Artists have been adapting their practice to COVID-19 restrictions. In the open, is the Common Guild’s off-site response to the ongoing situation. Six artists have created new audio works designed to be listened to outdoors on headphones during government-sanctioned daily walks. Neil Cooper responds.
“Whit yi’ up to, mate?” asks a befuddled voice 18 and a half minutes into A walk through a different city, Luke Fowler’s aural excursion through the centre of locked down Glasgow. “Whit yi’ doin’? You doin’ somethin’?”
Fowler’s sonic derive forms the seventh and final contribution to In the open, the Common Guild’s off-site response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This has seen six artists move out of the Glasgow townhouse based gallery and into the wild to create new audio works designed to be listened to outdoors on headphones during government-sanctioned daily walks.
Collated from 500 hours of recordings, Fowler’s 35-minute edit that makes up ‘A walk through a different city’ ambles its way through a winding route, that begins on Sauchiehall Street and ends beneath the Kingston Bridge beside the River Clyde. Inbetween, Fowler leads the listener through assorted back alleys onto Buchanan Street, then into an almost deserted Central Station before alighting.
By the time of the above interjection, Fowler has already run the gauntlet of several other friendly neighbourhood bams making similar inquiries. Bordering somewhere between curiosity and suspicion, these have included an approach from a member of Central Station staff, who asks Fowler what he’s doing. Fowler explains he’s walking through the station to the other side. The staffer then asks what it is he’s carrying. After Fowler tells her it’s a microphone, she asks if he’s recording, then asks if he’s catching a train and if it’s for essential travel. Fowler explains again that he’s just going through to the other side of the station. The response? “What for?”
Such, then, are the perils of the short-distance psycho-geographer. In a perhaps understandably hostile climate, any seemingly off-kilter activity by random passers-by in a less densely occupied environment than usual are left well and truly exposed. One suspects, however, that for someone who spends their days loitering on the street or deserted railways stations sporting headphones and wielding a “big fluffy microphone,” as one interloper puts it, such everyday interventions are likely something of an occupational hazard.
These interruptions to Fowler’s found-sound collage of fire alarms, traffic, half-heard conversations and other noises off also make for an amusingly absurdist narrative. It’s as if Kafka’s Josef K had been beamed down and forced to navigate streets as existentially barren as one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s terminally half-built urban wastelands filmed in ennui-laden black and white.
As captured by Fowler, it is the more officiously nimbyish tone of the Central Station staffer that is more worryingly indicative of the state we’re in. However much she may be justified in tackling what might be perceived as anti-social activity by a lone wolf in a site now resembling the location for a 1970s dystopian science-fiction eco-fable, her line of inquiry nevertheless recalls Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Pedestrian.
First published in 1951, and collected two years later in The Golden Apples of the Sun, Bradbury’s poignant tale charts a late-night walk by a man living in a TV-obsessed future where the empty streets are policed by robot cars. As the man embarks on his solitary stroll, and having never encountered another person while out walking for ten years, he is stopped by one of the robot police cars, and asked what is the purpose for him being outside.
On being able to answer only that he was walking just for the sake of it, the suspicions he arouses causes the robot car to take him to the Psychiatric Centre for Research on Regressive Tendencies. As he is driven along the deserted boulevards, through the window he sees his own house, inside which a warm glow of humanity still resides. Of course, it could never happen ‘round ‘ere. Just you ask Twitter.
It all started so well for Fowler, whose first contribution to In the open began the series at the end of July with a far sunnier sounding piece called The Pitches. Recorded over several months in and around North Kelvin Meadow, aka The Children’s Wood, close to Fowler’s Glasgow family home, The Pitches occupies a space that used to be Fowler’s playground, and which has more recently been reclaimed by the local community from developers.
