I thought I’d throw down some quick thoughts from the two pieces which have stuck with me most from my day at Fierce Festival on Wednesday. Fierce, if you don’t know, is a Birmingham-based festival of live art, plus lots of lovely words like ‘supernow’ and ‘hyperlocal’. Which actually, it kind of is. Fancy that.
Symphony of a Missing Room (Lundahl & Seitl):
Symphony was, in the simplest terms, the augmentation of the Birmingham Museum and Gallery with sound and light*. An experience begun and ended as a group, but that very quickly evaporates into a binaural audio wandering-for-one (extremely effective in the acoustic environment of a museum); then vanishes into bright blindness as goggles – through which you can only really distinguish shifts in the light – obscure your vision. You are guided on journey by a voice, and by the touch and brush of warm hands.
Symphony reminded me of the best of my childhood dreams, always about behind, under, through. I had this particular dream (I tried to write the book of it aged 9, it had an illustration, and everything) that on a certain night, running in the dark through the big creaky barn-house that was where I grew up, I would take the stairs, but it would be a set I had never walked down before; a set of stairs that took me to another time, or another place. Symphony was like that feeling, like striking across a playing field with dusty knees and stripy dress in summer, but also knowing, knowing, it was a spindly bridge across the fiery lava pits guarding some treasure.
The piece played with your trust, but pleasurably so, the guide was both reliable and flighty; easily scared off, but as you moved – guided by the touches of numerous hands – you never felt lost.
It began curiously, with slowings-down, reveals, and the constant question ‘is this a part of it?’ – it was in this very beginning question that I felt the piece was its strongest, it’s most taught. The blind wanderings through the secret door (to find the missing room) were almost magical (though left to go on a little too long), and at the last you are left lying on a piece of carpet, as regular museum-goers walk quizzically around you – feeling how I always imagined the humans in a Midsummer’s Night’s Dream feel as they wake up; back in the real world, with a sensation of having tripped across worlds, but never having left that spot.
Unfortunately the main voice grated a little for me (kind of like a fairy that you want to swat). I’d have also like to have seen it play a little more with physical sensations, of rushing air, water, or the smell of tree bark, and to weave in the male voices a little more sense-fully. But these are minor, and probably quite personal gripes. Mostly it was transporting, mostly I felt like I was in a secret room hung with cobwebs and adventure, mostly it was a journey that didn’t fill you in as a character, or part of a narrative, but that asked quiet questions about perception, buildings, and the spaces we travel between life and art. A fracture of a fairy tale, that you slip through for a moment.
*Who says ‘in the simplest terms’ and uses words like ‘augmentation’? I do, apparently.
Narrating our lines (plan b):
This piece caught me in a very different way. It was a much simpler presentation-style piece by Daniel Belasco Rogers and Sophia New, who have for years been using gps units to track their every movement across their neighbourhood, home city of Berlin, and the wider world. They have also (head up hyperlocal) been completing a similar experiment with the residents of Birmingham; anyone has been able (and still can, I think) pick up a gps unit from MAC and become a part of the trace-map of the city.
Daniel and Sophia drew some lovely gentle links; mentioning the research that shows the growth of the hippocampus (navigation centre**) in the brains of London cabbies – ‘we write cities into our bodies’ – as well as touching on the idea of ‘sousveillance’. They traced their journeys using text messages, ‘mood reports’, and watched a map of the walkers of Birmingham eked out, telling us who they could see, the story, the person behind certain lines.
However what grabbed me most about the piece, was their pulling a quote from De Certeau (slightly longer here)
“The ordinary practitioners of the city live “down below,” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk — an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmanner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it..”
They used this to say that gps now allows us to read our urban texts. I understand what they’re saying (and this is a molehill out of a minor flourish) but I don’t agree with this. From the most mundane point of view, the fact that we see the gps product emerge after the act of walking still makes it an illegible practice, like writing in the dark. People still write without being able to read it; reading occurs after the phrase is written. More philosophically (?) speaking, how is that line the writ of our paths? Is our walking made up only of the track our route takes, its speed, frequency, where we were travelling from, where we’re moving to, and why those things are happening?
There is a section from a Kafka piece that Deleuze and Guattari are mad on in Towards a Minor Literature where they talk about the special form of punishment given in a certain culture. In that culture, a criminal is not told of what they are convicted, rather they have it inscribed in a language on their body, in their flesh. And yet no one can read this language, only the person on whom the punishment is being inflicted***.
There is something, there, I think, about the illegibility of human experience. For all that we can read about how we move through the world, the traces we leave tell us as much about our experience, as the letters L O V E do about the feeling.
Indeed, I think separating the above quote from the second half of the passage, does the sentiment a disservice, it continues;
“These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility”
That moment, when you breathe in the smell of another person’s skin and every note of that moment is colour and breath and soap, shampoo, smoke, and the whispered settling of the air around you. The closest I know of blindness, and of all encompassing vision. A picture of that scene is what plan b showed me, and it was a very well framed one. But I don’t think they were urban texts as de Certeau meant them. Impossible – but I would like to see how you might push what is currently just data as close as you can to that point.
** generalising, follow the link for the Real Science
*** that puts me in mind of this freakangels bit
Fierce is on until Sunday, with lots of free encounters as well as paying bits. Do, if you can, get to see some of it.