I spoke with Tony Spencer earlier this month when he was exhibiting The Cube alongside artist Laura Eldret for ‘Acts’ a collaborative show at Bournemouth Emerging Artists Fringe Festival (BEAF2019). Tony is a visual artist and curator based at Arches Studios, Southampton. He investigates sound and light with sculptural installations, that transform space and effect elements of our consciousness. The sculptural forms are based on sacred geometry, which connect to science, nature and universal balance. We talked about his self-managed residency in The Gambia, which involved setting up a traditional drum and dance troupe with locals, and his ongoing investigation combining sound and material to create a sense of sacredness in an immersive, sensory experience. His background includes training in ‘sound therapy’ using vocal sound healing techniques and instruments. Once a month he offers ‘Sound Baths’ on a Thursday evening at The Hilt, Chandlers Ford.
Tony has a BA (Hons) in Fine Art Sculpture and an MA in Gallery Studies. During the week he works as Exhibitions Programme Manager at ‘a space’ arts.
How’s your CUBE installation going?
It’s going really well, it kind of gathered momentum – by Bank Holiday Monday we were inundated with visitors. About 300 people came through and most of them wanted to go inside and engage with The Cube, as well as look at Laura’s short film, which relates to libraries as social containers for wellbeing.
In that space where the work is (Sovereign Shopping Centre, Bournemouth), there’s a lot of curious people, as well as audiences who saw the work in the program. I didn’t know what the reaction from the public would be, so it was important to let them be in the space and just explore. It’s also great to be around the work and demonstrate how people can interact whether by placing hands on the surface, or going inside.
The Cube welcomed different people of all sizes from an over 6ft tall man, mothers with their daughters and young children. They were all inquisitive, so I Introduced people to what I’m trying to convey through the sculpture, it’s ancient mystical geometry which relates to sound as healing.
What was really important was combining it with the metaphysical sound, which a lot of people took to in their own ways. I pre-recorded the sound on the Saturday morning before the festival started. I used three Himalayan singing bowls and the principles of sound healing. Within a ritual I cleansed my energy by burning white sage, and set an intention that wellbeing would come to people who experience the work. I said a prayer to the four elements, and used sweet grass to call in support from ancestors and spirit guides. There was an energy and intention to this ritual which I put into the sound I created; this is part of the enquiry, to see if it creates an effect of wellbeing.
My performances ‘Metaphysical Sounds Acts 1-5, were a live-art element to the exhibition, in which I played the singing bowls whilst locked inside The Cube. I quite like ‘happenings’ and events that feel as though were part of something, a one-off in time and space. The Cube could have been overlooked in the context of a social gathering in a gallery, where people drink wine and eat crisps and want to catch-up. It has a flat surface, so it could have been mistaken for a table or crate, which wouldn’t’ have felt appropriate. I prefer my work to be an encounter with the unknown, to invite people into a sensory experience within a space.
My live performance felt like sharing something inside me through the sound, and was also an opportunity to further connect with the work, by being inside it myself. To begin the performance there was a quick change of clothes to indicate a change of focus, then I sat in The Cube and amplified the sound of the bowls with speakers. I played intuitively to create a sound that felt right for the moment. People listened and some put their hands and head against The Cube to connect with the vibration.
The invitation is like the nature of sound itself: let’s tune in and listen to what’s going on around us.
The public engagement with the work was quite profound. A 60 year old man connected through a regressive memory, which he described as “I remember when I was a child I loved hiding under the kitchen table and making it into a den”. A woman said “I’m surprised my children are in there because they are usually scared of the dark.” Perhaps The Cube reintroduced them to their sense of safe-space. There was one boy who was really hyperactive and dismissive, he said “what’s this supposed to be, the sound is annoying”. He climbed in and came out transformed after he spent some time relaxing into the space and the experience.
