I’m well aware it’s been rather a long time since I last posted here. The main news is that, due to illness, things is postponed, folks! I’m now NOT launching Colston’s Last Journey in May this year (2022) as originally planned. I had been thinking, ‘ok – maybe autumn 2022 instead’, but then Bristol Ideas (one of the supporters of Colston’s Last Journey) said, ‘why don’t you include CLJ as part of the Bristol 2023 (650 years of ‘Bristol’, I understand) celebrations next year?’ So I discussed it with my partners (Steve Poole at UWE and Phill Phelps, my Satsymph colleague) and we all think it could be a good ideal to tap into that. So I’m now looking at spring 2023. Thanks Arts Council for being understanding!
We recorded my scripts on 18 March nonetheless with 3 voice actors and I have just finished the first rough audio edit. The concept has also excitingly developed further as per the above infographic: the problem – well, not ‘a problem’, ok, the issue was ‘what will the sound experience on the 7 ghost slave ships be???’ The thing being that there is A LOT of content and in the Satsymph experience of making soundscapes we have generally found that anything more than, say, 4 minutes per soundclip was too much. But here we are talking 20-30 minutes of sound! WTF!
Solution came to me in a blinding flash of purple light (from whatever realm that cometh from, namaste!): the content, be it 10, 20, 30 minutes, whatever, is on perpetual loop. The onlistener, when they ‘board’ that ship (ie find it afloat somewhere along along Broad Quay on the sea of sound) simply tap into wherever that loop is at that moment. ULRIKA, er, EUREKA! Solves all the technical wotsits, guarantees ‘the individual experience’ (since everyone will tap into that particular loop at a different time), simple, elegant. Gebonkt.
I have today changed the title of my sonic artwork on Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade from ‘Colston’s Last Journey’ to ‘Shipshape and Bristol Fashion?’ (note the ‘?’)
My intensive research over the last 9 months into all aspects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (also called TTEA: the Transatlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Afrikans) means that I have a greatly increased appreciation of the scope, scale and complexities of the trade in an overall African/British context and am reflecting that in the scripts I’m currently writing for the audio artwork. The whole project has thus expanded very much beyond ‘Colston’ and a focus on ‘Colston’ in the title of the project simply does not fit the direction the project has taken anymore.
Calling my project ‘Colston’s Last Journey’ gives rise to the participant (and media) expectation that the project is about Colston, when – as stated in my Arts Council application – it’s actually about Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It won’t help the project if I am continually having to explain, “er, actually, the audio work is not about Colston, I’m using him as a place marker or signifier or representator of …“, or, “no, it’s not about that day in June 2020 when his statue was toppled off the plinth and dragged through the streets of Bristol, it’s about…”.
‘Shipshape and Bristol Fashion?’ frees me from the bane of that man’s long shadow, refers more indirectly to the seafaring tradition in Bristol and exactly who and what was being ‘sea-fared’, and brings the focus of the project back onto the work and how it is structured: a sea of interactive sound overlayers the historical and present Broad Quay (‘the Centre’ of Bristol). Upon this interactive sea, 7 ‘audio ghost ships’ are afloat, each representing a different facet of the slave trade, each of which was an actual ship which set sail from Bristol in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The project still references the whole Colston debacle in that the audiowalk still starts from the Colston plinth and ends where his statue was thrown into the water. Just that the connection is then made by the audience if you so wish. It is not explicitly stated by the artist, but implicit within the work.
Scribbled these down in bed after leaving them to stew for a few weeks.: the 7 audio ghost ships are afloat on the sea of interactive sound. The content is stacked or playlisted (makes multiple visits to the same ship possible: if you have heard Content1, you will then hear Content 2 etc). In no particular order as yet:
SHIP1: the sailor experience (1) Joseph Banfield stranded in Africa (2) on ship accounts (3) dependents’ accounts
SHIP2: 1st person slave accounts (x3 or more)
SHIP 3: The floating prison (how a slave ship was organised and constructed)
SHIP4: The floating supermarket: what goods were traded and for how much
SHIP5: slave resistance in its multiple forms
SHIP6: SFX, non-narrative
SHIP7: ship instructions (the shipowners orders to the captain – where the ship is to go, what she is to do there etc)
Making art is about being vulnerable (before your material, before your audience). You have to place yourself in front of the material and allow it to say what wants/needs to be said filtered through your particular sensibilities of accidental origins, influences, thoughts. That’s an opening up process and thus always difficult. For years I’ve had a newspaper cutting on my pinboard – the point of a pinboard, is, I think, to pin up things of current concern, current interest, bills you need to remember to pay, receipts for things you’ve bought, wise aphorisms, things which catch your eye … but the key word is CURRENT. I’ve never managed to do that – I like the things pinned to my pinboard so much I never replace them, keep them up to date; I’ve got stuff on there from, oh, 1994 .. anyway, where was I? …and one of the cuttings says:
“You’re stuck writing something until the point where you go, to hell with it – I’ll tell the truth“
‘Truth’ does not come in a tidy, ideologically-approved bundle and it can’t be constrained in advance: it exists only here, now
The other cutting says:
“It’s hard enough to write. I’ve had my mother, nuns and priests telling me what I shouldn’t do. I want to be free.”
So, the necessity to write what is, not what one is supposed to.
“IfI can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution”
The problem with CLJ (Colston’s Last Journey) is the usual: there’s absolutely no end to the amount of research which could be done, nor is there an end to possible material for inclusion, so, at some stage, I really need to say, ‘that’s it!’ But then something else pops up and I think, ‘really should include THAT...’ But, no… can’t go on for ever – it’s getting time to PRODUCE something
So I have to think about the framework, the structuring of the work
this is sort of it: the structural constraints are that it has to be laid out in a busy city centre (buses, cars, people, water features, bicycles), but, luckily the whole route is pedestrianised and somewhat apart from the traffic, so that’s ok; then, even tho’ it’s called ‘Colston’s Last Journey’, it does not, in fact, follow the whole route the statue was dragged, which was down the right hand side of Broad Quay past the Watershed etc, not where I am leading people, which is on the ‘rive gauche’, the left-hand side, from the water cascade – this is for practical reasons, (1) there’s no space on the right, the pathway’s too narrow; (2) the work is gps-triggered. I wouldn’t get a good signal on the right under the canopy and right next to buildings . So it’s to the left. Further, when the ghost ships were sailing, they would not have been able to get further up Broad Quay than the (site of) old drawbridge (in line with Baldwin Street). For reasons of historical veracity, then – no ships above the drawbridge.
START at the Colston plinth
INTRO/CHARTERS (re. Royal African Company &c)
INTERACTIVE OCEAN as far as Pero’s Bridge, rive gauche (Arnolfini side of Broad Quay)
Waking up at 3am one night last week in London (up for a one-day zen retreat), I thought I’d read my Kindle ‘An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa‘ by Alexander Falconbridge (c. 1760–1792) (he was a British surgeon who took part in four voyages in slave ships between 1780 and 1787). I scan-read the 660 pages in an hour (a useful ability facilitated by the eBook format), then copied and emailed the passages I wanted to myself:
That’s actually a good method, I think, for displaying research material, as the email, if the material is in a block, simply copies a lot of the first block as a title and produces a tantalising (and here disturbing) hint of what the email could contain, such as:
“The Manner in which the Slaves are procured.After permission has been obtained for breaking trade, as it is termed, the captains goashore, from time to time, to examine the negroes that are exposed to sale, and to make their purchases. The unhappy wretches thus disposed of, are bought by the black traders at fairs, which are held for that purpose, at the distance of upwards of two hundred miles from the sea coast, and these fairs are said to be supplied from an interior part of the country. Many negroes, upon being questioned relative to the places of their nativity have asserted, that they have travelled during the revolution of several moons, (their usual method of calculating time) before they have reached the places where they were purchased by the black traders. At these fairs, which are held at uncertain periods, but generally every six weeks, several thousands are frequently exposed to sale, who had been collected from all parts of the country for a very considerable distance round.“
Didn’t really sleep very well after that, so not such a good idea…
Fine – I got the money. Now, then… first thing I did was panic: ONE, I’m referencing ‘Colston’, that’s sure to get me into trouble with all sides of the ongoing debate. The man, the statue, the men, the statues are all triggers in plain view for, well, everything and everybody, and I don’t want to be in the firing line, thank you. TWO: how to, I mean, how dare I even consider making a work of soundart about the Transatlantic Slave Trade? What could do this justice (hah – ‘justice’!)? I’m making a work about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, yes, but I have to preserve, for my sanity, ‘artistic distance’. Yes, but how do you artify this? Is even artifying it an insult to our combined diasporic unconscious? THREE: what effect was all the research I was now embarked on going to do to me? I’m well used to grinding endless material and producing art out of it – but THIS? FOUR: my research removed a few blinkers from my eyes about what actually went on. It seems what went on does not fit the simplified narratives any of the various sides are propounding.
