When Silvia Mercuriali was in residency with Compass in May, our student producer Jennie Gilman got a first-look at WONDERMART. Here is an account of her experience.
Welcome to WONDERMART. In this 30-minute immersive audio experience created by theatre maker and artist Silvia Mercuriali, the ‘unexpected’ isn’t a misplaced item and an infuriating altercation with a self-checkout machine. Here, seeking out unexpected joy within the familiarity of the local supermarket is both the works’ agenda and the audiences’ mission.
The sonic journey begins offstage, at the trolley bay. “Plugging into” the experience and carefully listening to Silvia’s stage directions fed through headphones, the participant becomes an actor in this surreal, one-man performance of a shopping trip. You are playing the role of “Everyday Shopper 56”. Your only props are the trolley and headphones, a perfect camouflage of anonymity. Unbeknownst to your fellow shoppers unknowingly rendered as extras in this absurd play, you are about to undergo a private sonic trip through Sylvias’ multi-layered soundscape, a shopping experience like no other.
WONDERMART is many things at once. Stepping on “stage” and moving through the aisles of the supermarket under the narrator’s hypnotic direction, the experience glitches from a play to a first-person shopping video game, to a stunting meditation on the vices of consumerism and impulse preyed upon by the mass retail trade.
In its most unsettling scenes, the participants’ own morals are tested, creating self-conscious moments when it feels like the jig may be up and the “Everyday Shopper” mask begins to slip. Playful and provocative, mischievous and meditative, WONDERMART is a multiverse which carries the participant in a trance-like state towards the fringes of reality and morality, and pulls them back again with an altogether altered vision of the social world represented by the everyday supermarket setting.
The fact that WONDERMART is so many things at once is a testament to the all-sense-consuming capacities of immersive audio. What is most impressive about Silvia’s work is its ability to completely transform the supermarket space by simply appealing to the participants’ sense of sound and allowing the power of the imagination to take the reins from thereon. It is a powerful example of a work that disrupts preconceived notions of where and what art can be, of art that breaks out of the gallery and can be found in places as banal as the aisles of a supermarket. WONDERMART isn’t an attempt to bring the community to art, but rather to bring art to the community and our everyday communal spaces. This comes at a critical time when the relationship between arts institutions and the communities they claim to serve needs to be radically reimagined.
Here, as they often do in our tech-dependent lives, earphones worn in public are a way of partially escaping from reality, of retreating from the world around us. They’re a kind of “do not disturb” sign hanging from our ears, a symbol of a desire for privacy. The fact that the success of the piece (for it to flow undisturbed by members of the public) depends on the anonymity and socially disconnected visual statement of the earphones serves as a thoughtful reflection on the relationship between art and technology today, and the impact that this has had on our relationships with others.
Though a private sonic experience in a public place, travelling through WONDERMART is far from a lonely journey. On the contrary, this socially distant piece proposes radical new forms of intimacy with strangers. By prompting the participant to follow another shopper or to think about the families they are shopping for, by encouraging observation of others from a contemplative distance, the audio piece successfully garners a sense of comradery and solidarity with the fellow shoppers. This shows that for art to create truly “social” spaces, it isn’t merely a matter of placing people in close physical proximity to one another within the walls of a gallery or museum. It is a matter of reimagining our relationships with those around us and how we interact with the surrounding environment.
In this way, the gallery can exist anywhere, whether it be in the supermarket or in the online world in which there is no physical connection and yet encounters with others can be extremely intimate and affective. For this, WONDERMART is not only a playful reimagining of the supermarket, but a timely contemplation of what it means “to be together” in an increasingly digital world.
WONDERMART will take place on the 21st & 28th October and the 4th, 11th, 18th, 20th, 22nd, 24th, 26th and 27th of November.
Slots are available every 15min between 10am and 8pm on performance dates. To book in for which supermarket you would like to visit and when, please click here