A conversation between artist Shenece Oretha and curators Languid Hands on Ah So It Go, Ah No So It Go, Go So! the listening space commission by Languid Hands as part of their No Real Closure curatorial programme. 

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Languid Hands: Hi, Shenece. Thanks for talking to us.

Shenece Oretha: Thanks for talking to me and talking with me along the process as well. I'm glad we're having a moment to record it.

Likewise. Tell us a little bit about your time on the allotment residency and how it's influenced your practice and this work that’s being shown at Cubitt?

Yeah, it was a wonderful time. I think that's the main thing to say is it was a gift. In some ways, to be someone who's never had land… In the estate, there was no kind of growing space, no garden. But I've been learning through text and video on how to grow because interest was spawned a couple years back, maybe four or five years now where it dawned on me that I knew very little about how to grow food. And it suddenly became important to me, I guess I got really into nature as a place where I felt a connection to it, especially in times of mourning. It gave me some sense of peace and I wanted to know why. The prospect of an allotment was a beautiful one, especially when I found out that there were so many Caribbean growers there. I wasn't surprised, but I was happy because I didn't have the means or access to people with that knowledge before. And it was lovely to see. Especially as I might be a transplant myself, a person from the Caribbean that is here for many reasons, mostly due to a volcano, who lost land and to see that, oh, the Caribbean growers there were growing things from home, growing things that made them feel home. And I think the UK can be a hostile place, and to see people forging a connection to this land or not to this land but to the earth and ground around them was great. I wanted to ground here. I felt like in some ways, especially because it was over lockdowns, it was over some of the heights of the pandemic. I was very much here, there wasn't leaving, and I wanted to think about my relationship to here, which is fraught and difficult, but also it's the place where I grew up and I think being a Londoner, I call myself a Londoner, there must be something I find pleasure in here as well. So getting to the allotment was really about grounding myself in a knowledge; pursuing what I call the Black Whole, this idea that art is part of a kind of a wider project in trying to be in this world. 

I didn't go immediately thinking about an art outcome but that grounding and being in Earth will be a benefit to me as a person. And that will hopefully help me in many ways. It was a challenge as well, I learnt a lot about, lots of things about gardening and the sense of the ground. How little that you may actually do and how much the Earth is a generous thing, a gift and something to reconnect to. Also, feeling alienated from the Earth and the ground was something that I was feeling and I was kind of confused by, I wanted to figure out who brought on this alienation. Did I do this? Or is this something that the world has created? A premise the world has created to disconnect me from the Earth, are there some walls between them? And I wanted to break those down. Break those down or dig into it in some way. Managing to get successful harvests was a goal, but it was also just learning, so much learning. It felt like it was leading on to so many aspects of my life. I think it's important at the moment and always, it always has been important, but I think it's now just come up, maybe apparent to me that it's important that we know how to survive here. That the skills to be on this earth aren't just given to me, to see the hard work and to honour the labour that it takes to grow food, and to see how all of it is part of a cycle in this Earth, it felt like a really great place to learn that and learn it physically. I was reading a lot of books and they helped me get there. But the conversation that was there, from the other allotmenteers, the connection, the teaching that they passed on to me, they felt so familiar like the generation above me in terms of the Caribbean people and elders. I'm losing them rapidly. So I'm losing knowledges. So being able to talk to these wonderful people who were so generous in their sharing. They are in the work, they are the seed heads, the work is almost like a mythology or like a story, or the feeling of reconnecting to people who are protecting and disseminating knowledge and we're so willingly giving it so freely. 

It's funny, I find in the work and sound work, a lot of it comes through conversation with these peers, they would tell me, cut down that tree, because it's going to shade your fruit and you're not going to get the harvest that you want. Or like, you should water in the morning before the sun reaches high. Or the fact that some people garden by the moon. All these knowledges that you don't learn in school, where can you learn them? So it was like a site of learning outside of an institutional thing. It is a space to learn. It meant so many different things to me. It meant so many different things to me, connecting with earth and people mainly. And carrying on what felt almost like a calling, I know that this is a knowledge that people before me had. And I don't want to lose it.

Could you talk about what the sonic influences that made it into the sound are, because I know you had some field recordings and moments from the allotment that have made it into the work but then there's also other references. So what are those components?

