ECHOLOCATION: an illustrated talk, stories, and audio installation for one night at the Williamson Art Gallery, Oxton, Wirral.

Echolocation (or bio-sonar) is a method of navigation used by animals to locate objects in the environment. In this fourth-dimensional edition of ‘The Things That Live Under The Stairs’ Bruce Davies; artist, writer and curator of BasementArtsProject, selected an object from the basement of the Williamson Art Gallery that has provided, for him, a method of navigation, not just through the environment but through time as well. Echolocation was a mixture of whimsical storytelling, film / audio installation and a talk via an object that has allowed him to keep his bearings throughout life, wherever it has lead him.

'Alas, alas that the ears of common men should love the modern but not love the old’ Po Chü-i

Over the course of the last decade, one of the things that has driven my practice, both as an artist; on the rare occasion that I get to make things, and as the curator of BasementArtsProject, is the idea of access to art. Where do we go to experience art, what is our understanding of it when we do experience it, and how do we experience it for the first time if we have no prior knowledge or understanding of the subject?

For the last eighteen months I have been engaged in a project here in Leeds, the city that I have called home since late 2000, with four artists; all of whom are strongly connected to not just the region; Yorkshire, but also the locale of Beeston. Whether through birth, relocation, projects or education these artists, at least two of whom are internationally exhibiting artists, have a significant connection with South Leeds. 

Whilst working on this project I was invited to go back to my roots and look at the kind of questions that I mentioned earlier for a project of my own. This project involved me going back to the first place that I remember encountering art and asking myself what my understanding of it was and how has it affected my life? 

ECHOLOCATION was not only an exercise that analysed the motivation for much of my own life experiences, but also an exercise in time travel. In order to get to some kind of understanding of my experience that I could interpret for an audience, I had to effectively take myself back to that point, the mid-1970’s, and work out what it was that I remembered so clearly that had influenced me. 

Back in early 2013 I revisited, for the first time in many years, the Williamson Art Gallery on the Wirral to try and get a recording of a Victorian polyphon that I remember being part of the gallery’s collection. When I finally located the machine in a part of the gallery, that was at that point inaccessible to visitors, I discovered that the disc in the machine was the exact same disc as I had remembered forty years previous. As a small child I had visited the Williamson on numerous occasions and experienced this haunting sound drifting across the galleries to meet my ears. The sound is a dreamy one yet somehow disquieting at the same time, once heard never forgotten. Across the years this particular tune has haunted not only my dreams but also the quieter, more reflective moments of my waking hours too. My memory of not just the place but also the time is imprinted on my brain, just like the puncture marks in the brass disc that plays the tune inside of the polyphon. It was many years before I learned what the tune was, the answer came late night via Radio 3 thru a version sung by New Age singer Enya. ‘I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ was a tune from a Threepenny Opera entitled ‘The Bohemian Girl’.   

As a child of maybe five years old or so, the experience of being sat alone in a room containing furniture so oversized that it dwarfed even the adults, ornately carved chairs made for the ordination of bishops, suits of armour, and extremely minimal lighting, made for an experience that has stayed with me forever.  

Eventually the recording of the polyphon made its way into a twenty minute sound piece. The work, called ‘Unsentimental Journey’, formed part of an installation for a project that I undertook as part of SCIBase: BasementArtsProject in collaboration with the SCI group (Soup Collective International) based, predominantly, in the Northwest and run by Wendy Williams. Through the work people were invited to sit on a large Chesterfield at the centre of the 3rd on 3rd Gallery space, here they could flick through a book containing two short stories in which the polyphon featured peripherally. At the same time an audio soundtrack played back sounds of the polyphon merged with other re-staged memories of my own; me reading a book to my child that my Dad had read to me more than forty years ago when I was a child, a soundscape depicting early morning journey’s to work at the local branch of Sainsburys in later years and so on. . . 

At some point after this project the polyphon stopped working and was consigned to the stores of the Williamson Gallery, away from display. Five years later the project, ECHOLOCATION, revolved around its potential restoration. 

In 2019 I was invited by Alan Dunn; a friend and regular contributor to proceedings at BasementArtsProject, Jo Hill of the Williamson Art Gallery and Steve Hardstaff, the organiser of a series of talks entitled ‘The Things Beneath The Stairs’, held once a month on the third Thursday after hours at the gallery. For my part in this series things became even more tangential than usual, and maybe even, dare I say it, whimsical, as I decided to turn what could have been a talk into something of a performance and audio visual installation. 

Upon entering the galleries on a warm July evening one is immediately immersed in a wash of radio static, back and forth like a gentle tide of analogue white noise as you walk through a gallery lined with ships in glass cases in order to reach the gallery in which I waited for my audience. This gallery also has significance in my story as these boats have always been a major presence at the heart of the galleries. They have moved from time to time but they have always been there; the Lusitania, the Mauritania, the Woodchurch, the Overchurch and the Royal Daffodil, three of which have served as ferries across the Mersey and the last of which is currently in a state of disrepair on the banks of the Thames. All of these and many more are presented in ornate wood and glass cases throughout the gallery. Having entered the gallery furthest away from the front entrance I proceed to read two very short stories set against the backdrop of a newly created audio work. In the second of my two stories there is a reference in closing to the polyphon, I told you it was tangential, at which point I leave the room and head for the other end of the ship gallery where I set in motion my audio recording of the polyphon. Back in the room, my audience are left with the sound of the machine, now broken, as it whirrs and clanks into life and begins to play ‘that tune’ drifting across the galleries to meet their ears as it did to mine all of those years ago,.

‘In ancient Chinese literature, the motif of the abandoned musical instrument was used to symbolise a wider social decay, or the pathos of old customs in decline’ David Toop

.After a short question and answer session in which I spoke about the past, my memories and significance of the place in which we sat, I led the group on a short walk through the galleries to the other end of the building and a big curtain drawn across the entrance to another gallery. Throwing back the curtain I reveal the object behind tonights talk, the object from ‘beneath the stairs’, the Victorian Polyphon. Still resplendent despite its silence. 

This event was the launch of a crowdfunding project dedicated to the repair of the polyphon. A month later the target had been reached and the polyphon will be sent away for repair before being re-instated in the galleries at some point before Christmas 2019.

The ghosts of dawn have arrived and I hope that the polyphon enthuses and inspires children and adults, artists and non-artists for another one hundred and fifty years.