e-Xploring East London

By Laura Sullivan, 10 February 2004

Last November the art group e-Xplo guided visitors to East London in a nightly 'part bus tour, part electro-acoustic music performance and part public talk'. Laura Sullivan, as a newcomer to the city and one of the passengers, explores how this guided encounter with the ubiquitous dumps and visible social divisions challenged the tourist's idealised picture of London

As I don’t often find postmodern art pieces particularly enlightening or engaging, I’d gone along somewhat reluctantly to what I’d been told was ‘an art experience on a bus’. The artists who collaborated on this venture, Erin McGonigle, Heimo Lattner, and Rene Gabri, call themselves e-Xplo (as in e-Xplorations, e-Xplode and the like). Their ‘found wanting: sometimes I tend to monumentalize things I see’ is a performance piece, a simulation of a bus tour, minus the usual bus driver or tour guide’s voiceover, which typically circumscribes the range of meanings likely to be attached to the scenes viewed from the bus windows. In Image-Music-Text, Roland Barthes discusses the way that textual captions of photographs ‘anchor’ the meaning(s) of the visual texts, for example in print advertisements or newspaper photos. In a typical city tour, the guide’s narrative provides this anchoring to the sights the viewer consumes. Also missing here are the verbal cues about where to look, no ‘If you look to the left, ladies and gentlemen, you can see the so-and-so building, famous for...’.

What is offered in place of the tour guide’s narration and directiveness? Soundscapes, tones, rhythms, snippets of recorded conversations and interviews, excerpts of passages read from well-known literary works, and combinations of these layers. The viewer-passenger, as a result, is left to figure out where to focus her attention, visually and aurally. Initially, I had moments of looking frantically back and forth out of the left and right bus windows, until I realized I was framing my experience in terms of the ‘tourist’ not wanting to ‘miss something’ and not sure what the ‘something’ was exactly that I wouldn’t want to miss. Once I surrendered to the uncertainty of the experience, allowing my eyes to wander over whatever attracted my attention and allowing my ears to take in the sounds without searching for direction, I felt simultaneously a peacefulness as well as the excitement of actively putting together my own sense of meaning and affect.

The images streamed by, a series of pub/shop/caff/bar/shop, an ornate set of buildings of undiscernible function, a deserted road with landfills and dumps, skyscraper offices with twinkling windows. As someone not that familiar with East London, I had little point of reference to use to interpret these scenes but recognized that a ‘native’ would have whole histories and understandings to bring to bear on what these locales and sights ‘meant’. One scene was especially striking and required little explanation: a refrigerator dump. It was used as the piece’s publicity image on the artists’ web site and flyers, and I could see why, as it was quite arresting and disturbing, as well as beautiful. The sublimity of the image was both emotionally moving and yet not quite able to lead the viewer to repress the political and ecological ramifications: towers of hundreds of white refrigerators says more about the ‘waste’ of the current consumer society than any statistic, hitting the viewer in the gut. And that was the power of this piece overall, a fascinating and affecting juxtaposition of not only aural and visual, but also of critical reflection and emotion, a performance informed by postmodern theories and perspectives but lacking both the apolitical quality and lack of emotionality of most postmodern art experiences.

As the ‘tour’ progressed, I allowed the ambient and vocal sounds emanating from the back of the bus to similarly wash over me, and eventually I found myself focusing specifically on the sound-image relationship. I understood that there was a random element in the sound production but nevertheless would end up working to attach a meaning or affect to a moment, for example ‘reading’ a collection of sounds as signaling ‘danger,’ ‘haunting’ or ‘sadness’ and looking around to see what was depressing, frightening, or sadly impoverished about the corresponding landscape. However, not only did the ambient sounds provide no direct anchoring of meaning for the scenery through which we traveled, but unlike the film soundtrack – the codes of whose cues I was obviously reading into the situation – the sounds more often than not suggested some kind of provocative dissonance, a curious and interesting mix, literally. An ‘ordinary’ high street is experienced uniquely when accompanied by music or sound that typically would be paired with a scene of pathos or danger in a film or television text. As we were driven past a shop-filled back street of East London, sombre or ominous music gave the setting and buildings a darker edge, which only reinforced the overall surrealistic sense of the experience. This sense was also very much reinforced by the timing of the particular performance I attended: the final ‘tour’ on a Sunday night, 10.40 pm by the time we got rolling from Whitechapel, not the usual time for an art performance much less a ‘city tour’. It meant we had most of the streets to ourselves, and the absence of pedestrians increased the sense of unreality, the sense of the landscape as an object to be consumed, the people who normally populate these streets to be filled in by our imaginations.