Over its half-hour duration, The Pitches eavesdrops on a day in the life/life in a day of The Children’s Wood under lockdown. The experience is entertainingly ushered in by Fowler’s mother, who becomes an accidental narrator of the shifts in atmosphere, temperature and tone. Fowler himself moves between being a largely silent witness, gonzo style roving reporter and personal archaeologist excavating Proustian sense memories reimagined for the limbo-land of the present.
There are echoes here too of The Swimmer, John Cheever’s short story, adapted by Eleanor Perry for the Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack directed 1968 film. The Swimmer follows a middle-aged man’s attempts to recapture a lost youth in neighbourhood gardens and swimming pools where he once felt secure.
While The Pitches is infinitely less bleak than Cheever’s me-generation mid-life-crisis tale, an intimacy pulses the heart of Fowler’s meditation. The sounds of The Pitches cosying up to its surroundings for comfort even as they become part of the unpredictable ambiguities around it. By book-ending the podcast version of In the open, Fowler’s two pieces show him taking a giant step outside all this into the even less safe terrain explored in ‘A walk through a different city’.
Inbetween, a getting of wisdom comes in a variety of different ways. Méduse is Lauren Gault’s rollingly insistent in-situ incantation, which takes as its starting point the snake-haired Greek gorgon who turned anyone who caught her eye to stone. Out of this comes an expansive environmental exploration of old mythologies burst forth to engulf the now.
Gault’s meditations base themselves in the Fossil Grove, a petrified forest preserved within the bounds of Victoria Park in Glasgow. Here, her tumble of words take a discursive trip that tentacles out to its sources to tell a tale as old as time, even if it is a time stood still.
At times it sounds like a text-book lecture at the point where science, environmental-based geo-politics and pre-history meet; at others it’s pure poetry, as if Gault is casting a spell, her distorted vocals and relentless delivery recalling a Robert Ashley aria conjured up from the depths. Gault sounds forever in motion, her mind and body in contrast to the frozen moment they’re caught up in, looking forward as well as back, and every sidewards glance between.
Duncan Marquiss comes into the open even more with Contact Call, a half-hour series of improvised electric guitar instrumentals inspired by a close study of birdcalls. Marquiss listened to these during lockdown walks around Queen’s Park, Linn Park and Pollok Park, when they could be heard more clearly without any traffic roars and such like to drown them out.
As pointed out in the Common Guild’s accompanying text, common calls are different to birdsong, in that they are shorter perhaps blunter exchanges. With this in mind, Marquiss’ call-and-response constructions gnaw and caw with an at times metallic rigour. Rather than attempt to recreate birdcalls, Marquiss’ instant compositions are impressionistic mechanical emulations of their source. As he scratches out FX-box treatments that by turn chatter, chirrup and chimes, each work taps out an inherent hypnotic melody that borders on the ritualistic in the seconds before they soar.
This segues almost imperceptibly into Clouded, in which real birds can be heard alongside guitar twangs that usher in a magical tale by Margaret Salmon, which begins with a tear being shed by a forlorn figure on a bridge looking down on the River Kelvin.
With musical punctuations throughout its 13-minute duration, there’s a fairytale-like expanse to Salmon’s story. It’s as if the clouds and the running water that can’t be hemmed-in by curfews, lockdowns and other legislations have been given a more recognisably human life even as they run wild. By focusing on a world of water, Clouded becomes a wise fable about the ebb and flow of a world forever changing, even as it might give the impression of standing still, only for storm clouds to gather and wash everything away.
The water flows all the way to Cromarty harbour in History Haunts the Body, Ashanti Harris’ quartet of stories about four 19th century Guyanese women who left their home for Scotland, transforming their lives rooted in slavery and making their way through society in different ways.
Set against the sound of waves lapping, these stories are fascinating enough hidden histories that stem from a still largely excised colonial history, and are told with forensic detail, as if presented as an official document or obituary. They are introduced by a second voice, which leads the listener through a series of breathing exercises inbetween each story. These allow space enough to absorb each real life mini drama before moving onto the next. Arriving at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown up an entire world of revelations regarding how global wealth was built on slavery, the effect is of an embrace that goes beyond formal depositions to absorb the strength within.
