Artist Jo Coupe talks about her work Vital Signs, produced as part of Meeting Point, a year-long project which pairs leading UK and international artists with museums in the North East and Yorkshire to produce new artworks inspired by the museums and their collections.
'My work often takes research as the starting point for pieces which investigate impermanence, precariousness and unpredictability, exploring decay as a dynamic, active process. I’ve always had a largely material-based practice, centred around objects, installations, photographic prints and video but recently I’ve been making more works with sound as the major focus. Vital Signs, my commission for Durham Castle, as my first solely performance-based piece, takes this aspect of my practice further.
When visiting historic buildings I often find myself more interested in the things we’re not supposed to see – the people whose job it is to look after the property and the tools of this care. In this vein, in 2006 I made Electroasis, a piece which centred around a thermohygrograph, an instrument you often see (or half see) in a glass case in galleries and museums, silently recording temperature and humidity on rolls of graph paper. In a tiny exhibition space, the thermohygrograph in Electroasis registered both human presence (by a rise in temperature and humidity), and the shifting effects of a complex ecosystem of electrical devices switching on and off.
Continuing in this line of enquiry, in summer 2013, I took part in Building Dreams, an exhibition at Cragside, alongside which I organised a walking tour looking at the way the National Trust maintains the building. This deepened my interest in the relationship between conservation and what I do as an artist; both are concerned with decay, one managing and trying to slow down the process, the other highlighting it. What came out of the research that went into this tour was a fascination with the way the people who manage historic buildings gather data as part of their conservation work and what this information reveals about the human life within the building.
I still had this idea in mind last year when I was approached to make a proposal for one of 10 possible commissions in Arts&Heritage’s Meeting Point project. I was immediately drawn to Durham Castle, which is almost 1000 years old, but still in constant use as halls of residence for Durham University. The very open brief which asked artists to look at the castle as a living building chimed with the research I’d started, addressing all the layers of occupation in a building as significant, particularly the current inhabitants.
The piece I proposed, Vital Signs, takes the data gathered from the building as part of its regular conservation and management systems as the starting point for a musical score, which reveals the patterns of human presence in the building. This score is to be played by a group of four percussionists in a one-off performance on medieval instruments. A key part of this process this was to be my collaboration with Brendan Murphy, a percussionist and composer who from the start was as intrigued by the possibilities as I was.
During the proposal stage, I’d located the electronic sensors that silently transmit information about the temperature, humidity, light levels and numbers of people in the castle and begun sifting through the data they collect, looking for information which revealed something about human life in the castle. Gemma Lewis, the Curator has been a crucial link to the castle over the past six months, brokering conversations, helping me find the information I need and lending me her computer to search for data on my many trips to the castle.
I was also researching medieval percussion instruments, and through looking at early medieval illustrations and carvings, talking to historians and to musicians who play medieval music, I began to amass a group of drums, bells and other percussion instruments available in the early life of the castle. The sounds these instruments made in turn influenced the score, as several pieces emerged out of sets of data from humidity to post collections.
The writing of the score has been one of the most interesting aspects of this commission - Brendan and I had to work out a way of interpreting my collection of graphs, spreadsheets, lists and numbers, shaping them into something playable, a process which oscillated between the mathematical and the intuitive. Having a very clear intention for the work was vital during this period - it would have been easy to let aesthetics lead the development of the score, but the work could only hold meaning if it accurately reflected the intricacies of the data. Each piece has developed its own distinct sound and hopefully reveals something different about the ways the building and the people who live in it influence one another.'
Vital Signs will be performed in Durham Castle’s Great Hall at 7.30pm on Friday 21 October. Admission is free and tickets can be booked here.