Töne was an international festival of sonic and visual arts that took place at sites of historic and contemporary importance along the Medway river at Chatham in Kent, England from 9th to 22nd June 2014. These included The Historic Dockyard, Gun Wharf, Sun Pier, Amherst Fort and the lightship LV21. The festival received major awards from the University of Kent and Arts Council England: South East, with additional support from Medway and Kent Councils.
I developed the festival over a two year period, in collaboration with Claudia Molitor. We commissioned artists to engage with the maritime context of Chatham and the Medway area, in terms of the physical and social reality of the place, or specific aspects of its past, including its military history. The theme of the event – A Meeting of Sound and Light – highlighted the focus on visual and sonic arts. The curation emphasised practices that navigate spaces, sites and their histories by peeling back the layers of time and space, considering overlooked and subtle phenomena, exploring potential new alignments, and creating powerful resonances. The resulting programming involved twenty artists from countries around Europe, Japan and Australia, who presented works ranging from sculpture, installation and performance, to sound compositions, dance, radio and food art.
The festival was conceived as a journey, with works woven throughout the town, in gallery and public spaces. The distinct architecture, aesthetics and atmosphere of the sites and artworks combined to offer new impressions and recollections of place according to the audience’s navigation of timed and durational events. A festival pre-programme involved participants in a series of workshops, masterclasses and talks, linked into local arts and education activities, as well as a mentorship programme supporting regional arts organisations.
The festival was staged in the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of World War One and took place across the Summer Solstice – Midsummer. The timing of the event was designed to accentuate the focus on the natural and cultural forces at play in shaping the area, marking both a moment in the timeline of history and the cycle of the seasons.
For the ambulatory performance work Too Prolix: A Tour Out of Time a group of performers took the audience around a series of key sites on the Historic Dockyard, including the Ropery walkway. As they moved, they enacted episodes from a script devised from artist Steve Klee’s research at the National Archives in London. This drew on letters, reports and newspaper articles representing the struggle historically for workers’ rights and gender equality at the Dockyard, a story that was suppressed at the time and which does not feature in the view of heritage as it is presented at the Dockyard now. The work investigated the construct of history, as a drama that shifts depending on whose viewpoint is accentuated, an encoding. This proposition that was accentuated by the actors’ use of a gestural performance style dating from eighteenth century theatre. The rhetorical flourish of the performers combined with the rawness of the dialogue maintained a sense of the unresolved. The work was accompanied by an exhibition at POP, including portraits of the actors’ gestures and original archival materials.
Leaving the Dockyard by a side-door opening in the high wall that surrounds the space, the audience found themselves on Gun Wharf, greeted by Allan Giddy’s solar-powered sound work England Expects, a collaboration with musician Alison Blunt. With the rise and fall or the river, fishing lines that Giddy had set in the water directed compositions that interspersed sampled sound recordings from the area, fragments of composition, and excerpts from the fishing forecast.
Walking along the wharf, Kathy Hinde’s wind-sensitive sound installation, Twittering Machines responded to both the military context of the dock and the river as a space for migrating birds. Part two of Hinde’s sound installation, presented in Fort Amherst, found audiences exploring the labyrinth of stone chambers in the fort, met by a series of automated music boxes, record players and kinetic sculptures. In variations on a theme, these works performed and translated an ensemble of sounds drawn from morse code signals, birdcalls, military machines and penny whistles.
Outside, in the Fort’s Memorial Garden, Ben Fitton and Dylan Shipton’s large sculptural work GUNSGOOFFTHEMSELVES was installed amidst military memorabilia including canons and an aircraft searchlight. The sculpture took the form of a rotunda, that appeared to be exploding outwards, made of sections of wood resembling building site hoardings, from which the artists had cut out word forms. Playing on the relationship between abstraction and documentary, this text was an extract taken from one of Lenin’s notebooks, written immediately prior to the outbreak of World War One; a reconstructed diary, deconstructed monument
A large-scale, solar-powered light sculpture installed on Sun Pier by Australian artist James Geurts created a landmark, visible from the hilltop Fort and the length of the maritime walkway at the bend on the Medway river on which Chatham stands. Entitled Magnetic Eclipse the work referenced the importance of astronomical bodies in maritime navigation and was set at 23 degrees, echoing the tilt of the Earth’s axis. Sun Pier House gallery overlooking the Pier, presented Geurts’ Drawing In-Drawing Out: River Medway, a giant durational tidal drawing produced during his residency on the Dockyard. Next to these, a photographic and a sculptural work featured an 18th century telescope and sextant, discovered during Geurts’ research at Chatham Historical Society.
Adjacent to the exhibition space, Joanna Baillie had created a walk-in camera obscura space looking out over the river, while next door a radio art project by BBC broadcaster Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Peter Meanwell hosted interviews and presented recordings from the festival sites and audiences.
