Good To Us was a new live presentation by Ashley Holmes which was premiered during Holmes’ participation in Survey at Jerwood Arts. Good To Us was developed out of a written adaptation of “Dope”, a poem by American writer, music critic and poet, Amiri Baraka (previously known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka).
Taylor Le Melle: You opened your recent performance, Good to Us, with a montage of sorts: Instagram videos that the social media app had suggested ‘you might like’.
Ashley Holmes: So I’ve been thinking a lot about algorithms in relation to the information we provide these kinds of social media platforms. Firstly in the initial sign up stage with info like age, location, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc, and then secondly, the profiles and content on Instagram that we specifically engage and interact with. Both of these things seem to affect the algorithm, and as a result, presents new material that it decides you would like if you haven’t already come across it.
That being said, with the information that I signed up to Instagram with, and through submitting information about the things that I ‘like’, the application recognises that I am a 28 year old, black male based in the UK.
Until this conversation I’ve been feeling very smug about my explore section, as in I didn’t really think it had much to do with what I’ve actually been liking. Turns out I don’t know myself very well because the images that I have ‘liked’ are pretty much identical to what is then shown back to me in the explore section. They are more like celebritised versions of the images I’m actually liking. Which would make sense. For example, in my likes was a picture (true story) of a black “masc” model standing in front of an expensive vehicle, and in my explore page was a picture of Chris Brown in front of a hummer.
I’m curious to know your assessment of what the videos in your explore section that you used in your performance have in common…?
My Instagram explore right now mainly consists of clips of music videos and rap freestyles, barbershop and durag memes/reveals and football content.
…and, how closely do you think Instagram correctly predicted that you would ‘like’ that content?
Something I am noticing in these suggestions in the ‘explore’ section is that the posts are starting to reflect my interest in conversations centered around the term Raciology, which is a discourse that assumes certain stereotypes, prejudices, images and identities. Through my interactions with various profiles and posts, my explore section maps my interest in archiving music, performance, sport and design within the arena of contemporary black cultural production. So a lot of the things that I am making at the moment ask the question: how do explore recommendations and repackage a complex constructed identity of black masculinity in 2018? And do we necessarily adhere to these?
I’m interested in each person using Instagram having the option (the element of choice feels real important here?) of looking at the recommendations made to them by algorithm. And then the decision of acceptance or rejection that accompanies how you should self-identify in an online context.
In your performance you reworked Amiri Baraka’s poem ‘Dope‘. I was really excited to learn that you were doing this, because Baraka’s 1970 book In Our Terribleness (Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style) with Billy Abernathy has for a long time been one of my wish-I-could-get-my-hands-on-but-its-out-of-print-and-200£-on-resale wish list books. I thought it was going to be an expository conversation about ‘Black aesthetic’ or Black Style in film and photography . I then found out (through a trip to British Library) that Baraka and Abernathy were literally talking about style as in Fashion sense and Cool Factor – i.e. today that book might be called ‘In Our Terribleness (Some Elements of Drip)’ when I thought they were going to be speaking about something a bit more Jafa-esque in terms of a visual art aesthetic. But anyway, that’s my Baraka plot twist. Nonetheless, I’m curious, how did you come across ‘Dope’?
Amiri Baraka is somebody who I’m fascinated by and is really important to me in thinking about the idea of choice and permissions within the discourse of Raciology and, in a wider context, constructed identities. I first came across him through a piece of work I heard on a radio broadcast record a few years ago now. It was a piece called ‘It’s Nation Time’ and it was played amongst lots of soul, 70’s funk, and experimental jazz and house music in a two hour podcast. I’d describe ‘It’s Nation Time’ as falling within the genre of jazz music – it is frantic in its instrumentation and Baraka’s voice, played over the top of it, is equally frantic and uncompromising in its delivery. It felt urgent. Intrigued by this first encounter, I started to look around for more of Amiri Baraka’s work and found it all to have a very similar feel. I’m interested in how we negotiate language and the frameworks that the language sits within and I eventually came across a piece called Dope while on a YouTube binge. The delivery was the most frenetic and scared and satirical and confident use of voice in spoken word or music that I had ever heard, to the point where I had listened to it on repeat 5 or 6 times over. I had to run it a few times to take everything in.
