One of the artworks commissioned as part of our R&D programme.
A bespoke song for the camera obscura, written and performed by Gen Doy inside the camera obscura to an audience of one or two people.
Public rehearsals took place in March 2016 with final performances on April 29th 2016 at Winterbourne House and Garden in Birmingham.
Gen Doy had travelled up from London to see the camera obscura before submitting her proposal. She immediately hooked onto the idea of the image being upside down and we talked about many ways this could be worked on with the camera with a particular emphasis on sound. Then right at the end she made an offhand comment. “I’d love to just sit in the camera and sing to people.” Our eyes lit up. We’d heard lot of complicated and ambitious ideas from people since opening the call and the simplicity of this idea was refreshing and delightful. We were determined to get Gen to sing to strangers inside our camera.
While the final work would be the least complicated of our commissions, the preparation was equally as thorough. We first needed a venue, somewhere suitable for a song to be sung. Winterbourne is an Edwardian house and botanical garden near the University of Birmingham where we’d taken the camera a couple of times and were hoping to develop an ongoing relationship. They have their own artist residency programme and were very amicable to us using the grounds to develop a new work.
Before composing her song, Gen visited Winterbourne late in 2015 and soon began to see upside-down images of the garden as evocative of a time infused with radical spirit. She took photographs of scenes whose meaning could change as the image was rotated, and some of these became a set of postcards which were given to audience members after the performances.
Her ideas mainly came from Christopher Hill‘s seminal book The World Turned Upside Down, about the Diggers and the Levellers during the English Revolution, and their desire to reform society. The title comes from a quote from the famous Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, who in 1649 wrote: “Freedom is the man who will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he hath enemies.”
Having familiarised herself with the gardens, Gen set to work thinking about the world upside down and what that might mean. “The song was intended not to illustrate or comment on the upside-down image in the camera obscura,” she says, “but to make allusions to it in a subtle way, while also making people think about things in the wider world.”
One such allusion was inspired by Karl Marx who used the camera obscura as a metaphor for how people see the world. As Gen explained: “People live their lives like that, seeing the world kind of real but not actually the way it really is. And when they understand how the world really works, as opposed to the way it’s presented to them, then the camera obscura image is seen the right way up and corresponds with reality, which it didn’t before.”
Gen came back to Birmingham in mid March and we took the camera obscura to Winterbourne to rehearse the piece. We found a spot with a nice view and set up the camera where passers-by might come across it. Gen performed the song four times to random visitors.
The performances went surprisingly well with few problems. The biggest issue was sound from outside. The camera isn’t soundproof and any chatter or footsteps were muffled but audible, so we established a perimeter to ensure there weren’t any distractions beyond the ambient sounds of the gardens.
For the final performance on 29th April we decided not to invite any specific audience or even advertise the event but simply place Gen and the camera in the gardens and invite visitors to join her inside. This meant that our audience had no expectations nor warning, but all were very willing to go inside this box with this strange woman and have her sing to them.
While all responses were generally positive, everyone’s reaction was slightly different. Some commented that the experience was like being sung to as a child, the contained environment creating a safe, comforting space from which to watch the slow movement of the trees and clouds on the camera’s screen. One found the image distracting and preferred to close their eyes to listen to the song, while another found the song forced her to look intently at this selected view through the camera.
The idea that this sort of entertainment might have been common in large camera obscuras hadn’t occurred to us until an audience member mentioned it, but it made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t someone in a Victorian camera obscura structure sing to the others? Maybe we were recreating a lost art.
As Gen could only perform the piece a few times to save her voice she also pre-recorded a version to be played inside the camera. We set this up for the periods when Gen wasn’t around and a couple of people experienced it, but it didn’t have a fraction of the impact. The song needed to be live, as the image was live.
We hope to stage ‘Upside Down’ again at some point in the future and Gen is looking to develop some of the ideas and processes that emerged during the project. Ultimately we’re very intrigued by the potential of staging performances inside the camera and how that can draw meaning from an otherwise unsuspecting image.