RB: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Sonya Rademeyer: I was born and raised in Zimbabwe where my love for nature was instilled at a very young age. This connection to nature and earth has ground-ed me and is the direct reason why soil as medium has remained important to me as an artist. I collect soil wherever I travel to and often ask people to bring me soil from other parts of the African continent. On a personal level, soil holds the association of authenticity for me. On a social and political level, soil or land is highly charged with associations of displacement and trauma though colonisation both in Zimbabwe and in South Africa where I now live.
I am also a trained Registered Nurse and have worked in general nursing, midwifery and psychiatry although most of my nursing career I spent as an ICU nurse. It was whilst living in Rotterdam in The Netherlands – where I was working as a cardiac nurse at an academic hospital during the day – that I attended art school in the evenings over a 5 year period. I also studied music for a year at university directly after school, but it is only in the last two years that I can say that I have entered the field of sound consciousness.
RB: How has your experience of being an ICU nurse influenced your art practice?
SR: 22 years of nursing changed my entire outlook and approach to life. Co-sharing the space of pain with another person is life-altering. As a psychiatric nurse you become the holding space for the Other in emotional /psychic pain; in ICU you co-share trauma and sometimes impending or inevitable death. This space between self and Other – which I call the in-between – is what I try to make visible through gesture in my artwork. Initially working much more directly with the body shortly after having left nursing, I now enter this invisible space by capturing sound and/or movement through my body. This intimate space is incredibly fragile: it is non-stagnant and very volatile in a sense. There is a constant flow of energy in the in-between which requires the dichotomy of seeing but also not-seeing: there is heightened perception but at the same time there is a seeing that can only take place through the self of the body.
It has taken me a long time to visualise what this space feels like.
RB: Has there been any other particular influences to your art practice?
SR: I was fortunate not to have taken art at school which I believe might have changed the direct way I make my work. I did my formal art training in Rotterdam where I was able to experiment a lot. There was very little formality to this process and I think this open-ended approach to discovery was an incredible privilege where the process of art-making is highly valued. I am very interested in science’s experimental approach to discovery where outcome it not guaranteed; where non-outcome of an experiment is as valued as that of a positive outcome. I recently read Abraham Flexner’s 1939 paper The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge wherein he puts forward the idea that curiosity, and not usefulness (read process and not art production) is where discoveries are made. In reading for my masters I came across the work of the Russian psychologist, Alfred. L. Yarbus who studied saccadic eye movements in complex images. His research included the saccadic scanning of paintings as well as how gaze is linked to thought. This got me thinking about how the observational skills acquired in nursing might influence the way I look at visual art. I am very influenced by the artists Julie Mehretu (Ethiopia/USA) and Emma McNully(UK) who both incorporate sound into their work. I am also interested in neuroscience, physics, sacred geometry and language.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
SR: The underlying focus to my work only started becoming clearer to me when I commenced my masters at Stellenbosch University in 2005, when noticing that I wasn’t looking at visual art in the same way as my fellow students. This prompted my questioning towards empathy as I had an intuitive sense that my experience in nursing was what was creating this difference in seeing. This search, as well as finding my own vocabulary, was a long journey and at times I felt incredibly lost and isolated in it. Nursing heightens the experience of looking beyond the immediate surface in order to pick up on the hidden pain or volatility of the Other in the form of traces; of what is left behind or beyond. I eventually allowed myself to navigate back to this authentic space where I pick up on traces in my daily experience of life, trying to make sense of what I see. I view the traces of sonic patterning that have occurred through drawing sound or movement by way of my body, as a language of lines.
Sonya Rademeyer: Language of Line
RB: There are many definitions of what drawing is, but one I am particularly interested in is that of ‘drawing as the trace of a line of thought’. How does this definition resonate with your work?
SR: I have in fact made drawings of my thoughts, trying to visualise the movement of thought in the form of a line which quite exhausted me! This was right in the beginning when I started searching for my understanding with regards to traces, and invariably line as form. It was this experience that propelled the realisation that we are completely surrounded by lines in the form of waves, such as sound waves for example. Although invisible to the naked eye we are immersed in multiple waves of lines whether we are aware of it or not. The thought-drawings prompted me to imagine auras of line patterning around each and every person, initially only around the head area but later I imagined the patterning to surround entire bodies. This imaginary landscape alters the potentiality of inter-connectivity. I started wondering whether the fragility of these lines might unconsciously connect us … wondering whether traces are invisible lines that bind us in some way. What if we are far more connected than we realise?
RB: Your drawing process often uses the vehicle of movement or sound. Can you something more about this?
SR: Caring through empathy necessitates the body of the Other, so I can never really exclude corporeality. In my own art-making my body is absolutely central to the process of drawing sound or movement, so you could say that my body is the vehicle to draw sound or movement. In fact, I view my body as a transducer which relays the energy of sound onto the surface I am working on, much like the burn marks that lightening leaves on whatever material it has conducted itself through. I think corporeality is a very necessary viewpoint to take in the current debate around the PostHuman and Transhumanism where machine learning is said to take centrality. I would like my work to challenge machine-learned algorithmic patterns of differences and similiarities: if algorithms are used to match similair patterns to enhance computer usage, might my algorithmic sonic patterning be that of Empathyhumanism…? And am I connecting humans to humans ..?
