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The Conversation Continues: We Are Still Listening
I headed for Oxford University, into the very cultural heartland of England. But this was an encounter which has not yet come to an end. It continues. It was, as Donald Hinds termed it a long while ago, ‘a journey into an illusion’ – or rather, a journey to the shattering of illusions, inaugurating a process of protracted disenchantment. I didn’t really know what I would find or what I would do with ‘it’ if I found ‘it’. I knew I didn’t want to be ‘it’, whatever that was. But I did want to encounter in the flesh, as it were, this phantasm of ‘other worlds’, swollen with – as it happens – false promise. What I really knew about Britain turned out to be a bewildering farrago of reality and fantasy. However, such illusions as I may have taken with me were unrealized because, unfortunately, they were unrealizable. The episode was painful as well as exciting. It changed me irrevocably, almost none of it in ways I had remotely anticipated.”
Stuart Hall, ‘Familiar Stranger’ (2017, Penguin)
The Conversation Continues: We Are Still Listening is a 40-minute immersive soundscape from artist Trevor Mathison that offers a re-examination of the lives and histories of those laid to rest at the cemetery in the context of contemporary anti-racism movements, honouring Stuart Hall’s memory and his ongoing impact on contemporary national debates. Audiences are invited to listen to the soundscape on headphones as they follow their own pathway through Highgate Cemetery’s beautifully conserved landscape of monuments, buildings, flora and fauna.
Trevor Mathison developed The Conversation Continues: We Are Still Listening by exploring the legacy of Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014) and his arrival in the UK from Jamaica in 1951 and taking a historical look at Highgate Cemetery: how it came into being, the radical thinkers buried there, and its botanical meditative landscape. The piece imagines those that are resting – philosophers, artists, writers from different periods – coming together to expand on their lives’ work and debate with each other. Mathison has incorporated field recordings from the Highgate Cemetery and its surrounding areas, as well as audio extracts from Stuart Hall’s 2004 lecture ‘Through the Prism of Intellectual Life’ and text from Hall’s posthumous memoir ‘Familiar Stranger’ spoken by actor Joseph Black. In addition, extracts from Selina Nwulu’s poetry have been woven into the piece.
“I am fascinated by the number of individuals buried in the cemetery who have contributed so greatly to our own realities and in various different ways; from scientists, philosophers, writers, painters, academics and many more. First among them for me, is Stuart Hall who was one of the most important social and cultural thinkers of our time. I feel the need to keep them close, to acknowledge their work and think about how their ideas and questions continue on through our own present-day debates. I have also been drawn to the plants that grow alongside the graves in Highgate Cemetery, imagining how voices might permeate, connect and continue to flourish through the rich layers of its natural landscape. My hope is that the soundscape provides a meditative space for the listener to relate back to the cemetery, reflect on Stuart Hall’s legacy and in this way, to consider the community and dialogue resting there, with all its multiple, active connections that we are being invited into.”
Trevor Mathison, commissioned artist
How to listen
The piece is available for the first time from Saturday 11th June 2022 as part of Highgate Festival in London (11th – 19th June). We recommend audiences experience the soundscape from within Highgate Cemetery as intended by the artist Trevor Mathison.
A video accompaniment to the soundscape created by Trevor Mathison made available online for a limited time period from June 20th for remote audiences who are unable to access Highgate Cemetery in person.
A unique performance event, Midsummer Night, with Trevor Mathison at LUX on Friday 24th June that expands upon where The Conversation Continues: We Are Still Listening began, through tonal poetic movements, reflective visuals from Highgate Cemetery, and experimental spoken word.
Stuart and Highgate Cemetery
Professor Stuart Hall was a member of the ‘Windrush Generation’ who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1951. He became a leading figure in Britain’s radical tradition, whose work transformed the nature of public conversations around culture, race, and identity at a pivotal time of immigration and social change. He was a prolific writer and a deeply committed teacher with a firm belief in collaborative projects, a desire to communicate and an expansive range of interests which continue to have vitality and relevance to those hoping and working for change.
Unlike many of the Windrush generation, Stuart did not wish to return ‘home’ to Jamaica on his death. Despite a long and uneasy relationship to belonging in Britain, he imagined he would be in good company at Highgate Cemetery, settled amongst a community of Left intellectuals – Karl Marx, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel, Claudia Jones – and close enough to his North West London home for it to feel familiar. Here, he is settled, in the company of friends and others who have contributed in critical and imaginative ways to Britain’s cultural and political landscape. Like many visitors to the Highgate Cemetery, Stuart Hall’s family and friends have developed a living relationship with the site which resonates with the Foundation’s interest in bringing the past, present and future into a meaningful dialogue with one another.
