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Site V – Phil Maguire / Anne La Berge

Image Credit: Maguire/La Berge

Site V is a video and experimental music piece by Phil Maguire & Anne La Berge, exploring the relationship between humans, machines, and place. Split between London and Amsterdam, Maguire and La Berge harvest their inspiration from a location where their respective national identities collide: Dutch wind turbine farm ‘Borssele Wind Farm Site V’, in the English Channel, approximately halfway between their respective locations.

As we don’t have much experience in this particular niche; for this review, we’ve been invited to give the average artsy Joe’s verdict on Site V… which is exactly what you asked for, right?

Abbie

A viewing of Site V requires the right atmosphere. A piece that demands your attention like this is really worthy of an ‘event’, and seeing as we listened from home, I made it my mission to do this justice. I sat in silence in my room, by the light of my mildly pretentious rock salt lamp, at approximately 10:30pm, joined only by a pack of jam tarts. As I settle in to my mountain of pillows, the room fills with Maguire and La Berge’s signature language of drones.

Throughout the piece, this complex layering of drones are guileful and enticing – in constant war between harmony and bubbling dissonance, between people and the places they call their own, and between the natural world and machine. The moving images of the sea are full of potential – peaceful, yet threatening – as if they could ignite chaos at any moment. This is solidified by the fraught, low drones that underpin the piece – which sound as if they could burst from their constraints at any second, given the chance. 

For me, this thirty minute piece felt like five. In fact, I didn’t feel like I was in ‘time’ at all – instead, I was suspended above the ocean. In part I, the marriage of relaxed waves and ominous, low drones serve as a reminder that what appears harmonious and calm can be dangerous and volatile underneath the façade – a worthy lesson. A major highlight of the piece is a compelling composition of images towards the end of part I; a silhouette of Maguire in opposition with a rotating turbine. As the blades rotate, the white stripes hit Maguire almost like a searchlight, revealing Maguire’s features for a brief second – the striking image inviting thoughts on surveillance, and the rivalry machine, human, and the natural world. 

As I view Site V alone in my room, the fabric of reality feels excitingly thin. One-note, buzzing drones fill me with anxious anticipation; electronic glitches sound like machine, water and breath all at once, and I feel as if I’m being watched. A turbine appears as if from the depth of the waters – like it had been waiting for me. Site V holds me captive: turbulent waves crash in slow motion, bearing resemblance to a scan of brain activity, and the centre of the turbine is an unwavering eye – like a security camera. I am only able to release my bated breath as the looming structure fades away, as if destroyed by the waves. In part III, I am placated by Anne La Berge’s wistful flute – transported to an ethereal, more hopeful place. Though the sea is boundless, chaotic, underpinned by the same taut drone, I have found a pocket of sanctuary. 

Maguire and La Berge have created a piece which is intensely personal, whilst graciously granting us the agency to be active and independent viewers. Their sound is delightfully manipulative, their images provocative. This art style may feel jarring to you if you have not previously made friends with it, however if you can allow yourself to be immersed, I think you’ll be grateful for it. As a theatre maker, I’m desperate to see movement set to this soundscape – Maguire’s haunting grey-scale imagery projected onto bare bodies. I can recognise that this niche of art can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially when viewed at home, but I for one can’t wait to listen again.  

Georgia

I log onto the ‘Site V’ webpage – first impressions: black and white, moody. As I press play, a set of coordinates appear on the sepia screen, the sound of static buzzing. Oh no. My laptop speakers must have died and I hate reading maps. 

It soon becomes apparent however, that my speakers are intact. This is just what the piece sounds like. My second thought now is that it is set in some faraway era, World War Two perhaps. Am I in fact watching a very slick electronic production of an air raid simulation?

Again, wrong. About 6 minutes in, a wind turbine appears on my screen. Now, to be honest, after 6 minutes of staring at my screen trying to figure out what exactly I’m listening to, to see any image of something I recognise feels soothing – a wind turbine! I know what they are! The effect of the blade turning casts light upon the shadowed face on the screen: a nice touch, again bringing the piece into the 21st Century (the hipster glasses are decidedly un-WW2 like). 

