“I Keep Thinking My Way to Ness”: Emplacement(s) on the Anglian Coast

Milo Harries*

Abstract

This article explores senses of emplacement in two works delivered through headphones, Ilya Kaminsky and Axel Kacoutié’s I See a Silence and Zoë Svendsen and Carolyn Downing’s Ness. The article begins from a feeling provoked by the headphones themselves: a sense that Ness took place “out there,” caught in the wind, whilst I See a Silence was secluded from the site, within the headphones, “in here.” Understanding the works as rehearsals, the article articulates the dispositions these positions prepare, offering each as a chance to practise an ethical response-ability: in Svendsen’s work, an attitude of interruptibility, and in Kaminsky’s, an estranged intimacy that recognizes the other in their withdrawal.

Keywords: headphones, listening, ethics, place, response-ability

Ilya Kaminsky’s I See a Silence and Zoë Svendsen’s Ness start from common ground. Both are site-specific sonic works, delivered via headphones to solitary listeners exploring landscapes on Britain’s eastern coast; both had their beginnings in the same strange shingle spit, Orford Ness—now a nature reserve but once used for classified research, contributing to the development of the British atomic bomb. These rhymes of form and origin centre in both works a concern for secrecy, violence, reclamation and decay—as well as guiding the choice of the sites within which their listeners were eventually emplaced: I See Silence ghosts Orford Ness itself, whilst Ness takes place on Shoeburyness, at Gunners Park—another nature reserve studded with the relics of another military past. Despite these similarities, however, their listeners’ experiences diverge, keyed by a difference in the pieces’ technical frames: where I See a Silence uses closed headphones (Numark HF125s), Ness uses Sennheiser HD599s, with open backs. As a result, walking their sites in 2021, I was struck by the feeling that I See a Silence set itself apart from the landscape, “in here,” whilst Ness took place “out there,” beyond the headphones, as though its voices were “caught in the wind” (Svendsen, Personal interview).

This article thus began from contrasting sensations of where I was when these works were taking place. The article’s task is to attend to this difference, articulating how these pieces emplace their listeners and asking what is at stake in that work. Carl Lavery argues that simplicity in the work of art can be “a device for revealing where one is,” proposing an “aesthetics of disclosure” that would allow for a clearer perception of our entanglements (“Participation” 305). Relatedly—but distinctly—this article will argue that Ness and I See A Silence not only sharpen their listeners’ perceptions of their entanglements but influence their orientations within them. Bearing in mind Sara Ahmed’s observation that “[t]he approach is not simply about the arrival of an object: it is also how we turn toward that object” (2), I will argue that the works’ central interest is not only in what is perceived but in how those perceptions are anticipated and faced. I will propose that, in these works, emplacement describes not only a position but a disposition, rehearsing not only novel perceptions but also different orientations towards things perceived.[1]

What I will offer, consequently, is the suggestion that Ness and I See a Silence hold space for forms of ethical rehearsal, finding within their altered modes of emplacement “the potential of practice to be practising, to involve trying out life, exploration and experiment” (Crouch 17). In each case, what is being rehearsed is a mode of response, structured by headphone-delivered sound that acts as one of “our infrastructures of being, the habitats and materials through which we act and are” (Hagood 4). I will argue that each work mediates its listener’s entanglement within the site by cultivating a specific “sonic sensibility,” a mode of engagement that takes listening as “a susceptibility towards the world and the things [sic]” (Voegelin 178). Where headphone-delivered sound has often been understood as “a method of not attending to interactional possibilities,” therefore (Bull, Sounding 26), I will argue that in these works, it emerges as an opportunity for novel forms of ethical interaction. In doing so, each piece offers its own form of dis-closure: not a revelation made to the subject, but an opening of the subject towards the other and the unknown.[2]

