NR Magazine, Vol. 12

If you saw, or heard about, Four Tet’s string of dates at London’s Alexandra Palace last year, you’ll be familiar with the light installation that immersed the crowd for the duration of each show. The group behind this feat is Squidsoup, whose work for Burning Man in 2018 and again in 2019, you will likely have seen, like those Four Tet performances, via social media - if not in real life. Characteristic of Squidsoup’s work are visually and

sensorially-arresting experiences, where light and digital art responds to physical space and the people who populate it. Yet, behind and beyond the ethereal qualities of Squidsoup’s work lies the technological and logistical realities that makes an installation of over 40,000 individual lights amongst a crowd of 10,000 people (as was the case for Four Tet’s Alexandra Palace shows) possible. Formed in 1997 by the artist and designer, Anthony Rowe, Squidsoup defines itself as an ‘open group of collaborators’ working across (digital) art, design, technology and research. Alongside Anthony and the group’s six core members, there is a team of full-time and part-time staff, freelancers, as well as a warehouse, workshop, studio space, and fabrication facilities. With Squidsoup’s trajectory corresponding more-or-less alongside the major digital advancements of the past 20 years, the group has been continually successful in bringing technological innovations into the realm of art, performance and the material world.

As Anthony explains to NR over email, without the level of digital connectivity we experience today (such as 5G, the Internet of Things and “ever smaller processor sizes”), much of Squidsoup’s work would not be possible. Being able to adapt and change alongside the progression of technology and the digital realm is only one part of Squidsoup’s story, however. As Anthony notes, “interesting ideas are normally [those] pushing the boundaries of what is reasonably possible – either in terms of materials, software, engineering or logistics. Originality and novelty are highly-prized attributes in this kind of work; to achieve that, you need to be pushing the boundaries.” Now, as Covid-19 alters the ways in which we experience and use digital and physical space – perhaps, in some ways, irreversibly – Squidsoup are learning to adapt again. In response to the pandemic, the group have unveiled Songs of Collective Isolation, a piece which reconceptualises the larger, immersive installations that Squidsoup are known for on a more intimate, or individual, scale. “This is not a piece for massive social interaction,” Anthony outlines – rather, it’s a “contrast, a parallel track to our larger public artworks.” And as much as it is evidence of Squidsoup’s ability to respond and react to the world that their work is shaped by, it’s not the end of those bigger works: “Perhaps it is also in part a memento to those larger projects, and a sign of hope that those days will soon return.”

How did the idea for Songs of Collective Isolation come to fruition, and how will this piece work in real-life settings?

Songs for Collective Isolation emerged from a series of explorations, looking at the possibilities of minimal, slow-paced sound- and light-scapes, free from the need to think about practicalities such as people flow, visitor experience and dwell time. We wanted to create a piece that would slowly draw you in, using natural and unadorned sounds, and exploring the effects of layering multiple iterations of the same sound, each from its own speaker suspended in space. The result is a raw set of sampled sounds (a violin recorded very close up, played by Giles Francis) that gains depth and breadth when played independently through multiple speakers – it fills out; becoming an orchestra, rich and deep, from such simple beginnings. We also saw a parallel with the current global situation - social distancing, lockdowns and so on. The potential of what we can achieve together, and the fragility of isolation that we were suddenly confronted with, seem to resonate within the piece. The piece starts with a solo note that, only after quite a while, begins to build in strength and variety.

The work uses a hardware and software system we have been developing in-house for the past few years, that we call ‘AudioWave’. It is the same system that was used at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona to create a piece called Murmuration (2019-20) that comprised over 700 individual speakers and orbs of light, suggesting the movement of light and energy around the outside of that building. It builds on earlier iterations such as Wave at Salisbury Cathedral, Desert Wave at Burning Man and Canal Convergence, and Bloom, first commissioned for Royal Botanical Gardens Kew. This piece is much smaller, more intimate, with just 18 light/speaker orbs. It is designed to be seen in quiet, private or controlled spaces – again resonating with the current situation.

The footage of Where There is Light is poignant to watch; How was the work, with light responding to the stories of refugees and asylum seekers, developed?

From the outset our goal was to create an abstract space in which people could listen to some real stories from real people; refugees within their midst in Gloucester. It was also important, I think, that this was done in a positive way, as part of a non-lecturing experience. And finally, we wanted to bring attention to the amazing work of GARAS (Gloucester Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers). An opportunity arose to show the work in Gloucester Cathedral, and we worked with Everyman Theatre and Music Works, two local organisations, to put  the piece together.

Visually, we wanted each of the four testimonies to have a different feel, a different visual reference. And finally, there is a musical crescendo where we took the opportunity to let rip with the lights a little! The project was a collaboration with a refugee organisation local to the studio in Gloucestershire UK called GARAS. We all hear stories of refugees, but the enormity of their ordeals is so outside of our experience, that attempts to represent their lives becomes mired in the discussion of guilt, responsibility, economics and race.

How did Squidsoup’s work with Four Tet come about?

Having created indoor and outdoor versions of a project called Submergence and shown it numerous times in various types of spaces and events, we felt that the approach of the work, using a walkthrough 3D array of points of light (controlled in real time) to create the impression of movement and presence in a shared physical space, could be adapted for use elsewhere, in particular in live stage performance. In 2015, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet was finishing the album Morning/Evening, that was, for him, something of a stylistic departure consisting of two long, meandering, Indian-inflected tracks, and was wondering about a live set. A mutual friend connected us. The plan from the start was to search out serendipities; happy coincidences where two working processes coincide, creating - hopefully - more than the sum of their parts.

The first shows (Manchester International Festival, Sydney Opera House, Roundhouse) had a conventional stage layout, with our volume of lights behind Kieran on stage. For a gig at the ICA in London in 2016, Kieran suggested placing himself in the centre of the room, on a low riser, in the middle of the lights. The audience, also within the installation, surrounded him, effectively breaking down the wall between audience and performer - placing them in the same space and creating a different kind of audience experience. A hybrid of performance and installation; a blurring of boundaries between stage and audience space; plus, of course, the mixing of physical and digital inherent to the original idea of the work. The ICA had an audience of 300, as did National Sawdust and Hollywood Forever, US, which we then expanded to some 6-to-700 at the Village Underground (Shoreditch, London, 2018), and eventually the 9,000 plus at Alexandra Palace. Upcoming events in Berlin and the USA are currently on hold due to the COVID situation.

Has the collaboration with Four Tet changed the possibilities of experiencing live music?

New possibilities for experiencing live music are emerging in many ways, as technology improves and becomes more available. None of what we do would be possible without a myriad of technical innovations. We have been pushing the relationship between performer and audience, performance and immersive installation experience as described above, aiming to deliver new types of experience. But we are not alone in doing this. The collaboration with Four Tet is an example of a creative partnership looking for new ways to engage audiences and expand performance - to create novel kinds of experiences. In one key sense, this has been a rare opportunity. The relationship Four Tet has with his audience is unique: they are cerebral, with high expectations, but they do seem up for new things. Not every audience can be trusted to treat the work with the physical respect it needs: the LED strands dangle in among the audience - a different audience could easily pull and break them.

What informs the ways that Squidsoup responds to different environments?

Most of our larger commissions are awarded, so we respond creatively to a specific space or cultural brief, and we also use these commission as an opportunity to advance our own agendas and work. In effect, this means that we use the space, location, community/audience, and any brief we are presented with as a canvas, and the systems and technical approaches we have developed are the paint (or medium) to create a new piece. Enlightenment, a project we installed in the North Porch of Salisbury Cathedral, was informed and inspired by the symbolic importance of the cathedral, its history and presence, and was also a response to the nature of the space. At a practical level, we needed to take into account people flow into the building, and to consider how the light and sound bounced off walls, and so on; the affordances of the location.

The Polaris work at Burning Man was almost the opposite in terms of approach and experience. The first time we did it, we had no idea what we were getting into; we just liked the idea of an LED cube driving around the desert. We were invited out by Cyberia, one of the camps at Burning Man, to give it a go using an ex-army truck. What could possibly go wrong? It was a baptism by fire, and the answer is pretty much everything went wrong (generators failing, dust getting literally everywhere), but we learnt what needed to be done for kit to survive out there.

We were lucky to be invited to return the following year, where we both re-ran the Polaris project and were also commissioned to create a new work for Burning Man 2019: Desert Wave.

It’s fascinating to see Squidsoup’s progression from the early works to some of the large-scale bespoke commissions. Is there a direct connection between these earlier pieces with the present day?

