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Duncan Speakman: 'Our Broken Voice'

The Bristol-based performance artist brings his latest Subtlemob to the Edinburgh Film Festival, encouraging people to download an MP3 from his website and join the audio-led live cinematic experience

Large groups of people dancing in unison or springing up in unlikely locations kitted out in full fancy dress are commonplace since the rise and commercialisation of the Flashmob. Duncan Speakman has an antidote to these in the form of the Subtlemob and will be presenting his latest collaboratively developed piece 'Our Broken Voice' as part of this year's Edinburgh Film Festival. The Subtlemob is a collection of people who arrive in a location having downloaded an MP3 from his website and who then participate in an audio-led live cinematic experience that eschews 'spectacle' in favour of individual experience.

A narrative unfolds over headphones as the participant's subjectivity shifts between enacting moments and viewing others become part of scenes around them. 'Our Broken Voice' consists of four different tracks and therefore four potential perspectives on the story and four different sets of instructions depending on your track. Simple everyday actions take on new meaning as tableaux merge and intertwine within the carefully choreographed constellations of moments. Dazed chatted to Speakman about the subtleties of the form…

Dazed Digital: How did Subtlemobs come about?
Duncan Speakman:
I was creating another soundwalk theatre piece where the audience drift through the streets of Bristol listening to a music score. I wanted to create a world where everyday scenes seemed to repeat around the audience, so I drafted in a group of people who were willing to follow instructions on an mp3. So the audience might see someone helping someone with their shopping, and then out of the corner of their eye see the same thing happening over and over again, but by the time they'd noticed it would have stopped.

I didn't want the people creating these scenes to just be some kind of performance slaves so the instructions they got in their ears also had music and narrative mixed in. I've always been more interested in the everyday world anyway, it can be quite beautiful if you pay attention to it. This group of Subtlemobbers really enjoyed the experience so I then developed the form into a piece called 'as if it were the last time'.

DD: You've been commissioned for the Edinburgh Film Festival, what's the relationship of the Subtlemob to cinema? Duncan Speakman: We think of Subtlemobs as cinema made without cameras. We have all the elements, e.g. the script, the soundtrack and the location, but the audience is in the middle of it rather than watching it play out on a screen.

DD: How do narratives emerge?
Duncan Speakman:
There is a fictional narrative that we build through the script, but there is also a narrative of experience, there is a start and an end, the world that goes on in the 30mins between them creates it's own story as well.

DD: What are the links between filmic narrative convention and your scripts?
Duncan Speakman:
The last piece took its cue from works such as 'You The Living' and 'Shortcuts', it was a series of fragmented scenes that together built a kind of portrait. In 'Our Broken Voice' we're playing more with the non-linear timelines that filmic narratives often use. The audience play out the 30mins leading up to a disastrous event that they already know is going to happen, so the tension in the narrative is created through the clock ticking down idea.

DD: 'Our Broken Voice' explores themes of trust and suspicion in public places, what are you aiming to evoke in the participant?
Duncan Speakman:
Exactly that! On a simple level we want people to examine their relationship with the strangers that surround them everyday.

DD: Is the work political or responsive to current discourse about public space and society? Is there a political message you wish to convey?
Duncan Speakman:
There is always an underlying agenda around public space in this form, but it's not the theme of this piece specifically. Our main standpoint is that we never ask permission to use a location. We're not trying to disrupt the world, we're just letting people see the everyday through a different lens.

DD: For you, what is the relationship between performer and audience/viewer? How does this relate to film?
Duncan Speakman:
The line is pretty blurred in a Subtlemob, at some points you're being given instructions, and therefore I suppose 'performing', but at other points you're clearly being described a scene, and you might see that happening around you, but in some way you never leave the 'stage'. Your presence is always having an impact.

DD: What's your process for deciding on the actions of each participant?
Duncan Speakman:
A lot of it is re-enactment of things we've really seen. When we start making the piece we sketch musical ideas first, then we walk listening to them and see what they draw our eyes to. We sometimes notate things we see happening and then turn these observations into instructions that audiences can follow. This helps keep the sense of the everyday. In 'Our Broken Voice' there are some actions we're quoting from films.

DD: How do you select your locations?
Duncan Speakman:
It's a mixture of context and physical geography. They need to suit the tone/theme of the piece, this is especially important in terms of the music. We compose for a specific type of place and sometimes there is also a need to create different 'shot sizes'. A balcony can let the audience view the world in a panoramic way, a narrow alleyway brings everything into close-up, we try and make sure that throughout the piece the audience are choreographed through these different perspectives

DD: How do you use audio? Is it a tool or a medium?
Duncan Speakman:
A little of both, as far as we're concerned it's still the greatest augmented reality tool around. Listen to music on headphones while you're out and about and you see the world differently. At the same time it's also the way we tell a story, and frame a mode of engaging with the world.

DD: What's the best reaction you've ever had from one of the participants in a Subtlemob?
Duncan Speakman:
Someone once said that they had missed a 'Godspeed You Black Emperor' show to take part, but that the thundering post-apocalyptic soundtrack of 'Our Broken Voice' more than made up for it.

'Our Broken Voice', 15th and 22nd June, 5.30pm. To take part you need to visit and sign up by email. You receive location details, instructions and an MP3 the day before the event - the location stays secret until then but it is in central Edinburgh. The piece lasts about 30mins and there will be a secret after party following it. Places are limited due to the location.

Edinburgh Film Festival: 15-26th June 2011