In conversation with Sarah Hartnett & Tom Wheatley
by Zoe Gouli
Zoe Gouli (ZG): Landscape is clearly an integral aspect of your process of creation, and your mentality when it comes to exhibiting your work as well as performing. How has the cultural and natural landscape of Great Yarmouth impacted you and the exhibition (Sarah) and your performances (both)?
Sarah Hartnett (SH): We’ve been discussing this recently: the most inspiring departure point for us was arriving in Great Yarmouth and walking through Markets Gate shopping centre which has a mediaeval wall intersecting it. It immediately represented an embedded nature of antiquity and modernity, layered on top of each other like uncomfortable bedfellows, so already we were accessing similar things to what Lucy and I encountered along our Mary Leyline Pilgrimage: The Mary Line intersects Didcot power station as well as ancient holy wells...I think this kind of layering, embedded-ness and conversation between two histories is a running theme, which reflected in our choice of the performers for NOX VOTO. Especially Richard Blake; he’s from the Norfolk area and his work on the dulcimer is a part of the landscape and the culture.
Tom Wheatley (TW:) Richard’s music is historically the epitomising music of that East Anglia, it goes back hundreds of years. It’s a kind of traditional music that, in a past time, existed as part ritual and ceremony, as part of life. It’s not entertainment. These songs developed to function in Norfolk society.
SH: ....and there’s a sense of humour to Great Yarmouth, which I was really taken with, and subsequently, the whole setup of the NOX VOTO night was designed to play with humour and the carnivalesque, which I’ve experienced as inherent to the culture of British seaside towns.
TW: Bradley and the Jube aren’t just stuck out of time, there's a self-awareness about how strange it is. The way he talks as well, he’s always playing with a layer of seriousness. You never really quite know where you stand with the whole reality of it.
ZG: How did it feel for both of you to complete the performance aspect of this project in another seaside town, as the pilgrimage started in one (Cornwall)? Did that aspect of the landscape change your performance at all?
SH: Yeah, certainly. There was a feeling of dark humour, innuendo and a sensorial excess that followed us along the ley line. Cornwall is wild and brooding and has its own esoteric history and mythology that's become a little too enchanted: the violence of the landscape had been forgotten for a fantastical, enchanted version of its cultural history, whereas I think you can't really do that in Great Yarmouth, it just kind of hits you: the industry, the failed industry, and the new industry, the various communities popping up around commerce and trade. Both Cornwall and Great Yarmouth have a riotous feel though; the circus in Great Yarmouth and La Frowda or May day processions in Cornwall, for instance, inspired the urge to ramp up the night (NOX VOTO), and follow a ‘crescendo’ format. We imagined the drive of the night to be a very clear rising diagonal line from start to finish, starting off rather delicately and finishing in ecstasy.....which I suppose you could say correlates with the Michael line: the logical progression and rationality of the Michael Line, intermingling with the circuitous Mary Line offering a more playful, intuitive and fluid source of energy. With the curation of the night, we tried to stage a conversation or a battle between both of these ‘energies’, and explore the problematics inherent within this gendered schematic alignment. The exploration of the divine feminine and masculine that Lucy and I have been generating work from and exploring were present in the spirit of NOX VOTO, in mine and Tom’s relationship to one another and within the performances.
ZG: Speaking of which, I’d like to talk about the role of music. Obviously, Nox Voto was all about music, but I wondered if it played as important of a role as it did on that evening during your pilgrimage. Did you listen to a lot of music, did you create music along the way, did you think about music or was it kind of slightly separate to NOX VOTO?
SH: Music has always been very integral to the journey, especially for me, because our pilgrimage is so much about getting other people involved in its interdisciplinarity and music is a great way to draw people in. The first exhibition that Lucy and I put on together was in a church in London, in a crypt. I set up my decks and played some music afterwards. There were quite a few iterations of this format, like the an exhibition called ‘The Game’ in Cornwall which was with Zoe Williams. It ended being a big party: One night of carnival where you can just let it all go and let it all out. That's our ethos I suppose; to get really honest and really personal after we’ve installed the work. NOX VOTO was the first time we put on any live acts, and that’s down to the amazing support we’ve received from originalprojects;....and Tom’s music knowledge!