Definitely. Our work has always been about immersion - working to create beguiling trance-like experiences and making the tech an invisible enabler, rather than a prominent component. Visually, our works have moved away from using screens, as the screen is a boundary; a barrier between the viewer and what they are looking at. We wanted to break down that barrier, either by placing the viewer inside the content, as with VR, or by letting the media spread into our shared, physical world. For us, VR felt too lonely an experience, where you leave this world behind, so we looked for more hybrid approaches, eventually landing on the various approaches using arrays of lights (and sound) in physical, walkthrough, shared spaces.

As our work has developed, it has become more abstract. This is partly due to the nature of the media we now use, but it also feels right for us, as it allows for quite a primal, visceral form of engagement. It also allows each person experiencing the work to decide what it means for them. That, in itself, is an interactive and creative process. What is consistent throughout our work is a will to remove the technology from one’s conscious experience. We’re not pretending it’s not there (our work is quite technologically ambitious), but we don’t want people feeling that they are engaging directly with ‘computers’. This is partly because they are a means to an end, not a focus in themselves in our work, but we have noticed that people change their approach when confronted with digital/binary decisions. They start to think about how it all works, which is absolutely not what we are looking for. We want people to suspend disbelief, to go with it and experience the work with all their senses, rather than their intellect.

What can people learn from Squidsoup’s interdisciplinary approach to combining technology and research with music and art?

Interdisciplinarity is increasingly necessary in our work, but I’m not sure that we actually see it that way. We see it more as collaboration between people with different skills, as we need a range of skills and expertise in order to make real our artistic visions. Learning advanced computer, materials, robotics, music, design and architectural skills, and so on, takes time and, if you’re not working with a trained professional, there will be a lot of learning by trial and error. Even when you are using a trained professional, we often end up asking them to do things that are out of their comfort zone anyway - so trial and error, and iteration, are the order of the day.

Connected with this is communication. We often work remotely, even more so these days, by necessity due to current movement and social distancing restrictions, so getting an idea across clearly but accurately is vital when working with people from various disciplines. Although our projects generally start with a fairly clear concept and idea, there needs to be a degree of pragmatism involved during the development phase. Some aspects of an idea may be impossible, or better approaches may be uncovered along the way. Being able to see these and work around or with them when they arise, is crucial - and also down to communication. The flip side to that is that it can also be tempting to dilute an idea for the sake of practical expediency. Any changes of direction are carefully thought through to ensure that the core concept is not compromised.

Squidsoup is described as something that can ‘be experienced online […] and in shared spaces’; how do you anticipate the different ways in which participants might engage with the work, either in real life or via online footage?

In mid-2020, the variety of ways that people can engage with our work are significantly compromised by social distancing, travel restrictions and other knock-ons from the current pandemic. Our best-known works are experiential physical spaces, in galleries or outdoors at festivals and other events. But we do also create permanent exhibitions, and smaller artworks that straddle the area between installation and art object. Currently this is a main focus; to make smaller works that can be experienced in private and smaller, more controlled, public spaces. Although our works have been shown many times, the world is a large place and the most effective way to speak to global audiences is through the web and social media. We have not made a web-based artwork for many years, but we try to document our work in an honest and truthful way, so that people who can’t actually make it to an installation can still get some understanding of what the works entail. However, most of the online content associated with our work is generated by visitors. Social media users have been kind - many of our projects are very selfie-friendly. There is a definite irony there, as one of our stated aims (as mentioned above) was to move away from screen-based experiences to physical ones. And yet here we are, with many more people knowing our work from digital content than from encounters with the physical work.  

December 2020
Neels Castillon
NR Magazine, Online

For Neels Castillon, authenticity is integral to his role as a film director and photographer, especially, as he explains on the phone from Paris, in an age of fake news. The dissemination of falsified and fabricated news reportage may not have a direct connection to Castillon, whose clients include Lacoste, Hermès and the French singer, Angèle, but his contention lies with the prevalence of artifice. He sees his role as navigating a balance between capturing the feeling that cinematic visuals can provoke, whilst simultaneously resisting the artificiality those same visuals can carry. There is perhaps no better example of how Castillon meets this feat than in his production company, Motion Palace’s, advertising campaign for kitchen manufacturer, Schmidt. The premise of the advertisement was to have one of Schmidt’s kitchens appearing on a cliff face, demonstrating the brand’s functionality and adaptability. On seeing that the brief was to shoot in a studio with a green screen, Castillon responded that it should be shot for real in the Alps. The ensuing advertisement, and supplementary documentary about the process, are jaw-dropping to watch, as mountaineer Kenton Cool makes himself breakfast in a fully-working kitchen, 6500ft above ground. Castillon refers to the experience as a ‘cool adventure’; the team involved stayed in tents for fifteen days, hiking their way up to the cliffside, and creating an entirely new structure to support the camera from above.

