Kaffe: My name is Kaffe Matthews, and I think you could say my background is in classical violin, farming and zoology.
I’d already listened to Kaffe speak about her work in Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. This presentation was utterly different, and not simply because it covers a lot of stuff from the five years since ’07. You see, in the wake of all these discussions about politics, Kaffe felt the need to talk about the presence of social messages in her own art.
Kaffe: The fact that we in the west – I’m based in London – we don’t have anything comparable in terms of restriction. In a way there’s too much freedom; maybe that’s our restriction. We’ve never dealt with physical destruction and war on our streets the way a lot of you have. In another way we are all faced with many, many conflicts, the one right now being focused on capitalism and concern for the environment.
Didja know that she’s part of a women’s environmentalist mock-alterna-pop group called The Gluts? I sure didn’t. The other members are Hayley Newman and Gina Birch. Turns out that they did manage to overstep the bounds of censorship in London, where they got harassed by the cops for videoing themselves in drag outfits, singing about greenwashing in the financial district.
Kaffe: (to interpreter) I just need you to translate one line for me. “Who is the owner of this planet? I need to buy some more, dammit”. 
It’s actually inspired by an ‘80s feminist band called Fabulous Dirt Sisters, harking back to a period when a lot of (Western) activists feeling they could make a change by being on the street and taking action.

Most of Kaffe’s talk was actually a cycle back through her repertoire. F’rinstance, her 2009 trip to the Galapagos.
Kaffe: When I was first invited to the Galapagos Islands, my first thought was that I shouldn’t go, because it’s a unique environment that humans are destroying and humans shouldn’t go. But then I checked what conservation activists are doing. And they’re tracking sharks to see the impact of humans on their populations.

So I wanted to face my greatest fear: sharks. 

A shark is not a not a frightening thing. The first hammerhead shark I saw was beautiful, probably about ts far from me as you are now.
She ended up creating soundscapes based on the depth/longitudinal movements of the sharks; their mysteriously horizontal hunting migrations across the ocean floor. Turns out that the hammers of the hammerheads are like aerials, reading the magnetic changes in the earth’s crust. 

(She couldn’t record their sounds: sadly, sharks are soundless.) 
Kaffe: Essentially sharks are millions of years older than dinosaurs. They are the most sophisticated of animals. And they are being slaughtered for sharksfin soup. The worldwide shark population is now reckoned to have declined by 90%, 
This has become a 3D sound installation, which she played us a bit of. It’s supposed to be experienced lying on a vibrating platform, with water dripping from the ceiling, but the stereo system was enough to give us that sense of, as Kaffe put it, “sharks flying around in an audio extravaganza”.

Plus, she did a listening workshop with local kids and played their resulting work on the (only) local radio station, which everyone listened to! The locals must’ve been adjusting their sets like crazy.
Kaffe’s also done similar work on the declining salmon populations of the River Tyne, back in her home territory of the UK.
Kaffe: When I was a kid, salmon was an expensive fish that we only ever got when somebody died. Now salmon is bright pink and available everywhere.
She’s created a score based on their route along the river and taken it to schools, even collaborated with students on an opera called Where Are the Wild Ones, about the salmon returning to the river to play the song of the god of salmon.

Then a bit of backing up: remembering how she started out playing the violin at the age of six with free violin lessons.
Kaffe: What happens with the violin is you are receiving all these vibrations through the bow and through your body, so it’s a lot more fun for the violinist than the audience.
By 2003, she’d recorded 6 solo CDs and was doing 70 concerts a year, all over the world. This was a magical time, she says: discovering the software in Amsterdam, working every day making these concerts that were entirely new and entirely improvised. 
Kaffe: And who were my audience? Mainly white young men who were already studying the kind of experimental music I was making with my violin and my laptop.
But what a difference when she invented her now trademark sonic furniture! Bass frequencies played on speakers vibrated the whole body, just like a violinist’s, so that old women and children who’d never go to her gigs would be lining up to sit on her armchairs.

And after her first sonic bed in London, she’s been commissioned to make beds in city after city, each one customized: a rough lumber bed in Québec, a hand-carved bed in Shanghai, where she fell in love with the food and the endless history, though perturbed by the invasiveness of the government officers and the odd unwillingness of Chinese to take off their shoes before lying in bed. (She had to create plastic covers for shoes.)
Kaffe: It’s always fascinating to see how different people would behave when they were invited to lie in bed with a stranger.
Another strange community: the fellow victims of flesh oscillations on a sonic mattress. Ah well. If they’ve come into an art museum, they’re probably worthy of communion. 
 


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