Audio-visual installation "Siren" will blow your mind

By Siddarth Saikia

You walk into a room to be told you can never come back if you leave. It is expansive and dark with a high ceiling. All around you are mechanical contraptions, varying in height, bathed in gentle yellow lights. They look like horizontal windmills elevated on a tripod. At the end of each blade are miniature loudspeakers, connected to small individual tone generators. Two men in ill-fitting black suits begin to move to each windmill. A single screwdriver and their ears as instruments, they tune each speaker with the desired frequency and set the blades spinning with the precision of watchmakers. It starts as a single sound, thrown at you by the spin of the blades. It is slowly joined by others, spinning at varied speeds. Suddenly you are in the middle of a room shaking with sound. At first you only hear the one closest to you. And then you move. A step to the left or right changes your reception completely. It is as if the entire performance has changed, the new overture has begun. A comprehensive spatial experience of sound. If you think of this as a musical performance then imagine a whole set played as a single song that changes as you move. It is a spectacle, but the spectator becomes an active participant. You walk to the other side of the performance for a different sound. You look at the other spectators in the room, who by their physical presence also influence your reception of this soundscape. A woman sits in front of you and begins meditating. Two boys sit by the flanks, head in arms, cocooned in the noise. You bend your ear and try to pay attention to the singular contributions of each windmill.

And then the lights go off.

You can no longer see the set around you, only the single red LED light on each loudspeaker spinning in the dark. You are finally confronted by the entirety of the performance as it reaches it’s crescendo. The wall of sound is all around you now and you are no longer in a museum, or a building, or even this city. You will later be told that the performance lasted precisely a single hour but you’d never know. Nothing seems to exist in this room other than the sonic blanket and the flying lights. You are in a live experience that is both unrecordable and unplayable. It cannot be pressed to DVD or compressed to mp3. This is the antithesis of the laptop/i-Pod music experience.

The performers begin to slow down each windmill as the climax slowly releases. They begin to turn off each loudspeaker until only one remains. The one you began this experience with. And for once the kitschy writing on the wall makes sense: bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.

“Siren” is an audio-visual sound installation/performance by British composer and artist Ray Lee. It appeared at the Walker last week.