Words: Oscar Allan
Last month Sova Audio partnered with Harlesden High Street and Underground Flower for the Casting The Runes exhibition at 108 Fleet Street. The show collected works by 15 multidisciplinary artists (sculptors, painters, designers, sound artists, photographers, writers) and arranged them into a richly textured exploration of the self, the environment, and the immaterial spaces in which the two overlap.
Here I have to make a confession: I didn’t actually make it to this exhibition. The weekend before I was due to visit, the dastardly spectre of Covid swooped down upon me, filling my lungs, sinuses and brain cells with it’s enfeebling aura and frustrating social restrictions. So my experience of the show had to take a different form: Zoom conversations with the exhibition’s curator Arthur Poujois and featured artist Ewa Awe.
As Arthur kindly (or perhaps just sympathetically) pointed out, being led on an imagined tour of the exhibition space actually fits the concept behind Casting The Runes pretty well. “I wanted to do a show where the experience and the materiality of the things are no longer really the concept,” he told me. “The aim was to create a show that was less about the subject itself and the narrative, but more about orienting your own sense of representation.”
Representation comes up repeatedly in our chat. When I ask Arthur for his definition he describes it as “the rhythm of how you see things, combined with your language, your education. It’s about how that moment feels and is represented to yourself.” More specifically, the show explores the effect that automatisation has on representation - think chatbots and translation tools learning and warping our language; phone cameras contorting our features; search algorithms calculating our desires and offering up the perfect slice of cyber-pie to satisfy them. As Arthur explains, “I wanted to take into account that we are in an infinite chaos of images nowadays and look at how that influx is also influencing the act of representation itself.”
Ewa Awe’s contribution to the show examines this idea in an auditory sense, highlighting the interplay between the way we orientate ourselves within the world and the impression we take away. For her work, Of Perpetual 2021, she cooked up a shifting miasma of drones, bass tones and spectral flickers. This piece was augmented with real-time recordings of audience members taken from a microphone placed on the floor above and the result was then played through a 7-piece spatial audio system provided by Sova Audio, allowing Ewa to envelope the listener in a dizzying cacophony of sound and motion. The actions on the floor above feed into the experience below, blurring and questioning the boundaries between the visitors’ experience and the artwork itself.
Ewa tells me that the piece grew out of her interest in “ant mills, medieval dancing manias and other circular-collective-trance motions,” a theme ripe for the 360-degree audio treatment if ever there was one. However, the work also reflects Ewa’s interest in duality, as she explains: “I wanted to work with two elements and have two forces working on the audience at the same time, so I put in Shepherd tones which are supposed to induce anxiety for a lot of people, but then also tuned the whole piece to 432 Hz which is supposed to be a healing or calming frequency.”
Sat in isolation and listening to the piece (minus the live additions) through my headphones, the effect of the work was still powerful. It felt a bit like watching a foreign film without subtitles though - I get the gist and it's a beautiful, intense experience, but I can sense that I’m missing out on the full spectacle. The feeling is compounded by my chat with Ewa. “I welcome the audience into the whirlwind of sound, looking to achieve stillness at the centre of whirlpool, to feel inside the eye of the hurricane,” she tells me (at which point I really really start cursing the Covid).
So what, then, am I entitled to say about an exhibition I never physically experienced? The show exists in the material world but our representations of it do not, so are the thoughts, questions and reflections raised by my verbal walkthrough just as meaningful as those resulting from a real life wander? Maybe it’s the brain fog talking but I’m going to argue that they are. Casting The Runes made me examine the fallibility and subjective nature of our senses and impressions, and the fact that it did so without me ever setting foot in the gallery is a testament to all involved.