This week ANAGRAM’s voice-responsive virtual reality experience Make Noise launches to the public. Made with the BBC VR Hub it celebrates the story of how the Suffragettes fought to win the vote a hundred years ago. In it, you must use your own voice as conduit for their story – creating and destroying the world around you as you hum, shout and sing.
It’s also this week that 15 peaceful protestors were charged with terrorism by Cheltenham Crown Court. Their crime; chaining themselves to a plane in Stansted set to deport 60 immigrants to West Africa where some would face the threat of death.
When the BBC approached us to make a VR experience to mark the centenary we really wanted to find a way for it to feel relevant to now. A world where it still takes a lot of bravery to make a change.
If the story of the Suffragettes is one of women fighting for the vote, it becomes a story that has already ended.
At the very least with interactive work, you need to find some space for the audience to bring something to it. And what can we bring to a story that is done and dusted?
Reframing their tale as the battle of battle; the story of what it takes to stand up for injustices that society has become comfortable ignoring – means that in this experience you can be part of something that is about now. And also about you.
In Make Noise you enter a series of abstract worlds – they are bold, giant and elemental. Each represent a stage of the journey to victory that the Suffragettes describe in detail in oral testimonies. Their voices surround you as you explore the worlds and then at each stage use your voice in a different way to interact in it.
The sequence of worlds evoke the frustration of domestic servitude, the excitement of forming a movement, the power of expressing their rage and finally the glory of reaching the end.
We found almost twenty hours of archive material of Suffragettes being interviewed – most in the last stages of their lives. Elizabeth Dean was 104 when she recorded this memory of marching to parliament in a crackly Mancunian accent;
“Some of the men, getting hold of your arm saying, ‘Leave it to us. We’ll get you what you want’
But they couldn’t get what they wanted themselves.
While they were doing that, they were digging their fingers in your arm so that you were black and blue.
Myself and our visual director Barry Murphy listened over 4 days straight. Often stock still we sat in awe of their directness, mischief and courage.
I arrived at Charing Cross Underground. I went across to the station and bought a bunch of violets which I carried in my left hand. And in my right a hammer. I walked down the Strand and the first shop I came to which was a jewellers… bang my hammer, through the window I continued on down the strand for quite a way and did quite a lot of damage.
Charlotte Marsh – force fed 139 times in jail
Amongst the archives was Emmeline Pankhurst’s most famous speech – the one entitled Freedom And Death – in which she offered the advice that became the foundation for the piece.
‘You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else.
In fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.’
We spent most of then next week recording little samples on our phones and sending them over Whatsapp to one another.
Little turns of phrase became musical coda. Their laughs, impersonations of angry clergyman and bombastic statements.
“Took the paper out of my hands and stamped on it like a child” giggles Grace Roe, Christabel Pankhurst’s chief organiser.
Your place is in the kitchen! Screams Victoria Lillard teasingly, known for destroying the windows of the war office.
As a matter of fact we weren’t crushed ever and that sort of thing just made us more determined. Menaces Mary Richardson, known for slashing the painting of Venus at the National Gallery
Listening to the extracts over and over again, they started to take residence as familiar voices in my head. Friends encouraging me to stand up for myself. But it’s not just these intimate recorded thoughts that are important in the experience.
We were interesting with using voice-interaction in a way which was about how it felt to speak, shout and be asked to sing in a room – with strangers or alone.
Voice interaction in the piece is fun and people find it delightful to explore what their voice can do.
In the game, every sound the viewer makes creates a reaction. They are asked to find their voice and use it to name the women that have inspired them, and to call out the objects that have oppressed women for centuries – changing the virtual environment around them as they do so.
But it’s not easy at the outset. There is a hurdle of breaking out of watching into participating with something as personal as your voice.
That desire not to disrupt the room is perhaps the most important part of your experience inside the headset. The feeling of being pushed back into passivity and losing confidence in their actions is part of the beginning of the Suffragettes story too – we hear in the recording the women talk about being put down and dismissed.
We have toured with the piece in all manner of contexts – from the elegance of the curated VR island at Venice Film Festival to a packed shopping mall in Montreal full of noisy children, background musak and jet-streaming fountains.
Everywhere there is a trajectory. People often begin cautiously with a little hum here or there – trying desperately not to give too much of themselves away. But by the end they are belting – far more than need to create interactions -but more because there is something delicious is letting yourself go and freeing yourself of the self-consciousness which often keeps us only half-present at half our power.
And when they come out there is something palpable about the change in them.
Not because of what they’ve seen but because of what they’ve done – and the VR has been – if anything – an excuse; a parallel world you step in one at time where being a slightly different version of yourself if possible.
In her closing speech Mel Evans on trial with 14 of her co-defendants for stopping the deportation flight taking off from London said the following:
Once we looked at all the information we had, about the people themselves and what they feared, about what had happened before to people like them, about how the Home Office has at times treated people…we did what I think many people would do in that situation. Once you look at their testimonies, you can’t turn your head away. Once you know what you know, you can’t look away. And when you look you want to help. We looked through all the options. And we did our best to protect these people from harm. If we didn’t intervene at that point, we couldn’t have
forgiven ourselves. I couldn’t have forgiven myself. And so I tried to help those people.
It’s easy to believe that we will look back in shock at how the UK government allowed to treat migrants in detention today – the only country in Europe to allow indefinite detention. The fact that 11 people who were on the flight that was leaving were subsequently given right to remain in the UK is deeply vindicating for the actions of the protestors, our have been referred to the National Referral Mechanism for people who have been victims of human trafficking.
At this stage you can’t predict the degree to which the protest may impact policy – but the protestors bravery is clear. They could be given life imprisoned under the law which has convicted them. If we want a society that has a citizenry that is not too docile or numbed to stand up for things that are unjust – we are going to need to practise using our voices a lot more.