Future Sounds with Earwax
Earwax is a platform for womxn artists who make sound. It is a space to give womxn opportunities to experiment and perform, to nurture and to grow their practices. According to Earwax, “There’s no set definition of what we do, but we work with womxn with varied sound practices from spoken word, music, sound art, performance and DJs.” This womxn-focussed project even puts on panel discussions, line-up shows and raves. Adam Morton-Delaney chatted with Earwax founder and co-founder Esme Lewis-Gartside and Izzy DuBois to hear more.
AMD: So, I guess, why was Earwax born?
ELG: It was necessary. Post university we needed a space to be able to create and talk about the kind of work we make. I remember speaking to Izzy and saying I need to change the way sound is experienced in an ‘art’ setting – ‘Can we please make this thing together?’ We were both exploring sound and narrative and how these mediums can construct visual spaces without the need for direct visual reference. Earwax has become the space that we can do that in, and to be able to share and provide that for other artists is incredible.
ID: We had both always made work which focused on sound, be it sound art, performance or writing. Throughout our three years of a BA we shared the same anxieties, doubts and frustrations around people listening to our work, well and truly listening. The seeds of Earwax were born in the years running up to our first event from our collective frustrations and fears. Earwax was created because of our need for a space where we could be truly listened to, where we could present work and experiment; not only for ourselves but for other womxn, too.
AMD: And as a side project, how does Earwax balance with your day-to-day life?
ELG: I’m currently (including Earwax) doing four different things part-time. Its hectic but I like it. The jobs support me financially to be able to do Earwax and make art. I don’t live in a normal housing situation so my rent in incredibly cheap but I am constantly making sacrifices to do what I want to do.
ID: I’ve just left my ‘day job’. As Earwax has really begun to grow and with other freelance work I am doing too, I reached the point where I was consistently working Monday – Friday and then every weekend too. I felt like I was starting to burn out. It was a big risk to take as I no longer have a consistent income, but I decided to put more focus and time into Earwax and my own artistic practice, although I still have other freelance jobs too. I made the decision at the right time as we have just received our first Arts Council England funding and it has been amazing to actually be paid properly as artists.
ELG: I think that people forget that when they come and see one of these events, or even when they are invited to come and perform, about the amount of work that goes in behind it. In the organisation of people, venues, of lighting and equipment, health and safety forms and contracts, and of the time spent advertising the events.
ID: Now that we’re beginning to get paid for events we try and pay performers as much as we can. I hate the expectation that young artists will just work for free and it is part of Earwax’s ethos to support and give opportunities to womxn artists. But, by the time you get to paying yourself you’re only being paid for two hours work when you’ve put in 20 which isn’t a sustainable way of life. Sometimes it can all be really overwhelming so we couldn’t do it without each other. AMD: But despite all that, Earwax is still worth it?
ELG: Earwax brings a huge sense of fulfilment to me, which is important to have from creative outlets. I’m a really mentally over-active person and Earwax has been an amazing thing for me to be able to direct my energy towards. Especially because of the range of events that we hold, nothing really gets stagnant. Earwax has also directly and indirectly been a factor towards my growth as a person. The events and projects we have done under Earwax has taught me a lot about myself, how I function professionally and my capacity to achieve, which I don’t think I was aware of before. It’s just a beautiful thing which I think we’re both proud to say we have nurtured.
ID: More and more it is becoming a core part of my life, simply as Earwax has grown it has become more demanding. Yet that’s the beauty of starting these side projects – you don’t know what they will turn into and there is a sense of unlimited possibilities. I think it’s really important as a young artist to be self-sufficient; to produce opportunities for yourself because no one is going to hand them to you. You can spend hours and hours filling out application forms just to be disappointed. By self-producing you will not be told ‘no’ and you learn so much from the process. With every event we put on I am still learning. Because of Earwax we have had some amazing opportunities such as performing at the Young Vic and The National Poetry Library and getting Arts Council England funding, but we only got these opportunities because of all the work that has gone in to previous events and everything we learned from them. I also think Earwax is testament to the fact that is easier to find your feet in the art world as part of a group, a collective or a platform than going it alone. Not only has the amount of work that has gone into Earwax been shared, you also know you have a community to share worries and experiences with too. When we graduated in 2017 I had no idea where to even start to be an artist, but through Earwax and other opportunities too I am finally at the point where I have some understanding.
AMD: What do you love about it and what do you hate about it?
ELG: I love the feeling I get after events. It’s a massive sense of satisfaction when we can pull off a show. I also love seeing womxn perform their work and grow as artists. A few of the artists involved have been performing since the beginning so being able to see that progress is amazing. The two of us do the jobs of about 10 people which can become really demanding sometimes. I think it can be taxing on our own art practices leading up to events just because we spend so much time planning. It’d be amazing to get funding to be able to expand the team.
ID: As Earwax has grown and we have worked with more people we have naturally grown into roles. I’ve taken on the role of producer as well as performing. The range of things which we do is diverse because we tap into different people’s interests. Esme is passionate about the music side of things so that is something which she has pursued within Earwax, I’m really excited to curate our upcoming show at Guest Projects in October which will focus more around the sound and performance art side of Earwax. We choose who heads up different projects depending on their passions. That’s the beauty of it.
AMD: What pushes you forward to keep Earwax ticking?
