Robert Reid and Sayraphim Lothian attend an intriguing auditory experience for children, I Am Hear, without a child
It’s immediately noticeable is that I don’t have a child with me. This is why Sayra came along, as a way to at least partially legitimise my presence at this event. When I turn up, all of six foot four, fading black eye, greying buzzcut and dressed like a pile of rags, all adult eyes slide suspiciously towards me and my jarring lack of minor. Sayra speaks for me and the venue staff hurriedly consult with the artists and it’s all smoothed out. We enter together.
For obvious reasons, the people who made this magical, safe, creative space for 7-12 year olds are wary of me. If I were running the event, I’d be wary of me too. Still, assumptions are revealed here at the threshold.
Once the show begins, the 10 or so children and their few guardians are explained how the event will go. There will be noises, and a blindfold and then the kids will do a little performing for the parents… So, is this how it’s a work for both children and adults together? I’m no expert, I’ll be the first to admit, in how children process creativity or how they play (with each other or with adults). I do know, however, that learning a set of actions, rehearsing and then repeating them for a non-participating audience is not an act of co creation.
Once introduced, we are welcomed into a second room, divided up by heavy black felt. This helps to dampen the sound from outside, which is good because there is a surprising amount of sound leak in the waiting room.
The adults are ushered to a waiting room, just outside the performance area (which has been boxed off with the curtains). The children go with the performers. Sayra and I make an instant decision that it would be better for the sole unaccompanied middle-aged man with a sticking plaster on his head to play the role of the adult, and so she goes in to report on the first half, designed for the children.
So I’m gonna hand over to her for a bit.
We enter the space and there’s a series of small wooden blocks the size of milk creates arranged in a circle. Each block has a blindfold resting on it and the three adult performers help the kids tie theirs on. One girl has bought her teddy bear in and they carefully tie a blindfold on it too. The performance begins with a voice telling us the shortest version of the Echo and Narcissus story. A young woman named Echo went into the woods and fell in love with Narcissus but could only repeat his words and faded away. Narcissus looked into a pond and fell in love with his own reflection. Then the sound performance starts.
The performers move among us, making noises, rattles, skritching and scrunching sounds. I try to associate the sounds with the story we’ve just heard – there could be someone walking through snow, there might be an owl call – but most are unrelated as far as I can figure. I wait for the next bit of the story, maybe that will help me understand what the noises are. After about five minutes I realise that there isn’t any more story, and the performance is just sound now.
An electronic female voice asks “is anybody there?”, which is repeated through various speakers around the room. It makes me wonder if, when Echo can only repeat what other people say, whose voice she repeats them in, theirs or her own. Does it still sound like her when she says it, or is it a proper echo that sounds like the original speaker?
Other than that it’s just all noises. A whirring sound, a rolling sound, some others I can’t quite identify. The performance is billed as being for kids between 7 and 12 years old, but I feel that this experience is too abstract for kids to follow as a story. Kids are smart, but they need a thread to follow, especially in an unfamiliar setting like a story told through purely sound. The thread disappeared as soon as the spoken words stopped. (The temptation to use the phrase “breadcrumbs” was pretty strong here, but as I Am Hear went with a mythical story and not a fairy tale, I fought it off).
After a while the space falls silent and then there’s a big crash like someone dropped a xylophone. All the kids jump, and so do I. The performers tell us we can take off our blindfolds and the one behind me remarks “that was unexpected, wasn’t it!” I can’t tell if that was the end of the performance or if they actually dropped something, but I suspect the latter. One of the performers asks the children if they could hear the story unfolding in the noises. A little girl shrugs and says quietly “not really”. The performers don’t respond; instead they tell us the that the next part of the performance will be the parents coming in and being blindfolded and that the kids will get to make the noises for their parents.
Outside, the adults and I wait patiently. Some are accompanied by children who didn’t go in to the performance – I don’t know why. They all chat quietly. The waiting chat. Hushed, under their breath, parents making plans, parents keeping non-participating children entertained.
And outside that, beyond the walls of Artplay, there are the noises of the day. Passers-by, traffic, and mostly children. Children running and laughing and screaming. Climbing and playing on the playset outside Artplay and running in the sunset of one of the first nice days of spring. It gets into everything, buzzes under everything. I wonder if this is a problem. After all, this is an audio installation. Are the sounds we’re beginning to hear creep from inside the black curtained room to work with this blanket of aural chaos?
The sweep of the noises coming from the room with the children swells and becomes more complex. Rhythmical sounds, rattling and crackling, hissing and whistling all build in crescendos of emergent rhythm and melody and fill the available space, including our waiting room. Gradually everyone waiting falls silent. The feet continue throughout (and will for the whole of the performance)…dull thuds at intervals that seem disturbingly random but in fact are following their own internal logic, the logic of the sound effects guy and the production team making the show go.
Outside there are coming and goings in the waiting room that accompany these footfalls. But all falls away as the cacophony rises. Never loud enough to drown out competing noises, but complex enough to demand the competitors attention. We hush to hear it. To make sense of it.
The parents are taken into the space, blindfolded by their child (Sayra did this for me obviously) and led by the hand into the next room to sit and listen.
In darkness the noises return. There’s no story with them this time, they’re just the noises. I’m not alone in trying to guess what they are. Marbles dropped into china tea cups, crinkling tin foil, the intruding foot traffic. With the absence of dramatic, or at least narrative, context the exercise resolves into an attempt to identify the sounds. It’s interesting to hear the directionality of hearing, that deprived of sight the ears adjust and I can hear distance and direction. Noises come from further away and move closer, they pass from right to left, or circle me. I’m looking for more than this, but I don’t find it.
Maybe it’s more engaging if you can see the wonder in your child’s eyes as they produce these magical sounds for you. If so, blindfolding us seems like a critical mistake.
At the conclusion we’re relieved of our blindfolds and the children are encouraged to talk with their adults about the noises they made. A mother next to me says she was consumed with trying to work out what the noises were, like I was. It strikes me that, for the parents, the enchantment of this event has been stripped out and I can’t help but wonder, once again, if a more radical act of co-creation might not have been more magical.
Adults need to experience wonder alongside children as well, not simply observe the children experience it. I simply don’t understand why the parents didn’t have the story elements. As minimal as it was in Sayra and the kids experience, there’s no real reason for it to be absent from ours.
I can see a great value in giving children the chance to experience the magic of illusion, and then to be shown its workings and given the power to wield it to enchant others. How this can be effectively achieved when the experiences of child and adult are so fundamentally different fails me. As with much of the interactive work I’ve seen this festival, I think much greater attention needs to be given to the dramaturgy of the participant experiences.
With Sayraphim Lothian
I Am Hear, by Aviva Endean and Justin Marshall. At ArtPlay as part of Melbourne Fringe, XS program.