Listen to any of Sheffield’s Ashley Holmes’ mixes on NTS Radio and it can feel like getting a warm welcome into the mind of a mixer who is every bit as delicate about his choices as he is with their successive arrangements. You can picture Holmes spending hours sifting through record after record, lining them up, seamlessly placing disparate textures together before broadcasting it for us to hear. But he also manages to make the results flow intuitively and casual. Each time, he takes us on a meandering journey into the decades and then brings us forward and then back again. This back and forth maneuvering is done to a point where you start to lose any geographic or historic orientation you may align the tracks towards. Instead, we are left with a stacked-up sonic displacement and hybridity that is not entirely here nor there. It teases out the multiple contexts from which these sounds come to be and how they continue to be morphed into new shades that may have only been hinted at in its origins.
When it comes to Holmes’ work for exhibition contexts, we see this same intrinsic inclination towards Black British music cultures trickle down into his poetic video montages. These image streams are fragmented meditations that cut across recent pasts and generations before. They go beyond mere images to be looked at and instead, their social and political histories are kept alive to be passed forward. Holmes has been adapting display strategies to give a kind of felt physicality to how we encounter them in three-dimensional space. Within those contexts, they point to an ongoing impetus of re-establishing of meaning. For Holmes, all this is every bit a personal necessity to make sense of untold histories as it is collective-minded.
In our conversation, the reflective and observant Holmes ponders over how his motivations for reaching back into the origins of Black British music is a means of contemplating his own family history. He discusses his interests in the language of sound as material, and his venture into performance—among other talking points.
i've become more interested in observing current concerns prevalent in the discourse that surrounds Blackness and the spaces it occupies in contemporary Britain. I think this has allowed me to have conversations and questions about these histories and to make sense of where things are at now. That’s where sampling comes from, for me. It's this idea of paying homage to something you either have a lot of respect for or you feel a sense of belonging to - then providing a new perspective. I’m interested in the subtleties and nuances of what happens during this process of figuring out alternative perspectives.
I’ll start by asking: What have you been curious about lately?
A lot of the things I’m curious about lately seem to be relating to a dialogue around the distribution, circulation, and exchanges of images and audio. I’m thinking a lot about the role and relevance of archival material in contemporary society; who is represented and how.
I’m also curious about what others are up to creatively at the moment, and I’m curious about where the exchanges and gestures of support happen. I’m thinking about what it means to be in conversation with the things others do. And so, I’m trying to be as thorough as possible when working collaboratively so that nothing operates on assumptions, and to question how that then informs my own interests in moving image, sound, and more recently, performance. I like the ambiguity of the word “performance” and am interested in how its meaning or understanding might shift depending on its context. For example, expectations of a touring arena-size rap show compared to a spoken word reading - I’m curious about gatherings and events that consider ways of facilitating space for critical dialogue.
I like what you said about being thorough to avoid making assumptions. Do you think that is something you might inversely pursue in your personal work in terms of how you want the viewer to engage with your images and installations—to either challenge their ways of seeing or how they confront the work?
I’ve been interested in the immediacy in which things are produced lately. I’ve been interested in the aesthetics of a home movie versus Hollywood production. One is slightly clunky, has a poor resolution, the time spent and budgets involved are different, and the other is made with an audience’s perspective in mind. The details of the home movie are something I’m more drawn to as a viewer. The less staged and more intuitive movement of the person operating the camera is something that keeps me engaged, and I find myself watching that kind of visual material multiple times because I’m trying to pick up the finer details in the frame. There’s a speed to the process of production that I’m very interested in. And I’ve been thinking about sub-genres of Black contemporary music that re-sample and re-imagine time. Chopped-and-screwed music is something I’m really drawn to at the moment. It manipulates real-time - sections are slowed down, then sped up and repeated. As all of that goes on, there’s a re-telling and re-articulating that takes place, challenging what the audience thought they were familiar with. This repetitive process of re-telling in the chopped-and-screwed style of editing/remixing gradually disrupts and bends an expectation or comfortable listening for me. It is something I keep re-visiting and re-thinking visually.
