SOUND | [in sounds not chosen] | Felicity Ford

[in sounds not chosen] is a monthly insight into contemporary sound work via those embedded in its practice and research; a new collaboration between Jotta and SoundFjord.

[in sounds not chosen] is a collaboration between Jotta and SoundFjord and takes place over two websites. Its connected page, [on sounds chosen] details an individual artist's close connection to specific sounds, and may be found at:

http://www.soundfjord.org/onsoundschosen.htm

In this inaugural edition, Helen Frosi, Creative Director at SoundFjord gallery interviews Felicity Ford about why looking informs listening, how playing about in her kitchen inspires her practice, and just how the wool industry fits into her “expanded sonic practice”.

 

Helen Frosi: The everyday is a prevalent theme throughout your practice. Your ability to look beyond "what is in front of your nose" astonishes me - what is it about the domestic and commonplace that activates your imagination and holds your attention? Is there something in particular about the quotidian, that you wish to convey to your audience?

Felicity Ford: I once recorded the sounds of sitting in a pizza takeaway place, waiting for a pizza. Listening back to that recording – I found myself thinking that this was 13 minutes of my life which I would never get back, but which now – because of recording and thinking about it - I would never forget, either.

That for me is typical of how a completely ordinary, boring waste of time can become suddenly interesting because of how you choose to frame it. I think the majority of our time is spent engaged in the necessary activities of living and I want to celebrate those moments. I am very critical of the idea that ordinary life is drudgery from which art offers a brief reprieve; I want to use creativity and imagination to mimic what is extraordinary and amazing in what is immediately before me, rather than to create some brief distraction from it.

My main interest is in how introducing creative processes into mundane contexts can positively transform everyday life. Pauline Oliveros has a score called “Open Field” the gist of which is to decide any moment in your daily life is “an art experience” and to think about how to then make that moment available to other people/an audience. Working out the details of how to share and re-present daily moments is an ongoing practice, for me, and I explore a lot of different strategies for doing that.

With the Fantastical Reality Radio Show, broadcasts introduced a celebration of everyday sounds directly into people’s homes. I wanted our recordings of kettles and toasters to mingle with the kettles and toasters in the houses where people were listening, to create a sense of shared experience and commonality with listeners.

I spoke about the Sound Diaries “vending machines of the British Isles” project at Boring 2011. For that presentation, I inventoried everything inside a vending machine at Oxford Brookes University and read this inventory out over a field-recording of that droning sound which the cooling mechanism makes. We have all stood in front of a half-empty vending machine and cruised its contents, but through the process of articulating that experience with text and sound, I was able to share it in a way that made it available to members of the audience at the conference. In that way we were able to acknowledge together all of those boring moments of standing in front of vending machines, wondering which of the dismal options inside it to take, and so something which had until then been for all of us an isolated experience became something shared. 

I got the idea for the presentation format from reading Georges Perec who writes a lot of lists, and who is very interested in strategies for celebrating what he calls “the background noise of life”. In sound I am always searching for an interesting way to listen to life. (LISTEN HERE)

 

Your life and your work seem so intrinsically linked that there must be some bleed between the two  - does your life begin to mimic your art, or are they perhaps inseparable?

The boundary between my art and my life is not well defined at all. This is a natural consequence of my interest in embedding art in everyday life. Through the act of recording nearly everything in my home, my domestic space has become a sort of never-ending series of sonic references. Every sound the boiler makes reminds me of some project I have been involved in, and it is the same for nearly all the appliances – and even the acoustics of my home - which feature so often in the radio programmes and podcasts I have made over recent years. (LISTEN HERE)

I would say I have intentionally made my art and my life somewhat inseparable, but what better position for making art about the everyday is there, than a situation in which those contexts are constantly colliding? (LISTEN HERE)

 

Joseph Kohlmaier of MUSARC suggests that the city is a playground. Deeply embedded within your practice is a very particular wit and humour - dare I say mischief! - and such a strong sense of curiosity, the sort accessible to children but lost upon many adults, so much so that I feel 'play' is synonymous with 'experiment' in your dictionary. I imagine that your home is a place of research and experimentation, full of bubbling pots, gurgling sinks, creaking cupboard doors and tootling kettles; a veritable symphony of bustling cacophony...

