SIREN collective in conversation with Anjali Prashar-Savoie
In this interview, SIREN talks to cultural producer Anjali Prashar-Savoie, one half of Sonic Gaze, about the changing landscape of London nightlife, collaborating with major art institutions and their video installation ‘The Shape of Sound’ at Somerset House Studios.
The experience of being in a club, right at the front, lost in the pounding DJ set, only to suddenly be aware of the lack of diversity in the crowd is unfortunately, an all too frequent one. There’s a similar feeling of alienation in endless homogenous line ups at major electronic music festivals and clubs. Alongside this, women and non-binary people still face discrimination and sexism from other DJs. This lost potential of what electronic music and club cultures can do in terms of creating creative and radical spaces for art and expression can be frustrating.
As such, the emergence of SIREN was like finding an oasis in the middle of the increasingly stagnant hyper-masculine and cis male dominated scene. SIREN’s inclusive ethos, support of newcomers, women, queer people and DIY artists, as well as their multimedia approach to electronic music, is trailblazing.
Having established themselves as a collective in 2016, they have since grown immensely, tearing up the electronic music scene and building an inclusive safe haven for women and non-binary people. From workshops, zines, an NTS Radio show and parties highlighting the work of women and non-binary people, SIREN has been expanding the ways in which they support underrepresented artists.
Anjali: SIREN is now championing inclusive club culture in a variety of event formats: from club nights to radio shows, workshops and zines. How has the landscape of club culture and electronic music in London changed since your collective first came together?
SIREN: The scene is certainly booking more women and non-binary people since we started two and a half years ago. It’s not perfect, but there’s definitely been a lot of positive progress. We have seen so many other collectives and nights emerge recently too. In some ways this has changed our output, and we are focussing less on running frequent parties, rather bringing our attention to different ways of promoting female and non-binary artists. Workshops, multimedia projects, our zine, our monthly NTS show and special collaborations have been our main focus most recently.
The thing that hasn’t changed much is the commercialisation and sanitisation of dance music, and the financial accessibility to that. Beyond inclusivity for gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, and so on, this is one of our main focuses as a collective. We believe that the industry could do a lot more to care about both the accessibility of the scene and the lack of risk-taking by established promoters, venues and labels in promoting new artists.
We have also seen an increase in big brands wanting to capitalise on diversity by using artists to sell products, whilst rarely contributing to the nurturing of our marginalised communities with any sense of longevity. Many of these drink and fashion brands have deep-rooted ethical issues within their companies where their workers’ rights are awful, and the owners are right-wing billionaires. Their adoption of feminism, as a means to make themselves look good, comes across as hypocritical. However, it’s still difficult to find a financially sustainable way to create art and music as an individual in 2018. Therefore, it seems like there isn’t much choice but to work with these brands.
Anjali: ‘The Shape of Sound’ is a video installation of live performances of six UK-based women and non-binary artists shown at Assembly, Somerset House Studios. Something that really stood out to us about the work was your use of video as a medium to explore electronic music, as well as the word ‘shape’, which implies a certain tangible or visual representation of sound. What were your motivations for using video to platform sound art and live electronic music, and how did you hope listeners and viewers would respond to the installation?
SIREN: The idea for the project stemmed from essentially wanting to see more teasers of artists who perform live sets. We do a lot of work with DJs, and it seems that mix series and radio shows are a very common way for people to get a taste of what a DJ plays in the club and how they mix. There are other pre-existing series of live performance videos. especially online, but we feel that many of them don’t focus enough on unsigned or DIY artists, or on the genres we are interested in.
Whilst all of the artists and producers we worked with have studio recordings and releases online, we feel that both live performance and video as mediums have the potential to combine and capture multimedia, performative, fluid (and obviously 3-dimensional) elements rather than simply an audio recording. So, we wanted to create a series of videos that give people a feel of how these artists play live without just being filmed during a gig. The 10-15 minute performances in these videos are different to those that the artists would do in a venue or club, because they respond to the empty space of the rooms in Somerset House.
Another motive for the project was our interest in making use of the beautiful space of Somerset House during our residency, and video felt like a great way to capture that. So the title ‘Shape of Sound’ is based around the way sound interacts with these spaces, the physicality of the live performance as a combination of sonic, visual and movement-based practice, and the idea of focusing on women and non-binary artists who are reshaping the scene in their own way.
This is the first video project we have worked on, and thinking beyond simply platforming artists at one off live events is important to us. This format will hopefully have a wider reach and can be more accessible to audiences around the world. Even the fact that the videos are premiering at Assembly and playing on a loop for five days
Object Blue gives a lot more people the opportunity to see these performances from being one-off events in a club.
Anjali: SIREN is currently Associate Artist-in-Residence at Somerset House Studios. Many major art institutions in London are increasingly opening doors to underground artists and club cultures – from Tate Lates and the creation of Somerset House Studios, to QTIPOC-focused Pxssy Palace taking over the V&A. What are your thoughts on the relationship between institutions and DIY collectives, and how have you found the experience of operating SIREN outside of club spaces? What are some strategies for platforming underrepresented artists and underground club cultures within the context of an art institution?
SIREN: In spite of our lack of interest in working with brands, we see the opening of art institutions’ doors to emerging artists as a good thing, particularly if the institutions are funded in grassroot and ethical ways. The walls of these galleries are by no means a substitute for a nightclub, but one of the things we have always been interested in as a collective is the potential of music and sound as a multimedia practice; and it is rare to find spaces that accommodate to this crossing over of mediums in the music world. It’s really exciting, and, honestly, quite groundbreaking to see these spaces providing a platform to emerging, contemporary DIY artists.
Anjali: Over the past few years, your collective has grown immensely in an ever-changing scene of politics, identity, electronic music and art. What can we expect from SIREN going forwards?
SIREN: We’re looking to continue our work through our zine (the third issue of which we have just released), NTS show, workshops and online platform. We’d like to look at ways we can throw events again in the future, but this is something we need to work out how to do more sustainably since we are increasingly busier and financially stretched and don’t have the ability right now to take on organising large events. We are always open to collaborations with other like-minded collectives, and we are sure we’ll have more of those in the future. The Shape of Sound is also the first of our associate artist projects with Somerset House Studios. We’re still working on some exciting workshops for this. We’re planning more live and multimedia-based projects, and we are currently curating our mix series to continue to promote DJs.
Sonic Gaze is a joint project with Lizzie Masterton and Anjali Prashar-Savoie, exploring the power dynamics of sound.
SIREN is a collective challenging preconceptions within dance music whilst bringing to the fore those underrepresented in the scene. Watch The Shape of Sound here.