I intend to build on the sensory exploration of the work and continue creating platonic solids related to sacred geometry, working up the elements from base to crown chakra. The Cube represents the base chakra and earth, which is why it was birthed during a full moon on an ancient burial site at Old Winchester Hill. It was quite a journey pushing it up the hill at two in the morning. I climbed inside into the dark interior, closed the door and drilled the holes for the marbles with a brace drill and bit. It was a ritual which let in the moonlight.
It’s deliberately built with wheels so I can transport it and take it on journeys. I want to take it to the New Forest to experience nature. It’s going to carry on until it falls apart. The next shape I will build relates to water, and in Sanskrit it’s the sacral chakra.
What does being an artist mean to you?
Essentially it’s a sense of freedom of expression and connection with other people who use visual communication. Art grounds ideas, creations, thoughts, and feelings creating a less dogmatic society. Which means you’ve got the opportunity to say something that you mightn’t if the obligation was to do something under somebody else’s terms.
It’s often creating something about yourself – putting your soul into your creation. Even with The Cube, when I sit down and look at it in front of me, I feel: “it’s me! I’ve kind of created me – and in weird way I recognise it as me”.
Then what’s with the inset marbles?
The glass marbles were something to do with my childhood where I respected my grandfather’s input which involved spending time outside growing veg, digging potatoes, using garden wood and leftover cuttings to build a fire and cook those potatoes wrapped up in tinfoil.
We’d look up at the stars and I’d ask meaning-of-life questions and he’d tell wonderful stories. He was my mentor at that inquisitive stage of exploring nature and the universe.
The intention with the marbles was to bring nature in, and to reference the night sky. There is also the awareness that when light enters a space it slows things down and creates a sense of timeless meditation, like when it reflects particles of dust.
What has been one of your biggest personal challenges?
I feel that one of my biggest personal challenges is being dyslexic, and my experience of that at school. I don’t think my teachers fully understood what dyslexia was at that time and it was hard for them to understand how I was intelligent but seemingly not good at the subjects they were teaching. So developing confidence in my self-expression was a challenge.
I found out I was dyslexic at university, and after graduating I considered applying to the arts council for artist support, but back then I didn’t feel I had the confidence to even hand-write the form. Over time and with the use of computers, my writing skills dramatically improved, and I decided to write an application for my own work, a project titled ‘Spearman’. In the process I found out there was help available, and Ruth Kapadia the Arts Council Relationship Manager was extremely supportive. I was successful in receiving funding, and I just thought, “wow, I can do anything now, all my ideas and visions will become reality”. It’s knowing there is support that takes away the feeling that there is an obstacle.
How has your practice evolved over time and what has been the main driver of that?
I keep going back to the motif of enclosed spaces. My practice still seems to be about confinement.
On my foundation I started out making a comment or contribution to the miners in South Yorkshire, which is where I’m from. I was never a miner but some of my family were, and I can imagine and empathize what confined conditions would have been like. The emotional and physical effects of spending time underground and the relationship they might have had with the machinery. That exploration evolved during my university studies in Newcastle, enquiries such as:
What happens to people standing in lifts?
What’s the body language and energy exchange when people stand in lifts together?
I made work which amplified the discomfort, the discordance and harmony of those spaces, and also, exploring the illusion of infinite universal spaces.
Recently I have concentrated more on sound, creating projects where I set out to record intangible sound in nature. I took part in the first ‘murmuration’ a located sound residency in Scotland. Whilst there I learnt how to listen intently and I was inspired by artists from all around the world, including UK sound artist Chris Watson.
Can you explain what you mean by intangible sound?
During my self-managed residency in The Gambia, I was living in a village which has a sacred crocodile pool. The village elders give blessings using the water for ritual purification, intention through song and chants and a connection to the crocodiles through animism as belief. They use nature as a conduit to connect with spirit and evoke community healing through prayer and chanting, which I found fascinating.
What I experienced there was very powerful, it connected me to my ancestors, and I wanted to try to capture the sound of nature after the chanting and singing. The silence, what happens when they stop and you receive the feeling that something is changing within your body, inducing visions and emotions from the vibration of sound.
