Jack James on Embedded with Music Hackspace
Every year, Sound and Music shine a light on the work of the composers who are currently in residence on our Embedded and Portfolio programmes. These are our New Voices of 2016. They are creating new, exciting and innovative music, across disciplines, all over the UK.
Jack James, on Embedded with Music Hackspace, is a composer whose interests lie in “blurring the gap between art and life,” – as Allan Kaprow so eloquently put it. “Most of my work, in some way, points to common and near-ubiquitous reference points. Often, these are from sound and tech culture; things like radio and hi-fi, and, more recently, cars,” Jack writes, before going on to reveal the details of his recent works Temporary Local Broadcast and Instructions to the Oval Carpark. The former is a commentary on the shift between private and public spaces, whilst the latter is inspired by a very fascinating – albeit peculiar – communal parking arrangement in the Bethnal Green area. Instructions to The Oval Car Park: “a performative declaration that describes activity already taking place as a new composition - attempting to both document and initiate activity,” is being premiered at This is Not a Composition on Friday 16 September at the Café OTO – so be sure not to miss it! For now, you can get up-to-date with this pre-performance interview…
Could you describe your music in words? Can you define what your biggest ‘inspiration’ is as a composer?
Well... There are lots of things that inspire me. From popular culture through to so-called ‘high’ art. But I guess a lot of music and art inspires me to listen and watch but not immediately produce work myself. There has to be something you feel you can offer before you want to make a contribution. We're at a time of such exceptional access to culture it often feels like we just need more time to appreciate work.
For me, the urge to contribute myself comes when I have the chance to combine ideas and devices from contemporary music and sound arts practice with the everyday. I get most excited to make work when I find an opportunity to, in the words of Allan Kaprow, “blur the gap between art and life”. Most of my work, in some way, points to common and near-ubiquitous reference points. Often, these are from sound and tech culture; things like radio and hi-fi, and, more recently, cars. Cars are often associated with different music subcultures, like pirate radio and also music tech. How many peoples' first experience of a sub-bass speaker was in the back of a hatchback, belonging to an older sibling or friend? Mine was. Cars also have a relationship with private and public space, as they create privatised zones for the individual whilst having an impact on everyone around them.
In my work, I'm trying to bring together different aesthetics; drawing from shared cultural references, acoustics and social interactions to create works that create performances or mediated events. Often these pieces invite people to participate by following simple instructions. For me, composition is about creating a series of facilitated events that draw audience members and participants together into aesthetic space. Creating some kind of temporary appreciated moment of now, as objects, sounds and the situation take on a new meaning.
What attracted you to apply for the Embedded programme with Music Hackspace? How do you think it is going?
I've always kept an eye on SaM opportunities, and have had friends involved in previous call outs, but was yet to apply for anything until this call came up. It’s often about timing. Previous to being based at Music Hackspace, I took part in a brilliant residency programme with Metal in Peterborough.
Before I submit an application for anything I want to come up with some kind of hook that excites me and demonstrates why this is the right opportunity for this moment in time. If I've got that then I'm willing to spend the time working on the application, which doesn't always come naturally to me and always takes longer than I expect it to. Then, by the time its finished, I feel really emotionally committed to ideas put down on paper – so it’s always really disappointing when you don't get something you've applied for but I guess rejection is just part of the process. I really commit to every application I make, and probably do fewer as a result. Luckily, on this occasion, got it!
My application for Embedded at Music Hackspace focused on domestic audio technologies and how they can provide a shared cultural space in themselves, rather than being passive entities. Music often brings people together through different scenes and subcultures – I guess I'm just expanding that out a little bit. Thinking this way makes hacking really important to me, as I feel it provides a little democracy and novelty to objects that are primarily mass produced and can be presented as sealed magic boxes.
It took me a little while to get the DIY aesthetic. I was never much of a punk growing up as I spent way too much time practicing and trying to get things right. Yet, once I started playing a little with code and making my own noisy circuits, the hacking ethos opened up a lot of things for me. Adapting something to create, rather than attempting to hold on to exclusive authorship, is pretty liberating and a very generative process creatively.
For me, it’s not much of a leap to go from modifying objects to create music and artworks, to modifying and playing with expectations of what people do within a given social situation. One of the projects that I'm most proud of is a piece called Temporary Local Broadcast which happened during my residency with Metal in Peterborough. While working in Peterborough I spent time recording conversations in the Lincoln Road area, which is just north of the city centre. These recordings were brought to together to create a piece that features a lot of discussion around historic migration in the area from Pakistan, and also more recent immigration from the expanded European Union. This was a little before the Brexit referendum.
