The London debut of Liz Harris' latest project was a dark, beautiful and intense journey across the dreams and myths of America.
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It’s a postcard-perfect Sunday evening outside St Luke’s Church on Old Street for the London performance of Grouper and filmmaker Paul Clipson collaborative Opera North commission, HYPNOSIS DISPLAY. Now home to the London Symphony Orchestra, St Luke’s Jerwood Hall – with its renovated brickwork and modern metal finishes – feels like a space that couldn’t be bettered to house this beautiful, dark, intense journey across train tracks, through dream states, and into the myths of an America that may have been in our heads all along.
Liz Harris first wanders over to a table set up on the far side of the stage: a half-dozen cassette players, microphone and small mixer surround her. The unmistakable, but relic-like, sound of Clipson’s 16mm film clicks into gear, and the lights drop as bounding static fills the screen.
Like much of Grouper’s previous work, HYPNOSIS DISPLAY takes its time to permeate, and having just whizzed from Field Day, for the opening minutes I struggle to get a grasp on where the rolling eye close-ups and lapping oceans are taking me. There isn’t a piece much of a narrative to ascertain, and it’s clear the project was about capturing the instinctual, impressionistic mind-flows of the artists involved, rather than preoccupying itself with overarching ideas or themes. As Clipson put it in a recent Q&A with Dummy, discussing their respective approaches in image and sound: “the two forms are like field recordings from parallel universes, where a sort of emotional, intuitive osmosis will combine our work together”.
After about ten minutes, I felt myself starting to melt into the piece: content to let it guide me where it wanted to go. There’s a definite flow or sequence that develops across HYPNOSIS DISPLAY, and it’s one that reveals the personal (and clearly complex) feelings that Clipson and Harris have for the American landscapes reflected. The body and nature dominate early images: those aforementioned facial close-ups interspersing with sheep trekking across forest land. As the most inescapable nation on film thanks to Hollywood’s 20th century stranglehold, there remains an interesting jarring in a work intended to be about “modern America” starting out with such untouched, rural landscapes. Accompanied by Harris’ embryonic vocal drones, for me this section seemed to meditate on America’s “morning light”, exploring its pre-nation innocence with a focus based in nature, rather than that of pilgrims, Native Americans, or Tea Parties.
Reflections on America’s expansion westward and rise to dominance followed: freight trains and rail tracks, highways and the wide-open road. Sounds of Harris’ field recordings of passing cars and boat engines enter, none more referential than that of serene whistling, filling the mind with stock images of Westerns and Steamboat Willie. Caught mostly in black and white, it’s hard not sensing desecration as we see modern commuters looking out on dilapidated buildings, Clipson’s camera crawling across these damaged structures with more class than much of the ruin porn dominating thoughts on modern Detroit. In the closing section of HYPNOSIS DISPLAY, night falls as we arrive at the late-capital America of strip clubs and late night bars, of seedy neon signs and the overworked, undernourished speed-test of city life. Harris’ soundtrack is at its most powerful here: murky tape hiss and machinic drones moves to a hellish, continuous booming beat that plays out in the closing minutes – half-industrial, half-apocalyptic. Political overtones surface in this shady close: just what is this nightmare we created? Where is it headed?
At various moments throughout came the sounds of interviewees talking about their dreams, the grainy, distant recording quality giving them an air of privacy and secrecy. These touched on the frustrations of reassembling the visions of a previous night, of the feeling of a pleasant, happy dream sliding inexorably into something nightmarish, unpleasant, and uncomfortable. These shifts fit closely with Freud’s descriptions of ‘The Uncanny’, of how your own unrecognised reflection in a mirror involves a sudden slip in to a deeply uncertain state. I’d want to listen to the soundtrack in more detail before making judgements on where HYPNOSIS DISPLAY fits with Grouper’s other releases, but I left feeling that that fluidity between dream/nightmare and the knowable/unknowable is an important way of thinking about her work. I’d love her to make another ‘The Man Who Died In His Boat’, but it’s easy to pinpoint why Harris producing continuous, extended works makes so much sense, and why its one she’s clearly got much joy from in recent years. At one moment, her childlike whispers into the microphone are as warm as a summer’s day; but as you’re soaking up the prettiness, calamity and chaos are only ever a moment around the corner.
As the screen flickers black and the lights go up, Clipson makes his way down the stairs to join Harris in the middle of the stage for the briefest of acknowledgements to the crowd, before they both swiftly exit right. A fair number of the crowd (me included) can’t resist walking to the front and peering at Harris’ assemblage of equipment, like it’s an exhibit in a museum. It’s a peculiar thing to do after a performance: I feel slightly uncomfortable about it, as if there’s something voyeuristic about looking on Harris’ things without her present. A staff member looks at us slightly confused, before shaking her head and walking over to Harris’ pages of notes and snatching them from a music stand, before some chancer decided to take off with them. But looking at the table, a snapshot of an artist-at-work, still felt fascinating, and one made all the more so for it being Grouper. Her music takes us on most intense of subconscious journeys, but the individual behind it stays at arms length, enigmatic and – like a dream – forever obscured.
Photos taken from HYPNOSIS DISPLAY performance at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, June 5th 2014. Photos by Tom Arber.