What was most intriguing and, if I may say, fun about the experience was the multiplicity of the process of reception. My listening – and my attempts to make sense of the sounds and visuals together – became, necessarily, layered. For me, this layeredness was most pronounced when the audio included something explicitly verbal, an excerpt from a street interview with a group of children, for example. Dialectically I went back and forth from attempting to analyze or interpret the visual and verbal texts themselves as well as how they functioned collectively, to receiving them on a more experiential and emotional level.

When there was no obvious correlation between the recorded words being broadcast in the sound mix and the passing city scenery, my attention settled in to this doubleness. I was still occasionally pulled to go into the words, to imagine visually the scene (I ‘saw’ the children being interviewed in a park or playground, green grass all around them) or to analyze or reflect upon the points being made.

The beginning of any verbal portion of the soundscape would make me immediately stop and try to figure out who was speaking and in what context. One spoken passage was from an interview with a Greek man who began to wax philosophically about the dangers of the lottery, and his comments became quite political in nature, an attack on the economic harm of the lottery system and its deliberate targeting of and profiting from working class people. I was surprised and, given my own political predilections, pleased to note this explicitly political set of remarks, but then I soon became aware that I was not seeing anything around me, having retreated to my ‘head’ to listen and think. I didn’t want to give into that pull – the bus was moving, after all, and I wanted to see everything we passed (the curiosity of the ‘tourist’ not fully abandoned).

There could have been more levels to take in as well. When the bus stopped to allow the ‘tourists’ to take a break, my boyfriend and his friend commented that the sound of the bus itself was a strong presence and they would’ve liked to have seen that sound incorporated more directly into the piece. I thought this would’ve taken things a bit too far, as I felt I already had plenty of layers of both sight and sound to attend to, but when we got back on the bus and the tour resumed, I then couldn’t not notice the bus sound, a steady hum undergirding the music, sounds, noises, and vocal recordings being ‘played’ from the rear, so perhaps they had a point.

The break: I should talk about this. Forty-five minutes into the tour, the bus stopped. Unceremoniously and with no announcement, we departed the bus, and it wasn’t clear to me if this break was planned, or if it was part of each tour or not. The break was surreal, as we parked in front of a huge building, around 11.15 pm, a giant Waitrose store and food hall lit up behind huge windows. So we ventured inside to find all the stores closed but some janitors and cleaners who were kind enough to direct us to toilets. Our interactions with these workers made me think even more: had the artists planned these? Were they trying to make a point about the ‘alienation of labor’ or about other dimensions of this type of work (all the cleaning folks were people of color)? Were they wanting us to experience the disjuncture between the ‘privileged’ tourist and the invisible work that goes on to sustain such privilege? I’m not sure. Either way, intentional or not, these connections were obvious. I was feeling so much by that point, the urgency of needing to find a loo completely overshadowed by the sadness and that slight tug of liberal guilt that is the hallmark of particular class and race identities, and by the rage and disgust I felt at having to trounce through the kind of place I usually avoid like the plague: a giant series of generic shops with garish neon signs and blinding bright colors. I thought: this is in part what I came to London to escape from, the urban malls that are so ubiquitous in the States, the homogenization, the ‘newness’, the insularity, and the frighteningly ugly colors. I felt also a bit angry then at the artists – irrationally so, I recognize – for making me face an aspect of my anglophilia, the way I fetishize London, in particular, as ‘better’ than US cities, as less boring, more ‘beautiful’, more progressive and so on. I came face to face with my participation in a kind of elitism, a preference for the (often carefully cultivated) ‘old’ neighborhood look and ‘individualism’ of the corner shop over the massive mall experience which I grew up consuming voraciously. Clearly I’m in a state of conflict with a former self, the teenager who thought that ‘the mall’ was ‘the coolest’ place to be on a Friday night.

Back on the bus, only 10-15 minutes later the tour was over. I was disappointed to find that the break was not temporally symmetrical, not dividing the tour into equal halves, as I’d been looking forward to another half an hour or so of the kind of ‘tour’ on which we’d been taken. By then I was acclimatized to the tour’s rhythms and sensory/interpretive possibilities and I wanted more. I had fun and enjoyed the doubleness and even tripleness of reception the piece provoked and I look forward to seeing what e-Xplo come up with next. In review-speak, heartily recommended.

e-Xplo's coming series of auditory city tours will be taking place in the end of May 2004 in Williamstown, Massachusetts: