Al, working with fellow Absent Voices artist as well as band member Ryan King, plans to produce a soundtrack/soundscape that captures the ambience of the SugarSheds. They hope this piece will work to encompass the past, present and possible futures of these buildings.
They began by focusing mainly on the structure and the stories this might tell. Who knows where this could lead?
They could create a vast sonic landscape, a soundtrack to the building. This soundtrack could captures the history and feel of the building from the workers and the community’s point of views dating from the era of mass production right down to its decline. Their sound piece could possibly get down to the real nitty-gritty of exploring the actual brickwork of the sheds. Nothing is ruled out at this stage.
Both Al and Ryan have spent time at the sheds recording as much as possible inside. They hope to get more recordings which involve the general ambience of both inside and outside of the buildings. Just using a sensitive hand held recorder at this stage can pick up frequencies of sound imperceptible to the human ear. From standing in the doorways of the sheds, sounds picked up include the wind and rain battering down on the roof, boats’ riggings rattling alongside the marina, and the building itself singing as the wind cuts through it.
Al aims to write, play and record a composition of sorts, which fits in with the
building. Along side the actual structural sounds and notes, Al and Ryan have been recording interviews with members of the local community, such as past workers and individuals linked in some way to the sugar industry of Greenock. Through these interviews, they hope to capture the impression of what the sheds were like in full flow in its heyday but also the feel for them during the state of decline and eventual closure. How was the community affected when their life source was severed?
The community response has been great, as Al and Ryan have witnessed the eagerness of individuals to lend their voices, views and stories. This participation has really supported their efforts and work so far.
The next step for this duo of artists is to have their first session with a engineer/producer Andy Miller. Andy has a great reputation, having worked with bands such as Mogwai,
Arab Strap, Songs: Ohio, amongst others. Both Ryan and Al have worked with Andy before and know that he is up to the job of capturing and producing what is required.
Within their plans is taking the sounds captured from the buildings, the contribution from the community and adding to them guitars, drums, synths, piano, percussion, spoken word and anything else they think will work with them. At the moment, there are very few constraints within this part of the project allowing the creative process to take over and see where it leads.
It all sounds very exciting and we look forward to hearing pieces in progress as well as the final piece in November. Thank you Al for sharing your thoughts about your part within the Absent Voices project.
So far Yvonne has worked with Whinhill Primary School, to write and record four songs. She is also on board to compose the music for three filmpoems with Alastair Cook. In terms of further local community involvement, Yvonne is keen to engage with local choirs, offering songwriting and performance workshops, hoping to culminate in some sort of performance in the Sugar Sheds themselves.
Yvonne’s practice from the beginning has been to embrace the collaborative aspect of this project and pursue a cross pollination of disciplines. For example, very quickly Anne McKay and Yvonne sparked an idea to work together at Whinhill bringing together visual art and songwriting in one mini project. It has been fantastic so far and extremely inspiring. They’ve worked with P4/5 throughout March for two hours a week, splitting a group of 40 pupils in half. They gave them four characters to bring to life through visual art and song, people who would have worked in the sheds around 1900. Anne’s group would decide what they looked like, wore, their environment and they Yvonne’s group would decide what voice to give them. So through this collaboration, they have literally given these Absent Voices a face and voice. The pupils loved both aspects. They’ve written songs based on Gaelic Waulking songs fused with African Slave songs and spirituals, canons (songs in a round), jigs and laments with Gaelic lyrics.
There was a taster of their creations as six of the children sung their very own songs at the pop up event at The Beacon last month. The audience were in awe! Some education people who were there suggested rolling out the project out as a fuller educational initiative! From this, Yvonne hopes to record the children singing with fully produced arrangements of the songs.
The collaborative aspect is so exciting within the group, whether it is composing for Film and poetry with Alastair, recording vocals for Al and Ryan or working with Rod and Kevin, they seem to spark off each other. The pop up event was a real ‘high’ for that. They were beginning to see how each artist of the project was responding to the subject. Creativity begets creativity.
Yvonne recently toured with Eddi Reader. This was a very significant moment in Yvonne’s career to be part of this tour. “So many tiny and massive moments of meaning that an artist can wait a lifetime to experience, ” were part of this experience says Yvonne. However, she has enjoyed coming back to Greenock and realising that she is part of a community of artists, who work and support each other. These artists operate within and for he local community also.
The final words from Yvonne are, “Community responses have been fantastic (as above) but we need to get the word out more. We have such a wealth of artists in Inverclyde and amazing stories to tell. I really hope we can just keep building relationships and ideas and that AV will be a catalyst for more.”
But Rod’s role in the project doesn’t end there as he is also exploring how the local sugar industry was represented in the works of such artists as Sir Stanley Spencer and Joan Eardley. These two artists recorded the local shipbuilding industry in their works, an industry that no exists except in the remnants of the Sugar Sheds at James Watt Dock and the Glebe refinery building. Rod is therefore talking to the community, gleaming stories and memories from the people about the sugar trade and it’s impact to inspire his paintings. So he is always on the look out for more people to talk to. So please just get in touch if you have anything to share about both the sugar and shipbuilding industries. Thank you.
Through talking to Rod I came to realise there is much more to his artist practice than just research, compose and paint. As Rod said himself, “Painting is non of your leisurely relaxing airy fairy routine. It’s hard work and graft and feeling.”
Painting is a solo effort and is pretty intense. First, he works things out in his head, often going from ideas straight to canvas. Sometimes he might work about with the composition on paper and draw some of the parts out with pencils and charcoal but these always seem to change a bit when he starts to paint in oils.
When Rod gets into the painting itself more often that not things start to change again. It will end up looking quite different from what he had in his head when he started out. But that’s just the creative process, the part where the painting is creating itself. It take’s on it’s own life force and energy and dictates to the artist how it wants to look.
