an impressively immersive experience
Poetry ‘ViewMaster’ show targets an audience of one – By Jason Caffrey, BBC News
“Come into our den,” says poet Ryan Van Winkle, pulling back a blanket hung from cord to reveal an accordion and a scattering of cushions. He is gesturing into a makeshift tent inside A Room for London – a boat-shaped one-room hotel stranded on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on London’s Southbank. It’s the setting for ViewMaster – a brief and intimate performance by Van Winkle and his collaborator, the sound artist Dan Gorman. And it’s all for an audience of one.
Engaging with poetry
The piece, which the pair have brought to London for the Southbank’s 18th biennial poetry festival, was developed by Van Winkle to make poetry more accessible. From 1 August, they’ll be taking their show to the Edinburgh Fringe. “I’ve been trying for the last six or seven years to try to find new ways of presenting poetry. “I had a job with the Scottish Poetry Library that really made me think about how people engage with it,” he says, “what people’s trepidations are.”
The piece aims to draw its audience in with a mildly surreal questionnaire. The table is for… a) fasting, b) brick, c) potato or d) Zeus? The options on the multiple-choice quiz are all quotes drawn from the poems Van Winkle has written for ViewMaster, and the answers determine where the audience-member’s “journey” will take them. The river Nile and Hanging Gardens of Babylon are both possible “destinations”, as is Tulip Time – an annual festival held in the American city of Holland, Michigan. Van Winkle scans the page, totting up my answers in the margin. “Well,” he says, “I think you’re going on a trip to Mecca.”
“ViewMaster is really about play, nostalgia, getting older and worlds within worlds,” says Van Winkle. “So the audience at Southbank will get a really special show in the sense that they’ll be transported up to the boat and then into this small child-like fort and then – via the viewmaster, poetry, and music – to another land all together.”
The old-fashioned typeface of the questionnaire page and the childlike feel of the den, all add to a distinct sense of nostalgia. It’s a sensation that is reinforced when Van Winkle produces a vintage ViewMaster – a red plastic viewing device that displays slides mounted on a cardboard carousel. “Click through the pictures in your own time,” he says. “The performance lasts longer than it will take to look at all the pictures, so go round again if you want.” With the binoculars-style viewer to my face, I cycle through low-resolution images of buildings and crowds of people in Mecca. The over-saturated colours and blurred details in the pictures become my entire world as the viewer’s plastic casing fills my peripheral vision. As I push the plastic lever on the ViewMaster to move from one slide to another, Gorman begins to quietly play through a series of tones on a tuned steel gong, while Van Winkle starts reciting: “Every day five times stare ahead and bow. Paradise is out there, not at the shopping centre.” It’s an impressively immersive experience for such a low-tech approach. And it’s a performance I take part in.
“You set the pace with the speed you move through the pictures,” says Gorman. “Ryan adjusts his reading to that, and I respond to his pacing with my playing. “So it becomes a trio.” The pair’s performances in London come at the start of a five-day poetry extravaganza at the Southbank that will include workshops, lectures, films and recitals. More than 100 poets, musicians, artists and performers from more than 20 countries will take part. But ViewMaster will be hard to match for its simple charm. The performance ends with the click-whirr of Van Winkle taking my photograph with a Polaroid camera. He writes my performance “destination” on the bottom of the picture, and, as he does for all who see ViewMaster, hands it to me as a keepsake. “That’s it,” he says. “Welcome back.”
ViewMaster will be on at Summerhall in Edinburgh as part of the Fringe festival from 1-24 August.