Music

Meet Museum of Homelessness poet Surfing Sofas: 'There's a special kind of love on the streets'

Poet Surfing Sofas and Museum of Homelessness director Jessica Turtle on the collaboration that led to new album Objects and Concepts

Poet Surfing Sofas

Poet Surfing Sofas has released his debut album in collaboration with the Museum of Homelessness. Image: supplied

Surfing Sofas, aka Justin Brown, is a poet. As his pseudonym suggests, he has a great deal of lived experience of hidden homelessness, of sofa surfing, of the insecurity and uncertainty of relying on others for shelter. Like so many others, he has also worked to help others experiencing homelessness – putting together packs of food and clothing and toiletries for people on the street, even as his own situation was still precarious.

Surfing Sofas’ poetry lays bare his personal history of homelessness, racism and trauma. Since last year, Surfing Sofas has been official poet in residence at the Museum of Homelessness (MoH), and the collaboration has lead to a new LP of poetry, Objects and Concepts, based on MoH’s collection of meaningful objects, possessions or artworks donated by experiencing or with experience of homelessness – complete with their stories. Together, the objects and stories paint a profound picture.

The tracks created by Surfing Sofas for his debut album add a new layer of meaning and interpretation. We caught up with Surfing Sofas, and MoH co-founder Jessica Turtle – who is preparing for the MoH to move into its first ever permanent home in Finsbury Park, North London – to talk about the project.

How did the collaboration come about?

Surfing Sofas: In 2013 I spent some time in a Winter Night Shelter because I ran out of sofas to surf on. And I wrote about my experience. Coming out of the shelter, I started a grassroots street outreach organisation – and to raise funds for that I made a single, released it and made it ‘pay what you want’. We generated enough sales to get the project off the ground.

David Tovey got in touch with me through a mutual friend and asked me to perform at the first ever Homelessness Festival for the Arts, the One Fest, that he founded. I wasn’t available that year. It was on my birthday. I had other things planned. I was actually outreaching. So I sent him some stuff which got played at the events and it was well received. But I performed the following year, our friendship blossomed and he introduced my to MoH.

Jessica Turtle: Justin was one of the artists at our public launch event at the Tate Modern in 2017. He performed some poetry as part of David Tovey‘s Man on Bench performance art piece. I remember David saying to me, you’ve got to hear this guy’s work. And Justin is so spectacularly talented that we had this ambition to work with him in a deeper way. So we when we finally got own permanent site, where I’m talking to you from now, we put in a bid to the Arts Council and chose three artists in residence. So Justin is our poet in residence.

What was the inspiration for the album?

SS: I never planned to do an album. I was just planning to tell the story of what I could see and document the development of the museum as they get into their new space. I was already aware of the museum’s object collection and just had an epiphany moment – why not make an album based around the object collection. So I dug into the collection, absorbed all I could, presented the idea to Matt and Jess, and from there it was a go. Some of the objects just spoke to me.

How and why did you start building the archive of objects and stories in this way?

JT: Myself and Matt, my husband, founded the museum – but we never wanted it to be something that we led. We wanted it to be more group led, in the tradition of grassroots organising. Because that also is part of homelessness history and heritage. People experiencing homelessness – just like Justin just described beautifully – coming out of the shelter, being in shelter setting up outreach, helping everyone. People taking care of each other is so much part of the community for me. So we wanted MoH to pay tribute and do justice to that. So we have a group who discuss what the museum is going to do, what funders it’s going to have, how it’s going to operate.

In the early days, a key question was, how is the museum going to tell stories of homelessness? We’d started to be offered these objects. So how do we tell the story of them? In a normal museum, you’d have labels of about 50 words. Standard curatorial practice. Me and Matt have museum backgrounds, so we were sharing that with the group. And they were not having it. The label is really important – because these people have been labelled, and are labelled, and therefore our community don’t want a museum that has labels in it.

Our community want a museum that has rich, complex, beautiful stories and that does justice to people’s lives and the stories of the structural inequality that people are trapped in. And you can’t do that in 50 words. We creatively workshopped it and came up with this idea of telling stories instead. People can give any object they want, the person doesn’t have to be homeless – it’s about homelessness, it’s not museum of homeless people, so it might be a worker or a volunteer. And me and Matt take a testimony from the person – that might be 10 minutes or an hour and a half of the person talking about the object and what it means. It’s a very therapeutic process. Then we have access storytellers who perform the stories of the objects in the same words the donor gave.

Could you tell us about some of the objects that spoke to you?

SS: The ASBO was pretty strong. And the nit comb resonated with me – representing how hard it is to keep yourself clean, keep yourself like yourself when you are on the street or haven’t got a home space. The hat actually belonged to David Tovey in the past. But it stuck out to me before I even knew it was David’s hat. I feel like throughout my journey of homelessness my hat has always been my – I was about to say shelter, which feels like the wrong word – but it kind of feels like the right one.

Wherever I Lay My Home by Surfing Sofas

This one triggered memories of my experience in the Winter Night Shelter. Everyone there had a hat. We’d sleep in our hats, wake up in our hats, the hat is representative of so much. While I was outreaching, the majority of the people that I made friends with on the streets wore hats. The hat becomes a part of you. We releasing that track as a single on World Homeless Day, which is also my birthday. It felt like it was meant to be.

How did you go about turning the stories and the objects into an album?

SS: I tried to strike a balance of retelling the story and not retelling the story. It was more like a creative response to the objects and stories. I think it speaks to now. And it speaks to the broader spectrum of homelessness – from being on the streets to being in shelters, to being in cars, buses or temporary accommodation. Because homelessness just gets worse and worse. The impact of it.

JT: I think the thread that holds them all together is that our community are creative survivors. Whether the object is an item of creative survival, like the nit comb, or there’s something in the story around the object that shows how someone has survived. And it’s more than survival. We would all say that we’ve survived homelessness. We’ve survived a lot of stuff, everyone in the group. And there’s beauty in that.

But there’s a novelist called Andrew Vacchs, who another MoH artist associate and friend gobscure introduced to us, who has written about homelessness in a way that actually rings true to what street life can be and the relationships in the homeless community. And he talks about how we can survive childhood trauma, we can survive homelessness and/or we can transcend them. So he talks about transcending homelessness. And I see that in the community. People are not only surviving, but transcending everything that has been thrown at them. Going beyond that trauma. And creativity is so important for that. And that’s what I see in Justin’s amazing work and the beauty of his words. The thread running through the album is transcending through creativity.

SS: Wow. I feel like the transcending process is still happening – but you do see it within the community. There is a difference between surviving and transcending. And the album does express that. Because there’s a special kind of solidarity within the community. It’s very strong and it’s unique. It’s a different kind of solidarity and love on the streets.

Stream and buy the album Objects and Concepts by Surfing Sofas here

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