Mortality Tables was established by Mat Smith during a breakfast conversation at the Fork Deli, Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury on 19 November 2019; and, like the most serious of art, Mortality Tables began as a joke.
Specifically, it was a dry observation by my friend about the Latin inscription on a tote bag I was holding. The observation was followed by my cynical explanation of the arcane magick of the insurance actuary: “It’s all mortality tables and shit like that.”
The first Mortality Tables Product was started that morning. It is called Forktalk. It is an ongoing conversation between two people. Sometimes it’s in person. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s in one location. Sometimes it’s somewhere else. Sometimes we document in. More often than not, we don’t.
A conversation involves a series of responses; it is a collaborative performance achieved through communication. Mortality Tables is intended as a space for collaboration: we manufacture conceptual ideas, which we ask others to respond to. Sometimes they ignore us. Sometimes they say no. Sometimes they say yes. Whoever responds is free to approach the idea however they want. During that process, they may ask for feedback. None is offered. There are no rules. There is nothing more than the idea and the response.
Our most recent Mortality Tables Product was ‘Two Meditations For Freya’ with the sound artist Goodparley. It was a sound response to anxiety. The next is an illustration by Savage Pencil in response to a concept involving a photograph of Charles Ives and a copy of a US mortality table from 1874. Another is a sound manipulation responding to the degradation of memory.
‘Two Meditations For Freya’
On 10 January 2022, my youngest daughter found herself too scared to sleep. She was never a great sleeper as a baby and toddler, and now, as a teenager, often struggles to relax enough for bed.
This night was different, however. She seemed to be gripped by an intense and unrelenting panic which she could not explain. In context, she had been receiving weekly cognitive behavioural therapy treatment for anxiety and depression through CHUMS, a Bedfordshire charity focused on helping young people cope with mental health issues. She’d had one of her weekly sessions earlier that day and it seemed to have triggered something inside her, but she could not – or perhaps would not – articulate it.
In an effort to help her, I offered to stay in her room so that she could feel safe and reassured enough to drift off. As she tossed and turned, I decided to practice some guided meditation in the midnight darkness of her room. She eventually fell asleep while listening to the rhythm of my breath. For the next week, we practiced short meditations together every night just before bed, and she slept better every night that week.
Around that time I was working with Oli Richards as he prepared his album ‘Meditations Vol. 1’ for release by Wormhole World. The album collected five improvised guitar ‘meditations’, each one recorded in the first few minutes after he woke up in the morning. Oli had begun releasing these pieces in November 2021, and I had been struck by their beauty and simplicity. I began seeing them as brief moments of acute stillness in which to detach from the world, and support my own meditation practice.
I approached Oli with the story of how Freya couldn’t sleep and asked if he’d consider recording an improvisation for her, to support the meditations she and I were doing together. His recordings were made on 10 February 2022 at his home in Cardiff. They were originally released through Oli’s Bandcamp page later the same day.
All proceeds from this release will go to CHUMS. CHUMS provides mental health and emotional wellbeing support for children, young people and their families. chums.uk.com
Where did you come from and where are you going?
Geographically, I am on train that came from somewhere and which is going to somewhere else.
Creatively, I had no destination in mind and now I think I’ve at least found a reliable map, and some people to help me read it.
Metaphorically, I came from nowhere and I’m still going nowhere.
Temporally, I came from younger and am heading to older.
What preoccupies your mind these days?
Name a favourite taste, touch, sound, sight and smell
Taste. The Sidecar cocktail I drank at Harry’s Bar in Paris, 23 May 2016. It was my first visit to Harry’s and my choice of drink was very considered. Nothing had tasted better before and nothing has tasted better since.
Touch. The feeling of cool air on my skin early in the morning when I open the kitchen window. It makes me feel alive and able to face the day.
Sound. I am very occupied with the sound of my cats. They seem to occupy a delicate soundworld all of their own – their purring; the gentle sound of their paws walking across the floor; the light scratching of their claws at a door to be let in; the quiet sound of their washing.
Sight. The first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline from a yellow cab on the highway out of JFK through Queens. That view never failed to take my breath away, no matter how familiar it got.
Smell. A strong shot of espresso. To me, it is the smell of latent potential and of vital energies about to be released.
Describe one of your most vivid dreams or nightmares
When I was about four years old, I had a dream that I made friends with a family of hippopotamuses that lived in a secret complex underneath our local swimming pool. I had tea and sandwiches with them. They were very polite and welcoming, though I don’t remember any conversation. After a while, they guided me back to their front door and I swam back to the surface of the pool.
I think about that dream strangely regularly. It always comes into my head whenever I’m in one of those odd, in-between and generally solitary moments, usually on a station platform when it’s still dark and things feel vaguely surreal. I sometimes think I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling of being accepted, and part of something, my whole life.
Have you ever had an uncanny experience?
When I was younger, the notion that the world seemed to get smaller as you got older never made much sense to me. I figured that, as you got older, you saw more of the world and thus it became a bigger, richer place. I now see that’s not true.
Earlier this year I was in a message exchange with a sound artist about a project of his that had no obvious relationship to my life. And then, through the questions I was asking, so many things he was telling me had some sort of connection to me, my identity and my personal history. Maybe I knew that subconsciously and so the questions I asked him were always going to reveal those connections. I don’t know.
I both savour and am terrified of these types of coincidences. I once arrived at a meeting some eighty miles from the house I grew up in, and which I moved out of at the end of the 1990s. I struck up a conversation with someone else who was waiting in the lobby. He lives in the house that backs onto the one I grew up in. The more that kind of thing happens, the less surprising it is.
How does your sense of place affect the way you express yourself?
Ideas come to me when I am in motion: on a train, walking through a city, travelling through a landscape.
The times when I’m moving between places are when I feel most free, liberated and energised. The place itself rarely provides the impetus; it’s the movement through, and between, places that provides the stimulus.
What has particularly touched or inspired you recently?
I recently visited Bled in Slovenia and took an early morning walk around the lake, before it was occupied by joggers, cyclists and other tourists. The sun was not yet fully risen and the water was still, bar a few lone swimmers causing gentle ripples on the surface.
I am easily inspired by nature, but that brief period of solitude – marvelling at the distant mountains and their spiky pine tree-clad slopes, watching small fish at the edge of the water, hearing the distant sound of a bell being rung in the tower at St. Martina from where I was stood on the westernmost edge of the lake – had a transformative effect on me. It was as powerful and centring as any meditation practice and gave me a sense of calm purpose and order amid the noisy chaos of my thoughts.
Tell us a good story, anecdote or joke.
I accidentally drank a bottle of Invisible ink last night.
I’m now in hospital waiting to be seen.