On one occasion I felt as though my grandparents were sat at either side of me holding my upturned hands. My grandfather’s rough working hand on my right side, and my grandmothers soft yet strong hand on my left. They asked questions in my mind about where I was, where they now were, and about the people and other spirits around us. It was another transformative experience.
I was also playing African indigenous music during my time there, which opened up spiritual experiences for me, through the sound energy. The inclusion of that sound is a vehicle for communicating the sacredness. So I wanted to look at how sound could be incorporated into my own practice. I’m still investigating how to combine the two to create and share immersive experiences.
I’ve now studied as a sound therapist at the College of Sound Healing, and I offer one-to-one treatments and also sound & gong bath experiences once a month in Chandlers Ford. That’s predominantly using instruments that create resonance, such as: singing bowls, gongs, shamanic drums, rattles and native American flutes. Some instruments move energy through vibration and discord, others entrain our vibration or complement our own balance through intervals and ratios. Overall I want to provide people with enough variation to work with their own balance and relaxation. The shamanic frame drums are powerful and I incorporate a shamanic practice into my work, such as soul retrieval and assemblage point realignment.
How do you share and promote your work and how does that suit your personality?
It’s about having a purpose that involves giving something back to people. For example, with the Spearman project I wanted to share my work with the African community I lived with, by performing with the installation.
I also prefer to be with the work when it is displayed. Relationship-wise people get more from that and I enjoy the personal interaction. I think I’m good at understanding people’s needs and supporting them in exploring my work, providing the right information from the many different layers, whether it’s through sacred geometry, the sound or physical construction. I also trained in forest school leadership, so I like the idea of letting people explore first.
The Cube is about the visitor who may have a hearing or visual impairment, and can still take something from engaging with it. When people were inside it this week, we encouraged others to put their hands on the surface, to share the experience and the energy through touch.
There was one girl who asked “What is it?” and I replied, “What do you feel?” She investigated and came up with really imaginative things involving stories about unicorns. Her Mum said, “I’m really glad you asked that question because she’s autistic and it gave her the opportunity to use her own feelings to explore and find out what it is.” That’s the forest school way really, investigate through the senses, use hands-on-experiences to explore social and emotional learning first and then we can talk about what something is made from and how tall it is as a secondary enquiry.
Other ways of experiencing my work is through the internet and social media. When I made The Cube I started off with a minimal amount of information to create mystery and intrigue.
What is it?
How did it arrive?
How can I engage with it?
Also, other people take really good photos and capture the work in the right context. Artists from The Arches took photos and really brought out the geometry in its current location, capturing the complementary shapes in the room, which I really appreciate.
In Africa I took printed Spearman stickers, because I know taxi and geli-geli (bus) drivers love stickers on their windows and the backs of vehicles. So it’s not so much social media in Africa, it’s more visual, more word of mouth, and radio stations.
Do you want to tell me about your process?
I quite like to get to the roots of things, respecting the historical provenance of artistic cultural practices.
My inspirations come from a fascination with the world. I prefer to work out ideas with materials, so I can understand what the work is and my relationship to it. That’s why my sound work is grounded within a sculptural installation or object, because then there is a possibility for exploring sound though materiality.
I am able to work out a three dimensional process and understand what it looks like in my head without having to draw it. Then through the process of making, I make decisions through actions and patterns allowing things to change.
I prefer the process of making work and questioning what size it should be in relation to my own physical size, measuring the dimensions of the object in relation to the measurements of my body.
There was another musician I was playing with in the Gambia who visited me with a calabash and said “have you got some plywood so I can make a Gongoma instrument?” and I said “Yeah I’d like to make one with you if that’s ok.” During the process I wanted to know what came next, to plan ahead, and he would say “wait and see what’s next”. If there was a measurement I would ask how many millimeters, and he would use the gap between his fingers to and say “it’s that big”. He was even more intuitive than me.
I asked “How big do we need to make the hole on the sound board?”
