held down, expanding

Image description: A multi-perspective collage of three photographs of Held Down, Expanding. The first is from the outside, showing a black structure front on with an open door. Inside seven small speakers pointing towards a reclining chair in the middle are lit by a red glow. The structure is backlit in a room at the Abbottsford Covent in Collingwood, Melbourne, which has an old, industrial look. The second photo shows a closeup of the inside with a silhouette of a person lying back in the chair. The third is of the black structure from the outside at a side angle with the door closed.

Held Down, Expanding is a 14.2 channel sound installation for one person to experience at a time in pitch-black. It premiered at MONA FOMA 2018, followed by showings at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne (pictured) in Liquid Architecture’s Polyphonic Social program and Booktown Festival in Clunes.

“The idea of surfaces disappeared and I existed somewhere in a mist of vibrations. They were comforting, surrounding, my weight existed within it. Something in the back of my thoughts was changing and shifting, healing a little, being arranged into a shape that made more sense, that could be understood and integrated.”

Audience Journal

​​The sound experience is bracketed by reading and written reflection as follows:

Beginning in a waiting area, the audience member is instructed by the work’s minder/operator to read a small, black book of concrete poetry, which alludes to the impact of insidious abuse within intimate relationships and its connection to symptoms of anxiety, depression and so-called mental illness (this same book accompanies Thembi’s Love Songs CD, released on ROOM40, a companion piece to Held Down, Expanding).

Once they have finished reading, the audience member is guided by the work’s operator into a large, black structure and seated within a central recliner chair. The operator enters the structure, latching the door behind them so only a small amount of red light remains. For the audience member, the light becomes so minimal they are barely able to perceive the environment they are within. The operator then raises the audience member’s chair, reclines them, and pulls them back into position between two central speakers – the audience member in a state of complete submission.

Person lying inside Held Down, Expanding
Image description: Photo inside Held Down, Expanding that shows a silhouette of a person lying back in a reclined chair in the centre of eight speakers spread around the space face toward them, lit by a red light

The operator switches out the light so the space becomes pitch-black and the sound begins. With nothing to orient them, the audience member becomes lost in an expanding and contracting sound field of perceptual ambiguity, a meditative space and mirror into their own perceptions, emotions and mind.


Once the listening session is complete, audience members are invited to reflect upon their experience and read the reflections of others who have experienced the work before them.

scanned journal page
Image description: Hand written text reading, “Things I felt:
Weightless – in the screeching chair
Heavy – my body a deadweight like the air around me
Objectified – by the clinical feeling of being in a screeching chair (akin to the feeling of waiting for a medical procedure).
Suffocated – as the noise amplified around me, I gasped for air.
Silenced – with all space around me consumed by sound, I couldn’t have made a peep.
Empowered – like I wanted to push through and prove my strength
Able – Although I felt ‘confined’ to the chair, I felt like swimming up from the depths of the darkness to the light at the top, so I could breathe again.
Thank you for a thoroughly evocative and thought-provoking work!”
scanned journal page
Image description: Hand written text reading, “hard to put into words
hard to remember who I am the feeling of drowning
loss of identity
feeling of fear
emptiness and evacuation
loss of perspective
a coffin
before and after life
could get addicted
would come again”
scanned journal page
Hand written text reads, “held down
I felt a heaviness
and at once a lightness
my legs could not move
I felt the sound move
through my body

My head was full
full of confusing thoughts
My thoughts would not stay
they left before I could catch them

I felt relieved when the
intensity subsided
but then it was replaced
by another form of intensity
My hands became sweaty
when I thought that being
stuck with this intensity
for prolonged periods
might be my reality

At moments my intellect
took over and I enjoyed
thinking about how the
sounds were made
and the extraordinary
experience of being surrounded
by speakers

Bloody love this work!”
scanned journal page
Image description: Lined page with black pen ink scribbled to form a dense circle in the middle that expands outwards in tangles.
scanned journal page
Image description: Hand written text, reading, “Extremely confronting experience. As soon as the sounds hit their peak intensity, I was constantly thinking of ending the session and hoping for it to be over. My experience was marked by the internal struggle of whether to leave or stay. I had no sense of how much time had passed. Was trying to distract myself with thoughts of the outside world/my real life but felt the sensation of their slipping away or becoming less real or easy to reach. Wonder how much more intense the experience would have been had my boyfriend’s dad not been opening the installation.”

