A buoyant audience gathers in the cramped basement of retro emporium cocktail bar The Black Dove. It’s Sunday evening and we’ve dragged ourselves out of our roast dinner coma’s to attend the first NEW SPACE: a low-key bi-monthly event showcasing new experimental/digital sound, visual and performance art. The night is run by audio-tech creatives Wesley Goatley and Danny Bright. Having experienced their work during Brighton Digital Festival, I know I’m in for a treat, I just can’t yet imagine the form it might take.
We sit, hip to hip on narrow benches surrounding a tower of speakers, amps, power-packs, laptops and a precarious overhead network of cables, trying not to dislodge the plethora of vintage knick-knacks fixed to the walls by our heads. It looks like the Reading Festival rig has been squeezed into a miniature opium den.
Natalie Kane: writer, curator, Storyteller & Technologist leaves us in the dark with a brief introduction to her piece; literally, the lights are suddenly turned off. Moments later I feel like I’ve been transported into the final scene of The Blair Witch Project.
We stare at a projected tape of electrical interference, just able to make out the shape of Kane’s body in a tiny darkened room as she repeats the phrase, “Is there anybody there” towards the wall, like a mantra. For a while, white noise seems the only response. Eventually, as my hearing adjusts to the crackling, I begin to think I can hear another voice on the recording. So does the artist. Her questions and the ambiguous ghostly responses are interpreted at the bottom of the screen.
As a creeping feeling comes over me, my senses begin to heighten and I nearly knock my drink over when my buddy nudges me and whispers, “I can’t hear that, can you?” “No,” I reply, “but I can hear something else – different words.” I feel him bristle with skepticism in the darkness.
The piece is profound in its simplicity. Nothing is proven about the haunting of the space, but through our responses the uniqueness of the individual is neatly demonstrated. We’re reminded of our first Ouija Board experience or the time we broke into that abandoned tumbledown building as kids. The questions Kane asks verbally are the clichés necessary to tap into those childhood fears and imaginations and urge us to respond from the place in our hearts where anything still seems possible. That is why the experience is so subjective – it affects us according to our personal beliefs, values and the emotional reactions that have developed in response to our individual experiences over time. It’s a study in phenomenology, not phenomena.
The gullible and suggestible believe they can hear the same words as the artist, the skeptics and the unwilling can hear only variations in white noise, the dreamers and fantasists can hear their own words. And what does this mean? Where are the words coming from? Again, the answers to these questions will be different for each of us. Maybe spirits are communing through the ethers, maybe the artist has programmed sounds to trick us, maybe our brains are wired to interpret sound waves by adding other memories and experience to them so that we can rationalise what we perceive into words; giving it meaning and value that isn’t there, i.e. we’re imagining them.
On top of that, the piece plays to the differences in our hearing: the nuances in our ear to brain physiology and the impact that has on our interpretation of sound frequencies. I find myself wondering what would happen if the subtitles were changed and the recording was played to a non-English speaking audience; perhaps they would perceive to receive messages in their own language.
Tonight, I am reminded of the deep entertainment value in surrendering to the artist and engaging with the work. I swear I heard something amidst the white noise, but maybe that’s just because I wanted to.
Words by Rachel James
Image still courtesy of Natalie Kane ndkane.com