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As I mentioned in my previous post, the Liverpool Biennial had adapted some of its works to be available as online content. One such piece is Transmission: A Series of Five Podcasts on Disease and Pandemic in a Distorted World. Presented by Ines Doujak and John Barker, the five half-hour-long episodes which have been made available on Spotify explore different themes within the context of pandemics both past and present, drawing parallels in the patterns that have emerged as a result of the dehumanising nature of our social structures.

Each episode is filled with facts, figures, anecdotes and quotes regarding the historical mistreatment of minorities and the working class in times of widespread illness that, even though listeners may already be aware of, hit thick and fast. This fluid stream of information, stating the year from which each point is being made, effortlessly weaves in instances from the last 12 months of the pandemic as part of the historical narrative.

It doesn’t take long to realise what’s going on within these aural journeys; from one voice, you hear a factoid about the unnecessary deaths of minorities forced to work through outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the 1800s, and maybe you think to yourself well I never, what were people thinking back then? And then another voice tells you that last year prisoners were made to dig mass graves for the bodies of Covid patients, exposing them to the virus and killing more in the process. And you realise maybe society has not come so far. Interlacing these thoroughly researched and compiled moments with whimsically tongue in cheek musical performances – with such lines as “the virus could not believe its luck” and “when food was thin the worms grew fat” – the cynicism runs deep, and made me feel like laughing and crying all at once.

As an artform, the choice to utilise the podcast format lends itself well to the theatricality of the episodes. Sound Art is still considered a bit of an experimental affair, although the desire to engage other senses is something that appears to have grown considerably over the past year, with artists having been made to adapt their working methods to suit our new stay at home orders lifestyles. As London puts it – “history reveals that sound art thrives in the unmapped terrain of interdisciplinary art practice, in tandem with steadily evolving technologies and social systems”.[1] This year has most certainly been one for evolution within artistic platforms, and although podcasts have been a steadily growing form of entertainment, I hadn’t encountered any instances of this format being used for the explicit purpose of a contemporary art piece.

Of course creating a podcast may have been a choice made by Doujak and Barker so that the work could be ‘shown’ and shared to the public in accordance with Covid guidelines in time for the beginning of the festival – but I struggle to imagine the impact of the words if they had simply been written upon a wall or in a brochure. Hopping on my laptop, sticking in my earphones, and delving into an immediately enticing soundscape, it felt as though we as the audience were able to more thoroughly appreciate the message that was coming across. If I were to do it again, I would go so far as to follow the route of more recent ‘audio adventure’ podcasts and lie in a dark room to avoid distraction – and the beauty of this not being a live performance is that we as individuals can revisit any episodes we like.

The only issue I had was a mostly inconsequential one, in that since the podcasts were all uploaded on the same day they didn’t automatically play in the intended numerical order. Although having now listened to them and realised they would work independently and as a unit no matter how you listen, it does take you out of the moment stopping and starting each episode, just a little. However, again, this is one of the enjoyable aspects of such a medium being used and the freedom given to us as viewers to personalise our listening experience. The digital future of art is constantly shifting, but this body of work, and others like it, feel like prime examples of the potential for an entirely individualised method of experiencing art to take form outside of the gallery space.

[1] London, Barbara (2020) ‘Listen to This! Sound Art Reflections’ in Flash Art International, Vol. 53 Iss. 332, pp.82–96.