Foley Explosion at the Hackney Showrooms
Impressively inventive and executed with spy-like precision, Julie Rose Bower’s latest show explodes Foley artistry and ventures into the heartlands of Russian history.
Clogs, tinsel curtains, a toy helicopter and a cuckoo clock are just a few of the objects featured in Julie Rose Bower’s latest show, Foley Explosion. Billed as an alternative spy thriller, it boasts more gizmos and gadgets than a Fleming or le Carré novel. By repurposing random items into sound-making instruments – rather than death-inducing weapons – Bower expertly explores and explodes the art of Foley. All this is executed with a spy-like style and inventiveness that would leave Bond’s Q impressed. But with this distinctive deconstruction of post-production sound art comes a challenge to the male-dominated and machismo-oriented conventions of espionage narratives. For Bower is a woman on a mission, not so much impossible, but one assertively written, directed, orchestrated and performed by her and her alone. And this is what makes Foley Explosion so subversively ingenious and compelling to behold: a woman stands at the centre of a Cold War-like plot, no longer an object, but an agent in every active sense of the word. Venturing into the heartlands of Russian history and culture, Bower produces a show as multi-layered and many-voiced as you’d expect from a sound-inspired spy story.
Yet plots of espionage and political disinformation are not the only aspects of history to be debunked here. Intertwined in the various narratives of “traitorous” figures, Anglo-Russian conspiracy theories and her own sojourn in Moscow, is a commitment to highlighting (and hearing) female Foley artists. Named after Jack Donovan Foley, a kind of forefather of modern sound effect techniques, Foley artists amplify sounds that are either inaudible or absent during recording. When adding noises to post-production, a Foley artist will pair up sounds to the visuals on screen. In pre-recorded scenes that show, say, doors slamming, clothes rustling, heels clicking or punches being thrown, Foley artists use objects (sand bags, marble boards, corn starch) to recreate such sounds, thus heightening the action and intensifying one’s viewing experience. But until the late 1980s many Foley artists went uncredited in films. Notable artists like Beryl Mortimer, who’d worked on films such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, were effectively written out of film history. This erasure, an ironic silencing of sound artists, has since changed. What remains under-appreciated is how many women worked in and innovated this area of cinema. In this light, Bower’s one-woman piece is a riposte to such lack of recognition.
Placed in a carefully-curated semi-circle, toys, shoes, handbags, lighters and wine glasses surround our female Foley artist. Standing resolute, ready, but slightly enigmatic (double-agent style), Bower recounts her journey into and growing relationship with Russia. One by one, the magic of such objects is revealed. The wine glass and toy helicopter becomes a clock – and not any old horologe, but Catherine the Great’s Peacock Clock gifted to her by suitor Grigori Potemkin. The tinsel curtain becomes the golden hair of Lindsey Mills, girlfriend to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. And the clogs become the cautious, but determined footsteps both of Snowden and Bower herself. This is where the fact of sound meets the wondrous fiction of Bower’s spy thriller. This is where ordinary objects are disassociated from their usual associations, becoming enmeshed in the fantastical fabric and structure of a noir-ish tale. Although it is the sound of such items that conjures a cinematic-like experience, their appearance and texture similarly enchants and adds depth to Bower’s narration.
These objects also create a kind of symbolism around the piece. Used as instruments, props and decorations, they become potent signifiers, a circular concatenation of seen, heard and felt associations. It is such objects that embody the tale, not Bower herself. She is neither object nor passive embodiment of the unfolding action. Instead, she is the orchestrator, maker and knowing actor of it all. Trained in the methods of the French physical theatre exponent, Jacques Lecoq, Bower’s body is always on the move, alert to each sounded-out plot twist, demonstrating the ritual behind the art, but never lost to the backdrop of things. Making and recording each sound live merely extends this bodily control and de-objectification. For some, these intermittent gaps (between verbal narration and the concocting and applying of fresh sound fragments) were an unnecessary distraction. But distraction, or rather disruption, was exactly the point. Bower essentially spies on, explodes and exposes sound-making methods and tricks. She at once takes apart and puts together Foley techniques a bit like the oblique and self-returning plots of spy thrillers.
These deliberate gaps allow for the ‘cacophony’ of historical voices to be all the more audible. When recounting her journey to Russia, it’s the voice of Grigori Rasputin and the presence of Guy Fawkes (cleverly and comically conjured using a loop recording of party poppers, the flick of a lighter and a balloon) that remains with the audience. Positioned between two national legends, an English insurrectionist and a Russian mystic, Bower builds tension whilst gaining the laughs. Other Russian-linked figures to be suggested through sounds, objects and narration are Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripals, Trump and his family, Putin and, best of all, a Russian poetry-reciting Anthony Burgess. Layered with projections, personal anecdotes, flights of imagination and sharp lighting, this sound-collage of a story is (secret) intelligence at its best.
Julie Rose Bower’s Foley Explosion was performed at Hackney Showrooms on the 12 and 13 November. To find out more about Bower’s work, click here.