‘Other Rooms, Other Voices’

This is a short review of/ reflection on ‘Other Rooms, Other Voices’ an artwork by James Bulley and Patch Pérez, that I was involved in commissioning as part of my civic engagement work at Goldsmiths. The piece was co-commissioned with the Albany arts centre to mark Lewisham’s year as London Borough of Culture in 2022. It was exhibited at Goldsmiths and online in early 2023. The artwork can be viewed online here. https://www.otherroomsothervoices.com/

We are approaching something. A house, maybe? Is it a house? It is some sort of domestic structure, certainly, but it is hard to tell what exactly it is as we follow the camera’s drift across a patch of wasteland and through a ghostly tangle of trees and vegetation. Everything is ghost-like, spectral. Black and white and drained of colour. We are heading inside, deep inside, into an x-ray-like portrait of a series of domestic spaces. We are embarking on a drift, a flowing movement that always takes us through. Through walls, through ceilings, through boundaries between things.

‘Other Rooms, Other Voices’ is a sound-film artwork that presents a digital mapping of ten domestic spaces within the Sanford Housing Co-operative in Lewisham. Commissioned as part of Lewisham’s year as London Borough of Culture in 2022, the piece saw the artist James Bulley and the artist and researcher Patch Pérez undertake a series of point-cloud scanning and ambisonic sound recordings within this 1970s housing complex, creating a portrait of life within the first purpose-built housing co-op in the UK.  

 We drift onwards, past ghostly people caught in poses as they go about their day to day lives. They are playing instruments, working at desks, sitting on sofas wearing VR headsets. They are there within the field of vision, but one of the remarkable things about this artwork is that it isn’t the people who necessarily feel central to it. They are at the centre of their rooms and their domestic space, but at the same time that space itself suddenly feels multi-layered and fragile. We see things invisible to the naked eye: the hollow spaces of partition walls, the gaps between ceilings and floorboards, the messy encroaching tendrils of plants and creepers pushing in from outside.

All that is solid melts into air. A home, or collection of homes, suddenly feels shockingly temporary. It suddenly becomes very clear that everything here – the people, their possessions, the structures of the buildings themselves – is only here on a transitory basis. It is all passing through, just as we are passing through as we weave and drift upwards through the rooms.

That is not a dehumanising piece, though. Quite the opposite. In capturing the fragility of these domestic portraits, the film captures something very human and very moving. We are being taken on a tour, being given privileged access, looking at peoples’ private spaces in a way that allows us to see deeper and deeper into them. The fact that these rooms and these lives suddenly seem fragile and transitory is part of what makes the piece moving. We all only inhabit space temporarily. We fill the rooms that we live in with stuff and imbue them with meaning, but they are never truly ‘ours’. We share space with others (beside us, separated by thin walls, or above us, separated by floorboards and plaster). We share space with ‘more than human’ presences too. The plants that we bring inside and try to domesticate, or which climb up the outside walls and press against our windows. The companion animals that we live with. The mice that run around the hollow spaces of the walls.  We hear them, we feel them. Sometimes (but not always) we see them. They are part of the world that we don’t ‘create’ as much as attempt, as best we can, to share.

‘Other Rooms, Other Voices’ is a beautiful, mesmerising piece of art. In the subtlest ways, it prompts us to think more carefully about the networks of intimacy that connect us and bind us together. It drifts through walls and ceilings, showing how they connect onto neighbouring rooms and spaces in ways both separate and interconnected. I’m reminded here of Jean Luc-Nancy’s concept of, ‘singular plurality’, or of the related Deleuzian concept of the rhizome: an organic, networked community that embodies both separateness and connectivity. In both concepts we see individuality, privacy and freedom existing in a complicated and delicate web that connects people together.

The subject matter of this piece is significant here. The Sanford Housing Co-Operative was opened in 1974. The row of houses was built on a patch of land donated by Lewisham Council. It is one of several innovative co-operatives and self-build housing schemes in the Borough, including the black-led self-build initiative Nubia Way, in Downham. Sanford represents an ongoing experiment in living, providing a pocket of affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying part of London.  In this sense, it is the perfect space and the perfect subject matter for the creative intervention that ‘Other Rooms, Other Voices’ represents. This piece prompts reflection on the visible/ invisible webs of connection that draw together members of a community, and how these relate to even more complex webs of connection relating to the built environment and the natural world. It seems fitting that this investigation is mounted in the context of a housing project that is, in itself, a re-imagining of how we might live together more sustainably in one of the most densely populated cities in Europe.

As a tender, sensitive and moving piece, but also a visually estranging and ‘spooky’ one, ‘Other Rooms, Other Voices’ offers a radically different example of what an ‘engaged’, ‘civic’ artwork might look and sound like. It is informed deeply by questions of what it means to live together in urban contexts, yet at the same time it avoids any form of didacticism or obviously ‘community friendly’ aesthetic. If it offers any answers to contemporary issues around housing, community and sustainability, these are to be found, I think, mainly in oblique prompts connected to its form and aesthetic. The piece prompts us to think about the importance of slow movement, careful attention to details accessed from unexpected perspectives, the importance of considering the human and the more-than-human as part of a linked network, the importance of looking more closely at the everyday.

Perhaps above all, I think, there’s a lingering sense of registering and respecting the importance of intimacy and fragility. There is a focus on the importance of registering just how precarious this all is – these people, these rooms, this existence – and the importance of doing all that we can, where possible, to protect it.  

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