To me, playing is a really important mode for exploring the world. Playing unlocks new ways of thinking about everyday things; after making the Top 20 Irritating Noise Chart Show for The Fantastical Reality Radio Show, for example, I can’t hear a hammer-drill without remembering the chart and laughing. (LISTEN HERE)

That feature actually annoyed quite a few John Cage fans who felt it was provocative to demean or criticize some sounds as being irritating, while Mundane Appreciation thought it was an unnecessarily negative take on everyday sounds and were hesitant about its inclusion in our radio show. But to me, debates about whether or not some everyday sounds are irritating and how such ideas fit with Cagean thought, were important and desirable outcomes of the work. It’s hard to see how something styled more seriously could have provoked the same level of engagement and discussion. Also, because I needed to record irritating sounds in order to make my chart feature, I began to want to hear many sounds which I had previously disliked. My relationship to all the sounds recorded for the show was transformed through the mischievous act of making a Top 20 Irritating Noise Chart Show; and the process of developing that feature prompted a lot of discussion about the politics of sound. To me these are examples of the power of play, and of what playing can bring to the processes of artmaking.

After I went shopping with the specific intention of buying food based on its sonic qualities, food has also become much more exciting; I will always remember going into 4 different shops searching for biscuits with precisely the right crunch, and squeaking savoy and sweetheart cabbages right beside my ear in the crowded Reading market in order to make my selection. (READ HERE)

All of these activities demonstrate to me how treating not only the city, but your life as a playground opens up not only new sonic possibilities, but also new conceptual approaches to living. Yet however fun those activities are, they are part of a serious endeavor to carve out new contexts for making and presenting soundart to audiences; they are, as you suggest, a form of practical research. Regularly working in this way does change the way the world seems and sounds.

 

A central pivot in your work is sound and listening. However a variety of media, such as photography, handicrafts and other typically visually-minded/oriented activities nestle into your wider practice. Do you conceive of them as part of, or in addition to, what could be described as an expanded "sonic practice"? 

When I started making sound art, I was very insistent that it would be just about the sounds and that this would be given priority above all other aspects of presentation. I met Janek Schaeffer at a sound event we were both presenting work at in Ireland, and he said this wonderful, practical thing along the lines of “that’s all very well and good but the audience has to look at something”. My completely blacked-out room containing only sounds at that event was not a great success in terms of attracting or retaining visitors, and so I began to think more about how the act of looking informs the act of listening. I have read traditional, notated music for as long as I can remember and when I look at it, I can run the tune through my head, by following the notes. Is that a visual or a sonic experience? For me it is both, and things that we see are intrinsically connected with how we receive sounds.

The piece I made out of British wool for the Wonder of Wool exhibition at Rheged earlier this year was designed to draw people visiting the exhibition closer to the places and animals from which wool comes from. Speakers covered in hand-knitted wool mostly from Cumbrian farms played sounds and interviews recorded at those same farms, and everything was set at quite a low level so that you had to walk right up to the speakers and hold them up to your ears to hear the sounds. The tactility of the wool and the sounds together produced an experience which Bridget Kelly, from the Wool Marketing Board described as being akin to “listening to wool”. This approach to sound – in which sound is used to draw us more deeply into an issue or context – is of great interest to me.

In the sense that my creative approach explores sound in relation to life, rather than sound for its own sake, I suspect it would probably best be described as an expanded sonic practice.

 

“Making, Listening, Thinking” - as gleaned from your blogsite - truly is a mantra you work by. Thus traditional activities, especially those that strengthen a community through associations with material culture, ritual and gathered knowledge, creep into your practice in numerous way. I'm thinking of your Knitsonik project, and mindful of your recent residency at MoKS, Estonia. During your time there you set up a workshop on dying and weaving with locals. Could you tell me a little more about your time at the residency, and more specifically, how you worked with the locals? 

My time in Estonia was an important opportunity to interrogate the merit of the Knitsonik concept (exploring the sonic world of wool) in an International context. I wanted to go to a foreign country with a rich textile heritage and investigate whether or not my collected woollen sounds and artefacts from the UK could form the basis for some kind of cultural exchange. I was interested not only in how sharing textile objects could form a basis for exchange, but also in how sounds might facilitate or support the process.

The highlights for me included presenting sheep recordings from Cumbria in the early hours of the morning during an all-night event at Ptarmigan, and running a workshop at ERM at one of their regular Helikoosolek events. (INFO/INFO)

Both of these events helped me to crystallize ways of presenting everyday sounds to audiences, and ways of using sounds to tell stories and engage audiences with non-sonic concerns. I am very interested in knitting and textiles, and especially in the provenance of our clothes, and the Estonian residency helped me to think about how sound recording practices, listening and talking together can be useful tools for exploring context.

