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Sri Lanka Residency - Week 5

On Monday 13 March, we began structuring the finale event that will take place on the 24th of the month. Each day of this week has been spent designing and programming the solo and collaborative work that we’ve been working on during this residency.

Part of this process involved a return trip to the recently-built paper factory on the outskirts of Hikkaduwa. Like so many products in Sri Lanka, the paper here is entirely hand-made. There are shelves stacked with paper made from water hyacinth, banana leaf, the rapidly-growing and invasive salvinia, and even elephant shit. Some of these ingredients make up 100% of each sheet, while others are combined with discarded scraps of paper that is delivered daily to the factory. As well as different sizes of sheets, there are books, bookmarks, boxes, cards, and other beautifully-crafted stationery.

paper factory

Some of our purchases will be used to make programmes and floor plans for the finale event.

In addition to the collaborative processes, I’ve been finalising my solo installation. All the necessary recordings have been made, and the hotel’s PA system has been tested out. Meanwhile, a stack of radios are currently taking up residence in my room.

A Brief History of Radio in Sri Lanka and Degrees of Separation

One can trace elements of appropriation and re-appropriation from the earliest days of radio’s life in Sri Lanka. The first broadcast was made in 1923 using parts of radio equipment acquired from a captured German submarine. By 1924, regular broadcasting had begun in the capital of Colombo. ‘Radio Colombo’ ran from 1925 up until World War II when it was taken over by the British military. It was renamed ‘Radio SEAC [South East Asia Command]’. Programs were broadcast across Asia to the allied forces and to listeners in India and South Asia. Following the war, the station was handed back to the government of Ceylon, who later renamed it ‘Radio Ceylon’. Retaining its broadcast range to parts of Asia, the station became extremely popular. ‘Radio Ceylon’ became a public corporation in 1967 and was renamed ‘Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation’. When the country became a republic in 1972, the organisation acquired its current title: the ‘Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC)’.

The station is the oldest in Asia and the second oldest in the world.

Tuning through my radio – one of the three I’ve purchased since arriving in Sri Lanka – there are some curious gems to be found amongst the insufferable adverts and very earnest pop music. I’m currently listening to what sounds like a Sri Lankan score to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, sung by Betty Boop. It’s really quite charming.

For my installation, I’m using 5 radios. Each radio has a USB port that lets me play pre-recorded audio. The corridor of Sunbeach Hotel will be lined with these radios – each one playing a different sound file, but combining to create a single experience which incorporates brief snippets of radio stations, field recordings taken during my time in Sri Lanka, and spoken word by the artists in residence and one of the Sunbeach staff. Emerging from the beach-end of the corridor, there can be heard an ambient score built around the recordings I made of the fishermen at Hikkaduwa Harbour. The installation is named Degrees of Separation.

The finale Sura Medura event is titled Moving Beyond and features performances, installations, presentations, artist conversations, a banquet, a mass participation photo, an after-show party, and me being covered in treacle (more on that later). The event has managed to gain some great media coverage:

19 March 2017

As we enter the final week of our residency, the reality of its end is becoming increasingly felt, not so much in the logistics involved in making the event a success (which is, of course, an important part), but in our parting of ways afterwards; the moments when we have to say goodbye to each other.

On Saturday afternoon, I felt compelled to return to the harbour where I’d recorded the fishermen singing on my first week in Sri Lanka. It was nice to be back. Despite the blazing sun, it almost felt like I’d arrived in the middle of the night – it was incredibly quieter at 3 in the afternoon than at 6 in the morning. A couple of fishermen were asleep on the concrete floor of a kind of storage space while the boats were all resting on the shore. There was a general sense of slumber that was quite peaceful to wander through. As I passed between the boats, a couple of fisherman walked past carrying boxes of fish on their shoulders. They smiled and said “hello” enthusiastically. I was essentially wandering through their workplace, and it’s probably a small thing, but there was something very touching about how they, and several others that I passed, seemed to make a point of making me feel welcome.

In our first week in Sri Lanka, Neil explained the three different levels of prices that exist when making the average trade in Sri Lanka: “local” – where native citizens get the best deal; “uninformed white man” – i.e. the tourist, who can, essentially, be fleeced, and; “informed white man” – the non-native who understands the local economy and will get better deals, but will never reach the status of “local”. Our group definitely falls into the latter category, but we’re perhaps part of something else: the “tourist-artist” as Lewis has coined it – or perhaps the “creative flâneur” is a more accurate term. We are, after all, observers here – and the work that we produce is a response to those observations. We immerse ourselves in the culture, but with a largely artistic end goal in mind. I think that we’ve each found ourselves at times feeling a detachment from other tourists and observe them with a curiosity or wonder that we also have in response to locals or local occurrences. It’s a strange kind of paradox – to feel divorced from other tourists but to then remember that we’re not natives either. In my final week, when the residency has ended and the others have returned to the UK, I wonder what I’ll be then. I imagine that, like the long-distance runner, I’ll be unable to stop completely, and that I won’t switch to “tourist” automatically – or at all. As it happens, I have music to write before leaving Sri Lanka – music that will be performed in Scotland under the WHɎTE moniker, and there’s something very pleasing about the thought of creating something here that I will carry with me there.

Sunday was a day of some very intense sensory experiences for me. As part of the finale event, we had devised a kind of performance where I would be coated in treacle, rolled in the sand and then dumped in the sea. This probably requires some explanation… Breakfast times have become a kind of fun war where we do battle over condiments. Mary stealthily consumes all the jam while Lewis and I battle over the sharing of buffalo curd and treacle. I am particularly passionate about the treacle. It is pure nectar. As mentioned in my last blog post, we have developed a pack mentality; a fierce closeness akin to family, complete with in-jokes, bickering, and the finishing of each other’s sentences (and breakfasts). It made sense for us to import those elements into our collaborative performance – thus, the public treacling.

Stripped to my trunks, the treacle was poured over my head and my first thought was how pleasant the sensation (including smell) was. The entire bottle was emptied as the others smeared it over me. This was followed by being covered in sand, which was thrown at me from four different directions. As I was rotated with my eyes now firmly sealed shut with treacle and sand, I began to feel increasingly claustrophobic and disoriented. Having lost all sense of direction, I was held aloft by the other four and carried towards the sea. By now I was feeling on the verge of total panic and it was only the reassuring voices of the group that stopped me from freaking out. Finally, I was lowered and then led into the sea where I washed off the gunk, which was an overwhelmingly wonderful feeling. All in all, I would highly recommend public treacling to everyone!

After dinner, Zoe, Lewis, and I took a walk into the jungle which was alive with the sounds of crickets and the smells of strange flowers. Always in the distance is the hum of traffic from Galle Road – it seems inescapable at times, but I think I’ve come to find it strangely reassuring, knowing it’s there.

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