The article is founded on the conviction that “theatrical imagining offers us a way to practice, or to rehearse, other ways of imagining that outside the theatre might have some consequences for the ways we live now” (Read, Dark Theatre 154). My claim will be that these works, through the influence they exert on the practising of place, can allow for the rehearsal of an ethical disposition. At stake in this claim is a proposition for the “response-ability” that Hans-Thies Lehmann identifies as one of theatre’s fundamental properties (185). I will propose a connection between this theatrical capability and an ecological need, arguing that theatre’s “response-ability” might be a means of cultivating the “response-ability” Donna Haraway names as one of our era’s most vital and pressing concerns (2, 98). The potential for which this article argues, therefore, is that these works expand and enhance their listeners’ capacities of response, rehearsing alternative grammars of experience and proposing new objects of attention. The article’s conviction is that Ness and I See a Silence offer opportunities to practise “thick copresence” in ethical modes, “training the mind and imagination to go visiting” with strange beings in unexpected worlds” (Haraway 4, 130).

“Listen. Listen Now. Listen to Ness”

Robert Macfarlane’s prose poem “Ness,” the source text for Svendsen’s adaptation, tells the story of a group of scientists as they prepare for the firing of a bomb. Svendsen—a dramaturg and theatremaker who, like Macfarlane, lectures at the University of Cambridge—describes these scientists as examples of a tendency to “[push] away recognition of the fact that we’re part of the natural world, not in mastery over it” (Personal interview). Both poem and adaptation describe this denial coming undone. Five “forms” converge on the scientists’ rite, “moving fast through the forest to Ness,” travelling as and within the landscape’s life: willow and birds, shingle and green, lichen, likeness and drift (Macfarlane and Donwood 1). Infiltrated and enfilamented by the forms, the scientists are drawn into the ness, lichen “scaled” on their skin, and moss “blooming plushly” in their mouths (55–56). The ritual collapses: sunk and scattered in the shingle, the weapon cannot be fired. The work thus traces a trajectory from dominating separation towards inherence within a resistant, bewildering mesh: the scientists’ bodies are revealed to be permeable and porous, exposed to and entangled in the world they have attempted to master. The poem ends with an image of deep time: “[i]t was all sea once, in a long unbroken line” (83).

View from military structure to sea, Gunner’s Park, Shoeburyness, 29th September 2021. Photo: Milo Harries

Svendsen’s work—designed with Carolyn Downing and commissioned by Metal Culture for Estuary Festival 2021—hides Macfarlane’s story alongside the everyday. Ness begins at the edge of Gunner’s Park, a short walk from Shoeburyness station, tight between a residential neighbourhood and the sea. Given headphones, a kitbag, and a map, Ness’s listeners are invited into the park, sharing it with the normal rhythms of its use: families and dog-walkers, joggers and passers-by. It is at this point that the site begins to speak: GPS triggers, virtually embedded in the earth, prompt its recordings to play as the listeners pass. This offers the audience access to a piece in two parts, a “double dramaturgy” that sinks Macfarlane’s narrative into the landscape in the shape of an “explosion in reverse” (Svendsen, Personal interview). In the work’s first part, the listeners are free to explore, discovering the park littered with invisible sonic shards: fragments of the narrative to come that are roused by the listeners as they move. Arriving at a disused gun emplacement, the listener finds the work’s other half, a linear audio drama relating the dissipation of the scientists’ integral selves. To hear this story of dissolution, the listener stands in a ring of hagstones laid within the emplacement’s shelter: the centre of a centre, the vortex’s heart.

Despite this sheltered ending, my claim for Ness begins with the idea that it reverses the insulated emplacement typically associated with personal stereo use, asking its listeners instead to open themselves to interruptions from beyond their usual frames. It is the first, more mobile part of Svendsen’s piece that will be my focus, as it brings the listener into a world which whispers past the edges of their sight. Where headphone users might normally move within an “auditory bubble” (Bull, Sound Moves 3), or carry their soundscape with them as a “portable cocoon” (Tuhus-Debrow 47), Svendsen characterises Ness’s listener’s relationship to the site as “threaded”: its mode of engagement with the site is “sonically porous,” as if the site itself were speaking (Personal interview). The audio arrives woven within the landscape’s other sounds, as if its voices were “somehow held by the site” (Svendsen, Personal interview): because of the open headphones and binaural recording technology, every sound has a trajectory, a point of origin, and there is no sense that you are carrying your own sonic space. The GPS triggers, meanwhile, make the rhythm of the listener’s encounters dependent on their movements, reinforcing the sense that Ness’s sounds and voices must be found amongst the grasses of the park. The listener’s exploration, moreover, is unpredictable: some of the recordings are attached to double triggers, so that the work’s presences can seem to flit across the landscape. Listeners returning to the same spot will encounter something else: a different ghost, the arrival of something new.

This infrastructure of discovery helps to create the impression that the listener is placed within a landscape quick with invisible life, waiting “out there” to be met. Understood in these terms, one of the principal characteristics of Ness’s site is that it is acousmatic: it harbours a network of sounds “that one hears without seeing the causes from which [they originate]” (Schaeffer 91; my translation), and in its haunting, offers encounters with acousmatic beings—in Michel Chion’s terms, acousmêtres (Audio-Vision 129). The quality of address in these encounters is uncanny: there is a feeling both of overhearing and of being spoken to; of being half-present in, and half-sensing, a spectral parallel world. As a result, a large part of the listener’s experience is a feeling of hauntedness, an interaction with ghosts, “the kind of perception made by only one sense” (Chion, Audio-Vision 125, discussing Merleau-Ponty 225). Svendsen and Downing’s choice of equipment grounds an experience that leaves its listener unsettled and alert: a series of near-meetings, a movement among presences that are not quite not there.

These acousmatic encounters work on the listener’s disposition towards and orientation within the site. Unseen, “usually malevolent, occasionally tutelary” (Chion, Voice 23), and characterised by “ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence” (Chion, Voice 24), the acousmêtre speaks from somewhere beyond our understanding, and with knowledge beyond our own. It introduces a sense of uncertainty: an intuition of excess, a sense of something that lies beyond one’s ordinary frames. Its voice sounds uncannily from somewhere “neither inside nor outside the image” (Chion, Audio-Vision 129), at an angle that endows it with a curious sense of power: “The acousmêtre is everywhere, its voice comes from an immaterial and non-localized body, and it seems that no obstacle can stop it . . . The acousmêtre is all-seeing, its word is like the word of God: ‘No creature can hide from it’” (Chion, Voice 24).

Acousmêtres thus challenge what Chion calls the “panoptic fantasy . . . the fantasy of total mastery of space by vision” (Voice 24). In the experience of Ness, they defy and disrupt a stable sense of visual command, stressing the openness of the horizon and the limits of the listener’s vision: somehow present, but “out of shot”—or here, out of sight— introduce a vulnerability into the listener’s sense of place. The acousmêtre’s excessiveness resists the dominant position associated with headphone use: where Bull argues that in everyday practice “[t]he management of experience through sound technologies is tied to implicit forms of control—over oneself, others and the spaces passed through” (Sound Moves 102–3), Ness offers an experience of unmastered space, where invisible voices arise suddenly to chuckle and whisper into your ear.

I want to suggest that this non-mastery opens the site’s borders, allowing for the eruption of presences that cannot be (fore)seen. As Brandon Labelle observes, the acousmatic can challenge habitual or static perceptions of the world: discussing sounds that are invisible, but overheard, he explains that they can “[expose] us within a scene of alterity: a figure, a voice, a sudden assemblage by which subjectivity is interrupted or unsettled” (70). Ness’s unpredictable acousmatic encounters can be interpreted, similarly, as moments of interruption, where novel properties and agencies threaten to come into view: as they begin to be involved with the image of the site, the work’s acousmêtres bear with it, as Chion observes, “a relationship of possible inclusion” (Voice 23). These interruptions, therefore, might be understood as the beginnings of what Alan Read describes as “radical inclusion,” a renewal of the distribution of the sensible on the part of entities that have been held beyond it (Intimacy 181); the promise, here, is that these “experiences of intrusion and interruption” might “inaugurate new social encounters and relations” (Labelle 69), that theatre can be “a movement of reassociation and reassembly,” a chance to “begin again” (Read, Intimacy 43, 6).

The broader claim I am making for Ness, however, is not only that it produces the experience of interruptions, but also that it allows its listener to rehearse an attitude of interruptibility. When Bull observes that “[a] central motif of iPod use is to block out external interruptions whenever and wherever possible,” he is describing a way to engage with the world, a disposition or (dis)orientation based on “[remaining] continuously in control” (Sound Moves 69). As we have seen, however, Ness’s unmastered site runs counter to the spatial imaginary classically associated with headphone use: it refuses to “banish the contingency of the auditory landscape, clearing a space for [the listener] which is predictable and secure” (Bull, Sound Moves 31). I would argue, therefore, that the deeper significance of Ness’s acousmatic encounters is not that they offer new beings to knowledge, but that they propose the landscape as always imperfectly known. From this perspective, Ness’s more profound work is not simply to interrupt the listener but to allow them to rehearse a disposition that is waiting for those interruptions to occur. Turning the entangled subject beyond the limits of their perception, and troubling their sensations of control, the piece prepares in them a broader openness towards that which might appear.

The deeper ethical work of Ness, from this perspective, is that it allows its listener to practise being differently disposed towards a contingent, unmanaged, unmasterable world. Salomé Voegelin, discussing her experience of a different sonic work, describes herself “intersubjectively constituted by the sonic possible world generated in [her] inhabiting, glimpsing a different knowing of place and geography through [her] walking through, which [she] will not be able to shake off on the way home” (35). What cannot be shaken off from the experience of Ness is the vulnerability of its “intersubjective constitution” and the limitedness of its “different knowing”; it offers and encourages the practice of an ethical mode of being-in-place. In crude terms, we might characterise this as a dis-closure of the subject rather than one made to them—in the sense that the work encourages the listener to live opened to a world into which novel agencies might emerge. When a voice sounds in the listener’s ears at the start of the piece, saying “Listen. Listen Now. Listen to Ness,” one might therefore say that they are being prepared not only to listen but to listen out, to live within a “sonic sensibility” that would make them susceptible not only to what will appear in the work but to that which might appear beyond it.

“We Watch / They Watch Us Watch”
View from Bomb Ballistics building, Orford Ness, 26th September 2021. Photo: Milo Harries

Ilya Kaminsky’s I See A Silence, designed in collaboration with Axel Kacoutié, was commissioned by Artangel as part of Afterness, a hybrid exhibition responding to “the singular environment and hidden history of Orford Ness” (“Afterness”). The piece is a “lyric work,” again delivered through headphones, that forms a soundscape for walking Orford Ness itself. Where Ness’s siting tugs at the logics of an “ordinary” park, therefore, I See a Silence inhabits a landscape of explicit secrecy, at a conscious remove from the everyday: it takes its listeners in a rough loop around the shingle, amongst the controlled ruination of the ness’s military life (“Afterness”). Arriving on the ness via ferry, the audience walk half a mile to the Information Building to pick up their equipment. Another half-mile takes them to the Bomb Ballistics Building and the memory-plains of the shingle where the work will begin. Once begun, the piece itself is a journey, each of its tracks paired with part of the path; the listeners walk with its sounds and voices past the lighthouse to the shore, and on past the Black Beacon to the low grey bulk of Laboratory 1.

View towards the Black Beacon and Laboratory 1, Orford Ness. Photo: Robert Macfarlane

This looping course encourages a very different sense of emplacement to the one engendered by Ness. I See a Silence is carried with the listener, rather than being pinned to the earth: where Ness’s progress is prompted by listeners moving from one trigger to the next, Kaminsky and Kacoutié’s work is organised into continuous five- to ten-minute movements. These are assigned to and describe parts of the landscape, but without the exactness that characterises Ness: I See a Silence’s correlation between audio and path—between track and track—is premised on areas rather than Ness’s network of points. This logic anchors a sense that the work’s space exists in relation to the site but remains independent of it, a feeling strengthened by the piece’s technical frame. Kacoutié explains that the choice of closed headphones was motivated by a desire for “a more secluded feeling,” in the expectation that the site would be windy most of the time. In performance, the sea breeze whistles on the headphones’ plastic shell, a steady sign of the “sonic envelope” within with the work occurs (Bull, Sound Moves 2), and a response to Kacoutié’s desire for the audio to be “its own experience” rather than blending in with its surroundings (Personal communication). In fact, though it was written for the ness, the work’s most salient feeling is that it happens—in keeping with classical expectations for headphone-delivered sound—“somewhere else” (Bull, Sounding 73).

