Dr Felicity Ford is a sound artist who has been recording dental equipment sounds both at a modern dental surgery and the BDA Museum, which I mentioned here. She has kindly agreed to let me use her sounds in my performance sound score and answered some questions for me about her work. I find her responses poetic and inspring, and they have influenced how I’m thinking about the use of sound in performance:
What first attracted you to working with museums?
Museums can present a particularly interesting context for me to work in, because so much museum work is about unlocking the secret life of objects and revealing their links to places and social history. Sound can be used in a similar way, and what works well, is when my own aims and those of a museum can be aligned for exploring an object collection. Sound recordings can be used to help us to encounter things from the past in a very particular way; interiors from previous eras have different acoustics from the kinds of spaces we build today, and earlier technologies sound very different from what we use nowadays, because they are made from different materials. Sounds can tell us a lot about spaces and surfaces that photographs or written words cannot.
At the moment I’m working with the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture because of my interest in domestic space. MoDA have an amazing collection of historic wallpapers which are both evocative and nostalgic, and interviewing people about those wallpapers has made me think about what the places where those wallpapers were originally hung sounded like. It was this interest in evoking historic places, objects and rooms which led me to the British Dental Association Museum. I contacted the BDA Museum because one of the wallpapers in the MoDA collection reminded someone I interviewed of the wallpaper on the wall at his dentist’s when he was a child. I was initially interested in recording dental equipment from the 1960s and 70s (which would fit with the time-period of the wallpaper) but when I learned of even earlier equipment, I wanted to hear that too, to get a comparison.
What have you learnt about dentistry that has surprised you since doing this project?
Exploring the collection at the BDA Museum made me consider how the sounds of brushing our teeth have changed in the past couple of hundred years. We brush our teeth every single day and this seemingly insignificant ritual is built into the rhythm of our lives; there is a sequence of sounds involved, from taking the brush off the shelf to turning on the tap, to spitting in the sink, etc. The sound of clicking open a china or metal pot to get at one’s toothpaste or dentifrice is no longer part of the daily sounds that we hear as part of this ritual; neither is the distinctive roll-and-flick motion once recommended by dentists. I was surprised by how a daily set of sounds which we experience has changed over the past couple of hundred years. I was also very interested in the sounds of the dispensary chair; to my ears the wooden creaks and metallic sounds as the dispensary chair is latched into position evoke something of the comfortless quality of the dispensary, when compared to our modern dental practices with their padded, electronic chairs. I was surprised also by the sounds of the treadle-drill; it has a lovely soothing sound when compared to the high-powered modern hand-drill! I think I had imagined all the sounds of early dental instruments would be somewhat brutal, but in reality a lot of the sounds are quite delicate; the sound of brushing ivory dentures with a soft, natural-bristles brush is far less abrasive than the sound of my electronic toothbrush, for example.
Did you find people you interviewed about dentistry had an emotional response?
I didn’t interview anybody about dentistry, but when I announced on Twitter that I was off to record drills and dental instruments for the Sonic Wallpaper project, several people immediately replied along the lines of “that’s a terrifying, horrendous sound! Why on earth would you want to record that?!” I think teeth can be very sensitive, and sound can be very evocative… so there is a strong emotional connection there.
Can you tell me about how you usually develop a project and find inspiration?
For me an art project is a kind of triangle roughly comprised of what the commissioner wants to get out of the project, what an audience hopes to get out of a project, and what I want to get out of the project, so developing something is normally quite collaborative and depends on those factors and on the relationships involved. I tend to get involved in projects which are about exploration and process. There will of course always be an end product at the end of any project, but the process of developing that end product to me is just as interesting as the final thing, and it has been my experience that audiences are interested in encountering unfinished ideas and things-in-development, just as much as in encountering completed works. Social media tools – blogs, facebook, Twitter, etc. – can be a rich way of sharing a process with an audience, and the Internet is a great place for this. In the case of my collaboration with MoDA, I hope that my work with their wallpaper collection provides new ways of “hearing” or interpreting wallpaper – and that the Sonic Wallpaper pieces which I am working on will expand how artists might interpret or explore the MoDA collection in the future.
I tend to find everyday, material objects extremely inspiring; I am unsatisfied with accepting everything around me at face value and want to go into more detail with everything. I love the fact that sound can reveal the secret life of things – that you can bury a hydrophone inside a compost bin and hear the worms and the insects at work; you can attach a pickup coil to electronic appliances around your house and listen to the electro magnetic waves surrounding you constantly (which you normally do not hear); you can go into a vast, empty, derelict house and listen to particles of air describing its emptiness… I love that nothing in the world that is alive is truly silent. I also love the chatter of human beings as one of the sounds on this planet, and I am inspired by the things that people say in passing. Most of the direction for how the Sonic Wallpaper project has gone has come from people’s remarks on the wallpapers involved.
How does this project fit in with you previous work?
My previous work has often involved linking everyday reality with sonic creativity. I created a radio show for BBC Oxford based around the road I commute most often on (Around the A4074) (http://archive.org/details/AroundTheA4074) and I have made work which explores the supermarket shop and daily meal-planning as sites for sonic, creative play (The Sonic Tuck Shop Artist Book) (http://thedomesticsoundscape.com/wordpress/?p=1004). To me the Sonic Wallpaper project takes another everyday context – the act of decorating a room – and uses sound to radically expand how we might think about that activity. I was commissioned in 2009 to produce a podcast series for Sound & Music, and I worked with MoDA on that occasion also, exploring their historic wallpapers from a sonic perspective in order to produce a feature for the podcast. This project builds on that earlier work, too, and you can hear what we did here:
My PhD explored the domestic soundscape and presenting everyday sounds to audiences, and within my doctoral research, I examined domestic life creatively, through sound. I recorded the washing up; I recorded my knitting; and I started buying and recording different foodstuffs for their sonic qualities. I also examined how we might present sounds to audiences outside of the normal concert/exhibition formats, and have spent the past few years exploring alternative forms for disseminating my work to audiences (blog posts, podcasts, radio, paper-scores etc.). The Sonic Wallpaper project builds on this previous research, as we are exploring together how to present the wallpaper pieces to audiences, (perhaps through the use of QR codes and so on).
Have you collaborated with other artists, particularly from different disciplines before?
I collaborate very often with other artists, but there are a few people whom I especially like working with. I enjoy co-running the Sound Diaries website with Paul Whitty (http://www.sound-diaries.co.uk) and recently I have been working a lot with Valeria Merlini; we are developing a kind of workshop format for producing radio documentaries about sound art events together. I also work regularly with performance artist Stavroula Kounadea; we have an ongoing project exploring mixtape creation entitled Mixtape Consultancy (http://www.mixtapeconsultancy.com) and are working on a project called Towards an Excellent Finish, which is a sound-performance based around a sewing machine and home-made electronics. Last year I collaborated with an essayist and podcaster – Brenda Dayne – to create the sound design for A Knitter’s Manifesto, and in 2008 I collaborated with Kayla Bell and Claudia Figueiredo to produce The Fantastical Reality Radio Show in association with Mundane Appreciation – http://www.fantasticalreality.com/home.html.
Huge thanks to Felicity.