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Action At A Distance: Leslie Deere’s Modern Conjuring
Robert Barry , February 13th, 2016 15:01

In the first of what will be a regular series of studio visits with artists, Craft/Work meets Leslie Deere to talk about her ongoing project for a Sound and Music embedded residency at Music Hackspace

“The ghosts will be coming any second now.” I am at sitting in the Clerkenwell studio of Leslie Deere. We have been talking for about twenty minutes about her new project using a Microsoft Kinect as a hands-free control device for the manipulation of sound waves. On the table between us she has just placed a small glass bulb on a stand containing a set of four small square vanes, blackened on one side and polished on the other, mounted on a spindle. Activated by the wintry mid-afternoon light spilling through the window beside us, the vanes start gently to spin on their axis.

“It’s a Crookes radiometer,” explains Deere. “It might pick up signals from the spirit world.” William Crookes was a Victorian chemist, the discoverer of Thallium, and a fellow of the Royal Society. After the death of his brother in 1967, he also became interested in spiritualism, attending a séance soon after in an attempt to reach his departed relative. Later he would mount a series of approving studies into several famous contemporary mediums.

Crookes’ vane rotates due to a process later described as “thermal transpiration” which leads gas molecules to move from the polished cold side towards the warmer dark side. But that is not how Crookes himself understood it.

For the esteemed fellow of the Royal College, this was an example of unseen forces, action at a distance. He remained steadfast in his insistence that his scientific eminence and his interest in the spirit world were inseparable.

This curious in-between place where pseudo-science influences science and vice versa until the two become almost indistinguishable gets to the heart of the themes animating Deere’s current project. Taking its name from a 1940 book called Modern Conjuring for Amateurs and presenting its own sonorous actions at a distance (albeit effected by some of the most sophisticated consumer-grade hi-tech), Deere’s work carries the suggestion of something that “isn’t religious, isn’t just scientific and techy, and isn’t totally off with the faeries either. There needs,” she says, “to be a new word that’s in the middle of all those.”

Deere’s Modern Conjuring, the result of a Sound and Music residency with east London’s Music Hackspace (a place “for music geeks, professionals and artists … to develop projects, collaborate and network”), puts the artist herself on stage producing waves of lush digital sound and feedback from a series of simple, ritualistic physical gestures. The effect is something like a warm shower of noise seemingly wrought from the ether by the subtleties of an elegant if curiously esoteric choreography, “summoning these sounds”, as Deere puts it, from a cool, impassive black box.

After several years developing more sculptural, installation-based works for galleries in Geneva, Paris, and London, Modern Conjuring also sees Deere gesturing back to a practice that occupied her since childhood: dance.

Born in Tennessee, Deere won a dance scholarship to study in New York City at a young age. Gradually, however, she found herself drifting from the terpsichorean to the euterpian. At first she was just “toying with making my own sounds, recording basic sounds and layering them on top of each other in a really rudimentary way.” Later abandoning choreography altogether to take up a Sonic Arts degree at Middlesex University, here in London.

“I found myself wanting to hang out with people I listened to the same music as,” she says. “I went to the Madonna World Tour audition and I took a track I had made. I thought, maybe there’s a shift happening here.”

The long-standing, highly productive relationship between the composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham provided the link at the time, and Deere remains intrigued by pieces like Brandon LaBelle’s Sonic Body which merge the genres. But at Middlesex, she found herself focusing less on performance-based work, more on sound sculpture and installation.

Scattered about the studio space, fragments of some of the projects that have occupied her since then lean against wall or perch on window sills. A gramophone horn stuck to a hexagonal wooden box in one corner of the room is part of an aeolian harp that crossed the country for the SoundUK summer tour in 2013, planting itself in a series of English fields for the wind to animate the strings within, producing scintillating, metallic drones.

Across the room, a fresnel lens is suspended from a pine support, part of a piece exhibited at Stoke-on-Trent’s AirSpace Gallery last year exploring the fraught relationship between nature and humanity. “The curator came up with some text that spoke about whatever man creates, nature overtakes,” Deere explains. “I rusted bells and composed a piece from modified bells.”

How, I ask, did the rust affect the sound?

“It muted the ring.”

Behind the coffee tables, sit stacks of brown-paper-wrapped, packing taped cubes. Inside sit seven brightly coloured perspex boxes that once were hung suspended by harp strings tuned to an E flat scale. They were recently picked up from storage at a gallery in Switzerland that Deere works with. “I went on a European road trip just before Christmas,” Deere elaborates. “A friend of mine had to drop off a painting in Amsterdam and I had to pick those up so we went in on a car, chipped in together.” The trip ended in Geneva, arriving to find the city on lockdown after a truck had been detained carrying suspicious material.

“My practice is schizophrenic,” Deere says as we survey these projects. “The output tends to ebb and flow in terms of its materials. Sound is a staple, but next year I could possibly want to work with paper – who knows?”

One thing that does link much of Deere’s previous work is some degree of interactivity. Spectators are invited to pluck or tweak, censors detect motions which trigger or transform. “A lot of the early work I made, I wanted to demystify the technology,” she says, “to make it toy-like and playful.” There remains in a great deal of her recent installations a will to fascinate and engage, an invitation to take part. But in this newest work, the gestures, the transformations, are all her own.

At this stage, Modern Conjuring remains a work-in-progress. “I’ve developed the interface that allows my gesture to make sound,” she tells me, “and I have constructed a video piece, which, at this point, is more of a mood board, to give some texture and reference.” Some indication of the contents of this “mood board” is given by the collage of clippings that take up the wall behind her desk: graphs of spirit readings by Victorian psychic investigators, reproductions of works by Boston artist Paul Laffoley, a photograph of Edgar Cayce. “He’s from my neck of the woods,” Deere explains.

If the work remains “in beta”, it is none the less powerful, viscerally experienced by audiences who have been privy to the few sneak previews as a kind of magic, at once astonishing and oddly calming. “I’m interested in drones and repetitive sounds being able to alter our states,” she says. “Certain sounds can capture us or suspend us in a moment. Because sound can be so much more intimate than the visual.”

Why do you think that is?

“It’s made of waves,” she says, “that come into contact with us physically. Somebody whispering in your ear is far more intimate than an image.”

Leslie Deere will perform a work-in-progress version of her Modern Conjuring at the Fiddler’s Elbow on Tuesday 16 February. Advance tickets are available here