What’s the soundtrack to your lockdown? Mine is this: the roar of buses past the window, a man singing joyfully and off-key in the street, bare feet on wooden stairs, the scratch of matches and the shrill ringing of the kettle. The clatter of plates and the tapping of the keyboard, my mother’s voice crackling down the phone. Foldable Sounds is a collective working to gather the sounds of our lockdowns, from Berlin to Los Angeles, and everywhere in between. I chat to one of its founders, Lucy Cunningham, about sound art, collaborative practice and cataloguing isolation.
I ask Lucy how she would define herself - a creative? An artist? A poet? ‘I haven’t quite sussed that one out’, she tells me. ‘I tend to say artist and writer, although they definitely cross over.’ Over the course of her Fine Art degree, Lucy developed a sound art performance practice around Leeds and further afield, choreographing live polyphonic performances engaging raw voices with new sound technology. After graduating, she was approached by New Contemporaries, a group who aim to support recent graduates, and was invited to work in Leeds Art Gallery and South London Gallery in Peckham.
'I feel like it will become an archive of this collaborative labour, that forms a discourse about what’s going on now - and in publicising this work we are inviting more people to join in and reflect on what’s going on.’
‘It was my first ever paid commission - I was collaborating with some really amazing writers and artists from across the UK, having in-depth discussions with curators as to how best to present the work, and presenting to new audiences … there was this really overwhelming rush after the performances, people coming up and discussing them with me - and that was when I knew that this had moved on and meant something to people. Ultimately, if my work can create this sense of solace for someone, then that’s how I define it as being successful - if the work addresses subject matter that isn’t talked about enough, or that people find sometimes hard to articulate in everyday conversation. I think that the theatrics of soundscapes, and being enveloped in a performance space, is a real conduit for sharing feeling’.
Lucy cites her residency with La Consulate in Paris as a particularly eye-opening moment in terms of realising the potential of collaborative practice. La Consulate is an environmental collective of writers, artists, musicians and activists, whose aim is to encourage making and exchange across borders, and Lucy worked with them to deliver a project with fellow Leeds-based artist Sunny Vowles. The work incorporated poetry, translation, music, dance, and design. ‘It was this amazing repository of ideas … I think collaboration is the best way of working, more than ever post-Brexit and in this very isolating time. Working with people, pooling resources, ideas, energy - and also just for sanity, it’s amazing having someone to just be with you’.
The pandemic has offered us a chance to reassess our relationship with many things, sound included. ‘I noticed a lot in lockdown that being amongst the same sounds all the time encourages an active listening experience, and knowing that other people are having the same experience encourages a sense of collectivism.’ It was this awareness that led to the formation of Foldable Sounds, with university friends Daniela Geraci and Isabelle Pead last May. ‘The three of us had been doing a lot of Zoom calls, and we were thinking about the repetition of sounds that we were hearing within our dwellings, and thinking how a new or varied soundscape might change experiences of isolation, and that led to this project. It’s not live in the same way as work we would have done together in galleries or public forums, but we’ve been drawing people together through social media and the internet. They’re really powerful tools not to be dismissed - of course there’s the question of digital poverty, and I can only begin to imagine what it’s like not to have access to a computer or a phone. But for those involved it’s been a really precious social experience’.
Is there anything about the medium of sound in particular that lends itself to the collaborative process? ‘Sound art was never something that I’d considered as a medium before university. But once I started helping with projects and then getting into it myself, I realised that it’s something a lot of people can access, that you can very quickly bring communities together with. You can also send a sound file across the world, there’s an instant connectivity.’
‘Sound can either slowly broach your ears or blast its way into existence. There’s an urgency to sound, to the experience, it’s calling attention to something. I think the most recent example was the Black Lives Matter vigil that we had in Leeds last year. It was this amazing huge cacophony of sounds and voices, there was this presence: this is a protest.’ Recording sound can also be understood as a political act: ‘As the person recording, I am choosing what I record and what I share. And just by me being in a space, my presence is gendered, it’s racial, it’s socially and temporally particular. So sounds might have dominion over a site, but it’s me as the recordist who has control, and so it’s my choice as to what I inspire or what I extinguish.’
Foldable Sounds functions like an exquisite corpse drawing - a folded paper where one person draws the head, another draws the body, the next the legs, each without any idea of the previous or following participant’s contribution. ‘It’s inspired by that kind of folding and sharing, and the notion of exchange.’ In groups of four, each person records four minutes of sound over a two day period. ‘We potentially have sixteen minutes of sound from each group, but often it’s shorter, as some people layer their pieces. We offer free sound software within the emails we send out to people through Audacity, and we give them instructions on how to use it. It’s very much open after that … participants layer and edit a track collectively, and these tracks become an album.’
Originally envisioned as a small project shared with friends, Foldable Sounds has grown over the past few months. ‘We just started spamming people with open calls, and we continue to do so. We also got in contact with people who we knew would be interested, or with radio stations we had links to. Initially there was a lot of focus in Leeds, a few people in Manchester … And slowly over time we’ve started to spread: we’ve had people from L.A. now, we’ve had people from Singapore. It’s been quite amazing, just seeing how quickly the word spreads, and the interest that reflects back on the work that’s been made’.
‘We encourage people to really just spend time with things in their home. In the first round there was a lot of birdsong, or cars when people were outside - whereas in the last few people have been remixing the sounds of their washing machine or their toilet flushing, which has been quite funny. Some people have made really beautiful ambient pieces loosely inspired by things in their home, but we try to get people to just use what they have to hand … there’s this repurposing and repositioning of the mundane, and the objects that they’re using come into being, the space is being explored.’
The recordings have become at once artwork and archive, a creation and a catalogue of the past few months. ‘We made the project in response to the pandemic, and it definitely reflects this time. Although there are sounds that are very much domestic, and could have been recorded before the pandemic (or hopefully after!), there are also sounds of people on balconies singing … there’s sounds of riots, there’s sounds of discussions overheard. There’s one that’s recorded from a bridge in London, and you can hear people talking about how they’re doing in lockdown, so some things are explicitly time-specific. I feel like it will become an archive of this collaborative labour, that forms a discourse about what’s going on now - and in publicising this work we are inviting more people to join in and reflect on what’s going on.’
‘Although we’re not the first first people to use sound in this manner, I think the concept attracts people - it’s something they understand, and that doesn’t ask too much of them. It’s really about trying to make sound an accessible medium, because I still think that it doesn’t have enough attention in the art world. People think they need to have a lot of knowledge prior to taking part in the project, but they really don’t - it’s something that a lot of people can be part of.’
Foldable Sound continues to grow: the collective is now a monthly resident on Leeds-based NARR Radio, sharing mixes and interviewing sound artists, producers and DJs. Their work has also been featured on NTS and Netil Radio. Does Lucy see her practice as continuing in a sound-based direction? ‘Most definitely - it’s a medium that I’ve only really touched the surface of… I’ve started a research project into collective voice works in public galleries, and how public programming can encourage more audience engagement.’
‘Personally, my practice is becoming more curatorial, and thinking more about public programming. I work as a program assistant at the moment for a gallery in Leeds, and you become increasingly aware the longer you’re in a city that more needs to be done, to support both students coming out of art schools, and artists and DIY groups that either haven’t had that university experience or don’t have institutional support… I think now more than ever it’s about encouraging people and giving them a platform, a voice and a space.’
You can listen to Foldable Sounds here:
Lucy's poetry pamphlet is available to pre-order here: