First Words in Dalston

First Words in Dalston feature image

(2021 to 2023)

Physical and sound installation

Dalston Square, London, UK.

Supported by the London Borough of Hackney.

This public project is part of my collaborative practice with artist Mike Abrahams.  


First Words in Dalston invited the neighbours of Dalston CLR James Library to participate in, and enjoy, an art installation on the hoardings erected within Dalston Square, London, during 2021 and early 2022.

The art was made from the first sentences from publications in the library, selected and read (recorded) by a wide range of contributors. The compilation of first sentences became the visual artwork, hand painted on the hoardings, and the recordings made up the sound installation.

“What better way to connect the library with the public and the public with
the library?”


Covid-19 locked down the country three times in 2021 and looked set to be with us for some time despite the roll out of a vaccine. Returning to ‘normal’ seemed a long way off and it was recognised that this uncertainty was making many people anxious for their mental health. It was making them lose their sense of connection and feel isolated from their community.

In late 2020, Mike Abrahams and I approached the London Borough of Hackney to ask about the opportunities for an art project collaboration. Our proposal was to make art that specifically responded to context i.e. the library as an anchor cultural institution at the heart of the community (though there is limited awareness in the locality of CLR James himself) and the challenging reality of living through a pandemic.

We were informed that a 76-week programme of recladding of the buildings around Dalston Square was due to start in late November 2020 which provided a ‘blank canvas’ of almost 250 metres of hoarding in the square.

In conceiving this project our ambition was to:

  • respond to the site, in particular the Dalston CLR James Library
  • increase appreciation and importance of a library’s place within its community
  • embrace Covid-19 regulations safely and flexibly as they change
  • be inclusive, participatory, local and accessible
  • be low-maintenance and robust

The Project

The project consisted of inviting:

  • librarians and staff at the library
  • library members and users
  • neighbours living/working around the library

to suggest the first full sentence from any publication (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, academic etc.) which would be transformed to make the visual and audio artwork.

The visual artwork consisted of first sentences hand painted by the artists onto the hoardings. The audio artwork, read by the contributors, created a complementary soundscape designed to move viewers along the visual artwork in a covid-safe experience.

The Sound Installation

The whole sound recording can be found below but will not give the full 4-speaker effect, however stereo speakers will go some way to illustrating the breadth of this work:

The first section (minutes 0-7.5) phases the recording of the readings from one speaker to the next (4 in total) and back again. The middle section (minute 7.5-16) all 4 speakers have the same recording starting together. In the end section (minute 16-23) all 4 speakers have the same recording but starting at different points. The whole is interspersed with ‘shh’ sounds, as if in a library.

I’ve had to understand how to split sound across channels and to try to visualise in my mind’s ‘ear’ how the soundwave on my software translates to actual sound. For instance the way I originally set up the cross-fades made the speakers peak in a horrible way on the ground so had to be redone.

The sound kit proved very difficult to set up. But with perseverance we made it in time for a soft launch on the 3rd of June.

Second First Words in Dalston

Second ‘First Words in Dalston’ was performed on National Poetry Day, 7 October 2021.

Four new audio works premiered incorporated the recordings from First Words in Dalston.

The artists were Duncan Chapman, composer/sound artist/musician, Hilary Sturt & Ian Pressland, creative musicians, and Fiona Horigan, multi-media artist.

Second First Words in Dalston performance


Materials: paint, sound, performance.

Size: 100m x 2m.


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