Reviewing Audio Obscura, a soundwork in St Pancras International Station produced by Artangel with poet Lavinia Greenlaw, suffers from the unfortunate flaw of being untimely: its run ended today, 23rd October. Nonetheless I feel compelled to write about it, having had such high expectations before it and having felt so disappointed after having experiencing it.
Audio Obscura is an immersive sound experience installed in St Pancras International Station, between, as Artangel’s website tells us, “Marks and Spencers and Le Pain Quotidien”. At the small hut a set of headphones is dispensed which has been triggered to play almost as soon as you are wearing them (with no option to pause, which is rather daunting when you are accompanied by an unpredictable toddler in a buggy). As the headphones are noise-cancelling virtually no sound from outside can penetrate, but the piece is itself made up of the sounds of the voices belonging to the imaginary users of a train station. This makes for an eerie, dreamlike experience as you weave in and out of the station crowds, feeling their real presence whilst hearing disembodied imaginary words. These words go in and out of aural focus, snatches of sentences are heard making one yearn, voyeur-like, to make sense of the tantalising fragments. Against this background are a handful of voices that can be heard more completely. These are interior monologues speaking of self-contempt, rage, fear; a homeless man, poignantly speaking of his disgust at his state; a young woman describing her broken relationship; an older woman who has just made a shocking discovery of a betrayal.
I first encountered Greenlaw’s work in 2004 when two of her wonderful London Zoo poems were included in the Forward book of Poetry of that year. What I found so compelling in those poems was sadly lacking in Audio Obscura. It was a sense of place that was missing here. It came as no surprise to discover that this soundwork had originally been located in Manchester Piccadilly Station before transferring to St. Pancras. For it could have been in any train station anywhere in the country; it did not exploit the wonderful possibilities of the space itself, which to me felt like a wasted opportunity. Moreover, I found the central conceit to be somewhat tired. The notion that the hustle and bustle of public urban spaces has rendered us strangers to each other, that the disconnectedness of contemporary urban life means that we forget about the individual behind the public mask – these are truisms that have been explored in more interesting ways elsewhere. Finally, I found the stories of the main voices – apart from the homeless man – to be too melodramatic and too uniformly negative to give a true sense of the train station soundscape. Whilst it is obvious that hearing an interior monologue about what must be bought for dinner or whether a visit to the station toilet is necessary before boarding would be rather too banal (though more representative), it would have been more balanced had some of the voices been expressing elation, hope, or expectation – no doubt some emotions typical of a person embarking on a trip or meeting a passenger who is arriving.
Despite these shortcomings there is something undeniably hypnotic in the fusion of the physical encounter with the faces and bodies of the St. Pancras patrons and the spectral sound of their fictional counterparts. I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience it, but nonetheless disappointed not to have been taken anywhere exciting by it – an ironic end to a journey through an international rail terminus.