Áine O’ Dwyer

An experiential critique of Áine O’Dwyer’s performance for Scottish Sculpture Workshops: Edge Effects, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow


“As part of the opening of the Edge Effects programme, Áine O’Dwyer will create a new performance exploring imagined territories, improvised landscapes and fictional habitats based on her series of mythical creature drawings, presented in collaboration with Counterflows.

Áine O’Dwyer’s role lies somewhere between vocalist, musician, improviser, composer, performer, listener, sonic stalker and audience member. In recent years, the pipe organ has become an integral site for her experimentation, culminating in her new albums Locusts and Gegenschein. Her forthcoming Gallarais experiments with acoustic decay, and was developed during her self-made residency at the Brunel tunnel shaft, London. All three releases celebrate her interests in found and forgotten spaces, chance choreographies, acoustic phenomena, the act of listening and the search for alternative scorings through a combined performativity of instruments, drawings, space, time, memory and the body.

This event is presented as part of Scottish Sculpture Workshop: Edge Effects; a programme of workshops, walks, sound work, film, and performance that explore the complex co-dependencies between ecological, social, economic, and political phenomena.

Edge Effects runs from 27 – 30 July at CCA and sites across the city. For more details on the full programme visit: SSW Edge Effects.”

Ice tied to the ceiling is melting. Drops fall on cymbals, tink, tink. Very rarely there is a louder tink and then a drop falling in the melt water collected inside a basin. These sounds are constant enough to create the illusion that there is such a thing as intentional music playing. From across the room I can feel my back fuming heat, trapped in the cloth of my shirt. To my left is a desk fan shaking its head in the slowest no possible, blowing a chill breeze at a piece of white cloth stretched over a wooden frame.

An industrial fan is turned on; its blades pushing air downwards into the strings of a harp. Both items are suspended from the ceiling, unreachable but by fabled giants. A whir, electric and constant soon turns into a dog whistle; the pitch is a piiiiitch and it is somehow manipulated in a way unknown to me. The near-inaudible whistle changes tones, slightly, and I can’t tell how.

I hear steps on hollow wood; people moving about the space with no concern to their actions, or a deliberate element of this performance? Hard to tell intention unless you speak to her. I think it is part of the performance, for to not consider the unmanageable elements is to ignore their power and effect. A voice appears; I can feel the space between the soles of my feet and the floor vibrate, vibrate, vibrate.

Pre-recorded animal growls interrupting the incoherent mumbling of a female voice.

Pre-recorded animal growls interrupted by a mumbling voice — I can understand it now: “Inside the mouth.” Was that an elephant’s trumpet?

Only now do I realise the familiarity of that electric whistle from fan-and-harp: tinnitus feels like this. She is tripling her Rs, doubling her Rs – Englishwomen would be jealous of her skill – saying things I do not understand. I can’t hear the minute details of sound that can be understood as individual syllables, collectivized into words and meaning; socialism of vocalisation.

The speakers tremble a shattering bass – if this has a term, I do not know it. A door outside this room closes shut.

A rumble.

A rumble. Bells, tiny bells, in her hands. Over and over and over they tinkle and tinkle and tinkle. It is a cat playing with bells, if the cat had an agenda of deconstructed musicality. A regular cat would deliberate and pause between every tinkle sound.

Wild elephants trumpet intermissions.

And the bells, constant.

Lions, some creature’s roar: louder! The tinnitus sound is perpetual only when you notice it, both in this space and when I lie down in the silence of my bed. The non-humans communicate: the image is stereotypically sub-Saharan. Lion King and Masai Warriors in Burger King colours.

The bells slow.

The bells tire.

The bells sleep.

By the changing states of matter, by heat transfer, are the cymbals played – ice gains energy from the air, it turns to water, 9.8m/s and as it accelerates downwards, towards the object of superior mass. Clink! it interacts with the cymbals. Vibrations moving one molecule at a time, kinetic energy reaching my ears. This is what is playing the instrument. The tinnitus pitch is gone, I realise. The fan is silent and my right ear feels deaf, empty, filled with cotton. My right ear is lonely. My brain forgot what the absence of this sound is.

Water drops on water; they remind me of a cave. Are we in a copper-walled cave moist with the presence of hominid bodies? Are we spying on the secret lives of a ladder and its friend, the harp-industrial-fan, suspended from above? The fan is silent, the tinnitus is gone. She pours water from glass to glass. A phone vibrates loudly, hard against the wooden floor – someone’s being contacted. I can feel that vibration through my leg flat on the black wooden floor. People leave in the cymbal silence; the absence of her activity is silence. The desk fan no-no-nos to my left, non-stop.

