Brassica Brassica Cabbage (BBC)

I am working on a short, 10-minute piece for OCM’s BBC Oxford broadcasts about Magic Hour and my work with sounds. It is proving harder than I thought to link the ideas – for example – the work I made for FRRS, with my role in the feedback shed.

Thankfully, it should all make sense now though, because of cabbages.

In the last episode of The Fantastical Reality Radio Show I planted the cabbage seeds that Claudia sent me and recorded the sounds of that in my sonic postcard. I found that this – along with other ideas relating creativity and the garden – largely informed all my creative decisions concerning the design of things in the Feedback Shed.

…but looking beyond myself, to the other artists whose work featured in Magic Hour, there are other Brassicas to enjoy and be inspired by. For instance, how about the amazing ‘Squeaky Cabbage Gramaphone’ by Leviathan Whispers?

Featuring wet brassica leaves, a bicycle and drill-bit turning mechanism, a clingfilm encrusted gramaphone horn and a plexiglass ‘turntable’ for playing plants, the gramaphone allowed visitors to the installation to explore the exciting, squeaky sounds afforded by the tough surfaces of brassica leaves. I got to talk with Dave and Tim Hill from Leviathan Whispers while they were preparing for day 3 of Magic Hour. I also made some recordings at home (based on the brassica gramaphone) of squeaking cabbage leaves. I will be putting these online as soon as the freakish ftp problems I am experiencing today are cleared up.

What has excited me most in developing a short, journalistic/creative review of Magic Hour, is that it has allowed me to think about the fantasy/reality axis along which all the work in the show balanced. Much of the work involved introducing a fantastical element to the gardens, such as the whispering voices in the IOU piece or the ethereal soundscapes conjured up through Robert Jarvis’s bat piece – Echo 1. But equally, these pieces relied heavily on very real and ordinary aspects of The Oxford Botanic Gardens, in order to make sense or work within the context of the site.

We generally think of imagination as being massively divorced or a departure from, ‘reality,’ but I think that Art can be used to have more complete contact with what is immediately to hand, rather than as an escape route. Many people are frustrated by contemporary art because they feel that it does not provide an adequate level of sublime or transcendental escapism. As Carol Becker writes eloquently in her essay ‘The Education of Young Artists and the Issue of Audience;’

The often unconscious expectations of a non-art world, non-visually trained audience are that art will be somewhat familiar yet also transcendent, that it will be able to catapult its viewers outside their mundane lives, provide therapeutic resolution to emotional ills, and, most significantly, that it will end in wonder.

Becker’s entire essay does a brilliant job of unpacking the complexities of the artist/audience relationship, but in the context of thinking about Magic Hour, I want to think a little bit about reality and imagination. The interesting thing is that judging from the feedback recieved in the shed, most people did experience – to some degree – a sense of wonderment or joy at the installations placed around The Oxford Botanic gardens. But for me, this wonder was not divorced from the ‘ordinary’ sonic life of the location and the work couldn’t have been made without a large degree of contact and focus with reality on the part of the artists.

For instance the IOU piece with its bells and whispering was based in part on the groups’ awareness of the Church clocks around the local area. Timing their installation in such a way that it would drop off around the hour so that the actual bells in the locale could be heard was a key decision in the way they organised the sounds within their piece and they developed a sharp awareness of the different sonic qualities of the Church bells that can be heard from the Oxford Botanic Gardens. They also noticed that the ringing of the hours is not precise or synchronised, so that the Church bells ringing comes in a kind of ad-hoc sequence.

Similarly Robert Jarvis’ piece, Echo 1, which translated the radar calls of bats down into a register audible to the human ear was highly ‘imaginative’ both in concept and in execution. The resultant soundscapes had a really ethereal quality. There is also something magical and otherworldly about the ordinarily silent calls of the bats being unusually revealed to us in this way. But the placement of bright lights along the Cherwell to attract the bats to the site and the observation of their presence in the gardens all required – again – a large deal of carefully noticing and observing reality.

To return to the brassicas, I think the gramaphone – which was superbly popular with visitors to the garden – relied totally on its creators’ levels of observation and contact with plants, to work. What things cause you to notice, say, that the leaves of a cabbage are especially durable and squeaky? What little jumps between simply noticing the material reality of a thing and doing something with that take place, mentally, amongst artists? And do those jumps represent a departure from, or a closer level of engagement with, reality?

I was asking myself this question yesterday as I chopped cabbages for our dinner. I found myself being ultra-aware of the texture of the leaves and the dragging, rubbery quality of the surfaces of the cabbage rubbing against itself. I think I am going to conclude in my piece for the radio that what made Magic Hour ‘magical,’ was the way that the artists’ close engagement with the site itself and the ordinary soundscape of the locale, revealed many of the latent and inspiring aspects of the gardens themselves.

You can hear the sqeaky cabbage interview, the squeaky cabbage and my Radio piece for BBC Oxford about Magic Hour by clicking the links below.

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