Xenogothic Radio #4: The Sounds & Silences of Llansteffan

This is old. Almost four years old. Posting this as Episode #4 of Xenogothic Radio might be cheating a bit but I’ve been revisiting this recently as I find myself in that cold, sad December mood of nostalgia for brighter climes, trying to take my mind away to somewhere other than London on a miserable Tuesday morning commute.

This was initially made as a CD for the population of a small Welsh coastal village, around the bay from Laugharne, the adopted home of Dylan Thomas. In hindsight, it’s basically just a radio show. It’s about time I gave it the chance to exist as such. 

In 2015 I did an artist residency programme in Llansteffan, a tiny coastal village in Carmenthenshire, West Wales. It was my first and only residency after I graduated from my undergraduate photography degree in 2013 but I had decided I wanted to swap my camera for a microphone.

I came across this project again today and, whilst it was initially presented in a very different format, it is essentially a radio show and one which still warms my heart so, for Xenogothic Radio #4, we’re going for a dip into my archive.

I was living in Cardiff at the time and, at the National Museum, at some sort of art event in the depths of winter, I ended up chatting to an artist called Lauren Heckler.

A residency whizz, having already travelled the world making site-specific work, Lauren had just recently moved to Cardiff and was looking to return home, organising a residency in Llansteffan where she had grown up.

It sounded really interesting and so did she so, still unemployed at that time, when we said goodbye, she gave me the details, and, later that week, I applied to be a part of it.

In March 2015, I joined a group of four other artists and, together, we would spend a number of weekends throughout March and April in the village making work before putting on an exhibition in the village hall.

The ethos of the residency was to bring contemporary art to a rural community but, in truth, this community was no stranger to artistic flirtations. Llansteffan was already home to the artist Osi Rhys Osmond, a renowned Welsh psychogeographer — “graphic psychogeographer”, as he’d call himself — who occupied the old dog pound in the village square.

Osmond was a psychogeographer in quite a literal sense. His artworks were made up of layers of maps and photographs and drawings and text. His abstracted cartographies resemble a sort of pre-digital deepdream of landscape and memory that didn’t quite resemble either — free-floating signifiers of time and place. 

I liked Osi’s work and I liked how he wrote about it too. I hadn’t heard of him before starting to plan for the residency and I was quite looking forward to meeting him. (There was a plan to have a somewhat formal meeting with him to discuss our approaches to this new — for us — space.) Unfortunately, shortly before the residency was about to start, Osmond lost his battle to cancer. I remember Lauren, who had been mentored by Osi, was heartbroken and considered calling the whole thing off. Instead, we went ahead with the residency in his honour.

The first day — a Saturday in early March — also happened to be the day of Osi’s funeral. We stood outside the church with other members of the overflowing crowd, listening to some wonderful eulogies. I think we mostly felt like we were intruding, but it felt only right to pay our respects to Osi before proceeding to make work in his substantial shadow.

The implicit influence of Osi on our thinking was hugely important for all of us. We each tried to map the space and its people in our own ways. I wanted to work with sound rather than photography — taking only one (proper) picture (not simply for documentary purposes) the entire that I was there. I’d previously, as a student, made photography installations that were soundtracked by mix CDs that I would pump into a space and give away, as a sort of soundtrack to the work and its making. 

I wanted to find a way of exploring the experience of photography itself. That’s what I loved: taking pictures, not looking at them. Everything after that experience of walking around and clicking that shutter was admin. I started to make field recordings of my photowalks, the sounds of the country or the city, punctuated by camera clicks. Then, after a while, the camera became altogether redundant. I wanted to capture that experience, not hide it behind the romanticism of Photoshop and big white spaces.

I started to make guides instead, inspired by the works of Janet Cardiff. I made aural accompaniments to the experience of photographing, retaining the aural experience that was so important to me but that was, most of the time, exorcised from the final “representation”.

That’s what I ended up putting in the village hall: a little hub, reminiscent of a half-forgotten tourist information centre, all cork board and pinned up bits of paper, maps, local info… And then, on the table, a Walkman and a stack of CDs. I only made 50 copies but they all went on the first day. I hope the people of Llansteffan still listen to it sometimes.

I wanted to share it here too. It’s not particularly Gothic, but it certainly contains all of my interests: consciousness raising, sound, the political potentials of mediated experience, mythologies, humour, new futures out of lost pasts, etc. It’s a project that I look back on so very fondly — mostly because Llansteffan is one of the most beautiful and relaxed places I’ve ever been — and sometimes I still listen to this to take myself back there.

I never shared it around that much because, being so site-specific, I wasn’t sure it would survive outside its immediate context. But now, I think maybe there’s something there…

See what you think.

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