It was nice to record while growing. And I recorded it in a number of ways. I had a gardening journal. I recorded it on my zoom recorder. And I also had, my witnesses, the people that I garden with that also are part of the sound in some way. And I guess listening, I believe, as a way to pay attention to the thing that I'm doing. And also, especially when a lot of things are born out of conversation, it's like, oh, I guess it's a surprise that there's a sonic element to everything. But it shouldn't be because in the same way, as in I, I have an ear, luckily that I can hear with, and it is a way I can take in information. So it was nice to be able to listen as I recorded drawing water from the well, planting things into the ground, but also what made it into this sound specifically is things like, there are so many birds in the UK. Bird song is actually something that I really did grow up with. And it's something that no matter where you are in some way there is a form of bird song and I think for me in a day if I notice that I hear bird song it means that I'm paying attention, or I'm present in the moment. 

At the beginning of the work is the sound of me walking through the allotment. So this idea that I'm touching the ground you have this, me making a path through the allotment but it changes, it’s not a straight line in the sound because one of the things from my garden in general that I paid attention to is that there's no perfect route to the plot. There's no perfect route to do this, it's something that really struck me. Then there's also the sound of the pulling of weeds or taking things out of the Earth. NourbeSe Philips in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks says “there's a gently ripping the sound every time something is removed from the Earth” and when I paid attention to that I was like wow there is a tearing, every time there is a tearing, especially with weeds because they’re roots are deep and they’re strong and they don't want to come out, so they're very much like a ping! So there is a moment where that is happening. And the buzz of life in the wasps and the bees who are so important in the pollination process as well are part of the sound, you hear them move around you. It's that connection, the bird song, the buzz is also communication, so it's the voice, and all of this is all part of the communication of how to do this, all part of the cycle. And also this deep bass and the rattling, my favourite thing is when the wind is moving through things, you get that kind of shaking like the rustling or the percussion of the seeds. The seed heads they're shaking around you, maybe that's how we understood how to make maracas, or shakers. We just watched the Earth do it itself. So I love that idea, that instruments are based off of nature itself. 

And then there's bass sound, well, firstly I think in London there's always a rumbling. Especially if you're at night, you're always hearing something rumble past, so there's that. There's also what feels like an internal rumbling. Something in me is shaking and excited and ecstatic about this experience of growing. So it's that kind of rumble. But there's so many messages passing on the ground under my feet that I can't hear, imperceptible. And I really want to get this, I like something about the bass if you don't always hear it, you feel it through you. And I felt like that was the connection to the sound. Lastly, there's a lot of reggae, dancehall beats that are inspiring the piece, and the idea that some of the Caribbean allotmenteers sell food at carnival. So I just love the idea that some of these plants are gonna go off into carnival. It's all the way through Caribbean tradition and heritage being grown in this ground and has come from somewhere else and grown in this ground, and it's gonna feed us and I was missing carnival a lot because of the pandemic. So there's a sense of a ritualistic drum as well. And I think, you know, Milford Graves, I was speaking about them to you, they're on the seed packet because I think, if you maybe don't understand the language I speak, or you don't catch the words, I'm saying, I think there is something in the understanding of this kind of pulsation of the seeds, and this rattling, you still kind of get the message or not the message, you get some of the meanings I’m trying to draw in.

So we've spoken a little bit about your sonic influences, but who are the linguistic and poetic influences on this work? And you did touch on them slightly, so maybe you could also talk about the difference between sonic linguistic, poetic, if there are any for you, because it may feel quite overlapping in your work.

Yeah, I think they are. I usually say I'm into not just our music, but the musicality of us. Us being black people, us being Caribbean people, of Caribbean heritage, the musicality being the different types of soundings, rhythms that we can generate, being in conversation and movement. I think what happened was when you go to a bookshop in the UK, and you're looking for information on gardening, I don't know if you will immediately find black woman voices, telling you about our heritage in growing, which has been since the beginning of time. I was like, where will I find this information? But I had already found it and it just dawned on me that in a lot of the poetry I read there was this talk of roots, there was this talk of gardening, there was this talk of navel-strings, there was this talk about the vegetation and life they are familiar with, they would talk about how their mother's grew, they would talk about how they grow, they would talk about their gardens. I was like wait a second there is information to be had, there is information being passed through, and I just need to be attentive to it. I think in a lot of the work I do there is a sonic element being described a lot of the time, when you listen to the text, especially because I attend a lot to black women writers, and a lot of the things I do are based on the shapes of sound that they describe, and I want to know what that actually feels like, what does a fine cry - loud and long - but it had no bottom and had no top” feel like, you know? That’s from Toni Morrison from Sula. It was a lot of people to name, but people like Dorothea Smartt in Connecting Medium, in that text they talk about sea, they talk about the connection to the different parts of the land, land is a very interesting concept that I almost felt like I had no bearing in. I know I had lost the land in some way. Especially because in Montserrat there's not really high storey homes, there's no tower blocks, so not many people live that far away from land. You move here, and I guess we were almost refugees, asylum seekers, trying to escape a volcano. And you get put far away from the land when you come to London, most of the time, it's very, very unlikely you'll get space with a garden. 

