Words by Stella Rousham.
Time is an essential organising principle. It determines when we sleep, wake, work and play. Whilst the mechanisms of time are often taken for granted, SERAFINE1369’s (Jamila-Johnson Small) latest multi-part installation, We can no longer deny ourselves, seeks to rupture the illusionary coherence of linear time.
Through sound, poetry, video, live performance and sculptural objects, We can no longer deny ourselves, transforms the River Rooms at Somerset House, into an ‘exploded clock’, inviting audiences to reflect on the fragmented components that construct our perception of “reality” in time. Identifying as a ‘body-based artist’, I spoke to SERAFINE1369 on how their training in dance has influenced their on-going interest in how spaces affect bodies and bodily sensibility, capable of conjuring feelings of welcoming or hostility; holding or rejection.
SR: What can audiences expect when they visit, We can no longer deny ourselves?
SF-1369: Some visually subtle interventions in the dilapidated rooms of a grand old house. A spatialised soundtrack that feels like many voices, dialoguing and harmonising, chattering and shifting, something like weather, rebalancing as you move. A sense of the presence of invisible forces, something like haunting. Your attention being drawn to the shifts in light brought by the weather, and the way this demarcates space differently each time. Many archways that frame and reframe the elements and bodies in each space as you move. If you are open to tuning to it, an energetic shift and an opening up of space. Between 12 and 3 you will encounter a performer: either Alexandrina Hemsley, Steph McMann, Fernanda MuÃ±oz-Newsome or myself.
SR: Can you tell us a little bit about your background as an artist? I like how you identify as a ‘body worker’?
SF-1369: I trained in contemporary dance from 18, at Lewisham College for a year and then at London Contemporary Dance School for 4 years. The thinking that emerges from dancing informs my approach to everything, and I’ve been searching for a way to articulate that. I’m still training in dance, it’s always my teacher. If I say to someone “I’m a dancer” it is often very apparent that I am not communicating for them the scope of what I actually do. I relate all the work I do, and the interventions I make, to body work.
SR: In what ways have movement and dance informed the installation and the material objects/space you use?
SF-1369: I think I make installations similarly to the way I make performances. I consider what the space says, immediately and culturally, how that impacts bodies generally and my body specifically. I’m thinking about the dis/comfort of bodies and how I might support people to stay present in and with their bodies whilst in the space. What might make me feel welcome and want to stay, if and how it’s possible to move there, where the exits are, which gestures I might make to establish territory.
I’m trying to make less hostile conditions. People in heightened states of alarm have the tendency to lash out or revert to habitual ways of thinking and doing. We live in a culture where the unknown is something to be feared. Inviting people into performances of experimental, unresolved unnamed dance practices with a queer black performer jerking around can be confronting for people. I work to host, to hold, to welcome and to shift the terms.
SR: What was the making process behind the exhibition? Did you see the space first or have the idea?
SF — 1369: I’ve been a resident at Somerset House (as Project O with Alexandrina Hemsley) since 2016, so I was familiar with the River Rooms from other events. The space – and the choreography it suggests to me – was very much in mind, something I was responding to, when coming up with the idea.
I’m working to elaborate upon, re-frame or further follow threads from previous works, and the speaking clock is something Josh Anio Grigg (Sound Designer) and I have been working on/with for a while. So the clock was already present in one way, then seeing these rooms – their archways and multiple doorways – the space sort of spoke of a display of fragments – connected but separate – and I thought about physicalising this clock somehow.
The large bowl of water is also something that features in another work, a performance called When we speak I feel myself, Opening which premiered in March 2022 at Sadler’s Wells. And the lilies, which are in the pendulum room [of the installation], were also present in from darkness into darkness an installation I did for Art Now at Tate Britain in 2021.
SR: How have you reflected or used the space at Somerset House for the installation?
SF-1369: I’ve been thinking a lot about what is framing what and how the different elements sit in changing relation as you move through the space. The space is not a white cube or a black box. I like that there’s no fantasy of neutrality. At the same time, it’s a very particular space in a building with a lot charged history and it’s also a protected space, being a listed building, where many things are not allowed. These parameters have definitely informed the installation. It’s been a good challenge to figure out how I can get my voice into those rooms that are already speaking so loudly.