The origins of this project lie in a conversation on love and loss traced along the much-loved pathways of Highgate Cemetery and framed by the shifting seasonal hues of a cool, June day. A pinch of mischief was involved, as well as generosity, graft and collaboration – all vital ingredients for public, political and personal work that would have pleased Stuart greatly. It is with gratitude from his family and the Stuart Hall Foundation that we celebrate Trevor Mathison’s truly special capacity to bring the wonder of sound and space alive in conversation and welcome his public invitation to listen.
Acknowledgements: John Akomfrah; Lina Akomfrah; Ashitey Akomfrah; Reece Auguiste; Benjamin Cook; Dr Das; Ian Dungavell; Harriet Fleuriot; Becky Hall; Catherine Hall; Lubaina Himid; Sut Jhally; Claudette Johnson; David Lawson; Daniel Johnson Mathison; Laurie Johnson Mathison; Marlene Smith; Gary Stewart; Gilane Tawadros; Lucy Thompson; The Elephant Trust; the tour volunteers at Highgate Cemetery; Mark Wayman at ADi Solutions & Audiovisual.
The Conversation Continues: We Are Still Listening was commissioned by the Stuart Hall Foundation in partnership with Highgate Cemetery and LUX, and with funding from Arts Council England and The Elephant Trust.
Highgate Cemetery is thrilled to be a part of Trevor Mathison’s new work, The Conversation Continues, which responds to the community of Left intellectuals buried here and the Cemetery’s wonderfully romantic landscape. As the UK’s most famous cemetery and the final home of thinkers from around the world, Highgate Cemetery is the perfect setting in which to reflect on Stuart Hall’s legacy of debates around culture, race and identity. Cemeteries are the natural place for such reflections.
IAN DUNGAVELL, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF FRIENDS OF HIGHGATE CEMETERY TRUST
About Trevor Mathison
Trevor Mathison is an artist, musician, composer, sound designer and recordist. His sonic practice – centred on creating fractured haunting aural landscapes and integrating existing music – has featured in over thirty award-winning films. Trevor was a founding member of the cine-cultural artist collective: The Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC, 1982 -1998), where his sonic designs defined and situated the Collective’s film and gallery installations, including Signs of Empire, Handsworth Songs and The Last Angel of History.
Mathison has continued to work with some of his former collaborators from BAFC (John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson) creating sound design for installations and feature documentaries, including Mnemosyne, The Unfinished Conversation, Peripeteia, The Stuart Hall Project and The Nine Muses. Recent compositional scores feature in John Akomfrah’s and Dredd ScoXs’ Slave Rebellion Re-enactment 2019 and Garret Bradley’s award-winning feature America 2019.
Mathison has also founded and been active in a number of other experimental sonic groups – Dubmorphology, Hallucinator and Flow Motion. Dubmorphology is a production and performance group with fellow media artist, Gary Stewart which conceptualises, produces and performs sonic and visual events – site specific installations and large-scale ambient scores that have formed the basis for moving image works. His most recent work with Dubmorphology, Colony, 2021, was commissioned for UnNatural Histories as part of Coventry Biennial.
Mathison has also been a pioneer of sound installation work. In 2020 at CAPC in Bordeaux, he was commissioned to make a sonic response to Lubaina Himid’s installation Naming the Money. His most recent sound performance was for the African Digital Innovation Festival 2021, a live-streamed sonic event between London and Johannesburg South Africa. It comprised a digital sound clash between electronic musicians.
About Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery is London’s historic cemetery for the 21st century. Internationally famous as the last resting place of figures such as Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, and George Eliot, it is still a working cemetery and new interments take place regularly. The new Highgate Cemetery Act 2022 ensures that it will remain open for future generations. A landscape masterplan is in preparation to face the challenges of climate change, enhance biodiversity and improve access, while historic buildings and structures will be conserved. New facilities will better provide for grave owners and a growing number of visitors, all while preserving the tranquil and reflective nature of the place.
LUX is an international arts agency that supports and promotes artists’ moving image practices and the ideas that surround them. Founded in 2002 as a charity and not-for-profit limited company, the organisation builds on a long lineage of predecessors (The London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, London Video Arts and The Lux Centre) which stretch back to the 1960s. They are based in Waterlow Park, London.
The Highgate Festival 2022, now in its 5th year takes place 11th – 19th June. The festival celebrates the breadth and variety of Highgate – its residents, businesses, gardens, culture, buildings, shops, art, history, music, sustainability, pubs, literature, cafes, dance, local talent and creatives. The 8 days of events are free and fee-based and will be more selective this year with a reduced programme. Highgate Festival’s aim is to connect and engage with the community, boost Highgate’s economy and support local artists, performers, cafes, pubs, restaurants, businesses and shops. It encompasses every nook and cranny of Highgate with several venues distinctly unique. This joyful celebration of Highgate is organised by a small group of locals who unselfishly dedicate their energies, expertise and time to the festival’s creation and coordination.