In Grace Nichols work, in I is a Long Memoried Woman you have them even talking about how the sugar cane is implicated, how a plant is implicated in a politic, in a history. As a Caribbean descendant of slaves, you think about what plants mean, and how much plants are implicated in the history, how much growing is implicated in my history, and how I understand that another form of where this alienation might come from, is people trying to escape that history and trying to remove themselves from that, but what is lost in that sense in knowledges and things like that. There's a reason why there was knowledges that people had, and that’s one of the reasons they would taken, and that being sounded out in things like I is a Long Memoried Woman, in NourbeSe Philips’ She Tries Her Tongue. I quoted earlier a little bit from the poem A Practical Guide to Gardening where the tongue and the plant are implicated in this metaphor of  loss, and how language and roots are all part of trying to find a language. I think, as someone growing up in a Caribbean  household, the idea of roots is something that is a familiar metaphor, but what does it mean? What does it mean? Where, where roots grow, what do roots mean? And I wanted to understand it, because roots are something that is part of the self, you know. I think a lot of times people think of roots as a place, but they actually return a thing that grow within you. I got to understand the metaphor more the more I grew and I got to extend the metaphor for myself. It becomes a metaphor, it becomes a belief, you know, roots almost felt like a belief that people had. And that I didn't want to lose.

Yeah, so there's so much to say in terms of the sonicity of it as well, because the thing is that an oral tradition has been carried on and on, on the allotment, because things are being passed through conversation, right, and being passed through people relaying information to you orally. And what a wondrous thing, this thing that can be kept with you and protected, but also disseminated and passed down. And I think, you know, of seed heads, in ways that hold the seeds like nano technologies, they need to be deposited somewhere, so people need to be able to listen to elders, talk to people who contain the knowledge, to continue to share it. And I just, you know, I love being able to learn stuff in a familiar tongue to me. It's not everywhere that I can speak in a Montserratian accent and be understood. I don't want to lose my accent, and I get to speak it at home, and I feel at home. So, when it came to the name of the show, I sought a familiar phrase, because it's all about this idea of familiarity, you know, ah so it go, ah no so it go, go so, like our ways of, teaching and guiding people. My auntie was almost famed to me for always telling me to go so, and go so, and go so, telling me what to do when our family used to do catering, and also to move out of the way of something as a way of letting things pass through. 

One of the things I was also interested in was the work song, and looking for those songs that also are poems. I found some in Kamau Braithwaite’s history texts that you can find at New Beacon Books, and some of the lyrics are in those. And to see that song was already being implicated in the land, and I'd hum and I’d sing and I felt that plants understood the music of us somehow. Like we're all in this kind of like, earth, air, world percussion. And I think that was some of the things being described in the poems, it was nice to be able to live the poems. And I think I take very seriously the knowledges in poetry. I've been taught to do so by Audre Lorde, that there is so much poetry that we need to attend to. It's life affirming, life giving and life sharing.

That’s beautiful, so colourful. We'd love to hear some more about your approach to the physical aspects of the work. There's the light, and the specific way that light is used in the space. The speaker sculptures, and oil drum speaker instruments with the seeds as well.

Yeah, thank you. Um, I really enjoyed putting this work together. The speaker stems, the speaker roots, the speaker figures, the speaker stands, I made them at the beginning of the allotment residency and they got to be kept outside. And then to attach a speaker to them, it's almost like the speaker is channelling from the antenna, you know, of those stands, which is fun! And I love that everything can be connected back to nature. So making the stands and then them being changed, rusted, by the rain, you get that sense of time, which is so important in growing, that time is such a part of it. It's a lot of waiting, it's a lot of watching, it's a lot of just being attentive to things. So having them as witnesses to my experience was great. I don't want to over, you know, over analyse it, but for me, it's either that the speaker is the seed from which the stems are unfurling, or the speaker is the kind of seed head, which are drawing up from the spirals and the figures and the shapes. The voice is kind of dotted around and can feel like the voice of the witnesses, the chorus. 

