Listening in and looking out
Most of us will have come across audio guides in museums or some stately homes: there at the entry desk is a keen-looking chap desperate to convince us that spending a few pounds to hire a set of headphones and the attached player will enrich the experience of whatever exhibition or historic location we are exploring. Truth be told, I’ve often been a bit suspicious of such things. I realize I don’t actually like to be told what to think – I want to have it my way, to encounter things on my own terms at my own pace. But Lucy Stevens’ audio guide is a very different experience: whilst traditional versions offer authoritative information about a place or its works of art, once such familiar kit is placed in the hands of an artist very different possibilities can be explored; factual knowledge is disrupted, our imagination engaged and our experience of place is, as a result, quite unsettled.
Stevens works with binaural audio: in essence this means that sound is recorded using special microphones mounted either side of a dummy head, or using in-ear microphones (Stevens’ preferred method.) This method reproduces the effect of hearing sound in person by mimicking the 360 degrees from which human ears pick up sound waves: the result is that the recordings then reproduce convincingly the sense of sound location. In listening to the playback one feels spatially situated ‘in’ the location from which the recording was originally derived. In order to record the audio Stevens repeatedly walked the grounds of Nottingham Castle, before going on to supplement the material she had accumulated with a host of sound effects and reconstructions, as well as stories told to her by the Castle’s regular human guides and members of the public she encountered. There is thus a real and disconcerting slippage between different registers: in listening, we segue uncannily between the previous centuries and the present day, between documentary recordings and dramatic reconstructions. This work also plays with very different modes of delivery: at points authentic historical facts are related as one might expect in a guide, but this is then infiltrated with ghost stories or whispered exhortations to make a wish, and destabilized through Steven’s observations on contemporary passers-by.
The role of sound in film is well understood to be powerful: an innocuous scene backed by increasingly dramatic music suggests something is about to happen, whilst a creaking floorboard alerts us that all is not as it should be: sound is able to hotwire directly into powerful psychological and emotional experience. Many of us will be used to sound-tracking our experience of the city with music we have chosen for mp3 players and the like, but Stevens shifts the content and context for such experiences. She knows that listening on headphones can be especially potent, as the sound is seemingly close upon us, seeping right inside our own head and so she carefully mobilizes this as part of her audio walk: at times she issues assertive instructions as to what route we must take, then whispered voices draw us in to a sense of quiet intimacy, a reverie from which we are rudely disturbed when the sudden noise of a dramatic restaging intrudes. The technique disconcerts us: I imagine the embarrassment as, whilst wandering through the grounds in public view, a sound on the headphones startles me so much that I visibly jump. It makes me wonder whether perhaps walkers taking the tour will themselves will become the spectacle for other visitors?
All of this is, as yet, imaginary, for in order to write about the work, which is not yet installed in its proper location, the reality is that I’m listening to the guide at home on my headphones: I’m a long way from the Castle, and yet as soon as I press play I’m imaginatively transported to Nottingham through sound. Familiar as we are with the audio pleasures of radio, that’s surely not so strange, but what will be very curious for those using the guide as Stevens intends is that their listening will, of course, be doubled; ‘real’ sound will merge, or clash, with the sound recorded previously in the same location. How strange it will be to encounter the authenticity of Stevens’ documentation with its police sirens, overheard voices and the buzz of distant lawnmowers, transposed back to that very location at a time in which other, as yet unknown events are taking place: it will be an echo from the past insinuating itself into another day.
Stevens’ work is full of stories: her narrative offers the same opportunity as one might experience sitting on the magic carpet of a school Story Corner – we are taken elsewhere, through, around and out of the present into imagined places and times. There is something too of the sense when adults spin stories and tell tall tales, about which, as a child, one isn’t always able to reliably discern fact from fiction: such a feeling is amplified by Stevens’ considered mixing of real and staged audio. That there are so many ghost stories included here (and that Steven’s was told so many by those with whom she collaborated in the making of this work) indicates the enduring fascination with tales of things that go bump in the night. It seems that despite our apparent 21st century rationalism very many of us are still perturbed by the appearance of a solitary magpie: superstition remains a powerful force. As an artist, Stevens has often investigated the human relationship with the unknown and has long been preoccupied with our ambivalent desire for fright and horror; she recognizes that our fear of the bogeyman lurking beneath the bed has not gone away. In its guise as an authoritative guide to an actual location, Steven’s audio work is also an opportunity to reflect upon the potency of myth and superstition alongside ‘real’ history.
Like other contemporary psychogeographers, Stevens takes as her starting point the ‘presence’ of a certain location. She seeks to discern the crossings of the past into the present, remaining alert to the imaginative leaps that may also take us beyond current experience into uncharted psychological experience. The collision of different eras and dramatic registers is unsettling: we pass unexpectedly from tales of the tragic aftermath of a Victorian storm, to a 14th century hanging, drawing and quartering, via contemporary encounters in the Castle grounds with a young woman in skin-tight jeans and slogan-ed sweater who might herself be ghostly or imagined. At one point we hear a clock chiming: even though I know it’s been recorded in 2009, the melancholy tone and its positioning amongst all this talk of the past makes me wonder for a while if I’m listening to a moment from more distant history instead… So, for those of you who think you already know the Castle and its environs pretty well, I’d encourage you to take time out from your daily lives within familiar city centre shops or offices in order to walk with Stevens’ audio guide: by crossing the imaginative threshold she opens up, you may experience a peculiar time travel, discovering perspectives quite other to those you might have reckoned – and with them, a lingering sensation that the past and future remain entirely coexistent with our own present.
Joanne Lee is an artist and writer and is currently Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University.