For the performance of Temporary Local Broadcast, people who'd participated in the recordings, alongside a wider arts audience, turned up and tuned their car stereos and portable radios to 103.1FM to take part in a ‘shared tuning in’ event. The composition was a social action with technology playing a crucial part within the work. The action of receiving a radio broadcast in the conventional way was shifted from being a passive and primarily private act to being something shared in a public space: sharing personal audio systems to create a public event.
One of the first things I tried during my residency at Music Hackspace was arranging regular meet-ups on Monday nights. This was so I could talk about projects and build things together, but also just hang out and share ideas.
Your work at Music Hackspace has been described as an exploration of “sound, composition and technology as a metaphor for social action”. How does your piece Instructions to The Oval Car Park relate to this and your residency?
During the residency with Music Hackspace – and particularly during 2015 when they were based in Containerville (a BOXPARK-styled development of shipping container offices, in Bethnal Green) – I moved my studio practice to their headquarters, using it as a base for all of my work. I spent time developing ideas for a sun-light sensitive sound installation using reclaimed speakers, took part in their brilliant ‘talks’ programme, and generally made myself available for people to join me in the space. I also tried to get to know a few other people working locally in the area, which is known as The Oval.
The Oval itself is a disused concrete common without a defined purpose. It must have been used for something in the past, and there is even some local historic gossip suggesting that the site was once a plague burial pit, but at the moment no knows what it was for. Capitalising on its lack of a prescribed or sanctioned use, a number of people have started parking vehicles on The Oval to take advantage of an opportunity for free parking – turning a potentially shared, common into space for individual private purpose. Some of these vehicles are abandoned, some of them are occupied by homeless squatters livings in cars or vans, and some are cars that belong to commuters working in the area.
Amongst the commuters, an informal set of rules has emerged. When parking on The Oval you are either ‘parking someone in’ or getting ‘parked in’ yourself, so drivers place their mobile phone numbers on the dashboards of their cars in case someone needs to move. If someone needs to the leave The Oval, they phone each of the drivers in their way and ask them to move. This can happen several times a day, each time involving up to four cars moving and then re-parking to let someone out. After hearing about this local custom, I thought I'd give it a try and decided to participate myself. On my studio days, I started driving to Music Hackspace and parking on The Oval, leaving my mobile phone number visible and waiting for calls. This activity would break up or interrupt whatever I was up to that day. Through parking on The Oval, I met some other people working in the area as sometimes you'd be hanging around for a little while for one car to move. A couple of things struck me about what was happening: no one knew where the rules had come from, but people became very upset when they weren't adhered to. It also required a lot of collaboration to work, and a great deal of disruption to the working day. Drivers needed to remain in the immediate local area at all times and keep their personal numbers on display. This interaction is entirely reliant upon the expectation that everyone owns a mobile phone, a relatively new, but now ubiquitous, piece of technology.
Cars symbolise privatised space that you have personal control over, but in order to enable this space people where committing themselves to a collective set of rules and collaborative act. In response to this activity I wrote a text-based score which I'll be presenting as part of This is Not a Composition on Friday 16 September at the Café OTO project space, where my fellow Embedded at MHS colleague Leslie Deere will also show her work. Instructions to The Oval Car Park: a performative declaration that describes activity already taking place as a new composition - attempting to both document and initiate activity.
Do you have any recommendations of composers/artists to look out for in the next year?
As I've been talking a lot about hacking and tech, I need to mention Alex McLean who's an authority on the subject and is also a current Embedded artist at the Open Data Institute (ODI). As part of the artist’s collective thickear, I also worked with the ODI on their Data as Culture II exhibition in 2014. We created Pink Sheet Method: a participatory and performative piece, spread over three locations including the ODI's office, which involved collecting personal information in exchange for limited edition artworks.
My good friend Bekki Perriman is part of Tramway's Unlimited Festival in Glasgow. I helped her out with some of the recordings in Glasgow recently and we both fell in love with the city. Bekki's managed to address some important issues around homelessness, and sensitively produce sound-art for public spaces – which is a challenge. It's great work!
Interview by Emma Sugarman (Communications Intern - Sound and Music)