SOLUTIONS: to ONE: (a) I am very clear that ‘Colston’s Last Journey’ is not ‘about’ Colston, or even particularly references him. The soundart trail is called ‘Colston’s Last Journey’ because it overlayers Colston’s last journey from his plinth to where he was flung into the water and because his is an instantly recognizable name to hang the work on. My soundart is about Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (b) just talk to everyone and tell them what you’re doing: this is an individual artist work supported by the Arts Council and I’m making a work of located soundart accessed through the participant’s personal smartphone whose topic is ‘Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade’.
to TWO: making a work of art uses all the artist’s capacities as an artist is always creating de novo; always birthing what is to be in the world, what wants, requires, needs to be, is asking to be in the world. So it’s always a process of sheer panic, feeling inadequate, fear, loathing, joy and you have to trust that, at some point in the process, the work itself will open itself to you (like, when writing a novel, that wonderful point when the characters themselves start to dictate what they’re going to do and say to the ostensible ‘author’). So – trust the Ancestors, they will speak to me.
to THREE: I read something in a Guardian book review where the reviewer said something about ‘that ice-cold splinter in the heart of the writer’. Yes.
The genesis of the idea for ‘Colston’s Last Journey’ was in June 2020, watching Edward Colston’s statue being toppled from his pedestal in the upper part of the pedestrianised centre of Bristol, then dragged along the historic Broad Quay and dumped into the murky waters of the Bristol Floating Harbour. This event drew world-wide attention and put fire in the bellies of those movements re-assessing all sorts of histories celebrated and cosily ensconced in statuary all over the world as examples of great people (well, men…) for us plebian mortals to look up to and admire. In the feverous days that followed The Great Splash the question uppermost in Bristolian minds was, “well, um, so – what should we put on the pedestal now Colston’s not there anymore?”
Et voila, a week later, London-based sculptor Mark Quinn answered that one by placing, at his own expense, a resin statue of protestor Jan Reid on the plinth. To the dismay of Bristolians and Mayor Marvin Rees, who had the statue promptly pulled down at dawn a day or so later (bit quicker there than removing the Colston statue, that one only took, oh, 15 years of protests?) The main objection seemed to be how dare some bloody Londoner come down y’ere and plonk some bloody unasked for statue on OUR town, yeh? Yeh? Pity, perhaps Bristol should not have looked a gift statue too closely in the mouth, not that it needed that – looked at closely it was a really beautiful cast of Jan Reid, it fitted the setting, her stance was proper revolutionary, it cost the city nothing &c &c.
Anyway, I then started thinking, “well, what could go on the plinth?” I haven’t been in Bristol for enough generations to be a proper Bristolian, but I have lived here and adopted the city as my home for the last 27 years, so I thought I could probably Get Away With Doing Something. But I work in sound, not in statuary. ‘Stick a boombox on the plinth endlessly re-cycling slave trade statistics.‘ I thought, ‘that’d cut the ice!‘ So I looked up the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases, contacted them to ask for permission (which they gave – thank you!), then spent quite a while transcribing data on slave ships, what they did, from where they sailed, to where they bought, to where those they bought were disembarked, how many, names of Captains, gunnage etc etc. Then I got Amazon Polly (an AI voice synthesizer) to voice the transcribed stats in various ways and bounced them down as mp3 soundfiles. So far, so bad. Then I looked into the price of said boomboxes and whether it was in fact feasible to do what I wanted to do. Then I thought about the logistics (and, moreover, legalistics!), talked to a few people and thought, “mehhh…”
Next I thought, “Um – don’t put any hardware on the mean streets of Brizzle – go virtual!” So I built a soundscape in Soundcloud which could be streamed live: it was/is an audio-walk from the plinth all along the centre, past the cascade at the bottom, then along Broad Quay on the Queen Square side, across and to the other end of Pero’s Bridge, with walk directions etc, using the same material as above, plus Bristol-sourced material. That worked fine, but my press-ganged ‘focus group’ (‘impressing’, or press-ganging has a history in Bristol) told me it was too one-sided and, anyway, I should consider a much larger and more detailed and proper project requiring a considerable amount of research in order to do the topic of ‘Bristol and The Transatlantic Slave Trade’ justice. I swallowed hard (several times), spat (several times) into the Bristol Floating Harbour and bit the bullet.
4,5, no, 6 application-writing-fatigued months later I finally completed the application and submitted it to the Arts Council (with a lot of help especially from UWE, thanks, not to forget Bristol Ideas!). They approved it, so here we are: Colston’s Last Journey.