Teatime (an installation)
A site-specific sound installation for the National Trust’s High Cross House. Open Wednesdays to Sundays from Wednesday September 25 to Sunday, November 17, 2013 (admission charge for non-members).
I work with sound and digital and recorded technologies to enliven and animate space. Sometimes these are outdoor spaces, and sometimes they are buildings imbued with a particular resonance or meaning. I welcomed the opportunity to work in this historic house: one of the first modernist houses to be built in the UK, designed as a showcase for the International Style by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze. The house, which opened in 1932, was built for William Burnlee Curry, Headmaster of the Dartington Hall School, itself a showcase for the modern, child-centred education more famously espoused at Summerhill.
I was a resident artist over the summer of 2013 in one of the studios of High Cross House, which has been the home of scores of artist residencies since the National Trust opened the house in 2011. My first task was to rebuild a 1960s cherry-red GPO telephone in the study, giving visitors to the house an opportunity to leave a recorded message about High Cross. I also dug deep into the Dartington Archive and resurrected correspondence from the 1930s relating to the house. I conducted interviews with visitors and with people who had lived in the house, as well as talking to NT staff. All of this material is collected into this sound art installation.
During the residency I kept a blog which explores my somewhat complex relationship with this place as well as the progress of the residency and the creation of the installation.
High Cross House is so much more than a house (although it hasn’t served this purposed for decades, and to some degree seemed to lose its way after could no longer exercise its essential being as a house). It represents in many ways the extraordinary social experiment conducted by Dorothy and Leonard Elmirst at Dartington Hall starting in the early 1920s. Set in a thousand acres this medieval house became the home for much of the twentieth century of artists, entrepreneurs, thinkers, philosophers, and political refugees. The Elmhirsts sunk much of their vast fortune into capitalising their ideas for growing a rural, sustainable community based on the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore: an attempt to prove that rural England could be modern, economically sustainable, and culturally rich and alive. It was also something of a journey for me, as I came of age at this place, as a student and then a staff member at the revered and much-mourned Dartington College of Arts.
It felt important to work with something domestic and to ensure that I was highlighting the ‘house-ness’ of this building. ‘Teatime’ is a tea tray with a teapot from the 1930s and teacups from the 1950s made from that ubiquitous modern material, melamine. Each of the four cups represents a different part of the house’s history:
1. Music that would have been heard in the house
2. Comments and recordings made by visitors to the house
3. Recordings by staff and Richard’s reflections on his time in the house
4. Extracts from the Archive and other papers and publications, including voices from some who have lived in the house.
Acknowledgments. Special thanks (in no particular order) to Emma Carter, Lucinda Guy, Catherine Guy, Mark Leahy, Alicia Grace, Hugh Nankivell, Mike Ormerod, Heather Williams, and Nancy Sinclair, and to everyone who made a vocal contribution.