Meeting Estonian shepherds, knitters, spinners and handicrafters was the best part of travelling to Estonia. I stayed with Julika and Joel Roos on their sheep farm and Joel told me about the Cranes and their magnificent sounds; these birds were for him a very important feature of life on the farm and he showed me where I could record them. (LISTEN HERE)

 

Something that comes to mind here is a thought to the strategies you introduce to engage a public in a practice of (critical) listening that may be unfamiliar to them. How does this concern feed back into your practice?

Yes, how do you engage the public in a practice of critical listening? How do you present everyday sounds to audiences? These are ongoing questions for me. I think that making listening fun is one of the strategies I use most often… humour, wit, storytelling, colourful pictures and so on are often part of the framework I provide for listening.

I am interested in presenting critical listening experiences in informal circumstances where listeners do not have to be self-conscious, and where they can arrange the listening environment to be a comfortable space. Examples include presenting sounds online (which can be downloaded and listened to wherever the listener prefers) and presenting sounds in situations like the all-night Ptarmigan event where there is an expectation that it is OK to fall asleep, to turn over, to rearrange your sleeping bag or even to snore has been seen, so that everyone is physically relaxed enough to enjoy the act of listening. Presenting sounds at low level in interactive forms like the knitted speakers which invite the touch and interactivity of the public are also forms I have experimented with, and the shopping list or the Sonic Tuck Shop Artist book are yet more strategies for introducing critical listening experiences to the public.

There are so many new listening situations arising in response to rapid technological change that I think it is a very exciting time to be a sound artist.

 

I quote here from your online personal statement: "I am interested in linking sounds with material culture, and in using sound to animate, describe and explore the physical world." Your most recent project, Sonic Wallpaper, a year-long exploration of the Museum of Domestic Architecture's historical wallpaper collection, rigorously explores and thoroughly embodies such interests. One of your activities whilst at the collection was to collect interviews from visitors who were able to see and feel selected works. The interviews themselves were redolent with stories, musings, reveries and recollections. Could you tell me a little about what stimulated your interest in wallpaper as a conduit for the aural imagination and how you went about choosing/curating the wallpapers? 

I took an interest in working with the MoDA wallpaper collection while working on a commission for Sound & Music in 2009. I had been asked to produce a series of contextualizing podcasts for the Living Rooms Cut & Splice Festival, and had embarked on a series of creative experiments designed to extend ideas from the festival programme into practical listening/recording activities. I wanted to maintain connections between the socio-historic context of domestic space, and the experimental soundart praxis being showcased at the Cut & Splice Living Rooms Festival; I thought that exploring the MoDA collection with students from Middlesex University’s soundart department would be a good strategy for keeping such a link alive. The first Sonic Wallpaper project involved myself and several willing students from Middlesex University consulting old wallpaper sample books together and discussing their connections with the sounds of the home. We made several sound pieces based on these discussions, and our experiments are partially documented in the Rooms & Chambers episode of The Domestic Soundscape Cut & Splice Podcast Series, commissioned by Sound & Music. (LISTEN HERE)

Most fascinating to me in those first conversations with students during the Cut & Splice Festival, was how we bantered about the wallpaper samples using DIY terminology. I loved the confidence and offhand playfulness with which everyone discussed wallpaper, as though we had all learnt at some point the native domestic ritual of redecorating a room. I thought these conversation structures commonly used to discuss home improvements would provide an appropriate framework for exploring the sounds – both remembered and anticipated - of domestic space. As well as providing this structure, I hoped that the project would ideally extend that fantasizing which we do when we are decorating a room into sonic realms. I liked the idea that if someone said “that would make the room seem really big” I could use the acoustics of a large space to illustrate that idea; or that if someone said “that wallpaper reminds me of a busy coffee shop” I could introduce a field-recording to suggest exactly such an environment.

The process of short-listing wallpapers from MoDA’s collection was firstly limited by practical considerations. The idea was always to produce a travelling exhibition, and so loose papers were preferable to anything in a sample book, as pages in sample books are very difficult to frame (as you can imagine), which ruled out a great many wallpaper designs in sample books. After this cull, I spent several days looking at wallpapers and trying to imagine how people would respond to them. I was interested in papers which were recognisable; designs which would probably have been seen by most people during their lifetime. Subsequently many of the wallpapers used in the Sonic Wallpaper project are quite plain, and not necessarily the whackiest designs I could find in the collection. (LISTEN HERE)

As the project developed, I became increasingly drawn to the most ordinary designs I could find in the collection – wallpapers which reminded me of designs I had seen in childhood, or which I could associate with houses I had been inside. These were the wallpapers, which I hoped would stimulate memory and imagination amongst interviewees. Once I had interviewed everyone involved, I listened back through the conversations and sought for ideas which could be extended using field-recordings. Where site or objects were named in relation to a wallpaper, (often in reference to someone’s memories) I listed them as sounds to be recorded. I then created an enormous library of field-recordings, and edited these together with the contextualizing things that people said about the wallpaper samples. There are no gratuitous uses of sound in Sonic Wallpaper – every sound I have recorded or included was collected and layered with the explicit intention of elaborating on what is being said about a wallpaper design.

