On being SENsory Atelier artist in residence at Ashmount School, Loughborough
The students of Classes 9, 10 and 11 and I spent February-May 2022 exploring sensory sound.
My residency ended up having two distinct sections:
A) Work oriented clearly around making sure we did activities that would evidence skills a learning for students who are taking Arts Awards.
B) Exploratory sessions that held very firmly to the idea that we are all exploring together with no one (the teachers, artist, or students) deciding where it would go or what we would get out of it.
I initially spent two days observing, listening, and getting to know students in three classrooms. I collaborated heavily with Amy Williams (a member of staff at Ashmount) to devise a series of activities that the classes would take part in, which would be delivered in person by Amy, the teachers and support staff, and remotely by me.
These activities were focussed on sharing my artistic approach and practice and inviting students into the world of sensory sound. Activities included:
- Sound walks in the local area and around school, getting used to paying attention and listening, to natural sounds and to one another. Learning to use audio recorders (and teaching their peers).
- Hot-seat interviews with me, where classes sent questions which I answered on video.
- Sharing examples of my work for class discussion including rhythms made from everyday objects:
ID: A cucumber is sliced, coriander is snapped, then a sliced aubergine fades in and takes over.
I have spent creative time with young people who have a sensory way of relating to the world before, for whom language is not a relevant mechanism of collaboration. I have also spent creative time with autistic young people who need clear linguistic communication for us to be able to work together. I am extremely experienced at setting up one-on-one environments that will facilitate connection, engagement and collaboration: my artistic practice to date has been centred around it.
What I had comparatively little experience of before my residency at Ashmount, is collaborating with groups of young people where their barriers to access (and the solutions to them) might conflict and trigger one another: the challenge being to set ourselves up in a way that could take advantage of the richness of difference, without compromising too much on the quality of our time together. Ashmount School’s commitment to what they call “mixed ability” groups pushed me out of my relative comfort zone of intensive interaction on a one-to-one basis, and I am thankful for it.
I spent a week at Ashmount turning a meeting room into a sensory sound palace. I brought:
- My loop station (a device that records and instantly plays back your recording as a loop, onto which you can layer more sounds).
- Some materials to explore for sound making: tin foil, bubble wrap, dried leaves, straws, paper.
- A determination to bring as little as possible in the way of a plan and all of my capacities to respond.
My research into the Reggio Emilia approach provided me with a theoretical and philosophical grounding, borne out of historical evidence, that grounded me in my approach to these sessions: keep the students at Ashmount in mind as my creative colleagues and research peers, engaged in collaborative exploration.
The aftermath. ID: a Boss loop station on which sheet, pedals covered in neon post it notes. Around it are some scrunched up dried leaves, a wad of tin foil, bubblewrap and some green straws.
I can’t really tell you much about the sessions using words! I was focussed on responding to students, ensuring that they could engage in whatever way was meaningful to them. Seeing as I brought complex equipment and a knowledge of how to use it, I saw my main role in these sessions as to respond to what they were doing in the room using this equipment, in such a way that they might notice the effects they were creating, respond, and potentially make decisions about what to do next. For some this meant mirroring movement, trying to catch a breath or a vocalisation and record it. For others there were explanations of how it works and what to do.
I remember staff observing that the usual power dynamics (of who is leading and who is following) were swiftly and naturally shifted or reversed, without planning and without instruction. The following track is one I that remember distinctly emerging in this way. This group were extremely collaborative and made what I think are some incredible and evocative natural soundscapes: see what you can hear…
A comment from Bob Christer from Attenborough Arts Centre who observed the sessions for evaluation purposes:
“So much sensitivity, intensive interaction, clear development of confidence in young people during the session, and I wished I could have captured a photo of one of the many ‘spinning plates’ moments I witnessed in my Wednesday morning session as you were pressing buttons, guarding cables, offering the mic and avoiding hair-pulling in a sensitively handled way, all at once… The tracks give a real flavour of what happened in each group.”
One of the things I enjoyed immensely was seeing how the best facilitators for some students were their classmates. This track reminds me of that, with one student only able to enjoy the sound of his voice coming back at him once I let go of my ego and stopped being the one trying to record him, passing on the mic to another student who was more welcome to approach.
A couple of weeks later I returned with a playlist of tracks made from the recordings in each session (12 tracks in total, made from around 250 individual loops). We listened to them all together through a sensory listening device I have called Tilde, which you can handle and approach according to the way you like to listen best. In one class we all ended up on the following the lead of one of the students, lying on and stroking Tilde and listening to our peers’ work. I heard a teacher say of a student “that’s all his KPIs (key performance indicators) right there”.
ID: Tilde, a squishy being made of two bodies joined by a long arm, with pink and red velvet-fringed speakers where a heart or eye might be.
What I want to think about now is what to do with the sounds we made? I would love to bring them to a wider audience and am actively exploring how best to do that through my work on the Another Route fellowship, as an old associate artist of Oily Cart, and in discussions with performance and sound art festivals and organisations both here and abroad.