The rumbling continues in strange winds, Sulaïman Majali’s glitchtronic view of a from a hilltop of a sunrise, before what Majali calls an ‘impossible protagonist’ lets loose frantically whispered invocations from A Thousand and One Nights down a phone line. Enhanced by a brooding electronic hum, the tone is both conspiratorial and threatening, before giving way to a vocodered refrain asking the simplest and most profound of life and death questions.
It could be an up-all-night comedown alive with unseen sprites and demons. It is certainly a haunting of sorts, before the abrupt snap and whoosh of the ending indicates some kind of exorcism, however temporary, to somewhere beyond.
This sense of exile pervades throughout all seven works that make up In the open.
Heard as a whole, it feels like an entire artistic landscape is being redrawn through their intangible presence. With each artist in unknowing proximity to each other, just like everyone else, they have been cast out both physically and mentally from the everyday that they knew.
In the open has nevertheless enabled artists to explore avenues beyond what are perhaps their most recognisable disciplines. In this way, Salmon’s film-based work gives a visual impetus to her words in Clouded. Similarly, Harris’ work as a dancer and performer lends a rhythmic flow to her narrative. For those effectively cold calling In the open and tuning in, it is also a chance to listen, and to imagine environments that run parallel with their own.
Learning to listen has been one of the few joys of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which, after six months slow burn, looks set to go into an autumnal second wave and, for now, at least, an ever-changing amorphous confusion of a sort-of semi-lockdown.
By listening, we’re not talking here of the online spittoon of hot air coughed up by an unholy alliance of ideologically impotent politicians, YouTube conspiracy theorists and social-media messiahs.
In the context of the artists who have created work for In the open, it is a body of work more akin to American composer Pauline Oliveros’s notion of deep listening. The phrase stems from Oliveros’ off-the-cuff joke in response to working underground in the 14-feet deep, 200-foot diameter Dan Harpole Cistern in Washington. The Cistern was originally built to contain two-million-gallons of water to put out fires at Fort Worden State Park, where it was housed.
More significantly for Oliveros’ purposes, the room had a unique 45-second reverberation. The accidental depths of Oliveros’s remark evolved into an entire aesthetic of staying tuned to the sounds around us. This is most obviously evident as far as In the open is concerned in Fowler’s twin travelogues. The other five works, however, demand the attention with equal rigour. And, despite the enforced isolation of whatever stage of lockdown we’re in now, they are not alone.
There are echoes here of former Loop drummer John Wills’ The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown, a podcast Wills began right at the start of lockdown. Over eight editions, the podcast collated recordings submitted from an open call of listeners’ takes on John Cage’s ‘silent’ composition, 4’33, which similarly pioneered the use of environmental sounds.
Working in similar terrain, Touch: Isolation was a subscription-based series of 28 new short soundworks recorded under lockdown by artists associated with Jon Wozencroft’s Touch record label. These included Chris Watson and others who sculpted the sounds around them into something transcendent. Glasgow-based sonic art company Cryptic has just started something similar with its twice-monthly Sonic Bites series of audiovisual miniatures.
Listening to all these umbilically connected creations on afternoon strolls in the last gasps of September’s Indian summer, they form a crucial part of an ever-evolving archive of artistic activity that will go on to help define these strangest of times. Heard as a whole, In the open ends as it began, with birds singing as life rumbles on around them while a city breathes anew.
The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown is available at https://anchor.fm/greatjohncageproject.
The Touch: Isolation series is available at www.touchisolation.bandcamp.com.
Sonic Bites can be heard at 13.00 GMT on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at www.cryptic.org.uk.
All images reproduced courtesy of the artist and of The Common Guild, Glasgow.
(The title image is also by Lauren Gault)