I think it's funny how certain objects have such a connection and really mean something to people. So, the steel drum, the steel barrel, which could be the steel drum instrument, and at the allotment, some people use it as an incinerator, some people use it as a barbecue. And, you know, if you have a jerk drum, you just like put it on it’s side and cut it in half, if it’s an incinerator you take off the top and put the fire in and you put it around the centre of your allotment most of the time, then you put things in them, I guess a waste in some way, when something’s maybe been infected, you burn it away. But then ash is also a fertiliser. And I love the idea that you can also use it as a sort of centre, so you kind of gather around this, this drum. Also, those steel drums have their own migrant history, and so much a part of a migration and I think also of the barrel, which is a custom way of sending things back home. So I love that I love the idea that the drums are kind of like sending messages or receiving messages from home.

And then the duo of revealing the greenhouse-like apex of the gallery is funny, I guess that is interesting to me that as a black person, whenever I go into anything, my blackness, or my history is with me, you know? So although I love kind of the idea of standing in a greenhouse sowing my seeds, the technology of a greenhouse is based on a history of colonisation, of keeping exotic plants within it so that they can survive here, because it's not their home. And I think that's like a two fold metaphor, there's an atrocity to this idea, the taking of things, reluctant things, to bring them here. But there's also me, doing this and highlighting them. I was thinking about that, like when you go to Kew Gardens, you're like wait, what? Oh, those plants are pretty. Why are they here? Why are they here and what were they used for and you know, plants were also on the wave, you know, that which has been transplanted, transported? And you know yeah, my reading revealed to me how so much of the things that we think of in the Caribbean as native aren't, but were domesticated there for many reasons. “For the plants that do not recognise, the outside of the greenhouse” is one of the phrases in the piece, you know, this unfamiliar land. And then there's this idea of the gallery that can be a greenhouse, a museum. The museum and the greenhouse have a similar history then, you know, of collecting things for display that aren’t from here and I thought that was an interesting parallel to draw in. But then there’s another side to it, which is like, okay, we all want a place where we can grow, you know, a place where hope, you know, isn't captive, but a place where you can attend to things, which aren't from here, which you might need to do. So yeah, there's that. 

And then that colour, that light, is the magic that I saw there, at the allotment. I wonder, and I thank some of my friends who have already given me the answers of where the magic in this land is, you know, I think about Adam Farah. They show me that the ends have their own magic, the ends have their own glory and, and there's a thing to attend to. Deborah Findlater, who tells me so much about the kind of magical history and spirituality we can attend to here. But one of the things is when I look up at the sky at the allotment, and it's like dusk, or twilight, these magical hours of the sky transitioning into it to something else other than blue or grey, or white, you know, this is England, and how that was a moment. And I wanted to kind of almost suspend that moment for people and therefore, that light is filtering in to the gallery space. You don't have this electric light, whatever the sun is giving is what you get, in the gallery space, and as in what you get in the allotment, you know. 

There's a shaping of the sound, you know, there's movement of sound as part of the physical aspects of the space. You're walking and you're searching and you're guiding your way through these different voices, through this one voice but in many voices; a reference to NourbeSe Philip’s idea that like, the I is also many voices, that have many references within them. You guide yourself around the gallery space and dot around to different speakers to hear different things and so it’s this journeying to find knowledge, information, feeling, that’s a part of it. And I often draw the sound in a line and then put it to speakers and then feel it and see you know, it's a choreography, so it's part of the physical aspect as well.

Thank you so much. We wanted to ask about the process of the six channels, how you approached that process and how you approach it in your work generally. 

Sort of as I was just saying, although I'm the voice of this piece, out of my voice has many voices, you know, and especially, when a lot of information that I have gathered is from others, from conversation and from reading, I didn't want to present it as if it was just from me, you know, just this one voice. So this idea of sharing it across many speakers is a way of showing you that it's across many voices. 

And then the two drums, which are also a voice, I can reveal that the bass is made from my voice as well, this kind of the resonating that you're feeling is also from my voice, just on its lowest frequencies to channel in. And then that breath being the thing that moves the drums or another voice; the seeds all contain life, they all contain potential, they all contain futures and histories. And we all contain the futures and histories, you know. And therefore, the multichannel is a way of illustrating that, presenting that. How can I honour the place from which I draw, just to show that the place is multiple and it's nuanced, and there are many stories to be told in the story. Thank you, NourbeSe for teaching us how to attend to many voices at once and how to channel various voices into one work. It's a great thing to come to this piece from the piece I made working with Zong! which is also implicated in this story. I also enjoy and being able to shape the sound that way, because it's an experience that becomes a sonic space, rather than just the something that you listen to with your ears, it's all around you, it's above you, it's beneath you. You're being saturated in it.