ELG: To give opportunities and spaces to womxn who may not otherwise have access to them. I really want to start doing more outreach work with Earwax alongside as hosting the general events. It’s also the potential of the relationships that can form through Earwax. We’ve created a space where you can meet like minded artists and collaborate or form relationships. I think that’s so important in London when a lot of art scenes can be really cliquey so I want to break that mould. Also, and its a long way away, but I really want to set up an experimental record label where poets collaborate with sound artists.
ID: I think when we started Earwax my main motive was to create a space to perform where we felt comfortable. But as Earwax has grown, as its shape has shifted, so too have my motives. Most importantly Earwax is about supporting and giving opportunities not just to ourselves but to womxn who make sound, to be an inclusionary space where we can all develop and grow together. I now consider Earwax as long term and with that comes a desire for Earwax to keep growing and morphing, to see what it can become, the space it can hold. Honestly, Earwax has evolved into a something greater and become a much bigger part of my life than I imagined when we set out. I’m excited to see where we will be after 2 years, after 5 years, after 10 years.
Esme Lewis-Gartside – Founder / Artistic Director
Izzy DuBois – Co-Founder / Producer
Olivia Douglass – Co-Curator / Programmer
Ranya El-Refaey – Co-Curator / Set Designer
Arabella Turner – Co-Curator / Videographer
“This Language Wasn’t Made for Me”
At a recent Earwax event during the panel discussion it emerged that most of us involved with Earwax are dyslexic. Our relationships with language are complex and sometimes strained. At times we have all felt excluded from and embarrassed by language, by our mother tongue. Yet, here we all were, on the stage of the National Poetry Library reading the words which we had written.
Language is a tool, it is something we use to create and, if the tool you have been given is not quite working for you then you can use that tool in another way. You experiment with other ways you can use it to create. It takes confidence to do this, but once you do the results can be much more innovative and more unique. We can create our own language.
This alienation from language does not relate only to dyslexia. It is important to remember that whilst language is used by all, our language has been constructed by those who were given the right to education, by those who wrote it down. Our language was constructed by and for a white patriarchal society. Language’s constraints are heaviest when trying to describe something which doesn’t fit within the white, patriarchal experience.
The artist Nora Turnato plays with language’s form within her performances. In her current exhibition ‘Nora Turnato, Explained Away’ at Kunstmuseum, Litchenstien (22/02/19 – 19/05/19) she stands surrounded by block colour from her large textual prints which line the walls of the white cube gallery. She performs a monologue drawn from the constant stream of information she encounters each day. She plays with the trope of the hysterical woman. In an article on Artnet, Turnato points out the limits of a patriarchal language, noting: “how many words there are to negatively describe a woman’s voice when it does not fall into the soft-spoken category.” (Brown, 28/11/18) In Turnato’s performance, everyday words become absurd and through fast-paced repetition meaning is lost. Turnato uses language to enable the ‘hysterical woman’ to command a traditionally male dominated space.
Perhaps the most prolific form women have used to carve spaces where they can use language to fully express their own experience is science fiction. Sci-fi enabled writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Margret Atwood to dream of alternative ontologies free from the restraints of patriarchal society. In the process these alternative spaces highlight the problems and absurdity of our own societies. It is fascinating how women sci-fi writers play with language, often creating their own mythical languages. Octavia Butler’s short story ‘Speech Sounds’ (1983) is set at the end of the world, where many people have lost the ability to read, write and speak and are forced to communicate in alternative ways.
In Linda Stupart’s novella ‘Virus’ (2016) she plays with structure. Much of the book is written from the perspective of the virus, invading the bodies of the white males who disregard others and dominate the world – in particular the art world – and interspersed with Stupart’s spells. ‘Virus’ is intended to be both read and performed. During her live performances, Stupart draws out and sits within a salt circle, carving her own safe space before giving her performance to the audience.
In an interview with Studio International (30/01/17) Izabella Scotts asks Stupart about the significance of masturbation within ‘Virus’, Stupart said,
“I’m interested in female pleasure that doesn’t include men – such as masturbation, or women collecting penises, which are like early prosthetics. I’m also interested in thinking about a world without men. Parthenogenesis [asexual reproduction] is a sci-fi trope, and there’s a book by Suzy McKee Charnas, Motherlines (1975) about women who manage to live in a lesbian separatist society and reproduce via sex with horses. It poses the question: what would happen if you didn’t need men at all? What if men were obsolete?”
Recently I read ‘Herland’ (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gillman presents a highly developed world without men, free from disease and conflict, where they also reproduce through parthenogenesis. The story is told from the perspective of one of the three men who find themselves in the county of Herland. As the women of Herland educate these three men about their society and these three men attempt to do the same with theirs, Gilman uses the comparison between the recognisable patriarchal society and the utopian matriarchal one to bring the woes of a woman in 1915 into direct focus. What shocked me most when reading ‘Herland’ was how similar these problems were to now. Over 100 years similar problems still plague women’s experience. It fascinates me that in 1915, in 1975 and even still today writers are envisioning these spaces free from men.
In the current cultural climate, post #MeToo, the world’s attitude towards women is changing, and more and more women artists and writers are being seen at the forefront of culture. However, there is still a long way to go. Whilst woman continue to carve spaces where their experience can be fully expressed and reform language as an act of protest, women’s relationship to language will never be straight forward. We must learn to hold language in another way, retool it in a way that suits us and enables us to give voice to our stories and experiences, the ones that have so often gone unheard when language has been predominantly the tool of men.Issue 3 2020