Digital Bridge Q&A: XEXA (UK) & Sarmen Almond (MEX)

Digital Bridge artists XEXA and Sarmen catch up with Ray Morrison about building linguistic trust, telepathic WhatsApp messages and recording their environments through binaural sound.

Artists XEXA and Sarmen Almond have been working together over the last year on their project Grain of Sand for Digital Bridge, an international opportunity launched by Sound and Music and CMAS. Read their Q&A with Digital Bridge's Ray Morrison below, where they discuss their collaborative process that led to their work and the creative bond they formed as a result of it.

Ray Morrison: Hello! Thank you so much for joining for the Q&A. To start with, it would be great if you could tell us about the project you’ve created for Digital Bridge. 

Sarmen Almond: Our project is an audio-visual piece based on the idea of a grain of sand. We both imagined that we were just a small piece of the earth. We wanted to be curious, and to go out and to explore the world, in order to tell the other person what we saw. And, at the end of the day, to see also that we are just very, very, very small fragments of the universe. 

We wanted to share this with each other; our vision and sound, but also our ecosystem and the ecosystems that we live in. We tried to go to the lands that are like, the places where we were born, and the places that we are in frequent contact with. We wanted not to stay in the big cities, but to go out and be in contact with nature, in order to feel sort of not human, and to feel more sensitive and sensible about what is happening around us. And we wanted to try to put that in sound and images and also work with words too, because, at the end of the day, we became humans, and we would like to share these experiences with each other.

XEXA: Just to add this, the reason why we travelled to the places we travelled to for this piece is because they have something to do with our identity. When Sarmen was saying about becoming humans; it’s about getting closer to our sense of self, and the environments and locations that we identify as being part of our identity. I'd say these are places that are close to us.

RM: And how did you come up with that? Is it based on your own work already, did you each find that you had these ideas in your separate practices, and then when you came together it all made sense? Or how did it develop? 

X: We brainstormed at the beginning of the project; we had a Google Drive and a folder where we would just upload stuff. And then we had a document in which we would just brainstorm and continue to bounce off each other; keywords, key moments, songs, colours, ideas… We had lots of other ideas for this project. We also saw each other every two weeks, in the beginning. We had several meetings too and during these we’d come up with more ideas. Working in both writing and real time helped us to collectively brainstorm, I would say.

RM: And did you have a moment you knew this was definitely the idea, a moment where it was like, right, this is our focus? Or did it kind of develop as you went on?

SA: I think there were two moments. One was when we decided we were going out to record the environment in binaural. I think that was an important moment, because we were able to figure out that we wanted to see ourselves in one spot, and to see with our ears, all our surroundings. Then we were like yes! Let's go for that!

X: We were speaking about spatialisation of sound and how we can make the sound immersive. Because we had two moments, as you were saying: the moment that the concept clicked, and then, kind of at the same time, we were thinking about the process to then fulfil that concept. And then the idea of binaural clicked.

We were researching different types of microphones that could record different types of spatialisation. And then I had some ideas of the spaces I wanted to record, and you the spaces that you wanted to record. We went back and forth sending each other things every week, but then we realised we needed to finalise it. We could have done it endlessly. But because we are in collaboration we needed an end date, otherwise we could have been doing it for like four months!

SA: And also, I think the moment we decided to go for images was important. The deadline was very close and we couldn’t decide and then we said yes let’s do it! Trust was important too. With the text, Xexa trusted me, and I asked her to record it and she did.

X: Yes, in the same way, you needed to trust my recordings because I was recording in Portuguese. You sent me yours in English, and then in Spanish, and then I said it in English and in Portuguese and there was a moment on the track where we had a poem going on. And I was like, ‘I'm seeing these letters and I know that she knows Spanish, but she kind of doesn't know what I'm saying in Portuguese, though they are similar.’ So yeah, it was all about trust.

RM: Amazing, I love that. Did you have any problems at all? Because it seems like you just get on extremely well and it felt like you just clicked, which is so nice. But did you have anything where you were disagreed?

SA: Good question. Not really no… there were some problems with the environment, recordings or locations. And there was a point when the deadline was close, and we were a bit stressed.  

X: I agree, it was more about timelines, nothing between ourselves. Can you believe I’d start writing her a message on WhatsApp, sending her a question, and by the time I hit send, she had sent me the stuff that I was going to ask for or she had asked me for the same stuff! There was a lot of telepathy and I guess it made things easier. I will say as well, maybe it has some relationship to the way that we work as a pair, and I don’t know what what the criteria was used for the artists; I’m not saying if I was with someone else it wouldn’t have worked, but with me and Sarmen, our way of reacting to the environment is very similar. So it all really worked.

SA: Also the word respect is important. We were good at expressing ourselves to each other respectfully. We were also mindful of times; I think I never received a message from XEXA at 4am. I get messages at 4am because people are in Istanbul, for example. These are minor details but they’re important.

X: I was actually thinking about that, like, respect the time zone. So you don't stress the other person out as soon as they wake up.

RM: So, respect, trust and telepathy are the important! Your collaboration really seems to have been such a wonderful thing. Do you see any of the themes or ideas you’ve come up with through this being part of your work in future? Or collaborating with each other again?

X: We didn't talk about it yet, but I have said as soon as I'm in Mexico, I'm going to give you a call! I guess, a lot of things that I took from this project, especially in the beginning, was about binaural. I knew about spatialisation but I usually do it in stereo. It gave me a push to get to know more about ways of recording in the space, and I became more interested in thinking about how to output the sound, so much so that it’s become my 2023. It’s not necessarily the main theme, I do other stuff, but time and space is the main thing I’m researching. 

SA: Yeah, I mean, we didn't talk about like, doing another thing yet, but I would like to be together and watch this with an audience live, if it’s possible at some point. The project also made me curious about other cultures I’m not as connected to, being from Mexico. It made me think more about different weather, plants, food in different latitudes.  It opened my imagination and curiosity about knowing other spaces, which I think is important for opening your vision. I love travelling because that has helped me to grow as a human, person, a woman, an artist and a creator. So I think this project helped me in that, and made me more curious about life!

RM: That’s so beautiful, thank you so much. Thank you both for your amazing work, it’s been so wonderful to get to know you both and to see your wonderful collaboration! 

Watch the video for XEXA and Sarmen's project, Grain of Sand, below

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