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Three Songs No Flash

Aural Obliteration: The Bug's Sirens At Illuminations Festival
Mollie Zhang , November 25th, 2016 13:16

At this year's Illuminations Festival in London, Mollie Zhang gets immersed in Kevin Martin's Sirens project and considers the power of all-encompassing sonic obliteration as therapy in a world of immediacy

I instinctively try to open my eyes wider, but it doesn’t really help me see. I’m trying to stare through a relentless fog punctured only by the occasional, blinding strobe, with sirens blaring in my ears. The sensory inundation that is The Bug’s ‘Sirens’ begins as such.

Conceived as a response to his newborn son’s medical conditions, Kevin Martin’s project ‘Sirens’ is a heavily disorientating dream sequence, arriving in the form of deafening soundscapes, a dense fog and ever-persistent strobes. Sirens ring loud before coalescing into a heavy wash of sound, complete with a bass drone that pulses at an irregular rate lower than my own, which provides an odd dissonance that I feel deep in my chest. This sensory submersion is wholly captivating, or at least so I thought for the majority of the 40 minute piece.

But when I open my eyes, I don’t just see stuttering silhouettes in the mist. It’s peppered by reminders of the outside world, arriving in the form of unintentional lighting instruments, brought along in people’s pockets and bags. Of course nowadays it’s impossible to escape the ubiquitous glare of smartphones, of Facebook and of Snapchat, and it’s now something I’ve come to expect at virtually every performance I attend. In an atmosphere like this, however, the sight of these screens still manages to provide a bit of a shock. They strike me as a mainstay of more boisterous gigs or club nights, like the ones that The Bug is probably more accustomed to playing - at venues like the Electric Brixton, accompanied by artists such as Flowdan or Mala.

Martin’s intention tonight however is far different than when playing a club night, but it does seem the majority of the audience is willing to follow him along. Even the man who enjoys contributing his own commentary such as, “I could be kissing my mother in this fog and not even know,” eventually dissolves into it. And before the piece is even over, I’m jolted out of my reverie when someone, perhaps the same man, pulls his phone out and begins to yammer on about whether to get an uber or a taxi. Does this have to happen right now? I guess that would be the most efficient.

Whether ‘Sirens’ was put together primarily as an outlet or form of therapy for Martin, or a one-size-fits-all meditative experience for attendees, I wonder if deafening sound is a useful avenue to pursue in attempting to remedy the remnants of our attention spans. Perhaps a bit of attentive listening, or even aural obliteration, can help mute the persistent need for maximum efficiency, as well as the endless rhythm of notifications, emails, and instant messages.

Term it whatever you’d like - obliteration by sound, reduced listening, mindfulness or meditation, but at the end of the day, it may provide a form of much-needed attention therapy. For most of those that pull out their phones, I assume documenting Martin tonight is probably a gesture of appreciation (and of course, part of the perpetual search for a dopamine hit). This addiction leaves many of us (myself included) needing some form of rehabilitation, as amidst the earth-shaking disorientation of ‘Sirens’, I’m stood wondering if the other audience members will be able to decipher any footage captured in this light, or how much of this bass drone (if at all) they’ll be able to hear from a smartphone - but of course that’s not the point.

The era we live in has seen reports of anxiety and depression skyrocket and in turn has birthed countless mindfulness apps, and a worrisome wellbeing industry. Numerous support groups have been created, dedicated the helping addicts ‘unplug’ and ‘switch off’. Products like Yondr have been marketed, and Apple has patented a technology to remotely deactivate iPhone cameras. Of course there’s also the more straightforward no-camera or no-phone policy, most often associated with Berghain (and less effectively, Phonox), and the earnest request by artists for smartphones to remain in pockets and bags. There is an abundant range of strategies to combat (or at least temporarily silence) the ever-enticing pull of a smartphone, but they’re simply bandages slapped on a symptom of a far more pressing condition.

It seems that there is a lack of therapies and remedies for shrinking attention spans and growing anxieties. I had thought that maybe what we really need is just 40 minutes of earth-shaking bass rumbles, but if art in the form of a good sensory pummeling isn’t enough to hold these first-world afflictions at bay for just over half an hour, what is?

Research of course has been done into the potentially meditative effects of sensory deprivation, and you can see some sort of response to this in a work like James Turrell’s Ganzfeld works. With The Bug’s performance, audience members are treated to something more akin to sensory overload, swallowed whole by some strange dream sequence; but while I thought that to feel something like this would be enough to draw one away from the pull of a smartphone, it seems that inevitably for some, it acts as all the more push towards it.

This frustration sits with me still a few days later in St John’s church in Hackney, where I’m listening to Morton Subotnick in the flesh and for a few moments, unable to take my eyes off of the man’s smartphone in front of me, as he scrolls through his Facebook feed. I find it difficult to believe that whatever that was on there really so pressing that it was more interesting and more rewarding than hearing Subotnick play a Buchla a mere two meters away.

At any time when I might find something arresting and wholly captivating, I’m too often drawn away by the audience member next to me, who’s watching videos of the gig that’s happening in front of them, and deleting the ones that aren’t up to scratch. It’s likely I’m just as bad for being drawn away, choosing to think more about what they’re up to than minding my own business and enjoying the music how I so badly want to. And it’s likely that I’m just as bad, as I skip back and forth across windows and tabs, between writing this to checking my emails and Whatsapps, glancing at half-read articles and half-listened-to mixes, all while compulsively flicking through my phone (whilst knowing that nothing has changed since I last reached for it).

Perhaps my sentiments can be considered dated, or even technophobic by some, but it’s no surprise to me that rates of anxiety and depression have soared among young people. Within an atmosphere of hyper-productivity and overstimulation, there’s a definite need to remedy attention spans and anxieties. While perhaps one work of art alone cannot do so, I hope that pieces like ‘Sirens’ are a step in this direction, and that arts can fulfill these needs. Though at the end of the day I suppose that whatever the qualm, an app will inevitably crop up to resolve it.

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