A white woman with blue hair in a ray of sun

Artist Spotlight: Joanna Penso

Artist Spotlight

Bow Arts hears from filmmaker Joanna Penso about table manners, artist community, and her upcoming Supper Club at the Nunnery Café.

A white woman with blue hair in a ray of sun
Credit: Alberto Romano

How would you describe your practice?

I’m an artist working with sound-led experiments in film, installation and radio programmes. Often my work depicts attempted acts of sonic alchemy; taking samples of abject bodily sounds and using them as material to create ambient harmonic phrases. The idea in this juxtaposition of associations with sound is to question our learnt societal behaviours towards our own bodies and each other’s.

For example eating with your mouth closed was something I was taught from a young age by my family with the reasoning of being ‘polite’- something a 3 year old has no concept of. I have no issue with people chewing with their mouths closed of course, but by tracing the history of table manners which have in fact segregated society by class, race and gender amongst other factors we can begin to understand the tool of ‘disgust’ when we talk about civilisation.

This point of rejection is my enquiry; I’m trying to better understand human connection and challenge the barriers to it using tools of absurdity and body politics.

You’ve held studios across a number of Bow Arts’ sites, from The Rum Factory to the Lakeside Centre, to Bow Road where you’re currently based. We often see you outside in your shades, enjoying the sun in the Bow Arts Courtyard. Can you tell us a bit about being part of the artist community at Bow Arts – and how you ended up as part of projects such as last year’s Bow Open, Me 2 U: A collective Manifesto, curated by art collective Baesianz, and created ‘-home’ with Maliha Haider which was also shown as part of the collaborative art project, The Apartment?

I left art college a little bit put off by the art world- I felt I was being encouraged to only make art for art critics and academics, whereas I feel my work is something that can be experienced by everybody and anybody. It’s not necessarily so much about making my art work accessible in the sense of making it easy to grasp, but that I would hope everyone would have a connection point to it, which is why I have spent so long making work with sounds of the body.

Through Bow Arts artists I have managed to find my ‘tribe’ as they say, and this is by far one of the biggest benefits to being part of the studio community. The artists make it!

I met Maliha in the Nunnery Cafe. She shared some of her writing and I shared some of my audio work. I got very excited about the prospect of working with multiple languages- this is something I have worked with in the past within my own work and I was eager to record Maliha sharing her poems and work with the material to create a soundscape. We then worked with Paolo Fiorentini, Graeme Balfour and Teresa Witz from the Apartment who gave us a brilliant space to put our installation together.

‘-home’ is a multi-faceted experiential work which washes the listener/viewer in blue light with projection of an ocean horizon line shifting slowly up and down accompanied by a sound dome which gives an intimate and quiet listening experience. ‘-home’ is a monologue and dialogue simultaneously. Creating visual, sensory and poetic imagery while dwelling in Urdu, English and Silence.

Field recordings from Karachi, Pakistan, Palermo, Sicily and London, UK are interwoven into the soundscape- transporting the listener through place, space and sentiment.

a chair sits in a circle in front of a blue screen

Your latest film, Digestion Symphony, was recently longlisted for the Aesthetica Prize. It depicts 4 strangers eating a meal under theatre lights to the beat of an ever-quickening metronome. What was the process of filming like? And is there a story behind the metronome?

Digestion Symphony was crowdfunded last year -I was determined to pay the cast as I was asking them to do silly things like not have breakfast before recording in order to make sure their digestive systems would go into overdrive (sonically speaking) when we got the cameras rolling.

Filming day is still probably my favourite day to date; I had a great team with me, a fantastic space as we were supported by Poplar Union and a brilliant cast who were drinking up my direction. I wanted to make something absurd- it is wildly difficult to chew to the beat of a metronome even if you have good rhythm. 

The meal takes place under theatre lights under the guise of a performance, the cast walk in as seriously as an orchestra with poker faces and careful synchronised movements. The idea was that the quickening of the metronome would naturally break this seriousness, so as they approached the end of the meal they could begin to show that they had built a relationship with each other, even if they weren’t talking. Meal sharing is important to me and it’s the way that I and a lot of people show care and build trust. The structure of the film was based upon this principle.

cyborgs eating
Digestion Symphony, Credit: Joanna Penso

Can you talk about a material/process/routine that’s essential to your art practice?

My ideas usually start with curiosity- questioning why something is just so, socially speaking and then investigating that by gathering information, speaking to people about it and letting that all stew in my subconscious for a while.

Rumour is, you’re working on a serving up a unique experience in the Nunnery Cafe. Can you tell us what you’re creating at the moment?

Since creating Digestion Symphony I have been searching for a space that I can serve the audience food shown in the film whilst screening it – so Supper Sonata is just that. So alongside a menu of 5 courses and the screening, we’ll have an informal discussion on manners and meal sharing traditions which I am really looking forward to.

My upcoming EP: Body Orchestra which is a culmination of audio pieces I have worked on for the past few years will be released on the same day so I thought it only right to have a listening party for this!

an empty table in a dark room
Credit: Joanna Penso

Supper Sonata will take place on October 5th at the Nunnery Gallery & Cafe. Her new EP: Body Orchestra is available to pre-order with a supper club ticket. Find out more & book tickets here.

About Joanna Penso

Joanna Penso is an artist based between London & York working with sound & video installation, exploring human connection with tools of absurdity & body politics. She exhibited at The Nunnery Gallery, Bow Arts as part of ME2U 2022, has an artist residency with radio station RTM.fm.