Musings on ‘Audio Obscura’

‘Imprisoned in a cage of sound, even the trivial seems profound’ – John Betjemen

St Pancras Station, 2011. © Jessica Edwards

This quotation, carved into the floor of St Pancras station and encountered by chance while I was experiencing Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘Audio Obscura’ seems an oddly apt description of the piece. Greenlaw’s new piece is a sound installation experienced within the station and described by producing body Artangel as ‘an aural version of the camera obscura’, an early version of cinema, in which audience members could watch a small projection of the outside world from within a darkened room. The piece is half an hour long, and free, experienced through headphones picked up from a small and beautifully designed booth within St Pancras. It is made up of music and voices, overheard as you wander freely through the crowds within the station.

‘Audio Obscura’ was an interesting experience; it instantly created an incredibly engaging soundscape, and the actors achieved an unusual naturalness through the well-composed text, but it did have one or two problems. The piece encourages you to ‘transpose the overheard voices onto the people nearby’, but is often both too fragmentary or too specific to allow this possibility. It certainly functions at its best when the listener (or audience member) actively seeks out large crowds, potential visual counterparts to what is heard. One of the best moments for me was watching a long stream of people who had just arrived off the Nottingham train queue for the escalator as a young man tried to weave through them as fast as he could, perhaps running for his train. He threw a single glance over his shoulder as a young male actor spoke the words ‘sometimes I want to go back’. Moments like this were where ‘Audio Obscura’ showed its real power, but these, by their fragile and serendipitous nature did not or could not occur often enough.

The art world seems only to have recently caught up with the theatrical world in the current fad for pieces using headphones. Thankfully, ‘Audio Obscura’ does not have the problem that many theatre headphone pieces have: gratuity. Several recent pieces of theatre have used headphone technology simply as a gimmick, the fabric of the show barely requiring their use. Fuel Theatre’s amazing epic, ‘Electric Hotel’ was perhaps an example of this. While it was a truly stunning spectacle, erecting a three story, apparently weathered and concrete hotel in the middle of a field (at Latitude 2011, where I saw it), the headphone technology used was both unreliable and unnecessary. In the performance I was in, the show had to be re-started four or five times and a consequently went up forty-five minutes late. I have every sympathy with the challenges of radio equipment in the pouring rain (which we were subjected to at Latitude), but in my opinion the piece could have functioned as well using a powerful sound system rather than headphones.

However, ‘Audio Obscura’ unequivocally must be an audio piece experienced through a set of headphones: the construction of the piece is absolutely suited to its medium. Lavinia Greenlaw makes excellent use of the binaural possibilities of sound, stereophonically surrounding the listener with the clack of high heels, snatches of speech and running raised voices. The piece also makes use of the very best of equipment: rather than the usual ‘silent disco’-style headphones I’ve found at most of the theatre pieces I’ve been to of this ilk, Greenlaw uses sound excluding headphones. This is interesting for the piece because as soon as you put the headphones on, you are entirely immersed in the auditory world ‘Audio Obscura’ creates.

One potential problem with this is that you must experience this installation alone. The piece depends upon a crowd to function, meaning you must physically and visually be with others: ‘Audio Obscura’ does not or could not function without the crowd of moving people St Pancras provides.  However, you remain alone and isolated by the headphones throughout the piece: it is impossible to experience it collectively, with a partner or group. Occasionally as an audience member you encounter fellow listeners, made distinctive by their headphones. It would have been interesting if the piece had compelled our paths to intersect, perhaps giving instructions for all those currently experiencing the piece to congregate around the statue of John Betjemen. This would have added a layer of collectivity to an otherwise isolating piece. However, it could also be seen as a strength; this isolation gives a curious surreality to the familiar setting of St Pancras station. It also chimes well with the stories, or sound images, that ‘Audio Obscura’ establishes.

For me the problem with the piece was perhaps more pronounced coming from a theatrical perspective. ‘Audio Obscura’ could not help but remind me of Red Shift’s ‘The Invisible Show’ (click here for more details), the second incarnation of which I was involved with as an assistant director. This piece too made use of headphones and allowed its audience to roam through a space at will or whim. It also demanded a crowd in which to function. In many ways, the remit of these two pieces seemed to me to be very similar. Both seemed, as an audience member, to give the experience of ‘overhearing the secret life of the crowd’ (as one of ‘The Invisible Show’’s characters described it). However, the piece of theatre differed from the piece of art in a way that is perhaps to be expected. ‘The Invisible Show’ was not a pre-recorded piece as ‘Audio Obscura’ was, but used live actors, embedded somewhere within the crowd. This added an extra dimension that ‘Audio Obscura’ lacked – but it is not this aspect that I want to criticise. ‘Audio Obscura’ is installation rather than theatre and does not – rather should not – need to be live to give its experiential value. Rather, for me it was the overtly fragmentary quality of ‘Audio Obscura’’s text that made the piece faintly unsatisfying. The audience member or consumer of this installation is inducted into a world that is entirely aurally immersive, making it surprising, surreal and immediately engaging, but fails to retain its audience’s attention. We meet a wide range of individuals whom I hesitate to call characters as they are so fragmentary, with clearly interesting stories. However, so little of their stories are revealed to us that it becomes difficult to concentrate on the piece or remain interested in it consistently.

By contrast, ‘The Invisible Show’ presented its audience with several episodic playlets taking place over an hour. These vignettes were self contained snapshots into the characters’ lives, and stood alone in a way that the individual glimpses of ‘Audio Obscura’ did not. However, one or two of the critics of ‘The Invisible Show’ suggested that it was at times overwritten: the stories were too complete, too narrative and heightened, and as a result not quite believable as the voices of a crowd, any crowd.

Therefore, perhaps a hybrid between ‘Audio Obscura’ and ‘The Invisible Show’ might be interesting. A piece that combines the fragmentary with the consistent, longer narratives with tiny snippets of people’s lives, mixing understood character with glimpsed individual. I would be very interested to see a piece that combined the two: neither an art installation nor a piece of theatre, but taking the best from both media. While one’s mind wondered in ‘Audio Obscura’, perhaps this was part of the point (though I still think it could have happened less frequently), reflecting the true-to-life experience of being in a crowd. What I enjoyed most about ‘Audio Obscura’ (and, indeed, from ‘The Invisible Show’) was its surreal quality of naturalism, and above all, its ability to find the dramatic in the every day, the epic in the mundane.

‘All of my work has, in one form or another, been an exploration of the point at which we start to make sense of things; an attempt to arrest and investigate that moment, to separate its components and test their effects. Audio Obscura extends this to the act of listening, or dark listening, in which unconscious aspects of perception are brought to light in ourselves.’ – Lavinia Greenlaw

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw. Photographer Julian Abrams.

‘Audio Obscura’ is by Lavinia Greenlaw and produced by Artangel.

It runs from 13th September to 23rd October at St Pancras International Station. Tickets are FREE.

To find out about other works produced by Artangel, click here or read Quick Bright Thing’s view of Ryan Gander’s ‘Locked Room Scenario’ here.

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About jsaedwards

Jessica Edwards is a young director and recent graduate of Oxford University. She works with new theatre company Flipping the Bird (go and see www.flippingthebird.co.uk). She is also a playwright, blogger and graphic designer.
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