Thursday, 3 December 2009

Thoughts From An Anechoic Chamber

Pascal famously wrote in the Pensées, "J’ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre" (I have discovered that all of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room*). This has never been my problem. Especially if the room contains a bed. You might say I have done my bit for global peace and harmony by keeping a low profile.
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy serenity and people become just.
I do nothing and people become wealthy.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
That's what I tell my staff, anyway, when they ask why they haven't had this year's appraisal yet.

Yesterday, I was doing my best to sit quietly in a large room -- having my morning coffee break in the Staff Club -- when something unusual happened: a young woman came up to me and asked if she could talk. It turned out she was a Belgian art student on an exchange visit, who was running a project which involved getting people to sit in an anechoic chamber for 15 minutes, allowing whatever altered state that might induce to occur, and then photographing them in the immediate aftermath of the experience. She had noticed me sitting there, and wondered if I would volunteer to be a subject?

After sorting away this novel ice-breaker in my memory for possible future use, I agreed. I've always been a fan of altered states, and this sounded intriguing. So, this morning I found myself being led to a chair in what must be one of the odder rooms in the University. An "anechoic chamber" is a sort of large padded cell, in which the walls are covered with protruding wedges of cloth-covered foam, quite pleasingly arranged, with the intention of suppressing all echoes and ambient noise. As -- in this one at any rate -- the wedges are nicely irregular and organic looking, it's a bit like sitting inside an installation by Louise Bourgeois. Or being digested by some gigantic predatory soft toy.

I was shown the panic button, and the padded door was shut, rolling slowly forward on its rails. I sat there quietly for 15 minutes. I clicked my fingers a few times to check what it sounded like: it was rather like being underwater. The deadness of the sound reminded me very much of one summer in France when my ears became completely blocked with wax. After a while I noticed with pleasure that the acronym "ISVR" (Institute of Sound and Vibration Research) had been picked out in 10 foot high capitals by placing black wedges among the beige ones. Nice touch. I found my tinnitus was being less intrusive than I had anticipated. I noticed the remnants of previous, scientific uses of the chamber, in the form of dangling wires, bits of string, and chalkmarks on the floor. There were no scattered human bones, or scribbled appeals for mercy that I could see. It was entirely benign; with a book, I'd happily have spent the morning in there. I did wonder whether I was being secretly filmed, so refrained from doing anything that might embarrass me in years to come on You've Been Framed. As I'd been told to do whatever I wanted or felt like, I did consider lying down, but didn't want to get chalk all over me.

Then the door rolled back, and I was led -- wordlessly and non-directively, apart from a whispered "You OK?" -- to another chair, this time in front of a plain white backdrop, and a medium-format Bronica on a large tripod. It was at this point I realised the project was doomed. Not only was the anechoic chamber not remotely disorientating or upsetting or exhilarating or anything much, but the photographic setup was so stiffly restrictive and formal that it was obvious the poor girl was going to get nothing more interesting than passport photos. I had expected something rather more Avedonian, where a subject's involuntary whole-body language and expression would get a chance to betray inner turmoil, or deep peace, or something. Instead, I was sitting on an uncomfortable plastic stool, and being asked to turn my head a bit more to the left, look down, focus on something -- hold it. It was about as spontaneous as getting an x-ray at the dentist.

I filled out and signed the model release form (which, oddly, asked for my union representation), exchanged a few pleasantries -- I'd revealed I was also a bit of a photographer - and went back to work. I felt slightly sorry for this student: she'd come all the way from Belgium to study at Bournemouth University, devised a project and arranged access to a scientific facility at Southampton University, plucked up the courage to approach complete strangers to take part in the project, and come away with -- well, what? Some headshots of random people sitting in front of a blank backdrop, by the look of it.

Now, if there is one thing photography is not very good at, it's seeing inside another person's head. It can be quite revealing of what is in the photographer's head, and it's extremely good at reflecting back at us whatever we project onto its subjects. But, I would bet a large sum of money that a posed photograph of me (having sat in an anechoic chamber for 15 minutes) is pretty indistinguishable from a posed photograph of me (having sat in a dark cupboard for 15 minutes) or me (having listened to 15 minutes of white noise) or me (having listened to 15 minutes of amplified insane laughter). I'd go further, and say that any differences between them could in no way be attributed to the experience that had preceded their creation (unless that experience had been 15 minutes in the ring with a heavyweight boxer).

It's why we pay actors large sums of money. They can "do" pretend feelings on their faces, which we can read, provided we share a common cultural background. But the cues that, in real life, tell us a person is upset, ecstatic, or bored are very subtle, are not in the main visual, and don't translate well into the two dimensions of still photography.

I'm no educator, but I'd say this project was flawed in its conception, and whoever is supervising this student should have spotted that, and done something about it. Given that art is about lies (hey, ask Plato) you'd have thought it would be just as (un)interesting to fake the whole damn thing: set up a set of bland portraits and tell the viewer, "These people were previously waterboarded for 15 minutes in the name of art -- check the suppressed anguish in their faces!" How could anyone tell the difference?

The caption game is very interesting when played with photos. You can create whole new layers of interest and meaning with them. I'll never forget being at a critique session where someone showed a series of large-format views of slightly run-down and deserted playgrounds in an overcast, wintry light -- forlorn swings, puddle-filled potholes, odd bits of debris here and there, and so on. The collective yawn was transformed into electrified attention when the photographer announced: "These playgrounds are all in Bosnia, taken on a visit in 1994, mainly around Sarajevo but also in Banja Luka, Mostar and Tezla..."

I suppose the lesson was that although some photography is about "location, location, location" all photography is about "projection, projection, projection". For all I know, the bit about Bosnia was a lie, but it did engage our attention on what turned out to be some quite interesting photographs. We were suddenly pleased by what we could construct for ourselves, from the echoes the images were reflecting back at us from our own minds. But if they hadn't been interesting pictures (to look at) the effect would have been short-lived.

The problem with the "conceptual" diet art students seem currently to be digesting, is that the caption (in other words, the devising and description of a clever-sounding project) seems to have taken over from the picture. It's all sizzle, no bacon. Or, perhaps I should say it's the very opposite of the anechoic chamber -- all echo, no sound.

* Actually, I have just discovered that, in contemporary French, "faire un malheur" means "to be a smash hit" (as in "son dernier album a fait un malheur" -- his last album was a smash hit). I doubt Pascal had this in mind, but it would be interesting to know how much smirking goes on when a French teen reads this particular bit of sententiousness.

2 comments: said...

In Art the Study begins after the studies, as Sir Joshua Reynolds would have said.

Kent Wiley said...

Wow, another great story Mike.