About 115 kilometres south east of London is the coastal town of Folkestone. With a population of just over 45,000 people compared with London's 8.8 million, it's a small place with a big personality. Brimming with historical tales of Roman Villas, bustling ports, French connections and abandoned trade routes, today's Folkestone is actively grappling with its identity and future. As part of this the Creative Foundation was established in 2002 and among other artistic endeavours, the Folkestone Triennial was created.
This year's Triennial is titled 'Double Edge'. Built between two cliffs, Folkestone sprawls across a valley with the ancient Pent Stream carving a geological divide between east and west. The other edge is the coastal frontier facing France, where harbour development plans aim to lessen the cultural divide between people on one side of the valley and the other. In its best moments the Triennial draws on these sharp edges of division and potential unification.
Artist Emily Peasgood's standout piece 'Halfway to Heaven', is one such work. It's an acoustic treat located in a Baptist burial ground which is perched about six metres above street level. Visitors trigger the hymn-styled recordings of several narratives, inspired by the people buried there until around 150 years ago. This was a small community of Baptists permanently segregated in death, forbidden to be buried in the local Anglican cemetery. Bringing this lost community of the dead into the present is a poignant reminder of the shame of religious segregation.
Curator Lewis Biggs explained that he found the spaces first then selected an artist for each space. How did he come across your work and fit it with the burial ground?
I first heard of Lewis when I was participating in Alex Hartley's 'Vigil' installation for Folkestone Triennial 2014. This involved me sitting on a camping ledge suspended from the exterior of Hotel Burstin's top floor creating what I thought of as extreme composition music. Afterwards I contacted Lewis to introduce myself and enquire about the 2017 Triennial. It was cheeky, but worth it. When he told me about the Baptist Burial Ground I knew I had to have that site. I could almost hear what I would compose and install! I proposed an idea, and he agreed to it.
The libretto includes specific names like Joseph and Maria Parkins. How did you access these people when the aged tombstones are barely legible?
This was very difficult. I had a few documents from the Folkestone Baptist Church that provided grave markers and found other documents online. But they rarely correlated. I realised this was because records for nonconformists were rarely kept in the 18th and 19th centuries. I sourced further books on the site and did some gravestone rubbings to find names that matched the documents. What pieced everything together, enabling me to have accurate historical facts about the people buried there, was a genealogy website of nonconformist records.
Did you research and manage to find any living relatives of the buried?
The suggestion of the Burial Ground for the Triennial was made by the Bradstone Association. They were already in communication with Robert Hughes, who I believe is the only living descendent of Thomas and Susannah Bayly. Robert sent me information about their lives and we met just recently. It was great to chat in person after all our email correspondence.
What was your approach to deciding how to frame the piece?
In the early stages of research I frequently visited the Baptist Burial Ground. One time I lay on the ground and looked at the sky. The line: 'united, underneath the stars' came to me and I realised that it summarised how we are all the same, in life and death, so I knew this had to be an important feature of the work.
Following a 6-month research period, I decided the lyrics would speak of the history of the site and contain a love story about Thomas and Susannah Bayly. It's written in the folk style common to the 18th and 19th centuries and speaks about Thomas meeting Susannah as she lay on the ground watching the stars. They fall in love, learn from each other, grow old together and when they die, they're buried in the place they met, underneath the stars.
I was still unsure how to express these sentiments and decided to work with co-librettist Kate Harwood and, later, with Elli Rudd and Daniel Wright-Hadley. Once complete, I composed the work alone over a two day period, day and night. I prefer this and am always surprised by what comes out when I’m under physical duress.
The memorial urns containing the speakers were fabricated by Darius Wilson. Their inscriptions are lyrics which summarise key sentiments I’m trying to portray. My focus is on community and equality; values that are not only important to the Baptists but to all of us, today, regardless of our background and identity. In 'Halfway to Heaven' all are equal regardless of their background, identity, beliefs, life or death.
I have to say that this work is unlike anything I have previously written. At the time of composition, I was in a state of flow and can only express what happened as a combined outpouring of the research I had undertaken, experiences from spending time in the burial ground, and an emotional state of sadness, happiness and longing for a love like the one I imagined for Thomas and Susannah. I was crying when I wrote 'Halfway to Heaven' and a lot of people tell me that they cry when they listen to it.
What's next? Back to focussing on your studies and teaching or more projects in the making?
I'll soon complete my PhD and have a number of commissioned projects in the pipeline. I occasionally lecture at Canterbury Christ Church University, though my focus is creativity first and foremost. One personal project, particularly close to my heart, is to create a protest against sexism in western classical music. I wish to record female flatulence in a number of pitches and recreate a seminal classical work by a male composer. Another project is working with interactive technology to create a listening experience that's physical and embodied. I don’t see the point in creating art that doesn’t deeply impact people. When this happens, I feel I have succeeded as an artist.
Folkestone Triennial is open daily and runs until 5 November 2017. Emily Peasgood's performances are on Sunday 22 October and more information including location, times and booking can be found at folkestonetriennial.org.uk or emilypeasgood.com.