'Can I ask your mum's name?'

queerIng Language Through Sound

Artist in Conversation: Bobbi Cameron

In October 2020, Glasgow-based artist Bobbi Cameron presented ‘NINE’, a 6-channel sound installation spawned from an exploration into queermethodology and disorientation, and their combined effects on architecture and landscape. Projecting feelings of loss, unexplored realities and altered perceptions across a vast sonic soundscape, the installation examines the ways in which we navigate the world, and questions how new landscapes may be explored.

The product of the artist’s ongoing research into queermethodology and disorientation and their combined effects on architecture and landscape, ‘NINE’ explores how artistic interventions can impact on the communal disorientation experienced with spiritual beings. Sharing conversations with psychics and mediums, the artist examines the feelings of connecting with spirits, and how these connections can disrupt our sense of space, place and architecture. 

Prior to the opening of ‘NINE’ in Folkestone back in October 2020, HOP co-director Nina Shen-Poblete invited Bobbi Cameron to discuss her personal connections to the work, and the immersive experience of its creation. 

There were those who were academics and studied this in a scientific way, and those who were just born with it, who just know their experiences, but the consistency between all of them is that none thought that it had to be a special gift and all of them believed that it can be learnt, and not even just learnt, it is already there in everyone, and we just need to open ourselves to it…

[Nina Shen-Poblete]: Since we spoke about a year ago, the ghosts have appeared as new ‘characters’ in the project, how has this come about?

[Bobbi Cameron]: My inquiry started out from my interests in queer methodology and disorientation (Sarah Ahmed) which extends to an ongoing interest in how architecture and landscape can change through artistic action and interventions. The element of disorientation was still there but I wanted to explore what it meant to open up and to experience a space with ghosts, spirits, and entities. I wanted to know if I was to walk into a room, and that room was filled with ghosts, how would that change my perception of the architecture or landscape or any environment? Although I wasn’t thinking about any specific environment as such.

But the shift happened accidentally. I’m not a psychic so I went to talk to psychics and mediums about how it felt for them, to gather information and to reflect on it later on. Whilst I became involved with speaking with people who do Reiki and use spirituality as part of their practice, my position in this process had shifted from being the documentarian and outsider, to being the one having these interactions with the spirits – to being in the thick of it, really.

Through these psychic conversations I became interested in psychics who spoke to beings not in this world (in a human sense) [laughs]… they often spoke about these communications as being quite clouded, messy, or intangible. I was interested in this non-linear, fragmented way of communicating as a type of queerness, a queer methodology or as a way of queering language.

[NSP]: Do you need special abilities to connect between this world and the other?

[BC]: I think anybody can do it. My mum was a psychic, a spiritual healer, as a child I was raised on this as a sort of religion… it is the only parallel I can draw. Through my teenage years I stopped interacting with it and then she passed away, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I rekindled this interest. I’ve interviewed a lot of psychics and mediums from really different traditions and socio-economic backgrounds – the good thing about the coronavirus is that it opened up new ways of engaging – so having Zoom conversations became really normal. I spoke with YouTube psychic influencer types in America, and those from a Roma tradition, as well as those from a working-class town outside Glasgow. There were those who were academics and studied this in a scientific way, and those who were just born with it, who just know their experiences, but the consistency between all of them is that none thought that it had to be a special gift and all of them believed that it can be learnt, and not even just learnt, it is already there in everyone, and we just need to open ourselves to it. The general belief seemed to be that some people are more open and psychic abilities tend to come out in childhood, and it is more difficult to come out later in life unless they actively pursue it. That’s probably because kids are more open and not so constrained by societal prejudices. I potentially have an inherited awareness or belief since I was little, but I have also learnt it through the process of making this piece of work.

For me queerness is not just about my sexuality but also about how I position myself in the world politically, and witchcraft practices fall into that. They are both looking at ‘other’ ways against ‘norms’, and the fundamental basis to both of them is how we exist in the world, how we navigate the world that is other through non-normative behaviour.

[NSP]: ‘Witchcraft’ still carries social taboo. It is very underground and sub-cultural… The act of ‘witching’ is seen as an important counter force generally attributed to female social figures i.e. the mother – that balances out the patriarchal powers. The special powers to block and subvert dominant forces can be read metaphorically or symbolically as a counter-cultural force or resistance, similar to the acts of queering.

[BC]: I think they are extremely linked. For me queerness is not just about my sexuality but also about how I position myself in the world politically, and witchcraft practices fall into that. They are both looking at ‘other’ ways against ‘norms’, and the fundamental basis to both of them is how we exist in the world, how we navigate the world that is other through non-normative behaviour. This can be alternative healing practices, rituals, and the practices of magic as well.

[NSP]: When you talk about your work as being autobiographical. How did you balance a highly personal project with a new community that you’ve found through this journey?

[BC]: It wasn’t my intention… Initially I wanted to speak to psychics to apply their use of language to a process of queering. But when I tried to engage them in serious, academic conversations about their experiences they repeatedly had to stop me – they were like ‘I’m sorry, there are a lot of people who want to communicate with you’ – so I became involved!

[NSP]: Did you know who you were speaking to?

[BC]: My mum was there consistently. There were also my grandparents who died when I was quite young. I don’t remember them that well so I was quite surprised how ‘there’ they were, sometimes they were the first people who came through. What was interesting was the consistency of who my people are… those who were around… so the work had to come to be about them as they were so present in the process of making it. An example of which is in the audio piece when my mum came through and communicated with me. This was a good example of this type of non-normative language, there was a lot of back and forth, when the psychic was repeating the numbers. It wasn’t particularly clear, and you had to search for it like breadcrumbs…

What I like about sound is that there is no fixed space. Even if you have just one speaker in the room, the sound takes up the whole room… There is a flexibility and malleability to having no fixed viewing point and that kind of fluidity is an advantage.

