sat 20/07/2024

10 Questions for Artist Jony Easterby | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Artist Jony Easterby

10 Questions for Artist Jony Easterby

The Birmingham-born creative on art, ecology, festivals, books and Norwegian electronica

If you go down to the woods in May

Jony Easterby (b. 1966) is an artist renowned for working on large-scale projects that combine the natural world with technology and sound. Born and raised in Birmingham, he now resides in the Welsh countryside at Machynlleth, Powys. As a recording artist, he worked extensively with Norwegian vanguard electronic musician Biosphere, and was very much involved with the Big Chill Festival during its heyday.

He has led a wide array of acclaimed artistic installation projects all over the world and been recognised as one of Britain’s leading ecologically aware artistic forces. He produces For The Birds for the Brighton Festival.

THOMAS H GREEN: What are you up to at the moment?

JONY EASTERBY: At the moment I’m developing a new show, writing songs and ballads reprising a history of woodland and trees, combined with sculpture. It charts the historical narrative of the deforestation of planet earth from prehistory to the modern day. I’m creating a live playing space for this folk opera and am currently making musical instruments out of two-metre-long double-handed saws. The best folk singers around are involved – Nathaniel Mann, who works with the Dead Rat Orchestra, Lisa Knapp, and then Rebecca Sullivan from a band called Ember who come from round here. The destruction of the American rainforests gives us an excuse to get the banjos out.

I’m particularly interested in that colonial narrative. We have this idea of the pastoral nature of England but, ecologically, it was fucked up years ago. We took For The Birds to New Zealand and the environmental history is similar. We [the British] went out there and torched it, burnt 80 percent of the forest. Within 150 years we’d created extinctions of 25 species of bird. Britain has the lowest tree coverage in the whole of Europe. It stands at around seven percent. Out in Japan they’ve got 70 percent tree coverage. The show will come to fruition in 2018. Other than that, I live on a working smallholding in the Welsh mountains and spend time creating a space for creative artists and a habitat for bird, plants and animals. I grew up a Brummie boy, a very urban gritty artist up to the point where I started to implode and went to find solace in the hills

How did you find yourself becoming a qualified landscape architect?

I found myself involved in public art projects and the scope of these started to encompass various aspects of landscape architecture. I started off as a sound artist, and it evolved into compositions working in indoor venues. Then I realised I didn’t want to work indoor venues anymore, I wanted to work outside, creating architectural spaces that reflected my interest in ecology and landscape. Awareness of ecology is a bit of a curse. I look out on landscapes which are regarded as nature in pastoral form but now I see a degraded landscape, the result of post-industrial farming. Weirdly enough, with the money we make out of art I find time and resources to plant a couple of thousand trees near where I live.

So, in your opinion, what is the nearest to an untouched landscape?

If I sat down and closed my eyes, the landscape I found deeply satisfying was Tasmania. I truly felt the pull of the wild there, and the fear of the wilderness.

What was your involvement with Biosphere?

At one time I was working a lot on the ambient scene, which comes out of working with renegade sound art maverick geniuses, the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, a post-punk unit featuring industrialism, bashing metal and pyrotechnics. I then started creating my own solo shows around the transformation of materials, using close-contact miking on elemental things like fire and ice. I met Biosphere’s manager at the Big Chill Festival. It was an era of lonely guys standing onstage with laptops, which wasn’t very appealing to an audience, even though the music was often sublime. He decided to see if it would work bringing us together, adding a visual element to Biosphere. I remember being so thrilled by the situation as a massive fan of his music. Geir Jenssen – who is Biosphere – came over to my studio and we realised we had loads of connections to do with the mountains, our relationship with nature. I had an amazing experience where he flew me up to Tromsø in the Northern Arctic. We worked in his studio and drove round the landscape, miking up the wind with wires, miking up melting snowballs. We continued for the next two years working together on projects and installations.

What was your involvement with the Big Chill?

It came out of my involvement with a club called Oscillate in Birmingham which was run by the guys from the Higher Intelligence Agency, who were a big influence on the whole ambient scene. We went out to Amsterdam and did a gig out in the Gashouder Club with Pentatonik and Autechre. They were in touch with Pete Lawrence from the Big Chill, this afterclub tucked into the Union Chapel on Sundays. The drugs didn’t stop working in those days, did they, so people had to have something to do, so I went along to this event in the Black Mountains which turned out to be the first of the Big Chill festivals. I just rocked up, but I’d gone beyond the usual stuff you might take to festivals in that I had half a ton of sonic ice sculptures in the back of a transit, and my home studio and stereo system. I did this legendary set at the first Big Chill Festival, though I say it myself. I was the first Big Chill Art Trail. Beyond that, they invited me back every year. We had our own private stage and played music for hours. I recently reconnected with Pete Lawrence as he’s involved with Campfire Connections, which is a mixture between a festival, a talking shop and a project for social change.

What are you doing at the Brighton Festival?

Well, For The Birds is a light and sound art installation spread through two kilometres of woodland. These works have been developed by a group of artists, not just me – Mark Anderson, Kathy Hinde, Ulf Pedersen, Pippa Taylor. I’m the instigator. It's been described as an immersive walk through a wild alien landscape. It’s themed around aspects of bird life and the idea that they should be protected.

What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

Ah, him. There’s a book, Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman, relating a multitude of possibilities that happen after you die. In one you’re at a dinner party and there’s 12 people there and they’re all versions of yourself with a seven-year gap between each one. You could have a conversation with your 15-year-old self. I’d tell myself, practise the guitar more and buy a better guitar earlier because I spent fucking years playing a really shit guitar. It was only when I bought a better one that I realised how much it had been holding me back.

What book are you reading?

I’m reading a few simultaneously. The one at the top of the pile next to me is called Arboreal, a very nerdy book so we'll pass swiftly on. Just below that is a book I got a great thrill out of called The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. The one under that is the most relevant because it’s driving this [folk opera] project. It’s Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which takes in the environmental history of the US and Canada with particular emphasis on woodland and woodsmen.

When you were a child what were your favourite mythical creatures?

Am I allowed a superhero? I’ll pick Wolverine. I was way ahead of the curve on that. I had a homemade Wolverine T-shirt, which I created using bleach and which eventually fell to pieces.

Watch a trailer for For The Birds at the Brighton Festival

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