Introduction: ‘Secret Show’ took place on the 5th of April 2012. Participants were led blindfolded to an unknown location in Birmingham city centre where they sat and experienced a sonic installation of particular brutality and beauty. No clues as to the authors or nature of the performance was revealed until two days later in the form of an online post with images and some brief text.
James Smith: I was invited to the performance and spoke to a range of people who also attended; reactions have been somewhat mixed. Predictably confusion was the main reaction, including my own. I really enjoyed the sonic experience, but only once I had figured out that is why I was there! In retrospect, and in conversation with one of the authors James Webb, the piece has revealed its inner workings and some very interesting ideas about art making and the staging of live experiences. Below are some notes that both I and James Webb have written in response to the work.
In some ways I think that being an editor of any kind of material is a lot like being an artist, you have a given amount of stuff, maybe let’s call it ‘evidence of thinking’ with which you can reveal to your audience to create an article. Where it differs from being an artist is that artists can consciously weave fictions and narratives with that thinking; as an editor your job is to economically reveal a story, to unravel the artist’s thinking, illuminate and expand it.
Where does the audience sit in relation to these two positions’
I have had the pleasure of being both an audience member, at times unwitting confident of the secret show and finally the editor of some kind of response! We have to acknowledge that, due to its laser-like focus on creating a personal and un-relatable experience, this is very hard. What is left is the discussions of the conditions of what happened.
Although somehow I want to work against this, I’d like to make the secret show, more secret, like you did James, to remove evidence, confuse, and send the audience down the wrong path’ (Hence the limited number of images associated with this article).
The most important issue it revealed to me is how much expectation we hold within ourselves when approaching work. I had never considered how pervasive it was. I was unconsciously reading into the situation anything I could. Because you had removed all the usual elements associated with experiencing a work, title, artists, dates, I found myself focusing on the smallest detail and enlarging it into a significant element of the experience. I couldn’t help myself.
I do think this was a valuable experience, it has revealed to me conditions of experience I had never been aware of.
James Webb: I don’t want to give too much away. The main thing to say is that this is a collaborative work between Francisco López and myself. I see it as an intervention crossed with a performance. I am also well aware that López might see this work differently to me, though I believe it’s fair to say that this project is a marriage of our individual practices. López’s music work is extremely powerful and I can’t imagine working with another sound artist on a show like this. The sound has a genuine physical character; it is spatial and vast, full of rich dynamics. In a conventional concert, to augment the experience for the listener and to contextualise the immersive and abstract sound world that he creates, López discusses his unique sonic approach and provides blindfolds for the audience. However, for the first manifestation of our project, when I invited López to present a concert in Cape Town in September 2007, unbeknownst to him at the time, I had already arranged an audience but had not told them what they were going to experience. For all I knew, they had never been exposed to experimental music of any kind. The audience were blindfolded at their respective meeting points, without knowledge as to what would occur that evening, and then transported to an undisclosed location. There, the concert proceeded, playing to a room of blindfolded people until it was time for them to depart whereupon they were taken back home, had their blindfolds removed and were told nothing as to what had happened that evening. These conditions are to allow each guest to contain and to develop the private experience they have in the event. The lack of context, just like the removal of sight, allows for the imagination to rush in and personalise the piece for each audience member. Again, this is my feeling about the work. I don’t really see my role as a curator or a producer as such, but rather the creator of a scenario.
With all this in mind, what are you expecting when you sign up for an event that won’t reveal any information’ With a wink, I wonder if you only have yourself to blame. And in that, I think that much of this project is about ‘surrender.’ This is not a straightforward piece of narrative theatre or a conventional musical concert. I believe this work is an opportunity for an audience member to have a unique and intimate experience.
In certain respects, the audience creates much of the scenography themselves, freed from the conventional framework of ‘seeing’ or ‘understanding’ a work. Again, this is the way I see things. It’s not as if anything will be easily revealed in the ‘Secret Show’ - a title used only for the Fierce Festival, as each manifestation needs a new title to maintain secrecy around the project. The audience are taken to a physical and internal space and have to form their own opinions based on what they think is happening, both in the logistics of the who, how and where, as well as in a mental/cinematic way in terms of the soundscape and the images it evokes. By removing access to the other audience members too, a situation is created where the guest can face the work by themselves. Some audience members bought private tickets to the event and would have only seen their ‘guide’ at the start and conclusion of the proceedings, not knowing that there were 70 other audience members and 30 guides present in the work.
The secrecy is not a device to trick the audience, but rather a stratagem to create a powerful and mysterious situation where something personal and abstract can be participated in. These factors employ anticipation and are there for the audience to project and imagine the piece. Lopez’s acousmatic audio - no conventional beats or melodies, nothing to fix it in the terrain of the familiar - is at times lush and vast and at others dense and claustrophobic - always creating an environment for the listener to be in. Both the scenario and the soundscape requires the audience to be in that moment dealing with what is happening. We haven’t had journalists at these events before. I like the idea of keeping the work as something witnessed by a group of individuals, and not packaged or narrated after the fact. The work is hard to explain or commodify. It’s something that is participated in and only those who were blindfolded get to experience the real piece. It is a truly immersive experience, resisting easy categorization, and not a part of our normal language of entertainment.
Birmingham was the third manifestation of the project. Other versions have been presented in Cape Town (2007) and København (2010). Each one was tailored to the situation and that specific city. We have plans for new versions of the project, always developed and different, but these can’t be revealed.