Granular Synthesis - "Noisegate"

National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford 28 July - 10 September, 2000

"A tangibly uncomfortable dark space and brutal noise"

Granular Synthesis are Vienna-based duo Kurt Hentschlager and Ulf Langheinrich who specialise in spectacular audiovisual installations. Noisegate debuted in 1998 and is currently touring the world. In between the likes of Vienna, Munich and New York it was then slightly surprising to see Bradford listed as the city of choice for the installation's UK debut. But the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (NMPFT) was the ideal venue and since I was going to be in Bradford for the annual InFest festival I had the perfect opportunity to check out the mysterious Noisegate.

[Noisegate image] The NMPFT in Bradford is a large building over five floors and a basement level. I was strolling around, several floors up from the installation, killing time until it opened at 2.30pm, when suddenly the building began to vibrate to an alarming droning noise. It sounded as though some huge piece of technical machinery had gone wrong in the basement and was close to exploding. I immediately checked my watch - 2.30pm - Noisegate had begun.

By the time I'd made my way to the entrance to the installation, people were already hovering around the doorway which was guarded by a member of the Museum's staff. A middle-aged woman emerged from behind the door with a grimace on her face, "It's just noise" she said with a mixture of what seemed like confusion and disgust. The doorman handed out information sheets to the odd mix of people with quizzical looks on their faces hovering around the entrance area - drawn by the curious, loud noise. He and the sheets acted as a filter to the prospective patrons. The standard warnings about strobe lighting, extremely dark environment etc. were accompanied by a few sentences attempting to 'acclimatize' people to the large space they were about to enter. These included notes on the very loud noise levels and vibrating floor. Bearing in mind that at least half of those queuing were families out for 'a nice day' at the museum, the warnings about the unusual nature of the installation concluded with a somehat cautious "we hope you enjoy the experience".

You entered the Noisegate space through a pitch black corridor, which quickly opened into an equally dark and bare gallery area (approximately 150 cubic feet). People were gathered toward the rear of the room - some standing with their backs against the wall, others sitting on the floor. In front of them were three walls angled towards the back wall, each wall with two huge video screens next to each other. Green-toned images of a man's face on each of the six screens were the only source of light in the installation. A surround sound system pumped out scraping, droning, white noise and bass tones. I sat down. Very slowly the images moved and flickered - suddenly animated for a few seconds. A man hitting his face against glass, grimacing (recalling the lady who left Noisegate as I entered it), the image half negative, half skeletal, switching from sudden flurry of juddering movement to (almost) still visage. Although the audio was extremely loud it was never uncomfortable, never too loud, perhaps a result of the impressive sound system and clever choice of sound waves.

Many people walked in one side of the room only to see what was on offer and immediately walk across the space and out the other side. Very young children walked in with their parents and intuitively sat down - leaving their older family members groping for some point of reference. Some even laid out upon the wooden floor to feel the vibrations of the frequencies pass through their whole bodies - as if feeling it through their feet alone wasn't enough. Copying their innocent exploration, I too laid down. With my palms on the floor, head facing the black void above, I couldn't see the images on the screens but could see the shifting colours of the ambient light they created. I felt like part of the installation, part of the Noisegate. Being in a cinema in that brief moment when the house lights go down but before the screen lights up was the only remotely similar experience, but the noise made all the difference.

Some stood staring at the vast images, others wandered around absorbing the noise and light indirectly. Ignorant kids did their best to scream and shout but the frequencies of the noise almost completely drowned out their voices and the relentless drone quickly out lasted any breath they could summon up. The almost imperceptibly slow movements of the green faces caught newcomers unaware as they occasionally, very suddenly and dramatically flickered into a blue/white negative - like some painful X-ray experience - a disturbing, harsh screeching in the noise stuttering as the images rapidly changed, caused the woman in front of me to physically jump out of shock.

From the exterior and upon first entering Noisegate, the installation had a terrifying air about it. There was something tangibly uncomfortable about walking into a completely dark space towards a brutal noise - the source of which was initially unseen. For a few, fleeting seconds the mind's subconscious took over and dredged up horrific images from mankind's past. But once immersed in the installation the effect was quite different. I experienced something strangely calming, which at the same time stimulated the audio/visual/tactile senses in ways the body isn't used to. It reminded me very much of some of the installations at the Sonic Boom event at the Hayward Gallery in London earlier this year - although on a much larger scale than anything seen there. It was a truly memorable encounter and one that I'd recommend to anyone adventurous.

Rob Dyer