Future Machine Live at Furtherfield in Finsbury Park with Rachel Jacobs, Alexandre Yemaoua Dayo, David Kemp, Indira Lemouchi, Miles Ncube, Matteo Boyero, Sebastian Gaete and the weather.
During this Autumn 2020 lockdown I made a difficult decision to go ahead with a live broadcast of the Future Machine and the musicians who composed and created the sounds that the machine plays. It was legal, adhering to the performing arts rules for this second lockdown, but still a possible risk as we could only perform inside, so that we wouldn’t attract an audience (other than online).
These current lockdown rules are different from the first lockdown in March. The government has ruled that musicians and performers can rehearse and broadcast online, without an audience from a venue – whilst adhering to social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing guidelines and a Covid-19 risk assessment. These rules pass so fast it is hard to keep track, be prepared, have any sense that they are fair, scientific, sensible or safe. It is even hard to track down these rules and the constant changes. In two weeks there will be new rules and we will look back at this moment as a folly or a celebration. This is the nature of uncertainty.
In the first lockdown the Future Machine was in pieces in my studio at Primary in Nottingham, in the process of being rebuilt for a meeting under the cherry trees in Christ Church Gardens, when this tree blossomed in the Spring, 2020 – which of course couldn’t happen.
As we emerged from lockdown in June and I was able to return to Nottingham and the Future Machine. It was at this time that I started to plan with Ruth Catlow from Furtherfield some way to witness the Autumn in Finsbury Park, in 2020, with the Future Machine. We talked about creating a moment of hope and positivity in the park, despite the chaos of the year. To my delight Furtherfield invited me to bring the Future Machine down to be in residence at the commons, whilst also helping to keep an eye on the place – that had been shut down and deserted since March.
Furtherfield, co-commissioned and supported the Future Machine making workshops and launch in 2019. This great organisation inhabits the park through the commons building by Seven Sister’s Gate and the gallery in the centre of the park. Furtherfield brings together art, science, technology, research, exhibition and community in Finsbury Park, and through their work nationally and internationally. I have been drawn to them since starting my own arts collective Active Ingredient at a similar time in the mid-90s but not had the opportunity to properly work with them until I partly moved to London in 2018.
They have been a life saver for the Future Machine and my practice when I am in London, where currently living between a narrowboat and a bedsit when in London leaves me with limited options to work, never mind build and rebuild a large artwork like the Future Machine.
Through Furtherfield I have met and started to make connections with such wonderful Finsbury Park people. Including Rose Levinson who runs Emerging Voices, Jo Roach who runs the wonderful Pedal Power and Jo Homan who runs the complete gem – Edible Landscapes – in the park. Dorothy Newton who facilitates Finsbury Park neighbourhood forum and Alex Dayo who is now an integral part of the Future Machine. I have also began to meet the lovely people at the Drumming School next door, a truly vital community space and garden, managed by May De Grace who tends the garden with great love.
The music of the Future Machine was composed by Alexandre Yemaoua Dayo (Alex Dayo) in collaboration with David Kemp, working together to make all the arrangements, the co-production, recordings and performance. Featuring musicians Indira Lemouchi and Miles Ncube for the recording and performance. Alex and Dave started this innovative collaboratation with me in Summer 2019, to explore how we can interpret changes in the weather and climate through sound, music, data and words.
This all began last year, 2019. This year, bringing all these wonderful people and others together is not possible.
When I finally managed to bring the Future Machine from my studio in Nottingham to Furtherfield Commons I looked around at my new place of work. The space had the air of an apocalypse. A workshop prepared and laid out ready for participants was paused, the clip boards and pens covered in four months of dust. The fridge full of lunch never to be eaten. Outside the area was overgrown, litter had built up and the planters removed and piled up, rumour has it they were being used to hide drugs. during lockdown. I hoped that somehow the Future Machine and collaborations with people in the park could breathe some life and love back to this place, close to where I grew up and now sometimes live.
On Saturday 21st November 2020, I came together with Alex, Dave, Indira and Miles and their sound technician Matteo Boyero (Wahever Records) to rehearse and then broadcast a performance of the weather, Autumn 2020 and the Future Machine. To witness Autumn 2020 in Finsbury Park.
The Future Machine is organic, the octagon shape is hard to perceive and photograph, changing as you move about it. It is made of Ash that still breathes and changes, the octagon shifts as the temperature changes, the movement of the tree appears to continue beyond it’s life as a tree. The Future Machine connects to nature through it’s form, the music, the instruments, the birds in Miles’ chest, the weather, conditions and places it visits, whenever it can perform or play the sounds that relate to these conditions.
