‘Optimistic dystopia’: interview with artist Ayesha Tan Jones

A 3D rendered rice factory apocalyptic heaven harbouring rice spirits, overgrowing with rice and bamboo plant roots. A soundscape layered with ethereal vocals, industrial sounds and voices. ricEntropy, a landscape where east meets west, is a collaboration between artist Ayesha Tan Jones’ musical alter ego, YaYaBones, and Chinese artist and 3D designer 00.

The live audiovisual broadcast is the result of a project that Liverpool-born, London-based Ayesha has wanted to explore for some time. ricEntropy is the introduction to a piece of work that Ayesha hopes to develop further in collaboration with 00. Ayesha and I sat down for a chat on the phone to talk about how the piece came together, and the theme ‘optimistic dystopia’, the lens through which they connect the strands of their practice.

Joanie Magill: How did the piece come about?

Ayesha Tan Jones: It’s a collaboration with an amazing Chinese artist and 3D designer, 00. We’ve been fans of each other’s work for a long time. When Luke got in touch to be part of AND I thought, ‘who have I dreamed of collaborating with for a while?’. 00 has just been incredible.

My family owned a ship chandlery overlooking the Mersey. The warehouse behind my family’s was an old rice factory. When rice was unloaded at the docks, it would have gone straight into this warehouse. I’m half Chinese, half Scouse and I am also part Japanese, my mum’s a quarter Japanese.

My grandad from my Scouse side, was in the war in Japan. After seeing all the horrific stuff he saw, he vowed never to eat rice again. So I have this history where half of my family hates rice, my grandad at least, and for the other half of my family, it’s a massive part of our culture.

For years I’ve wanted to do a project in Liverpool based on this, called ‘white rice brown rice’ and this project for the festival is dipping my toe into the waters.

00 and I sat down and explored words like rice, factory, globalisation, dualities, diaspora, all these things and she’s come up with this beautiful world. It’s got the elements of rice spirits with machinery and a factory.

There’s an overgrowing plant-like root visual growing out of the factory inspired by the idea of rice plants and bamboo – the duality of east and west – a sense of softness and colour with cold hard edges. It feels like an apocalyptic rice heaven.

I’m thinking of factory sounds, it’s kind of ethereal, but bringing a factory – a heavy energy through the drums, and I like responding to visuals. A lot of my work uses frequencies meshed with poetry. I’m currently writing a script and I’ll be layering the voices and vocals to create the soundscape.

How do you find the process of collaboration?

When I graduated, I had a solo practice. I started collaborating when I ran a few different community-based projects where it was essential to bring in people with different skill sets. I have been running a project called Shadow Sistxrs Fight Club for quite a few years, collaborating with my friend who’s a martial artist.

People would come to the workshops and we’d collaborate on the themes we were working on. So that is where I really steeped myself in collaboration. I’m an only child so when it comes to my sculpture based practice, I like to have ownership over it, but I think in recent years I’ve realised it’s incredible to add different skills into the cauldron. I don’t have the 3D rendering skills that 00 does, but together we’ve created something really magical. I’m feeling the energy from that, it’s definitely going to inspire other projects. This is going to be a foundation for further work and my collaboration with 00 will continue.

You have created this piece under one of your alter egos, YaYaBones.

YaYabones is a vessel to explore music through. They’re my musical alter ego and they’ve been through a lot of fluctuations. I had a music project where I was making heartbreak songs. Even though the love songs were very powerful for my healing, I was done with that era and so YaYaBones grew out of that project. The songs I started to deal with were like protest songs. I imagined them being sung on either a dance floor or a street protest. I was also coming into my queerness. YaYaBones was developing and the songs became a way for me to write love songs to the queer community and less about singing about a boy. YaYaBones has developed to becoming more a trans species, they’re not really human, more a kind of shape shifting dragon mud creature thing.

My most recent EP featured four love songs to the earth. I’m going to root deeper into that after this project, in a series of decompositions, songs about decay and using the sounds of things decaying.

Your practice is rooted in the natural world.

I am very connected to the cycles of nature. Since I was 20 I’ve been following the solstices and the wheel of the year which is from pagan religion but also indigenous religions from all over the world. I was around 22/23 when I started divesting from using toxic materials in my work. My practice has been rooted in trying to use natural materials. It means that none of my work really lasts, but I’m now trying to make work that does last so I’m finding ways to have a happy balance between the two.

My work is a ritual, I do it with intention. In 2017 I did a project called ‘whychcraft?’ I was coming out of art school and I was confused as to what I was – was I a musician, an artist, a witch? What was my practice? I started practicing whychcraft? to ask which craft I am, but I realised it’s all of them.

I think for me language is really helpful to identify who I am, so whychcraft? was useful for me at the time – the word, spelt the way I spelt it helped me root into that craft.

I now work with a term called ‘optimistic dystopia’ where my world-building based work resides. Optimistic dystopia is a current / future state of dystopia. I don’t believe that utopia is possible. Dystopia might be the counterbalance and we have to accept that that’s going to be a possibility and accept it with joy and optimism and mysticism.

What are you working on currently and what’s next?

I’m working on a project with Hervisions, with Zaiba Jabbar, at Finsbury Park for Furtherfield Gallery. It’s an augmented reality project, part of their summer People’s Park Plinth. Each month a different artist takes over the gallery / park. The audience vote for the project they want to see in full. We’re installing the taster which is an augmented reality page. You scan a tree and the tree sprite comes out of the tree and tells you a story about the tree, bringing it to life. If I get the larger commission there will be three or four trees within the park. You’ll follow a route like a treasure hunt and all of the trees will have a story.

I also have a commission by Athens Biennale, so on 1 July, I’m flying to Athens to shoot a film. I can’t say too much about it, because I’m going to change the concept. I’m leaving everything quite last minute but I know I’ll have everything prepared in time for shooting in Athens.


ricEntropy will stream live on 26 June as part of AND festival and will be available to watch online until 11 July.