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Interview with Sebastiane Hegarty part I

by Jay Dea Lopez

Sebastiane Hegarty is an artist, writer and lecturer. His creative practice is interdisciplinary and time-based, including:  sound, installation, photography, performance, drawing and text. His work is concerned with memory through an exploration of the relationship between time, place, and sensation. Most recently this has focused on acoustic ecology and the perceptual geographies of sound and audition.
Sebastiane has exhibited extensively in a wide range of media. Most recently his audio essay, Listening and walking was broadcast on Twenty Minutes (BBC Radio 3) and a series of soundscapes for Radio Solent, resulted in a two part documentary, extracts from which featured on BBC Radio 4′s Pick of the Week.

In this exclusive interview for the Field Reporter, Jay-Dea Lopez speaks with Hegarty about his background in film and installation, his recent projects “Chalk Studies” and the “Winnall Moors Project”, and the differences between listening to live and recorded sound.

Q (JDL). You have a background in film. Can you tell us how working in this medium lead to working in field recording? Does it inform the way you listen to and/or record sound?

A (SH). My background could be more accurately described as time-based, as my earliest work included film, performance, installation and slide-tape. Of these I think it is the film work, which has suffered most from the passage of time. I find the films very hard to watch, not only because of the anachronism of the medium, but also because of the concrete and complete state of their record, they seem fixed to a particular point in time.
I think that it is the work of other filmmakers that has most informed my practice. The poetic and fractured narratives of Derek Jarman’s films, such as The Last of England, The Garden and Blue, had a crucial influence on the development of my approach to composition. In particular, Jarman’s soporific use of layering and collage, which is mirrored in the soundtracks of Throbbing Gristle and Simon Fisher Turner. The diaristic use of Super 8 ‘home movie’ film, that may be seen as a visual equivalent to field-recording, brings with it the unexpected collision of everyday imagery and the grainy noise of unprofessional media. Such textures and juxtapositions are reflected in the found sound, field-recording and sonic details of the soundscapes of the film scores. Jarman’s habitual recording of everyday events, without prior purpose or intent and the valuing of discarded and insignificant events has certainly informed my own approach to collecting sound and more importantly perhaps, how I engage with the world around me. 
Jarman was of course associated with the anti-art ethos of Punk, which was also a huge influence. I am not a musician, I cannot play an instrument or read music, so making music had always seemed an unavailable occupation. It was the audiocassette and the attitude of Punk that provided me with the tools to create and compose sound. It offered a cheap and available technology, and introduced me to field-recording although I would not have called it that then. The tacit temporality of recorded sound exposed time as not only the subject of my practice but also as an essential constituent of its substance.
I was very fortunate to be taught by (and later to teach with) the British avant-garde filmmaker Guy Sherwin. His films subtly undermine our perception of time through an exploration of the junction of sound and image. His work quietly but fundamentally questions our perceptual relationship with not only the film we are watching, but also the world beyond it. Films such as Prelude and the silent Short Film Series, are profoundly understated, Sherwin focuses his structuralist gaze on uneventful moments, a man bouncing a ball, a coot swimming across the surface of a river. I think this focus of attention and the rejection of aesthetic concerns and ‘spectacle’, tacitly imprinted itself on my approach to sound, even his silent films have taught me a lot about listening. The emphasis on structure and process present in many of Sherwin’s films and the broader avant-garde movement, has certainly informed my approach to composition: rules are often employed to encourage the unintentional and evade aesthetic decisions. 
Although his own practice is resolutely non-narrative filmmaker, it was Sherwin who introduced me to the films of Tarkovsky, which has in turn led me to European cinema, in particular Bresson, Bergman and Cocteau. Within the work of these directors, the relationship between sound and image is used to place and displace the image and viewer in time. The ear and eye conspire to offer an escape from the presumed linearity of temporal progression. Again the prolonged focus on uneventful detail, nothing much happening very slowly, seems to contribute to an amplification of sensory attention. This filmic strategy of lingering uneventfulness continues to inform my listening and approach to field-recording and composition. I think the eye has a lot to teach the ear and vice-versa.

Q. On a recent project, “Chalk Studies” you recorded a number of chalk fragments dissolving in vinegar. This was a simple yet poignant series that allowed the listener to hear the sounds of Palaeolithic air being released from the chalk into the atmosphere. What spurred your interest in this project?