In one sense, then, I See a Silence offers an estrangement: not an “ecstatic immersion” in the site (Lavery, “Introduction” 229) but a gentle seclusion from it. Where Svendsen characterises Ness’s listener-relation as “threaded,” therefore, we might think of I See a Silence as “bubbled”: in contact with and contained within the site but, in some way other, and set apart. This sensation of separated spaces shadows the circumstances of the work’s composition, with Kaminsky—who, alongside his writing career, holds the Bourne Chair of Poetry at Georgia Tech—kept by the pandemic from ever visiting the site. Yet this sense of distance does not adequately capture the text’s position relative to the landscape it describes. Kaminsky’s poetry nurtures an impulse towards: a note at the back of the published collection runs, “Reader: I’ve never visited Ness. These pages are a record of my trying to go there” (Silence 61). One of the text’s most resonant emplacements is full of this striving, removed from the shingle but reaching towards it: “Like a boy who rolls a candy on the tip of his tongue, in a time of plague, in the middle of another continent, I keep thinking my way to Ness” (11).

The work’s feeling of separation is thus used as the basis for a journey, or a sense of departure to a position looking back at the ness it has imaginatively left behind. In these moments, the listener’s detachment from the site brings them into the speaker’s world, to a place self-consciously removed from where they are physically standing; the work then thinks itself into a return, taking its listener towards a ness now re-figured as “a landscape of the imagination” (“Afterness”). Travelling out and back, the listener now occupies multiple sites, what they can see braced bright against what they can hear. In some of these landscapes, they—and perhaps even the speaker—are absent; during the journey that leads past Laboratory 1, for example, a speaker says:

In rain
a rabbit
runs through
the open
door
of laboratory 1
leaving

a spray of footsteps
soon
filled
with
water.

30

At other moments, the listener is absent but addressed, imagined, and anticipated:

And perhaps you will
take off your t-shirt
and go
hollering
into
the sea
and while
you splash—
gulls, five of
them peck
at your
t-shirt

40

Elsewhere, the listener is conjured into a different world, positioned at the speaker’s side:

Gulls line up like hostesses at a hospice and we
            watch
They watch us watch, and they
            hold
this nation in the quarantine of their eyes

35

The listener is thus moved around a network of positions—actual and imagined, retrospective and anticipatory—that are in conversation with the site where they are standing. Crucially, there is an intense emphasis across these journeys on the shifting relationship between listener and speaker: what is stressed, as the listener is re-placed, is the relation they now bear to their world. Sought and seen from these positions, the listener’s location is defined in relative terms: in another person’s distance, in their future, or at their side. This “lyric work,” like Kaminsky’s earlier Deaf Republic, offers itself as an example of what Min Hyoung Song describes as a “revived lyric,” “not concerned,” at its heart, “with the spotlighting of an individual ‘I’ or the exploration of a profound psychic interior . . . but [focussed] instead on the space between a first-person speaker and a second-person addressee” (4–5). The work’s journeys allow this space to be renewed: as the listener is re-situated, they are newly addressed. At stake in its acts of emplacement, therefore, are deeper ethical questions about how we relate: to be re-placed is to be re-oriented, caught in the eye of someone else’s mind, or turned to face the strange rebounding scrutiny of the gulls.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that the text repeatedly returns to moments of mutual scrutiny and acts of partial, recursive witness. I See a Silence displays a particular fascination with moments of reciprocal regard, a curiosity that is clear in the gulls that “watch us watch,” as well as the doubled reflexivity of the silence “which reveals ourselves to ourselves” (18). This silence opens instances of simultaneous contact and estrangement:

What I saw
at Ness is how silence seeks us
. . .
silence is the self defense
of people spat on, people in whose faces
other people’s silence peers
Who watch
others watching them—
watch who don’t know
they are being watched

