Some of you may recall that back in 2012 I was working on a soundtrack for a film, and that earlier this year I announced that the film was now available to buy as part of a BFI release entitled Your Children & You? On Wednesday this week, I had a brilliant morning presenting some of the concepts behind the work I did on this project to staff who work at the Wellcome Library. This was a fantastic opportunity to revisit the collaboration, and since the embargo on the synchronised film has now been lifted, you can all see the film for yourselves on the Wellcome Library’s YouTube channel. I would be really interested in hearing what you think of the treatment I gave to the soundtrack, and have reproduced my presentation here to give you context. Get tea and enjoy.
I’m Felicity Ford, I’m a practicing artist and academic, and I’m based in the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University. In my practice, I mostly work with everyday sounds, and particularly on projects which relate to domestic space and the sounds of the home. I am interested in all the information, memory, texture and references that can be found in everyday sounds.
In tandem with my sonic focus, I have a feminist interest in the history of women and especially the history of women’s work and labour. One reason for focusing on domestic space is that the home and the related contexts of food, clothing, child-rearing and shelter have traditionally been the domain of women.
What happens when we bring very everyday and traditionally undervalued work to the fore..? What happens when we amplify and listen to it?
In 2010, The British Library began a project called “The UK Sound Map“, a participatory project in which the general public was invited to upload sound recordings to a special map. The project was designed to preserve an impression of the soundscape of now for posterity, so that future listeners can get a sense of the sonic texture of life in Britain in 2010. In contributing sounds to this project, I thought it was important that some of the everyday labour that keeps the country going be included, and so I uploaded recordings of washing up; loading the dishwasher; doing the laundry and this sound… cleaning the toilet.
There were a lot of different contributors to the UK Soundmap – a few hundred individuals I think, and about 2,500 sound recordings in total submitted from all over the UK – but domestic sounds (which we spend a huge majority of our life immersed in) are surprisingly under-represented. However I thought that a future listener should be able to hear some of the ordinary details of life now, including what it sounds like to clean a toilet. To me the sounds are really descriptive… you can hear the bristles, the ceramic surfaces involved… and there’s a lot of information in the sound recording which couldn’t be present in a photograph… also, I don’t think I would want to put a photo of my toilet online, but I don’t care about sharing the sound!!!
I do work with images, though. In 2012 I worked on a project called Sonic Wallpapers, which was about exploring historic wallpapers through the unlikely medium of sound.
Sonic Wallpapers was commissioned by the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, part of Middlesex University, and the focus was on producing sound pieces exploring their historic wallpapers. I was interested in hearing the spaces where the wallpaper had originally hung, or might possibly hang in the future, and wanted to use sound to draw on the memories and imaginative DIY fantasies of the public.
I shortlisted wallpapers which I thought would stimulate a certain type of conversation; then I recruited people who would let me record them talking about these wallpapers; then I made field-recordings based on what people talked about in these interviews. Finally, I mixed the field recordings with the interviews. My idea was that instead of picturing where you could imagine a design going, you could actually hear an impression of that space…
BADDA 4384, image © MoDA Museum and used with kind permission
This is my favourite wallpaper in Sonic Wallpapers because if you were curating a visual arts exhibition, it would never feature; it’s so banal… But I knew that if I showed it to people, it would provide a stimulus for talking about very ordinary places; and very everyday memories. I thought that wallpapers like this would prompt the most interesting and important conversations about the politics and functions of domestic space…
I also do a lot of work around knitting – also historically associated with women’s work and domestic space – and recently was in Shetland for Shetland Wool Week, where I presented “Listening to Shetland Wool”. This was a talk I gave, about how listening and sound recordings have helped me to understand Shetland’s textile history. One of the things I did as part of that project, was to make recordings inspired by this kind of image:
Image © Shetland Museum & Archives and used with kind permission
If you have ever come across any tourist brochures or historic writings on Shetland, you may well have seen an image of a woman carrying a peat kreel and knitting at the same time…? I went in search of oral histories from Shetland to hear Shetlanders describing this image in their own words, and when I travelled to Shetland in August, I found someone who would show me how peat is cut out of the ground. I spent an afternoon carrying peat to the car and listening to the sounds of that labour; I wanted to hear this historic photo which I had seen so often. Like the toilet cleaning recording, this recording I think has a lot of texture in it; you can hear the graft, the labour, the work; to my ears, the sound recordings give reality and presence to the romanticised image.
