Swings And Roundabouts: At Sonica Festival, Glasgow

At Glasgow's Sonic Festival, Colm McAuliffe encounters work by Tim Humphrey and Madeleine Flynn plus Robbie Thomson and Alex Menzies

Pivot, photo credit: Gregory Lorenzutti

What’s the most appropriate verb to connote one’s movement on a seesaw? I can’t bring myself to saw I am ‘riding’ the seesaw as this feels too overt, too physical, too sexual. Am I ‘playing’ on the seesaw? This also feels wrong as it suggests an activity auxiliary to my movement on the seesaw itself. In fact, what I am doing is sat on a seesaw, in the centre of Glasgow, self-consciously barking questions and orders and demands: how does it feel to be a see-saw? Are you anything like Siri?

And the seesaw has no qualms in answering back. In fact, we embark on a fragmented conversation for the next five minutes or so whereby I get increasingly frazzled at the seesaw’s absurdist responses and begin to question myself: are my questions weird? Is the seesaw being weird? Does it not like me? Have I upset the seesaw? Why have a crowd of people gathered around me? Am I being weird?

Of course, a seesaw is a two-person operation and sat on the opposing side is Tim Humphrey whom, along with Madeleine Flynn, is responsible for this remarkable art-piece entitled Pivot which is tipping me over into public delirium. Pivot is installed in George Square, Glasgow, as part of the ever-enthralling Sonica art and music festival which regularly thrums out Europe’s most aesthetically and intellectually intoxicating performances and installations.

Pivot is a playground of ‘semi-intelligent’ seesaws, each with a separately pre-programmed AI which will engage you through responses which are probing, often hilarious – or, in my case, slightly withering – and even counselling, dependent on your questioning. The inner life of a seesaw has never been so fascinating: George Square quickly becomes a hub of seesaw superstars where the ‘riders’ are the performative act for those listening and watching in the adjoining areas. And Pivot is as rewarding an experience for children as much as adults; the space afforded by the interaction ensures a series of constant discursive disruptions and interruptions – the seesaw can respond with so-called “’adult” rejoinders to enquiries voiced by a child where the experience is still being led by the child. The seesaw’s gentle rhythm induces whooshes of delight which further encourages immediate responses bordering on automatic speech; play and performance and technology overlap and underlap in the public sphere.

Pivot most certainly works in practice but the key question is: does it work in theory? I cannot help but view Pivot as a form of literature both facilitating and critiquing language, blurring the boundaries between langue and parole in civic spaces.

“We could probably describe Pivot as a kind of Sprechstimme poetic excursion,” reflect Flynn and Humphrey (they share an e-mail address so I am assuming their answers were vocalised simultaneously), “that considers physical and textual rhythmic elements. But the idea of agent-facilitated texts as a kind of literature is also foremost in our minds as we develop the work: a wicked problem of texts that are found/repeated/quoted/continually added to… almost a literature that unfolds itself through a dialogue of offerings from us and others. We have imagined that this might be a new way of writing, but that might be just because we are not writers. Hopefully these intersections of text, and sonic sung tones [within the AI] work to establish Pivot as an art-piece, in situations that are outside of exhibition/gallery contexts.

“In a way we think of the field of seesaws in Pivot as an instrument that is played by an audience, with all the physical and sonic relationships which that understanding conjures.”

Yet Pivot remains a fundamentally joyous and incredibly relatable art piece. The seesaws differing characters reflect an “absurd idiocy” but retain a different character, with a different collection of responses, attitudes, characteristics of tonality, and associated different accents, both sonic and contextual. But the aim is not just to provoke conversation or even deconstruct conversation; Pivot achieves its strength and heft as an agent of empathy, a resource for resolution through irreverent and peaceful dialogue, a wonderfully humane rejoinder to the endless, narcissist phatic of social media driven monologue.

Portal, photo credit: Robbie Thomson

The second highlight of Sonica was to be found tucked away in a tunnel passage underneath the streets of Govan. Portal, ostensibly, is the work of multimedia artist Robbie Thomson and composer Alex Menzies but the two temporarily re-imagined themselves as modernist archaeologists, transforming the 728-metre length of the Clyde Tunnel into a sci-fi underpass replete with whizzing robots, severed heads and tectonic beats.

The linear trajectory of the walk is somewhat to the detriment of any real surprising elements but this was a richly installed installation across the breadth of the tunnel and the harsh concrete of the surroundings are made for light installations such as this. The smooth yet cracked surfaces became canvases for the coloured luminescence of the lightworks. To move through the Clyde Tunnel is to move through a structure made of light and colour.

While this collision of fluorescent robotics and aural correlatives never quite transcended the surroundings; on walking through the installation, you were always aware that this was still, in effect, a tunnel and everything else – the bursts of light, the portentous techno, the underwater illusions – were merely accoutrements. But Portal works wonderfully well when viewed as a sort of subterranean, high-camp world existing entirely separate from inner Govan. The automatic doors on entry, rampant artifice, theatricality of the prostate skulls flickering in and out of focus and not least the bathos in emerging from the tunnel out into the drab concrete of the Govan Road combined to make Portal a – perhaps unwitting – exercise in pleasure and depreciation.

But this is typical of the glorious ambition of Sonica. As a festival it’s simply too multifarious to be fall under simple classifications of art and music but it’s difficult to overstate how vital the festival is to the advancement of ideas and concepts, the presentation of theory (through seesaws!) in a context of compassion and understanding and consistently promoting the advancement of local artists such as Thomson and Menzies. Indeed, Sonica, on aesthetic, methodological and even ethical levels, forms a compelling argument for entirely stepping outside of the staid canvases, white cubes and black boxes of mainstream culture as a whole and re-imagining your local tunnel, playground, or riverside district town as a site for all kinds of unimaginable rupture and rapture.

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