I'm standing in a slightly darkened room, a crisp modern space with wonderful acoustics – the CubeGallery of Leicester'sPhoenix Digital Arts Centre. It could be a clean, almost antiseptic environment yet somehow this exhibition transforms it into a gritty, wind-grazed landscape. Or indeed a box of multiple places within spaces. As I walk around, I encounter a series of grey vertical blocks, knee high, supporting a button-pad and ear-pieces for the recordings I am to select. But they seem like cairns or stone way-markers pointing directions, signalling entry-points to soundscapes that are tagged with single elliptical words – 'ghost', 'cooling', snow', 'banjo' and so on. I am confronted with the multiple possibilities of a wide-open landscape, with the Road Not Taken as well as the unique track I make through its aural valleys and crevices.
And that's just the experience of this exhibition in its 3-D physicality. Before we play with sound and image, with silence and static and eyes-closed pauses, with a full-on sensory rush of sound/ music/ talk that is so vivid it is almost tactile. Before we press the button and choose.
The exhibition is 'poems,places & soundscapes' and offers you exactly that. Curated by poet MarkGoodwin and poet-publisher BrianLewis of LongbarrowPress, it is 'an international exhibition of digitally produced sound-&-poetry focusing on place & sound-scape ... featuring various poet, musician and sound-designer collaborations' as well as a selection of ‘place-entranced films'. There must have been thirty or forty audio and film 'pieces', each offering a different blend or collision of poetry/ sound/ music/ image and each transporting you to an entirely different place. And then other possibilities opened if you listened intently to the ear-piece, whilst also letting your gaze be reeled in to a film-stream in another corner of the room. Not unlike standing in a wide, wild landscape, where your senses and mind might tune into cloud-shadows on a hill-side, navigational landmarks, bird-song, the random noise of far-off contrails, insects in the undergrowth, a stream of consciousness, wind booming and scratching against a dozen surfaces, chatter and sudden silences. Choose what you will because there is no one way, no one definitive experience and subjectivity is all. Be present and listen.
Some choices I made that day:
fice (audio-work at second post)
a dissonance of tinkles, echoes, rhythmic words, monk-like chanting, ribbons of singing, clattering wood – gradually a mysterious music emerging of the whole blend.
ghosts (audio-work at second post)
a harmony of synthesised music, murmured phrases of poetry that open into an intimate conjuring of memory and nostalgia that is quite haunting. The landscape is urban, modern, but meshed in with the natural at Westport Lake: 'and on Sunday we'll walk round Westport Lake / remembering the beach … and the ghosts of who we were .. and home to terraced houses/ if you've seen one row of terraces, you've seen them all …' Mesmerising.
cooling (audio-work at first post)
another urban place-poem unravelling into a series of startling and joyous metaphors for the twin Cooling Towers of Sheffield: ' two big birds' nests/ in the poetics of space … under the skirt of motorway/ two stout ankles … two grim bouncers/ to the nightclubs of Sheffield … two huge brackets around/ a 1950s skirt of sky … two jugs of stillness …' A transcendent sense of the human in the city, in the industrial. Music pulsing with the beat of the poet's rhythm and rhyme. Decades of social history threaded through landscape.
banjo (audio-work at fourth post)
twanging banjo music underpinned by polar wind-whorling and a gravelly American voice-over, reflecting on the narrative of 22 castaways huddled under a boat-hut on the exposed glacier-strewn shore of Elephant Island in 1916 ...
burbage valley (film-work at second reel)
extraordinary charcoal drawings seem to conjure wind and rock, accompanied by a delicate soundtrack of the same. Then the poem-text on the screen layers in a third dimension of textures and symbols: '… nevertheless the chalk hands/ stretch out to form their synapses/ where the grit-stone neurones happen ...'
Sometimes I let the word-sign draw me in: what on earth is fice? Sometimes I looked for a familiar foot-hold – the film-scape of Burbage Valley alludes to a Peaks landscape I've walked many times. And I could hardly pass over Shackleton'sBanjo, when my own second poetry collection was inspired by that polar expedition. But mostly these were random choices that held me entranced for a timeless afternoon.
And now I can dip in again to other pieces on the comprehensive website that accompanied the exhibition. You really must go there and trace a sound-journey of your own through that digital space. It is helpfully way-marked with photographs, interviews, blog links and all of the exhibitions works accessible, as well as the posted comments of visitors. A rich experience that alerts us to the possibilities for collaborative poetry adventures, knitting together many crafts with current technology. The overall synthesis is a mysterious and alive and utterly human interaction with place.