TW: We focused on how to tie everything together, so you can get from Richard Blake’s dulcimer to Sou Varine’s house set in steps that make sense. It was an honour to put Simon Finn on, I think his music is so beautiful and interesting on its inside and outside. It's very rich inside, almost cluttered, which is rare for something like that. Music in that vein is usually a plain vessel for some kind of idea of a song.
ZG: I wanted to ask specifically about some of the artists that night as well; especially with Simon Finn and Joolie Wood and also with the live performance by Rosie Mullen; there was a really interesting contrast between a mediaeval, dark theme and these sharp, modern, bright notes that were hit by the DJ sets. Was that a conscious choice that you made? I wondered if you had any more thoughts about that kind of that combination and that contrast.
TW: Yeah it's definitely a very deliberate way of putting it together. It encaptured a wide range of what a celebratory theme could be. It was like a children’s birthday party.
SH: We definitely left some areas up to chance as well. I asked the artists the jist of what they were doing, and then interweaved them into the night and left it up to them. It created a very interesting synergy I think, because it made people stop and be present and sit with things (whilst the artists performed - pieces such as Rosie Mullan’s were very meditative). In a nightclub environment it perhaps touches on and promotes trance-like, or dream-like states.
ZG: Speaking of going into kind of dreamlike state; Lucy discussed how that would happen occasionally on your pilgrimage. How did the two states compare? Also, specifically for Tom; I wondered if being there physically with quite a large musical instrument aided in that dream-like state or if it grounded you in a sense?
SH: It's a very serene dream-like state that Lucy and I get into on the Ley Line; even if we're hungover or unwell. NOX VOTO represented the more frenetic side of our journey and embodied a different kind of psychic wandering through the darkness and emerging into the light of the next morning.
TW: In terms of the bass, it’s mixed. The sounds that I use on the acoustic instrument for that project are complex but they're used in a very primitive way; hammering away, in a pre-musical sense. There's a lot of repetition and cycling patterns but because of how complicated the sounds are I needed to be totally focused to make it work, so it is trance-like. You just have to carry on with perfect concentration, all the time maintaining extreme physical work. As with all improvisation, when you’re in that space and things move so fast, you’re not thinking about everything that you’re doing, but you are just steering this thing along. You see these destinations or markings, that will get you where you need to go. You half control it, the rest is subconscious, or instinctive reaction, or something else.
ZG: Another question I had centres around collaboration. Lucy spoke with so much love about the collaborative process between her and Sarah, and I know that it was really important to her that you embarked on that together. I wondered if you had anything to add to that, also if you'd like to talk about what it was like curating this night between the two as well.
SH: I was very touched by what Lucy said about our collaborative process. I find it to be such a nurturing, natural relationship and atmosphere and it kind of rubs off on other people who work with us as well. There’s a real sense of camaraderie.
TW: From when we first met, I think we immediately knew that we would work together, in our artistic lives as well as our domestic lives, if there is a distinction. Our project Vesta Payne is releasing ‘mlybdmncy’ on Flora Yin Wong’s new label Doyenne Books in the next month, which is our first public output together. We have very different histories, but they intertwine in interesting ways. It opens up a space between us, and the people of NOX VOTO are who are in it.
SH: Yes....and to touch more on my relationship with Lucy: I've always been aware of her pulling together group shows and happenings. She messaged and asked me to be a part of a show. I used to run a nightclub, I always wanted to bring people together, essentially. I just thought, everyone’s so brilliant, I want them all here together all the time! That notion of excess, again... It was the same with Lucy I think. We recognised in each other from the get-go a struggle with a very strong sense of Thanatos or a 'death drive'. That was bonding, and meant we had a chance to support one another through challenging life events via our collaborative practice and friendship, whether that be births, deaths, grief, insecurity, hormones, hangovers....all of which are extremely strong life-altering and intoxicating forces....we suddenly didn't have to go it alone. Avoiding extremes is hard, especially when we have to create our own sacred framework, driving ourselves to addictions where we'd once have found communion perhaps. Working in collaboration with Lucy feels stabilising in this respect. It exteriorises our friendship into these group happenings and shows or onto painted tiles in her studio, which is a very meditative, private act. It’s a no-brainer for me to then start working with Tom. This sort of synergy starts happening between all the work. There are these threads that you pull on and then all of a sudden things make sense and it unravels in front of you into a chaotic, interconnected heap.
TW: It’s just a part of life for us. We don’t have strict lines between things, it’s impossible.