Sounds Unseen: The Work of Libero Colimberti

Danger 400 volts! One glance at the auditorium tells me this isn’t your usual cinema. One solitary wooden school chair, sharing space with the electrical consumer unit, in a cupboard under the stairs of what used to be Deptford JobCentrePlus, now an art venue called Utrophia.

I’m here to see three short films by sound artist Libero Colimberti. Libero’s films are projected onto the slanting underside of the staircase, for an audience of one. As you would expect, sound is the star of Libero’s films. The unusual projection angle only emphasises this, forcing me to lean back in the creaking chair.

The first of the films (‘Microlanding Strip’) visually consists of one continuous fixed shot of a quiet residential street at night. The scene is empty: the pavement, a row of houses on one side and a grassy verge on the other. But the sound is full of traffic, of buses and cars, of dislocated shouts, a man whistling, a police siren – and a mysterious mechanical cranking noise. Sight and sound do not match.

The eye of the camera stares at the scene, but our ears are somewhere else. At the bottom of the picture a clock counts down – but to what? Then a bicycle bursts into frame, racing towards us from the far end of the street. The cyclist is Libero, holding an enormous microphone. Sight and sound dramatically converge; the bike crashes into the camera, the clock hits zero and everything goes black.

The second film (‘Salami!’) I heard as an exercise in focusing our auditory attention. We follow Libero around his world. We see him trying to cross the road, walking past a construction site and through a park. In each location, though, our attention is on the sounds; we hear things Libero’s way. The traffic noise, the birdsong, the noise of the diggers, each is turned up, crisply distinct, filling the cupboard-cinema, burrowing into our brains.

The richness of our auditory world is often overlooked for the flashiness of the visual. Libero tries to address this injustice. When we concentrate on sound, it fills our brains and we hear things that we’d swear weren’t there a moment ago. Try it for yourself for a moment. Turn off the radio and listen. Can you hear the birds? The traffic of the road outside? Your neighbours? As you concentrate, the sounds swell and you begin to realise that there’s a symphony happening out there (not always melodious symphony in London, but still).

If Libero’s ear is sensitive, his eye is playful. When he reaches his house we hear the persistent orgiastic cries of a woman in coitus and the banging of her bedroom door against its frame: she’s fucking against the door. Libero listens: half-horrified, half-fascinated. Then he sees the salami. Just inside the ecstatic woman’s door is a plate with a salami sausage on it (not a euphemism). The banging of the door stops, orgasmically spent. Libero greedily seizes his chance to slip his hand through the gap for the salami – but before he can seize his sausage (not a euphemism) the banging begins again, battering his hand and Libero has to beat a retreat.

The first two films play with the interplay between sound and visuals: the first by dislocating the sound from the visuals, the second by exaggerating the sound over the visuals. The third (‘Frame’) does away with visuals altogether. A red frame appears, bathing the cupboard-cinema in its glow. A clock counts down in the top right corner of the picture. The sounds alone suggest the story. We hear traffic, then a girl shouting in the distance. Slowly, we realise that we’re eaves-dropping on a domestic argument, as a neighbour might – we can’t see the drama, hidden behind a fence or some trees, perhaps. “Don’t you f****** dare!” Subtitles highlight essential phrases. “Oh f****** hell!” A woman is screaming at a man – her boyfriend. “Because I f****** love you!”

We piece together the scene from the dialogue: “What does it matter if I jump off here?” the man shouts. The woman, we can hear now, is trying to calm him down, trying to talk him down from his suicide. He must be standing on a window sill or on a rooftop. “I f****** love you,” the man shouts, in despair – “But I f****** hit you! What does it matter if I jump off here?”

But Libero doesn’t let us hear the conclusion to the story. The sound of sobbing shake the cupboard-cinema and a drunk walks by, singing “I love you…” The countdown stops. We’re left to fill the silence with our thoughts.

The triumph of the films of Libero Colimberti is that he directs our attention to the hidden sounds of life, those sounds we take for granted, or hear only as irritants, not as music. As I duck out of the dingy cupboard, out into the bright sunshine of Spring, I listen for a moment to the symphony of Deptford Market and sing.

‘Salami’ by Libero Colimberti

‘Microlanding Strip’ is playing at Window 135 in New Cross until this Saturday 9 March.

What do you think?