Delfina Foundation

Q&A - Emma Smith

Performance as Process UK Associate Emma Smith discusses her current research and the development of her performance practice

Emma Smith at the Delfina House.

In your previous projects you’ve worked with a wide range of practitioners across artistic and academic disciplines, how have you found they react to working with a sound artist?

For me, collaboration and working across disciplines has become something quite crucial. Today, knowledge has become so specialist and so refined that everybody is always working down a narrow channel of investigation, and so collaboration becomes quite necessary to have any kind of broader understanding and an ability to connect all of these specialisms together. This is why I'm always very interested in working across disciplines with academics, with other professionals or amateurs in different research areas to understand how shared interests but differing perspectives might be brought together. On this project I've been working with Jerome Lewis who's an anthropologist at UCL and Elsa De Luca who's a palaeographer at Bristol University. We share quite a lot of research methodologies and there's something quite interesting in the crossover between anthropology and art that makes for a very easy working relationship. I’m really looking forward to continuing and sharing our conversations at the Chorusing symposium on 11th June.

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Emma Smith, The Whistling Orchestra, Primary, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Julian Hughes.

How have you found your research and practice developing during your residency as part of Performance as Process?

I've been working here on a project called Chorusing which looks at the collective voice and how you might produce a score for that. In my time here as part of Performance As Process I've been investigating polyphony, the history of the chorus, and the possibility to transcribe or score for the elements of the voice that are not to do with language or meaning but to do with social communication, gesture and musicality. Working alongside the other artists on this residency has been really beneficial given there's a common interest among myself and several of the other artists in polyphony and the voice, particularly in Luisa Nobrega's work on the failures of language, it's been a really interesting process of sharing our ideas and research.

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Emma Smith, The Whistling Orchestra, Primary, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Julian Hughes.

Do you see much of a difference between the space of rehearsal and the space of live performance?

I actually use the word ‘rehearsal’ much more often than ‘performance’ in my practice because there's never a final ta-da moment, but rather a process of coming to a point where I think that the work, or the research questions that I'm working with as part of my practice, might benefit from sharing publicly. I wrote an article about this for Stephen Willats' Control magazine in 2014, where I was looking at rehearsal as being a space of testing as opposed to performance as the presentation of a conclusion. Anything that I share publically is always a process of testing to know what the next question is and where to go afterwards. In this sense the studio and the space of the performance, or whatever we might call this, whether this happens in the public realm or the gallery, is actually very proximate in how I work. I'm always very interested in thinking how do you use the gallery space as a laboratory, as a testing ground for trying out ideas.

You’ve been researching the power of voice for a number of years, what drove the desire to investigate this?

I'm particularly interested in the power of voice to connect us; how we produce bonds and social relationships through the voice that go beyond the ability to transmit information and meaning. I’m fascinated in looking at what it is within the voice, underneath and around words, that’s creating a sense of connectivity between us and I would argue this is music. This is exemplified in song; we can all sing at the same time whereas we can't all speak at the same time, and there's a lot of research around how working in synchrony with one another affects our social bonding. This is something I've been working on for some time with researchers such as Robin Dunbar, whose work looks at endorphin production and why this sense of social connectivity may be occurring.

I'm very interested in the evolution of the voice. There are various proposals that when we as a species first vocalised our use of voice was much more musical than today and there is also academic research that suggests that this musicality has fed through to the present day but as something we are not particularly observant of. It’s these subconscious elements of the voice that I’m interested in.

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Inscriptions of hymns to Apollo, written on the treasury wall at Delphi, composed by Athenaios & Limenios, carved in 128BCE. Photography courtesy of Emma Smith.

Your work always has a social element. Can you tell us how this relates to what you are working on at Delfina Foundation?

During my time at Delfina Foundation I’ve been looking at the history of the Greek chorus and its social functions before the professionalisation of acting. In the original formation of the chorus you have a combination of voice and movement together and this relation of voice and gesture as well transcription is something I’ve been exploring through conversation with various practitioners across the fields of movement and vocalisation as well as with academic researchers on gesture, polyphony and musical scores. This plays into my study of the possibility to score for the collective voice in a way where each singer has agency over the score and what emerges is a conversation. I want to find a way of scoring that capacitates improvisation and individual decisions but operates through inter-subjectivity so you have a collective whole but shaped by the individuals within it.