Below the Blanket at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: Your own private, epic and intimate shroom trip
On a beautiful, cloudless Edinburgh evening – around the time they call the ‘golden hour’ – I step out of my car parked on the fringes of the Botanic Gardens. At first I think I’m imagining it, but after closing my eyes for a second and refocusing, I can definitely hear it: an odd mixture of choral music and metallic industrial hum percolating through the dense hedges and dissipating into the pastel air.
I’m here to visit Below the Blanket, a self-billed ‘walking meditation’ through a series of art installations inspired by Scotland’s Flow Country. Strolling through the East Gate of the gardens, the first thing that strikes me is how peaceful everything is – aside from the staff manning the event’s gin bar (the perfect botanical accompaniment to this experience), I’m the only person around. After watching an informative two-minute video about the Flow Country and its importance to the environment, I’m sent off on my own into the woods.
The experience begins with Deep Listening Soundscapes and Water Balance by Kathy Hinde – probably the most fully-formed and cohesive piece of work in the show. I don’t know quite how to describe it, but it’s a package that at times feels more like a smoothed object than an art installation – well-oiled parts perfectly merging to conjure a trancelike state in the observer.
Metallic pipes burst from the undergrowth, echoing supernatural sounds recorded from beneath the mysterious peat bogs of the Flow Country. Around the corner, a majestic interpretation of traditional Japanese water features finds fountains filling pipes that, when full, tip to hit cymbals which ring endlessly into the pollen-thick air. Away from the pond, a winding, vegetal path is cloaked in an enigmatic, otherworldly soundscape that summons the spirit of the wind from the north. The sonic effect is overwhelming as the beautiful plant-life ripples in the breeze.
Emerging from the woods into the Botanics’ stunning Rock Garden, ethereal choral strains echo across the landscape. It feels like a true privilege to be in this space, alone, on this splendid day at this time at night, accompanied by such gorgeous music. Even better still, after a wondrous few minutes of walking, I come across an actual four-piece choir – the Dunedin Consort – nestled underneath a majestic Yew, singing Malcolm Lindsay’s specially-composed Flow Country. I shut my eyes and enjoy the private performance in quiet ecstasy.
The Consort’s voices trail like hovering mist towards Karine Polwart and Pippa Murphy’s The Moor Speaks, which invites us into the dark, majestic shade of an ancient tree for another composition. This time it’s an actual song, with vocals – that highlights the mystical, occultist gravity of the natural Scottish landscape. It’s a faery fantasy that feels rooted through the very soil I stood on to listen to it – something deeper and darker than the cosmic, shimmering fantasy of the installations that preceded it.
Feeling somewhat part of the earth and sky, I meander down the hill to Matthew Olden’s Data Flow, an unassuming – almost ugly, but unobtrusive – network of 96 speakers strung between the trees that simulates the fluctuating water level in the bogs of the Flow Country. Closing my eyes is like becoming absorbed in the natural landscape, feeling and understanding the changing environment that stretches for hundreds of miles in each direction. The boundaries between myself and my surroundings begin to dissolve, before disappearing almost completely. This is the closest you’ll get to ego death without a tryptamine. I may have stood there for five minutes, or it may have been twenty – I have no way of knowing.
Like all trips, though, there has to be a comedown. Hannah Imlach’s Fieldwork and Flow Country Sculpture Series includes photographs and a semi-experimental documentary from the artist’s installation work in the Flow Country, which is interesting, but ends up placing a 4th wall between us and her actual work. For the first time, then, we’re distanced from the art and are expected to watch it on a television screen – the psychedelic spell is somewhat broken.
Later, Luci Holland’s Hold turns an interesting idea – a composition that changes its character as you move around it – into an anticlimactic installation that has to be explained to me by a staff member (the first one I’d seen in about 45 minutes) and which basically consists of walking around a hedge to trigger a drop in the pitch of a quiet audio track. It’s the first time I have to think about technology or trying to make a ‘gadget’ work in the entire show, and feels like another step out of the magic.
The same artist’s Release, which follows immediately after, doesn’t actually seem to be working. I’m promised an audio experience that conveys changes in water levels in the Flow Country as I walk through a maze (it’s not really a maze, more an ankle height arrangement of shrubberies with gaps in it to avoid crushing the plants), but for the most part there is no audio. When I finally manage to trigger the speakers, they appear to be playing a quiet, pre-set composition that doesn’t actually evolve or respond to my movements in the ‘maze’ – so much for that.
Luckily, the tail end of the trip matures into a wondrous, emotional finish. Kathy Hinde’s surreal Chirp & Drift sees salvaged accordions hanging from a tree like mysterious birds, expanding and contracting to create a powerful soundtrack that echoes over the landscape.
Down the path by the Gardens’ beautiful, ornate greenhouses, I’m handed a ‘sonic umbrella’ for Hinde’s perfect, ingeniously simple Skylark Walk. The umbrella is equipped with a high-quality speaker that plays a stunning, birdsong-infused minimalist composition that reaches toward pure ecstasy. I’m then sent on the long walk across the length of the Gardens back towards the East gate with the soundtrack hovering over my head, chirping and fluttering infusing freely with the dusk sounds of nature. There comes a point in all this where I wonder whether I’m actually awake or in the midst of some drifting, ethereal dreamscape. By the time I reach the end of the trail, all that is left is birdsong, and I feel like a new person.
For those of you that shuffled (and suffered) through Christmas at Kew with a mixture of disappointment and exasperation – why are there so many people? Why are there kids screaming everywhere? Why does every ‘magical light installation’ look like a tacky Poundland decoration? – Below the Blanket is the blissful, meditative antidote. More intimate and yet more vast than pretty much anything else on the Fringe, it’s a deeply psychedelic, stunning experience that allows for a reconnection with nature and the natural landscape so often lost to the bustle of the city. Typing this review out now, the whole thing feels like one fantastic, euphoric daydream.