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Meet the RCA: Dr Matt Lewis

portrait of Matt Lewis
Dr Matt Lewis
Dr Matt Lewis is a London-based musician and sound-artist. His work often focuses on particular physical sites, or around social issues such as regeneration, disability and urban planning. Matt is a co-founder of the group Call & Response, who are the UK’s only dedicated independent sound art space and specialists in the production and curation of multi-channel sound exhibitions and performances. At the RCA he teaches on the Digital Direction MA and Information Experience Design MA in the School of Communication.

How did you first start working with sound?

I was a musician for years and ended up playing experimental music, as well as making music for dance and film. The boundaries between sound design, sound art and music quickly became very blurred. I’m not a big fan of being on my own in the studio, or the idea of an heroic individual artist. I’m interested in ways that sound can bring people together to make things together.

Two people with recording equipment near a roundabout
No such thing as empty space – Recording Trip, Matt Lewis
What is it that you are exploring through sound in your work?

I’m interested in thinking through sound, how we can perhaps get beyond words and start to think about the world through our bodies, through our ears – not to access greater knowledge or anything like that but just to build different relationships between ourselves and the world, and how we think. Sound necessitates a different form of interaction, a physical or maybe a spatial interaction, a different way of thinking about social issues, politics, culture, design, art.

Is there a particular work you’ve made that you felt was particularly successful?

I work with the deafblind charity Sense, and got to know their users quite well. In Music for Hearing Aids some users from the charity carried speakers around Granary Square in Kings Cross on a very hot summer’s day. This modulated the environment in a very simple way. I liked the potential of disrupting the environment, both through the presence of a community that are often marginalised, and also through sound.

performance near fountains
Music for Hearing Aids, Matt Lewis
Does sound offer a particularly effective method to approach political or social issues?

Sound can be a very immediate way of responding to a situation. You see that with street protests, it’s a very effective way of occupying a contested space. It reminds us of the importance of complaining, making noise, shouting and being belligerent children. It also connects. Radio is something that often springs up in a crisis. In the north of Ireland, on both sides of the contested environment during the 1960s and 70s radio stations sprung up, as a way of communicating and connecting people.

Has sound become a more important form of communication, or way for people to interact with the world since covid-19?

Listening and a change in the sonic environment has been very interesting at the moment. We’re now more connected through sound. As you speak, mediated through lots of cables and computation, my body is vibrating. It’s quite a beautiful thing in connecting through the air really. You can’t do it through the visual. There is something very unconscious about that need to connect through sounds, through all these vibrations of the world that we can feel a virtual connection with each other, which at this time we all desperately miss and seek. However, there is an idea that Zoom is connecting us all, but a lot of people marginalized through deafness or blindness might not find Zoom as an effective way of communicating with everybody.

Sound proof room with seating
Must we Suffer in the Rhythm installation view, Matt Lewis
How does sound fit into the Digital Direction programme?

The focus of Digital Direction is narrative storytelling and the future of storytelling. Sound is very useful at placing a person in a virtual space or a real space. A recording of a forest through headphones will send you there in a different way than the visual might. It places you within something. One of the things the students work on is a project on immersion. Sound is a very effective way of immersing you, technologically but also conceptually.

woman listens to two old fashioned telephones
Audio collage and photography, Giulia Brancati
You ran a project with the British Library using the oral history archives there. Could you talk a bit about this brief?

Students used the recorded voice as a starting point for exploring areas of listening. They were given a range of interviews from the enormous archive at the British Library to which they brought their own cultural relations and readings. Some used them as a conceptual starting point and did something very different, others incorporated the recording, and some made their own interviews. A lot of the work wasn't overtly sound based, there were quite a lot of haptic responses. One of the popular recordings was somebody talking about the experience of cochlear implants. Some students looked at that through building vibrating materials.

What was lovely about that project was seeing the material used as the starting point from which students went off into different modalities, making creative and abstract connections. That’s what’s exciting about the School of Communication, this coming together and making connections between cultures and ways of thinking.

Find out more about Digital Direction, Information Experience Design, and how to apply.