It is through commercial work, like the advertisement for Schmidt, that Motion Palace is able to pursue its more artistic endeavours; ‘It’s in the DNA of my company to produce art stuff with the money we make,’ Castillon explains. As a result, Castillon was able to realise the F Major music video for the neo-classical pianist, Hania Rani, in Iceland earlier this year.

Filmed in a remote location, Hania is seen playing an open-front upright piano – an approach which visually encapsulates the artist’s fascination with the mechanical, organic possibilities that the instrument affords. For the video, Castillon worked with the choreographer, Fanny Sage, and the dancers Mellina Boubetra and Janina Sarantšina, whose interpretations of Hania’s ethereal performance is captured in a single sequence shot. The camera work signals Castillon’s commitment to striving for authenticity; ‘The concept was, how can we translate music that never stops, and keep up this pace?’ So, the camera doesn’t stop either. It was important, too, to translate the sensation of freedom that comes both with Hania’s music and the dancers’ movements – something that the film’s location allowed for. ‘I want to celebrate nature,’ Castillon explains, adding that he strives to capture how a landscape can be inspirational, whilst resisting the urge to just create picture postcards of the scenery. The backdrop of mountains and black sand in F Major have the potential to be just that; awe-inspiring and spectacular in itself. But, as the chilling wind that entraps Hania and the dancers in the video confirms, the logistics of F Major were anything but straightforward. ‘As you can see, there was an ice storm,’ Castillon points out; ‘It was very cold, like minus seven degrees. We rehearsed a lot before but, on set on the beach we only had three takes because of the light and the weather.’ Not only was the filming testament to Castillon’s approach to taking on a challenge, but also his dedication to fully realising the potential of the performers he works with. 

Castillon discovered Hania Rani through her record label, Gondwana Records: ‘I like pretty much all the artists they have in their roster, so when I listened to her first album (2019’s Esja) I was totally in love.’ At the time Castillon reached out to Hania, she was writing her second album, Home, but she had seen Castillon’s 2017 film, Isola with the dancer Léo Walk, and wanted to work together. Their collaboration was postponed to allow time for Castillon to raise money and for Hania to complete the album. This time also gave Castillon the chance to work out the concept for their work; ‘I listened to [F Major] maybe 200 times before coming up with the idea.’ He was also keen to ensure he attended every rehearsal and discuss the concept with the dancers; the process is ‘almost a co-creation,’ Castillon explains, like ‘ping-pong.’ It’s a constructive and collaborative process of back-and-forths to find a way that Castillon can capture the performance in the best possible way. His work with Hania may have been a while in the making, but that seems to be the case with a lot of Castillon’s collaborations.

There is a sense, talking to Castillon, that he uses his films to capture the creative endeavours of those he knows and admires – and in turn, to introduce them to one another in the name of collaboration. That was the case for last year’s short film, Parce Que, featuring the painter, Inès Longevial, and Léo Walk. Inès, like Hania after her, had seen Isola and was keen to work with Léo who, similarly, loved the painter’s work. Castillon had known Inès for a number of years previously and was waiting for the perfect opportunity to work together, which Parce Que would be – but it took ‘almost a year to find a time when [Léo and Inès] were both available.’ The idea was to combine painting and dance together, but Castillon was wary of avoiding the pitfalls of an ‘arty cliché’. With Serge Gainsbourg’s song Parce Que as the film’s soundtrack, the dangers of doing something cliché could be high, but Castillon managed to pull it off. That success is demonstrative of the director’s integrity when it comes to understanding the performers he works with. It was important that the location choice for Parce Que would be able to accommodate Léo’s dancing, which, as he explains in reference to Isola, requires a smooth enough surface to allow for some of the breakdancing moves. As the film, which tells the story of love and, eventually heartbreak, progresses, Léo dances on a six by four metre painting that Inès is depicted as working on; Castillon’s way of combining the creative skill of both collaborators, and avoiding the cliché of something ‘that has already been seen before’.