You often sift through found footage in your videos, do you think the way in which you do this disrupts certain expectations viewers have of the histories behind the footage?
The shifts that happen generationally during the process of production, sampling, and editing are something I’m drawn to. Lovers rock is a sub-genre of Reggae music made by children of the Windrush period that is informing a lot of my thinking at the moment. The parents of many lovers rock musicians had migrated (to the UK) in the late 50s and early 60s and these kids were making reggae music, with a British twang. For me, the texture of it feels soft and it is romantic and, at times, sad too. I’m interested in when how lovers rock started to adopt changes - the live instrumentation becoming something that is digitally programmed, and amongst that, where does it retains or even look to his history?
You’ve previously said the music has a Jamaican influence but it’s still very indigenous to Britain, and I thought was an interesting statement. That also speaks very much to the diaspora; it very much has one foot in a different place but it’s very much rooted in the place that it is currently in. As much as there are references to the past, it is very much of the here and now, and perhaps of the future. Can you talk a bit more about this indigenous hybrid identity that is tied to Britain but has its foot elsewhere—what does it sound/feel like?
I’ve been watching and returning to Babylon a lot recently. Babylon is a film from 1980 directed by Franco Rosso. The film tells a story from the perspective of a group of young Black men in London, who work various jobs and struggle to come to terms with the everyday plights of the city. What invest most of their time in building reggae sound systems, collecting music (specifically collecting 7” vinyl imports from Jamaica) and clashing other sound systems from a similar neighborhood. There’s an element of one-upmanship in the format of sound clashing that I think is still present within music cultures of Black origin in Britain today - almost all of which is a derivative or owes something to sound system culture. When considering the format of the sound clash, I think about the performative aspect of roles of the DJ, host/MC and their relationship to the audience. Particularly, I’m interested in their job of communicating to the audience their extensive knowledge of historically important music within the genre. The most successful way of doing this is often through obtaining exclusive dubplates - a modern singer shouting out the MC/DJ/sound system collective/city over a widely recognized Instrumental. So you get this tree of reggae sounds that sit closely alongside the event of the soundclash. It will always have one foot firmly planted in its origins, while also considering how you can pull off these maneuvers through track selection and performing on stage - with the audience showing their appreciation in turn. I’m thinking about the MC’s stage presence, persona, and energy, and about sound-clashing as a unique platform that has the ability to build tension and excitement while also encouraging a dialogue - a call-and-response-like relationship between performers and audience to express ultimate happiness or alternatively, disgruntlement.
So Babylon is a film that on the first time of watching, was followed by a lot of questions I had. I know a little about my family history - specifically about my dad. He moved over when he was sixteen from Trelawny, Jamaica to Harlesden in North West London and he worked at a radio factory called Fidelity. As I’ve gotten older, through watching the film as well as sporadic conversation, my understanding of a timeline of how he moved around earlier in his life and what he did to earn money to live (but actually as a passion it was a thing as well) was pieced together. So, thinking about where he comes from and where/how I can build my understanding of that; what relevance does culturally produced material that records or documents a moment in time have when it is retrospectively looked back on in the future? It is a process of baton-passing that happens through the process of archiving. Only quite recently, I've become more interested in observing current concerns prevalent in the discourse that surrounds Blackness and the spaces it occupies in contemporary Britain. I think this has allowed me to have conversations and questions about these histories and to make sense of where things are at now. That’s where sampling comes from, for me. It's this idea of paying homage to something you either have a lot of respect for or you feel a sense of belonging to - then providing a new perspective. I’m interested in the subtleties and nuances of what happens during this process of figuring out alternative perspectives.
Beyond homage, what does it mean for you to be reaching as far back as the 60s for content?