Rod mentions a struggle at this point between him and the painting. Between how he wants the painting to look and how the painting itself wants to be seen. In the end the painting always wins.
I found it fascinating talking to Rod about his artist’s process and the energy that exudes from the final art works. Thank you for sharing Rod, it was a pleasure.
This is a story about a benevolent custom on repeat. About the burnt sugar smell of rum on your breath, and the wolves from hell inflaming your heart with greed. Greed for cubes of sugar winking like stars. Greed for the irresistible sickness of sweet cane syrup.
Greed, Sheree Mack, 2014In my capacity as writer in residence at the Lit and Phil, I was tasked with linking up with the local museum which had a special South African exhibition on over the summer of 2012. I was hoping to have Gérard Rudolf there but he had returned home to South Africa a few years before. Before he left for home, he collaborated with Alastair Cook on a number of filmpoems. As the next best thing, Gérard suggested I get in touch with Alastair to get a screening organised for the night in question. Alastair has a very commanding manner. I was hoping to just get a DVD though the post but he insisted on coming down and screening them himself. All 4 of them. This was in June. By the August, I was visiting Alastair in Dunbar, while he was artist in residence at the MacArthur Store. This was when the famous collodion image of me was created, on an overcast Saturday with my screaming daughter on my lap. Alastair went on to commission me to create a poem for the then Absent Voices filmpoem project which saw six poets re-inhabits the abandoned Greenock Sugar Sheds with six films. We created Every Memory with musical support from Luca Nasciuti. Now we reach 2014, and once again Alastair commissioned me to create three new poems in relation in to the sheds, but more so exploring the hidden dark histories, the connections of sugar to the Caribbean and West African through the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. In all honesty, this was probably my hardest commission to date. The weight of responsibility upon my shoulders in voicing this history as well as wanting to truly honour and respect this devastating past was at times crippling. There are so many different narratives and angles to this long history of slavery making it difficult to know where to start and where the end. Which issues or stories should receive that light of attention? Which issues could translate to a contemporary audience? For me it always has to be about the body. A body once free then captured. Within captivity, this body experienced very little agency or comfort. This body bore the brunt of enslavement through physical, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse. What everything boiled down to was how much value could be forced out of this one body. Just a body. The next step was thinking about the relationships, those connections between the body and other bodies. Those power relations that were a given, that could not be challenged or changed. The only power the enslaved body had was through its removal by any means necessary. With the first slaves, taken onto the big ship destined for the New World, the story goes that when the shackles were taken off they just floated up and flew back home. Through experience, the ship’s crew learned their lesson. From then on, they kept the cargo chained within the belly of the ship. After their first meal of salted fish, the crew saw that the slaves could not fly. I like to think that this story is true. I give hope to the idea that the enslaved body could somehow be free by rejecting the state of life that it was forced into. I like to hope that they, the individuals who were kidnapped, stolen and breed in slavery were keeping some part of themselves free from all shackles through thinking about sky or dreaming of walking home across the ocean floor.
You can touch me now. I have made myself stone. […] You can touch me. The wild current running under my heart you cannot touch.
Touched, Sheree Mack, 2014
On January 23 1772, a petition was brought to the magistrates and council of the Burgh of Ayr. James and Robert Hunter, brothers and Ayr‘s foremost tobacco merchants, had a proposal that they needed the council to sign off on. It read:‘That whereas the demand for sugar, both raw and refined, was very considerable from this town and the neighbouring county connected with it, and large sums of money were yearly remitted to Glasgow, Greenock, London, Bristol and Liverpool for these articles; the petitioners were humbly of opinion that it would be of much public and private benefit that raw sugars were imported here from the Colonies, and a sugar house erected in this place for refining them’. The facts are that both the Scottish and English owned land in the West Indies and the east coast of America from the 1600s. This land they cleared for planting tobacco and sugar. They could only run these plantations by working the native people and indentured servants to their death. Following the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England, Scottish merchants joined the
English trade routes including ‘the triangular trade’.
Goods such as cloth, copper and guns were shipped from Britain to West Africa. These were sold or exchanged for Africans. These African’s were taken from their homeland shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies or America where they were sold into slavery. The enslaved Africans worked on the plantations, producing raw materials such as sugar, rum,
tobacco and cotton. These raw goods were then shipped to Britain to feed the growing markets. So was ‘the triangle trade’ and Port Glasgow and Greenock were two major trading ports in this trade.
The sugar trade between the Clyde and the West Indies began about 1732. 1775 saw the total sugar imports amounting to no more than 4,000 tons. Greenock saw a small proportion of this. But less than 80 years later, Greenock boasted refineries where 700 men were employed and turned out 50,000 tons annually. It was largest depot for raw material in the kingdom.
What happened between 1775 and 1852?
A cane monopoly strangled supplies to Britain with the East India Company restricting refiners outside of London, but when these were withdrawn in 1834 the imports from Manila and the East Indies were enlarged. By the 1850s, there was only London and Greenock in the Empire
carrying on the trade. Couple this with a massive increase in demand in the UK for sugar and the Clyde refineries were kept in business and grew. 2
These are the facts and figures. These can be easily found within the books, articles and documents detailing this part of British history. What is not so easy to discover are the people, their lives, both white and black, who are behind these facts and figures, or fallen between the cracks and gaps. Those who had position and the power to write history factored themselves into these records. Their names will be passed on throughout the generations. But what about those people who were powerless? What about those people who did not have the opportunity, for one reason or another, to have their story recorded and passed on?
This is where Absent Voices can do some good; to fill in the gaps in history, to approach the subject of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in new initiative ways and reveal some new truths.