London Word Festival
Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton’s The Quiet Volume strikes me as the best audio-based autoteatro to date. It marks a return to simplicity for the form, or an application of things learnt, rather than an experiment pushing at its edges. As such, there is a confidence and control that has, at times, evaded this embryonic form.
A travelling installation, The Quiet Volume perches in the corners of libraries, tucked, perhaps, into the reference section, or else, maybe folded amidst the non-fiction shelves. It consists of a table with two places marked, each facing outwards to allow a view of one’s environment. Two piles of books sit aside a single book. Two people, most likely friends, side aside one another.
The Quiet Volume offers a fresh perspective, initially, on the library as an environment or species of space, but, increasingly, on the reading experience itself. Really that perspective is more refreshed than fresh, as The Quiet Volume operates almost as a palette cleanser, erasing the habitual mode of seeing that has become cluttered with everyday assumptions. That’s achieved by breaking the perceived whole down into its constituent parts and enabling individual elements to be considered in turn. First, the symphony of different noises that pass for silence: scraping chairs, spluttering throats, swishing pages, singular ringtones, airy whispers and the occasional bang that breaks of the peace. Later, the book as object rather than text: we notice, in turn, its texture, weight, patterns and shapes. The excess information one has suppressed for everyday purposes is here highlighted.
More than any other medium, the audio guide has the ability to get inside your head. Its content is formed of implanted thoughts. They may not be your own, but they exist in the same mental space; they feel the same. It is as if the artist is working with fluffy thought bubbles.
For that reason, the audio guide is the ideal format for refocusing one’s perspective of normality. It enables the artist’s carefully-considered cogitations to feel like the spectator’s casual inspirations. Here, that’s pitched rather perfectly, given that it deals in the sort of hazy half-thoughts that bug you in the bath: ‘How does a system of language start?’ or ‘Backwards, the word ‘lived’ spells ‘devil.’ The text, however, crystallises them exquisitely. They talk of reharvesting the ink from all the books around you. Or else of sorting the individual words into individual drawers, some vast and unopenable, some like matchboxes.
Its biggest strength, however, is the manner in which all this introspection so aptly matches the reading experience itself. The increased presence needed to keep up with the audiotrack reflects back onto reading as an activity. Word by word, each is taken in turn. Fingers scan pages, images are constructed and forgotten, focus drifts or gets dragged elsewhere. A book, you realise, occurs in time.
That time is, of course, your time and, once again, the audio guide as form replicates reading. Both are, essentially, private mediums. The audio guide, like the book, functions as an alternative frequency. Bodily, one might remain in the everyday sphere, but mentally, one is elsewhere, tuned out. Readers, as the track puts it, are dreaming in public. So, in a funny way, are those of us in headphones. Only more alertly than sleepily.
Technically, The Quiet Volume is superb. The throughline of its audiotrack is the smoothest yet. Etchells and Hampton direct your awareness gently between distinct elements. The track segues softly from ear to eye, the voice that you heard suddenly, seamlessly picked up by the page that you’ve turned. Or else it sweeps from deep introspection to a consideration of those around you. Foreground blurs into background, just as a camera shifts focus. This motion, forward and backwards like a the smooth jerks of a jellyfish, provides a vital sense of journey. From our position, seated and still, we are allowed to roam: a sendentary safari of a municipal space.
The Quiet Volume feels to me both a treasure and a tool. It will leave you desperate to fall into a good book. Its celebration of libraries, though initially atmospheric, is wholly related to their purpose as houses of books. For that reason, rather than anything anecdotal or circumstantial, they feel special. And yet, one realises that they are an endangered species. Not only as a result of the Conservative-led cuts to social services, but – more damagingly – the process of migration that is converting information into digital and virtual formats. Before long, none of this will exist and The Quiet Volume will make little sense. It will be archeological evidence for a future puzzle. What, they will ask a thousand years hence, was a book?