It means figuring things out, in a less local way, or beyond to my own family history. I’m thinking about music I like from that era and the people that made/continue to make that, the processes that they go through. I’m thinking about how those processes are thought about as models that have the potential to be translated into other areas of contemporary life. For me, that means thinking about music as a point of departure for my practice. Detroit producer Theo Parrish has a very articulate way of talking about sound as material. He talks about sound in a very concrete, textural way, in a similar way to the language a sculptor might describe their process of making three-dimensional objects made to be physically encountered. He’s been able to demonstrate and articulate this language in other disciplines through his work in music. In his Ugly Edits four-bar loops of funk and disco songs, he changed the tempo and made subtle edits and additions in their production that made them build tension and were quite functional when it came to getting people to move on the dance floor. I’m interested in the language that surrounds all of those aspects, the language that articulates how people come together and move in these pilgrimage-like situations. I’m interested in the collective gatherings centered around material someone has produced with the intention of being shared and strategically considering how audiences navigate space.
Steve Goodman is another music producer whose perspectives on sound and the nuances and language that surround it, interest me. He wrote Sonic Warfare, a book where he talks about the ecology of fear through sound. He talks through the potential of frequencies and pitch and tempos instilling fear and evoking a feeling of uneasy listening. Some of the references he makes consider varying forms of guerrilla warfare, where sound is/was/has been used as a tool to assert power or dominance. Although Goodman speaks of this theoretical research and his work as a DJ, producer, and record label owner as being very separate, part of my own interests lie in the frictions and tensions of uneasy listening when it distorts and is translated into new contexts. I’m interested in the historical references and traditions that are specific to different genres of music, the process of production and also how/where people engage with it as material. This is something I’m thinking about in the context of performance, moving images, and trying to find a way of talking about and exploring the adjacent position it sits in, in correlation to some of the other stuff are going on in music right now.
Do you think you have a sense of responsibility for unearthing these pasts and tracing how they are being used now?
I’ve thought about the responsibility, perceptions, and expectations of the DJ a lot recently. Which I guess has meant a change slightly in how I play music. Having the opportunity to play music through radio broadcasts and in more public spaces, I’ve been trying to think a bit more about exploring this idea I mentioned earlier of disruptions and tension. What may or may not go together. I’m interested in who occupies, who sees, who hears, and listens--do they leave with a new perspective on what they thought they knew? I don’t know if I’d go as far as considering it a responsibility, but rather an extension of being able to have a new way of exploring sound-based material I’ve been collecting.
You talk about sound as material, and I’m interested in the sculptural and physical aspects of your work and how they run parallel to the sounds.
I feel more uncomfortable about working with sculpture lately. Or maybe uncomfortable with calling what I make sculpture.
Your installation at Two Queens looked interesting. The screens on speaker tripods you spread out in the space took on a figure-like stature. Perhaps you weren’t trying to make sculpture, but they have an interesting physicality to them from the way you display them. What’s the decision-making for how you choose to display your work?
I think that’s why I feel uncomfortable about calling it sculpture because I’m still figuring it out. I’m interested in messing with the physicality of objects and how they are displayed and encountered. The ‘messing’ is quite subtle at times though I think. I’d like to try and not deviate too far away from any of the readings of meanings they carry as objects. Quite often I’ve found this has moved into trying to think about the space these objects traditionally occupy - recently, sitting as a group together and appearing more like a set.
Can you talk more about how you use the word “set”?
I’m thinking about parallels to the frameworks and structures of music again. As in the
place(s) you’d encounter the objects and what are some of the features of those places. I like the idea of everything having a purpose. In a club space or a theatre production stage or music video shoot the way in which they are constructed and built is so everything on view is entirely functional. The DJ needs to be positioned at a specific point in the room, there needs to be this specific amount of light, there needs to be a specific amount of room that considers the audience, and the speakers have to be a specific height for the most optimal sound, etc.
You mentioned your background in football and I wanted to talk about the work you made for Collective Failure. It looked like it was one of the “sets” you described above. You essentially dressed up a room with specific details. Can you speak to this work, as well as some of the ideas you were thinking about and your approach to set-making?
