In the last several years, Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl, trans-disciplinary collaborators in large-scale installations, have launched many iterations of their Symphony of a Missing Room show—a visual art experiment where participants are subject to blindfolding (and other forms of disorientation) before being brought around art galleries, museums, and other vast spaces as a series of performance pieces happen in front of them.
Staged at a number of European art museums, the installation continually brings its audience into new realms of sensory experience. The duo's most recent performance took place at the Royal Academy of Arts as part of LIFT 2014, a theater festival that turns London into a stage, where it offered up an altogether different virtual reality odyssey.
Structurally, the performance remains the same. But, as Lundahl & Seitl's project manager Emma Leach told me, almost all content and recordings are developed anew for each space.
“This is a process that takes weeks of development onsite,” she said. “Developed for LIFT and with the context of the Summer Exhibition in mind, Christer and Martina were particularly interested in the selection process of the Summer Exhibition—which artworks are selected for showing, and which are not. Which are remembered, and which are forgotten.”
Only seven luck visitors get to experience each performance. For the London shows, visitors met at the museum entrance. They were then led into a gallery space where they sat down and waited. There they were given headphones, and began listening to an audio track. Soon after, guides showed up to route them through the museum.
First, the guides asked the visitors to pause in front of a piece of Royal Academy artwork and close their eyes, whereupon they were given white-out goggles that function like frosted glass. This section contains most of Symphony's artistic content, with guides aiming flashlights at visitors' goggles and directing them into various imaginary spaces with evocative words, dance, and touch.
Eventually, the goggles are removed, and visitors are instructed to move to a final room where a performer lies in a gallery on a carpet or blanket. They are then asked to lie down with the guide and close their eyes, then undergo something akin to hypnosis. Finally, the headphones are taken off, and when the visitors open their eyes, the performers are gone.
All told, visitors moved through the floor of the Royal Academy's Burlington House, down to the ground floor, through the Royal Academy schools of the West Yard, into Burlington Gardens, past some offices, up a lift, and into the upstairs galleries. Everything that happens within a Symphony performance is aimed at creating the dissolution of real and virtual spaces. This is accomplished with a mixture of high and low tech multi-sensory technology.
“The real innovation is in the way these technologies are combined with synchronized touch,” said Leach. “So, a visitor is asked, through 3D sound coming through their headphones, to reach out a hand, and a highly skilled performer takes that hand in perfect synchronicity.”
The performers, many of whom have a background in dance, use a “broad vocabulary of touch” that they employ at different times in the performances. “Each visitor has a dedicated Guide who stays with them for the journey,” she said. “There are moments when the visitor is cut loose and walks alone, once they have their confidence built up, but for almost all the journey they are led by the hand.”
“At the beginning of the tour, visitors still have their sight,” she said. “They hear 3D sound that has been recorded in the spaces they walk through, so they begin to become unable to distinguish between live and recorded sound happening around them.”
Lundahl and Stiehl describe the audio as “whispered illusion.” That is, the voice that speaks through the headphones does so in a whisper. The quality of the voice changes throughout the piece, creating an illusion of being in spaces that are different to the situation of each visitor. For example, they might feel that they are in an echoey cave, a courtyard, or a forest, depending on the situation.
For those who weren't lucky enough to experience the Royal Academy performance, the BBC produced a really evocative film about Symphony of a Missing Room. It's a bit like Alexander Sokuriv's Russian Ark, which also blends alternate realities to high effect.
For more on the project, visit the artist's website here: http://www.lundahl-seitl.com/