The Temple Bar, where the Strand meets Fleet Street, has been a boundary space in London since the Middle Ages. It represents the border between the City of London and the City of Westminster. It was used to regulate trade into the city and also traditionally served as a meeting place for the monarch and the Lord Mayor of London. It was here that London would pledge its allegiance to the crown. Nowadays, the site is surrounded by speeding traffic but Christopher Wren’s gateway which marked the boundary until the 19th Century has been restored and relocated to the edge of Paternoster Square. It now stands at the boundary between the home of the London Stock Exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral and this is where A Hollow Body begins: the starting point and the meeting place.
You and your partner (the piece is designed to be experienced in pairs) enter into the world of A Hollow Body simply by touching the screen on your smartphones at the same time. You are shown a map divided in two and pick one of the two sections to cover. Once the experience begins, you’ll have your headphones and you won’t speak. You will remain connected though: the focus of each others’ journey, dipping in and out of each others’ vision.
You move off. Don’t look back. They are gone. The voice you are hearing talks about the city, about the people that live here, about the houses they live in, about the invisible threads that connect us all. You see the tourists and the City workers around you and you might start to wonder what their stories are. Then you see your partner again, from a distance. What are they hearing? What are they thinking? Are they hearing what you’re hearing? Are they thinking what you’re thinking? From this distance, nobody could know that you’re connected. You share a secret. You smile. Can they see you smile from here? They smile. Back. Perhaps.
It is you, them and the City. What you’re hearing connects all three. The musical score soundtracks the City itself, just as it soundtracks their face, their form, in close up and at a distance, as you move together without speaking. The lighting is provided by the time of day and the artificial lights that surround you. At this time of year, if you start after three o’clock, the crepuscular light will lend a forbidding atmosphere and you’ll be shocked and dazed at times by the harsh artificial light in certain locations.
As you stop outside certain buildings, you are invited to imagine the characters within. In some cases, these characters are given names. The voice describes what they are doing. We are being given access into their lives. It is as if we are invisible intruders but, in a city full of CCTV cameras, could it be that we are the ones being observed?
A Hollow Body is more experience than story. The elements of narrative that do exist are elliptical and fragmentary. What it ultimately achieved for me was to transcend the grand impersonal buildings, these temples of high finance and the cold impersonal plastic bricks we carry in our hands. There’s a moment where the simple of act of touching a wall makes you feel connected through your senses to the structures that surround you. A fleeting glance at your partner out of the corner of your eye can thrill. The experience will vary enormously depending on your relationship with the person and with the city itself. By providing this frame and slowing things down, by taking away your agency, it opens up space for you to experience what is around you. You might find it frightening or romantic. It might make you excited, sad or angry.
While the piece was commissioned by the Museum of London as part of its current Sherlock Holmes exhibition, what it won’t do is let you play as Holmes. There’s no case to crack and the experience is all the better for it. Instead, A Hollow Body take you through the half-lit streets of a bustling harsh city that is teeming with life. A city that Holmes described as “a cesspool into which the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”. The London that Arthur Conan Doyle knew is there still with the remnants of that imperial past. It can be glimpsed among the brutalist structures of the last century and the towering glass towers of our own. It’s a city full of stories, full of connections and full of secrets. In not asking us to solve a puzzle, Circumstance give us the space to explore those connections that are personal to us.
Created in partnership with collaborative art collective, Circumstance, A Hollow Body is an interactive mobile app commissioned by the Museum of London as part of their Sherlock Holmes exhibition which runs until 12th April 2015.