Surroundings – a journey into the known


Ivan Riches is a disabled visual/ sonic artist, filmmaker, musician/ composer and writer. He talks to DAO about Surroundings – an innovative live installation project combining improvised music/ soundscapes with projected imagery, incorporating the voices of interviewees in England & Germany, talking about notions of self, family and community during times of social division, discord & financial hardship.

Layered image of a bus in a street

Image © Ivan Rcihes

‘Surroundings’ inadvertently touches on issues of migration and displacement but my creative focus is on talking to people about how they feel about where they live. My choice of locations to conduct the interviews is mostly based on personal connections. I chose Southwark because I was born in Camberwell and my first son was born in Peckham. I chose North Devon because two of my close friends were born and grew up there. And finally Munich is where I made friends working on a WW1 centenary arts project in 2016.

Choosing these specific places grounds the project in very real and tangible shared spaces between myself as an artist and the volunteers I am working with.

Since having an operation resulting in major physical changes in my life, I have had to reassess my surroundings and my approach to them. As a result the notion of ‘surroundings’ has become a major focal point.

This trail of thought has directed my line of questioning and development as an artist. I want to find out what other people feel about their surroundings and how they have adapted to change. This is highly prevalent at this moment in time, given the immanent great national level of change, reassessment and adaption we are facing. In terms of creative development, this is probably the most timely and relevant thing I have ever done.

My questions to interviewees are simple and are adjusted to suit each person. My approach has to be accessible, as I don’t want people to feel like they are subjects of observation to be ticked off and assessed from a questionnaire. I start by getting to know each person through conversation which, hopefully encourages them to express their feelings and experience; to talk about themselves, their families, the people around them, where they live and how their environment has changed and why they live there.

People’s feelings about their surroundings is such a loaded subject to discuss and share. Questioning myself about my surroundings, how they have changed and how people react to me makes me feel vulnerable, so what should I feel about asking others about their experience? As I conduct the interviews so many positive and negative concerns are coming to light, depending on their levels of fortune or privilege.

The interviews will be carefully woven as a voice only soundtrack – to play alongside a live improvised soundscape myself and other musicians will create. People’s voices, experience and feelings are the main focus of the artwork. Therefore the musicians will create a real-time atmospheric accompaniment. There will also be projected imagery that provides a visual context reflecting the voice-track.

Each thought and opinion has to be carefully edited into a flowing trail of many voices to give a shared view of peoples’ experience of where they live, how life is now and how it used to be – across 3 different localities. My first step is to work with the recordings of people in Southwark for the first live performance at the South London Art Gallery in April 2019. I will then add in the voices from the other 2 localities for the performance at the Plough Arts Centre in Torrington next June. The key is for me to be as open and as accepting of difference as I possibly can to be able to knit the voices of many people together. I want the edited voice-track to reflect a wide scope of experience.

I’m working with a number of other musicians including Dee Fry, Jo-anne Cox and Zachary De Santos. When it comes to the live performance only I will have prior insight into what is being said on the voice-track. This will be a wholly new experience for Dee, Jo-Anne and Zack. The idea is that the accompanying musicians will improvise, responding and interpreting the voice-track in the moment. I will be accompanying their reactions, which will be a total unknown for me. And each time we play through each single performance on the day our responses and how we accompany the voice-track will alter as time goes on.

The experience will be immersive: the audience will be surrounded by voices, projections and a live improvised atmospheric performance from the musicians. People may want to be around for a couple of cycles to be able to make sense of what is happening. The reactions of the audience is definitely going to have a direct effect on the musicians interpretation and performance. So it will depend very much on what each person perceives. Some people are more aural than visual; others more visually focused.

I am limited in walking and having to perform from a wheelchair makes performance difficult if a stage setting is involved. So I have dispensed with the need for a stage by performing from an open gallery space, which will give me a new, more accessible interaction with the audience.

For accessibility to this immersive experience, we (the musicians) will be at the centre of the space facing out, so that people can move around us and listen if they are hearing; or watch us and take in the projected imagery, if they can see.

This project is in research, so I don’t plan to provide an outcome that will cater for all access needs at this stage. My intention is to eventually find a bigger budget to tour this idea in other localities across the UK, taking in feedback from deaf or visually impaired audience members.

Ultimately, my aim is to make each performance accessible to as many people as I possibly can. As a disabled artist, being at the centre of the installation and performance will be more accessible for a more direct response from my audience. This will not only be a shared immersive experience for both myself and the audience but it will simultaneously greatly expand the creative journey for myself and all engaged.

Ivan Riches will be blogging on DAO about his Surroundings, research and development project as it unfolds with the first event at th South London Gallery on 24th April 2019