I am very excited about a new collaborative project I’ve been working on with some theatre and fine art graduates. I met with K, the voluntary gallery manager of ArtsLav Gallery at which T and I exhibited a few months back.
K explained that he and some friends were planning to use binaural microphones to record a script (written by them) weaving together the stories of the people of Lambeth (in which Artslav is situated). This narrative would be intertwined with physical directions to the listener encouraging them to explore the historical underground site that is Artslav. The visitor would therefore be handed a pair of headphones upon arrival, and would be guided by the sound and by visually distinct “stations” in the space, on a tour of the whole of Lambeth. And the stories that make up the script would be sourced from interviews with the people of Lambeth themselves, and material found in the form of letters, newspapers, etc found online or in the Lambeth Archives.
Initially I was only going to contribute to the project by voicing some of the script (they were looking for voice actors). But as I heard more about the project, I both enjoyed the idea and felt I might be able to contribute in a more significant way. They welcomed the idea of me joining them, and I hopped on board.
We had a deadline: we wanted to be part of the national Fun Palaces weekend (art festival with an emphasis on the sciences). This allowed us about a week and a half of preparation, so it involved a lot of intense work.
We had a Skype conference call and I met the other two participants of the project, two theatre graduates. I was intrigued by their still artistic but different background, and was excited about the prospect of working with them. We were going to use the binaural microphones (microphones placed in the ears like headphones, so the sound produced comes eerily close to a first person experience of sound), to create an immersive audio experience. Soon enough, the four of us were meeting every day at a pub outside ArtsLav. We had to divide our time such that we had a strong basis in our research, in our scriptwriting, and in the execution of the recordings and logistics of the “tour”. I was thrilled to find that all three of my colleagues were dedicated, motivated and enthusiastic, all contributing something special to the project. I felt appreciated also, and think this whole experience was particularly stimulating and new for me.
We gathered as much research on the area itself and material for our stories within four days. The idea was to create a kind of amalgamation of voices from the same place, but from various times in history. So we split up, with some of us unearthing old letters written and exchanged in Kennington/Lambeth, and others literally wandering around with a microphone and interviewing people in the area.
I had the opportunity to do both historical and contemporary research. We were aware, as we read and interviewed, that we could never become experts in Lambeth and its history in four days, and so our goal was not to ‘present our findings’ to the public after having studied them – even with more time and consideration I found this to be a patronising suggestion. I preferred the message of our tour to be, “Lambeth, we’ve found you interesting and strange, we have studied you, but you have become no less mysterious. We cannot possibly know you and reveal what you are, but we want to present our very curiosity in you and the thrill of exploring you”.
As such, we wanted to create an impression of Lambeth, or show the way it impressed itself on us, as well as almost replicating our own experience as detectives/journalists in exploring such a place. And the underground grotto that is ArtsLav could not be a better place in which to concentrate this experience, it is situated beneath a little urban island on Kennington Cross around which so much traffic revolves – it seemed to be the centre of history, preserved like a tomb.
A further point I made in our discussions in argument against suggestions that we should have live performances/added live characters down in the Lav, was that the voices heard (so intimately thanks to the binaural mics) should be the only live thing down there. I suggested that the place should precisely feel cold and tomb-like, with our added “scenes” resembling remnants of past lives. With that, the recorded voices should be the only source of warmth. I thought this might create the feeling that the room was full of ghosts.
Visiting the archives, although not comparatively large, was rather overwhelming for me as I have never used any. I had to get over a brief learning period to begin to access some of the material there; and was largely unsuccessful. Eventually we found some letters with some actually quite heartbreaking stories: a Victorian woman writes how those she loves are dying around her from an epidemic. An ex military man of high ranking writes three letters to his successor begging for money, having lost his own fortune to paying for surgery to treat the maming wounds of war that have crippled him. Meanwhile my colleague S had particular success gathering interviews, and his method involved simply going into pubs, churches, libraries, parks and approaching people. As a result of this, we all split up the following day to interview people in different parts of Lambeth. I went from Oval to Vauxhall, and finally back to Kennington, but had significantly less success, and remember feeling quite disheartened. Indeed some of the potential interviewees abused the situation to make crude sexual comments, etc. It wore me out throughout the day, but I produced about four interesting interviews, and discovered throughout the process wonderful places, such as a hidden wasteland-turned-paradise called Harleyford Gardens in Vauxhall. I took photographs on my journey.
With limited time on our hands we distributed the most interesting stories amongst ourselves and began to weave them into a fictional narrative. We had a narrating voice guide you through the space and give you physical directions to follow, as he also introduces you to unique characters. I wrote the script for a Polish nurse I met in Harleyford Gardens, the script for a Scotsman working at an Irish pub, and strange and rather sad woman called B, whom I met in St Mark’s Church at Oval. We reviewed each other’s work, made corrections and together wove our individual scripts into a larger narrative. I had a trip to Oslo coming up, and it was at this point that I had to leave. I could therefore not take part in the installation of the work and the opening of the show. Before I left I voiced over two of the characters, and supervised the recording of other scripts (our friends from the theatre discipline knew some actors who kindly volunteered to help). I therefore took it upon myself to do any kind of promotion of the event I could achieve from abroad: I wrote to newspapers, had us printed in event listings, followed up our feeds on various social media and invited personal contacts. My colleagues tell me we had positive feedback from the visitors, and that there was a good turnout (I have forgotten now how many exactly).