Lavinia Greenlaw

Audio Obscura

St Pancras International Station, London
13 September 2011 - 23 September 2011

Audio: Audio Obscura

30 minutes 57 seconds
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Audio Obscura is an immersive sound work originally presented as a temporary project in 2011. Since July 2015 it has been available to listen to online or to download. It is intended to be experienced in St Pancras International Station, London, but works well in any busy railway station.

In the busy public spaces of a station, everyday dramas are constantly being acted out: people are waiting or rushing, engaged in conversation or lost in thought. They catch our attention because they raise a question and fail to answer it. Why is that child crying or that woman laughing? What did he mean? Why are that couple not speaking? Who is he kissing?

In Audio Obscura, equipped with headphones, listeners enter the crowd. Boundaries dissolve as fragments of individual narratives and glimpses of interior worlds glance off one another. Overhearing these voices, the listener is immersed in private thoughts in a very public space, and find that they cannot help but project what they hear onto the people they see.

Audio Obscura (left) is available to stream or download on Soundcloud. It should be listened to in a busy railway station using noise-cancelling headphones.

Image: Commuters embracing at St Pancras International Station, London, 23 January 2011. Photograph: Julian Abrams

Talk: Audio Obscura β€” Lavinia Greenlaw in conversation with Cornelia Parker

48 minutes 11 seconds
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Talk: Audio Obscura — Lavinia Greenlaw in conversation with Cornelia Parker

Audio Obscura was a sound work by award-winning poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw, located in London's St Pancras International Station. In an aural equivalent to the camera obscura, the audience, equipped with headphones, entered the crowd and overheard voices, recollections and confessions in a very public space.

In this talk, Greenlaw discusses Audio Obscura with artist Cornelia Parker.

Recorded at St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London, 3rd October 2011

You can listen to the project's other events on Soundcloud.  

Artwork: Lavinia Greenlaw: Audio Obscura

Audio Obscura is an award-winning immersive sound work by poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw. Originally intended for London's St Pancras International Station, it works well in any busy railway station. In an aural equivalent to the camera obscura, the audience enter the crowd and start to hear the voices of those around them, saying the things they don’t know they want to say.

It is essential to use noise-cancelling headphones. Listeners are encouraged to post their experiences of the work on the audio timeline.

Image: A participant listens to Audio Obscura through headphones on the upper concourse of London St Pancras station, 12 October 2011. Photograph: Julian Abrams


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It’s a kind of hypersensitive trance, induced by a sonic montage of interior monologue, atmospheric sound and minimalist score. – Kirsty McQuire, Londonist

Selected Press

Anyone who enjoys a little people watching will be fascinated by the concept of Lavinia Greenlaw’s immersive art piece... it’s an interesting reflection on how we spend that waiting time: contemplating, picking over old wounds and arguments, perhaps even shedding some goodbye tears. Greenlaw’s choice of voices, too, reminds us how many walks of life occupy such public spaces and the conflicts and complications that pass through the platforms daily. — Sarah Walters, Manchester Evening News, 6 July 2011
The recording, written by Greenlaw (a celebrated poet and author) and read by actors, supposedly reveals the internal monologues of strangers, offering snippets of the secret stories behind the anonymous faces we pass by in the bustle of busy life. A cross between radio drama and social realism, Audio Obscura is more hypnotic than it first sounds – these muttered confession s might even make you miss your train... — Clara Tait, Time Out, 23 September 2011
‘I’m trying to get that unconscious manipulation of language. I’ve become more and more interested in particular voices at the edge – especially overheard, fragmentary voices’. For her latest project, Greenlaw spent two years eavesdropping on passengers at railway stations. She even has a Twitter feed to record gnomic utterances, such as her recent favourite: ‘trifle for grownups‘. — Stuart Jeffries, Poetry News, Autumn 2012
Not since Christian Marclay’s The Clock has art been such a cinematic experience as it is with Artangel’s latest project, Audio Obscura in St. Pancras station by poet Lavinia Greenlaw. — James Payne, The Huffington Post, 19 September 2011
It’s a kind of hypersensitive trance, induced by a sonic montage of interior monologue, atmospheric sound and minimalist score. – Kirsty McQuire, Londonist, 15 September 2011

Dark listening

Lavinia Greenlaw
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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?

