by Claire Biddles
A key. A cut in the wallpaper. A slit of light changing colour. I see it when I get out of bed. I touch it, run my fingers over it, push it, the wall splits in half and opens. It’s a balcony, rusted railings running over the top. A cinema, empty. It was empty. But who’s loading the film? A mustard-coloured sofa in front of closed-curtained windows is projected onto the screen. I walk through the aisles and I can’t figure out if the projection is still or not. I think I see a shadow somewhere – on screen or in here? I don’t know who’s watching, maybe nobody.
I get back in the car, drag the mirror out and check my appearance. What’s the next appointment? We pull up inside a hotel, somehow, and I step out of the car into a hall with chairs arranged in the centre. I thought at first it must be for a conference or something, but when I get closer I notice that the chairs are all facing outwards, some on top of each other, different colours and sizes, a hierarchy with no key. There’s nobody to tell me where to sit, no instructions, nobody watching, no expectations. I try a smaller pink chair at the outside of the circle, but it feels odd to sit there alone. I walk away, hope I’ve done what was expected of me, and get back in the car.
This time we pull up on the kerb outside a house door. There are some people on the street – the first in view today, apart from my driver – a blonde child holding a pink ball, and a middle-aged couple cycling away from the car side by side. I knock on the door and it opens at my touch, at the top of the first flight of stairs another door opens – I can’t remember whether to welcome me or condemn me. Inside, closed curtains and a mustard-coloured sofa. Lights beside it, theatre lights, they must have forgotten to hide them this time. I can’t see the camera – the cameras are so small now, I can’t see them anymore. I’ve been instructed to sit so I sit, slowly lowering myself onto the cushion. It’s patched up in different materials, though I couldn’t see that on the screen earlier. Then I remember the screen, the cinema – who’s there now?
You look at the screen, line up the projector, start the film. They’re due in three minutes and you were almost late, your driver stuck in traffic two streets away. You hear the whirring of the projector, you touch it, run your fingers over it. You feel the machine vibrating under your fingers. You check the seats through the little projectionists’ window – all empty. It’s going to plan. You check the clock behind you – orange face and brown hands. You turn back to the window, and just on time the wall behind the balcony splits in half and opens. They’re here. You leave by the door behind you and get back in the car.
The car turns in to the underpass beneath the hotel, down the slope and pulls up outside the staff door. You take the service lift to the fourth floor. The chairs are piled up at the sides of the hall, and a plan has been left on the carpet in front of you. You drag the chairs across the brown and orange carpet three at a time, turn the plan around several times to make sure you are arranging them properly. Why haven’t they sent anyone else? You wish you could see the room from above, compare it to the plan, but the cameras haven’t been installed yet, or if they have you don’t have any means of seeing what they are recording. You check the clock – orange face, brown hands, like the carpet – pack away the plan and go back out the way you came. The car is waiting for you, its engine whirring in the underpass.
You park outside number 178b. You have to brief three participants first. You hate having to do that on the last appointment of the day. One of them is just a kid, too. Once they’ve received their instructions you go inside, leaving the main door on the latch. You set the timer on the door at the top of the first flight of stairs. You’re in the flat now, and you have to read the instructions twice. You’re still not sure whether you should be leaving the lighting rigs on the set – you haven’t done that kind of thing for seven, eight years, and the lights you usually use are much smaller than these ones. The lights and the cameras are so small now, you can’t see them anymore. You drag them out anyway; drag them up beside the mustard-coloured sofa. The sofa is patched up in different materials, though you couldn’t see that on the screen earlier. You check the clock – that clock again – you need to leave right now. You push the door open; check the timer again on your way out. The three participants are in place. Your car is parked at the corner. You get in and check the files for tomorrow’s appointments as the other car pulls up.
They sit, preoccupied, in the seats set out for them. A long row of pink chairs. They sat down so long ago that they can’t remember how they came to be there, or what their lives outside this room were like. Did they pay an entrance price? Or are they being paid to be there? The screen isn’t even a screen anymore, more like a window, a window that moves between places and times and is wider and taller than screens usually are. The cameras can show more than they used to. There’s a cinema, empty and they can see every seat. Then a hotel, a conference room. Then a flat, a mustard-coloured sofa, curtains drawn against a window. Or maybe just a wall? Someone moves through the rooms, sits on the chairs, talks to themselves. Did they pay an entrance price? Or are they being paid to be there? Can they see back through the window? Can they remember how they came to be there, or what their lives outside the rooms were like?
Commisioned text by Claire Biddles (in consultation with Euan Ogilvie) responding to the work of Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell. Featured in the HIGH-RISE publication, designed by Sandra Kassenaar. The publication accompanied the exhibition HIGH-RISE, Hofpoort, Rotterdam, 2015, curated by Maaike Gowenburg.