A Stitch Outside Time: Nine Minutes with Mark Fell

Southend-on-Sea’s Focal Point Gallery is currently staging a major solo exhibition by the acclaimed artist and musician Mark Fell entitled The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent, which features newly produced works that explore and extend the artist’s interest in space, time and materiality. Alongside, is an ambitious new sound commission; A Stitch Outside Time takes the form of a purpose-built app in which listeners on the London to Southend-on-Sea c2c trainline can experience an ever-changing sound work which employs generative music technology to respond to the train’s movement and exact location. We sat down with Mark Fell to hear more about these compelling projects.

How did your new sound commission, A Stitch Outside Time, come into being? How long did it take to develop from conception to realisation?

The idea came about during my initial meetings with Focal Point Gallery. There was a suggestion to make a piece for the line between London Fenchurch Street and Shoeburyness. After thinking about the idea of a soundtrack I suggested the idea of a GPG based system so the sound was directly related to the location. It was actually quite a long and technically complex process. The synthesis and pattern generating procedures were developed in Max/MSP and then the iPhone programmer was able to translate that into the code for the smart phone. I guess it was something in the region of six months to complete and involved several stages of testing and various in between stages to check the synthesis was correct.

Have you worked with this kind of technology previously?

I made a piece for Sage Gateshead, their “flagship” commission for the Great Exhibition of the North, and that involved sourcing lots of environmental sounds from the region. So to do this we developed an app that the public could use to collect sounds and upload them to my server. That’s the only other piece I’ve made using smartphones. I kind of like the relationship between the phone and the environment. I guess there’s some commonality there with the two pieces.

What was the inspiration behind The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent?

It’s really hard to answer that. But I think a key point for me was getting material samples – the vinyl for example – and also the context and Southend’s history with fun fairs. So it’s a bit like a kind of phenomenology of funfair aesthetics in one sense, but fused with structures and ideas from quite different sources.

What is the interplay between the different works, from the main labyrinthine mirror installation to the large shimmering curtain in the gallery window, and smaller installation featuring a balloon?

For me I like the audience to build their own responses to things like this, their own readings etc. But there are some clear connections to me, for example the strobe room is a point in space, the curtain is a plane and the maze is a 3 dimensional nonlinear space. They all deal with different forms of sound, light and pattern generation. The commonalities are in terms of an interest in the kinds of geometry, colour, light, sound that feature in my work.

You have a wide range of influences including experimental cinema, electric music subcultures, contemporary philosophy and physics. How do you feel these have had an impact on the new work?

Well as a young person these things were part of my alternative world – I mean, distinct from the world I grew up in which was systematically broken up throughout the 1980s. I have to say however that physics is not my thing – I mean I wish I had the determination to understand that stuff but I don’t.

For me an important movement in cinema was the structuralist and materialist film movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The ideas about foregrounding the process of making film, the tools and vocabularies is, I think, something that I carried over to my work with sound to some extent. A kind of methodology that is quite different to orthodox electro acoustic practices for example.  

What do you have coming up next?

I just did a show with Okkyung Lee in New York – actually a piece developed from the train line commission using some of the synthesis and patterns in combination with improvised cello.

I have a show in San Francisco tomorrow, next week in The Hague I present a new work ‘Hominin’ which involves dance, kinetic objects, light and sound. Then off to Buenos Aires to make a new commission for percussion ensemble, then a show in Montevideo and a few shows in Italy after that. I have a large project at HangarBicocca in Milan, responding to the work of Sheela Gowda – a few new collaborations and commissions which I’m quite looking forward to.

The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent runs until 21 April. For more information see: http://www.fpg.org.uk/exhibition/mark-fell/ and for further details about A Stitch Outside Time see: http://www.fpg.org.uk/project/a-stitch-outside-time/

Image: Installation view, Mark Fell, The Concept of Time is Intrinsically Incoherent, 2019. Photo: Anna Lukala, Courtesy of Focal Point Gallery