SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1995
SPANK GOLD: Edinburgh Festival 1996

Playing The Building

When was the last time you saw a piece of art that you could have a decent lie down to?

I know exactly when it was in my case: the Spring of 2004, when Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project was coming to the end of its six-month installation in the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern. A combination of a mirrored ceiling, a faint mist in the air and a bloody enormous lighting rig came together to generate the illusion of a gigantic sun glowing away at one end of the hall. Faced with something of that magnitude, people reacted in the only way they could: lying on the floor and soaking it up (with the odd group of pranksters rearranging themselves or their belongings to spell out messages in the ceiling mirror).

David Byrne's Playing The Building, showing at the Roundhouse until August 31st 2009, may not be on the same gargantuan scale: but if you're not directly at the centre of it, I suspect that lying down may be the second best way of experiencing it.

Old Lag has been talking in the comments boxes recently about catching David Byrne live at The Big Chill. It looks like Byrne was in the UK for a week or so at the beginning of August, and there's no denying he was busy while he was here: a gig at the Barbican at the start of the week, Big Chill at the end of it, selling off his bike for charity in the middle, and somehow finding the time to supervise the installation of this thing in the middle of the Roundhouse.

So here's the deal: we have one of London's loveliest concert venues, with the usual stage taken out and the covers taken off the skylight windows, revealing the full glory of the old train shed that it used to be. Byrne has set up an old pump organ in the middle of the room, and wired each key to a different bit of the building: the keys trigger off blowers that play pipes like flutes, or motors that make girders vibrate, or solenoids that make hammers hit the pillars. And then he's put a big PLEASE PLAY sign on the floor next to it and left it to the audience.

Which is the masterstroke, as far as I'm concerned: because it puts the responsibility for enjoying the installation completely in the hands of that audience. If everyone just hangs around the back of the auditorium, you'll have nothing more than a moderately interesting piece of mixed media sculpture. For it to make real sense, someone has to step up and play the thing - like The Belated Birthday Girl (for it is she) does in the video above.

We spent a couple of hours there last Sunday, and it was fascinating to watch how things evolved. When we got there a little after noon, there were less than a dozen people in there in total: they would individually wander up, play a little, wander off again, and there'd be a curiously tense silence before the next person sat down at the keyboard. By the time we left around 3pm (with a break in the middle for lunch - and I can highly recommend the BBQ ticket deal, which throws in up to a tenner's worth of food and drink for a measly £5 supplement), you had to queue for 30 minutes to get your hands on it.

From the video above (assuming you can see and hear past the Shitty-Mobile-Phone-O-Vision), you get an idea of the basic sound that the keyboard generates throughout the building: with rumbles, clanks and whistles coming at you from all directions, it reminded me of nothing so much as the Dolby Digital Train trailer being heckled by the Clangers. But spend an hour or two lying on the floor of the Roundhouse just listening, and you notice that everyone plays the building differently. Most people start tentatively by prodding the odd key or two, before deciding how much they want to throw themselves into it. You can hear the trained musicians attempting to play a tune on the keyboard, then fizzling out after a few bars once they realise the keys aren't tuned in any way at all. Some people go for a rambling, improvisational approach: others set up a defined rhythm with the right hand banging the pillars, while the left hand plays quasi-melodies with the motors and pipes. (And whenever couples sit down to play together, it's invariably with the bloke on the right grabbing the instant gratification of the percussion, while the woman is stuck on the left with the more complex pleasures of the wind. As it were.)

That's the one thing I wasn't expecting from Playing The Building. I'd assumed that playing it would be fun, and it was - but I didn't realise that listening to other people playing would be just as entertaining. And during the run, the Roundhouse are giving people plenty of opportunities to experiment with the installation. Pay-what-you-can deals on Mondays, to encourage people who can't afford the £5 entry fee: musicians encouraged to bring instruments on Thursday nights and jam along (no amplification or drumkits please): and late night opening on Fridays and Saturdays. I think if we do a return visit before the end of the month, I'd like to try a late night and see how it sounds on a two-pint buzz. Hey, the event's sponsored by Old Speckled Hen: it would be churlish not to.

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