All that hopefully gives context regarding the work I’ve done here with Angela and the Wellcome Library, and explains why I was very excited when Angela got in touch with me, and said she had a film about bathing and dressing a small baby from the 1930s, which she needed a soundtrack for: Bathing & Dressing.
Bathing & Dressing was produced in the 1930s as a propaganda film when many Londoners lived in squalid conditions, with limited access to clean water and other basic tenets of hygiene. A socialist contingent of visionary health-workers were striving to improve this situation, and one thing they did, was create loads of instruction films to be shown in public spaces, to teach people ways of doing things to prevent the spread of disease. Films like Bathing and Dressing were shown outdoors in public places, projected onto the back of a van as part of a campaign to improve health in the inner city.
I was really inspired by this provenance of this film, and in my work with sounds, I wanted to celebrate the original makers and the contexts where it was made and shown.
The first thing that leapt out to me from the footage was the material world in which the film was shot. Thin glass windows; no carpets; obviously an urban setting; and also the thin enamel basins pointing to a lack of modern plumbing… I wanted to give materiality and presence to the environment in which the film was shot; like with the photo of the woman carrying peat, I wanted to “hear” the image… so I located an appropriate building and recorded the sounds of opening and closing its glass windows, and of buses going past and shaking the glass… because that is not a sound you can hear in modern buildings with double glazing!
I also recorded the sounds of water as it sounds poured between enamel jugs and basins, because – as with the toilet cleaning or the peat cutting – the tones and textures are so descriptive of the material objects involved: This is what it sounds like to organise a bath when you have no plumbing.
Similarly, I felt that we should be able to hear the voice of a baby in the film, and so I went on Facebook and said “has anyone got a baby I can record?” until I found two sympathetic mums to work with on this project. One of the best things about this whole project is that one of the mums said to me after we had sat quietly together with her very young daughter for a few moments, recording, “you know, I’ve never really sat and listened to her sounds before… and in no time at all, these sounds will be gone” so I think she enjoyed that the project made for a special kind of listening time with her little baby, and for me it was great, because there is just no sound effect in the world that can so immediately describe a baby like a baby’s voice and breathing do.
I did a lot of research in the British Library in the course of thinking about this film, and I listened to oral histories from women who would have been midwives in the 1930s. I wanted to hear them speaking in their own words about the texture of their lives and work. I was struck by the qualities in these oral histories of life experience, common sense, and pragmatism. I wanted to introduce those qualities into the film as sound, and was sort of reminded of listening to my mum and her friends chatting about having kids, and the wise and funny and banal texture of those chats. The original film is very directive and commands what you should do in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable now in a government awareness campaign. So giving a voice to mums being told what to do – the opportunity to respond, if you like, to this authority – was also a strategy for negotiating the 80 year gap in audience sensibilities between now and when the film was shot. I found some mums who were happy to speak frankly about their experiences and to respond openly to the film. Because the film was made to be shown in public, I felt the soundtrack should create the sense of watching it with other people, but also have enough space in it that you can hear the material world where it was filmed… so I recorded mums watching and responding to the film.
Finally, I listened to a lot of piano music and home recordings of piano music from the 1930s while thinking about this project; I wanted to echo the home recording activities of when the film was set, and to find some way to make the shiny new digital soundtrack of now blend with the old footage with its slightly worn and grainy appearance. To do this, I recorded myself playing on an old domestic piano, and then I digitally treated the sounds, so that they resembled all of the shellac discs I had listened to in the British Library.
Having taken all of these different elements of the soundtrack and treated each one as a sort of layer of information, I then mixed all the sounds together and set them with the footage.
My idea for this project was that each layer of the soundtrack is almost a text, and that all the sounds are in their different ways layers of information. I didn’t want to make a Cath Kidston type of film, sentimentalising the past, but rather to use sound to try and draw out some of the environmental details hinted at in the footage. I wanted to make audible the exciting chapter of history that this film evidences and – most importantly – to amplify the labour of the people who worked so hard in the days before the NHS to improve public healthcare. I wanted to portray the texture of their work and to bring it to contemporary audiences; I hope that is what I have managed to do.
Special thanks to Ian Rawes of the British Library for helping me to access loads of resources that were immensely informative while I was working on this project; to Angela Sayward of The Wellcome Library who has been an amazing supporter of the project from the start; and to Helen Frosi from SoundFjord for putting my name forward to the Wellcome Library as someone who might address the domestic and feminist themes running through this archival footage.