Up the ladder steps; she plucks at the harp with tentative fingers.

Down the ladder steps.

Only now can I see the light dancing on the strings. As she runs her fingers down the length of invisible strings, the harp is played in a full-bodied scale. She steps back, nearly trips over a piece of metal that see-saws as it clinks. She doesn’t let go of the string that plays the harp. Plucked, instrumental, primeval. Reminds me of Japanese strings, of a theatre of the East. I do not know the words for this.

Someone coughs. Twice, twice. Once, once. The horizontally floating harp dances back and forth with every pull of the strings. Cymbals vibrating water drops in perpetuity. Stress on the strings. Tension is the musician. New notes, new strings.  A phone – metal brick – falls on wood. A throaty, phlegm cough. Silenced. Tension is the musician, taunting the string so it can translate arm movements into vibrations and sound.

Her hips in black, fuller; I think of a former girlfriend—once. Tink, tink, drops on cymbals. Pause. Tink-cymbals. One string is felt, caressed all the way to the floor. A sensual dance performed on a piece only she can tell where it is: to us, the string is invisible in the dark and light.  I realise how solipsistic an experience this is, as I write it down. My mind goes elsewhere, comes back… like a shopper who doesn’t take a list and has to return to find the thing they need. This soundscape is in part defined by me, not so much by her. It is a manufactured sonorous space.

I lost track of her.

The tinnitus fan starts over the harp. I feel fresher air blowing in from my left. She nearly stepped on me as she walked around the wooden frame and to my left. I imagine her tripping over me, I imagine bodily contact with the artist. I do not turn to look, but I can hear her picking up cardboard; the sound alone tells me what material it was.

A wobble, a wobble, a wobble sound coming from some flat sheet. She stops and walks, kicking a cymbal dangling millimetres off the floor. She opens a door, closes it, opens it, closes it, opens it and then shuts it. Someone finds this amusing, someone joins in chuckling too.

A bigger, body-sized wobble sheet comes through the door. Wobble hobble – dread, oscillating – something grand. I like this sound. Wobble-hobble-lobble. The two-square foot comedy born from a wobbling cardboard sheet. Someone sniggers.

This space, dark and echoing, usually is perfect for me to feel a billion fingers dancing over my skin. I want to feel ASMR. I grasp at straws, trying to gain some physical sensation beyond the ringing in my ear, the confusion in my eyes, the intruding thoughts that remind me of how much I paid for this nonsense. I do not feel the somatic response, instead, she plays shadow puppets with a square grid.

Knobs turned: static, and then whistles carried over the great distances of mountain ranges. I can see her playing with a magnifying glass as the static takes over the room.

I am supposed to see shadow puppets, but I stare at a woman in black instead. I hear unknown textures, captured by voice recorders, echoing off the walls in this room. She still plays with the magnifying glasses, putting them close to her eyes – like a child playing pirate, playing aristocrat with a monocle. I am wondering how much of this is a planned, skillful performance and how much is ad hoc and self-inflating.

They laugh at the shadow puppets whose cast darkness I cannot see, for my perspective is limited. The sounds of space whales wailing as they are crushed do not mean anything to me; not from this angle. A dissonance of vision and audition.

Alien, watery echoes of whales jumping in a cave underwater.

She’s in a green throw, dancing. I cannot see the shadows. Only light and a presence t my left. With her throat she chants, whistles, ululates. She plays with a tag on the green felt, and I cannot even comprehend what she’s doing; maybe if I could see the shadows — a fraction of what is real, a physical resemblance of blocked light– I would understand. Static is present through the worlds of stories made in echoes. What is that? Bees, giant bees! – a scream of a species who communicates in Final Fantasy sound effects. I am more interested in the recording coming from the voice recorders to my left than what strange peek-a-boo she plays with a potted plant and the throw. Shadow and woman. I cannot focus on the shadows, for I’ve seen beyond the veil— No, I’ve seen around it. I never encountered the veil, the illusion of this un-theatre

Covered, static, slow-motion voices have the enthusiasm of someone reading the words on coins from across the world. Agh! I can’t see! The light suddenly blinds me. Abrupt change of station.

The reading continues.

