Portrait

A walk along Merri Creek with multimedia artist Lucreccia Quintanilla. By Romy Ash.

DJ and sound artist Lucreccia Quintanilla

I’m thinking about sound as I walk with Lucreccia Quintanilla along Merri Creek in Melbourne’s inner north. I think about how quickly the rush and screech of the traffic dissipates as we walk under the bridge and beside the creek. I listen to the wattlebirds and bellbirds and the sound of the creek running over rapids. A large pipe amplifies a drip in such a way that it sounds strangely loud, echoing across the water.

Quintanilla – a visual artist, a sound artist, an artist whose work is multidisciplinary and sometimes hard to define – loves to walk here. She even made a work about it. The sounds of the creek play from a clay conch surrounded by Merri Creek weeds, in the white of a gallery space. The sounds play from a broken iPhone, amplified by the natural shape of the conch. The conch is an instrument of sorts, something between a ghetto speaker (an iPhone in a cup) and an artefact. Quintanilla tells me about how fascinated she was as a child with artefacts, clay objects in museums, clay conches especially, that were made throughout the Americas. She came to Australia as a teen from El Salvador.

“I wanted to think about sound differently,” she says of her conch works. “I wanted to think about sound in a way that wasn’t tied to technology, I mean it’s that technological fetish that I find really off-putting about working with sound and I just wanted to do something with clay and see what I could push it to be. Also, thinking about how phones are supposed to be the height of civilisation but about how they break – we break them, us, the civilised people of the West can’t hold a phone in their hand long enough not to break it,” she says laconically, laughing. “They look so sad,” she says of the broken phones. Quintanilla is very funny and we laugh a lot as we walk the twists and turns of the creek.

“I grew up with music,” she says. “There was never a moment when there wasn’t music playing in my house. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, my grandfather was a musician, my aunt was a singer, there was always singing. Music has always been important. I never learnt to play an instrument, then I started DJ’ing. Behind my house [in El Salvador] was a reception centre and they’d have weddings and parties. I would go to sleep with the low-frequency thump thump thumping in the background – and I kid you not, when I first started to go out clubbing, I would fall asleep in the nightclub, because I think my brain would say, ‘Bedtime.’ They always thought I was drunk and people would come poke me, and I was like, ‘No! Bedtime! How dare you.’ ” She laughs.

“It’s funny how comforting it is, just the thump, thump. But you know what it sounds like? You know it sounds like being in the belly. You know when you hear the sound of the ultrasound? That’s what it is, the heartbeat. I am not a hippie,” she says, shaking her head, “that sounded really hippie, goddamn.”

She speaks about mythologies surrounding the sound of a shell, when you put it to your ear, how complex the stories are. “It really is just the cyclical sound of the blood in your ear,” she says. “There’s something really magical about how we can attribute stories to an object, a natural object. Kids still pick up a shell and go, ‘It’s the ocean.’ But you could do that with a cup – a poor man’s shell – you could pick up a cup or a bowl and it’s exactly the same sound.”

 

I watched Quintanilla DJ’ing for a group of people, including a lot of little kids, at the MPavilion at the height of last summer. She was resplendent, wearing a hot-pink boilersuit, with big hair, gold hoop earrings. As she played, she danced. The lime-green sound system speaker stack she constructed herself, in the Jamaican sound system style, simultaneously dwarfed her, framed her, amplified her. She is interested in this amplification, in sound as a conduit for conversations surrounding culture. DJ’ing is part of her art practice, an investigation into collectivity.

As she played, the children danced erratically, some bopping at the edges, others attention-seeking, rolling, pirouetting through the middle of the dance floor, their little bodies pulsing, feeling the beat. My kid danced in slow motion, ignoring Quintanilla’s beat or perhaps feeling it on some other, slowed-down, plane. Quintanilla’s kid, older than all the others, an early teen, lay prostrate on the benches that curve around the MPavilion, seemingly asleep, eyes closed in the sunshine. I wondered at him there, about whether he inherited Quintanilla’s ability to fall asleep in nightclubs, whether in this music he also hears his mum’s heartbeat, the rush of her blood, and is comforted.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Shell raiser". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.