Duncan Speakman: Echo Location

Osunwunmi

Sounds from Above the Ground is a truly site-specific work in that the more familiarity you have with the landscape in which it plays out, the more you will bring to the encounter. To experience it, you have to walk over from Arnolfini to L-Shed, a big industrial building, temporarily set up installation-style with gaffer tape and blackout curtains; you are given the kit, a backpack and headphones, and you will stand there at the desk while the people in charge make sure that it’s working.

Walking there, speaking with the attendants, getting fitted up with the gear, frames the experience of the work. It’s a way of getting over the initial encounter with bulky technology, like a reader’s up-front encounter with a chunk of exposition at the start of a novel. Though in this instance it’s not exactly fair to the spirit of the work that part of this framing turns out to be an argument over whether gallery staff have the right to hold on to my credit cards. “Well, haven’t you ever hired a car?” It’s the principle of the thing! There should have been a warning, and I could have brought my driving licence instead.

Argument over. The headphones activate. I go outside with a guide; I hear the artist’s voice through my headset saying, “Follow me.”

Bloody hell, the guide is haring ahead sharpish, was I meant to lose sight of him? But the headphones are no longer intrusive and the sound coming from them has inserted itself into my general low-level consciousness. There is a girl’s voice on the soundtrack; occasionally she asks a question.

The artist is murmuring in my ear like a friend, telling me where to go. My inner monologue rises to tangle with him. “What do you mean, Duncan? Shall I stay over here? Do you mean this door? Can’t I stop and look around for a bit?” Spaces of silence on the sound track give me tacit permission to do so.

I’ve walked over the bridge, I’ve followed instructions, I’ve had space to look around, to be puzzled, to disagree, to feel stubborn. I’ve stared into the river, I’ve felt the cobbles through my shoes, I’ve heard traffic, actual and processed with delay, and I’ve heard the artist’s virtual companion nudge into our ‘conversation’ with gentle queries. I’m led back to L-Shed. There’s a definite sense of termination as the ambient track fades. Another female voice enters, her tone both dispassionate and firm. “Please take off your headphones and make your way back into the building.” It’s over.

I have been teased with a sense of looking for something and not quite finding it. I think that’s what tipped me over into the invisible city: because just for a moment I slipped into the city of my memories, with my internal cohort drifting about me, my inner citadel of friends and absent friends and friends to come. Their ghostly promises brush against me. I am in tears.

Duncan Speakman is a sound and video artist working in live and mediated spaces using emergent technologies. His work has been exhibited internationally at festivals including ISEA, Futuresonic, ArteAlmeda and Navigate. He is currently a visiting lecturer in technology and performance at Dartington College of Arts, UK.

Duncan Speakman, Sounds from Above the Ground, L-Shed Foyer, Feb 3

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg.

© Osunwunmi ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

3 February 2006