good enough music out of context.
There’s a tuk tuk driver here called Sudu, who’s got a phat sound system in his tuk tuk, and riding up and down to Ambalangoda the other day with the mix of traffic sounds, town noise and Dr Dre got us really excited about experimenting with whether here was the place to make tunes built from field recordings – music that stands up on its own and also speaks of a place, without needing us there to perform it live. It feels like a fun way to make a portrait of contemporary Sri Lanka, reflecting a vibrant and friendly spirit – a modern take on ideas of transformation that are so deeply rooted in this culture. Also, hip hop.
On a practical note, this is also a big step for me technically. I’ve only ever worked with samples to create ambient soundscapes. Composing actual tune tunes, which need no other context is a whole new thing for me.
I’ve always wanted to be in a band. Tim and I have never made an album together. We’ve never made anything together this fast. I hope the breaks break right. I hope they don’t break us.
Difficult, if true
Generally speaking, Tim and I create fictions. We’ve built work from ambient documentary recording before, and we’ve built work from conventional books and t’internet research. We’ve also interviewed people as background research around political and social ideas. But we’ve never tried creating work that explicitly honours other people’s life stories.
Somewhere between the ever-presence of the sea here (that I mentioned in my last blog) and the fact that the tsunami comes up so regularly in conversation with locals, there’s an impossible question that’s kept coming up for us, around the still resonating impact of that disaster and the most useful ways to tell that story. Places don’t stand still and people don’t stand still, and it feels important to remember how hope resides in the dark places too.
We’re heading back to the Tsunami Museum this evening, where Pryanthi and Roshan who manage the centre have invited a small group of families from Peraliya village to speak to us about their different experiences of the tsunami. Since we’ve been here, it’s been majorly humbling to hear people’s personal stories of that time – sometimes shared in great detail, sometimes mentioned as a decisive factor in as innocuous a question as “do you surf?”
We don’t yet know how we’ll work with those stories. We want to listen first and then respond. We want to make sure we’re sensitive, and find a way to honour those people’s stories without appropriating them. We don’t want to make a documentary. And we massively don’t want to make anything boringly worthy – that would be the least interesting way to hold anyone’s story and at worst it can feel really exploitative.
Tim and I love to run towards complicated things. This one is super complicated. More news from inside those knots soon, no doubt.