Dark listening

Lavinia Greenlaw

An introduction to the Audio Obscura book

£9.99 from Full Circle Editions

At a railway station, everyday dramas are constantly being played out: meeting, parting, anticipating, escaping. The atmosphere is an odd mix of tension and contemplation. Everyone is waiting for something to happen or moving between events. They might be there for minutes or hours, every day or just this one time. They are often silent, even those in couples and groups, and their thoughts are more than usually elsewhere. Many will be preoccupied by a displaced kind of talking or listening in the form of music or the mobile phone.

In a station, we are forced into proximity. We observe one another yet behave as if being in a crowd confers invisibility. We tend to assume that we are neither overheard nor overlooked.

The intimacy of a phone conversation overpowers the reality of the crowd. Moving through a crowd chatting to a friend does the same. Listening to music can absorb us to the point that we are unguarded about what our face, or body, might express.

Most of us don’t set out to scrutinise those around us or to listen to their conversations yet we find that faces, gestures and phrases stand out and are remembered, whether we like it or not. Things catch our attention because they raise a question and fail to answer it. We are left in suspense. Why is that child crying or that woman laughing? What did he mean? Why are that couple not speaking? Who is he kissing? Why is she wearing that hat?

This book stands alone but derives from a sound work, also called Audio Obscura. Commissioned by Artangel and Manchester International Festival, it was created for Manchester Piccadilly and London St Pancras stations, where these photographs were taken.

The idea comes from the camera obscura, or ‘dark room’, a once popular form of entertainment and artist’s tool which uses a small aperture and mirrors to project a reflection of the passing world. A form of proto-cinema, the camera obscura was in part what led to the early photography as people strove to fix the images it produced.

The framed and heightened image of the real has become how we receive the world (and even other worlds). We pay little attention to its construction and even less to the ways in which we construct it for ourselves. Jonathan Crary has pointed out that ‘some of the most pervasive means of producing “realistic” effects in mass visual culture, such as the stereoscope, were in fact based on a radical abstraction and reconstruction of optical experience.’ This is also how memory operates; how we process what we fix. Audio Obscura is trying to achieve something similar. The texts are both fragment and essence, and the relation between each and its image is intended to sensitise us to an act that is so ‘natural’ that we often don’t register it: the connections we impose on what we hear and what we see.

The fragile, shifting but acute images of the camera obscura draw you in. In Audio Obscura, the idea is translated into ‘dark listening’ with its connotations of depths and shadows, the impalpable and the unreachable. We enter interior lives and discover, somewhere between what is heard and what is seen, what cannot be said. We are conscious of this as transgression but unable to contain our curiosity. And we in turn become less self-aware: caught up in the act of listening, we give ourselves away.

Audio Obscura is situated in tension with our compulsion to construct narratives, to impose meaning, and to seek symmetry and conclusion. The texts hover between speech and thought. They are concentrated fragments of interior worlds which sensitise us to boundaries we depend upon yet break. They are drawn from the twelve monologues that form the basis of the sound work and they glance off one another, meet and diverge as a bigger picture coheres and dissolves like the reflections inside the camera obscura.

These are fragments of stories from which we might draw a whole story, as if extracting DNA. Making the sound work I focused on listening and found that what stayed in the mind, or contained the narrative, was often not the vivid concrete detail that we are told make stories memorable. It was the small words. The monologues were performed by actors and I edited them down from those recordings, not from the page. Each edit was tested in the context of a station, as a form of the overheard, and somehow these small words brought with them the force of the greater drama that had held them in place. Had I written them straight off, they would have seemed banal but excised from a voice, they had quite a different effect. They needed a context from which to be removed.

Sometimes the words are not small but over two years of listening I have taken away as many of them as possible. Whether a brief agitation or a slow realisation, however perturbing or insistent, what is heard should be as weightless as it can be – like thought. This editing process was done in collaboration with the sound designer Tim Barker, and together we learnt to listen to ourselves and to trust our visceral response. We also learnt how to stay in the dark. These stories are neither revealed nor concluded. The experience is not one of being told something but of becoming conscious of what we do with what we listen to. In this book, the listening occurs in the space between text and image when what is said meets what is seen.

All of my work has, in one form or another, been an exploration of the point at which we start to make sense of things; an attempt to arrest and investigate that moment, to separate its components and test their effects. Audio Obscura extends this to the act of listening, or dark listening, in which unconscious aspects of perception are brought to light in ourselves.