A. I received an email from the microbiologist and artist Dr Simon Park, who, having heard my recording of the gaseous exchange of pondweed, wrote to enquire if I would like to try and record some of his bacteria. Obviously that question received a very positive response and I found myself in a white laboratory coat, sinking a hydrophone into a flask of belching yeast. It was Simon who suggested that I might be able to record the sound of CO2 escaping from chalk dunked in vinegar. This is apparently a common experiment in today’s chemistry classes. But my attention was drawn to the temporality and poetics of this action. Chalk is made from the compacted fossilised remains of Coccolithophores (algae), which once lived in the warm shallow pre-historic seas covering now visible land. The CO2 that escapes during this naive chemical action was deposited during the Cretaceous period, over 60 million years ago. So the static crackle of gaseous escape could be seen or rather heard as a resuscitation of the past; a petrified breath of Palaeolithic air, taken from the same atmosphere inhaled by dinosaurs and held in the substance of compressed white chalk, is exhaled into the present moment.
I am also interested in the loss of substance inherent in the chemical action. What we hear, in the effervescent charnel noise of dissolve, is an extinction of matter. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, substance escapes from solidity and permanence and we can hear something become nothing and no more. For me these ideas poeticise the sound of what is a simple chemical process, transforming what seems like an uneventful noise into something or perhaps nothing more. The noise rubs away at the surface of the concrete, extending the attention of the ear beyond the sounds available to hear.

Q. Your work is often concerned with “memory”. You recently produced an episode for BBC 3 Radio featuring recordings of conversations between yourself and your (recently deceased) mother. Do you think there is an essential difference between hearing a recording from the past and looking at objects from the past? Are there any similarities you’d like to comment on?

The programme you mention was concerned with the differences between photographic and audible records and it was instigated by the death of my mother. I have been recording my mother’s voice for over four decades and when she died I listened back to some of these recordings. I was reminded of Roland Barthes beautiful book Camera Lucida, in which the author sits alone, in his recently deceased mother’s flat, sorting through her photographic remains. Barthes finds something lacking in the likeness of these images, which he equates to an inability of the photographs to ‘speak’. This reference to the discrete qualities of voice raises some interesting questions concerning the distinction between audio and photographic records. The essence of speech does not necessarily reside in the ability of voice to communicate and tell a tale. It also resides in what Barthes calls the ‘patina of consonants and voluptuousness of vowels’. Listening back to my mother, it is in the rhythm, intonation and imperfections of her voice that I hear her speak. The non-verbal noise of her voice, (the hesitations, inflections, and fragility of tone) bring her closer to me. They reveal an intimate familiarity that goes beyond a mere fidelity of likeness: something between my mother and I alone. 
Unlike the mute ‘flat death’ of photography, the recorded voice returns in a form and manner with which we are acquainted. Through radios and telephones we are accustomed to the ventriloquism of voice, of hearing speech separated from the sight of the mouth through which it is formed and enunciated. So it is not unusual to hear our loved ones without them being present, listening to them when they are, no longer with us. The history of voice recording is littered with paranormal references, the voices of the dead persisting. I remember a recent poster about the murdered Irish solicitor Pat Finucane, which struck me as symbolic of this supernatural quality. He was depicted holding a telephone receiver to his ear, an image that seemed to maintain his presence, as if he were still there, waiting for us to answer.
I have kept some of the objects that once belonged to my mother, her brush and comb, the pound coins I put in her purse. But perhaps I keep these things for fear of letting them go, rather than because they posses something essential to her memory. And perhaps it is in this need to hold, or as the philosopher Edward Casey puts it, our desire: ‘to cling in compensation (or consolation) to what[ever] is extant…’, that a similarity of purpose emerges between the collecting and keeping of objects, images and sounds. But haunting all the moments we try to keep, the photographs we take, the sounds we record, are those other moments that we let go, the images not taken, the sounds left unrecorded. On Christmas Day I would usually drive my mother down to my partner’s home for Christmas dinner. During the journey mam would fall asleep and I would play a CD. I often played the Beatles’ Revolver and mam would wake up when Yellow Submarine came on and we would both sing-a-long together. I never recorded this moment and even though I have so many recordings of my mother’s voice, it is this unrecorded duet that haunts me: this moment is missing, and I let it disappear. Such loss is inherent in the act of record and haunts much of my work. The dull failure and futility of our attempt to make permanent that which is fleeting, is an acknowledged and pronounced artefact of my practice and an integral part of my subject.

* Upper photo: Sebastiane Hegarty, courtesy of WEC

Sebastiane Hegarty website