THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

02 July 2019

Innovations in sound and art

Mary Stewart and Eleanor Dare reflect on an excellent collaboration…

In spring 2019, based in both the British Library and the Royal College of Art School of Communication, seven students from the MA Digital Direction course participated in an elective module entitled The Other Voice. After listening in-depth to a selection of oral history interviews, the students learnt how to edit and creatively interpret oral histories, gaining insight into the complex and nuanced ethical and practical implications of working with other people’s life stories. The culmination of this collaboration was a two-day student-curated showcase at the British Library, where the students displayed their own creative and very personal responses to the oral history testimonies. The module was led by Eleanor Dare (Head of Programme for MA Digital Direction, RCA), Matt Lewis (Sound Artist and Musician and RCA Tutor) and Mary Stewart (British Library Oral History Curator). We were delighted that over 100 British Library staff took the time to come to the showcase, engage with the artwork and discuss their responses with the students. Eleanor reflects: “The students have benefited enormously from this collaboration, gaining a deeper understanding of the ethics of editing, the particular power of oral history and of course, the feedback and stimulation of having a show in the British Library.” Here is just a taster of the amazing works the students created.

Karthika Sakthivel and Giulia Brancati were both inspired by the testimony of Irene Elliot, who was interviewed by Dvora Liberman in 2014 for an innovative project on Crown Court Clerks. They were both moved by Irene’s rich description of her mother’s hard work bringing up five children in 1950s Preston. Giulia created On the way back an installation featuring two audio points – one with excerpts of Irene’s testimony and another an audio collage inspired by Irene’s description. Two old fashioned telephones played the audio, which the listener absorbed while curled up in an arm chair in a fictional front room. It was a wonderfully immersive experience.

A visitor listens to Irene Elliot's testimony on two telephones while sitting at a table with scones and a tea cup

Irene Elliot's testimony interwoven with the audio collage (C1674/05)

Audio collage and photography © Giulia Brancati.

Giulia commented: “In a world full of noise and overwhelming information, to sit and really pay attention to someone’s personal story is an act of mindful presence. This module has been continuous learning experience in which ‘the other voice’ became a trigger for creativity and personal reflection.”

Inspired by Irene’s testimony Karthika created a wonderful sonic quilt, entitled Memory Foam. Karthika explains, “There was power in Irene’s voice, enough to make me want to sew - something I’d never really done on my own before. But in her story there was comfort, there was warmth and that kept me going.”

Illustrated with objects drawn from Irene's memories, each square of the patchwork quilt encased conductive fabric that triggered audio clips. Upon touching each square, the corresponding story would play. Karthika further commented, “The initial visitor interactions with the piece gave me useful insights that enabled me to improve the experience in real time by testing alternate ways of hanging and displaying the quilt. After engaging with the quilt guests walked up to me with recollections of their own mothers and grandmothers – and these emotional connections were deeply rewarding.”

Karthika, Giulia and the whole group were honoured that Irene and her daughter Jayne travelled from Preston to come to the exhibition, Karthika: "It was the greatest honour to have her experience my patchwork of her memories. This project for me unfurled yards of possibilities, the common thread being - the power of a voice.”

Irene Elliot and her daughter Jayne look at the Memory Foam audio quilt

Irene's words activated by touching the lime green patch with lace and a zip (top left of the quilt) (C1674/05)

Image Caption: Irene and her daughter Jayne experiencing Memory Foam © Karthika Sakthivel.

Listening to ceramicist Walter Keeler's memories of making a pot inspired James Roadnight and David Sappa to travel to Cornwall and record new oral histories to create Meditations in Clay. This was an immersive documentary that explores what we, as members of this modern society, can learn from the craft of pottery - a technology as old as time itself. The film combines interviews conducted at the Bernard Leach pottery with audio-visual documentation of the St Ives studio and its rugged Cornish surroundings.

Meditations in Clay, video montage © James Roadnight and David Sappa.

Those attending the showcase were bewitched as they watched the landscape documentary on the large screen and engaged with the selection of listening pots, which when held to the ear played excerpts of the oral history interviews. James and David commented, “This project has taught us a great deal about the deep interview techniques involved in Oral History. Seeing visitors at the showcase engage deeply with our work, watching the film and listening to our guided meditation for 15, 20 minutes at a time was more than we could have ever imagined.”

Raf Martins responded innovatively to Jonathan Blake’s interview describing his experiences as one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV. In Beyond Form Raf created an audio soundscape of environmental sounds and excerpts from the interview which played alongside a projected 3D hologram based on the cellular structure of the HIV virus. The hologram changed form and shape when activated by the audio – an intriguing visual artefact that translated the vibrant individual story into a futuristic media.

3D hologram as designed by Raf Martins

Jonathan Blake's testimony interwoven with environmental soundscape (C456/104)

Soundscape and image © Raf Martins.

Also inspired by Jonathan Blake’s interview was the short film Stiff Upper Lip by Kinglsey Tao which used clips of the interview as part of a short film exploring sexuality, identity and reactions to health and sickness.

Donald Palmer’s interview with Paul Merchant contained a wonderful and warm description of the front room that his Jamaican-born parents ‘kept for best’ in 1970s London. Alex Remoleux created a virtual reality tour of the reimagined space, entitled Donald in Wonderland, where the viewer could point to various objects in the virtual space and launch the corresponding snippet of audio. Alex commented, “I am really happy that I provided a Virtual Reality experience, and that Donald Palmer himself came to see my work. In the picture below you can see Donald using the remote in order to point and touch the objects represented in the virtual world.”

Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, and exploring the virtual reality space created by Alex Remoleux

Donald Palmer describes his parents' front room (C1379/102)

Image Caption: Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, exploring the virtual reality space (pictured) created by Alex Remoleux.

The reaction to the showcase from the visitors and British Library staff was overwhelmingly positive, as shown by this small selection of comments. We were incredibly grateful to interviewees Irene and Donald for attending the showcase too. This was an excellent collaboration: RCA students and staff alike gained new insights into the significance and breadth of the British Library Oral History collection and the British Library staff were bowled over by the creative responses to the archival collection.

Post it note comments from visitors to the showcase

With thanks to the MA Other Voice cohort Giulia Brancati, Raf Martins, Alexia Remoleux, James Roadnight, Karthika Sakthivel, David Sappa and Kingsley Tao, RCA tutors Eleanor Dare and Matt Lewis & BL Oral History Curator Mary Stewart, plus all the interviewees who recorded their stories and the visitors who took the time to attend the showcase.