To my left, she plays. Forwards and to the right the cymbals and people leaving. The voice reading the coins is slowly faded out and something that made a type of sense gets taken away. Another person leaves this room. Was that a bird chirping from within the recordings? Chirp. Chirp. A stream of water flowing. Voices, cymbals, water join the sound of air blown from her puckered lips and amplified by a microphone.  A television-clean female voice joins this un-spectacle in retellings of a descriptionary. I close my eyes, for something here soothes and comforts: water flow, voices that would be described as garbled or ritualistic. The tinnitus has become a trance only now I notice.

A coughing from my right, and two more people walk out. I will never share a space with them again. More people leave. There’s a theme here, if you care to pay attention. I am starting to wonder about my presence in this place, in this cacophony. Fidgeting: I am not the only one whose legs constantly move about and who keeps staring at people’s faces. They’re starting to disengage… Or, rather, they’re engaging critically and Brechtian. Like the Mongols, they voted with their feet – absence isn’t support.

“Hold together,” She says. I wonder how all this sounds from across the room.

She’s been speaking a while. I can’t understand, so I disengage from the female vocals. Focus on the sounds I can understand. I construct my own meanings from butchered elements. I this what being hearing-impaired feels like? Only half understanding and simply giving up to save face? That wasn’t an electric machine; it was a bottle, an actual glass bottle. And bells!

And more people vote with their feet and presence.

Someone lies with his back on the floor, with his eyes closed; engaging in his own way. Or sleeping.

I am hoping ASMR will soothe me, take me, claim my consciousness and reward me for supporting this with coin and time. This space usually allows me to engage with my somatic system, feel a pleasure foreign to myself. It is the minimum I ask of her. Transaction happened; I am her client, for fuck’s sake! Give me something, anything, I appreciate. This is a post-editorial addition.

Instead she ululates. Someone else leaves.

My left ear is deafened, as the voices of static and Satan stop. Soothing flutes coming from the other end of theses artificial soundscapes attempt to calm me again. They succeed, marginally, for they are something I can recognize. What madness have I walked into, what madness have I walked into, what madness have I walked into…

I am shifting and lie flat on my front. I am writing these things down as they happen. They’re edited later. I focus too much on writing the rambling thoughts down and lose the sensations close to what I aim to experience here – I cannot understand the television-clean voice, but I hear words that are soon forgotten. I dream of being outside, walking the beautifully grimy boulevards of Glasgow, and of seeing tactile, real things made with skill and careful consideration. What thoughts she has followed to reach this conclusion are thoughts of absolute freedom. What a joy for this to exist: I am a meme: I am not impressed.

The bodies around are part of the soundscape. As her moving around this copper-plated space is a soundscape. Why do we all come here? What individual expectations do we bring when we allow ourselves to stop being ourselves and witness such an event? I was expecting something else, definitively, something her name, Googled, would’ve given me. Expectations unmet; expectations never were.

Instead, someone comes in through the door. Only now do I realise she was a member of staff. Like a cicada and pan flutes the lady in black chants. Two people leave the room at this sound. Sad, it feels like this is getting somewhere. How long have we been here? Can I leave now? What if… should I finish… just because I am writing everything down?

Whistling and throat singing. Primal screams! Loud, peaceful, the song of a hunter expected. I want these sounds. I want these sounds. I want these sounds. I want these sounds to have started an hour ago. She plucks the invisible strings, the harp vibrates and a rattlesnake sound comes from electric speakers. Never again heard, this combination. I want t hear more of that throat-singing.

She stops and out a back door she goes. I hear chains beyond that wooden panel.

Two more leave after a loud, prolonged silence.

Chains rattle beyond that door.

When she comes out the cymbals play, the static is there, and I can’t tell what the things clipped to her shirt are. Dangling, clinking, tinkling – like the sound of dominoes being shuffled by dexterous, wrinkled hands. They are bottles, many white, clear tiny bottles making up artificial tits naked and proudly hunched over. Like marbles in a jar, they sound.

Chaos. Clinking on things. Am I glad I’ve experienced this? I’ve created this piece, this writing, as experimental as her performance was. It has affected me. I am not glad. I am glad.

For the first time she moves to the other end of the room. Suddenly she’s moving differently, interacting with objects, telling a short, short, short something. Whatever it is I am leaning forward. Her physical performance is better seen from afar. The tinnitus is ever present and she plays with the metal basin that collects the melt water from the ceiling.

Sagging tits of glass make that marble sound.

Suddenly she bolts! Runs like a hunchback out the main door.

It takes us a while to realise it has ended.

It has ended.

Frowns, all around.

As I walk away down the corridor and out into the lobby, I catch a glimpse of her face one last time, smiling, nervous, happy to have performed.

Originally life written during the Artist's performance at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. Edited and polished in: 21/08/2017.