[NSP]: How did it work over Zoom? Was it as effective as a real space like this room, as we might be surrounded by ghosts?

[BC]: The psychics I spoke to all described the approach of connecting to spirits as like tuning into a radio. Sometimes they get accosted by things which just appear, but most of the time they go through meditations and spend some time tuning in and dialling up the radio, so there doesn’t seem to be a need for space or to be near someone. They had to ask their (ghosts or spirit) guides to gather any information for me… like old school internet… so Zoom didn’t make a difference in that sense. 

There is a general belief that a set of people are around each of us as our guides, people who used to be here and are now looking out for you… but there is another layer to that which was described to me in quite a hierarchical way… one person described it as entities and another described it as a being, not a body or human but something of their own. Some psychics can go between the two, connecting to the spiritual entities and the ghosts, but none seem to be able to go between the two at the same time. You have to tune into one radio wave and come out before going into another, like there are different channels.

[NSP]: It feels like this other world has its own structures and perhaps its own architecture. For instance, ‘coming out of one channel before entering into another’ suggests to me that it is not an open field, but as if there are routes, corridors and rooms… there is something inherently structural about it, but perhaps more fluid. Going back to the idea of disorientation as a philosophical way of experiencing life, how does this experience manifest in your art practices?

[BC]: For a long time I’ve been really interested in working with installations using sound with the intention of ‘ghosting’ a gallery, and I’ve been using that term before I actually worked with ghosts.

I like playing with the documented body, recorded sound or even video footage of people which is then brought into the gallery space, I then try to give them ‘presence’ in the space without them actually being there. I’ve been interested in working with ambisonic sound, which gives a real texture to the sound in the gallery. You can create physical pockets, and a corridor between the pocket here and there, there is a texture to them and they take up space. I haven’t been able to work with the ambisonic presentations yet because of the costs and the complexity of its process, but it’s something that I’d like to explore in the longer term. For now I’m working with 5 mic surrounds, or with 6 speakers to give pre-recorded or documented body agency in this space. Now I’m actually working with spirits and try to give them space where they were not known about and not given much space before. There are many potentials in developing non-linear and non-normative ways of communication as methodology and as practice, and how that in itself is a queer methodology.

The psychics I spoke to all described the approach of connecting to spirits as like tuning into a radio. Sometimes they get accosted by things which just appear, but most of the time they go through meditations and spend some time tuning in and dialling up the radio, so there doesn’t seem to be a need for space or to be near someone.

[NSP]: The idea of ‘ghosting’ and sound that ‘takes up space’ provoke so many possibilities… With this show as modest as it is, there are a lot of decisions that go into the choice of fabrics, the subtle shifts in lighting, the smell. Do you feel that these are unnecessary constraints, or do you feel the other elements are helpful?

[BC]: What I like about sound is that there is no fixed space. Even if you have just one speaker in the room, the sound takes up the whole room… There is a flexibility and malleability to having no fixed viewing point and that kind of fluidity is an advantage. The looseness to the sound gives me a lot of space for experimenting and I like the idea of working with light and sound together – which is something I started exploring last year. Light has a lot of weight in terms of spiritual presence, and it’s also got that similar quality to sound in not being fixed. The two of them complement each other, they take up space in a similar texture, and light can be used to map sound or to give it focus. Moving forward I’d like to have the sound and light working more in correlation with one another. The light in this installation is relatively fixed, perhaps in the next installation it can be programmed.

[NSP]: What about words, and text?

[BC]: I like working with text. My work has landed in this place as being quite narrative, either as documentary or describing something literally. Entering into an abstract sound can be quite hard and you need a way in or something, and I think working with text provides that point of access or focus. It’s like a guide.

[NSP]: Right! The feeling I get from reading the text is very much about being in the present, and stepping into the future – in other words, it is in movement, rather than being in stasis. The way you described the landscape brings so much texture to the present it shifts you and provides a passage between different worlds. I feel that your work is not about a theatrical re-staging of an experience, or a virtual experience mediated by technology, it allows us to experience a reality that seems more interesting and surprising.

[BC]: I like to create worlds – many different worlds – it comes back to the idea of escapism and wanting to take people out of the gallery. In this installation there are probably 4 or 5 different places and I try to record spaces that are quite real, none of which is done in the studio. The voices are recorded with a basic microphone between us where you can hear the slightest echoes, a buzz, and those recordings done down at the beach where you can hear the rain physically on the microphone. I think I’d like to take people to those places where we can collectively enter into weirder ones, for instance where spirits and ghosts dwell, and the work can become more experimental. I’m making little stepping stones… perhaps my background in the theatre where I like to set up a space or a scene has come out in a different way.

[NSP]: I think it’s great and I hope your mum will be at the show tonight…

[BC]: She is ‘thanked’ in this exhibition, my silent collaborator!

Digital exhibition information:

‘NINE’ – Bobbi Cameron | Re-created by the artist for an immersive headphone experience condensing over 33 tracks, ‘NINE’ is a unique listening journey that transports the entire body to a different space through the ears.

Find a quiet space, put on your headphones, close your eyes and experience the world of ‘NINE’ below.

Large text transcription is also available to download from the link below.