ST PANCRAS STATIONYou are standing in the middle of the Station concourse, pictured here. M&S Simply Food is on one side, Le Pain Quotidien on the other. You hand over your mobile phone or your credit card and it's stowed carefully away in a padded zipped box at the back of the kiosk. In return you are lent a pair of free ear phones big enough be black ear muffs. You walk out into the crowd and wander round, then, in my case, find a seat, sit very still and listen.
What you hear are fragments of speech spoken by actors, tantalising sound bites which could veer off in any direction.
Lillies, for god’s sake....
I’ve got everything on the list and I’m going to start tonight...
He wouldn’t know about that. No one does...
It doesn’t look right. I can see that now...
When I said I couldn’t hear them crying, well it wasn’t true. I knew they were crying.
They’ll find out and they’ll think I knew. But that’s not what I saw. Not really. I only saw a list. You have to be absolutely sure. Or you’ve destroyed everything for nothing. Nothing. A list.
Wonder, distress, a glimpse of a narrative, some nifty self-justification reach out to us. The words surface for a few seconds, then disappear.
The big black ear phones muffle the outside sound, so that the people striding past us - with their stilettos, hiking boots,trainers - could all be wearing slippers. Some are talking, but not to us. They glide by, silent as wraiths.
But inside our headphones an interior monologue is relentless. It’s a TV game with a conveyor belt of goodies. No sooner are we caught up with the pathos of one incident than a new voice breaks in which resonates and reverberates like a poem. Then off we are again with humour or something sinister or that which doesn't make sense. We start off as eavesdroppers, then settle down as an audience, but before we know where we are, we've turned into participants.
We cannot help but try to make sense of what we hear, to judge the speaker, to imagine what happens next...But there is more. We are cut off from the props we normally use to make sense when people talk to us, We stop, untangle, question what we are doing. This is a moment when we have a chance to reflect on what we do with what we listen to.
Audio Obscura is a new sound work by poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw, commissioned and produced by Artangel with Manchester International Festival. It’s an aural version of the camera obscura, that is to say, ‘dark listening’. Try it.
mif.co.uk for the Manchester International Festival
fullcircle-editions.co.uk for the catalogue