Read the complete essay

Image: Three silhouetted men walk across the concourse as another commuter pulls a wheeled suitcase out of shot, London St Pancras Station 12 October 2011. Photographer: Julian Abrams

Turning for home

John McAuliffe
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Turning for home

John McAuliffe
14 September 2011

We pick up our headphones at a platform and are encouraged to walk around inside a station. Are we eavesdroppers, an audience, participants? A voice tells us, 'Listen' and we do. We hear monologues: the note of panic and desperation is common to all, a tone anyone running late for a train or discovering they have left that one, vital document at home will identify with. Someone says, ‘Shouldn’t talk about it’, a phrase which seems to trigger what will follow, short arias of crisis and despair, the voices of men and women on the verge of panic and separation.

Their voices, tears and anxieties are compelling, but the piece’s strangeness is in its location. The railway station is revealed as a kind of theatrical arena, and as we look at it from between our big, black headphones, we and the passengers become mutual objects of curiosity. 

Read the complete essay

Image: Commuters walking through St Pancras International Station, London, 23 January 2011. Photograph: Julian Abrams


Michael Symmons Roberts
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Michael Symmons Roberts
18 October 2011 

It looks like the people are in church, worshipping the god time, or waiting for some miracle – that’s in this piece. It’s not just the ordinary occurrence. — Lavinia Greenlaw on Audio Obscura

That woman in a blue business suit scanning the departure boards with barely contained excitement. Has she got that promotion? Made that deal? Bought that flat? No. Look again. It’s not departures but arrivals that hold her attention. Who’s she waiting for? Lover? Child? A friend she’s lined up for a night out? No. Not friend. Not night out. The excitement is too much. She’s grinning. Almost laughing. Then she looks around to check no-one’s noticed. But you have. And you’ve noticed the bored teenager by the newspaper stand, clutching a bouquet of irises. And you’ve noticed the elderly couple outside the cafe, sipping their tea in silent, perfect synchronicity. And you’ve noticed the backpacker urgently glancing from phone to escalator, phone to escalator, phone to escalator.

The business of waiting, and watching other people waiting, is a serious one. It must be, because we work so hard at it. For many of us, daily practice takes place on railway station platforms. We wait, and we think, and try to read the thoughts of others. Lavinia Greenlaw’s evocative Audio Obscura is partly an attempt to explore these strange rituals. Railway stations are temples to waiting, because almost everyone who goes there is on their way to somewhere else, caught between home and work, weekday and weekend, friends and family.

Read the complete essay

Image: A National Rail employee wearing a blue high-his jacket, checks his phone whilst standing behind the closed barriers of a platform at London St Pancras station 12 October 2011. Photographer: Julian Abrams

About Lavinia Greenlaw

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Lavinia Greenlaw

As well as making the project Audio Obscura (2011), Lavinia Greenlaw also features on Artangel's podcast, episodes 3: Memory, and 5: Destinations.

Lavinia Greenlaw is a writer who lives in London. She studied seventeenth-century art and her interest in perception, optical technologies and the idea of travel led to her being the first artist in residence at the Science Museum. Her most recent books of poems are The Casual Perfect and A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde.  Her prose includes Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland, and The Importance of Music to Girls, a memoir of punk, disco, country-dancing and piano-playing, which explores the role of music in growing up.

Formerly Professor of Poetry at UEA, she has also taught at Goldsmiths and King’s College London. Her work for radio includes a number of documentaries about light with subjects ranging from Arctic midwinter to the solstices and equinoxes, and the darkest place in England. She writes on music, art, landscape and light for The London Review of Books, The New Yorker and Frieze among others.

Audio Obscura received the 2011 Ted Hughes Award.


Images: Lavinia Greenlaw, St Pancras International Station, 5 May 2011. Photograph: Julian Abrams

Book: Audio Obscura

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Lavinia Greenlaw: Audio Obscura

£9.99 from Full Circle

This book derives from the sound work, also called Audio Obscura. 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 early photography, as people strove to fix the images it produced.

As Lavinia Greenlaw writes in her introduction, "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."

  • Published by Full Circle Editions, 2011
  • Photographs by Julian Abrams
  • Black-and-white photographs throughout
  • 64pp
  • Softcover
  • 230mm x 165mm
  • ISBN: 9780956186973


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Who made this possible?


Audio Obscura was commissioned and produced by Artangel and Manchester International Festival with the support of Arts Council England and Emmanuel Roman. 

Artangel is generously supported by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.