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Remote listening: SONA bridge distance with LANDMASS

by SONA

With 400 miles separating their members in Sheffield and Orkney, YSWN-affiliated collective SONA have found their own way to collaborate at a distance. Here they reflect upon their recent LANDMASS project and share some tips for being creative when you can’t all be in the same room.

We’ve written before about our LANDMASS project here on the YSWN blog. When we conceived the project Amy had just moved to Orkney and we wanted to develop ways of continuing to work together. We hoped these techniques would be helpful to other women who were geographically separated, or who found it hard to meet physically due to conflicting demands on their time.

What we didn’t realise was that remote working was about to become even more important than ever with the global coronavirus pandemic. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to finish LANDMASS and our new sound piece Straum with a final week of real-life residency, just two weeks before lockdown measures were introduced in the UK.

After some trial and error we settled on a system for progressing the LANDMASS project, by agreeing common software and approaches for both project management as well as creative work. We found that structuring the admin side of things was crucial to being able to progress our creative processes at a distance. It was important to us that the software we used was accessible, and nearly everything we used was free (with the exception of some creative software – see below).

laptop and board of notes

Regular video calls were the absolute cornerstone of our process. We used WhatsApp for this, since it was easy to fit in WhatsApp calls even if one of us was away from the computer, but any video calling software would work. We booked meetings on a regular (weekly/fortnightly) basis well in advance, making it easier for us to prioritise time together. The meetings alternated between admin and creative meetings – this was to help us prioritise the creative, something we struggled with during our Unpeeled project. Meetings were supported by agendas, production timetables and to-do lists on Trello.

We also instigated an ‘ideas inbox’ folder on Google Drive, for sharing assets, inspiration etc. At the start of each creative session we would go through these and discuss how to incorporate them into the project. Amy had learned this technique at a workshop led by Lau, and we found it crucial for structuring our creative discussions.

coding screenshot

Remote working allowed us to make the most of the limited physical time we had together. We were able to make many of the administrative and creative decisions in advance which in turn allowed us to stick to tight schedules during our two residencies in Sheffield and Orkney.

We found that having dedicated studio space and working hours during these residencies also supported us to get away from the day-to-day and really focus on our creative process, allowing us to work in a consistent and intentional way. We had gathered and shared audiovisual assets in advance, giving us time to familiarise ourselves with them. We also developed a conceptual score during our first residency, which we were able to refine and flesh out remotely before the second residency. This remote development work really helped us build a shared vision, and we used this momentum to hit the ground running when we were able to all be in the same physical space.

We were lucky enough to receive a commission from Sheffield Modern festival in the middle of the LANDMASS project, which allowed us to road test some of these techniques on a much smaller-scale project, resulting in a site-specific sound installation Sonic Intrigues. This project gave us an opportunity to understand what we needed to focus on remotely and how to better structure our time together.

SONA residency in Sheffield

In the end we were able to install and present an exhibition, run a workshop, and develop a brand-new audio piece during a short six-day residency at Sidney & Matilda gallery here in Sheffield. The asset gathering and conceptual planning we had undertaken in advance over the internet meant we could deliver an ambitious project over a short time frame with regular eight-hour working days. Remote collaboration allowed us to do so much more than the limited time together would usually allow.

Full software list:

There are loads of tools for remote collaboration, and probably many of those are better than the ones we chose, however, we decided it was important to use software we were already familiar with to ensure we were spending our time on the project, and not on how to use new software.

For our project organisation (free software)
Trello
WhatsApp
Google drive/docs

For our creative work (A-Z)
Ableton music production software (using YSWN licences – thank you! Free trial version available)
Audacity sound editor (free, open source)
Freesound audio collection (free)
GIMP image editor (free, open source)
MaxMSP multimedia programming software (licenced)
Pd multimedia programming software (free, open source)
REAPER digital audio workstation (licenced, but with free evaluation period)
SoundCloud music streaming platform (free)

Delivered by SONA as part of the YSWN Amplify programme, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.