“Um that cup over there, yeah that big.”
I said “What if it was 5mm bigger?”
“No, that’s the exact size, I know.”
I enjoy sharing the process with other artists. It’s great having a studio at the Arches, I trust the opinions of fellow artist that I share time with and I’m excited to show my working process with them.
What decisions or support has had the biggest impact for you?
I think that the funding for Spearman was a great support because I knew the project was capable of looking at the issue of migration to the diaspora from a humanistic perspective. It was important to share an experience that talks about the importance of African culture and arts and a respect for the people I know, irrespective of whether they migrated without a passport.
What was the Spearman project?
When I lived in the village of Kartong, myself and a local musician set up a traditional African drum and dance troupe Kouma Kan.
We put a call out in the village and received a really big response. People had an appetite for representing themselves in the village, whereas before they had never played at their international festival, which only featured other troupes from The Gambia and Senegal. We practiced three hours a night for five days a week to prepare to perform. It was great and I really felt their self-esteem was lifted as we created a unified purpose where there traditional music was respected.
One of my close friends from that time Spearman, whom I performed with left the village via “the back way” through Mali and Libya. IT’s a dangerous journey and there was a sense that you shouldn’t tell people you’re going, so I didn’t know what happened to him. He left because there was not enough work under the leadership of President Jammeh, for him and his family.
Artists I know were raising awareness about the deaths at sea crossing to Italy, people drowning on over-crowed boats. I realised that I wanted to balance the familiar story of Africans as victims of circumstance and global change. Africans have a really strong sense of cultural identity and life force carried through oral history, music and dance. When someone leaves the community to join the diaspora, a part of that energy is carried with them. It’s separated from the collective consciousness and the preservation of oral tradition is vulnerable. So I wanted to bring him back, to find a way of reuniting the troupe, to preserve the energy, promoting cultural identity. I had this conversation with film artist Kye Wilson, and we set about returning the energy of Spearman to the village through digital technology.
I eventually managed to contact him and found out he was now living in a town in Germany. We visited Spearman and filmed him wearing the traditional costume. Then returned to the village to present a life-sized high-definition projection of him on a screen playing next to me and Kouma Kan during the performance at the Kartong International Festival. This was the same week that President Jammeh conceded after a 22 year rule and was forced to leave the country by a West African united military intervention.
During the visit we interviewed him about his story, he mentioned saving the lives of people on an overcrowded punctured rib-boat just off Lampedusa. Spearman now supports refugees at the local drop-in centre and plays as a percussionist, fusing African beats in a German folk band. In Karting village we interviewed his mother, brother, and community, asking them what they thought about the project and Spearman’s decision to migrate. There was mixed feelings, some people felt it was the right thing to do if you don’t have the finance, and why should there be restrictions and borders. Others thought it was the right thing to go through the traditional channels so that they have the option of returning.
What have you learned from your career as an artist that you would most like to pass on to others?
Be authentic, make work from life experience, if you don’t have that experience then don’t be afraid to go and find it.
Don’t get wrapped up in the expectations of the art world or institutions; be your own best critic and gather together your own peer network of other artists who support and challenge you. I’m new to CAS, but I felt the artist associates was the right peer environment for me, as it’s artist led.
Approach curators, take risks, create opportunities, promote your work. The Arts Council are supporting more NPO organisations, who work at a grass roots level to support artists, which are very approachable.
Lastly, we don’t work with communities, we are all part of the wider community, so where possible create work which has a purpose, and makes a contribution. Make the best work you can, as your representing us!
What can artists expect from your upcoming show at Arches Open Studios 2019 – Sat 22nd & Sun 23rd June?
I’m making new work titled ‘The Church of David Hockney’ a collaboration with Peter McGinnis, a fellow resident artist. It’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, and it’s an opportunity to experiment with the arches gallery 7.5 as a site-specific space. There’s also much more happening over the weekend, so come along, details are on the ‘a space’ arts website.