Leaving Sun Pier House, heading up to the main street running parallel to the riverside, POP gallery hosted a programme of works including Tomoko Sauvage’s installation Ringing Dew Drops Beneath the Waves. The installation of sound, ice and gold sheeting hosted durational performances by Sauvage, in which she played water-filled and amplified objects. These mixed with her soundtrack of underwater sound samples taken with hydrophone microphones at a Soviet submarine from the Cold War era, now moored at Strood.
Also at POP, Amie Rai’s three-part installation The Library, The Page, The Conversation, reimagined and reworked the forms of a series of books. This sculptural treatment of the volumes reconfigured the historical and poetic narratives of the works, including Time Machine and The Return of the Soldier. In the gallery next door, Harriet Gifford’s video installation One Hundred Years of War critiqued the ceremonial remembrance of War, questioning who is remembered, who is forgotten or unmarked, and why.
Circling around the town to the other side of the Dockyard, audiences found themselves at LV21, the last lightship built in the UK, now docked at Gillingham Pier. The ship was home to a sound installation by Swedish choreographer Anna Koch and composer Mats Lindström. During a residency, the artists worked with the powerful sounds produced by machinery on board the vessel, including the mechanism that drives the lighthouse lantern. The sound work also incorporated samples of the interaction between the ship’s architecture and the strong tides that characterise the Medway.
Walking back along the section of river from Gillingham to Chatham, returning to the Dockyard, the voluminous architecture of the Covered Courtyard hosted a diverse programme including Jennifer Walshe’s voice performance All the Many Peopls and Frode Haltli’s solo accordion works. Joseph Kohlmaier directed new works for the Musarc choir composed by Jan Hendrickse and Duncan MacLeod. The research of the Musarc group explores the interaction of architecture and sound, a theme echoed in Morgan O’Hara’s Live Transmissions. This consisted of a series of drawings created by O’Hara, simultaneous with the individual sound works, which were projected as large-scale, living lines, become temporarily part of the building’s fabric.
The Dockyard’s impressive architecture – and the latent histories and potential that it embodies, alongside the official narratives of place that structure the museum experience – was brought into play by a number of other artists. In the Engineering Workshop Tim Meacham’s Vibrissa consisted of compact, kinetic, sound machines that probed and performed the dimensions of the space, bringing to mind the big machinery that has fallen silent in the post-industrial era of the Dockyard’s life. In another section of the space, later in the evening BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction presenter Max Reindhart transformed the workshop into dancehall with a set of experimental and world music.
In the Galvanising Studio, a series of four twenty minute performances, entitled Etudes, consisted of experimental responses to the piano. For the latest installment of Inside Out Piano, Sarah Nicolls dramatically transformed the instrument into a rotating sculpture, played and handling the work as it moved through its 360 degree range. Elisabeth Schilling and William ‘Bilwa’ Costa worked together to produce a sound and dance work intricately structured around a set of piano strings stretched out across the space. In the final Etude, John Tilbury worked with a grand piano, creating a composition involving every aspect of its form, accompanied by a Live Transmission drawing performance by O’Hara.
The Galvanising Studio also played host to the festival symposium Silencing and Manifesting: The History of the Present an event which sought to explore the ideas and impressions generated by art works and discuss the process of researching and producing the event. The symposium also offered a forum for members of the local community to share their perspectives and thoughts alongside guests and artists from the programme.
Outdoors again, in the Dockyard grounds, Dan Ayling choreographed a Cello Promenade featuring solo performances by cellists Rohan de Saram, Oliver Coates and Lucy Railton at a trio of locations across the Dockyard. Descending into the underground architecture of the Dockyard, Julie Louise Bacon presented the fifth installment in her Warpoem series in the confines of an air-raid shelter. A slide projector created light in the form of morse-code forms, spelling coded messages from the Dockyard released following WWII. Her feet tethered to numerous pairs of vintage shoes, the artist moved back and forwards along the length of the shelter, responding to the sounds produced by the soles on the concrete and the Morse Code signals looped on air-raid shelter’s speakers.
Emerging from the shelter, into the Midsummer sun, audiences were invited to the tennis lawn at the heart of the Dockyard to sample the wares of part two of Helen Sharp’s Conviviality Commission Lostlands. Following Sharp’s evening screening event the day before, she offered a specially conceptualised menu of maritime cocktails and seasonal food, using unusual ingredients including amber gris. Audiences took up a seat on the lawn around a giant sculptural work in the shape of an anchor running through a heart created by Simon Carman. To the sound of Carman and Sharp’s DJ sets wafting from the wooden umpire box the programme came slowly to a close in the late afternoon sun.