If at this point I had not returned to the homepage and done a bit more reading of the artists’ words,  this piece would almost certainly have been totally lost upon me. I do think there’s some argument for the view that art should work as a standalone piece – comparing it to say, a joke: if you have to explain it, it’s not good enough. But having said that, perhaps that logic only works if you’re inclined to enjoy the art form anyway. If you’re a fan of expressionism, you might not need someone to explain what Rothko’s big squares of colour meant… but then again, maybe part of the reason you love it is because you already know. It’s a chicken and egg situation. If I hadn’t started to browse the Site V webpage while I listened though, I think I most certainly would have missed a lot. 

The idea of finding a location between their home cities of Amsterdam and London for inspiration is very sweet. It does feel slightly like an idea that seemed great on paper –or on my computer screen – but then perhaps a little more tricky to follow through. Much of what lies in between the two cities is water. They did very well to find something (Borssele Wind Farm Site V, to be precise) with so much artistic potential.

I click back to the screen, reinvigorated with a new sense of enthusiasm. Much like a tourist armed with a headset guide at an art gallery, I clutch at my newfound knowledge of the Meaning (capital M) behind the piece with pride.

Again though, I can’t help feeling I’m not quite doing it right: sitting on my sofa, watching the animated black and white waves, semi-waiting for something dramatic to happen on screen (spoiler, it doesn’t). But what does happen is very nice, if not exactly Spielberg-esque. At about 20 minutes, the ‘electronically processed flute’ kicks in. And this is when I really start to enjoy the music. This also coincides with the moment I put down my laptop and lay on the floor, and I think that’s the key here. The cool, haunting tones of the flute floating over the grounding buzz of the static, which remains a constant throughout the entirety of the piece, really worked. And it didn’t feel like you needed to know much about wind turbines, or points on a map, or even electronically processed flutes, to feel that.  The fact that the only ‘real’ instrument used in the piece was a wind instrument was also certainly not lost on me. A coincidence? Maybe. But having read how much thought and meaning has clearly gone into this piece, I think probably not.  

Ellie

First of all, let’s clear one thing up: electronic instrumentals are not my forte. I settled myself amongst a mound of bed pillows in a dimly lit room and tried to work out how a person ‘opens their ears’. There has to be a knack for these things. I propped my neck up until it completely swallowed my chin. I even laced my fingers together over my chest like a vampire, hoping my heart would temporarily quieten and allow the Site V experience to encapsulate me entirely. Yet despite all my incredibly professional preparation, Anne La Berge and Phil Maguire’s collaborative creation was not at all what I expected. 

The piece credits its visual editing to Maguire and the audio mix to La Berge. Together, they create an eerie soundscape that takes the listener on a journey through the sea and machinery. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what they were going for. I can imagine that in a live, intimate, dark space with very few audience members, the atmosphere would be quite transformative. The instrumental stood out to me thanks to its incredibly slow pace, blending minute changes together such that they are barely registered. I became an idle listener, taken on the winds (I swear there were actual wind sounds at some point) of electronic fluke and synthesised drones. 

I am accustomed to a familiar format when the word ‘instrumental’ is used – a distinctive melody upheld by a rhythm or chord progression, even at the slowest pace. This duo clearly set out with a completely different goal, focused entirely on their themes: a sonic dialogue between humans, machinery and energy holding it all together. I believe in this regard they succeeded. The effect Site V has on each listener will be completely unique. So, given I’m not versed in the uber technical vocab for this type of multimedia, let me tell you where the piece transported my imagination. 

The rising pitch of the piece’s droning undercurrent gradually changed my experience throughout. Initially I pictured tension, a movie scene with panning shots of distressed faces, beaded sweat on foreheads, dust and ash rising upwards towards the sky. As the tone shifted, my imagination moved away from details to a limbo between the sky and sea. No doubt this was influenced by Maguire’s accompanying visuals. His clever manipulation of sea foam and currents using greyscale filters took them out of their natural habitat – I watched them and couldn’t quite tell if they were moving at the right speed. By the end of the instrumental, the eeriness is woven with flute and a high ringing and all I could think about was metal. Visuals from the Dutch wind turbine farm, Borssele Wind Farm Site V innovation site, mingled with the distorted water.

Whilst evocative in some ways, the soundscape was not my cup of tea. I recommend listening to it in a quiet and dedicated space to form your own opinion. I will say though, it was fascinating to discover where my imagination took me when left to its own devices. 

Site V is available to stream until the end of November here. Catch it while you can!

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