THIS SECRET LOCATION – Ryoji Ikeda & Alex Bradley/Charles Poulet: Hell and heaven

Tim Atack on Spectra II and Whiteplane_2

If you work in an office packed full of computers there’s a chance that the subtle high frequency noise of multiple disc drives whirring around, day in day out, is actually chipping away at the fundamentals of your audio range, tiring them into submission. So alongside having our brains fried by mobile phones, we’ve now identified desktops and laptops as the new enemy. Technology: it’s out to get you.
Ryoji Ikeda, Spectra II

Ryoji Ikeda, Spectra II

Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra II is definitely out to get you. The artist’s intention is to have the audience interact with a geographically defined soundscape, an all-encompassing sensory experience, and in Spectra II he does it using the subtle scream of low volume high frequency sine waves, amplified in such a way as to be altered by your very movements within the space. That space is a tight corridor, taking one victim at a time, its precise dimensions at first rendered uncertain by disorienting lighting effects and the unnatural omnipresence of electronic noise. From the entrance point of this channel, it’s not clear if and how the installation ends: an all-pervasive red glow emanates from a long, horizontal laser marker far in the distance, and every now and then white strobes burst to life along the length of the walkway.

Certain of Ikeda’s previous compositions on CD can be said to resemble nothing so much as a ‘concerto for electric cattle-prod’, and the surges that accompany every burst of light in Spectra II are highly reminiscent of these angry crackling stabs. It has the emotional effect of urging you on up the corridor, into the unknown. At the same time, the prospect of what lies at the end of the walkway is not exactly comforting; everything has the air of an horrific science fiction landscape, the laser lines in the distance forming the crosshairs for some terrible inhuman device.

As you move tentatively forward, the clashing sine waves about you form peaks and troughs in your geographic perception where peaks and troughs have no right to be. If you clap your hands, it doesn’t reflect back off the walls in the normal fashion and is instead swallowed up by some sort of ambient compression. In short, ladies and gentlemen, this is hell. Everything is consumed by the insatiable space, and it’s never, ever going to stop.

So, yeah, it’s a bit of a disappointment when you get to the far end of the corridor and it’s just a straightforward wall. A laser marker is slapped across it just above eye level, and the red glow renders wood grain within the construct highly visible, removing any mystery about its provenance. For a while you feel like knocking on the wood just to see if it will open up, continuing beyond, a further corridor, onward into infinity. But no such luck.

The fact that this is a finite corridor necessarily makes Spectra II a game of 2 halves, and the last trick up Ikeda’s sleeve is revealed when you turn to retrace your steps. In returning back down the passageway, you are blocking the principle light source, the laser. In addition to this, your exit far off in the distance is only vaguely lit by the half-light spilling from the outside world. As each strobe explosion occurs, it’s now far more apparent that the walls of this corridor are painted bright white, which means your funny little brain does a funny little thing: in the sudden absence of light (an effect you can mimic anytime by quickly shutting your eyes) the brain converts any after-image held by the retina into a negative of itself. This means, that in the final part of Spectra II, you are traversing a space that seems to be repeatedly vanishing into complete nothingness in controlled bursts. Hell isn’t going to let you go easy.
Alex Bradley & Charles Poulet, White Plane_2

Alex Bradley & Charles Poulet, White Plane_2

Alex Bradley & Charles Poulet, White Plane_2

At Inbetween Time heaven is well represented by Alex Bradley and Charles Poulet’s Whiteplane_2, an immersive audiovisual landscape that differs from Ikeda’s work in several ways. Firstly—and perhaps most importantly—it is not an experience that defines a strict journey for its participants. Audiences come and go within the space as they please, spending as much or as little time as they deem fit, and they do so in a communal fashion, as Whiteplane_2 is a broad rectangular platform upon which many people can stand, sit or lie down. The opaque floor and ceiling glow with changing colours, sometimes in parallel reflection of each other and sometimes in a riot of shifting tones, whilst sounds envelop you, circling, zipping and swooping from an array of speakers hidden in the darkness that surrounds the stage. The noises tend towards the abstractly pleasant; a cynic might detect a touch of Harold Budd/Wyndham Hill new-ageness about some of the more fluid tones. But the cumulative effect of hearing these motifs ebb and flow repeatedly—combined with the occasional random attack of white noise and lightning not dissimilar to Spectra II—is to give the impression of natural phenomena, the ocean or the sunset, storm fronts or swarms, represented consummately by a marvellous benevolent technology. It’s as if, somehow, an orchestra of fast-processing computers has developed a set of musical themes and is improvising away, happily, to the Aurora Borealis.

There are further associations: having to remove your shoes gives the experience a sepulchral edge, alongside the deep, reassuring roar of a gong that drops in and out of the ambient noise… Some of the colours bleach the environment so as to suddenly turn everyone upon the platform to monochrome.

Whilst a crowd of primary school children is in residence, the space turns into a wash of blue and without prompting, the kids all begin to swim like fish. Whilst Bradley and Poulet must in some sense have programmed a limited combination of instructions into Whiteplane_2’s software, the foreground presence of an audience extends the aesthetic possibilities into almost infinite territories. Some people chatter, some lie prone, some throw paper aeroplanes, some stare at their feet throughout. If you’re willing to be in the space for long enough, you can play a strange little game of crowd control, so that if you sit on the ground for long enough eventually everyone will be sitting; if you lie staring at the ceiling, you rise some time later to see that the platform looks like a bed-in, bodies prone, blissed-out. So unlike Spectra II, which after the fact one recalls as a ‘ride’, a sort of futuristic ghost train, Whiteplane_2 can be so many other things all at once: a toy, an escape, an artwork, a moment. And it’s all thanks to the audience. Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong. Hell is a solitary pursuit. Heaven is other people.

1 February 2006