Interview: Siân Robinson Davies – 'The whole thing is about how we manage to get along even though we have these weird disjointed conversations'
If inanimate objects, body parts and ideas had personalities and could speak
It's good to talk. Just ask Siân Robinson Davies, whose new sound work, Conversations, has just opened at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop as part of Edinburgh Art Festival. It features 13 bite-size dialogues between inanimate objects, intimate body parts and intangible universal constructs. Over almost half an hour's worth of speedy exchanges, assorted odd couples flirt, rub up against each other or else just try to explain themselves through snippets of philosophical enquiry.
Characters include a Credit Card attempting to explain to a Penis the notion of contactless transactions, an on-heat Lipstick coming on strong with some sexless Breezeblock and last words from a Pillow in conversation with Revenge.
'I started writing the conversations because I was asked to write textual responses to a couple of artists' work, both of whom work with objects,' Robinson Davies explains about the roots of Conversations, 'and then I just developed them from there. I guess they came about from a general interest I have in the way people interact.'
A stint on the committee of Edinburgh artist-led space, Rhubaba, was also an influence on Robinson Davies' installation, which forms the final part of On an otherwise ordinary evening, a series of ESW exhibitions based around storytelling.
'I have become interested in how groups make decisions, reading stuff such as Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats,' Robinson Davies says, referring to the lateral thinking guru's system for group discussion. 'Reading about all these ways that people can communicate effectively has just drawn my attention to the way we often communicate really ineffectively, or with differing perspectives or priorities that are never made explicit. So the whole thing is really about how we manage to get along even though we have these weird disjointed conversations all the time.'
While some of the pieces come from a clearly defined physical basis, introducing less tangible abstractions, such as Flying, Ocean and Revenge, takes the playlets to another level.
'By having Flying in there, I could ask about whether concepts can take responsibility for actions,' Robinson Davies says. 'That relates to whether businesses can take responsibilities for damages. They do financially, but it's complicated when it comes to apologies. Flying is an opportunist who takes credit for the good things and shirks responsibility for the bad. We see that in politics and business all the time. Adding Revenge as a concept allows it to be more slippery than objects can be. Revenge slips in and out of being freedom, and it can do that in our imagination because it doesn't have a physical form. It's more difficult to do with objects, because as soon as you name an object, a Walking Stick, for example, it's really difficult for it become kindling or something else, because the name defines its function so clearly.'
For the recording of Conversations, Robinson Davies brought in a variety of performers who bring nuance and personality to each character.
'In choosing the voices, I tried to find the people around me whose idiosyncrasies could bring something out in the characters I have written,' she says. 'Take the Feather, for example. The hesitation in the voice is really special, it makes the Feather so believable. I didn't know it until I heard Timothea read the part that that is how the Feather should sound, but when I heard it, it couldn't be any other.'
While Conversations gives voice to non-human entities in a way that David Shrigley did in his opera, Pass The Spoon, and Glasgow-based performance artist Merlin Nova has explored with a series of monologues by kitchen implements performed on Subcity Radio, Robinson Davies' work, in part, recalls the It-Narrative, an 18th-century literary vogue that personified animals and objects.
'I was actually reading stuff like David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,' she says, 'which is so dark, but absolutely incredible in terms of complex character development through interview/monologue/conversation form.'
In what is effectively a suite of radio plays, one can imagine Conversations fitting in well on online art station, Resonance FM. As a some-time stand-up comedian as well, Robinson Davies recognises the work's potential for performance, and doesn't rule out further Conversations.
'I'd like to,' she says, 'especially because I feel like I have gained a much greater understanding of how they are being interpreted now they are installed. If I wrote more, there are many things I would improve. But now I need a break from them. I'm training full-time to become a computer programmer and I'm working on some prose fiction. The conversations are so short. I love that about them and it's definitely what enabled me to develop them, even through busy periods, but I'm ready for a bit of long form, where I can really knit together complex ideas over a long duration.'
Siân Robinson Davies: Conversations, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, until 31 Aug, free.