In the latest of our Foyer commissions, we invite you to roam our foyers using headphones to experience a free audio journey, which reframes the sounds and sights of the iconic arts centre.
We catch up with two of the creators behind Edgelands to learn more about the making of the app, collaboration and what we can expect to experience along the way…
I’m Hannah Bruce, artistic director of a collective of artists who work under the umbrella name HB&Co. I developed the script for Edgelands, worked with the actor on the text, and helped with dramaturgy. Other key people from HB&Co who have been involved in Edgelands are Jonathan Eato (creative development and project management), Theo Burt (Android developer), Pete Worth (iOS developer), Dave Malham (hardware) and Helen Longworth (voice).
And I’m Seth Scott – I’m an artist and sound designer from London. My work centres on relationships between sound and public space, and the ways in which sound and music can affect our experience and usage of different spaces.
How did this collaboration come about?
HB: Seth Scott originally conceived the idea of what eventually became Edgelands. For Edgelands, Seth’s musical element is composed purely from sounds recorded within the architecture of the Barbican itself. It was a thrill and a challenge when the Barbican team brought HB&Co on board to help develop the technology, text and dramaturgy to support Seth’s compositional ambitions. Inevitably in such a collaborative venture, we all influenced each other’s ideas. Recently, HB&Co have been researching and developing Bluetooth beacon technology, thanks to a research grant from the University of York. This R&D gave us a strong basis from which to work on Edgelands.
It’s incredibly exciting to be on the cusp of a wave…
For me this project was a great example not only of artists collaborating successfully, but also the Barbican team producing the work with a highly collaborative approach, and a university research grant providing support at a critical point in the R&D process. As artists, we had a role in supporting the vision for a ‘smarter’ Barbican building in the long run. It’s incredibly exciting to be on the cusp of a wave, working in a building with staff willing to be daring and innovative, supporting artistic risk.
SS: When I was paired up with HB&Co by the Barbican, Hannah had just launched a locative audio experience up the road in Hoxton, and I’d just finished making a large-scale interactive composition whilst studying at the Guildhall. Our backgrounds and creative practices are quite different, but we share common ground in making interactive art using locative technology. So our creative differences were unified by this shared technical language, and our mutual interest in audience interaction, making us, in many ways, a perfect match!
What were the inspirations behind Edgelands?
HB: I enjoyed working with Seth’s concepts for Edgelands. He had some fascinating ideas about Utopia, particularly in the context of the Barbican’s original architectural design, and the post-war vision of what a Utopian community might look like. We talked about traditional notions of Utopia, the concept of an ideal state that comes from Greek words literally meaning ‘no place’, but also an alternative conception that evokes Utopia as a temporary moment in the here and now (an intensification of everyday life).
How might each of us imagine Utopia?
I was particularly interested in challenging these concepts of Utopia to resonate on a personal, human scale. How might each of us imagine Utopia? What does it mean to experience an intensification of our everyday life – is this a pause in everyday life? A reflective moment? A revelatory moment brought on by discovering a certain fact, or experiencing a certain emotion? How does the Barbican architecture influence the way that we hear things within it? How does what we hear evoke a personal response, and how can we acknowledge individual difference within that response?
Traditionally, Utopia is often imagined as an island state. We wove this imagery into Edgelands by producing different ‘islands’ of sound that visitors can discover as they explore the foyer spaces. It’s as if you are at sea, floating on a raft, and every now and again you ‘hear’ a glimpse of land and pull yourself onto the beach to rest and listen…
SS: There’s a hopefulness about the architecture of the Barbican, set in concrete, a strange relic of radical urban planning. Making Edgelands, I was thinking a lot about this Utopian vision, and what that means today. Is it just a wish, constantly deferred, or might we discover fleeting glimpses of it embedded within our everyday lives? By hiding sounds and stories in the Barbican and inviting listeners to explore, we’re asking them to tune in to their surroundings, to unpick and re-imagine the space, to seek out their own temporary Utopia.
What was your favourite discovery when you were researching the Barbican’s history
HB: I fell in love with a wonderful documentary on the City of London website, filmed during the late 1960’s when the Barbican was being built. It is full of 1960’s cars and shots of 1960’s London, and narrated by that particular kind of clipped BBC voice which sounds so ‘vintage’ nowadays. In fact, we loved the sound so much that one of the scenes in Edgelands incorporates a bit of narration from the film…
What were the challenges – both creative and technical – of creating Edgelands?