As with the Schimdt advertisement and the F Major video, Parce Que shows that Castillon is a master at pulling of impressive operations. ‘It’s what I love,’ he enthuses, ‘sometimes you have a crazy idea like, “What if Léo dances on a big painting?” And one year later, you are shooting it. Like, okay – it’s worth it.’ A special frame was made for Inès’s painting, which was kept in four parts in a friend’s shop in Paris because, as Castillon explains, ‘the apartments are very tiny’, before being transported to a secret location in the South of France for filming. A delipidated castle near Biarritz was chosen in part because the location reminded Inès of her childhood and also because Castillon liked its uniqueness. It had been designed by a woman at the turn of the twentieth century, who had taken inspiration from far and wide including, amongst other references, Versailles. Castillon is careful not to disclose the exact location of the castle because of the fragile state that the building is now in; the team spent two days clearing the site of detritus before filming and filmed quickly to cause as little damage as possible. There is, then, a sense of nostalgia that infuses Parce Que – a longing for lost love, a reminder of childhood and memory of times gone by.

Personal connections prove important to Castillon, perhaps another explanation for how he avoids clichés. During the location scouts for Isola, it occurred to Castillon that he knew exactly the place to film. Castillon grew up in Sardinia; he remembers a deserted building near a beach he used to frequent with his grandmother, which would become the ‘perfect place’ to film. He describes the place as surreal, the light there reminding him of an Edward Hopper painting. The experience of watching Isola feels similar to viewing a painting by Edward Hopper, too. To see Léo perform, at first refracting the haze of the summer sun and, later, his movements lit up by the warm glow of sundown, it is possible to feel connected to him in his solitude. Isola grants the opportunity to be close to Léo precisely because Castillon is conscientiously aware of the viewer. One of the director’s earlier videos, La République du Skateboard, came from the desire to capture a scene close to Castillon’s heart. As a skateboarder from the age of ten, Castillon started making skate videos using filming techniques common to the scene, ‘fisheyes, long lens – pretty dirty stuff.’ But, he decided to make a film that was more cinematic, taking influence from the classic movies that helped him learn the filming techniques he employs today. The film, about skateboarding and, skateboarding in Paris in particular, was envisioned as something that anyone could watch. The result is an ode to the scene and the city, beautifully shot, as would be expected from Castillon’s work, and accessible too. ‘I didn’t want to make something that only speaks to experts,’ the director explains. ‘I wanted to translate it in a way that is universal so that everyone can watch and understand why it’s beautiful.’ That same philosophy is applied to dance; ‘I’m not interested in making dance videos that only a few people can understand’, Castillon says of his approach. Rather, he wants to ‘find a perfect balance between the popular and the artistic.’  

At its core, Castillon’s role as a director could be understood as transforming his fascination for performers into nuanced films that combine a highly cinematic approach with a deep respect for artistic craft. He says that he is fascinated by artists like Léo Walk and Fanny Sage, and this fascination inspires him to tell their stories. It’s somewhat telling that Castillon describes himself as someone who ‘cannot create a whole universe from nothing’. Rather, he thrives on the collaborative process that comes with the way he instinctively works. Just as he brings up fakes news as the anthesis of his search for authenticity, Castillon describes a ‘kind of boredom’ that comes with the saturation of content on platforms like Instagram and Netflix. He is resolutely not interested in making films that have been done before. That said, Castillon’s upcoming release sees the director return to Iceland with Fanny Sage for a second film; the music is by the French artist, Awir Leon, who, not surprisingly, Castillon claims to love. He describes the short film, called 間 (Ma), as ‘mind-blowing’ – and it’s a project that he seems immensely proud of. When it premieres on June 29th on Nowness, it’s more than likely worth watching.  

May 2020
Hanne Gaby Odiele
NR Magazine, Vol. 5

“Hello!” answers a chirpy Hanne Gaby Odiele on the phone from New York. The Belgian model has been in the news a lot as of late, following her revelation back in January that she is intersex in an interview for USA Today. It’s because of this disclosure and her support of non-profit organisation InterACT Advocates for Intersex Youth that we’re talking – but Odiele has long been a familiar face in the fashion industry. Hanne first hit the runway back in September 2005, debuting for Marc by Marc Jacobs. Fast forward to the present day, the now 29-year-old has opened countless high-profile shows, featured in numerous campaigns – and is a regular on street style blogs.

