On a small but high wooden stage in a dimly lit room, a microphone stand is perched just off-centre. It’s as if it’s waiting for some bow-tie and tuxedoed ageing MC to begin proceedings, or else a slouching, t-shirted comedian to grip the stand while eye-balling hecklers on the rows of seats lined up in close proximity before him. Behind the mic-stand on a screen, a photographic image of a very special room is projected. The room is ornately and ostentatiously arranged, all comfy cushions on gold leaf stools. At its centre stands a female mannequin, its naked arms perfectly poised, a long, flame-coloured wig accentuating Jackie magazine eyes.
At first glance it could be a dressing room or a stage set, with the red-haired showroom dummy cast as leading lady. A mirror in the room catches the just-so outstretched arm in reflection across it. Behind it is another room, less exquisitely dressed-up, its walls barer. There is also the figure of a man, casually going about whatever business he’s in, unconscious of the camera that has accidentally caught him in motion next to all the perfectly ordered stillness beside him.
On the walls, slides flash up smaller images of other rooms. One is a decrepit, bombed-out interior spattered with pigeon shit. The other shows a series of domestic images at odd angles that resemble tabloid magazine brain teasers. Both look like the kinds of places missing innocents are held prisoner, only to be discovered a lifetime later. As it is, no human remains are evident. Unless, that is, you count the noises off that filter through the speakers in an extended series of murmurs, scratches, clinks, drips, squelches and other in situ sounds looped over 40 minutes, powering the imagination with sinister narratives with no obvious beginning, middle or end. The effect resembles Samuel Beckett’s life and death miniature play, Breath, 1969, remade by David Lynch, whose early short films featured terrifying soundtracks amplified to near deafening levels, whereby a pin-drop sounded like an explosion while everything else resembled fingernails scraping down a blackboard.
In fact, the three rooms in Static Cinema are respectively a vacant stall at a Düsseldorf flea market, the attic of a derelict building over-run by pigeons, and a concrete basement somewhere in Norway. The soundscape was realised by Mark Vernon through an improvisation with household objects in a room in Trondheim with appliances including wine glasses, an egg slicer, a boiling kettle and a washing machine. Further additions were made in Düsseldorf, Balmerino and Dundee, as well as a pet shop, a railway station and a walk in the snow.
By putting such seemingly disparate sound and visual elements together, Vernon has achieved something on a par with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham’s zen-like creative process, whereby each element existed both separately and together, at odds with each other even as they fused. The difference here is that by making both parts, Vernon’s Static Cinema becomes more knowing about how things may or may not turn out. In this way, he is more consciously an auteur, even as he asks his audience, be they captive on the chairs provided or else just passing through, to dream up their own stories.
This is a common enough experience in the sort of aural collages that filter onto sound art radio station Resonance FM, with whom Vernon has worked. Yet it also taps into the wave of activity over the last decade on the so-called ‘Noise’ scene, which the formal art world has only recently latched onto in a more formal manner. Vernon’s work fits in with a lineage that dates back to the early experiments of veteran UK improvisers, AMM, right up to Edinburgh-based duo Usurper, and Vernon’s own work, both with Mogwai’s Barry Burns as Vernon and Burns, and with Tony Swain and Lizzie Swimmers as Hassle Hound. Tellingly, perhaps, that just as Static Cinema closed, the CCA’s main space opened with Dutch duo Bik Van der Pol’s show It Isn’t What It Used To Be And Will Never Be Again, part of which features film footage of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.
By adding a visual element through slides which occasionally vanish completely, Vernon’s ‘static cinema’ is actually in perpetual motion, continually opening doors on possible worlds he invites you into. In this manner, it can be something different every time, a rolling programme of popcorn double features, be they opaque horror flicks, disaster movie stuff, continental noir or garish psychodramas with cliffhangers overloaded with Freudian symbolism designed to keep the audience on a knife-edge. Vernon is more Hitchcock than Lynch, then. Because in Vernon’s world, everything is implied and nothing is dumbed down unless you want it to be. Context is all, he seems to say. Now make up your own ending.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic