“It’s not ‘natural’ to speak well, eloquently, in an interesting, articulate way. People living in groups, families, communes say little – have few verbal means. Eloquence – thinking in words – is a byproduct of solitude, deracination, a heightened painful individuality. In groups, it’s more natural to sing, to dance, to pray: given, rather than invented (individual) speech.”
It’s 1997 and I’m standing in a queue at an opening at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien – an artists’ studio in Berlin. There’s people milling around with drinks. At the front of the queue is a desk. Someone at the desk is inviting the person in front of me – a man in a silver bomber jacket – to complete a form. I wait my turn.
I’m about to take part in a Blast Theory project called Safehouse. Matt and Ju have been at work – on a project later to become Kidnap – and this moment is one of the few times I’ll take part in a Blast Theory project as a member of the public – not knowing what is about to happen.
I’m feeling a little nervous and excited.
I reach the front of the queue and am handed a form. It asks my name and to choose from one of six questions that I’d like to answer. I choose: “Do you like the feeling that you are being watched?”
Next to the desk is a corridor. I’m ushered down it. At the end is a door. And through the door, a tiny blank room – one metre square. Lit from the ceiling by a bare bulb. I enter the tiny room and the door closes behind me. Looking around there’s no handle to get out again and I realise that the bulb overhead is gradually going out.
In the darkness, the bustle from just a moment ago feels like another time.
In front of me, a door buzzes open and over the next 30 minutes I pass through a series of rooms.
In a narrow waiting room, a sign asks me to choose a grainy print-out of a face from a selection on a coffee table. I decide whether I should sit uncomfortably close to (or noticeably far from) the man in the silver bomber jacket who arrived before me. After several minutes, a door opens and he’s taken away by a performer in a white suit. I wait alone in anticipation, listening to a murmur of conversation through the door.
When the performer returns, she brings me into a room with two armchairs and a VHS camcorder. She checks the framing on a monitor on the floor and the interview begins. I’m asked about alternate names that I’ve imagined for myself. I give an account of a stranger who I’d recently found in my kitchen eating jam, having broken in. The performer is unhurried; listening patiently for me to finish my answer to each question. After 18 minutes, we come to the question I chose at the beginning.
In a final room, the performer places the tape of my interview on a table stacked with the tapes of other people’s. In this room, my interview is shared with the 80 other members of the public who’ve taken part.
Looking back at Safehouse now, it seems clear that some features of the project have persisted in the design of work we’ve made since. For example, a choice at the outset that marks your taking ownership of what’s about to take place (Urilke and Eamon Compliant). A setting that detaches you from the outside world and invites you to step outside of yourself (Operation Black Antler). A spaciousness and opportunity for reflection before you actually speak (Rider Spoke). And afterwards, a space where what you’ve said is disclosed in some way (My One Demand).
What impact do each of these features have on how they enable speech?
In our tape archives, there’s roughly 30 hours of interviews from those who took part. Seeing my own recording, it’s hard to remember what my reflections were at the time, but judging by my inarticulate admissions of self-consciousness and to avoiding people, it suggests that I’m trying to find words for things I’ve not really said out loud before.
I’m going to be using Safehouse as one of the case studies for investigating Blast Theory’s work going forwards. If you were one of the 80 people who was in Berlin in 1997 and took part in the project, please get in touch.
I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to you about the experience.
If you weren’t there, then here’s a taste of what it was like in a PDF export of the original database of questions that formed the source of the interviews.