Features Published 24 July 2015

I Saw Some Cool Binaural Theatre, Then I Went for an MRI Scan

David Rosenberg and Glen Neath's FICTION bears some similarities to a medical procedure
Daniel B. Yates

MRI SCAN at Homerton Hospital, Radiology 1

Lying on my back like a sausage, knees bent, the machine seemed to be stalling. With two pads wedged either side of my head, and a large padded triangle beneath my legs pushing up my knees, the caps of which were clearly not going to fit into the gaping aperture which was swallowing me whole – it appeared I did not fit. I couldn’t splay my feet out as my heels were being smooshed down against a another roll of padding by the cold pressing lip of the machine. There was a man in a booth in front of a lot of equipment behind glass screen. I could see some kind of movement: did he have his hands in the air? Was he telling me to stop? Did he look like Tiesto at Donnington? Was this Tiesto at Donnington all over again?

It’s strange in an MRI machine. My one had a General Electric logo embossed on the frontage, bringing to mind Jack Donaghy’s reporting on 30 Rock, that the GE chairman had stuffed the board with “the most sycophantic yes men this side of an Al Franken book signing. His golf cronies, his army buddies, various unemployable family members, and his hunting dogs.” But I also recalled, gratefully, that they do very good microwaves. As their willing and grateful pot noodle, I was given luminous ear plugs and thrust into my hand was something like a plastic eyeball attached to a plastic optic nerve – this, apparently, was the freakiest ‘panic button’ ever conceived. The whole thing takes twenty minutes, the lights are on throughout, and the smooth plasticated vista is close and reassuring as a cyborg’s maternal caress.

The soundscape is, as you’d expect, markedly unhuman. Not German techno inhuman; but more inhuman than that. In noisome accord with radiowaves and magnetic fields, obviously, here your body is an anatomical subject, not an existential one; there is no invitation to dance. Lying there and listening to the backbeat, like a waterlogged maraca on a ventilator, couched in the broad whoosh of something kind of cocooning, you could listen to the main action: a lot of prefatory kling klanging, followed by compact harmonic tones thudding binaurally, which seemed arranged close to contrapuntally, starkly rhythmic, quite engaging. Looking for analogues I decided it actually sounded less like the sort of industrial abstracted chill one may have expected, and more like a comparatively lacklustre artificial intelligence covering Warm Leatherette.

I was reminded of Steven Stapleton, of noise performance act Nurse With Wound, reporting that he first got his feel for sound while awake at night in a hospital bed, where to tune out the cries of human pain he focussed, night after night, on the clanking of the pipes in the wall. “If you listen to Beethoven it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different” remarked John Cage. On balance, I think my MRI experience was probably more Beethoven than traffic. Also, they handed me a humiliating apron in a bucket. And I had to take my glasses off.

(In addition this kind of equipment, while absolutely miraculous, is also part of a medical complex of death-denial which is resoundingly pathological, and diminishes us all in the end. Always worth remembering that doctors, when given serious news themselves, invariably slink home to die untreated). Two stars.

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FICTION at Battersea Arts Centre, Council Chamber

The back of the lounge chair in front of me had an infuriating curvature to it, which meant I could almost get my feet comfortable, but not quite: tranches of instep were pressed upward like a flamingo on an anti-homeless spike. I was kind of fitting in, but often theatre makes me feel like a don’t, with varying degrees of productivity.

I liked a lot about FICTION, the canniness to its initial formal gesturing was formidable. I liked getting split up from who I was with, being assigned a bureaucratic number, and how the rough forms of a shitty conference presaged the weird recorded intimacy of your audio chaperone, materialising alongside you, and, seemingly but illusorily, everyone else in the room. A sort of uncanny collective.

And I really liked the way the sound sources were distributed: how the ambient room was miced and fed into the headphones, that some sounds were played into the room as well into the cans, and that these were augmented by live foley. This mix of recorded and liveishness, DDL and IRL, was playing a fluently immersive game.

It was dark and quite eerie in FICTION. The signature music, a kind of ukelele electro-lounge boinky-boink, was an odd twee note. Resident Evil style inventory checking did little to settle me, neither did the sheer numbness of total blackout – hands inches away from face, nothing.

But it was the content that began to hurt a little. Characters that you’re supposed to find annoying being annoying, and you sitting mute amongst them. The piece did acknowlege this, but acknowledgement does not transform a situation. It was like a sleep paralysis with Oui Clos being played at the end of your bed; an alien autopsy in the middle of Abigail’s Party. Or coming to in a recording session of Radio 4 play with your eyes put out and vocal cords slit, and Timothy West just keeps on reading from his parchment.

But my response is uninteresting compared to my companion’s. When it was over we looked for one another, I wanted to grasp them in the manner of ironising survivors. But they were not making eye contact, nor pausing, as they moved, hunched and quickly, to the exit. This person works for a bluechip fashion photography agency, she’s not delicate – and yet it took a double vodka orange and twenty minutes of dissecting before she stopped shaking. She reported the beginnings of a panic attack – the loss of situation and self; the bureaucratic hell of the setting; the manipulation; the random violence of the sound, was too much. “Anti-ASMR” they called it.

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Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

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