Songs of X-perience: Bringing William Blake to light at Subterranea

Feature in Issue 8-1 | Spring 1996

David Ryan provided the visual and sound coordination for Songs of X-perience, a meditation on the themes of political empowerment, disenfranchisement and spiralling European racism which was staged at Subterranea last year. Here he describes the challenge of creating a multimedia performance in a night club.

In May 1995, I co-ordinated a collaborative event based on William Blake's poems from the 'Visions of Heaven and Hell' at the Subterranea nightclub in west London. The event combined live music, video, sound, rehearsed movement and dance, to create an exciting and action filled night within the club. The night was aimed at attracting a mixture of club-goers and local people. Media exposure included interviews and advertising with Kiss FM. My desire was to promote the message 'Information is Power' and to reach a non-theatre-going audience.

Subterranea is a nightclub in Notting Hill on the Portabello Road which offers scope for performers and club-goers to take advantage of its location and size. Built into the West-way motorway, it has various levels and an extensive sound system. For Songs of X-perience the venue was redesigned to accommodate the elemental qualities of Blake's poetry. Decked out in an array of roses donated from New Covent Garden Market, the club was transformed from a space smelling of sweat and stale cigarette smoke to a fragrant floral environment.

Easy chairs lined the venue, offering the chance for the audience to recline and to be stimulated by the event in a leisurely fashion. The club's bouncers were 'gobsmacked' by the change that had taken place within the venue.

With a view to creating a performance that would be part prepared and part interactive, a certain amount of creative and technical planning was undertaken before the event. The intention was to create a framework but to leave space for spontaneity during performance. Danger and excitement were key elements to the pre-planning and indeed factors for the performers to react to on the night.

Brendan Stapleton created the movement for Songs of X-perience. Taking inspiration from Blake's poetry and the layout of Subterranea, he experimented with the body language and gestures that came from the performers. His choreography explored a range of themes including gender and culture, racism and political communication. Reacting to the performers varied skills from roller-skating to belly-dancing and their diverse cultural backgrounds, he allowed their styles and techniques to influence and develop the movement. Alongside this, a 30 minute video was prepared influenced by William Blake's 'The Clod and Pebble'. The video material integrated multi-layered images of waterfalls, fountains and local rivers together with thematic images of British society and culture looking at the disenfranchisement of housing and the dismantling of the Health Service. The video communicated colour, vision and political thought.

For the event, three live cameras were used to pick up action taking place in Subterranea which was in turn fed back into the pre-recorded video tape through a vision mixer enabling the projected video images to continuously evolve and take on new meanings. With extensive technical requirements, costs were relatively high. £8,000 was required solely by the video camera crew. Financial support was given by twenty commercial sponsors along with London Arts Board. Songs of X-perience was a charity event with all proceeds going to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Cafe Cyberia also sponsored the event and supplied internet terminals with free access to anyone within the club who wished to use them.

The relationship between the club environment and live and pre-recorded sound and performance was well received. An attender described it as a 'groundbreaking experience’ and another as 'magical'. Songs of X-perience had created a stimulating night through the integration of poetry, politics, performance and club culture.

Referenced Artists
Referenced Venues

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Issue 8-1
p. 9