Sounds of Solidarity: Introduction
‘There’s no social distancing here’.
This haunting phrase has been repeatedly used by a member of the Unbound community as he signs off letters to those of us outside, from his position of long-term remand in prison.
In more normal times we get together on Tuesday evenings for dinner, writing and music making. But for the last year we have clumsily tried to walk with each other remotely, and occasionally literally at 2m distance, as we’ve navigated life during Covid-19. We’ve walked alongside the diverse ramifications of Covid restrictions as they have played out for all of us in different ways: the complicated loss of close family members; caring responsibilities; isolation; fears of losing employment; delayed court dates; release from prison into restricted support; mental health challenges; inability to see people we want to be with and alongside; and the cruel multiplying effect which Covid’s restrictions have placed on those held in prison. The main point of similarity is that Covid restrictions have made hard things harder.
As we tried to get our activities moving again at the start of the year, facing additional restrictions of an unknown duration coupled with limited Scottish daylight, we decided to further experiment with group songwriting together remotely (see Waiting for the Daylight). First, we gathered together a bunch of people – practitioners who had been working remotely in criminal justice, songwriters who had worked in participatory ways in other contexts throughout – to inform two workshops with members of Unbound and Vox Liminis staff members. This drew together our collective learning to give us the best start in designing a process.
From there we set about exploring ideas of ‘solidarity’ together in 5 groups of 4 or 5 people who were already part of Vox Liminis (mainly in Unbound, but with a few additions). The challenge was to experiment with how the groups might embody aspects of solidarity in the process, while writing new songs together. We deliberately set out to mess with roles and power in the process – the brief was for everyone, not just the paid freelance artists tasked with supporting the songwriting. The brief was simple: to have fun making something new together, build relationships, understanding and connections, and learn lots from doing it.
Our learning from the process has seen us grapple together more openly with questions of power, leadership and ownership. Practically, each group’s journey was different, and used different combinations of communication tools. Interestingly, all the groups settled into combinations of communication form rather than one platform. Relationally, a couple of people who weren’t previously part of Unbound have joined in and taken up a role in the wider community. One person reckons that being involved changed the probable outcome of their recent court appearance. The project has revitalised Unbound to connect and make together (which has been hard to sustain from a distance).
I hope that some of the new ways we worked together will continue to be part of our practice long term – two of the groups included someone currently in prison, and it was possible for them to meaningfully take part. I’m excited about what that means for the interface between Unbound and prison going forward.
While embarking on almost entirely separate journeys, there are some interesting similarities that connect the resultant songs. There are many connections with nature, with many tracks featuring bird song, and other aspects of ecology. There are also multiple references to relationships between different, seemingly separate entities – liquid and gas, acoustic and digital.
Most of the groups encountered difficulties and difference within the process, and numerous individuals faced external challenges along the way. But I think that we have established that we CAN meaningfully make songs together entirely remotely. And that we can bring new people, and people currently in prison, into relationships and alongside Unbound.
In the words of one person involved:
“In the end we got there and I still personally managed to feel like we made a connection, there was a bit of that magical feeling of, we’re all on the same page and standing in the same space here. “
There’s no social distancing here.
Read next: Sounds of Solidarity Part 1 – Electrical Language
And Matt Maycock’s work: ‘Covid-19 has caused a dramatic change to prison life’. Analysing the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the pains of imprisonment in the Scottish Prison Estate
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