This year, Sotheby’s Institute of Art commissioned their first ever contemporary artwork, Hope as an Act of Resistance – a sonic monument by Katriona Beales. Curated by MA students working with art world experts, it premiered at the V&A Museum in September. In an exclusive interview, Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield sat down with Katriona Beales to discuss the exhibition and the intention behind the artwork.
Katriona Beales, interview by Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield
It was my pleasure to work with Beales as curator of her 2017 exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery Are We All Addicts Now? Working with what she described as her own ‘disordered relationship with online environments’, she experimented with materials like hot glass and technologies like eye-tracking software to create a series of stunning, immersive installations. Her intimate reflection on our relationship with mobile devices incorporated scientific research about the hazardous normalization of designed-in addiction to social media – an important topic that was, at that time, still relatively unexplored. She has since made works such as Unintended Consequences, a collaboration in 2018 with AI pioneer William Turnstall-Pedoe, for the V&A, and a deeply personal work, Solace from the Wasteland I, ruminating on the loss of a family member from Covid, created for the IMPAKT Festival in 2021. With this new work, Beales continues her exploration of the personal and social repercussions of developments in science and technology – this time centering participants’ own voices.
On the day I visited the exhibition, fractious feuds about all aspects of the omni-crises threw dark shadows across social media, but it was still a beautiful sunny September morning.
The entrance to the exhibition was hung with banners of gold and purple scenes of nebulae. There I was invited to write my hopes on a postcard provided. I purposefully headed inside and went straight to the recording booth whose curved wooden structure shielded me from public gaze like a confessional box, and there I whispered my heartfelt hope into the mic. All the while other whispers scintillated in the air around me.
This artwork functions something like a public prayer booth and produced a near-religious experience in me by making room for public compassion. It also prompted me to wonder about art's potential to reveal how social media systems act on our collective fortunes, and how it might be otherwise.
Ruth: This is the first ever artistic commission by Sotheby’s Institute of Art. How did it come about?
Katriona: Curator/Producer Hannah Redler-Hawes worked with Sotheby’s Institute of Art MA students to develop the Reimagining the Monument brief. I was shortlisted for the commission and then invited to develop a proposal. The fee for this enabled me to properly research the technical aspects and to be ambitious in my approach to the work. After an interview with a panel of Sotheby’s Institute staff and student curators, my work was selected. The brief felt so timely in the context of the public pulling down of monuments, the need to decolonize our civic spaces, and the critical debates about what and who should be memorialized. The selection process was rigorous and helped in the development of the work.
Ruth: Where does the work come from? Why did it need to be made now?
Katriona: Materially, the work came out of a series of earlier moving image works, like Solace from the Wasteland, that have experimented with a whispered soundtrack. In my long-term research into digitally mediated affective experiences, I have discovered that whispering sets up so many interesting spatial dynamics – it's about closeness, proximity, and being heard, but only within a certain sphere. Whispering activates a leaning in and creates intimacy even when it is mediated through digital devices. I also wanted to combine this with the experience of a sound bath – of resting in sound and having a kind of spiritual experience. I’ve only explored this before as part of moving image works, and I wanted to use this commission to really focus on sound – hence the sonic monument.
Ruth: As I said in my introduction, the installation evoked very powerful responses in me and the other people who I saw enter the work. I saw this happening in three moments – when they were invited to write what they hoped for on a card, when they recorded their whispered message, and finally when they lay on the large cushions and listened for their own message in an ocean of other’s whispers. Why is it important to you that your piece should provide a space for collective expression and feeling?
Katriona: The idea of collectivity is fundamentally important to me. One of the reasons I want to make artwork is that I’m interested in the discursive space around a work of art. This is the site of meaning making – in the internal and external conversations that happen between the artwork, audience, and each other. Here the meaning of the work is informed as much by the audience as it is by the artist. In this sense, all artworks are collectively authored. Communities need common spaces and structures to form and function, build new ways of being together, and to create positive change in the world around us. In many ways I want to move beyond language into affective and sensory territories, and I hope the sonic monument demonstrates that.