57

What repeats in these moments is the experience of a doubled recognition and mis-recognition: an intense knowing and not-knowing of the other, and through the other, of oneself. These moments thus rehearse an attitude of simultaneous intimacy and exclusion, offering encounters between beings that both act on and withdraw from each other, positions that are present with each other in some form but which nonetheless remain mutually opaque. The returning gaze of the gulls, and the speaker’s stretch towards the listener’s present (“And perhaps you will . . .”), speak to a preoccupation with exteriority founded on the impenetrability of other lives, a mode of relation that evokes The Ecological Thought: “[o]ther minds are like the dark side of the Moon: there, but invisible to us. Our intimacy is an allowing of and a coming to terms with the passivity and void of the strange stranger” (Morton 80). It is this dynamic that we find between the speaker, the listener and the birds, a guarded form of external recognition which goes no further than the outside of the eyes, but which nonetheless offers an asymmetrical, ethical form of relation: a “platform for compassion” that might “reveal ourselves to ourselves” (Morton 80; Kaminsky 18).

In its relations and revelations, then, Kaminsky’s work could be seen as a rehearsal for the intimacy Morton is describing: a revived lyrical awareness that faces the other in and as their mystery. For the work of its dis-closure, I See a Silence rehearses “a mental openness far more disturbing than outer space” (Morton 80), a restrained disposition that is intimate with the other as they cannot be known. In Kaminsky’s prose, poetry is proposed as a place for things to appear: for Kaminsky, as for Zbigniew Herbert, “a poet is like a barometer for the soul of a nation. It cannot change the weather. But it can show us what the weather is like” (“Barometers”). Kaminsky articulates a faith in poetry’s ability to express something of how we are: he notes that “[Czeslaw] Miłosz titled his seminal text The Witness of Poetry ‘not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us’” (xxiv). But the disclosures of I See a Silence, in line with Song’s “revived lyric,” are interpersonal and exterior: what is witnessed is not simply how we are, but how we are with each other. What the work knows is our not knowing; what it sees are the limits of our seeing. Faced with irreducible strangeness, it pauses at the horizon of its gaze, rebounding as a form of intimate estrangement in the spaces in between.

Orford Ness, 26th September 2021. Photo: Milo Harries

Returning to “response-ability,” then, the argument of this essay is that in their structured modes of responding, and in small, specific ways, Ness and I See a Silence contribute something towards: “learning again, or for the first time, how to become less deadly, more response-able, more attuned, more capable of surprise, more able to practice the arts of living and dying well in multispecies symbiosis, sympoiesis, and symanimagenesis on a damaged planet” (Haraway 80). What I have described in this essay, of course, exceeds a strict sense of the words “practice” and “rehearsal;” those terms can imply a purposiveness and instrumentalism that would do a disservice to the makers and their work. What holds, however, is the sense that these works allow and encourage their listeners to do something that it is important for them to do again. They open spaces for new forms of interaction; they might not teach, but they make space for the listener to learn. In closing, therefore, it is the “ability,” as much as the “response,” that I would like to stress. Each piece briefly oriented me within the entanglements of the site and made me capable of something; they seeded a change, through the practice of place. In memory, the pieces have receded; if something specific was disclosed to me, if I had an epiphany, I cannot remember it. But I remember what it felt like to be there, vividly. I remember how it felt to face things, and how it made me move.


Endnotes

[1] I owe the distinction between ”position” and “disposition” to Richard Kearney (452).

[2] This sense of “dis-closure” is also owed to Richard Kearney (390).

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*Milo Harries is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he holds a Judith E. Wilson Studentship in the Faculty of English. His doctoral research centres on logics of encounter in the context of the climate crisis, and his other work has been published in Contemporary Theatre Review, IJPADM and Platform: A Journal of Theatre and Performance. Milo co-convenes the Cambridge Graduate Seminar for Drama and Performance and is on Platform’s editorial board. He is also an opera singer and coach, and has worked at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Opera North. www.miloharries.com

Copyright © 2022 Milo Harries
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