We caught up with artist and writer Gen Doy, who uses singing to give voice to those who have been ignored or marginalised.
Using her own powerful voice, the voices of friends, her two sons or field-recordings from the sites she’s creating on, Gen Doy creates her melodic and mesmerising recordings to ultimately give voice to ignored, marginalised, or underappreciated communities.
A published author, her books similarly deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality and the politics of representation, with historical and political concerns being a central theme throughout her various works.
Scottish-born, Gen has experienced first-hand the feeling of being ‘different’ since living in England due to her strong Scottish accent: “The voice bears traces of a lived life, and embodied experience, even though the sound becomes detached from the flesh and moves into the air.”
We sat down with the sound artist and discussed her upbringing, motivations, influences and her ever-developing style.
Where did you grow up? Do you think your upbringing has affected your work and if so, how and why?
I was born in 1948 and grew up in a small village in Scotland. There was not much traffic around then and I was allowed to roam around in nearby woods, fields and rivers and come home when I felt hungry. As long as I had the dog with me my parents were fine with that. I also went on long walks with my father, seeing lots of wildlife. Nature is important to me. Also, my upbringing made me determined to be “my own person”, as my mother had her own ideas of what a girl should be like, which were quite different from mine. She also disapproved of my desire to study art.
Can you give a brief overview of what your art is about. What are you trying to convey into your art practise?
My art tries to bring elements from the past into a dialogue with the present. Sometimes this can be confrontational, sometimes more suggestive. I try and convey awareness of political, social and cultural concerns.
What motivates you to create your work?
I like the process of hitting upon an idea or issue, carrying out research to develop it, and the making part usually lets me discover something additional about creating something out of nothing!
You’re Scottish and live and work in London. Does this city affect your artwork and if so, how?
London doesn’t affect my artwork much other that it has lots of opportunities to see art and do research in libraries like the British Library, the Warburg Institute, the Wellcome Collection Library. I’ve done some site responsive work as performances and installations in London.
For example, does London inspire you, or is there anything you’d change about it if you had the power?
London is a great mix of people from all over the world, and that’s interesting. I’d provide cheap housing for people, free travel and wages which rise in line with inflation.
Your published books deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality and the politics of representation. What led you into this field and does this reflect in other parts of your practise too, for example your sound and performance work?
A good question. Yes, my interests as an academic were and are the same as my interests as an artist. I was once rejected from a temporary fellowship as researcher in residence at the National Portrait Gallery because “I thought like an artist, not an academic”! I don’t see why I can’t be both, lots of artists are these days, and many have Ph.D.’s.
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
Oh…. this would be a long list if I was totally truthful. In no particular order: emblems, pre-modern drawings, prints by Dürer and other German Renaissance artists, Caravaggio, William Kentridge, Baroque Art of all kinds, tomb sculpture, representations of the Dance of Death, banderols in paintings (scrolls with words on them), sibyls, Anselm Kiefer, Goya (what a fantastic body of work), Northern Italian Cemeteries, paintings of the Last Judgement, maps of the heavens. This could go on for a long time…I’ve seen so many wonderful and inspiring things over the years. They all seep in and develop over time.
How has your artistic style developed over time?
I started off doing paintings and drawings, and then I realised I could do lots with sound recordings, and the founder of Matt’s Gallery where I was part of a workshop discussion suggested I did live performances instead of recorded ones. Since I am a bit technophobic, this sounded like a good plan, but I find performing very nerve-wracking even though I think it’s got a particular presence you don’t get from other sorts of art. I try to think that if I could stand up and lecture to a room of a hundred people surely I can perform to a small audience, but lecturing is much less stressful.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Books, thinking, thinking whilst swimming, carboot sales, old art of all sorts, visiting museums and historical buildings, being in natural surroundings, history, left politics.
Where is your sanctuary? (Either real or imagined)
My sanctuary is with my lads and my grandkids.
What are your hopes for the future? (both artistic and otherwise)
Socialism, that the planet is saved for our children and young people. I hope I will go on making art and not be discouraged by rejections.
The bookmark you created for our competition is a song you’ve recorded. Can you explain your thought process behind this song and what it means to you?
The song brings together classical myths (the Sirens luring sailors to their deaths), and the drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean in the present. Their calls for help are ignored by governments who see them as a “problem”, “alien”, “illegal people”. The work uses my singing, recordings of a ferry boat with oars crossing a river in Suffolk, and a hearing test. Those in power who ignore calls for help have failed their hearing test, is one interpretation you could put on this. There are plans to put migrants in detention on boats, but these boats won’t be going anywhere. I doubt if there will be much singing heard on them.