In a video for InterACT, coinciding with the USA Today interview, Hanne says, in the same upbeat manner she talks on the phone, that she’s “speaking out because it’s time this mistreatment ends”. That is, the surgical procedures that are often forced on intersex children to realign them as either a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’. Though being intersex is relatively common (around 2%, which is the same as having red hair – as Odiele states in the video), it’s not something that’s often spoken about. At least until now, of course.

The responses since the video for InterACT have been overwhelming positive; Hanne tells me that she’s had “nothing but good reactions from parents of intersex children”. It’s little wonder why; Odiele is one of the first high-profile figure to make such a revelation. Given that parents of intersex children are often forced into making the decision to go ahead with irreversible procedures on the unfounded understanding that failure to act could cause cancer (as Odiele’s own parents were told), any publicity for the intersex community is crucial.

The internet and social media has undoubtedly had a profound impact on garnering exposure for the intersex community. Hanne agrees; “I feel like it’s amazing. People can find a community [online]. It’s a great way for people to get in touch with others.” This ability to connect with others online is a far cry from when Odiele was growing up as a teenager in a “tiny village” in Belgium. It was here by chance that Odiele found a story in a magazine about someone who was ‘like her’ and was able to get in touch with other intersex people.

Hanne paints a picture of an isolated childhood – “when I was younger, I was told to be quiet about it and to hide myself; it was very lonely.” The hope that intersex children won’t suffer in silence as she did is part of the reason she came out and shared her story – but the most important reason for Odiele was to speak up against intersex genital mutilation. In 2015, the United Nations condemned the “medically unnecessary surgeries and other invasive treatment of intersex babies and children” as a violation of human rights.

There are over thirty characteristic varieties that constitute being intersex, with surgical intervention attempting to reinforce rigid notions of gender; being ‘male’ or ‘female’. With 1 in 2000 babies born intersex, it’s hard not to see why such invasive surgery is problematic – especially when it’s often delivered, without real evidence, to the parents of intersex children on the basis it will prevent other potential medical and physiological problems associated with growing up intersex in, what was then, a rigidly gendered world. The lack of voice or agency that intersex children and young people have had is of particular concern. They are told to be quiet, as Hanne was, and led into surgery by well-meaning but misguided adults because “we are too young to decide for ourselves”. The attempt to give intersex young people a voice drives Odiele’s campaign.

Though Hanne says that, since coming out and speaking up about being intersex she has felt “very liberated and very authentic to myself”, it took her a while to be able to do so. “For me, I think I needed time for myself before I could speak about it.” But, having read stories on online forums of young girls that had gone through the same surgeries as her, she felt like it was time to do so, in order to put an end to the misinformation and ignorance that surrounds the condition.  

As conversations about unpicking concepts of gender become more commonplace, it’s time that being intersex is properly addressed. For Hanne, gender is the “way that you feel: male, female, anywhere in between”. The progress being made with the ways in which we think of gender is, for her, amazing – but she says, she hopes that intersex people will get rights of their own.

Asked whether, as someone who has been in the fashion industry for a while now, she thinks that gender plays a massive role within the workings of industry, Hanne says she’s not so sure whether it does or not. “There are sections for women, there are sections for men, and androgyny is always in style too. I feel like fashion in itself is very daring; anybody can be anything.” She agrees that things aren’t black and white – not even slightly so. The time, then, to rethink rigid notions of gender is now, and intersex needs to be included in the discussion.

As a result of her new-found status as an intersex activist, Hanne has been named as one of Time’s 10 ‘Next Generation Leaders’, and included on the ‘Dazed 100’ definitive guide to those shaping youth culture. “It’s bizarre!” she exclaims, “I feel very honoured”. This recognition gives her the positive exposure that sharing her story deserves, I say; “Not bad, not bad!” she jokes, putting on a voice.

Despite the fact that Odiele has opened up about some very personal experiences, she’s nothing but chipper with a commendable matter-of-factness. Whilst she has long been admired for her personal style (“for me personally, I can try to blend in one day and I can do an avant-garde look the next”), instigating a much needed conversation can be added to a growing list of attributes.

