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Montserrat (a phono-archaeology)

Raul Ortega Ayala



Ortega Ayala’s artwork has focused since 2012 on the ways in which societies and
individuals remember, forget, or repress their past. The overarching title for these
works is From the Pit of Et Cetera. ‘Montserrat (a phono-archaeology)’
(2017-2020) sits within this framework. It focuses on a British overseas territory
in the Caribbean that was devastated by a hurricane in 1989 and a volcanic
eruption in 1995 that left much of its territory in ruins. Via a film the viewer travels
through the remains of the island, including the former local radio station and the
legendary AIR recording studios. Its soundtrack incorporates acoustic experiments
conducted in the renowned studios and music and voices discovered in tapes and
vinyls unearthed from volcanic ash at the radio station and other sites. It also
highlights sounds of the island’s flora, fauna, and natural surroundings that are
embedded in pop albums that were recorded at AIR in the 80s, before the disaster.

Even though most of this pop music continues to be played in radio
stations, supermarkets, and homes around the world, many listeners don’t know
that this important sonic heritage of the island is there, hiding in plain sight.
The article discusses these findings and the implications it has on the islands
neglected history within a Latin American context.

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himselflike
a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again andagain to
the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it overas one
turns over soil. For the “matter itself” is no more than the stratawhich yield
their long-sought secrets…¹
— Walter Benjamin

In a curved archipelago in the Caribbean Sea there is an island called Montserrat.
It sits alongside other volcanic islands referred to as the Lesser Antilles that are
almost all overseas territories, Montserrat being one of the United Kingdom.²

Like many places in Latin America after it was ‘discovered’ by Columbus it
became a disputed territory . In the seventeenth century Irish settlers arrived.
Soon after it was briefly occupied by France before coming under the control of
England. In the years that followed, Sub-Saharan African slaves were transported
to Montserrat to work on sugar plantations established by the colonisers. By 1768,
the slave population numbered 10,177.³ In 1783 the island was ‘restored’ to Britain
via the Treaty of Versailles⁴ and when slavery was abolished fifty years later⁵ all
slaves were ‘liberated’ (or “fettered in two ways” as Edouard Glissant would say).⁶

Time passed, and plantations were replaced by hotels and golf courses to
host tourists, many of them British citizens who came to vacation at the overseas
territory. In 1989 Category 4 Hurricane Hugo devastated large parts of the
territory, then, in 1995 when the island was finally recovering from the storm, the
previously dormant Soufrière Hills volcano erupted. This volcano produces
fast-moving, billowing clouds of ash, gases, and volcanic rock that destroy almost
everything in its path.⁷ Many eruptions took place after 1995, which slowly buried
numerous sites around the island, including the capital city of Plymouth, creating
a large uninhabitable exclusion zone that spans more than half of the territory of
the island to the south.⁸

Volcanic sites give us a glimpse of how the earth’s crust was formed and also
reveal how a new, outer surface can replace a previous one. In the case of
Montserrat’s former capital the ground level now coincides with the tops of the
buildings, creating a monumental palimpsest with countless stories beneath.

In 2012 I began the resezarch for a series of works that would focus on collective
memory — a social construct in which forgetting and remembering are done
collectively as proposed by Maurice Halbwachs.⁹ Film, photography, sculpture,
painting, 3D printing, performance, choreography, and sound are some of the
mediums used in this series. It has the overarching title of “From the Pit of
Et Cetera” and “Montserrat (a phono-archaeology)” sits within this framework.

With the intention of producing a work for this series I travelled to the
island for the first time in 2017, without having a specific idea of what I was going
to do there. As I conducted fieldwork in different sites within the exclusion zone
I kept running across objects that contained sounds. One of these sites was the
former Radio Antilles station located near the destroyed capital city. There,
I encountered a large array of vinyl records and reel-to-reel tapes abandoned
or buried under volcanic ash.

On another occasion I stumbled upon a great number of damaged 33¹/₃ rpm LPs
and 45 rpm vinyl records in a ruined bar. As I continued my research on the history
of the island I also found out that George Martin (later Sir George), the producer
of the Beatles, had opened a state-of-the-art recording studio there called Air
Studios Montserrat, after falling in love with the island during a visit in 1979.
It became a satellite of the AIR (Associated Independent Recordings) studios he
had founded in the UK.¹⁰ It was smaller than those in London – approximately
six by seven metres – but had all the comforts, including a lounge, a bar, a
swimming pool, and accommodation, which made it an ideal place for musicians
to travel to and make music, away from many of the distractions of large cities.

The studio’s equipment was highly advanced and included one of the most
innovatory consoles of the time, the Neve A4792. For over a decade more than
seventy albums were recorded or mixed either partly or entirely at Air Studios,
by well-known rock and pop musicians such as Lou Reed, Paul McCartney,
The Police, Elton John, Duran Duran, Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Black Sabbath,
Rush, and The Rolling Stones.¹¹ Air Studios now sits on the border of the exclusion
zone and may be in or out of it depending on the volcanic activity. The property is
engulfed in tropical overgrowth, the wooden floors are rotting, some ceilings have
collapsed and the pool is now full of murky water. The speakers and the console
still exist but only because they were taken elsewhere or repurposed. Otherwise,
there isn’t much equipment left.