What do you think that contemporary audiences can take away from that poem – or rather, why did it resonate with you?
In Dope, Baraka assumes the role of a hysterical African American church pastor, delivering a sermon. He presents a very bleak and very erratic view on the problems in Black American communities at that point of the 70s – he cites religion, drugs, alcohol, governmental systems and the black communities themselves as some of the problematic aspects of the major issues, and it was all delivered in a high tempo, satirical way. He starts the performance by saying “This is a poem I guess that reflects, uhh, living in Newark, but uhh, I guess living in any ghetto.”
I was most drawn to the way he approaches constructing a fictional narrative (ie. a Black American church pastor, who would have been a figure of authority within Black communities.) I remember being really excited by the mask wearing that takes place in order to assume a new identity, and then the decisions that go into thinking about an authentic way to present that identity in a way that retained an element of familiarity for the audience. What is the role of performance? Is that the best way of reflecting and commenting on a group’s relationship to figures of authority within our communities?
We have talked about how amazing his non-verbal utterances (‘ooh ooh oooh ooh’ etc) are in the live reading of that poem, the YouTube clip that we have both listened to. Can you talk a bit about how you feel about how Baraka uses his voice as an instrument…?
It’s something I think I’ve always been interested in – through lots of different types of audio material. Mainly in the adlibs in a lot of the hip hop and R&B that I’m listening to, and then also in the formats of conversations and interactions that happen in radio and television shows. There’s something in being granted permission or having potential to disrupt the rhythm of whatever is happening in the foreground that I really like. And the sharpness and moments of synchronisation is another bit I think I’m particularly into as well. I was really drawn to some of the moments of disruption in Dope.
How it makes you feel… what does it reminds you of…. ?
It feels really chaotic and the intonation in Baraka’s delivery is gutteral and emphasises the uneasy sensation you get, the more the work progresses. It feels like an expression of pain. And again, the further it progresses, the more relentless and more and more deranged it starts to feel.
One last question. So, you make music. What do you get from making music that you don’t get from making art? How does your community of (would it be fair to say) experimental musicians sustain you?
Yeah, I’ve quite recently started making some of my own stuff music-wise. It’s been a pretty fun new avenue to start heading down and flips between original productions and sample / edit based bits too. It’s loosely influenced by dancehall, lovers rock and soul music (https://soundcloud.com/toughmatter/sets/red-lights-in-the-road-head-on) and I’m working my way toward putting together a body of work in 2019 at some point. I’ve played other people’s music as a DJ for a few years now which I guess is where I began to think in a different way about the structures and layers of some of the music I enjoyed playing. Most of that was me learning on the job through bar residencies, the occasional club party booking and more recently radio broadcasts with my show on NTS radio in Manchester (and previous to that on UK Mondo in Sheffield where I live.)
I love the freedom that radio allows. And long before I had thought or even knew about djing when I was quite young I was listening to mixtapes and radio shows that my parents and grandparents were playing. I like the idea of being able to build a narrative around little wormholes of inter-related sounds and thematics without it being performative and in front of a physical audience. In terms of sustainability it has allowed me to be able to meet people and have conversations which have more frequently started to turn into collaborative works across visual art and musical disciplines.
Looking back into archiving and recording of historical material and data is what informs a lot of my research. I’m always really keen to consider the proximity of the things I make to everything that it is predated by. It provides guidance and reveals the direction my own needs to voice can take. So I guess rather than one being more or less beneficial than the other, it’s feeling more important to think about the intrinsic nature of all of the facets of my interests manifesting into a multidisciplinary practice at the moment, and that just shifts my voice into a different material context and adds another layer to reinforce some of the things I’m thinking about.