Reviews Performance Published 20 May 2012

Ethometric Museum

BAC ⋄ 18th-26th May 2012

An orchestra of electricity.

Lois Jeary

Have you ever wandered through the darkened corridors of a museum and wished, secretly, that the dusty exhibits would come to life? Have your fingers ever ached to reach out and touch the tantalisingly close forbidden articles on museum shelves? Have you ever longed for answers when confronted with something seemingly so much greater than human kind? Step in to Ray Lee’s enigmatic Ethometric Museum and after thirty minutes of the Professor’s machines working their quasi-pseudo-scientific magic, you might end up feeling that all those dreams have, albeit fleetingly, come true.

Retro-clad curator Dr Kounadea enthusiastically welcomes us into her museum, surrounded by machines from times gone by. This is, she says, a lovingly collated selection of Ethometric instruments – electronic devices that emit mysterious harmonic frequencies and in turn can realign our internal electric flow (or something like that, my brain hurt). Of varying sizes and substances, some could be articles of torture, others medical marvels, or perhaps just the resulting accidents of an eccentric’s scientific experiments. The thrill is in not knowing: other than Dr Kounadea’s baffling introduction, this museum proffers no descriptions – it is up to you to wonder what a Sonaesthetic Oscillethergraph is for, or how an Ethomagnetron Mk5 might work.

It may strike you as odd, as you start to shuffle nervously amongst the shelves of paraphernalia or gaze curiously at distorted faces through convex glass, that at its heart the Ethometric Museum is pure theatre. Although Dr Kounadea ensures that the focus is initially on the objects themselves, before long the museum sparks to life. The white-gloved Professor Lee emerges from the shadows to demonstrate what Ethometric instruments can do, orchestrating a performance in which he glides silently around the room tending to each machine in turn. There are moments of tableau made all the more poetic by their proximity – we gaze closely as the red LEDs dance off his white gloves and the lights dim overhead, man and machine working in perfect harmony.

As well as undeniably beautiful, Ethometric Museum is also curiously amusing. As the dead artefacts are touched with life, they whizz, clang and rumble into action like funny little creatures, shaking their heads or shivering with excitement. At their best, when interacting with the Professor or each other, their voices make them truly alive. Each instrument has its own distinct modulation, buzzing at the sight of a companion, or grumbling away on their own lower frequency. Gradually the room is filled by an orchestra of electricity, with Professor Lee the meticulous conductor.

Despite the eclecticism of the instruments, this unique sonic experience veers remarkably close to classical form. The buzzing and bleeping forms three distinct movements, of sirens first, then the metallic hum of steel on steel, followed by the closing whirr of a heavenly choir as metal blades suck you in with their hypnotic spin. Free to walk around as we please, each visitor is partly in control of their own individual concert, getting close enough to the bass to feel its vibrations, or searching out the source of a particular sound. As such, everyone hears the performance differently, which adds to the sense of wonder.

A cynic may question whether it is purely the power of suggestion rather than any inherent quality of the machines’ ‘harmonically resonant sounds and electro-magnetic waves’ that inspires goodwill and happiness. But whatever it is, it works. Stolen glances at fellow visitors reveal smiles creeping across faces, moments of stillness as they let sounds wash over them, and secret squeezes which silently say ‘it’s important we’re here, together’. As the symphony whirrs to its conclusion, a blissed-out stillness settles around the room.

Of course the ultimate theatricality lies in the fact that we can never be sure what, if anything, about the experience is ‘real’; however, as the ending jars you out of your meditation distinctions between reality and artifice seem utterly insignificant. Whether mysterious, material or made-up, Ray Lee’s Ethometric Museum makes for very good vibrations indeed.


Lois Jeary

Lois holds an MA in Text and Performance, taught jointly between RADA and Birkbeck. In addition to directing and assistant directing for theatre, she also works as a freelance television news journalist for Reuters and has previously contributed to The Guardian.