The central premise of Silent City, treat the group comprised of artists Emily Whitebread, Cara Nahaul and Sally Mumby-Croft, whose first exhibition has just opened in Brick Lane, is intriguing. Their starting point was a reaction against what they perceived as the standard Climate Change exhibition. Cara explained the original thinking behind the group:
“We went to the RA’s ‘Earth: Art of a Changing World’, and we were completely disappointed. There were one or two standout pieces, for example Lemn Sissay’s performance video ‘What If?’, but on the whole it was a very shallow, one-dimensional show. It didn’t provoke us at all. We found the bright red neon globes and concrete flowers both obvious and pious. The worst thing though, was that it seemed almost entirely from a Western perspective. We’re the ones who caused this mess with our industrialisation, but the Global South is paying the highest price. Bangladesh will be submerged by our actions, but at that show countries that are actually directly affected by climate change didn’t even get a look in.”
They founded Silent City the next day. Their objective was to redress this balance by putting on exhibitions that would seek to present the full implications of Climate Change – especially what it would do to those nearer the equator.
I went along to Brick Lane to see if their exhibition could match her admirable words, and I was suitably impressed. A group show of around 20 artists of various backgrounds whose work all deals with the environment have joined the three founding artists, and the result is a pleasing mix between professionally polished ideas and the kind of activist idealism that was missing from Earth: Art of a Changing World.
The work, in various mediums from painting and film to dead insects, was of a very high standard. Highlights included Tutte Newall’s beautiful but disturbing paintings of monochrome animals who stand in pools of their own colour, Jools Johnson’s fascinating installations of dystopian cityscapes fashioned out of screws and random computer components, and Claire Robert’s presentation of dead bees, a commentary on the emergence of colony collapse disorder, which threatens bees worldwide, and therefore a third of the world’s food supply.
Works such as the documentary Drowning By Carbon, by Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell, which featured Bangladeshi children planting the trees that they hoped would one day save them from the looming climate catastrophe, ensured that the original promise that the exhibition would deal with the Global South was kept.
But perhaps the best thing about Silent City was that it managed to put forward a view of Climate Change that was not obvious, in spite of the fact that as a topic it has been talked to death from every angle. Featured documentary Mauerpark, for example, focused on the proposed development of the famous Berlin park. At first glance, this seems more a social than an environmental issue, but after watching the film its relevance to the Climate debate became clear: At its heart the film was about the choice between the short term pursuit of growth and a space that was for everyone, whose benefits could appear more intangible and immeasurable. It became easy to view Mauerpark as microcosm of the natural world itself.
This outlook on climate Change that seemed fresh and different, coupled with art that was as well thought out and made as it was thought-provoking, made Silent City a big success. In fact it was so successful that the closing night film screening was such a scrum that people were camping out on the stairs, able to hear but not see the films. Silent City was apparently just the first of a planned series of exhibitions. It looks like next time they might have to rent out a bigger space.
Iceland’s Hjaltalín are one of the many groups from the island nation currently building up a fair bit of buzz – their first album, physician Sleepdrunk Sessions, drug was hailed by many for its large, expansive sound featuring what sounded like a whole orchestra at times. Some even compared their sound to Arcade Fire soundtracking a Bond film. I had a chat with their bassoonist, Rebekka Bryndís, about the band as they prepare to release their second album, Terminal.
Can you start off by explaining how the band works together. How do you write your songs?
Our lead singer writes most of the songs. He comes up with an idea or writes something and then they kind of evolve into the full songs through teamwork. And then also some came about from playing with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.
Are you guys classically trained to use your instruments?
Yep, most of us are.
So then you come to this with quite a detailed knowledge of music theory, I imagine? You have a very interesting orchestral sound, especially on the latest album [Terminal]. How does it differ from your first album [Sleepdrunk Sessions]?
It’s very different from the first album. The first album came about, pretty much, because it was supposed to be an EP but it then evolved into an LP. It’s all quite different with Terminal, because we’re all touring a lot and so the songs have changed a lot, within the band, and when we decided to record the songs most of them we recorded in one big session with a chamber orchestra so it had that live sound. Not all of the songs were recorded that way, but most of them.
Recorded quite organically then?
Yes, it was.
I can hear a lot of influence from film soundtracks and composers like Ennio Morricone in your music – are those big influences on your sound?
Were you trying to record something that sounded like a soundtrack to something, in a way?
Uh… Not really! [laughs] It just kind of turned out that way. We wanted to do a wide sound, really. Lots of things going on.
Have you ever done a film soundtrack?
We have! It was for this black and white film, I believe it was the first film that was ever made in Iceland, made by some Danish peeps, called Saga Borgarættarinnar.
What’s it like to record a real film soundtrack, compared to a normal album?
We played it live, actually, for a film festival, the Reykjavik International Film Festival, and we played live in front of an audience alongside the film. It was a lot of work… We were told that the movie was two hours but when we got the DVDs it was something like four and a half hours, so we just did the first half of the story… It was interesting.
It was a different creative process?
Definitely. We’d just hang out at the rehearsing spaces and just come up with stuff, but after our sessions this guy called Ben Frost – he’s this minimal electronic artist – he performed with us and we had a few recordings that were really cool, for Wonderbrass…
Wonderbrass, it’s the jazz group…
Ah, not the brassiere company.
No [laughs], that’s kind of the joke, I think… But yeah, Ben Frost performed with us, it was like a collective.
Does that happen a lot with you guys? Other artists coming in to help you?
Uh, no… Well, we do have other artists coming in to help us sometimes, but they’re not any part of the group.
But you might be in the studio and someone will stroll by and help put down a guitar track or something?
Yeah, yeah, people do come in and help with stuff.
That’s my impression of the music scene in Iceland – that it’s all like a close-knit, family community sort of thing. Is that what’s it’s like?
Most people, if they don’t know each other, they know of each other – they’ll recognise each other in the street. I guess it’s safe to say that there’s almost cliques that form? But not in a bad way, there are just circles of people who are really friendly and helpful.
Where are you going from here, then?
This summer we’ve got some festivals going on here, and we’ve got this big thing with the National Symphony Orchestra here so we’re here for that…
I imagine it’s quite hard to get them on tour with you.
[laughs] Yeah, yes. That’s a difficult thing. Uh, yeah, there’s also a big tour in September, going across Europe, with Germany in July at the start I think. It’s a busy summer.
What’s going to be the first single off the album?
‘Abroad’? I think… we haven’t really discussed it yet. All the songs are so different!
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