Jay Bernard: Far from the Start

31 Jan-7 Apr 2024

Studio Voltaire
London SW4 7JR


"Did the story start on land or sea? In the longing or the calling? In terrain or in name? Did it begin in the tunnels and radiate upwards and outwards? Was it always, somehow, underground?"

Far from the Start is a newly commissioned installation and sound work by Jay Bernard.

Stemming from a combination of research and personal experience, Bernard has responded to the Clapham South Deep Level Shelter as a point of diffusion after the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948.

The Windrush narrative has become a unified story of early post-war mass migration. In this work, the deep-level shelter becomes the opposite: a site of dispersal, alternatives and forgotten details that sit behind the familiar narrative.

Opened to the public in July 1944, Clapham South deep-level shelter was used by people seeking refuge during the Second World War and later, by visitors to the Festival of Britain. In June 1948, due to a lack of temporary housing the disused shelter housed 236 Caribbean people, newly arrived on the Windrush following World War II. Conditions were basic, cramped and noisy in the windowless bunker. Fifteen storeys underground, it was a site of contradictory political gestures: fear from politicians about “coloured immigration” and a practical, warm and official welcome that became a sincere effort to find jobs and accommodation. The shelter’s miles-long subterranean passageways remain as a testament to the fascinating stories of those who stayed there.

Bernard’s work has been developed over a series of visits to the shelter, to archives including the National Archives and Black Cultural Archives, and Tilbury Docks in Essex, where the HMT Windrush arrived. The 45-minute sound installation, which was partially recorded within these historic sites, incorporates various instruments including gongs, bells, drums, a euphonium and Bernard’s own voice, as well as air raid sirens and the constant roar of the London underground.

Far from the Start responds simultaneously to the site of the shelter and the history that has passed through it. In distilling the shelter’s distinct ambient and textural qualities, this atmospheric installation brings a now-disused public landmark – and the people who stayed there – above ground for the first time, and gestures to the stories behind established narratives. The piece is composed of three movements:
the first is a spoken narrative piece, addressing the question of how we understand ourselves and find political direction in the post-windrush moment; the second is the instrumental, subconscious flip-side to that question; the third is a series of direct recordings from the deep level shelter.

"Nevertheless the question arises of how your position shifts in a foreign land, when the generation above you dies. The question arises of what it means to be residual, at the end of a story, to be further from the start. For that position to increase with every death."

Bernard’s work positions the Windrush as a historical framing that served a particular purpose. As that generation disappears, and in the wake of the Windrush scandal, what is left of the political terrain once shaped by those patterns of migration?

Two of the movements have been pressed as a limited edition vinyl which will be distributed to archives, libraries and charitable organisations across the UK. If you work for a UK-based archive and would like to receive a copy, please contact [email protected].