Go back to article: Oramics to electronica: investigating lay understandings of the history of technology through a participatory project

Non-expert group 2: women writers

Members of the exhibition team spent three days with a group of women writers, who became involved in the project with the help of the organization Clean Break, which runs writing courses to develop the skills and confidence of women affected by the criminal justice system. Our women-only workshops were led by established playwright Vivienne Franzmann, who was known to the women through her previous involvement with their organisation as a writing tutor. It was important, given the short amount of time that we had with the women, that they could work with someone they trusted and who was familiar with their capacities. Katy Price, who had previously run sessions with the NYT group, worked alongside Franzmann and was present in each session as a co-facilitator. The first day was hosted at the offices of Clean Break, so that we could introduce the new topic of electronic sound in an environment familiar to the writers and where they were used to being productive. Free-writing exercises revolved around the theme of invention, and in response to music clips, including some of Daphne Oram's music. At this stage we did not introduce Oram or the Oramics Machine, preferring to wait until we visited the gallery on the second day (the machine had, by this stage, been installed on the gallery although the exhibition was not yet complete). The writers were introduced to the machine simply by arriving on the gallery as a group, and were invited to respond to it without any context or explanation. They began relating it to personal histories and concerns, for example associating the speakers with boom boxes and reggae culture, or surmising that the machine might be used for broadcasting 'mind control' and the capture of citizens' thoughts. Follow-up writing exercises included monologues that imagined selling the machine to an auction house, and a workplace skirmish set at the BBC at dawn. These followed an introduction to Daphne Oram via a film clip. The writers had a very positive and intrigued response to Oram; despite their different cultural circumstances, these women related very warmly to her as a character.

The writers were encouraged to select anything they liked from the exercises of the first two days to develop into a monologue for performance and recording. Knowing that their work would be presented on gallery with the Oramics Machine, they were concerned about visitors’ experiences and the need to make their writing relevant to the themes of the exhibition. We tried to reassure them that this was a speculative project and that what we valued were their free explorations around the themes covered in the workshops. The final monologues, which expressed a range of the writers’ responses to technology and specifically to women’s experience, were performed by professional actors who had previously worked with Clean Break at a private event for its own staff and for female Science Museum staff involved with Oramics. The actors and writers then moved to the Imperial College radio station where a sound engineering student recorded and edited the monologues for inclusion on gallery. The recorded monologues were included in the exhibition by incorporating them in the sequence of items run in the display’s mini cinema.

The monologues explore themes of communication and isolation, discomfort and danger, discovery and experiment, dreams and incantations, and pressures on the body. Several of the scripts use sound in different ways to negotiate dramatic shifts or moves between strangeness and familiarity, arising out of workshop discussions about different ways that sound can enter writing. The core Oramics principle of visual sound emerges at moments of emotional intensity, such as the image of a swan taking off from a lake as a way to convey the sound of a heart beat, or the melding of flames and laughter. One monologue engages directly with an imagined daily routine for Oram and the experience of being almost at the breakthrough when the day job intervenes. Marvellously respectable on the outside, this monologue’s Daphne sneaks back into the studio at night to work on her invention: ‘I know the sound I’m trying to create. I’m so close I can taste it. …it’s light outside. Oh here’s the boss […] I’m going to have to soft soap him.’ In other scripts the association between sonic attention and dislocation from the everyday world is more menacing: ‘I could hear the crinkling noise of newspapers being turned, the “sceerpht” sound as the page scraped across the business man’s suit. It felt dreamlike, surreal, like Alice in Wonderland. I felt disconnected. My palms began to feel clammy.’

In one sense the findings from working with excluded women writers were practical. Time constraints relating to working with this group meant that the Clean Break workshops were delayed until the Oramics Machine was already on gallery, and so we were limited to three sessions on consecutive days. Issues to do with the funding of arts organisations and the provision of childcare were major factors in dictating the timing and extent of what was possible. Ultimately this meant that, in comparison with the other groups, the women writers were more ‘downstream’ in their participation, responding to an already displayed object. The opportunity for them to produce knowledge about the machine was channelled through the oblique address to Oram and sounds that we invited them to make through their creative work. Rather than featuring explicitly in gallery cases or labels, their personal histories evoked in response to Oramics were available to visitors through female-voiced narratives that take listeners through processes of memory and discovery.[16]

This way of proceeding was designed to resonate with Clean Break’s approach to its clients; presentation of the women’s work in a national museum can be seen as helping to fulfil the aim of building their clients' self-confidence. From the point of view of the public history research question, these monologues revealed how objects can provoke meanings for – and make sense to – visitors, even where they are very remote from audience members’ pressing concerns or explicit interests.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/007