A Man in a Room Gambling
Each day, at precise moments throughout the day and night, the BBC broadcasts its Shipping Forecast on National Radio 4. It happens at 00.33, 05.55, 13.55 and 17.50. In this forecast what the attentive listener (i.e. the professional or amateur sailor) hears is information relevant to his geographical location within certain named regions. But given that these are broadcast without discrimination on national radio they are also heard by many casual listeners and form part of a dimly-perceived auditory experience out of which each radio listener attempts to visualise an intensely dramatic world with its wind speeds ("Severe Gale Force 9 (1) imminent "(2), its weather conditions and visibility ("Visibility Poor "(3) and so on. The list of the maritime regions read out in sequence forms a kind of litany. It is always recited in the same order going round the British Isles in a clockwise direction from Viking in the extreme North North East through to SE. Iceland (with the addition of Trafalgar at 00.33 only) in the North North West. Those who listen with marginal alertness give some attention to their preferred region. For myself I occasionally give some care to the sequence from Tyne, through Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber and Thames to Dover since that coincides with the area of the North East to South East coast which forms the bulk of my maritime interest and experience. But this is a very limited form of focus and almost always the experience of hearing the Shipping Forecast (with additional reports from "coastal stations") is a consequence rather of having tuned in early for the National News, which follows immediately afterwards, and therefore of being obliged to sit through the preceding brief programme. Nevertheless this experience gives virtually every listener in the British Isles a hazy impression of, what is at times, a quite dramatic activity taking place in areas whose precise locations are only vaguely sensed and the vague sense of continually unfolding meteorological phenomena. In a very real way these five minutes generate an emotionally powerful imaginary space....
In 1992 Artangel asked me to speak with Juan Muñoz about a possible collaboration. He was in England for an exhibition at the Hayward gallery and, simultaneously, he was undertaking projects outside the gallery confines, this being Artangel's principle area of interest. One of the projects he realised was his Monument on the South Bank of the Thames, which gives the sense of being some kind of memorial but, in reality, (like many 'monuments') is a bogus testament to nothing at all. As such it provides the kind of double-take that was so much the key to many Fluxus pieces from the 1950's onwards (though I suppose a monument can hardly be said to be in 'flux'). This particular piece performed a similar function to Juan's spurious anthropology with his Posa in the elegantly presented pamphlet entitled Segment (5).
The project which we developed, however, was for a sound piece and I was initially curious that a sculptor should be interested in working with a musician, especially on a project for radio. We met and found inevitably that we had many things in common - he had studied at Croydon Art College with Bruce Maclean at about the time I was teaching in the Environmental Design department; there were details in his iconography which mirrored my passion for Twin Peaks (the recurring dwarf, the patterned floors) and so on. Coincidentally in 1992 I found myself devising a project for the Chateau d'Oiron in France only to find that Juan had a piece in a collective work already installed there, the Jardin Bestarium - his siffleur (theatrical prompter) yet another example of the dwarf, and in the same year we both contributed to the Seville exhibition Los Ultimos Dias (6), designed as a counterbalance to the millennium celebrations already in the offering The idea that Juan had in mind for our collaboration was for us to create a series of pieces for radio. Naturally the idea of working with a sculptor in a non-visual medium was interesting and challenging, especially when it emerged that what we would be dealing with was the idea of describing actions which themselves cause visual illusion and trickery, and placing them in some kind of broadcasting framework.
Radio is a beautiful medium for many reasons. It stimulates the visual imagination; the listener can move between casual and attentive modes of listening; it moves inexorably through time, as well as being used as a way of measuring clock time (timing an egg to the duration of a medium duration news bulletin). It can also function as ambience, and indeed for a great deal of the time this is the preferred mode of attention for the "listeners" of radio. On the other hand everyday life can equally serve as an unfocused (ambient) activity while the radio itself is playing - the preparation a meal during a radio play for example. In the visual arts a relatively recent equivalent might be found within Fluxus and especially in the work of George Brecht. The question of whether there is any artwork there or not is often answered by the viewer's double-take, like a response to Brecht's Silence notice, for example9. This almost immeasurable element between the work's existing or not resembles Duchamp's concept of "infra-mince" where a series of imponderable spatial measurements is postulated (for example, quantifying the difference in the volume of air displaced by a shirt washed but not ironed, and the same shirt ironed).
