Fay Schopen is a writer and journalist living in Whitstable. For the 2014 Whitstable Biennale, her house was used as a site for Bronwen Buckeridge’s sound installation, The Sorrowful and Immaculate Fall of One Hundred Grazing Sheep. Here she writes about her experiences hosting a work for the Biennale.
One year ago. It is early May, and I am sitting at my desk in my study, although it is not quite my study anymore. To my left is a man named John. He is clutching a plastic bag containing pencils, rubbers, a ruler and a selection of small dowsing rods. There is part of a map on the desk in front of us. It is an old map, unidentified, and unmarked with place names. To my right sits the artist Bronwen Buckeridge. She is quiet and still, holding recording equipment. In front of us, beyond the window, is the sea. I am asking John some questions, as his dowsing rod moves over the map. Are there any man-made structures buried underground? What are they made of? Can you describe them? John speaks slowly, his instruments quiver, and he makes marks on the map in pencil as he talks.
When we are finished with this line of questioning, Bronwen produces a heavy, lumpen stone. It takes up nearly a third of the desk. John runs his fingers over the dark surface, in a bemused way. He suggests it contains animal matter. The stone sits on the desk, an alien object, an oversized, misshapen egg.
We are here because Bronwen is making a piece of work, which I will later find out is to be called The Sorrowful and Immaculate Fall of One Hundred Grazing Sheep. It’s an audio installation, to be installed in my study in my house in Whitstable for two weekends during the Biennale.
A few months previously, a mutual friend of ours got in touch, saying an artist friend was looking for a location for her work, and was I interested? I was. Bronwen visits, along with Emma Leach, the festival’s Performance Curator, and they seem interested. We discuss my work schedule, their needs, the implications of staging a work here. A few days later, they say they would like to use the space, my home, if I am game. I am.
The piece Bronwen produces is for one person at a time. The location is to be undisclosed, and upon booking, visitors will be given a map of the route to take to my garden gate – a short walk from the Biennale HQ on the beach. They will enter my gate, stroll up the garden path, walk into my kitchen and, somewhat confused, they will make their way upstairs to my living room. An invigilator will be there, and then they will sit in my living room, with two or three other people, quietly, patiently waiting, perhaps reading a newspaper, whilst someone else sits in the study and listens to Bronwen’s work. When it is their turn, they will sit at my desk, looking out of the window at the sea, listening to the recording on headphones. Then they will leave.
All of this comes to pass.
Meanwhile, Bronwen visits regularly to make recordings. We chat, we drink coffee, and I look forward to her visits. I am interested in her creativity, her methods, her Bengal cat. Some of the ideas behind her work resonate strongly with me. When the Biennale brochure is printed it will explain that the acoustic environments Bronwen creates are “deliberately unstable – both right now and already past, moored and itinerant, referring at once to the site where they are installed and to elsewhere.”
I feel this very strongly in the piece she makes. My house, its location – and indeed me, imbued as I am in the space – are all part of the experience for the audience. I enjoy the idea of the visitor being caught off-guard, unprepared and slightly uncomfortable in someone else’s space. It reminds me, in a nicer and gentler way, of Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Schneider, his magnificent and spooky 2004 installation which took place in two identical houses in London’s east end. And so it is with me and my cat, Duchess – Die Familie Schopen, if you will. We are here, we are part of the work too.
When it is time for the Biennale, I clean my house in preparation. I arrange things just so. I even wash the floor. Then I leave. Because I quickly realise that the stream of visitors trooping through my house may be somewhat annoying. The first day I am in the garden, gardening. People turn up and they are very confused. “Is this the…?” They say. “Yes,” I say. The cat sets up shop in the kitchen, away from the strangers upstairs. I leave the garden and explore the rest of the Biennale. It is very hot.
At some point during the weekend, the whole project takes on a life of its own, and I don’t mind the visitors. I bump into Tamsin, the mutual friend who introduced Bronwen to me, and it is delightful. One day I come home with my friend Philip and an irascible man is sitting in my green easy chair, waiting for his companion to finish listening. He tells me he didn’t really listen to the recording, he was more interested in looking round my study. He holds forth for a long time on what he thought Bronwen should have done with the work. Bronwen is also there. When he leaves, she tells me he is Robin Klassnik, the Director of Matt’s Gallery in Mile End. This fact amuses me no end. Friends and family of Bronwen come, my friends come, we listen, we enjoy. Overall the experience is a special and singular one. I love being part of the festival, part of the work, part of the amazing creative collective of artists who have come to my town and transformed it into something different for two short weeks.
Above all, I love the piece. The finished work is sinister and fascinating. Recorded in stereo, the sounds Bronwen has recorded in the house mingle with sounds she has recorded on the Isle of Sheppey, along with snatches of dialogue from John’s dowsing session. It has a wonderful and unsettling rhythm to it. The listener is disoriented, unsure if what they are hearing is ambient – birds singing, doors opening, footsteps upstairs, the crunch of people walking on the shingle outside – or part of the recording. And then there is my voice – me, at my desk, asking questions. And, in my house, visitors sit at my desk, one by one, and it is almost as if they are me.
I listen to the piece several times on my own, during the days it is set up, and, it must be said, with varying degrees of sobriety. It is particularly thrilling in the dark, when I am slightly drunk, the rumble of sounds from Sheppey, the bird calls, and John’s words. “There it is… it’s coming round… quite dramatically,” he says at one point. “What’s visible is irrelevant to me. What you can’t see or can’t find is the bit that interests me.” I agree wholeheartedly.