Occasionally, I’ll see two artistic works that work really well in conversation with each other, and this stunning confluence has recently occurred. A few weeks ago, I travelled to Ghent to attend Vooruit’s Possible Futures Festival, where I saw Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells’s piece “Lest We See Where We Are.” I also recently saw a piece at the Battersea Arts Centre in London called “The Good Neighbour Audio Tour.”
The similarities between the two projects are striking: both involve carrying a large object around an urban space while listening to an audio recording (a boom box in “Lest We See Where We Are”; a euphonium fitted with a speaker system in “The Good Neighbour Audio Tour”). Both pieces also serve to celebrate major anniversaries of the institutions at which they are presented, which both have fairly radical histories.
The shows inevitably start when I arrive at the respective host institutions. For both of them, I checked in, and then watched the box office staff fiddle around with a bunch of technological equipment before sending me on my way.
In “Lest We See Where We Are,” I was sent down a corridor in Vooruit, up some stairs, and into a large theatrical space, where I was instructed to sit down and look at a scrapbook. In this book, I encountered a photograph of a very serious audience of the 1930’s, sitting in the same space as I was. The narrator instructed me to imagine what this audience was thinking about at the time. This image, taken at someone’s 80th birthday party held at Vooruit, was contrasted with images from the dedication of the Vimy Memorial in France (happening concurrently), images taken during different time periods at Vooruit (notably a rock and roll concert in the 1950’s), and other images taken on the same afternoon that the original photograph was taken. Hampton and Etchells weave an effective web, connecting the pains of history (World War I) to the retrospectively sad hopes for a better future, made all the more painful by images of Hitler at the Vimy Memorial a few years later.
After spending a lot of time dwelling on the past, I met a new narrator who was tired of living amongst dusty scrapbooks and who encouraged me to carry my boom box out into the street and to stand looking up at Vooruit; the new narrator was a lot less sure of himself, and much more depressed about the world. This narrator had a lot of concerns and tried to envision the future, but found it very difficult to do so, and instructed me to try to envision this Neighbourhood in the future, to ponder whether there would be cars in the future, to realize that in 2093, pretty much no one whom I saw on the street now would still be alive. The prospect of “the future” became unbearably abstract to me; it became quite apparent that I would be as alien to people in the future as the people in the photographs were alien to me, and I left feeling small and lost in the hustle and bustle of the world.
“The Good Neighbour Audio Tour” similarly started in theatrical space, this time in BAC’s grand lobby, where I was told a little bit about the history of the project, and the history of BAC. After that, I was led around the Neighbourhood, given a history of two fires which happened about one hundred years apart—the 1909 fire at the Arding & Hobbs Department store, at a fire during the 2011 London Riots. At one point, a narrator asked me to look down the street and to imagine everything gone, to imagine the Neighbourhood as it once was, with significantly less development. The largest difference between this performance and “Lest We See Where We Are” was that “The Good Neighbour Audio Tour” includes a significant amount of testimonial—both from the 1909 and 2011 incidents—whereas the piece in Ghent did not include any historical testimony, relying only on photographs and original text. One particularly haunting passage of “The Good Neighbour Audio Tour” instructed me to go down a quiet street, where I listened to testimony from a young girl who had been arrested for looting stores during the London Riots. She had a very interesting relationship to the crimes she committed, saying that she only did it so that she could fit in with her friends. The passage was made all the more haunting by the choice of space in which it was housed. Before that, the spaces had been mostly public, and it was a shocking contrast to be somewhere so quiet, so close to where I had been before.
“The Good Neighbour Audio Tour” ended on a fairly cheery and optimistic note, including first a moment of silence for the people who died in the 1909 fire, and then a moment to remember all who participated in the 2011 riots—the law enforcement, the rioters, the bystanders (caught off-guard, afraid). After that, I was instructed to return to the Battersea Arts Centre, where I was treated to a rousing monologue and hymn about community, which I assume was supposed to fill me with hope for the future of the area, but I was mostly perplexed by the sudden shift towards optimism in the piece.
While the pieces shared aesthetic similarities and similar occasions, there were also important differences between them. The first major difference was the method of delivering the audio. In “Lest We See Where We Are,” I wore headphones and was the only one able to hear the text. In “The Good Neighbour Audio Tour,” the recording was played on a speaker, out into the world. There were several occasions on this excursion where people on the street shot me dirty looks for polluting their soundscape with brass band music or narration of long-ago fires (and I can’t say that I blame them that much). “Lest We See Where We Are” is much less of a spectacle for the people passing by—it’s fairly easy not to notice someone holding a silent boom box. In this way, “The Good Neighbour Audio Tour” is more of an imposition for the surrounding world, yet not gratuitously intrusive. By projecting the project’s voices out into the public sphere, it (hopefully) allows important histories to reinsert themselves into public space, to allow marginalized narratives (about the London Riots in particular) to be heard by an audience that may not be seeking them out on a day-to-day basis. “Lest We See Where We Are” is far less concerned with the social justice implications of the piece; instead, it reduces the viewer down to the moment of encounter with the work, writing history off as dusty and the future off as unimaginable. The piece leaves the viewer/listener alone, breathing in an alley in sync with the boom box, which actually makes a super cool breathing noise.
I highly recommend both pieces. They allow the viewer to connect both with space and history in unusual ways, and it’s rare to have an experience that conflates both so well. Both pieces can occasionally feel a little bit heavy-handed, but are definitely worthwhile.
“Lest We See Where We Are” ran through 26 October at Vooruit in Ghent. Information can be found here: http://vooruit.be/en/show/detail/7221/Ant_Hampton_Tim_Etchells
“The Good Neighbour Audio Tour” runs through 23 November at Battersea Arts Centre in London. There is more information here: https://www.bac.org.uk/content/30091/see_whats_on/current_shows/cook_up/the_good_neighbour_audio_tour