Sunday, February 12, 2012

Audio Obscura

Lavinia Greenlaw, Audio Obscura, 13 September – 23 October 2011, St. Pancras International Station (Artangel)

‘You enter the crowd at St Pancras and hear voices around you. Do you want to know more? Do you wish you hadn’t heard that?’ (Audio Obscura flyer)

First, a reminder on camera obscura. It is an early camera device capable of projecting an image and is literally a ‘dark room’. This is essentially what Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura does. It asks the participator (for you are more than a simple listener) to project an audio track onto your surroundings. You transplant voices, stories, thoughts, confessions, from their dark(ened) origins onto the bustling St. Pancras International Station, full of people coming, going, or waiting. The result is that you end up ‘somewhere between what is heard and what is seen, what cannot be said.’ (Audio Obscura flyer)

We’ve all played the game of imposing our own invented conversations on the strangers around us, usually when we’re bored, waiting, and stationary whilst others are on the move. This position is recreated but more formally and pervasively so, for the space of St. Pancras station actually changes the moment you don the bulky headphones and step out, away from the Artangel booth.

Time slows. I no longer share the space of the train station with the commuters, an experience emphasised by the headphones that block out ambient sounds. My ears act as a tour guide for my eyes, which start piecing together sound and sight in an enormous, life-sized puzzle. Angry mutterings make my eyes look out for a space where the voice fits. I superimpose anger on a woman in high heels. I superimpose love on an elderly man. I superimpose frustration on a fat sausage dog with tiny legs. I feel like I am floating through St. Pancras: time passes slowly and my eyes and ears converse directly, bypassing my meddling brain. My pace is leisurely. Sometimes I feel almost invisible, although the opposite must be true. We stand out like sore thumbs, two girls side-by-side, large matching headphones, mp3-playing-box in hand, strolling through the rushing crowds without a destination, turning left, right, on the spot, really looking at people, using the space as it’s not been used before. Sometimes we see others with matching headphones, matching pace, and wandering eyes which I meet with an implicit understanding of the space we are sharing, apart from the rest.

It is a fun experience. You get dipped in an underwater world where sound echoes and movement slows. The moment the audio track stops and headphones come off, you emerge from the depths. Your brain takes control again. You are no longer aimless your destination is clear: back to the Artangel booth. A straight line is quickly mapped out. Your pace quickens, your gaze fixes. You hand back the headphones, retrieve your deposited mobile phone, and re-join the commuters. It was a wonderfully immersive experience, but it felt good to re-join the space as you knew it, to escape being perpetually “in-between”, because as interesting as that position is, it is not one that grows on you.

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