Ah, this was a group exhibition so I guess that meant I had less control over the curation of the room. The exhibition was based around the gallery, altering some of the furniture and features in the space to resemble a pub. A communal setting for football games during the 2018 World Cup was to be shown in the gallery, then inviting artists to produce works that responded to this. The work I produced for the exhibition is an ongoing print edition titled Panini Series. I’ve always been interested in stickers and the idea of swapping and trading with friends to obtain the ones missing from your collection. It is all part of the hysteria spun up whenever an international football tournament comes around. People go out and spend money on packs and packs of these things to try and be the first to get the full set - every player of every country being represented at that particular tournament. With 32 teams of around 25 players each and only 6 or 7 cards per pack, unless you were a relentless trader, or could continually shell out the money on buying multiple packs, it was a near-impossible task. The prints are large-format reproductions of portrait images based on the football Panini Stickers. At the time of starting the work, there were a collection of 84 in the edition. There are now currently 89. Each print focuses on all of the Black footballers that have ever won a full international cap for the English national team.
In the ways that you are creating multiple access points in these physically-immersive experiential spaces, do you think there are parallels to how you represent these archival materials when you are composing and arranging them digitally or sonically? Does this also include the sample mixes you yourself generate?
Yeah, there are definitely parallels. I try to categorise and organise chronologically, both visually and sonically. In trying to think about the time periods that the archival materials I work from originate, I hope to gain a more thorough understanding of how and why things looked and sounded like they did. This allows for space to observe and explore the point at which a particular genre or visual reference transitions into something new and unfamiliar, which in turn might be an indicator to better predict what comes next.
There are now performance components to the environments you create, like in the Two Queens show. What does the inclusion of performance do to this set that you’ve created?
A lot of the moving image works I had made featured subtitles, which are short excerpts of some writing I have be working on for a little while. They re-emphasize and re-articulate what’s already happening visually. They also re-emphasize what’s happening with the audio. The writing felt like an important part to include, and in thinking about the layers and textures on a sensory level, it was important to move toward existing in a live context as part of the exhibition. This is something I’m exploring further at the moment: taking the written elements and bringing them to live space using my own body and my own voice in a way that goes beyond the samples - something that comes out of me and is not edited too much or remixed.
Given that your body is transcribed in the work through performance, do you think it makes the work more personal?
Definitely, I’m uncomfortable in that kind of position. But I can feel that changing and I feel I’m becoming more confident in presenting work in that way the more I have opportunities to experiment in a live sphere.
You prefer a bit of distance?
Completely. I’ve not shared any work in a way that directly invites eyes and ears directly on to me.
What does that distance afford you?
I’m not sure. I think distance gives me a safer space to operate from. It does give a different perspective of the emotional and physical requirements that are challenging, but also helps identify what is valuable in the work. As recorded material moves into a live space, there’s a requirement for a different kind of openness and more vulnerability. It’s uncomfortable, and I think I prefer distance because it lets me be a better observer.
Can you think about an early encounter(s) that got you interested in thinking critically about archival material?
In terms of thinking through archives, maybe in 2015 when I came across an online archival project called Black in the Day. It’s run by Tania Nwachukwu and Jojo Sonubi, who are both living in London. They collect submissions of scanned personal photo albums and also plan events around doing that. It came about from conversations they were having about what a Black British history looks like through photography and specifically from personal records and family histories. The only boundaries they set on the submissions is that you give the date and name the location. What they end up with is hundreds and hundreds of photos pulled together with a centralized place of organising and that date as far back as the late 1800s, right through the 2000s. They get people going back to photo albums and going to parents or grandparents and instigating conversations about their process of collecting and the origins of the photos. They also move these conversations into physical spaces with ‘Scanning Socials’ that bring different people together and instigate more conversations. It starts online and continues in these physical spaces. I like what that encourages and what it instills elsewhere. It really spoke to me. It made me think about how carefully these materials need to be treated.
And so when you engage with archival footage and samples it’s an act of care, preservation, and perhaps allowing for a future.
Yes, there isn’t any time limit or an endpoint, but a cue that invites a continuation.