All of these multi-sited findings led me to embark on what can be described as a
phono-archaeological exploration of the audio material encountered on the island
and of the seventy-plus albums that were recorded there. The aim was to find
sounds, noises, or even reverberations that were connected to the island’s past.
This involved unearthing the vinyls and reel-to-reel tapes from the ash, thoroughly
cleaning the records and the tapes, classifying them, extracting whatever sounds
I could and restoring them digitally. I had to track down the albums that were
recorded at Air Studios-Montserrat in second-hand record shops in New Zealand
and overseas, purchase them, listen to them at length and locate sounds or
reverberations in some of them. In all of this material I ended up finding sounds
of local fauna, recordings of choirs singing in churches that no longer existed,
radio shows advising the population on how to prepare for hurricanes, several
takes of an unknown singer rapping about St. Patrick’s Day and its meaning for
Montserratians, a sermon by a preacher from Pennsylvania taped over a special
radio program dedicated to Bob Marley, and music from many parts of the
world that challenged my narrow-minded assumption that tropical islanders
would only be listening to calypso, reggae, or Caribbean beats.

I was also allowed by the island trustee of Sir George Martin’s estate to visit
the ruins of the recording studio and conduct sound experiments which included
capturing the resonant frequencies of the main recording studio at that time.
Some of the material retrieved was given to musicians based in different parts of
the world to recreate the sounds to make the soundtrack for a film proposed as a
mnemonic study of the island’s acoustic past. The remaining retrieved material
is used in live ephemeral soundscape performances, made in collaboration with a
DJ, that are accompanied by paintings, sculptures, archival material, photographic
field-notes, and microscopic photographs of some of the vinyl records found
buried under the ashes.

The pop albums produced there and the voices and other sounds found in the
vinyl records and reel-to-reel tapes randomly disinterred from the ash became
a way to connect with the history of the island, albeit in a piecemeal way. The
project also revealed that I (like many people around the world) had unknowingly
already listened to some sounds from Montserrat. They were embedded in 80’s
pop music records, tucked away inside a global cultural product like a xenolith.
These sounds have now out-lived not only the animals but perhaps also the
people that uttered them and the sites where they were produced. They continue
to live in a hauntological form. Jacques Derrida proposed the idea of spectres
from the past persistently returning, being present but not being there, going
and coming back like revenants.¹² But also music critics have conferred the term
‘hauntological’ to the musicians who produced electronic music in the early 2000s,
that paradoxically no longer felt “futuristic” and instead sounded “ghostly.”¹³
Examples of this are bands like The Focus Group or Belbury Poly of the Ghost
Box label that made music using a variety of vintage sampled sounds, including
the vocals from a 1908 recording cylinder that, after manipulation, enabled a dead
man to sing a new song called Caermaen.¹⁴ The fragments of sound of the flora,
fauna, ocean, and weather of Montserrat that were used to create atmosphere in
pop music albums from the 80s continues to be played, perhaps even at this very
moment in a supermarket, in a bar, or in someone’s car somewhere in the world,
constantly “coming back”¹⁵ as Derrida suggested, from the past. And the objects
themselves, the vinyls, have now become objects that contain multiple heritages,
unknowingly representing more than one culture. The film, on the other hand, will
also play from now and into the future, the voices and sounds literally unearthed
from the ashes, subverting their condemnation to oblivion and to the remorseless
passing of time by rehashing them into a ‘new’ reality and bestowing upon them
the quality of a homonym.

And finally, this project also considers the notion of the “Invisible Caribbean”
proposed by Virginia Perez-Ratton.¹⁶ For her, this term described the systematic
invisibility of Afro-Caribbean culture.

If we consider the etymological origin of the word ‘hurricane,’ for example,
we don’t usually link it to the Caribbean: but it originates from the word ‘Hurakán’
that the Taíno people¹⁷ used to describe the large storms that hit the islands.¹⁸
And, despite there not being a singular identity that permeates the entire Latin
American or North American region, but rather a large mixture of backgrounds,
indigenous traditions, colonial histories, and varied visions of the future, there is
a tendency to look at culture in that region in a hegemonic way; looking towards
‘Latin-American’ or to ‘North American’ culture and excluding the Caribbean,
treating it as a detached enclave from the region. But its history is entwined in
some of the words we use, and as this project proposes, in some of the music
we listen or dance to, always there, hiding in plain sight, and when it’s noticed
it offers a lapsus in the pervasive predominant historical narrative and in the
hegemonic view of culture in that region.


1. Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” in Selected Writings. Volume 2, Part
2 1931-1934, ed. Eiland, Howard, Smith, Gary (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 1996), 576.
2. “Overseas Territories governments on the web,” Foreign Commonwealth
Office & Development Office UK government website, accessed October
3. “Montserrat’s archaeology and history: important dates and sites,” Brown
University, accessed October 2020,
4. Kenneth Roberts-Wray, Commonwealth and Colonial Law (New York: F.A.
Praeger, 1966), 855-856.
5. “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies;
for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating
the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves. 28 August 1833,”
P Davis, accessed October 2020, ,
Section XII.
6. Édouard Glissant, Caribbean discourse: Selected essays (Charlottesville, VA:
University Press of Virginia, 1989), 258-260.
7. “Island of Fire: The Natural Spectacle of the Soufrière Hills Volcano”, eds.
Adam Stinton, Henry Odbert, and Paul Cole (Monsterrat: Montserrat Volcano
Observatory, 2011), 5-7.
8. Stan Cox and Paul Cox, How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from
the Caribbean to Siberia (New York: The New Press, 2016), 257-277.
9. Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2020).
10. “Air History,” Air Studios, accessed October 2020,
11. “Sir George Martin CBE (1926–2016),” George Martin, accessed
October 2020,; Mary C.
Beaudry and Travis G. Parno, eds., “Introduction: Mobilities in Contemporary
and Historical Archaeology,” Archaeologies of Mobility and Movement 35:
81-198; BBC, “Police in Montserrat,” Facebook, October 2020, https://www.
1753430748173952/; “Montserrat National Trust Inventory of
Archaeological Sites on Montserrat.pdf”, Brown University, accessed October
National-Trust-Archaeological-Site-Inventory-No-Geo.pdf, number MSP29.
12. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning
and the New International (Abingdon, UK:Routledge, 2012), xiii, 3, 5, 10, 11.
13. Mark Fisher, “What Is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly, 66, no. 1 (2012): 16–24.
14. Simon Reynolds, “Spirit of Preservation: British record label Ghost Box is
releasing advanced electronica that makes dead men sing”, Frieze magazine,
October 13, 2005,
15. Ibid. 12, 10.
16. Virginia Pérez-Ratton, “Videoconferencia – El Caribe Invisible,” TEORETICA,
accessed October 2020,;
Deborah Cullen and Elvis Fuentes, eds., Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of
the World (New York: Museo del Barrio & New Haven: Yale University Press,
2012), 37-147.
17. In this podcast the Taíno people are described as an umbrella term for the
Antilles population in the nineteenth century. “The Artistic World of the Taíno
People,” Hyperallergic, accessed September 2020,
18. Definition taken from the “Oxford English Dictionary,”, Oxford University
Press, accessed October 2020,


Boix, Maur M. What is Montserrat: A Mountain, a Sanctuary, a Monastery, a Spiritual
Community. Montserrat, Cataluña: Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, 1998.
Cox, Stan and Paul Cox. How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the
Caribbean to Siberia. New York: The New Press, 2016.
Cullen, Deborah and Elvis Fuentes, eds. Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the
World. New York: Museo del Barrio & New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.
Cherry, John F., Krysta Ryzewski, and Luke J. Pecoraro. “‘A Kind of Sacred Place’:
The Rock-and-Roll Ruins of AIR Studios, Montserrat.” Archaeologies of Mobility and
Movement. New York: Springer Verlag, 2013.
Dagenais, John. “A Lullist in the New World: Bernat Boil.” A Companion to Ramon
Llull and Llullism (2018).
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and
the New International. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Fergus, Howard A. Gallery Montserrat: Some Prominent People in Our History.
Barbados: Canoe Press, 1996.
Fisher, Mark. “What is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly 66, no.1 (Fall 2012).
Glissant, Edouard, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Charlottesville, VA:
University Press of Virginia, 1989.
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1992.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages
A.D. 1492-1616. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Odbert, Henry, Paul Cole, and Adam Stinton, eds. Island of Fire: The Natural
Spectacle of the Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat. St. Augustine, Saint George,
Trinidad and Tobago: Seismic Research Centre, 2011.
Reynolds, Simon. “Spirit of Preservation: British record label Ghost Box is
releasing advanced electronica that makes dead men sing.” Frieze, 94 (2005).
Watters, David, Lydia Pulsipher, and Reg Murphy. “Montserrat National Trust
Inventory of Archaeological Sites on Montserrat,” April 2019, accessed October

Biographical Note


Raul Ortega Ayala is a Mexican-born visual artist and associate professor at
Whiti o Rehua-School of Art at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand.
His research-based practice is influenced by anthropology and developed
via extensive, multi-sited investigations. Recently, he produced a series of projects
that explore collective memory, social amnesia, and historical detritus which
include works like The Zone, that focuses on the area in the Ukraine evacuated
after the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. And Montserrat (a phono-archaeology),
referred to above.

His work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in venues such as
the Frans Hals and Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Netherlands; Delfina Foundation,
Liverpool Biennial and Tramway, UK; Arp Museum, Germany; El Eco
and Museo Jumex, Mexico; and Te Tuhi, New Zealand, amongst others.

All images Copyright Raul Ortega Ayala and in collaboration with Peter Miles