June 2017
Adwoa Aboah
NR Magazine, Vol. 3

Adwoa Aboah has become a standout face in the fashion industry as of recent, and was named “Breakout Star” by Models.com last December. Certainly, Aboah cuts a striking and distinctive image and, having appeared in numerous high profile campaigns and publications, there is little wonder she was the industry’s choice. Yet, the allure of Adwoa Aboah goes beyond her discernible talent within the modelling industry; she was also named runner-up in the “Humanitarian Model” category of the same awards. Through the founding of the online platform, Gurls Talk, Aboah has also become a recognisable voice for girls – one that has, arguably, been lacking. The premise of Gurls Talk is simple; it sets out to “[work] together, [empower], and [take] the time to listen” – ultimately, bringing girls from all walks of life together to talk about their issues with others who are feeling, or going through the same. It isn’t hard to see why Gurls Talk is doing as well as it is in its short lifespan thus far. Both the website and Instagram account are sleek, sharp and vibrant examples of what can be identified as ‘gurl culture’ online. No doubt as a result of this, Gurls Talk has attracted support and endorsement from the fashion world with, for one, exclusive photos from the first event night held back in October being featured on Vogue online.

The online presence of Gurls Talk has the feel of a carefully crafted collage of collaboration and celebration. Features on artwork, photography, poetry, writing, and interviews demonstrate a sense of what being a part of Gurls Talk entails. Yet, Gurls Talk strives to go beyond this sense of community at face level – the website has an advice form, allowing girls to get in touch with licensed psychologist, Dr Lauren Hazzouri (or Hey Lauren, as she prefers in a chirpy post about herself). It seems to be precisely the empowering, inclusive environment Aboah has set out to achieve. However, this isn’t without its drawbacks. Whilst the internet provides the free space for women to talk about sexuality, of what it is to be a woman -  in reality, it is subject to codes and conventions that limit what can be said. Though it is because of the internet that Aboah has been able create Gurls Talk as a platform to connect with girls around the globe, the internet itself isn’t necessarily forgiving of ‘aberrant’ womanhood.  

On 3rd January, the photography of Eliza Bourner was featured on the Gurls Talk website, alongside a short explanation of the concept behind her series of work called ‘Petal’. Petal depicts images of the female body in various states of dress, decorated with flowers that, in their simplicity, address the “dichotomy of sensitivity and sensuality”. When one of these photographs was posted to the Gurls Talk Instagram, however, the post was swiftly taken down for violating the social media platform’s ‘Community Guidelines’ – that is, the presence of artistic nudity on Instagram is too much to handle. Of course, this in itself isn’t especially surprising. There’s longstanding contention around Instagram’s nudity policy, as the popularity of the #freethenipple hashtag highlights.

But, this particular setback didn’t dampen the spirit or the ethos of Gurls Talk. Rather, Aboah used it to draw attention to the somewhat hypocritical logic behind Instagram’s community guidelines. Posting a screenshot of Instagram’s explanation for the removal of Bourner’s photograph to the Gurls Talk handle, she pointed out the fact that the social media platform is teeming with photos “posted by celebrities that are in no way appropriate or even more importantly show no meaning or depth” – in a way that the photography of Bourner clearly attempts to do.

It’s the day after this incident that I speak to Adwoa over the phone. For her, this has spurred her on to fight harder, because it’s frustrating to see “an image with so much meaning, by someone who took so much time in producing their artwork taken down because it down because it’s got a nipple in it”. It’s the meaningful stuff, that “adds a bit more depth and passion” that we should be focusing on – regardless of how much hard work it can be dealing with the regulations set in place that can undermine Gurls Talk’s celebration of other people’s work. Adwoa is aware that not everything is going to be to everyone’s taste. Seeing comments on posts where people either completely disagree or get upset with the content is as much a part of the process, because at least it’s “getting people talking and thinking about things”.

Ultimately, Adwoa is aware of the fact that she’s responsible to some degree, she says, “you have to remember who’s looking at your post and who you’re communicating with, who the girls [interacting with Gurls Talk] are, and where they come from.” The key for Gurls Talk is producing good content. It’s not difficult to see why the removal of Bourner’s photo is particularly frustrating, then. With the constant bombardment of images and messages directed at girls (and, of course boys, too), it’s difficult to navigate social media whilst retaining a sense of self. And it’s within this framework that Gurls Talk is trying to establish itself as an empowering environment – against the tide of the hypocrisy of (social) media.

