Voluminous Arts

Despite Time: Hearing Voices in Slabs Vol. 1

by Kit Danowski
April 11th 2022

Through this interdisciplinary text, media artist, Palo practitioner and Senior Lecturer in Performance at The University of Portsmouth Kit Danowski contextualizes Gavilán Rayna Russom’s new EP Slabs Vol I within the long arc of her creative output, locating it within long standing practices of engagement with time and the dead.

Kit Danowski

THERE'S SOMETHING ALREADY HAUNTED, or charmed, about a work that takes you out of time, but requires you to listen to it in time. That is the nature of Gavilán Rayna Russom’s work, after all, where her live and DJ sets have transported club kids and the markedly less hip (like myself) from one place to another, one time to another, since she started circuit bending before most people had even heard of it. She is part of a long lineage of electronic experimentation, and throughout her career has been pointing toward the African sensibilities that lie at the core of this experimentation. The temporality in her work is not unusual, and not extraordinary, but it’s definitely not western. There’s a lyric from the jazz classic Out of this world: “and despite time here you are.” This is where we find ourselves when we give in and let the magic happen. It is quite literally magic; it’s a conscious act of magic in the old school sense of the term, with conjurings and spirits and the realm of the invisibles. Sounds are spells. And the audience is the living and the dead. Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible, but makes visible.” The same is true for what art does for the audible.

To a spirit medium, hearing and seeing the dead is not unusual. The voices or the visions are obvious, starting like a twitch, or something even less subtle, a signal that something is happening. This something happens to the body, in time, as a stepping stone to move outside of time. Her tracks consciously evoke this, inspired and informed by modes of knowing from Palo. Palo is a ritual system that was born from a blending of Central African and indigenous ontologies in Cuba in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. Like other indigenous ritual systems, it has old roots that constantly inspire new growth, as a living system that works both under and above ground; it’s an ongoing conversation that writes on and from the bodies of the dead and the living simultaneously. In Todd Ramón Ochoa’s ethno-anthropological observations of this universe, there are the ambient dead and the responsive dead. The ambient dead are part of the surround, the local ghosts who haunt this particular place in time, the ghosts we carry but do not know, lost in the wake of history but living in the bloodlines. The responsive dead are the ones we do know, the ones we speak to, the ones we can hear and sometimes see. The sounds in these recordings are like that. These are spaces of ambient dead, particular to the spaces and conditions of their recordings, but highly tuned and channelled through the hands and ears and heart of a witch. These are not her inventions. They are the obvious sounds that she brought from there to here. Despite time.

This is sound as mediumship. When your senses sense it, it is obvious. When they are tuned to the frequencies of the dead, the listener’s focus is sharper, and Rayna is pointing toward something that is absolutely there. It’s a figure, or a message, or a sound, but you wouldn’t notice it on your own. The patriarchal colonial overlay tries to keep our attention on a particular experience of the present, one fraught with anxiety, where the past is unchangeable and the future is not to be decided by the disempowered. This is the master’s clockwork, as articulated by Rasheedah Phillips, and it is dismantled here through acts of art and mediumship.

These are not soundscapes (and, like most of what she does, are “genuinely uncategorizeable”). It is not mood music, setting an atmosphere as a bedrock for a particular desired experience; instead these sounds accentuate a complex relationship between the living and the dead. Those interstitial sounds that are usually masked or smoothed over with engineering are instead highlighted. Like the tendons, connecting bone to bone; like the Kalunga line, connecting the world of the living with the world of the dead. The connection between the spirit medium and digital media, or any art media, is not a casual one, and one already in circulation in some art circle conversations. In many of these circles, the metaphor of mediumship is just that, a metaphor, but this is not that. In the way that the medium is between the worlds, bringing messages and images and sounds from one place to another and back again, the artist medium is that space of communication, and if they are paying attention and using the technologies available, it is a space of conjure. In the sense of Solimar Otero’s Archives of Conjure, these are written on the body, and Rayna uses the multitrack recording as a means of layering time and space. The crossroads is where time and space meet, the intersection.

One of the important intersections here (and there are many, and many more than any one listener or listening can reveal) is with Rayna’s work from the early to mid 90’s under the alias Child. Those ‘atmospheric home recordings’ are, like Slabs, simultaneously pointing in new directions and following in very specific traditions. The traditions are opaque, in Glissant’s sense of Opacity, and the new directions are not always forward in time. They look back, they look sideways, they are like the present breath that takes all of this in, or tries to take it all in, everything in this moment. This excavation of the past is also its own kind of myth. Like that holy grail, you grasp it when you are very young, and then lose it, and spend the rest of your life trying to grasp it again. Things that we know as young artists are the things that we wonder how we knew when we are older, and this is another intersection of time and space that makes things start to sing, when wisdom meets energy. There is a defiance in these tracks that is as alluring as punk, but where part of punk rock’s appeal was its power to channel certain kinds of frustrated energy against oppressive systems, this takes those impulses and asks the ancestors for help. Just as we have ancestors, moments have ancestors, and they form threads. She is texturing these threads in much the way she turns the background noise inside out, tuning in to the sounds we might be trained to tune out. The layers are not uncovered, they are instead made obvious.

I’ve heard/seen her play in Berlin and Brooklyn and London, for all kinds of crowds who have all kinds of urgencies they bring with them to the shows. They also bring their own ancestors, their own dead. Everyone moves together, because here there really is something for everyone. But ultimately this is deconstructed dance music for the kids in the back, or maybe for the ghosts that we all carry. This is the magic of Dionysian ecstasy for the initiated. But not exclusively. Away from the binary of insider-outsider, you don’t have to know all the contexts (opacity means that the contexts are sometimes largely inaccessible), but, if you pay attention, something extraordinary will start to happen. Or maybe ordinary. Maybe it’s just ordinary waking up.

Past and future, the dead and the living, the hidden and the revealed - in these tracks the binaries stop interrupting each other, and start to glitch (and never has it been more important to embrace that we live in the glitch). And despite time, here we are. In listening to these tracks and how they speak to and through each other, we have the chance to see the pattern from the perspective of the threads that are woven, or from the beads as they are strung, and we see ourselves repeating, over and over, until we are no longer ourselves but much, much more. The ghosts that we carry are audible, not because they are louder but because we have the technologies to hear them. The dead move through us, sometimes like a wave, sometimes like a hurricane, but never ever simply a particle.

So this work then, is a weave of the old and the new, continuing some of the threads that she left back there, like beads that fell to the floor to be picked up and finally integrated into the cloth. The ghosts here are no less haunting than when we first saw them, but neither are they the stuff of nightmares. In the conjuring traditions, shadows work a little differently. We remember that the spectres we used to run from are the things our collective imagination refuses to face, that the colonial mindset refuses to recognise - and that to look into that mirror is to fall back into the weave of history. We and our ghosts, are two faces looking back at each other through time. Despite time.