A new line of text showing different handwriting that reads, “I had this experience also, if it wasn’t my dad in the room with me I may have felt less comfortable. However, I really appreciated the level of security and safety and comfort given to the audience. It made the artwork able to be experienced in its full potential. I was unsure of my ability to cope with it all but as soon as I was fully immersed in the sound I lost a sense of time, it completely slipped away.
Scanned journal page
Image description shows handwritten text from five different writers (a new paragraph denotes new handwriting): “Falling asleep to the peaceful bong rips, waking up with myself coming in from all angles…

Intense. Listening so closely that I could hear the attendant breathing. Or was he?

Surprisingly relaxing experience. The anticipation of not knowing what was about to happen was subdued by the warmth of the room. I was expecting it to be far more confronting, but I felt incredibly safe if not a little dissociated. I wish it went for longer.

Wonderfully meditative, enveloped in a mild vibrational sound was, wondering what will happen next… and hoping not to fall asleep…x

weightlessness, formless feeling… anxious sounds. pulled apart and reassembled.

I felt instrumentalised. But was not a problem.

After reading the book I had to actively work to find a place of trust and openness to the experience – plus my (low) anxiety of being in a darkened box. The attendant was relaxed and confident – that helped. I found trust, rested into the seat. and the sound experience. Amazed by the physical presence, movement and location of sound – so tangible as a presence in the space.”
scanned journal page
Image description: Hand written text reading, “my body felt heavy, there was fear. The priming with the ideas of trauma had opened something in my thoughts and going into the darkness, somehow trapped, felt like terrifying in some way, in the back of my thoughts somewhere.

Then the sound was all around me, gently building. The idea of surfaces disappeared and I existed somewhere in a mist of vibrations. They were comforting, surrounding, my weight existed within it. Something in the back of my thoughts was changing and shifting, healing a little, being arranged into a shape that made more sense, that could be understood and integrated.

At first I was holding the torch as if the back of my thoughts might press it at any moment. By the end I had forgotten it existed.
scanned journal page
Image description: Hand written text reading, “The darkness created a strong sense of vulnerability.
The sounds were felt, rather than heard in different parts of my head. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I can understand how others might.
There was emotion, rather than thoughts. Not an unpleasant experience, although it will take a little time for the feelings/emotions to clear into coherent thoughts.
An incredibly interesting experience.
Thanks, Tom.”
Scanned journal page
Image description: Hand written text reads “Spatial elements were great. Perfect location. Booth was such a strong object. Will it be difficult? Will it be torture? Will it be calming? the booth was like time travel, like a procedure. I began to have quite vivid “light” hallucinations. Great waves of light and shadows, massive objects without scale seemed to be in the booth alongside me. I felt no fear but the presence of fear was there. I would have stayed longer to try and “see” or “feel” these hidden (not real) objects. Thanks.”

Held Down, Expanding 

An article discussing Held Down, Expanding at MOFO can be found here and a podcast with an interview with Thembi alongside other artists at MOFO here.

Conceived and created: Thembi Soddell (with sound composed using samples from Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Jim Denley)
Industrial design: Stuart McFarlane

Thank you: Liquid Architecture, Creative Victoria, Brian Ritchie, Shelley McCuaig, The SUBSTATION, Brad Spolding, Joel Stern, Danni Zuvela, Georgia Hutchinson, Debris Facility, Robin Fox, Byron J Scullin, Jeffery Hannam, Vanessa Godden, Creative Clunes, Richard MacKay-Scollay, Clunes Neighbourhood House and the crew of volunteers in Melbourne and Clunes – Yonke van Geloven, Rebecca H Russell, Sharalyn Rozanski, Esther Grant, Tessa Ambrose, Dave Budge, Stephen Samuel, Jordan Rozanski, Lorna Fitzpatrick, Richard Manning, Rosina Dulloo, Steve Ambrose, Phil Burnie, Mick Sacco, Brittany Wyper, Elena Betros, Darcy Wedd, Jason Hood, Kelvin Lau, Tim Coster, Jessica Pinney, Mikhail Rogachevsky, Thomas Harman, Zac Cooper and Marcel Feillafe.

Held Down, Expanding was supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.