Speaking to Adwoa, it’s clear that she’s genuinely passionate about the cause. Though she is keen to emphasise the importance of the Gurls Talk team, whose tireless hard work is something that’s pushed her since things really took off last year, credit is most certainly due to Adwoa herself. To have someone like Aboah as the driving force behind Gurls Talk is perhaps what gives it its credentials; whilst being open about your issues isn’t the easiest of tasks, it’s something that she’s managed to confront in an admirable way. You only have to watch the short video she did for StyleLikeU back in early 2016, where she openly spoke about her experiences with getting sober and self-image, to get a sense of why. Adwoa admits that Gurls Talk is part of a journey for herself, a way of practising what she preaches.

In the short time that Gurls Talk has been up and running, she says that she has been “able to learn from all the girls getting in touch and all the writing and artwork.” Whilst Gurls Talk is, for Aboah, whole-heartedly a platform to enable the empowerment of girls, it’s also a learning process for her: “in the dark times I’ve had and still struggle with, whether it’s self-love or care, or just getting up in the morning, it’s been a really great attribute to my life. I have huge co-dependency issues and, in a selfish way, looking after other people has really helped me as much as I hope it helps other people. It’s a lot harder to just do it yourself.”

Hearing the humility and matter-of-factness with which Adwoa talks pinpoints precisely what it is about Gurls Talk that’s so intriguing: that is, there is no pretence here.  Asked if she thinks that the perception of women in the public eye who speak out as being ‘outspoken’ needs to be challenged, Adwoa agrees: “it shouldn’t make headline news for someone in the fashion industry, or an actress, or a musician to talk out”. Having been called an ‘outspoken model’ herself, it’s not how she would describe herself. Rather, she says, it’s a case of having “suddenly become a lot more comfortable in myself”. Speaking openly is, for her, a way of being truthful to herself.

It’s counterproductive then, to shut down women who speak out as merely being outspoken: in order to appreciate the work being done by Gurls Talk seriously, the voices associated with it must be listened to with sincerity. Otherwise, the important issues that Aboah is seeking to normalise continue to be undermined – and thus, the girls for whom Gurls Talk is aimed at continue to be unheard.

Over the course of our phone call, the removal of Bourner’s photograph seems all the more poignant. Even when women, like, Aboah and the Gurls Talk team, are doing their utmost to demonstrate that speaking up is normal, there still remains the constant bombardment by the media of the hypersexualised woman – one who certainly isn’t labelled as outspoken. Of course, the work of Gurls Talk goes far beyond the incident of Bourner’s photograph, but if there’s anything that girls should remember in a world that is obsessed with the female image, there is no greater attribute than defiance and courage. If Aboah’s runner-up award for Humanitarian Model of 2016 is anything, it’s a nod to that.

If 2016 was the year that Gurls Talk succeeded in curating a respected platform, then this year is set to be exponential for Adwoa and her team – with concrete plans for sexual education in the mix. The quality of sex education in schools, or lack thereof, is a very real issue – Adwoa speaks for many when she says she didn’t receive very good sex education at school. At a time when, for example, porn is readily available online, and is largely unregulated, despite meagre attempts to regulate access, it feels particularly on point that Gurls Talk will set out to confront such a task. It feeds too back into the problems with body image in the face of hypersexualisation. But, equally, tackling things as small as “celebrating your period [and] celebrating losing your virginity” is a feat Gurls Talk will take on; these are discussions that girls often don’t feel comfortable talking about (Adwoa admits herself that some of these things make her uncomfortable) because they are deemed slightly taboo. So, this year will see Gurls Talk releasing videos about topics like “pleasure and recognising what turns you on”, as well as going into schools (Adwoa already has a series of appearances lined up), as a way of hopefully opening up an honest conversation.

By tackling these issues and the stigma around them, Aboah hopes to help those who may be too scared to speak out; bottling up feelings is exactly what Gurls Talk can help girls overcome. “I bottled so much up for such a long time, and I just burst. There are other women that have been in my life who have been through very similar situations [to hers], who have not been able to talk about anything, or show their vulnerable side.” There isn’t anything, for Adwoa, that we shouldn’t be talking about, there really is “nothing that is too much”. Ultimately, the aim is that Gurls Talk will give people the chance to have their voices heard, to be able to connect with those who have been in similar situations – otherwise, the cycle of bottling up and struggling alone will continue. “We’re never going to get through these problems, if we’re all too scared to talk about things.” What Adwoa is working towards doesn’t sound like the views of an outspoken model, but of someone impassioned to give girls a real chance.

February 2017