‘We are culturally asleep at the wheel’ Janek Schaefer
The inaugural International Festival in Milton Keynes is a 10 day festival bringing international artists to Milton Keynes. Having recently relocated to the city of cars and roundabouts, I was interested to be invited along to the opening of the festival’s artist in residence Janek Schaefer’s installation ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ on Thursday 15 July. The installation is housed in a disused Sainsbury’s store in the Milton Keynes Food Centre. It is a unique response to the strange new city of Milton Keynes.
There are three elements to the installation. The cars themselves which are located at the far end of the store, the ‘alternate route’ library and the services, the former cigarette dispensary offers free tea and coffee and sells other fair-trade refreshments.
All of the store’s windows have been blackened, so there is nothing in particular to indicate the installation inside. Using the entirety of the large abandoned shop floor, Schaefer has created a virtual three lane highway where he has positioned ten deserted cars. Inside the cars audio systems have been programmed with Schaefer’s blend of interviews, radio programmes and clips from documentaries and films such as ‘The Story of Stuff’ and ‘The Age of Stupid’. If you are to start at the last car and work your way to the front, a type of story begins to emerge. It’s a story about the condition of consumer driven oil and car dependent society and its fate. Schaefer is careful to consider the entire story, he doesn’t merely bemoan the consumer society without considering alternatives. The alternatives offered are positive and considered, and include work from Transition Towns and the 10:10 initiative.
It’s a strange prospect to enter the abandoned cars in order to listen to the sound pieces. You realise that cars are very personal spaces, and it’s astonishing how the cars all have different smells, particular car smells developed from years of use by their various owners. In fact some of the comments in the guest book noted the strange smell of the cars. The car wind shields have been treated so that there is an effect which looks like water. It’s difficult to see out of the cars, as though you were stuck in a rainstorm. All of the cars are parked with their hazard lights on, leaving you wondering where are the drivers? What happened to them, why did they abandon their cars? Schaefer incorporates the sound of traffic and rain into the mix of atmospheric music and audio clips mixed with the static that comes from tuning a radio.
The first car features a clip from the film ‘The Age of Stupid’ with the voice of Pete Postlethwaite bemoaning ‘we could’ve saved ourselves’ and it is this initial lament that sets the scene for Schaefer’s narrative. Messages have been printed onto the rear view mirrors and have statements such as: ‘Does our future have a future’, ‘None of us are as smart as all of us’, ‘Taking a fresh look at the world, good lives don’t need to cost the earth, indeed they offer our best hope of saving it’, ‘Every action creates ripples of change personal action is meaningful even if no one has heard about it’, ‘The world does not have to be this way, we can change it’, ‘A good life is a conscious life, one lived with awareness.’
Having attended the exhibition the first night without listening to the sound works in the cars and then returning later to listen, Schafer’s talent as a sound artist is clear. The work’s depth and power is located in the audio clips in the cars. It enriches and layers the work in a way that the assemblage of cars in space and the other elements can’t do alone. These other elements lend to the atmosphere of the sonic piece itself. The piece is successful because these two elements really work in parallel. The cars, lighting and location add to the ambience and strangeness of the piece which is enhanced once you begin to interact physically with the cars.
The use of the audio clips, staggered between the cars allows Schafer to build a distinct narrative about our current consumer/oil based/ car centred society, the problems and unsustainability of this lifestyle and offer alternatives to it. This is enhanced by the visceral, emotive power of the cars themselves. Sitting in cars once owned and driven, with the associated banal and familiar feel, one is haunted by their own memories of car culture and the role of cars in their own life.
By virtue of these cars being so familiar, we are implicated, reminded of our own role as participants in this society. Fortunately, Schafer doesn’t seek to merely confront us with the problem. Solutions are offered in the informational videos and library of books about sustainable living and the information on the 10:10 programme. This part of the installation is carefully thought out and well researched. This completes the story suggesting ways we can improve our lives, make changes, and positively introduce sustainable behaviour into our lives.
This installation will be open until Sunday 25 July. If you are unable to visit the installation yourself, information and resources from the exhibit are available on Janek’ s website: