Points of Departure at Shoreham Port, Brighton Festival May 2021. Photo: Ray Lee
I’ve been making large-scale, immersive sound art installations, sculptures and performances for quite a long time now. In the back of my mind I’d been thinking of ways of bringing these works together, with new ones, to create a kind of vast sonic pleasure garden somehow related to the idea of the Eighteenth Century pleasure garden, such as Vauxhall. Places where the people came to relax and explore, free of some of the societal restraints present in their everyday lives.
I thought that perhaps I could make a sonic fairground, a series of sonic experiences that provided a visceral sense of sound in motion. And yet, as my producer Simon Chatterton reminded me, my works are perhaps less suited to the idea of a noisy, garish fairground and more like a sonic meditation, a sonic bath. I immerse my audiences in a wash of moving sound. My works don’t aim to provide momentary excitement, but to generate wonder and encourage the audience to allow themselves to move beyond literal explanations. So maybe a sonic fairground was not the right context? However, I kept coming back to this idea and imagining a huge field filled with my sound machines and an audience who congregate to experience a sense of collective wonder.
So, when Brighton Festival approached me to bring my existing works to the 2020 festival and site them at the historic working Shoreham port this seemed like the ideal opportunity to put some of my ideas into action. In the end, the pandemic put paid to the 2020 festival and we rescheduled Points for 2021. Instead of a huge field, Shoreham port is a fascinating industrial complex enclosing the ship canal, locks, port and marina. The potential for bringing an audience at night-time through this atmospheric location was immense and, of course, quite a major logistical challenge, not the least because the port and locks operate 24 hours and not about to stop for an art installation. However, I’m always up for a challenge!
Points of Departure became an evening promenade performance/presentation that saw audiences of 100 at a time being guided through a series of interlinked installations that were bookended by my two largest installations, Chorus at the start of the experience and Ring Out at the end. In between the audience encountered four new installations on their 45 minute journey. We presented Points up to five times an evening and had to add extra show dates because they were selling out. Over the run we had around 6000 people attending. There was clearly a demand from audiences to see work after so long being locked down. The show ran every 30 minutes, but lasted for 45 minutes, so we had to run the entire piece using stopwatches and guiding the audience to a fairly tight timetable because as one performance started at one end of the site, the previous show still had 15 minutes to go at the other end of the site. I think we managed this without the audiences feeling that they were unduly shepherded around. Incredibly we also manged to do the entire three week run without the different audience groups colliding with each other.
Thomas H. Green, writing for Arts Desk, describes what it was like for the audience arriving at the docks before the piece had begun:
‘The experience begins before it begins as we make our way to its starting point, negotiating the labyrinthine paths across this working port. Caged in beside one lockway footbridge, we await as a giant scarlet-painted container ship, incongruously called Fast Herman, slowly slides along Southwick Shipping Canal, towering above us. A man in a fluorescent coat wanders its length with a sledgehammer, bodily whacking and clanking something-or-other. All very Einstürzende Neubauten.’
Another reviewer expressed their experience of being at the port in amongst my sculptures:
‘We pass spinning things, all is movement, the fine refinement of the mechanisms a jarring contrast to the scruffy working manufacturing site they are placed within, the darkness adding to the post-apocalyptic charm of Shoreham Port. […] Then it slowly stops, the pendulous movement ends, the sound stops. We crunch out into the night, greeted by the swishing blades of Shoreham Port windmills as they slice though the darkness, sending scented wafts of freshly cut timber to mix in with the scent of the sea.’ GScene magazine
Looking back on the experience of making and presenting Points of Departure I’m reminded of how amazing it is to have audiences experiencing work live, and how vital that connection is for me as an artist. Even though I was effectively invisible, hidden in the gloom of the evening, dressed identically to the other members of my team and shrouded in the obligatory face mask:
‘We – the spectators – are gently herded by silent warehouse people, flat capped, apron coated and silent (who may or may not be the artist themselves..), they usher us to the next starting post.’ GScene
Walking with them as we moved around the site I witnessed their reactions to my art works while they were unaware that I had made them, I think this sense of invisibility helped me to some extent experience the work as the audience did.
Thanks to Brighton Festival for supporting my work and all the team at Shoreham Port.