Many years ago, at the beginning stages of this kind of ongoing project that's taken on many iterations, you spoke a lot about speakers (technology) as speakers (bodies) and it's been really wonderful to kind of trace that, alongside you, to have witnessed that take place. Over the last year, particularly for this project, this exploration of growing seems to be finding new shapes in your work. How do you feel your exploration of growing and horticulture, and the development of this project, might sit alongside your sound and sculpture practice moving forward?

Thank you. I have to say I'm really grateful for being able to journey, and for being able to make art. Not many people get to say something about the world that they live in like this and I hope more people get to, and I'm glad that you both are on the journey with me and allow me to do it. The great thing about this residency on the allotment was that there are so many voices that aren't just human [laughs] to attend to you know. There are many things speaking to us to draw from and to listen to. And their resonance is something that can be drawn into and saturates my work now. To, to listen to the bees, and to listen to the ground, you know, and I'm grateful that I've been able to bed down in that. For me, there weren't a lot of avenues to do that. I could, you know, go outside and record and stuff, but it was nice to be able to find the time to listen to the world, and to listen to the earth, the ground, the land, to learn to listen to the plant and the seed, and the root and the insect. And that you see the shape of, what often was understood as my speaker figures, you know, human, take form in the speaker seed, see the speaker root, the germinating speaker, the stem speaker. Because actually, they too, should be attended to, they too are speaking. This idea of the Whole has always been there, I think, even in our Alternative Grad Show conversations [in 2018]. I'm really interested in art being a part of life. And so it's nice that I've been able to connect to another part of living and be able to draw from that in the work. And to find also, another level to this, honestly, to the sonic and the musicality of the world, is great. It's great, and I'm definitely going to take all of that with me. So yeah, it's not just the human anymore, but we're all part of nature, you know. So now I can take a wider view on nature and the sound of it into the work and make sure I attend to that too.

In listening to that last response, that you've also been doing a lot of work around deep listening, it feels like this has allowed you to feel an important connection. There's been a real, attentiveness to your experience, maybe what you're talking about is a kind of deep listening. It's been such a huge part of your practice and that is so present in this show. After all, it's a listening space, as opposed to an exhibition per say. 

Thank you, for the avenue to open up that path of thought because yeah, over the last few years, I guess, mindfulness meditation and listening as a practice, has become important just in my own well being, as well as in my art. And art as a part of wellbeing is something I believe in the possibilities of. To attend to what I found in poetry was that there also is an attention to different parts of living. I did a series called Listening As A Whole, and brought in collaborators to help us listen with more than just our ears, you know. I thank Pauline Oliveros for their sonic meditations, that were a useful factor in thinking with this work as well. But especially I thank the three people I invited to work on the series. As they all drew out a different listening practice. Carole Wright, a wonderful person, creator of Blak Outside who took us on a sonic tour of their local area and made us listen to the ground around us in a place that is rapidly gentrifying where people don’t know a lot of the places around them much, in some way, this idea that we can listen to the people in our local area and our local history was a great thing to learn from. Elaine Mitchener who brought in the use of the wholeness of the body as a listening, or sounding out, practice, and how to use that in performativity and how to attend to, you know, like if you hear a bee buzz, what noise can you make yourself? A really inspiring practice. And, yeah, Evan Ifekoya who brought in the vibration, the frequency, the rattle, the sound bowl and sounds and listening used for healing and for opening up portals and gathering collectively.  I guess, that is also always a part of the thing, things that can be a collective experience and collective listening. 

And so I really thank you for the question because yeah, it's, it's part of the things, that form the knowledges, to make work like this. Again, it's the many, I'm really grateful for all the people that share with me, that help me share with others again, you know, take the learnings and the teachings and offer them to other people, but always in reverence. 

Thank you both. It's nice to be able to reflect. Yeah, it's really nice. It helps you ground in the work as well. I get to experience it again. And think about it and I often think about what I want people to feel when they leave and it's like we need to see the tree shake and remember it, and remember it speaking. Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity, both of you.

It's been an absolute pleasure to work with you, as always, to learn from you, to listen. Thank you.