London: Merge Festival, including Bompas and Parr’s “Sensed Presence”

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So, the Merge Festival.  I am the last person who would go to a music festival (I don’t do camping, I’m not a big fan of live music, and I’m certainly not up on any of these new bands (I stopped listening to new music sometime in high school, so anything past the early 2000s is not for me, and to be honest, I mostly just listen to Journey and the Eagles anymore anyway)); fortunately, Merge is an arts festival, so there was no queuing for hours to use a disgusting Porta-Potty required!  This still wouldn’t necessarily be my thing, but this festival was entirely free and not crowded because the installations were fairly spread out, plus I had already booked tickets to the featured Bompas and Parr event.

You may be familiar with Bompas and Parr from their work with unusual jellies, or their recent installations at Kew Gardens.  I went to play their “cake minigolf” on the roof of Selfridges a few years back and consequently made it onto their mailing list, which means I now get inf0rmed about their latest projects before the general public, and thus have a shot in hell of booking tickets before they sell out.  So when I read about “Sensed Presence,” I immediately snapped up a pair of tickets for me and my boyfriend.

The event is now sold out, so I suppose there’s not much point telling you about it, but obviously that’s what I do, so here goes.  The premise behind it was that of a “multimedia seance,” wherein you would be put alone in a room of a supposedly haunted museum, wearing this special helmet (a Koren helmet) that is meant to stimulate the part of your brain responsible for religious and paranormal visions.  Me being me, I booked this, felt smug for a minute at grabbing a spot, and then the smugness instantly turned to panic as I freaked out about the idea of sitting alone in a ghost room.  I mean, I don’t really believe in ghosts, but it’s one thing to say you don’t believe in ghosts when it’s broad daylight; quite another when you’re left alone in a dark room with spooky sound effects.  I honestly was debating whether or not to even attend by the time the event rolled around, as I’d had a couple weeks to be anxious about it, but curiosity won out over cowardice (even if I don’t exactly believe in it, you all know that I am fascinated with weird shit, including the paranormal).

On the way there, we stopped to see another installation on the same street, “A pound of flesh for 50p,” which I keep calling the Melty House (the pound of flesh thing kind of implies that the wax is made of human fat or something, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case).  It is essentially a full size building made of wax that is going to gradually be melted over the course of the festival (the last day of Melty House is 26th October, so you still have time to see it!); you can see the degree of meltedness it was in last weekend in the pictures at the start of this post.  Apparently there used to be a candle factory on that spot in Southwark Street, hence the wax theme.  Honestly, I think it’s quite an attractive looking house; if it were made of brick, and not on Southwark Street, I’d happily move in, but as it stands, Melty House is just going to be a puddle in a week or so.  Having seen that, we headed up the street a little ways to the Kirkaldy Testing Museum, where the Bompas and Parr event was being held.

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(If you have managed to score tickets to this event, I’m going to issue a spoiler alert from this point on, unless you don’t mind knowing what happens.) We had to surrender our phones upon entering, so there was no chance of taking pictures of anything, but the museum itself looks kind of neat.  I’d never been before because I think they have pretty erratic opening hours, but we were given a brief tour before we were due to start our “experience,” and had the dominant object in the room explained to us, which was a bridge testing machine.  Only one person could take part in Sensed Presence at a time, and I opted to go first because I was scared shitless and just wanted to get it over with.

I was taken down a pitch black set of stairs (the girl working there had a flashlight, but I still almost tripped) and instructed to knock three times at a door in the back of a room filled with various testing devices , red light, and some swirling mist.  As you may have guessed, a large part of the experience was the theatrical build-up.  A man answered the door, and had me sit down to watch a 5 minute video about the helmet.  This kind of freaked me out, because I was left alone in this room with my ears covered by headphones, so I was kind of concerned someone was going to sneak up behind me, and so I kept whipping my head around.  Nothing happened except the video though, which was kind of freaky in itself as it consisted of people talking about the “spirits” they’d seen whilst wearing the helmet.  Again, this was all about creating atmosphere, and adding to your sense of unease.  When my turn to don the helmet came, I was led into another dark room, this one filled with a big squishy chair and large machinery (part of the museum’s collections) and had a squishy head cover and then the helmet placed on my head (although the people originally testing the helmet were blindfolded, that wasn’t the case here, presumably so their lighting effects didn’t go to waste).  A timer was set on the purposely outdated computer screen next to me for ten minutes, the guy working there left (though I had access to a panic button, and he was just in the next room), and the sounds of Buddhist chanting and throat singing filled the room, whilst light effects played on the wall opposite me.

I suppose I’m kind of like Father Ted in the “Flight into Terror” episode, in that I am a total worrywart, and get super anxious in the lead-up to doing anything remotely stressful, but when I’m actually in the middle of doing said thing, I’m completely calm.  That was certainly the case here, as I’d been freaking out prior to entering the museum, but I felt a-OK sat in that chair.  I’m relieved to say I didn’t “see” anything, but my head did feel kind of odd.  It may have just been a placebo effect, but I definitely felt this weird hotness and pressure on my brain, and I felt weirdly emotional, like I was going to start crying for no reason at all. The time also seemed to go by really fast, though they may have had a tricky fast clock; it’s hard to say as I wasn’t staring at it the whole time, but the first six minutes went by in what felt like one.

I was asked to sign the guestbook and write a little bit about my experiences; flipping through the pages, I saw that most people experienced something similar to what I did, though a few were claiming sightings (a few more said they were too scared to even go in, which led to my feeling of smugness returning).  Overall, I do think it was a cool experience, and I’m really glad I went…if you did manage to get tickets for the last weekend of the event and you’ve come here for reassurance, don’t be scared, it’s not that bad!  As the man working there told me, “It’s all in your head, so you can’t see anything that isn’t already in your mind,” (which wasn’t really reassuring as I have an overactive imagination and some terrible things running through my head, but still).

Although some of the events have finished, a few more run through this weekend, so there’s still time to check out some of the Merge Festival if you haven’t already (though most of the cooler sounding things have admittedly ended).  It’s all kind of centered around Southwark and London Bridge, so there’s always Borough Market to stop at if nothing else, plus I really like that area around this time of year; all the history and the dry leaves lying in the street give it a nice spooky feel.  Also, there’s a pretty cool art exhibition in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall called “Catching Dreams,” featuring the art of prisoners (a couple pieces are shown below, since I popped in for a minute on my way over to Southwark) so you could probably do a whole day of Banksidey fun, if you were so inclined.

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