For our project, which was called eventually A Man in a Room Gambling, Juan wrote 10 texts, each one describing the manipulation of playing cards - dealing from the bottom of the pack, avoiding failure in the Three-Card Trick, how to palm a card and so on. Some of this material was culled from the writings of the extraordinary Canadian S. W. Erdnase and especially his book The Expert at the Card Table(10)which contains some of the most perfectly constructed sleights of hand in card manipulation. We decided that each would last exactly 5 minutes and would be placed before the last News of the evening on the radio so that the programme would be encountered, in Britain at least, in the same way as our encounters with the Shipping Forecast. For his part, Juan imagined a listener driving along a motorway at night being bemused by this fleeting and perhaps enigmatic curiosity, in fact precisely the way in which most listeners encounter the Shipping Forecast.
In recording the speaking voice, of course, Juan read each of the texts at his own pace and each one lasted a different length of time, varying in length from 3 minutes to 4 minutes 30 seconds. Each text therefore had to be manipulated both to make it fit the 5 minute format in terms of the overall duration and to establish the conventions whereby after 4 seconds after the start of the programme Juan would be heard to say "Good Evening" and at precisely 4 minutes 52 seconds he would say "Thank you and Good Night". In addition, and perhaps crucially, each of the 10 five-minute texts was accompanied by a string quartet, playing at exactly the same tempo for each piece, giving an overall unifying texture to each five-minute piece and to the sequence of ten programmes. The music too uses quasi-Wagnerian leitmotif techniques. Like an apparently strict musical form it breaks the five minute whole into its structural parts - a descriptive preamble, the action of taking the cards, the development of the cards' manipulation and the revelation of what has been achieved. Various codes are established, for example the coincidence of the word "now" in the phrase "now take your cards" with a string pizzicato The presence of the music also serves the additional function of intensifying the trickster's duplicity.
When a focused listener is trying to follow the instructions given by the speaker (given his obviously 'foreign' Spanish accent reinforcing the xenophobe's feeling of distrust) he may encounter an occasional attractive passing melodic phrase in the music of the string quartet which takes his attention away from the description for a moment and once this happens he is immediately lost. In addition, within certain programmes (especially the fifth, seventh, ninth and tenth (11)) there are additional textual phrases in the form of brief repetitions of individual words by a Japanese speaker - who takes the implied role of an innocent bystander trying to practice the trick as the speaker describes it. Periodically these words are hopelessly wrong as when the Japanese speaker repeats each key word of a sentence ("Little finger" - "Little finger", "Ring finger" - "Ring finger") but occasionally "Thumb" - "Little finger" adding to the sense of spatial and conceptual dislocation. In addition, in the ninth programme, which is presented in an apparently improvisational way, the speaker claims to have lost his prepared text and offers another explanation of the Mexican Three-Card Trick, which has in fact been already described more formally in programme 2. In the ninth programme, however, the ambience is changed further with the addition of environmental sounds (the street outside tapas bars near Seville Cathedral) as though the trick is in reality being performed in its habitual location viz. the street, as well as being reflected in the bafflement of the superimposed Japanese participant.
On occasions these pieces have been broadcast within the spirit of the collaborators' intentions - in Canada (twice) and in Austria. The use of such public broadcast facilities widens the impact of Juan Muñoz' work in fields which have hardly been investigated as legitimate media for visual expression. The impact of such broadcasts is, of course, minimal and constitutes little more than a gentle prod. But then this is the essential nature of work in an ambient framework. In 1920 Satie rushed round the Gallerie Barbazanges12 urging the interval audience to carry on talking and to ignore his musique d'ameublement. Much later Cage stressed the importance of being alive to sounds around us, of accepting so-called incidental sounds and of waking up to the very life we are living. A Man in a Room Gambling attempts to bring together these varying approaches to musical focus and to create something where in its very ambiguity resides its most appreciable strength.
(Gavin Bryars January 1995 Written for Parkett 43 1995)
Illustrations suggested to Parkett:
1.The Shipping Forecast map of the weather regions from Weather Services for Shipping, The Met. Office London January 1993
Copyright © Gavin Bryars