I walk in, and Seth Cooke’s contribution to Displacement Activity has already begun. The audience are looking up toward the ceiling, gathered around a machine without an operator. Bird song climbs above the wind, while a tuneful (yet irritated) buzzing noise sits on the surface, sounding like a violin wrapped in razors. In a couple of minutes, I manage to piece it together (sort of, but not quite): pieces of broken mirror are vibrating against a projector screen, forming a strange melody that could be a ribbon of deliberated song or an incidental, overtonal product of tense material collision; meanwhile, the image of their scattered formation is shown as shards of light on the ceiling, jittering around eachother like a disturbance buzzing through a curious alien cosmos, or the intricate interplay of microscopic cells. The sounds of the sculpture forge a curious relationship with the field recording that hangs like a drape in the background; disconnected and repellent for the most part, and then thrust into momentary parallel by miraculous chance.
Over to the opposite end of the room now for a realisation of two Manfred Werder scores, each of which manifests as three words plucked out of found texts. Will Montgomery is fading up a ceaseless rush of waterfall, decorated with overflying planes, embedded studs of birdsong and what initially sounds like a steam train tooting into the vapour, but then later transpires to be a whimpering hum of wind rushing past the microphone. A knife of electronic interference makes a rough incision down the centre, choking on static and hanging in the air while the waterfall fades out, thereon projected as a blemish onto silence like black lines splayed over the immaculately white gallery walls. Then, a voice repeats a single, indeterminable phoneme with the regularity of the second hand of a slow-motion grandfather clock, throbbing metronomically as the sound transforms into the clack of high heels on a restaurant floor to the background of chunking cutlery and exhaled conversation on reverberant mass. Montgomery’s constructions feel believable at surface level but instinctively “wrong”, unsettled and situated just to one side of the axis of harmonic soundscape equilibrium.
David Stent and Neil Chapman then perform a work of both fragmented erraticism and vague, teasing structure. Both stand apart, intermittently reading phrases drawn from a tabloid-sized paper, talking over eachother and sometimes falling into silence for seconds at a time. Sometimes the words sound like infatuated poetry; at others, the script snippets of a documentary narrator. Meanwhile, a slide projector displays images on a far wall (grainy colour photos of fast food joints, windmills obscured by trees). The exercise would seem completely alienating were it not for the short routine that occurs during slide transition: the two readers glance up to the image, then rustle briskly through their papers in search of the relevant page before commencing reading again. I picked up the text myself and found the images to be displayed at the bottom of each page beneath the paragraphs – are they navigating to the page with the relevant image? But then why do the spoken words – even as phrases torn from paragraphical context – seem to bear no immediate relation to their accompanying photograph? Am I fumbling for a contextual common ground where there may be none, or am I merely looking for it in the wrong place?
Finally, an ensemble of Dominic Lash, Sarah Hughes, Seth Cooke and others perform “Location Composite #1” by James Saunders, in which the sound observations of geocachers at Portbury Wharf are translated and re-combined into an obscure re-rendering of soundscape. It operates on the boundary of happening; an immortalised prologue sitting a mere molecular width from touching the membrane of “the event”, existing as a twitchy perimeter of tape static, shrill strands of laptop-generated tone, glass tumblers massaging zither strings, e-bow emitting choked drones, rocks crunched against the edge of waste disposal funnel. There are moments of loudness, during which the fabric of quiet is torn rather than simply stretched – say, the horrific scrape of violin bow against a block of polystyrene – but they are instantly retracted, as if hoping to be dismissed as a misremembered occurrence in a mind that hopelessly anticipates an incident that will never come.