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More Bounce To The Ounce: Anna Meredith's Music For Dodgems
Robert Barry , July 31st, 2021 09:32

An installation of bumper cars that generate music by Anna Meredith has taken over the Somerset House quadrangle

If you’ve ever wondered how it feels to play pinball machines from the perspective of the ball then Anna Meredith’s new installation could be just the thing for you. Currently inhabiting Somerset House’s ornate Georgian courtyard, Dodge offers up an old fairground favourite with a difference. Imagine an episode of the Fast & Furious franchise confined to a 360 square-foot marquee with a red and yellow candy-striped roof and a swirling, kaleidoscopic electronic soundtrack that’s constantly leaping between keys, time signatures, and tempi. Imagine conducting your own orchestra of synthesizers with a bumper car instead of a baton. Playful, psychedelic, rambunctious and just a little bit silly, Dodge is a hell of a ride.

With a little help from fellow Somerset House Studios resident Nick Ryan, Meredith has taken a standard dodgems ride that will be familiar from your local town funfair and hacked it, replacing the usual jangle of half-forgotten early 90s chart smashes with a specially composed score that is transformed and re-structured in real-time by the interactions between the careening cars themselves. “There is a small box inside of each dodgem,” Ryan explains. “This box contains an impact sensor and a wifi transmitter, and when the dodgem bumps in to another dodgem, this is detected by the sensor, which triggers a signal to be sent to the control system via an access point on site via wifi. Each of these boxes have a unique code, so the control system is able to recognise which dodgem has made an impact on the track.

“Anna Meredith has composed eighteen different pieces of music to correspond to the eighteen different dodgems on our track here,” he continues, “and this set-up means that the impact of the cars controls the performance, i.e., Bumper Car 1 hits another bumper car and changes so that [track] 1 starts playing and so forth. And on top, this also corresponds with the lighting sequence around the building, so the dodgem drivers can physically affect both change in music and lighting through their individual impacts.”

The work is in situ at Somerset House throughout the summer with a programme of DJs amping up the vibes in the evening. Meredith’s score is also being released on a lucky dip of different coloured vinyl records by Moshi Moshi under the title Bumps Per Minute: 18 Studies For Dodgems. I caught up with Meredith at the opening night to ask her about the ideas behind the piece and how it all came together in the first place.

Photo by Stephen Chung

“So my studio is here in Somerset House,” Meredith explains to me in the lobby as hordes of merry riders smash gleefully into each other just outside, “and Jonathan Reekie – who’s chief exec here – I think I bumped into him in a corridor around fourteen months ago or something, when we still didn’t have a clue what was happening. And I was saying to him, what’s the year going to be like for you? Are you still going to do ice skating? And he said, I don’t think so. Then suddenly there was that ping, that light bulb thing: you should do dodgems!”

For twenty years now, Somerset House’s quadrangle has hosted an ice rink for the colder months. It’s become a defining feature of the venue’s winter season, one fondly remembered and looked froward to by many. But in the context of a global pandemic, a courtyard full of people lunging into each other, falling over and picking each other up with no more protection than a pair of mittens and a heavy coat somehow didn’t feel wise. A bumper car ride offered a way to make use of the big flat space while confining everyone to their own motorised bubble. “I’d kind of had it in my head for a while,” Meredith continues, “but it just suddenly popped in that it would be perfect here. And then I was like, and you could make a really good musical installation out of it.” Originally planned for January, to take the place of the ice rink, the Conservative government’s Christmas wrapped surge in Covid cases put the kibosh on that, so now it’s here for the summer. “Which, in a way,” says Meredith, “I think is kind of better.”

Growing up in South Queensferry in the east of Scotland, fondly remembers going to the fun fair as a kid. “The shows, we’d call it. It’d be a big deal and you’d talk about it for weeks before it arrived, which rides you were going to go on and would you be brave enough to go on the scary ones. And you’d get there and the music would be different. The smells would be different. It was like one week of the year which would be cool and sexy.” But only recently has she got into riding big rollercoasters “which I was too wussy to do when I was younger.

“I love stuff that’s a bit physically playful,” she tells me. “It engages me a bit more. Not too passive.” Which all sounds to me like a pretty good description of Meredith’s music. But composing for a dodgems ride created a whole new set of problems to solve. “Normally when I write, I do a lot of planning of material, and there’s quite a lot of long-form process and things have multiple sections and changes of feel, whereas here I know you’re probably not going to hear anything for more than ten or fifteen seconds. So it was a different challenge in a way, because I had to make sure that each new piece arrives fully-formed, blasting down the doors like somebody’s drunk uncle. They had to feel completely themselves from the off and not be waiting for some big reveal or culmination or climax.

Photo by Stephen Chung

“In a way, I had to fast-forward to the point I might reach later in another piece and make it right at the start And that was quite freeing, because a lot of these tracks are quite silly or playful and I might not normally have considered that as a main track because it wouldn’t work in a structure. But here, some of them are quite uneven or lumpen or a bit disjointed and they work as contrasts to the more frenetic pieces. I also know I wanted them to be all-electronic, no beats, no vocals, no acoustic elements. I wanted that playful, fairground vibes but quite off-kilter.”

Over the last few decades, a great deal of contemporary art has been getting more playful, more interactive – more “relational”, in Nicolas Bourriaud’s term. Anna Meredith is far from the only recent artist to pick up on the potential of those “fairground vibes” – from Bruce Nauman’s work with clowns and mirrors to Carsten Holler’s slides and gravitrons, to Tate Modern’s (2014) installation Up Hill Down Hall: An indoor carnival, curated by Claire Tancons. The art world has been embracing the carnivalesque to such an extent that the difference between the Frieze fair and the fancy fair could soon disappear entirely. “I’ve always wanted to do something less passive,” Meredith tells me. “With music, when I’m writing, I’m always trying to think about what’s overwhelming, what jumps out, what musical ideas are really dominating – and that marries quite well with physically dominating experiences. For a while I was going to write something for a rollercoaster and that would be my dream.” Some may dismiss Dodge for a perceived frivolity or lack of seriousness, claiming its hip interactiveness is no substitute for deep thought and critical ideas. But for those willing to lean in to its fantasy, to hop on board and let go of their inhibitions, it’s sure to be a heap of fun – not to mention featuring some of the wildest and weirdest music you’re likely to hear anywhere in Zone One for the foreseeable.

Dodge is at Somerset House until 22 August