What is a conflux? A coming together, a gathering. It can refer to a meeting of two rivers – in flood-prone York, that would be the Ouse and the Foss, joining and sometimes overflowing at the heart of the city. But a conflux might also be a meeting of people, or perspectives, or ideas. A congregation-point, where we give attention to things that temporarily occupy the same space.
The morning before taking part in CONFLUX, I finish reading Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing. In it, she writes about the potentially transformative effects of really paying attention to something – a person, a place, an idea. The so-called attention economy, which Odell is attempting to resist, actually depends on a poverty of attention. Our eyeballs are directed towards perpetual novelty, clicking and liking and scrolling for the next addictive hit of dopamine. We rarely dwell on things, taking the time to look properly.
There’s so much that I fail to give my attention to as I move through my city. The Castle Gateway area, to which CONFLUX responds, falls into that category. It’s a scrappy, cold, inhospitable mess of past and present – ancient stone and tarmac and rows upon rows of cars. The view is dominated by Clifford’s Tower on its mound of grass, a relic of the city’s medieval castle now circled not by a moat but by a car park. Next to the cars, the York Castle Museum inhabits what used to be prison buildings, standing opposite the Crown Court. It’s a place where tourism, commerce and justice sit awkwardly side by side.
It’s not a welcoming site for an audio performance – and CONFLUX’s creators Hannah Davies and Hannah Bruce know it. They describe the piece as an audio collage, which feels right. It’s a scrapbook of sounds and stories, as messy and overlapping as the site itself. Among those scraps are Skype calls between the two Hannahs, recording the process behind the piece and the stickiness of making it. Davies admits that she started out with an inherent dislike of the tower, which she describes as a stubby mug of nothing atop its bank; Bruce questions whether listeners should be left standing at length in the car park.
Hanging around on the edges of this site, phone clutched in gloved hand, I do feel a bit silly. CONFLUX is billed as a “journey”, but it’s best not to take that literally. The audio guides listeners on a few very short stretches of walking, but the distance covered is negligible and most of the hour is spent standing or sitting out in the open, feeling – in my case, at least – conspicuous and exposed. Especially on a chilly January afternoon, it’s uncomfortable in more ways than one.
But there’s something interesting about that discomfort and conspicuousness. Awkward though it may be, by shifting me out of my usual, passing relationship with the area, CONFLUX forces me to pay attention. I realise how little I know about this place, as I listen to the intertwined histories of protest and discipline that cluster around this centre of power – the Eye of York, as it’s long been known. Factory workers marched here from Leeds and Bradford to demand better working conditions in the nineteenth century; more than a hundred years later, thousands gathered on the site to protest the Iraq War. Davies’ poetic, multi-layered text melts together moments like these, suggesting the ways in which different pasts continue to live side by side in the present. The audio also contains the voices of people who populate the space now, sharing memories of dazzling firework displays and drunken, late-night scrambles up the grass slopes around Clifford’s Tower.
Beyond listening to these stories, I also find my attention settling slowly on my surroundings. I notice for the first time that the tree that stands in the oval of grass outside the Castle Museum is not quite in the centre. I see three figures creeping up the mound to the tower, silhouetted in the twilight. I feel a little thrill as a flock of geese swoop overhead. I start to feel the deepening of attention that Odell describes in her book, and I recognise what she means when she writes that this attention is an ongoing effort. We have to keep dragging ourselves back; we have to choose to keep on looking, or listening.
CONFLUX also forces a rare moment of reflection on how we exist in public spaces. As soon as I don’t have a purpose or a place to be, I pause and notice the patterns that capitalist urban life nudges us into. We’ve created a world in which there’s something strange – almost unsettling or suspicious – about simply existing in a place without producing, consuming, or passing through on the way to a destination. As I lurk in the darkening Eye of York, feeling watched even as the gazes of busy passersby glide unseeingly over me, there’s an odd flavour of the clandestine to this innocuous activity.
Maybe there’s an inherent, intractable awkwardness to site-based audio performances like CONFLUX. They lift listeners out of the flow of a place, often leaving them stranded and self-conscious. The experience can be frustrating, but it might also open our eyes and ears to spaces that we typically hurry through, our flickering attention focused elsewhere. In the place where two rivers meet, I linger and let contrasting histories pool around me, finally paying attention.
CONFLUX runs until December 2020. You can find out more and download the app here.