An Interview with Sound Artist Gemma Nash

'The focus of this interview is Manchester based digital story-teller and sound-artist, Gemma Nash. I became aware of Gemma when she interviewed for Sound and Music’s Pathways Programme. I was on the panel and was intrigued by the strong political and social narrative in her sound work...'


The focus of this interview is the Manchester based digital story-teller and sound-artist, Gemma Nash. I became aware of Gemma when she interviewed for a place on Sound and Music’s Pathways Programme. I was on the interviewing panel and was intrigued by the strong political and social narrative in her sound work. As with my other blog-articles, I have been direct in my questioning. Those of us with disabilities are not as offended as you might think by the asking of direct questions to help clarify communicative or physical needs. This is particularly true of those of who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Ailís: You have cerebral palsy. What impact did that have on your education?  

Gemma: I went to SEN (Special Educational Needs) school up until the age of 12. Following on from that I went into mainstream school for my secondary education and then on to study at Birmingham University where I gained my BSSc in Geography and Politics

Ailís: How do you describe your disability to people meeting you for the first time?

Gemma: To be honest, because I have a rather obvious impairment I don’t usually mention it to people when I meet them.  I might describe my access needs and occasionally I have mentioned that I have a speech impairment, if I met someone online etc. This might be if I was going to be filmed and needing to set up a space that is suitable for my needs I.e. a quiet space.

Ailís: What barriers have you faced?

Gemma: As a disabled woman with both physical and communication impairments, I have experienced multiple barriers accessing arts opportunities throughout my life.  The significance of my physical impairment meant that I was not able to study art at school. However, through technological advances and my own persistence I have been making creative work since my twenties.

Ailís: When did you start creating sound-art? Or do you call it ‘sound-art’ - you website says you are a ‘Digital Storyteller’. Expand on the relevance of how you describe your work?

Gemma: In my late twenties I was DJ, I love music and find it comes very naturally to me to work with sound technology equipment. I used Traktor equipment, this kit has very powerful, flexible looping functions and a great variety of studio grade filters to play with. I started to experiment more and more, using things like the reverbs and reversing the audio. I felt most free when experimenting at home as I had total freedom to explore ideas in a private space. Before I knew it my Djing started to move in a more artistic direction. The progression felt very natural to me, but I don’t think I set out to become a sound artist per se. 

The descriptions Digital Storytelling and Sound Art can be used somewhat interchangeably.  Generally I refer to my practice as whole as Sound Art as it’s exploring ideas using mediums that work with audio.

Digital storytelling is about somehow producing a creative narrative about people, things or a concept. I like to work in a way that is collaborative, often to a non-linear result. To me it’s not important that the equipment I use is necessarily the most ‘high-tech’, in the past people have sent me their stories on everyday devices such as i-phones, the sound quality may not be the best, but it’s more important that there is an intimacy transmitted.  I like using accessible tools that I can produce raw, authentic soundscapes with.

Ailís: What is your approach to creating sound-based work? Do you have a personal ‘composition’ manifesto or things within your creative process which are of essential importance to you? 

Gemma: It’s really difficult for me to describe my process as every time it’s different.   When starting a new piece the only way I can articulate it is to think about the conceptual ‘shape’ I want my compositions to have. I consider the texture, atmosphere and tone of the piece. How I can pin the different elements of what I am communicating together? Basically, it’s all about the journey I want the listener to take.

To help with the process sometimes I even produce a mind map, which is an abstract drawing illustrating how the sounds could be collaged together.  I did this for my piece A Womb with a View (which explores ideas around reproductive rights of disabled people and the concept of ‘womanhood’)

I wanted the piece to start in quite a quite light-hearted way, so I incorporated funny anecdotes at the beginning, this lulls the listener into a false sense of security… from there the piece goes into darker territory looking at issues of forced sterilisations etc. I then drag the listener out again, ending on a philosophical note regarding whether or not you need a womb to be a woman.

Although I am naturally drawn to explore issues around disability, my work doesn’t always aim to be political, and in fact I don’t want to be defined by just one thing. In the past I have produced soundscapes in response to specific objects (such as for the Thackray) that had nothing to do with my disability. However often the ideas I am interested in often end up converging, for my project Beyond Vocal Norms, I started off thinking about ideas surrounding my speech impairment but ended up exploring wider issues regarding gender and vocal dominance.

Ailís: What barriers do you face?

Gemma: Although technology has removed many physical barriers, I still face institutional and attitudinal barriers because of my gender and/or level of impairment.  The field of electronic music making can be quite male dominated and female artists are often assumed to be less qualified or skilled.   As a disabled woman I have also experienced situations where people have unfairly questioned my ability and/or autonomy over my work.  These types of systemic barriers are much harder to overcome.

Ailís: You’ve been selected for Sound and Music’s Pathways Programme. Tell me more about what you’re focusing on and what you hope it will do for you in the longer term?

