Features Published 8 May 2013

Electronic Voice Phenomena

Experiments in live literature with Ross Sutherland and Hannah Silva.

Natasha Tripney

Listening back to our interview later I can hear the feedback of the coffee machine, the under-hum of background chatter, and the sound of my voice, far shriller than it ever sounds in my own skull. Above this aural backdrop, this persistent urban murmur, Ross Sutherland is talking about the concept of synchronicity.

 “You try to push people into the realm of the paranoiac…”

We had been clutching coffee cups in the café at Rich Mix, the room warmed by rare London sun, and discussing Sutherland’s contribution to Electronic Voice Phenomena, an experimental literature and new media project co-presented by Penned in the Margins and Mercy which will be touring venues throughout the UK in May.

The project takes its name from Konstantin Raudive’s experiments of the 1970s – experiments in which he appeared to divine messages from the hereafter from the crackle of static, voices embedded in electronic noise – but the connection is as much a metaphoric as it is thematic, a frame within which to create new work, work which plays with form and methods of presentation, which meshes technology and language, coaxing stories back from the black.

EVP acts as a kind of thematic umbrella, encompassing a number of separate commissions. New work from Sutherland, Hannah Silva, SJ Fowler and the band Outfit will provide the spine of the show, but there will also be guest pieces from Honor Gavin and Richard Millward at various dates on the tour. So the show might touch each night on, say, the history of telephony, the centenary of Dada, the work of the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos, and the trial of Judas Priest – the potential to hide messages in music.

Sutherland’s piece is called That Name Rings a Bell and it builds on a technique he’s been exploring for the last couple of years: a process of iteration and recurrence, pattern generation. He’s something of an Oulipian experimentalist, Sutherland, working within a given set of parameters and reveling in the results, exploring poetic form and creating pop cultural fractals. In his poetry collection Emergency Window, he fed classic poems repeatedly through a computer translation programme, while a version of Little Red Riding performed as part of his solo show The Three Stigmata of Pac-man, saw him take each noun and verb in the story and replace it with one twenty-three places below the original in the dictionary, using the Oulipian N+7 technique to create a nonsensical and yet kinetic retelling, The Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-Ha. 

His last show Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke was a participatory exercise in iteration, with the same central sequence, that of a comedian’s collapse, told over and over again with members of the audience playing both the comedian and the hecklers, the witnesses of his literal and metaphoric demise, and with everyone switching roles (and wigs) at each re-set, each return to the start point. “It was,” he says, “a balancing act to get the audience to just the right level of drunkeness to make that show work.”

In the case of That Name Rings a Bell he’s been inspired by that “experiment people would do at university where you take The Wizard of Oz and play Dark Side of the Moon at the same time – there’s an uncanny matching up, both thematically and in the places were the songs break and change. That’s a nice easy example of synchronicity in action, this idea of meaningful coincidence.”

Hannah Silva’s EVP piece, Total Man, draws on the life and work of evolutionary theorist Stan Gooch. His work, she describes as a “sociological, psychological and scientific thinking, alongside a huge dose of speculation, mythology and leaps of faith.”
Silva (via email):
“Gooch’s main hypothesis was that humans are descended not only from Cro-Magnon man, but also from Neanderthal Man. Gooch thought that this split between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal is responsible for the polarities in our society: left wing and right wing, science and art, yin and yang, Jekyll and Hyde.”

Sutherland researched the origins of the theory of synchronicity. “The term was, I think, originally coined by Karl Jung – it’s almost like a religious experience, the times when the real world takes on the qualities of a dream. It’s the kind of thing people experience in a psychotic episode – where everything and everyone is talking to you and everything’s connected – well, this is meant to be like a more pleasant version of that.”

Silva (via email):
“Gooch suggested that if humans were to embrace their Neanderthal side, we would be a more balanced and less divided society. The tricky thing is, Gooch barely manages to make sense for a page or more before he ties himself up in Ariadne’s net and starts to make statements about vampires and the size of politician’s ears. It is very hard to take his writings seriously as he mixes rational thought with speculation, science with vampires and the paranormal.”

The idea of synchronicity ties in with the EVP theming, the way the mind makes connections, the creative impulse as a visiting voice whispering to you from some other, unknown place. “The dream world touches over with the world of the dead as well,” Sutherland says. “You can be grieving and then maybe you’ll see a plastic bag in the street and think that is waving at you, that their spirit is near you.”

 Silva (via email):
“I’ve been making lists of these polarities, gathering absurdist, strange and revealing statements, and collecting stories such as his vision of a Neanderthal Man during a séance. It isn’t a linear writing process. By using a loop pedal I am piling up ideas, words and sounds and exploring connections between layers. It’s possible that the character of Stan Gooch will be visible within this soup of ideas, but I also rather enjoy having license to throw narrative and character out the window with this piece.”

Pop culture imagery ribbons through much of Sutherland’s work, be it the 8-bit chomp of Pac-man, the opening credits of The Fresh Prince, or 1990s kid-com Clarissa Explains It All, the latter used as part of Every Rendition on a Broken Machine, his short film about computer generated poetry – and he talks about the structure of That Name Rings a Bell in terms of the BBC drama Ghostwatch, one of the most complained about programmes in television history, one which reset its own rules at its midpoint, changing gears to become something terrifyingly new (a process which is discussed in much loving detail by Adam Curtis on his site). “The first half is more conversational in tone but then it destabilises and becomes more avant garde -the signal to noise ratio switches around. The aim is to use technology to create a suggestible field of language.”

Silva (via email):
“The EVP project is innovative and experimental in its brief so gives me the chance to really explore sound, language and voice. Gooch’s interest in automatic writing and the paranormal provides a frame for a text that might now and then revert to a form of communication that appears to pre-date language.”

Sutherland will use a clip from the Crystal Maze as the basis for That Name. “There’s this game where a lady is trying to wire a giant battery. Everyone’s shouting at her and she doesn’t understand the rules, what she’s supposed to do. I loop that footage, and then I talk about séances, I talk about the first time I saw a dead body, and with every loop you get to experience it on a more symbolic level. Hopefully by the end, the clip is loaded with so much additional symbolism that you start making connections yourself.”

Then there’s the scratch of a chair being pushed back, the scrabble of books being gathered, and some more background cafe clanking and clatter as my sound file comes to its end and the voices stop.

Electronic Voice Phenomena is on tour from 10th to 25th May, beginning at The Sage, Gateshead. For more information about the project, visit the EVP website.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.



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