Monday, 5 August 2013

This City's Centre 1: Window

When I lived in central London and the weather was so hot that it felt as if the tarmac was trying to consume you from the feet up, I loved to escape into the cavernous cool of the British Library. To stand amid the Ancient Egyptians, for instance, savouring the quiet chill while filling my imagination with stories about lives I’d never know, seemed a wise investment of time.

Our very own RAMM offers similar refuge, and its tagline – Home to a Million Thoughts – is enough, regardless of the temperature outside, to entice me in. There’s little better than picking a room and completely immersing yourself in its treasures; like sitting in a giant pile of gifts and slowly unwrapping them one by one. I could write reams about each room, about each corner of each room – especially enthralled by the taxidermy, of course, particularly the owl hat. Have you SEEN the owl hat?! – because everything comes back to the people, the individuals, at the heart of each exhibit. The person who carved intricacies into that grain of rice, collected and catalogued those beetles, wore THAT HAT… Where was home? How did they live? What did they see as they went about their daily business? These are the questions that keep me lingering for hours beside each exhibit, and it’s what’s lured me for repeated visits to This City’s Centre 1: Window, the video/sound installation currently occupying the Central Courtyard (just by the cafĂ©).

Projected onto two adjacent walls are the views from Exeter residents’ houses, each one encompassing stories about home, place, and space – both public and private, and privatised public – and how those residents view that space. The screens show identical images – terraced roofs, a church spire, Haldon Hill in the distance – then one pulls back to reveal the frame of the window through which this view is seen; like looking into the distance and at the particular at once. The long-distance view is slowed down, encouraging you to take the time to savour it: the bird dancing with a breeze, the leaves playing with the light, life in careful transit. The second image is in real time, and as your eyes flick between the two, noting the changing pace, the voice of the view’s owner fills the headphones, giving that view substance and context. In the conflation of personal testimony, the view framed by its particular position and the horizon in slow motion, we are positioned between the intimate and the universal. The voices reveal the past and the present, cares and concerns, hopes and dreams; the meaning of ‘home’, and the sense of feeling part of something larger, of feeling connected to the immediate environment and the community that shares it. The stories are funny and moving; generous in their honesty and compelling in their detail. Some of the views I recognise – not in particular, of course, but in a directional sense – but most are completely fresh, offering new insights on the city.

Courtesy of Blind Ditch

Every five minutes or so, the views tessellate, each screen filled with a grid of different windows, the voiceovers merging to create a heteroglossial mash of stories, like the city of which they are a part. Your eyes flash over each, while your ears pick out snippets from the wash of words; a detail, a decorative element, an ornament catches your attention, and you wonder which voice matches which view. Who sees that vista on a daily basis, and what do they think, how do they live? And then the screens pull a view into focus, and once more we are invited into someone’s life for a few minutes.

Courtesy of Blind Ditch

Created by Devon-based art collective Blind Ditch, this installation offers much more than tantalising glimpses into the lives of others; it explores the boundaries between public and private space, concepts of ownership, and community engagement. It reveals the city in new and interesting ways, and encourages us to look more closely at the intricacies of our daily lives – the details and moments that get overlooked through regular exposure – and to appreciate them fully. And to turn to the person next to us, and ask, ‘How are you today?’

This City’s Centre 1: Window is the first part of a ‘digital triptych for Exeter’. Coming soon are an interactive map, called Linger, that invites participants to walk around the city, be active in specific places and listen to sound files via your smartphone, followed by a series of live performances - called Here, Now - in September during the new Unexpected festival. I'm planning to experience all the aspects of this artwork, so will be writing about the map as soon as it's released and booking my ticket (£10/£8 from the Phoenix) for Here, Now...

This City's Centre 1: Window is at RAMM until 22 September.


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