Cambridge is a magical city, no doubt, but living here can make it easy to forget that. You scuttle through the city centre with your mind on the next task and curse the gaggle of language students cluttering up the pavement. Residents don’t remember to look at the skyline.
Of Sleeping Birds – a walking art installation – shakes up that habit. It is a project created by the Circumstance collective, currently associate artists at Anglia Ruskin University, which invites the public to become part of a moving (in both senses) soundtrack to a typical Cambridge evening. In practical terms, you arrive at a secret location, pick up a portable speaker housed in a beautiful wooden box, and join with a group of 40 people to follow a guide on a walk around Cambridge in the twilight. Each box has its own soundtrack, which join together to make a full orchestral arrangement.
Well, this sounded slightly bonkers but amusing, so I signed up and arrived on a damp Saturday evening at the secret location (or Sussex Street, as it’s more commonly known) to find a pile of speakers, a small and random crowd of participants, three stag parties, several confused language students, and a very drunken gent with a dog on a string. An accurate sample of Cambridge’s Saturday night population, in fact. Our guide explained that the tour had been running every night since Monday and each night had been a different experience, affected by the weather, events in the city centre and the people they had met.
The briefing split the 40 into 4 teams of 10, gave us a guide to follow and a speaker to carry. Apart from that, it was left to our ingenuity to adjust our position in the group and see how it affected the experience.
Up to that point, the speakers had been playing a gentle soundtrack of strings and wordless voices, but as we turned the corner out of Sussex Street, it became more purposeful and atmospheric and the difference between the individual speakers became more obvious. Melodies and rhythms shifted from one box to another and folded back into the group. The boxes used satellite positioning to change the music as we walked through the city so that it reflected the space we were walking through: in the Grand Arcade’s lofty aisles a soaring wind instrument melody, quickly followed by pulsing, buzzing, almost threatening composition as we moved onto busy St. Andrew’s Street.
The effect on the group was impressive – within five minutes of starting the walk everyone was smiling, couples were holding hands, and we had started to match strides. Adding your own score to a walk around the city has the effect of making you into much more of an observer; it feels as if you are both watching, and part of, a film. I found myself observing the scenes we passed with much more attention to the picture they presented – creating stories in my head about what each picture meant.
And of course I was being watched: it’s not possible to walk 40 people around a city carrying conspicuous and noisy speakers without attracting attention. The reactions of passers-by provided some of the best bits of the evening: from the two police officers trying to maintain professional detachment while stealing glances over their shoulders, to the young clubbers filming us on their mobile phones, to the middle aged chap dancing solemnly in the middle of Christ’s Pieces as we went by, everyone seemed to appreciate the magic.
After meandering across the Kite, we crossed the road to Anglia Ruskin’s campus, and finished by placing all 40 speakers in the courtyard where we could walk around and follow the music between each box. As the music finished, there was a pause, then heartfelt applause. It had started to rain again, but I think all of us felt warm.
Of Sleeping Birds has finished its run in Cambridge but I understand the Circumstance collective has other work in hand, including Honeycomb Stitches, a smartphone app that uses stories and messages from Cambridge residents to create a number of journeys around town. Click here for more information