When the lever on the back of the machine is pushed to present mode, sounds are played from it’s large copper trumpet. The sounds that are played are based on data captured by weather sensors attached to a wooden pole, also attached to the back of the machine. The performance brings these scientific sensors and a technology driven process I designed with engineers and programmers, together with the human feelings of the weather, the climate, the moment, the place.
The rules of the machine compares the data to the monthly averages for the place where the machine is and then the algorithm decides if it is cold, mild, warm, hot, breezy, windy etc… and if the climate is expected, unexpected or extreme.
Each of these weather descriptive words were given to the amazing composers and musicians Alex Dayo and Dave Kemp, who I have been honoured to collaborate with. They created a process of improvisation with the words, the weather and their vast variety of instruments, with Miles Ncube’s bird songs and Alex and Indira Lemouchi’s singing and mutterings.
In the live performance the machine plays the algorithm, the musicians play their feelings, their emotional, creative, reflective, experiential (and incredibly skilled) ability to translate the being-ness of this place and time, with the wind, rain, air, the smells, the sensations of moisture and dryness, warmth, coldness, prickling our skin.
We had originally planned to do the performance in October, before lockdown, but many things conspired against us. It really felt important to do something to mark the Autumn, after the Autumn Procession in the Park in 2019 that launched the Future Machine project. This thread seems key to the whole Future Machine project, that we witness the seasons changing, in the same places at the same times, every year.
So by the time I had dealt with the issues of being able to be in the right place in the right time with a functioning machine, we were in lockdown again. The musicians had done their online performance at the Jazz Festival two weeks earlier, and our performance was prepared and ready. Another couple of weeks wait and the seasons would turn again, the trees would likely be bare, winter arriving.
We decided to take the risk. The musicians union made it clear it was possible and legal. We came together, to rehearse and then perform, in a time when coming together is a risk to our health and possibly our lives. We came together for music and art. Is this essential? Is this transformative enough to warrant the risk? How can we justify coming together, people in the same room, singing (which early evidence shows is an even bigger risk) and making music, when people are dying and grieving. NHS workers are risking their own health and lives, because they absolutely have no choice. At this time is anything more than survival essential? These are questions I have asked myself throughout my career. Does art warrant the financial and personal precarity, the energy and risk that it often takes? Now more than ever this is not a theoretical question.
The logisitics were tough. We were planning to do the performance outside in the beautiful garden behind the drumming school. We pushed the Future Machine uphill through mud, grass and over the roots of the London Plain trees that stand between Furtherfield and the Drumming School. We carried all the equipment up to the garden. When we got there we realised it was in no way secluded enough not to attract attention, and therefore potentially a public audience. The healthiest option of being outside was not option. The Park Ranger arrived and we discussed it – it was clear this was not the right thing to do and the only option was to go back.
We returned to the commmons. We rethought the space and the performance. Alex brought the Autumn in from outside. The Future Machine didn’t fit to allow for social distancing, so it was wheeled to the back door, peeking in, it’s trumpets too wide to allow it to enter.
The musicians sat 2m apart in a semi circle amongst the logs and leaves and gourds and instruments. Matteo at the back with the sound board and Seb (my boyfriend, and assistant for the day) filming, we kept the doors and windows open. Alex brought the Autumn in from the park, spreading the leaves of the London Plain Trees on the floor. We performed and broadcast.
The broadcast has had over 1000 views 3 days on. People say they found it ‘therapeutic’ and ‘sometimes brilliant’.
Was it worth the risk?
Many things could and will be learnt from this moment and surely this is why we experiment and take risks, to reveal things we wouldn’t otherwise know or experience. Alex said afterwards it was right for the moment and conditions we are in. This is our real life yesterday, today and whatever will be tomorrow. This is what the Future Machine is here for. To bring people together to witness and think about the future.
Afterwards, speaking with Ruth Catlow from Furtherfield, who is locked down in South End, she said maybe art is the virus that survives covid.
My thoughts at this moment, are that we need to communicate better about the risks, find ever changing ways to hold each other and share with each other as we act bravely, unknowingly or decide to remain safe, pause and rethink. We need to be able to be brave, but carefully and thoughtfully. Most of all we need to find a way to care for this place and each other, to protect the abundance that is here, now, even when we can’t be together.
In this time of uncertainty and survival, during this global pandemic, the essential nature and value of art, poetry and music is being questioned more than ever. Yet, the story I keep returning to is, without taking a step away from the science, technology, industry, economics and systems we have built – to protect us from uncertainty, fulfil our desires, keep us alive and make us feel safe – we cannot truly learn to reconnect with the essence of the world that will in fact protect us. Without a connection to nature, poetry, art and music we cannot be inspired to see the world anew and take the next step into the future.
Time and the Future Machine may tell us another version of this story. Maybe next year, maybe in 3o years.