instead of a big dark blur, we see a big bright blur

Art This lunch time I attended the press preview for the Abandon Normal Devices arts festival which is happening in Liverpool this weekend. Work commitments and other things will prevent me from attending anything so I couldn’t help but be disappointed that I won’t be able to see the Pigs Bladder Football (in which the sports implements are being cultivated organically) or the Primate Cinema in which is apparently a hospital drama designed especially for chimps and the dozens of other events which have been programmed.

What I was able to see was a preview of FACT Liverpool’s new show, run in conjunction with AND, and in particular installation artist Kurt Hentschlager’s ZEE 2008/2011 or ZEE for short. ZEE is, well ZEE’s um, to be honest ZEE’s almost impossible to describe without resorting to film references and cliché, apart from to say it’s one of the most exciting installations I’ve ever “seen”. Hentschlager favours “immersive and overwhelming experiences” which fits in well with the Abandon Normal Devices since in this case the normal devices abandoned are our senses, particularly our eyesight.

The pre-amble is pure Jurassic Park. Assuming the public iteration is similar, you’re first handed an information sheet which under normal circumstances might as well be described as a spoiler sheet which gives an impression of what ZEE will be like. We’re told that this is a gallery filled with fog, with zero visibility and a rope to keep us supported and orientated. The rope also has instructions for use. The general advice is to keep moving but there are also safety instructions on what to do in the case of an emergency, especially a personal emergency.

Which then leads to a disclaimer form with a list of disorders and diseases which discount entry to the space:
Photosensitive epilepsy
Breathing of heart problems
Abnormal (high or low) Blood pressure
Migraine or headaches
Ear or eye diseases
And I am not pregnant.
As you can imagine by this stage I'm brimming with worry, fear, anxiety and genuine excitement, all of which are also printed on the faces of the press people in attendance. Even though we’ve been given a basic idea, there is still a genuine sense of curiosity about the fine mess we've gotten ourselves into. Seriously, if you want to visit and don’t want to have the process spoiled for you stop reading here because the movie references and clichés are about to start flying.

After the forms are signed we're led back into The Box screen were the original AND presentation took place for a further briefing and the creation of a register since during each session or visitation into the space the staff have to count us all in and count us back out again. Then Hentschlager himself also intones some further safety warnings in a manner that suggests he's something of a showman on the quiet, knowing that the best way to build up the tension is to give his audience every opportunity back out.  It works.  By now anxiety has turned to dread. I'm sitting with the palm of my hand over my mouth, my skin crawling.

The corridor at the side of the main space has been turned into a couple of white rooms or staging areas. In the first, the register is read out again, we agree that we’re all present again, and then we’re led into the next which is already filling up with the smog, though it resembles smoke more, as though the room next door is on fire. If this was Outbreak or some kind of space exploration piece this would be very much the decontamination chamber and the very last chance for us to walk away. But the temptation is too great. With this much build up, with all the forms, we have to know now whether any piece of art can live up to this hype.

The door opens and we’re led into main room which is filled with the fog and our hand is placed on the rope and told to walk forwards. Within seconds the world as we know it is gone, replaced by a white void. The 9/11 reference is inescapable, the moment in the streets of New York after the towers fell and the air was filled with dust, but also if we’re being less reductive, The Fog, The Mist, Silent Hill or the remake of The Fog. This initial sensation is similar to Gregor Schneider’s Kinderzimmer which was at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2009, but instead of a big dark blur, we see a big bright blur.

What I gather must be a light show then begins but this isn’t some pyrotechnic display. Somehow abstract images are being created by messing with the natural functions of our eyesight so that we effectively have a kaleidoscopic effect directly in the retina. It’s impossible to photograph because a machine can’t easily simulate the effect and the photograph in the gallery leaflet (see above) just looks like a scene from one of the aforementioned films with a street level weather pattern in the title.  Every now and then the ghostly figure of the person in front of me appears but they're turned into something other, frightening, in the chaos.

As I walk forward, my hands initially clasping the rope for dear life, the colours change, from one shade into a multitude, the full spectrum. I keep thinking about 2001: A Space Odyssey and wondered what Kubrick and Clarke would have made of what amounted to their stargate sequence turned into an "ultimate trip” (as the movie poster described it) which anyone (disclaimers accepted) could undergo. I imagine if a György Ligeti soundtrack had been applied with its monosyllabic minimalist chant the anxiety levels would have been even higher.  But the artist wants to calm us so simply offers a simple, almost imperceptible accompaniment.

The optimal length for a visit is apparently twelve minutes. I left after seven although it felt much longer, impossible as it was to time the circuits. Everyone in the group was smiling.  It was generally impossible to know what to say, so unlike anything else was the, yes, experience. Indeed the main topic of conversation was exactly how we would describe it, something I think I've entirely failed at here. If you are in Liverpool and don't suffer from any of those ailment and aren't pregnant, this is just something you're going to have to try for yourself.

Abandon Normal Devices is at FACT Liverpool until 27th November.

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