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The Times

Noise annoys by Iain Aitch

For me, it is a given that coach travel is unpleasant. The lack of air, inability to move around and jerky motion all conspire to make me nauseous. The experience is not made any more tolerable by having jumpsuited security staff bawl at you or separate you into male and female groups, ordering you onto different coaches that are headed for an unknown destination.

So begins the latest piece of work by artist Rod Dickinson. 150 of us have gathered at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on the Mall for a magical mystery tour that will take us to an undisclosed venue outside of the capital to witness his one-off re-enactment of the infamous 1993 Waco siege in Texas. 39-year-old Dickinson has previously re-enacted part of the Jonestown massacre, where 914 cult members downed cyanide-laced drinks, as well as Stanley Milgram’s behavioural experiments, in which members of the public were encouraged to administer electric shocks to strangers so that Milgram might find out how easily people follow orders. Re-enacting Waco was the next logical step for an artist fascinated by mind control and fringe belief systems.

Those on the coaches are, of course, aware that the jumpsuited, shaven-headed goons are all part of the show, but their presence, stares and the echo of death squad tactics in the separation of the sexes serves to subdue us. When the men’s coach draws away from the car park at the rear of the ICA we are all sat upright and silent, our seat belts buckled as we are told.

As the coach travels along the north bank of the Thames, heading east, my fellow passengers relax slightly and speculation begins as to where we are heading. Rock venues and football stadia are mooted, though industrial estates and factories start to look more likely as we hit the A13. One passenger thinks that we are headed for Dagenham, or maybe City Airport.

Just to ensure that we don’t get too cosy a guard wanders up and down the bus checking our seat belts and then handing out disclaimer forms for us to sign. The re-enactment will revolve around the psychological operations used by the FBI to try to oust David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers from their Mount Carmel compound at Waco, so we will be subjected to loud noises and must sign to say we understand that this could reach 110 decibels, the equivalent of a chainsaw at close quarters.

The loud noise is one reason we are speeding out towards Essex. Many London councils didn’t want the noise or the dubious pleasure of an artist re-enacting an event that saw 80 die, most of them in the fire that consumed the Branch Davidian’s headquarters after the 51-day-long siege. Dickinson came across similar problems with his re-enactment of the Jonestown massacre, having to rethink his idea of a ‘die in’ when he couldn’t find a public park that would allow him to stage then event.

Speaking before the event Dickinson tells me it took a year to find the venue. “I had a few aborted meetings with councils,” he says. “Anyone concerned with community issues did not want it to happen in their location.”

Questions of taste may have been a problem for local authorities, but those travelling to the event seem to have no such qualms, agreeing with Dickinson’s premise that his work is more about learning than any taste for the macabre. He calls it ‘experiential education’.

“I vaguely remember it from the news,” says Sajeel Kershi, an IT worker. “I was surprised to hear that it was 51 days, for some reason I though that it was over relatively quickly. I wasn’t aware that psychological techniques were used. I guess that it will get people to start thinking. So it is a good thing.”

We pass Dagenham, bringing into view the huge supermarkets, leisure complexes and ‘big box’ retailers that dominate this strip of retail heavy A-road. It resembles the outskirts of an American city. If England were to have its own Waco then surely it would be somewhere out here in the hinterlands of Essex.

We pass the Lakeside shopping centre before turning off the main road. We have arrived. Our Waco is to be at the Arena-Essex Raceway, a stadium used for speedway and banger racing. I am just grateful that we have completed the journey without the need for me to lean over a brown paper bag. Perhaps it was the fear of what our guards might say.

We disembark into the darkness, with guards issuing brusque instructions. I stick close to those in front of me so that I can see where I am going before my night vision kicks in and I can see my feet.

Once inside the stadium we are ushered to the centre of the track, where we stand huddled closely, not sure what to expect next. After five minutes the lights go up. Spotlights pointing inwards from the perimeter fence to replicate those shone onto the compound at Waco each night. Then the sound begins as speakers around the stadium play helicopter noise. Many instinctively look up as the sound shifts around us. Such is the realism of the sound that I almost expect to feel the down draught from the rotor blades.

The next segment is a recording of David Koresh talking with an FBI negotiator. These recordings of telephone conversations were played back at the compound by the FBI to ensure that Koresh could not hide any facts from his followers. The conversation is bizarre, with Koresh and the FBI man discussing the bible. Koresh is clearly delusional, though, as Dickinson explains, the Branch Davidians thought the FBI were equally unbalanced.

“I spoke to Clive Doyle (one of only nine survivors of the fire),” says Dickinson. “He said that they couldn’t understand it. They thought that the FBI were crazy, which seems a reasonable assumption to make. For me it is a great working example of the conflict of belief.”

After ten minutes of telephone conversation a loud, bass-heavy recording of Tibetan prayer chants is played, at which point some of the affects of psychological warfare become apparent. Within a minute of the chant beginning about 50% of the crowd move towards the whitewashed tyres at either side of the central area and sit down on them. Some shut their eyes, others put up hoods against the night air, which is turning cold.

As more conversations with Koresh are played audience members get up and start to amble counter-clockwise around the race track, looking like extras in a zombie film or prisoners in an exercise yard. Then comes the earplug moment.

As a highly amplified recording of a telephone left off the hook is played members of the audience put their hands to their ears, some drop to their haunches and others stop in their tracks. I fumble around in my pocket for my earplugs. Elsewhere, other members of the crowd do likewise or grab a pair from an assistant who has a bag full of bright green foam-rubber nuggets. The earplugs reduce the noise, but the effect is still akin to standing next to a car with its alarm sounding.

A recording of Koresh being badgered by the FBI negotiator to allow members of his church injured in earlier skirmishes to receive medical attention comes as a blessed relief. The Branch Davidians had to put up with dentist’s drills, white noise and rabbits screaming played for hours at a time to deny them sleep and speed their surrender, but five minutes of high frequency noise is enough for most of us.

By the time that Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of These Boots Were Made for Walking is being played through the multiple speakers a quarter of the audience are already up and striding around the track. Those still at the centre smile in relief and mock dance moves whilst couples embrace or sway in time with the music.

When Nancy sings “start walking”, those on the track unconsciously speed up. Then the music is slowed right down and distorted, so that “these boots are gonna walk all over you” is delivered as a threat. People slow down again, or stop altogether. The same track was played at Mount Carmel, where the boots came in the shape of pyrotechnic CS gas canisters backed up by armoured cars, in what some claim was a massive over reaction by the FBI.

Dickinson’s management of the performance highlights this point perfectly without the need to resort to narration. It is impossible not to consider what conditions and emotions must have been like inside the compound and of those, 21 children amongst them, who perished in the fire on the 19th of April. Whether the fire was, as the FBI claim, set by Koresh or ignited by the CS gas, as some survivors claim, seems irrelevant.

As the performance draws to a close Koresh and the FBI negotiator are once again locked in theological discourse, with Koresh talking about the name of God being pronounced by your very breathing and the fact that you must therefore utter this word with your last breath.

“Unless you are blown to pieces everybody does it,” says Koresh presciently.

Then silence.

The lights go out and we are once again left in the dark, in the middle of a speedway circuit in Thurrock. My ears ringing and there are goosebumps on my arms. It could just be the cold, but I think that I may have just been experientially educated.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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