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Cathie Boyd, Robbie Thomson and Louise Harris - Sonica Festival 2018

Time was when anyone walking through the Clyde Tunnel was a potentially dangerous journey. Anyone who ever used the Glasgow walk-way as a means of getting between the north and south sides of the city or vice versa late at night in the 1980s and lived to tell the tale will shudder at the memory of such fool-hardy and possibly alcohol-fuelled behaviour. These days, however, things are different in what is now a brighter, cleaner and infinitely less scary promenade along the 762 metre concrete underpass which opened alongside the more widely used road tunnel in 1963.

This should be made apparent when Glasgow-based international arts producers Cryptic unveil Portal, an audio-visual walk through the tunnel that forms one of a trio of events as part of the company’s latest events under the Sonica banner. Normally a bi-annual festival of audio-visual art, Portal and its accompanying spectacles of sound and vision across the city effectively amounts to a Sonica summer special. This has largely been made possible by Festival 2018, the cultural strand of the Glasgow 2018 European Championships that will run throughout August, and which has supported two of Sonica’s summer events, including Portal.

“It’s something I want Glasgow to be proud of,” says Cryptic artistic director and founder of Sonica, Cathie Boyd. “The great thing about all of the Sonica events in Festival 2018 and all the cultural events in Glasgow 2018 is that things that can take place which normally wouldn’t, and that’s because the sporting events in Glasgow 2018 are helping make them happen. The fact that all the Sonica events are free and family-friendly is important as well.”

Portal is the brainchild of Cryptic associate artist Robbie Thomson, who, along with composer Alex Menzies, aka techno-classical electronicist and DJ Alex Smoke, have created a sensurround promenade through the tunnel in what is the fifty-fifth anniversary of its opening.

“I’d always been interested in underground spaces in Glasgow ,’ says Thomson, “and there was something about the length and the acoustics of it as well as this brutalist architecture that already felt like it could be the set of a science-fiction film. There’s something about its subterranean space as well made me start thinking about a metaphorical mythological journey that takes you down into somewhere really dark before coming out into the light on the other side. It’s a really iconoclastic space.”

The result of this for audiences is a journey into the unknown by way of a series of hi-tech ghost train-like interventions. A key component of Portal is provided by Bots, a UK-based company of automation experts who specialise in robots.

“We’re using this sculptural robotic installation based on the idea of synthetic biological forms that are inhabitants of the tunnel,” says Thomson. “We’ve borrowed one of the robots from Bots, and we want to make it interactive, so it can interact with people as they’re walking through the tunnel.

“I want people that use the tunnel a lot to come down and have the experience of it being reimagined in this way, and to be able to step into this futuristic world in a way that’s being used in a completely different way to its everyday use.”

With George Square being the focal point of Festival 2018, Sonica’s contribution will be Pivot, a large-scale interactive work by Australian artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey which uses artificial intelligence to make a talking see-saw which will chat to participants who take a ride on it. Such activity is something of a rarity even on normal see-saws, according to Boyd.

“If you go to a lot of adventure playgrounds, there’s a very good chance that you won’t see a see-saw at all,” she says. “That’s because they’ve been removed for health and safety reasons, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted Madeleine and Tim to do Pivot here.”

Already up and running is a third piece, Visaurihelix, an inter-active audio-visual installation by Louise Harris based on the geometric proportions that form a central part of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s architecture.  Installed in the Mackintosh Tower at The Lighthouse, Visaurihelix features recordings taken from six Mackintosh-designed buildings in Glasgow played over a thirty-minute loop spread out over six speakers on each floor of the tower. Visual representations of the composition will come from a purpose-built circular construction situated at the base of the tower. An interactive sonic element utilises bowed and e-bowed piano strings connected between the different levels of the staircase.

“It stems from my lifelong obsession with Mackintosh design,” says Harris, who recorded inside such iconic spaces as Scotland Street School, House for an Art Lover and the Lighthouse itself. “Walking through each space, I was surprised how how differently they all sounded. Each one has an individual character, and I think it will be interesting how hearing them in the narrow space of the staircase affects things. Things will sound different depending on where you’re standing. Then when you get to the top it will almost be like looking down into a wishing well.”

Since Sonica began in 2012, its fusion of sound, vision and state-of-art technology has burrowed its way around numerous Glasgow spaces on a bi-annual basis, and has toured work across the UK. Cryptic has also taken Sonica to Australia, France, Indonesia and South Korea, exploring each country’s own audio-visual adventures along the way. With more than five hundred events having taken place across six continents, this year Sonica received the Scottish Award for New Music in Creative Programming. With the next full Sonica festival planned for 2019, the Festival 2018 Sonica summer season sees Cryptic’s hi-tech interventions coming home to roost.                                                                                                                                                                                               

“It’s about celebrating the city we’re in,” says Boyd, “but most of all, for Cryptic and for Sonica, it’s about doing events that people will remember.”

Visaurihelix, The Lighthouse, Glasgow until January 2019; Pivot, George Square, Glasgow, August 1-12; Portal, Clyde Tunnel, Glasgow, August 2-12. All events are free, although tickets need to be booked for Portal.

The Herald, July 10th 2018

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