James Richards on Migratory Motor Complex

We meet James Richards to discuss Migratory Motor Complex, his first solo show in Scotland arriving at Collective for Edinburgh Art Festival this month

Article by Donald Butler | 26 Jul 2019
  • James Richards: Migratory Motor Complex

We catch James Richards right at the beginning of installing Migratory Motor Complex, his first solo presentation in Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival at Collective’s City Dome space. “We’re laying out the equipment now and it feels proportionally really perfect for this kind of space. It feels like the mechanical, the physical elements of the work and speakers, were chosen or coloured for this room.”

Richards is perhaps best known for his moving image practice exploring an abstracted, sensory relation to images and cinema but his background is in experimental and DIY electronic music. “When I went to art college, I started making video art that I would soundtrack, composing quite elaborate soundtracks for often archival found material.” Migratory Motor Complex is a part of a trilogy of works Richards has now undertaken, re-examining his relationship to sonic composition. “Around 2015, I started thinking about returning, or placing, audio systems in a gallery as a standalone experience without moving image. Somehow, it has this very cinematic relationship to the material.” 

These stand-alone audio works are presented as surround sound systems without a defined front, back or screen to anchor them, such as in a film context “but it plays on a lot of those things, those feelings of the way sound washes past you or appears behind or in front of you. Also, these quite cinematic visual effects almost like depth of field, things appearing to be out of focus or in the distance.” Richards likens the work more to a piece of music rather than purely sound, built up from a core backbone of melodic elements which sit alongside field recordings, natural sounds and cinematic audio effects. Specifically for this work, Richards collaborated with singer Kirsten Evans from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. “I would work with Kirsten in the studio [playing] material back to her in short fragments or forwards, and invite her to improvise along with these. We’d also go through certain texts, so in this case they were quite fragmented or collaged, so not lyrics but little sentences or half sentences and words.” 

Understanding the body through the infrastructure of media, be that film or sound, sits right at the centre of Richards' works. In his moving image pieces, such as his Turner Prize nominated work Rosebud, there is a fascination with the texture of, or interaction with, specifically printed erotic images. Migratory Motor Complex can be seen as another approach to exploring the site of the mediated body: “Sound enters your body without your control. One refers to reading an image, but you don’t really refer to reading a sound commonly. There’s always that feeling that you have less control of its intrigue on you.”  

Richards explains that in his audio works, the body continues to be highly evidenced through the presence of the voice, with vocal samples recorded very close to the mouth so as to catch the inhales between singing lines. “There’s also this idea of the technological body being present, the crackle of vinyl or the way the lips appear sonically.” As with any recorded medium the technology involved leaves its distinct trace, hovering at the edges of our perception. 

Originally commissioned for the Welsh Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale alongside Chapter Arts Centre, this is the third time the work has been shown. Each presentation has been held in varying architectural contexts, allowing for differing emphasised readings of the soundscape and always mixed in situ. “If you mix it and edit on the sound system, you’ll be playing it on you can push that equipment more, push those pop and crackles or drumbeats [and] get them really sort of attuned to that kit. The result is a more physical sort of sculptural music experience.” In Venice, where the piece was presented in a chapel space, Richards notes that he noticed a prominent reading of the angelic choral sections of the work – whereas when shown at Chapter in Cardiff, in a black box theatrical setting with less visual material, he read the connections to industrial music more. 

The City Dome is an architecturally optic structure, the gears of the observatory still visible after the space's refit to a contemporary arts venue. These evidenced mechanics of recording formats present a potentially fruitful context in which to place Richards' concerns around the infrastructure of media in relation to the body and he mentions that the work “feels connected to this crude technological environment, it looks quite hosted.” Located atop one of Edinburgh’s most iconic landmarks and shown during the city's increasingly visited festival period, one can only imagine the plural potentials of approach audiences will bring to Migratory Motor Complex for its Scottish debut. 

James Richards: Migratory Motor Complex, Collective, 26 Jul-13 Oct, Tue-Sun 10am-5pm, free