Gemma: The Sound and Music pathways programme is going very well.  We are just about to start the process of developing new work over a period of 12 -18 months.  In my case this will also involve the development of a new midi instrument, which has been developed around my access needs.  Drake Music are involved in the development of this.

Ailís: You are also a photographer and film-maker. How does working in the different mediums of sound and image work for you? Would you say there is any crossover – in terms of intent – between your approach sound v’s image?

Gemma: Yes, there are definitely a lot of parallels, both in terms of my conceptual and practical approach, in regards to making my film/ photography and my sound work.

With film making, the editing process uses many of the same technical skills as I use for the sound editing process. In a large part this is because the software I utilise (FinalCut Pro and Ableton Live/ StudioOne) operate in very similar ways.

Being confident to use technology gives me a huge sense of independence and creative autonomy which I absolutely love. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because I came in through a DJ route sound will always be my favourite artistic medium to communicate ideas.

However, working in photography also offers its advantages. I love how the process of making an image forces you to get out into the open, and because it’s a medium I need a bit more support on, by default it means I get to work with other artists, share ideas and experience new ways of producing work.  I definitely feel like working across different disciplines complements my practice as a whole.

Ailís: Is there a particular photography project you would like to highlight as examples of your work?

Gemma: I would cite my work Hanging in the Balance as probably my most important photography work to date. The experience of making the work was very intense and involved close collaboration with co-artist Michele Selway. To set up the shots involved huge physical exertion for the entire creative team, out in unpredictable weather conditions in the middle of a wood!

The old-fashioned photography technique we used (using wet plate process) is notoriously tricky to get right. My role on the project ended up being one of artistic director, advising on how the visuals could best deliver the concept I wanted to present, at times it felt like total sensory overload!

Ailís: Who do you create your work for?  For example, are you targeting any particular audiences? Do you think about disabled audiences where you are creating your work?

Gemma: To be honest, first and foremost I am motivated to make art because I am interested in the subject about which the work is about. Audiences are important to me, and I do definitely reflect on audience reactions to my work in subsequent pieces. For example I did get some criticism about the Hanging in the Balance project from some online disability forums who said that the use of the wheelchair and walking stick visuals was cliché and reductive. It doesn’t offend me, and I stand by the work, if anything I find the criticism spurs me on to make more work. It’s not like I make work for a specific audience but I am interested in their reaction.

Ailís: Tell me about your project The Non-Normative Speaking Clock?

Gemma: I am interested in the space that sits beyond the ‘othered’ body, and exploring this otherness when it comes to the ‘disabled speaker’.  A speaker who interrupts our understanding of personhood whilst also celebrates arts of the unspoken.  

The Non-Normative Speaking Clock' is just one section of my research into the ‘othered’ speaker.  We settled on the “speaking clock” - the iconic British Telecom service which began on 24 July 1936 and receives 12 million calls a year - as a classic example of the hegemony of the ‘normative voice’.

I'm very interested in the 'anterior states' to language, or silence altogether.  And how verbal communication could be replaced by movement (disjointed or otherwise).  So much of the artistic process (applying for things, pitching ideas etc) is based on language, talking, describing. I'd love to see a system where physical presence, doing things, silent presentations were just as common.

Ailís: Tell me more about your interest in Queer and Disability Arts?

Gemma: I am particularly interested in projects that examine intersectionality and its relationship to power.  Over the past two years I have been involved is the Around the Toilet project, both as a sound artist and community co-investigator.  Working with various communities – including trans, queer and disabled people – Around the Toilet explores the ways that toilets can exclude some, whilst including others.  

Interestingly, even though I identify as being a quip (QueerCrip) my personal interest in toilets came from the complexities of accessing toilets as a parent with a physical impairment. Part M of the building regulations advocate that accessible toilets should not have a baby change table. This is primarily because the baby change table can impede access for wheelchair users if it is put in the wrong place, or left down. But like everything in life ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and when my child was young I found the best ‘fit’ for me was accessible, private toilets with baby changing facilities – where I could take care of my child and also go to the toilet myself.

Ailís: Your website doesn’t mention that you are disabled. I’d be interested in why that is? Do you think we should be more upfront about our disabilities as artists?

Gemma: It would be disingenuous to say that my experience of being a disabled person doesn’t influence my work, but it’s not the only influence.  I think I’d like the viewer to value the work first and foremost. Like all human beings, we are complex and for me being a disabled person is just one facet to my embodiment and social identity.  

Ailís: Do you teach?

Gemma: I run arts workshops and DET sessions.  I am also a guest lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and Salford University.

Ailís: What are your ambitions for your work going forward?

Gemma: To actually make enough money to feed my Bollinger champers habit.

Ailís Ní Ríain and Andrea Pazos – Garden from The Hearing Test. Commissioned by DaDaFest 2012 with Adam Swayne piano.


[[{"fid":"11131","view_mode":"default","type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{}},"link_text":null,"fields":{},"attributes":{"height":166,"width":295,"class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"}}]]


Ailís Ní Ríain is an Irish composer based in Northern England for many years.