'set in motion' is an interview series conceived during the Covid-19 pandemic. The conversations explore the nature of 'artistic practice' and how is it changing under our current situation.
set in motion #04
Ryan Christopher (b.1998) Coventry, UK
Ryan Christopher is a Coventry based interdisciplinary artist. His work explores the poetics of time, resistance and listening. Through visualisations of silence, we are made aware of the precariousness defining the human condition.
Choosing to communicate through languages of metaphor and obscurity, he investigates the relationships between race, territory, faith and land. Standing in opposition to the belief that the Black-British experience is an exclusively urban phenomenon. With references to his cultural heritage and beliefs, he creates situations that bridge the humorous with the poetic, the figurative with the abstract and the mundane with the revolutionary. Visceral discourses carried through moving images, painting and sculpture, inviting viewers to participate in his world of cultural observation.
Conversation with Tom Little via email, 03.07.20
These interviews started during lockdown and we now seem to be reemerging. Can you tell me a little bit about your situation over the past few months? Did you manage to carry on working through lockdown? How has the lockdown affected your practice?
I’ve been really blessed during lockdown - there’s been a lot of time and space to read, to think through my practice, and to work on bodies of work that I never had time for.
I set up a make-shift studio at home and it’s allowed me to be more focused. I've been working on a lot of film work, some painting, some sculpture work and some socially engaged projects. In 2021, I’ll be exhibiting at the Coventry Biennial so the work is all with that in mind. I’ve found that in general, change often leads to a lot of growth, we’re forced to adapt and look for new solutions, it stops things from getting stagnant which is weirdly beneficial to my art practice, it’s like we’re all becoming more aware of the things that really matter.
Link to Coventry Biennial where Ryan is featured - https://www.coventrybiennial.com/2021/
That’s good to hear. Can you tell me a little bit more about the work you’ve been able to do? What’s the difference between the work you were doing before and the work you’re able to do during lockdown? Are these involved in the work that you’re going to feature in the biennial?
So the main work that I’ve done in lockdown is a short experimental film called ‘Resounding Gongs and the Peripheral Vision of Sheep’. It was commissioned for International Refugee Week so has recently been released (watch here - https://www.ryanchristopher.co.uk/video). I was interested in challenging our relationship to empathy, language and listening so there’s some really important voices throughout the film. A lot of discomfort and unease, punctuated by hope. I’ve recently started a small sculpture series using clay, dark green fabric, and small images of Muhammad Ali running in white tracksuit - really beautifully abstracted. One of the more socially engaged projects is ‘To listen to Alternate Listening’. In ‘Alternate Listening’ I’m constructing a landscape made up of people’s auditory interpretations of certain words, with each word representing a part of this landscape - e.g. play the sound of a brown sheep on piano, play the sound of a deep river on Cello etc. So the end result will be a soundscape for a large space. Prior to lockdown I was working in my studio where I was working with what I had around me. I wasn’t giving enough time to reading and thinking, so my work lacked conceptual depth - often working very intuitively which was great, but I didn’t find it as interesting as what I’m making now. In regards to the Biennial, we’re still deciding which work will be shown.
I really enjoyed watching and listening to ‘Resounding Gongs and the Peripheral Vision of Sheep’. The connotations I pull from sheep are ‘the black sheep’ - the odd one out, or the sheep as a herd animal, a follower. Are these something that you were thinking about when making and editing the film? Especially when one of the voices talks about being away from their family, I assumed you were using the sheep to question these connotations in some way?
That’s cool to hear! I really like your way of seeing it - there’s definitely a sense of being the odd one out in a foreign country, but also this sense of being part of a wider community/flock of diaspora. I see it as a beautiful example of creolization, where cultures merge into one, and we bond through our shared experiences and relations. When I was making the work, I was interested in the Sheep as a very ambiguous motif, which would allow multiple readings of the work - hence why I’m super interested in your reading. Sheep are referred to a number of times in the Bible too, which allows for more allegorical readings. The ‘Peripheral vision of Sheep’ refers to a way of seeing where one recognises those peripheral to dominant structures in society, I find it interesting how sheep have almost 360 degree vision whilst also operating in a flock.
It’s interesting using the Bible for reference material, especially in ‘contemporary art’. As an atheist I wouldn’t/didn’t automatically head to religion to dissect your work. Is christianity and religion an influence across your practice or just for this piece?
Yes for sure, Christianity is a strong point of reference across my whole practice. I’ve found the Bible to be incredibly rich and complex, there’s a lot of imagery and poetry throughout it, but it also contains this profound insight into the human condition which fascinates me. It really does shape my worldview and the way that I approach art making.
I would also like to ask you about when your interest in sound, silence and listening started to integrate into your work. Where did it come from? What is it about sound or lack of that so powerful?
I started making work about sound and silence towards the end of my first year of Fine Art at uni. I was reading a lot of Andrei tarkovsky’s reflections on art and cinema, and translating some of his ideas into my own moving image work. In his films, the way that he uses sound and the absence of sound is fascinating. He picks out very visceral sounds - like the sound of water - and accentuates them as if we were intentionally listening to that particular sound ourselves. In the same way that certain shots direct our gaze to specific subjects, Tarkovsky directs our listening to specific sound. I appreciate a more minimalistic use of sound, we can see it in the films of Robert Bresson as well, It’s really effective in allowing the film to contain space for us to think and feel for ourselves, we fill in the gaps of silence. I wanted to think about these things within my work. In addition to this, I’ve been reading a book called sonic agency by the sound artist Brandon laBelle. He speaks about the potential of sound and listening as the basis for political change, my work is a way of putting these ideas into practise.
It’s interesting that you bring up Brandon LaBelle, as soon as I read your bio I thought about his book. It seems to me that Labelle talks about silence in a way that it can hold as much presence as noise, both of which can be used in transformative ways. The difficulty with silence is that it exists as a space in-between or at the point of removal (of sound/noise). How do you go about then adding this into your work or making space for it?
I love that - it’s a really interesting thing to think about. I think for me, silence is used as a blank for someone to fill with their own situation, at the moment of them viewing the work. Like audience participation. It comes into the work very naturally and allows for more of the audience and less of my own input - I’m only a facilitator of the moment. When someone views my films, there will never be silence, only the idea of silence. When I think of silence I think of John Cage’s 4’33 and the ambient sounds of the audience - coughing, breathing, thinking, rustling etc. I love this way of seeing - and also the potential that in these moments of silence, the audience can project themselves into the work.
I try to toy with the idea of visual silence a lot - movement and visual noise parallel to auditory noise, and stillness and the absence of colour as parallel to silence. It often appears as something that punctuates certain movements in my films or sound works.
There are two questions I’ve asked others I’ve interviewed and I would like to ask you too.
1, Have you been able to do anything new during lockdown, outside of your art practice?
I wouldn’t say I’ve been able to do anything new, maybe just learning new recipes and practicing piano a bit more!
2, What have you been reading recently? (Other than Brandon LaBelle)
So currently rotating a good few, namely: Poetics of Relation - Edouard Glissant, The Wretched of the Earth - Frantz Fanon, Notes on the Cinematograph - Robert Bresson, Against Interpretation - Susan Sontag and Arabesques - Anton Shammas. I just finished St Augustine's Confessions & have also been in and out of essays contained within the 1900-2000 edition of Art in Theory.
Ryan's contact details