Reflecting on the texture of air

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Laura Mitchison is the managing director of On the Record, which produces oral history to inspire social change.

Laura’s work The Texture of Air, documents the extraordinary perceptual worlds ‘overheard’ in two recently closed NHS (British) hospitals.

Here, Laura talks about the context this work, on which she was artistic director together with Olivia Bellas.

Each of us carries a room within ourselves, waiting to be furnished and peopled, and if you listen closely – you may need to silence everything in your present room – you can hear the sounds of that other room inside your head.

Susan Sontag

The room in Prof Howard’s head is his old consulting room, which looks out onto “Shadyville” – the Grays Inn Road. There’s a hissing fire, a ticking clock and a popping sound as the pet terrapins bubble to the surface of their glass vivarium. Knock, knock – a junior doctor enters with fresh shrimp for the terrapins, which he peels by hand, and then trots out to get some rest. Let’s follow him through the murmuring corridor, into the silent anechoic chamber, where The Texture of Air begins.

Together with Olivia Bellas & Nicole Robson, I brought forth the memory rooms of NHS staff and patients at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, and the Eastman Dental Hospital. Hospitals are intensely private, guarded spaces. But, in their last days, they slowly opened up to our gentle enquiry. The two sites were closing down in 2019 after 233 years of independent history. Staff walked us through their operating theatres. Patients let us into clandestine consultations. After dark, promenading musicians captured the acoustic profile of courtyards and corridors, thanks to the tireless curator, Guy Noble, who arranged access for us.

The Texture of Air is a sound walk through inner and outer space, drawn from the rich archive we created. You can witness the moment a cochlear implant is switched on for the first time, the music journalist awakening to a phantom orchestra, the trills and purrs of voice therapy, until the entire sensorium is assembled before you. Each of these little vignettes was chosen because they stretch perception beyond its conventional bounds. The conceit is heightened by music and field recording: sounds are overheard spilling into corridors, a hypnotic dentist takes you below the surface, and underwater recording of the Eastman’s fountain triggers notes on the piano.

For people with ordinary senses, the body is in the world just as the heart is in the organism. We can choose to intellectually split objects into sounds, sights, tastes etc.
But this is categorically not how they appear to us. When something goes wrong with the ear, or the voice, or the nose, our fundamental contract with the whole world is broken – sense data separates from its objects. When patient Nick woke up, one morning, with sudden sensory-neural hearing-loss in one ear, the world did not fall silent, as one might expect. Real sounds were displaced by an “intercranial mariachi band” of clanks, zizzes and hisses, punctuated by a tiny monkey playing a tiny pipe-organ.

The patients we recorded became detectives inside their own bodies, approaching their sense of place with a sort of philosophical curiosity, which we encouraged through questioning and deep listening. Children with tinnitus would hear “bees” and “bouncy balls” and “ghosts.” Adults would characterise and even befriend their phantom orchestras. Figurative language abounds.

It’s surely no coincidence that the area of the brain which is at the crossroads of touch, hearing and sound – the angular gyrus – is experimentally linked to metaphor (Nature, 2005). Taking it a step further, our ability to link unrelated things might be heightened precisely at the moments when cross-modal synthesis is most urgent; when the body schema is being re-mapped by illness. After all, the force of a good metaphor is not the simple substitution of one term for another, but the attempt to change reality by performing a fresh story about it. It fashions a new world from which the original appears unreal. The Texture of Air preserved these fleeting sensory messages from travellers to otherwise unimaginable lands.

Although the soundtrack was created first and stands alone, The Texture of Air is accompanied by a visual track for the benefit of the hearing-impaired. Hard-core audiophiles may prefer to listen with eyes closed. However, if you open your eyes, you’ll get an insight into the dislocation of sounds from things, which the people we spoke to experienced. Think of it as extra-cochlear sound-art!

Another patient, James, was struggling to express how he could sense freshly mown grass even though he had lost his sense of smell. He finally alights on the perfect formulation – “it’s the texture of the air,” he says. James’ uncanny experience of a perception severed from its physical architecture became a fitting title for a soundwalk through closed hospitals that persist in the imagination.

“We’ll all still be together, won’t we?” one of the therapists ask her colleagues towards the end, almost rhetorically. As oral history artists, we wanted to listen to the hospitals democratically. Transient patients and domestic staff had to be on an equal footing with the medical pioneers like Prof Howard. Only the latter can easily insert themselves in to the chronological institutional history, but everyone speaks from their own particularly position of sensory expertise. It’s the little perceptual details that pull you through, bringing “body”, “building” and “memory” into alignment – three notes striking a chord.

Laura’s article is the twelfth in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards talking about their work.

Laura Mitchison

SWS Award winner

Co-founder of On the Record CIC. Oral History, co-production, creative media.

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