The interviews were a great surprise to me; as with other projects I have worked on, I was amazed at what is revealed when a situation for talking about something completely commonplace - and largely undiscussed - is created. My initial idea of using the wallpaper samples as the basis for fantasy home-decorating conversations didn’t work exactly as I’d envisaged, because so many of the samples are faded and show a patina of age. This means that they feel like artefacts or fragments from former lives and domestic spaces, and so the way people discuss them is inevitably full of memories and nostalgia.

I am really excited about how the process of working with sound and the wallpaper opened up new ways of thinking about domestic space and our imaginative relationship with it.

 

Many artists find using the voice within their work problematic for a variety of reasons: it may be seen as too distracting; too recognisable; cultural baggage colours one’s experience, and so forth - and yet the voice is a conduit for creativity as much as it is for conveying information within your practice. I’m thinking of your radio work, forays into storytelling, (research) interviews and so forth. Please talk a little about why you continue to buck the trends, and embrace the use of the voice…

I don’t like the sound of my voice much – but that’s an insubstantial reason to avoid using it. Talking is one of the processes I rely on most heavily for thinking, and many of the formats I use such as blogging software and radio shows are inherently discussion-based. Crucially, language can be used to make meanings explicit and to connect sounds precisely with concepts, and if we are dealing with audio formats, that language should be audible. My voice is the most immediate tool to hand for building concepts and structures around sounds, for explaining processes and for inviting comments from an audience.

We communicate a great deal about life, culture, society, values, sense of self etc. in the way we speak – and for this reason, (because it is so rich) informal chat comprises a large portion of what I record. I often reassure participants on the value of what is said sometimes in an offhand way, in passing, unselfconsciously, but this reassurance is I think more meaningful if I apply it to the many incidental and unflattering recordings I have made of myself over the years. For this reason – and if it is appropriate for the context - I often combine scripted material with recordings in which I have accidentally captured myself saying or doing something. I am much more confident reading a script than I am actually working off the cuff, but often some audible shyness, or an awkwardly-phrased question can give a very human feeling to audio. So sometimes I try to treat my voice as another sound in the soundscape – like the sound of a gull or a blackbird or a crow – it’s just there, and it might be useful for giving a certain texture to a piece I’m working on. At other times, I script some form of narrative, in order to provide contextualizing information regarding the sounds that can be heard. In Harp & Things a recorded narrative links all the various sounds together, because I want the act of listening to the sounds of the harp to be explicitly connected to thoughts and ideas. My work is never just about the sounds – the sounds are always connected to some non-sonic concern – and my voice is the most accessible tool for making those connections clear.

 

As a person so inquisitive and curious, working on many complex projects, radio shows, texts, lectures and performances, what creative goodness do you have lined up over the coming months?

On 25th October I will be giving a talk at Bath Spa University, exploring the idea of “making Sound Diaries as sonic fieldwork”. I am working on a series of Knitsonik knitting patterns to be released with accompanying audio. I’m also hoping to get back to Estonia in the New Year, where I will develop sonic interventions for the Eesti Rahva Museum, combining field-recordings with selections from their historic sound archive. In February, I’ve been invited to Brussels to talk about the domestic soundscape as part of a day of talks, and I will also present work at the Oxford Brookes Audiograft festival which SARU annually present. In Spring 2013, the BFI and the Wellcome Library will release a DVD featuring several films – one of which I produced a soundtrack for, entitled “Bathing & Dressing, Parts 1 & 2” which I wrote about here.

I am excited to be working more with museums and object collections, and to be continuing to develop the KNITSONIK venture. Because of the process-led nature of my practice, I like to develop ideas across many projects and for a long time; I think most artists have what I call “long ideas” and for me the combining of wool and sound is definitely a long idea.

Felicity Ford

Read our corresponding, interview with Felicity Ford on our sister page, [on sounds chosen] at the SoundFjord site.

 

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Posted on
06 November 2012
By Helen Frosi