Sonya Rademeyer: Sonic Sketch Drawing (credit Matt Fitzgerald: videographer)
RB: While making your drawings you sometimes blindfold yourself in order not to see. Can you say something about this and why you think ‘not seeing’ while drawing is important?
SR: I was listening to Stephen Hawkins’ TED Talk (2008) on the day of his passing (14th March 2018.) Whilst doing a sonic sketch of his computerised voice I was struck by the fact that he viewed his disability as an advantage. He voiced the fact that had he been able-bodied, he would not have had the deep-time to think as he had been able to do. I think that I view non-seeing whilst drawing much in the same way. For me, thinking interferes with automated gestural drawing. By blindfolding myself or keeping my eyes shut I override the invasiveness of thinking. I often get up early morning and will do a sonic sketch in the dark where I am literally blinded by the darkness. In discussing Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, the science writer Philip Ball explains that Leonardo would sit and stare for hours in order ‘… to stop seeing, to transcend the limitations of his eyes.’ Blindness, as a way of transcending such limitations, has always interested me in the sense that other sense modalities become heightened, such as seeing happening through hearing. In many ways the output of my work is the reverse of this where hearing is through sight: the sonic patterning (what is seen) is what has been listened to (heard).
RB: There is the idea of dragan, the old English term for drawing – of something that is dragged across a surface, leaving its trace imprinted. There is also the idea of disegno, being about how we project what something could be. So, one is about the trace of an experience and the other is about the projection of a potential experience, and sometimes it is in between those two things. Do these ideas resonate with your own drawing practice?
SR: I find this an interesting question and quite complex to answer! What comes to mind is the idea of strata; strata of listening which is connected to empathy. I view deep-listening as a form of empathy. Possibly, the drawing of traces might reflect the strata of listening so that my drawing might be more of a coming-to-the-surface – from the space of deep-listening – than an act of imprinting traces onto the surface area. I would like to think that my drawings possibly reflect the topography of deeplistening…
The appeal of disgeno is the combination of both the imaginary and the intellectual which lies at the core of this approach. Could one translate this to the creative and scientific approach? Much of my work has been at this intersection and I have often been asked: ‘But is this art?’ It’s a question that I invariably ask myself as well as questioning what it is that I am translating? The clearest answer I have to offer is the intentionality of empathy: to enter the in-between space requires the intention to listen. If one were to take the position of the role of the observer in quantum mechanics where the observer influences the outcome of what is being observed, how might the presence of empathy create new outcomes for social change through deep-listening? I think that my firm belief in the potential of empathy places me closer to your idea of disgeno where my drawing practice searches to visualise that potential experience.
RB: How has your artwork changed in the past years?
SR: The cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, has said that ‘it took a lot of time’ to ‘really get inside.’ This resonates with me. A lot of unlearning needed to happen for me to trust my authentic creative space. Previously, I moved from a more conceptual position and I think my work reflected this distance. I am now allowing the process to unfold and trusting it will take me where I need to be taken. I am free-er to ask questions and there is an opening-up of process that I am really enjoying!
Sonya Rademeyer: Erasing the President’s Speech (credit Matt Fitzgerald: videographer)
What is quite apparent to me is the political stance my work is starting to take especially with regards to voice such as the recently recorded inaugural speech of our newly appointed president, M. Cyril Rhamaphosa. I drew the sounds of his voice, overlaying it on top of marks made from the cacophony of everyday soundscapes that I capture and sometimes draw. I have started erasing this political landscape again, perhaps in attempt to create new meaning out of the promises of his words… I am becoming more interested in voice itself and exploring ways of truth-telling through visualisation of sound. There is an upcoming scholar-artist partnership whereby the actual audio archive of the Rivonia Trial will be used. (It is in this trial that Nelson Mandela was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.) I am applying for this.
RB: What projects are you currently working on?
SR: A long time passion has been to combine soil and sound. I had the idea of making etching ink with soil as printing medium, but this has as yet been unsuccessful as the grain size remains too large in spite of sieving it through a 320 mesh size. However, I will be using Geotech sieves in June when I will be participating in the the Tankwa International Artscape Residency. The arid and dry Tankwa Karoo landscape rests in an immense silence where I will be capturing silent sounds to translate into sonic sketches using the loam soil from the Tankwa river bed.
At the end of August a number of visual artists, including myself, will be cross-disciplining with professional musicians in the Other Lands, Other Sounds 2018 Residency in Portugal. Here I will collectively and collaboratively explore how to translate my sound drawings into music.
A dream project is to collaborate with a neuroscientist to deepen my exploration with regards to sound and empathy.
All images copyright and courtesy of Sonya Rademeyer
Download Sonya Rademeyer The Language of Line (text only)
Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.