An interview with
Sonia Boyce

How would you describe the typical situation leading up to the elaboration of a project? What phases are most recurrent in the project elaboration process?

My methods over the past few decades—or the process for creating artworks—are similar, but always with seemingly different outcomes. These different outcomes are often dependent on the variety of people I work with for each project and their response to the invitation to collaborate or take part in an unrehearsed performance. Improvisation and spontaneity are key. The fact that we are often strangers to each other is another recurrent factor—although, I have been working with a director of the filming (Michelle Tofi) and a producer of the project (Niamh Sullivan) for many years. My aim, I suppose, is to foster a temporary community where differences are overcome to achieve something productive together.

I try not to direct what unfolds during the performances. This includes not directing the film crew who are there to capture what takes place, although there is a lot of background preparation so that they can respond technically and creatively to what takes place. There are often several complex—and sometimes competing—factors at play when trying to encourage creative interaction on the one hand, and to remain respectful of each contribution and the wider social context on the other.

After the performance has taken place and has been documented, the next stage is to take the material gathered on another creative and hopefully intuitive journey. In this post-production phase, of which there are several technical processes, I am concerned with whittling (carving the documentation) and collaging (juxtaposing) different elements for its display in a gallery context.

What do you hope communities will gain from experiencing your works?

On an immediate level, I hope that those who experience the work are touched, first and foremost, by the work’s emotionality. Also—and this is something that emerges in all my works—its political or cultural questions about collective and individual human agency.

I try to resist a direct and didactic message, and hope those who experience the work bring their own perspective and understanding.

And what, instead, do you hope they will unlearn from you? Is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?

Certainty. A firm conviction that things, people, and responses are fixed and fully knowable. I often ask collaborators and participants to move beyond their expectations about themselves. I also hope that there is an opening, a portal, for those who experience the work. But I can never be sure.

Who are the thinkers that inspire your work?

I have long been interested in the work of French philosopher, Michel Serres (1930–2019) and his book The Parasite, where he argues that by being considered a pest (grit in the ointment) as part of a minority group—in my case a black female artist coming from the UK—that it is possible to become a major influencer in public discourse. Thus, creating diversity and complexity that is vital to human life and progressive thought. Noise and sound as interruptive moments that create communication networks are key markers in his book The Parasite.

The Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) and his ideas about the carnivalesque and polyphony: meaning a plurality of voices, perspectives, and freedom continues to be influential in my creative process.

The Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark (1920–1988) has greatly influenced my art practice. With her works, there is a constant opening outward to others with no fixed orientation, but that her artworks are rooted in the body and its senses.

Brandon LaBelle, an American artist and writer living in Europe, continues to have a profound impact on my thinking with his books Background Noise and Sonic Agency. And I am just getting to know the experimental sound work of Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016) and her perspective on deep listening as a form of activism, alongside the intellectual rigour of Louis Chude-Sokei and his book The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics.

Last, but by no means least, I have recently been introduced to the Pattern and Chaos Research Group at Norwich University of the Arts in the UK. They have just published a book Pattern and Chaos in Art, Science and Everyday Life, which helps me tease out my own questions about my relationship to repeat patterns and my impulse for unwieldy improvisational performances.

In what way does your practice help us imagine new worlds or a more habitable world?

Polyphony, as a philosophical concept, asks us how might we accommodate different perspectives rather than a monolithic position? However, it is not, per se, about conflict resolution. Conflict resolution, which is a professional skill set and therapeutic process, seeks to find a cordial solution to a problem of divergent (and often negative) ways of being together. Polyphony seeks a sensitivity and awareness of a spectrum of positions and perspectives. It doesn’t propose a solution to ameliorating those differences, but asks for sensitivity rather than polarisation.

Credits: Still da video

Note biografiche

Sonia Boyce DBE RA (b. London, 1962) is an interdisciplinary artist and academic working across film, drawing, photography, print, sound, and installation. In 2022 she presented FEELING HER WAY, a major commission for the British Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia for which she was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Boyce came to prominence in the early 1980s as a key figure in the burgeoning British Black Arts Movement with figurative pastel drawings and photo collages that addressed issues of race and gender in Britain. Since the 1990s, however, Boyce has shifted significantly to embrace a social practice that invites improvisation, collaboration, movement, and sound with other people. Working across a range of media, Boyce’s practice today is focused on questions of artistic authorship and cultural difference. In 2016, Boyce was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London and in 2023, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science in Boston. Since graduating in the early 1980s Boyce has consistently worked within the art school context. In 2014 she became a Professor at University of the Arts London, where she holds the inaugural Chair in Black Art & Design. A three year research project into Black Artists and Modernism culminated with a 2018 BBC documentary Whoever Heard of a Black Artist?, exploring the contribution of overlooked artists of African and Asian descent to the story of modern British art. In the King’s New Year Honours List of 2023, Boyce was awarded a Damehood.

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