On the Invisible Picture Palace website, they call the space a record store and listening space, though if it reminds you of either of these it is only in passing. What In The Dark Radio, the group behind the project, has created is something really quite unique. Housed in a greenhouse on the front lawn of The Wapping Project (a converted hydraulic power station), the Invisible Picture Palace is at first glance a shrine to the history of recorded sound. Old vinyl records hang from the walls and there’s a large container of cassette tapes on the floor. After sifting through the various shelves of audio ephemera you start to realise something else is going on here. This is quickly proved by the various talks and workshops taking place within the space. Instead of just being an homage to the past, the Invisible Picture Palace is also a wellspring of creativity for the future of innovative and experimental audio.
I went along for their launch day, which had a string of talks and ‘listenings’ throughout the day and well into the night. The diversity of topics really made the whole day stand out from other all-dayer art and performance events. The real highlight of the daytime talks however was the talk by In The Dark founder, Nina Garthwaite. In the comfortably intimate atmosphere of the greenhouse Nina led the audience through her history of spoken word radio. That is to say, a history that she created for herself as opposed to a history about her. What gradually became apparent and soon celebrated by everyone there, was that this uncharted niche of recorded sound has never be documented in any comprehensive way and therefore the only way to truly understand it is to discover it for yourself. We were invited, and wholeheartedly took up the challenge, to explore the records on display in the space and piece together our own way of thinking about recorded spoken word.
As big names go, the Invisible Picture Palace certainly delivered in the form of Francesca Pannetta who came to talk about her latest project. Hackney Hear is a geo-aware mobile app that plays sound clips and stories as you walk around a London Fields and Broadway Market. Instead of leading you down a certain route and playing a set list of audio pieces, you are free to wander the area as you like and the app tracks your location, playing specific tracks in specific areas. This talk felt a lot like an introduction to the project and so there wasn’t really much time to get into the concept or any of the implications of such a device, but as a snapshot of the piece it was suitable.
We had a quick chat with Nina Garthwaite, Invisible Picture Palace co-founder, about her part in the project and her affection for spoken word radio.
How did you initially start working with sound?
I’m originally from television. I worked in news and current affairs, but I’ve always had a real love for radio.
I wanted to learn more about it and my boss at the time told me that if I was interested in radio I should really listen to the Radio Ballads [mentioned in her talk]. I did and thought they were totally weird and wonderful.
I realised that there must be so much more out that that I could get hold of and tried to do so, but it occurred to me that while in TV there are so many different ways of accessing old material there really seemed to be nothing for radio and so really just as a way of educating myself I approached a producer that I liked that I had heard on radio 4, Alan Hall. I proposed setting up an event and asked if he would come along, play some stuff and talk a bit about it.
We ended up having a series of three events at The Hub in Kings Cross as part of the London International Documentary Festival. I was approaching lots of people asking if they would be interested in something like this and the problem in the beginning was that it was really difficult to explain what it was we were doing. You’d say that the idea is to get a bunch of people together to sit down and listen to some radio stuff and the general response was ‘Why?’ and ‘No one’s going to come to that.’ Because there isn’t a defined language for it, it is really hard to describe this whole process. It took a long time for people to get on board with it. Doing the events in collaboration with the London International Documentary Festival gave it a context of documentary radio which really helped people to accept the project and take the time to get into it.
How did you get involved with The Wapping Project?
It started with just me and slowly more and more people got involved. It’s quite amazing. Everyone is a volunteer.
Together with Sophia [Invisible Picture Palace co-founder], we held our first event here when it was a bookshop. They wanted us back and we started doing them more regularly, but then the bookshop closed. The opportunity arose for us to occupy the space and we put in a very impassioned plea to Jules [Wright, Wapping Project owner and director] almost overnight. She said yes and we moved in! Having the project has given us the opportunity to really delve further into sound recordings. A lot of the records that we started with were from my personal collection, but with the Invisible Picture Palace we have the reason and the means to find more interesting things.
What other resources are out there that you think are useful for finding out more about spoken word radio?
I absolutely recommend the Third Coast Festival. It’s a festival for spoken word radio in the states and they have a website that has a huge audio library. It’s mainly American stuff, but it is a fantastic resource for anyone trying to find out more about spoken word and experimental spoken radio.
The Invisible Picture Palace is housed at The Wapping Project.
Open for browsing and listening seven days a week and with events running from now until December.
In The Dark Radio was set up as a place to explore the more interesting and innovative parts of radio.
Written by Nick Murray