The end is nigh for Preston Bus Station, but an innovative site-responsive event there suggests a bright future for literature and technology
The fate of Preston’s famous love-it-or-hate-it Brutalist bus station is increasingly unsteady, and, with cuts a-go-go, it now looks pretty much like the transport hub is for the chop. However, just a couple of weeks ago the controversial concrete creation managed to breathe one last gasp of inspiration into the cultural landscape of England’s newest city when it became the location for an immersive spoken word project. A bunch of storytellers disembarked in its midst, eventually revealing themselves to be more than just lonesome travellers.
It was a flying visit for Journey To The End Of The World, with just two performances in one evening (Saturday 23 March), when audience members were handed headphones and taken on their own journey of discovery: both physically – as various spaces of the 1960s edifice were explored and the performers tracked down – and emotionally, as an impending apocalypse was described through prose and poetry.
Having to wear a headset in a public place can be uncomfortable: passers-by stop and stare, making you feel exposed and vulnerable, yet conversely you feel cut off from the outside world and introverted as you focus on what is being fed directly into your ears.
The “aural journey” format has been used to success before in literature projects – take, for example, David Gaffney’s live Station Stories for Manchester Literature Festival and Lavinia Greenlaw’s pre-recorded Audio Obscura for the last Manchester International Festival, both of which took place in Piccadilly railway station. The headphone experience has also been exploited by other art forms: Back To Back’s play Small Metal Objects at Stratford Tube station, say, and various pieces by David Rosenberg, including two dance-based collaborations with Frauke Requardt, Motor Show and Electric Hotel, and, more recently, Ring, which took place in complete darkness and amplified the intimate details of a room in Battersea Arts Centre, unsettling the listener by tricking them into thinking someone was right beside them.
Back to Preston, where the promenade literature event, led by “tour guide” MC Brad Bromley, featured various artists: poet Shamshad Khan, with Body Clothes, pieces about transformation and death; micro fiction writer David Hartley, with an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure-style story called “Choose Your Own Apocalypse”; playwright and director Phil Ormrod, with An Hour Before the End of the World, in which two people await the apocalypse, and poet Bruce Rafeek backed by experimental singing ensemble Noizechoir, with a eulogy for Preston Bus Station and “human-voice-as-instrument” vocals composed especially to compliment the building’s unique acoustics.
Imminent destruction was the theme to all the stories told, tying back in to the uncertain destiny of the bus station – once, apparently, the second largest in Western Europe. The sometimes disturbing narratives unfolding via individual headsets engaged audience members directly and heightened their personal response to each piece and to the event as a whole. One audience member said: “Through our headphones we were fed the eerie sound of a thousand bus stations: the sound of sliding doors, reversing beeps and revving engines. It was amazing!” Another reported: “Journey To The End Of The World was a brilliant use of the building and I loved the headphones – they were isolating but at the same time amplified the background noise of the bus station.”
All the pieces were specially commissioned by Preston-based arts engagement organisation They Eat Culture, and the event was produced in association with Northern Elements, a spoken word development project for Arts Council England. “It’s been a joy to be able to translate spoken word into a site-responsive event on and for Preston Bus Station,” says Ruth Heritage, Director of They Eat Culture, which incorporates Lancashire Writing Hub. “We hope that the words and music exploring endings and created for the space was a fitting ‘happening’ in a moment where its future is still undetermined.”
Taking literature out of a traditional venue and relocating it in such a controversial setting was in itself an interesting move, but forcing the people of Preston to face a future without the city’s once-trailblazing terminus by immersing them in live linked storytelling is what really put Journey To The End Of The World on the map.