We are in the Bishopsgate Institute Library, an attractive building near the chilly, gutted hull of Spitalfields Market, a building which since the late nineteenth century has been a place for debate, for the exchange of ideas. In the library the walls are lined with glass fronted-cases, home to their collection of books on the history of London and on the labour, co-operative and humanist movements. This is the backdrop for a piece of audio-theatre co-created by Rotozaza’s Ant Hampton and Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells, a piece designed for libraries, a “whispered, self-generated performance for two at a time” taking place as part of the London Word Festival.
Participants are paired up and given mp3 players. We sit side by side at a library table and don the headphones; a voice invites us to listen to the sounds around us, to the particular music of libraries worldwide, the muffled cough, the bags being unpacked, the turning of pages.
A stack of books sits at each person’s elbow from which we are invited to read, to run our finger under the lines of text as we once did at school. In this way the very act of reading becomes defamiliarised. We are invited to consider how we read and why we read from a position of distance; to examine the process of absorbing these words, of gleaning meaning from the lines of black ink on white.
We are made to study our own skin, to read our own stories and those of the people around us: we find ourselves watching the stylish woman sitting to our right with her shoes cast off under her table, the white-haired and grey-suited man sitting beside her and concentrating deeply on some kind of map. We are also invited to think about what it is to not have this ability; the words are made to dance, to fade to white.
The voice is at times soothing, at times unsettling. The resulting experience is both meditative and playful. The chosen passages in the chosen books echo one another, describing scenes of loss and destruction. We are invited to close our eyes and think our way into these scenes; from our table in the library we are transported to shattered cities. By placing participants in pairs, a solitary activity becomes a shared one in a manner that is again reminiscent of being at school, hunched over a single volume, suddenly rather conscious of the speed of your own reading.
The experience takes less than an hour, but it lingers in the memory. The next occasion you take up a book, in the tube on the way home say, or later that evening in bed, it is difficult not to do so with a greater degree of wakefulness, to enjoy the weight of the book in your hand, the feel of it, the strength of it, and to pay much closer attention to your reading voice.
Following its run at the Bishopsgate Institute Library, The Quiet Volume will tour a number of contrasting library spaces across London including Hackney Central Library and the University of London’s Senate House Library.
Reviewed for Exeunt