HB: For me, the biggest artistic challenge when creating Edgelands was finding a balance between the abstract concepts of Utopia, and the space for listeners to have a very personal, human response to what they hear.
Practically, despite spending a lot of our professional lives at HB&Co thinking about audience movement, it never ceases to be a challenge to find ways to physically move people without the soundtrack sounding like Sat Nav! I think this is a really interesting, complex area that has emerged as promenade performance has become increasingly popular. You’d hope that we are experts by now, having been doing it since 2004, but we still make discoveries with every new piece we make!
The technical challenges also kept us on our toes. Thanks to a University of York R&D research grant, we already had experience of working with Bluetooth beacon technology. However, every new project comes with unknown factors. At the Barbican, the foyers are huge open spaces, and we had no idea how the beacons would behave in these cavernous areas. Our worst fear was that the Bluetooth signals might replicate small children running around a hall of mirrors at a funfair – getting reflected and distorted, bouncing off balconies, scrambling through pipes. Potentially the signals could have appeared in all shapes and sizes in entirely unexpected places. Luckily our alpha-testing went much more smoothly than we’d anticipated. Maybe that’s what happens when you make a piece about Utopia…
SS: I’ve always found defining a balance of control between composer and listener the trickiest part of making an interactive work. Customarily a composer curates the experience of their audience, often down to the finest degree, but for me it’s really important that the listener is offered genuine agency in their interaction with the piece. The challenge in Edgelands was to forget about structuring the piece in time, with a start, a middle and an end, and to think more closely about composing structures in space; creating an augmented reality for the listener to explore, as opposed to a fixed timeline.
What can visitors expect when they embark on their Edgelands journey?
HB: I can’t answer the question of what visitors should expect when they embark on Edgelands, because each person will have a slightly different experience – and so each visitor should expect an experience that nobody else can replicate.
You are the master of your own experience – you choose where to go, when to stop, how long to pause and listen
I think the word ‘immersive’ is currently over-used when it comes to theatre experiences, but certainly sound is an extremely emotive, evocative tool which, in combination with wearing headphones, does create a feeling of immersion. With Edgelands, you are the master of your own experience – you choose where to go, when to stop, how long to pause and listen. You choose where to direct your gaze. You make your own connections between the sound and sights around you.
So, if pushed, I’d say – expect a sensory experience that shows you sides of the Barbican you’ve never seen or heard (or never really noticed); expect an opportunity for some stress-free ‘me-time’; expect to be transported into a strange state that observes day-to-day life from an empathetic distance.
SS: I hope that visitors can expect to view the building in a new light. We’ve tried to make a piece that’s embedded within the architecture, rather than merely inhabiting it. The sound was composed entirely from recordings made within the Barbican Estate, and each piece of text invites the listener to think about the building in a different way. I hope they won’t escape the Barbican, but rather see and hear an intensified version of it!
If you could describe the Barbican in one sight or sound, what would it be?
HB: An impossible dream of mine is to make a piece inside Escher’s print, Relativity. I think for me the Barbican’s disorientating levels and sightlines, come close to this sense of dizzying spatial confusion.
SS: There’s the most beautiful moment every morning at 9.59AM, when the fountains in the lake switch on in perfect synchronicity. You’re instantly aware of the silence that had existed up until that point, such that the interjection seems quite violent. But it gradually softens to form this wash of noise that’s diffused throughout the estate until they’re switched off again in the evening.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
HB: I have a bad habit of dreaming up a new piece every time I discover a new building or take a walk, so its really just a question of finding the support to match the ideas. A constant spinning wheel!
Currently, we’re in the early stages of a really exciting collaboration with Hannah Davies from Common Ground Theatre. We’re transporting the story of the witch Baba Yaga into a terrifying experience of city life. Essentially, the piece explores understandings of mental health, and interrogates how we voice our thoughts internally/externally. Binaural sound allows us to play with the witch’s voice inside your thoughts, outside your head, and all the urban spaces in between.
We are also continuing our R&D into Bluetooth technology and the internet of things, supported by the University of York.
Edgelands is an interactive composition, created by Seth Scott in association with Hannah Bruce & Company, and commissioned by the Barbican. The app was developed through a University of York research grant, and supported by the Department of Music.
Learn more about our Foyer Projects.