'Only Expansion' - Duncan Speakman, Watershed, Bristol City Centre

‘Only Expansion’ by Duncan Speakman is an “augmented audio walk” which brought a new experience and perception to a familiar Bristol town centre after dark. The starting point was the harbourside and although there were slots all day our start was 7pm on a busy stag and hen laden Halloween Saturday. The briefing nor the location didn’t prepare us for the experience you were about to have. The exhibition press release talks about the current global crises for you to experience how “your life might change in the future” mixing your immediate sounds with “an evocative music score and recordings of changing environments from across the globe”.

Issued with a ‘guidebook’ (carefully bound and presented with gnomic instructions to ‘guide’ you around the city), retro looking noise cancelling headphones with small microphones attached to the outside and a sealed power pack/box of tricks to wear like a bandolier and you are ushered into the world outside with the warning not to cross any roads rashly as your perceptions might not be what you expect.

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So out into the darkness we ventured. As the piece starts it appears to be what you might expect, delicate soundscapes; orchestral and electro acoustic creations. The guidebook with audio prompting instructs you to find a spot to look at the city around you. It starts as a seemingly simple exercise in mindfulness, be aware, be present in your surroundings, isolate yourself and look at the city around you. The noise cancelling headphones and the score separate your hearing from the surroundings and it is pleasant to take time and look.

The guide book then invites us to walk and to move into the city, at this point you start to get the feeling that you are hearing the outside world as clearly as the scoring you are listening too – aren’t these noise cancelling headphones, did you make a mistake? Then you sniff or cough and there you are broadcast back into your own ears, hyper real. This first realisation starts your descent down the rabbit hole of connection and disconnection with your surroundings and the city.

You are suddenly unable to trust your senses - what is coming from your surroundings, what is orchestration, what is a field recording spliced in? The experience is then intensified as effects are layered thick and fast with the information picked up by your headphones, delay, reverb, distortion. The passing sounds are amplified and repeated forming new rhythms. We were lucky or unlucky enough to have a fire engine siren blaring pass us creating an intense techno dance track amongst the babble of passers-by, footsteps and car engines.

This tempo of intensity does not last, the piece and guidebook instruct you to find new situations, a quiet place, something older than you, a high place, to consider, touch, feel (literally and metaphorically) your surroundings. These might sound relatively banal instructions however with your senses augmented to super hero status giving you extra sensory perception the suggestions take profound meaning. The walker is however unable to trust their new super powers, the volume of incoming audio is out of their control making their ears completely unreliable resulting in a disassociation from immediate surroundings. The main result of the sensory alteration is that it jolts the subject into another plane of consciousness or more accurately consideration.  The viewer becomes an alien voyeur, a disassociated scientist looking and considering the city on different grounds and criteria. Relatively cliched instructions such as “look back at where you started from a distance”, achieve great relevance and poignancy.

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The intensity of our trip was helped by its timing, 7pm on October 27th, meant that it was dark and therefore reducing one sense - sight, meant that the body naturally relies more heavily on hearing however this is no longer trustworthy. Heavily tampering with this often-under-considered sense made Bristol’s town centre and back alleys more edgy and paranoid, footsteps intensified echoing around your head, figures in doorways already threatening seem even more of a random factor as you touch and stroke the walls. It is like wandering through a city centre on psychotropic substances, paranoid and unsure of what is a real or imagined danger, and equally what is real or imagined insight however through a lack of definition, clarity is increased.

Does this connect you to a “planet in crisis” as per the press release? It does both in the moment and after.  I have talked here about the small directions to use and appreciate your other senses: consider the history, where you are and where you have been, the work makes you hyper aware of your surroundings, asking small questions but because your awareness of the immediate world is elevated and explicit, your awareness of the wider world is then implicit. The piece allows you unexpected space to think and consider your surroundings, in my case Bristol harbourside and old town. The old stone work you stroke triggers visions of the old economy that built it, old industry, the old harbour, the old slave trade, and further back the swampy inlet that would have been here before, this in turn prompts the question what will be here in the future which the racing mind cannot help but grapple with the various current global tipping points. 

The work stays with you. The experience spurs a thousand questions and thoughts, immediately you desire more information about its production and the collected sounds used, but after that you consider those snapshots of historical clarity and consideration that open fundamental questions about our future. The harmonics it strikes through the senses means that it has a longer life in your consciousness than the immediate experience.

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