Ruth: How is this work a monument? What does it commemorate?
Katriona: The Reimagining the Monument brief was an interesting one to respond to. Monuments made out of anything fixed seem very dated. Monuments often commemorate violence in some form or another and are often dedicated to special individuals who enacted violence. I reject that whole view of history as fixed acts of individuals. The brief posed the opportunity to completely reinvent the meaning of the monument. I wanted to make something that reflected the types of monuments I want to be part of – things that are collectively authored, fluid, and mutate over time, but are also soft, gentle, and hold people. The idea itself came very quickly and was almost fully formed – a sonic monument made out of whispers. I was so pleased that the actual experience of hundreds of whispers turned out the way it did. Fundamentally, I made Hope as an Act of Resistance as a manifesto for myself to keep going. I’ve felt very overwhelmed at points with some of the complex and terrible things happening in the world – the climate crisis, systemic racism, wars, deep inequalities, as well as my own circumstances in terms of the precarity of my working conditions as an artist. I wanted to gather peoples’ expressions of hope as a way of concentrating them and building them into a sonic monument that had the power to move.
Ruth: In previous works you have explored the sinister psychologies of addiction designed into our digital communication systems and the impacts they have on us individually and collectively. Can you tell us whether and how your long-standing concerns about the impacts of technology on our nervous systems, as well as privacy and rights to anonymity, have informed the way this work is made? How much did you think about peoples’ experience of the work – individually or together?
Katriona: In many ways, I see myself now as primarily operating in post-digital culture. I’m less interested in screens and more interested in the ways digital technologies are enmeshed with our lives. I think so many of us have a kind of digital fatigue which stems from labor, communicative capitalism, and the demands of the network to constantly be performing in our own lives. I wanted Hope as an Act of Resistance to provide an invitation to step out of these dynamics. This is absolutely informed by my work Are We All Addicts Now? and all that I explored in terms of surveillance capitalism, data mining, and the attention economy. I fiercely safeguard participants’ individual agency and privacy in my work and that motivated a desire for individual whispers to not be distinguishable – so that people can be free to be honest without the fear of exposure. One of the things that became important to me as I was making the work was fragrance, and how alongside sound, it has a spatial dynamic. Lavender and rosemary are embroidered into the patches on the bean bags. The installation itself was quite heady with the smell of it, and I think this helped hold people together in the space too. This is a reaction to the meta-medium of the networked device – our sensory capabilities haven’t been digitalized yet.
Ruth: Hope is one of the core activating ingredients in this work. Your invitation to people entering the installation is to say what they hope for. Why is hope so important and what did you discover from peoples’ responses?
Katriona: On the left there has been a reluctance to use language like hope, but I found Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark a compelling argument for reclaiming hope as essential to political change. In the exhibition, I offered a quote by Solnit as an inspiration for people. She says, “I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.”
Peoples’ responses were quite overwhelming in many ways. We invited participants to write down their hopes before recording them as a way of helping them structure their thoughts. As they left the installation, there was an opportunity to leave their postcard so others could read it. We started off with a few and we ended with 364 postcards full of hopes. Some were funny, others devastating. Many addressed political and climate crises. Many referenced loved ones. One of the ones that remains with me is someone who just wrote, “I hope my mum is okay.” How many of us are hoping just to be okay? And what does that say about where we are right now?
Ruth: What will happen to the work now?
Katriona: I’m hoping it will tour, ideally to other countries, as I’d like to make versions of the sonic monument in different languages. I’d also like to make an online version so that it is more accessible to people who can’t get to the museum or gallery. A previous commission, At the Moment, that attempted to get under the skin of voice interfaces like Alexa and Siri, went on to be exhibited at festivals, galleries, and museums around the world. It’s great when you make a work and it has legs – it walks around after you’ve made it and goes on to be shown in different contexts. But this is all contingent on funding and partnerships, so we will see!
More information about the artist: katrionabeales.com
Learn more about Furtherfield: furtherfield.org
Read about the artist’s previous exhibition, Are We All Addicts Now?
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