I think of the first room as a reception space – this is where the large bowl of water is, offering an initial proposition of stillness, reflecting the light and forms from the surrounding room. TV monitors flank the archway beside the bowl, framing its stillness and heaviness with movement and light to create a sense of opening. This leads on to the space where the pendulum is suspended, at heart height, and a speaker which plays voices and the sounds of rain. I think of these voices as that of an oracle, as they chatter above whilst you are with the pendulum.
SR: I’m interested in the way that the installation offers an imagining of time that is non-linear. The conception of time progressing in an evolutionary, chronological way seems to me to be connected with capitalist and colonial projects. What was your thinking behind ‘non-linear’ and ‘imaginary’ time?
SF -1369: I think it’s something I feel necessary to assert as it comes from – or through – my experience of blackness as an embodied position, and the particular knowledges this brings to/of death, erasures and gaps in space-time/memory/history. This is a knowledge that speak through rhythm and cycles of trauma as they move through lineages, ‘out of time’.
I think imagining ‘non-linear time’ is also a matter of listening, feeling, dreaming and cultivating. Imagining, as a word, only functions in relation to constructions of reality right? Children are told to stop making things up, to stop imagining things, and sometimes that’s just about their experience and sensitivities not matching up with the vision of reality they are being groomed into believing is “real”, yes, capitalist and colonial projects. Sometimes I feel like I am living in someone else’s fucked up fantasy.
I think as (so-called) adults it’s important to keep imagining, to access alternate realities and aspects of our experience as living beings. Experience is a tool of imagination. Equally, imagining, is the way we can access experience, knowledge, memory, sensation and truth. Where we attribute meaning has a lot to do with imagination and conceptions of reality, how we conduct ourselves, what we assume and anticipate.
“EXPERIENCE, ALIVENESS TELLS US THAT TIME ISN’T LINEAR, THAT WE CAN JUMP TIME, GET FOLDED INTO TIME, CREATE ROUTES BETWEEN DIFFERENT TIMES…”
I’m very interested in dream work – and what is time in dreams!? It’s wild, so much happens or seemingly nothing at all in those hours of sleep. I’m thinking now about Jeremy Narby writing about DNA in The Cosmic Serpent (a book we sometimes read from in the performance), how we have enough DNA in each of our bodies, that would, if unravelled, encircle the earth 5 billion times. Experience, aliveness tells us that time isn’t linear, that we can jump time, get folded into time, create routes between different times…
SR: I think perceptions of time and the seemingly logical coherence of chronological time has really been disrupted by COVID induced lockdowns, when ritual markers of time were halted. Has this informed your installation in anyway?
SF-1369: No doubt my experiences over the last years have informed this work. But I’d say my interest in cycles and breaks in time has been present since I started making choreographies. In my early choreographic processes, I often worked with timers in – egg timers, alarms. When my father died in 2014 how I understood time totally transformed. Grief is a different register of time; as is blood, as is DNA. It is always a shock that he’s dead even though I don’t forget.
I was broken in 2019. 2020 I needed to stop because there was just too much movement inside of me to handle doing things like talking to people, feeding myself, making plans for the future. I needed to tune in. This is one of the offerings in my installation, to be with all the internal and external movements.
SR: Was it intentional that the installation is taking place during a marked transition between time/seasons, with the clocks going forward soon?
SF-1369: No, just appropriate timing for the work! A kind of encouraging aligning.
SR: How do you envision the installation changing in the future?
SF-1369: The real test of this work will be presenting it another venue. At this point, I don’t fully know what is a specific response to the space and what is ‘the show’ – if I can make that distinction. It’s very entangled and I’ve spent a lot of time in those rooms, tweaking details so that the work speaks to – and from – the space.
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Catch We can no longer deny ourselves at the River Rooms, Somerset House Studios from 23rd September — 30thOctober 2022. The installation is open from 10am — 6pm, with a daily performance between 12 — 3pm. Entry is FREE!
As part of the final weekend of We can no longer deny ourselves, on Saturday 29th October, there will late night opening of the installation with live responses from a selected group of artists. Tickets for the long night can be purchased here.
To keep up to date with SERAFINE1369’s work on social media: