Fran Disley: “Pattern Buffer”

Bluecoat, until 1st November, free

You’ll be familiar with the Holodeck if you’ve ever watched Star Trek. It’s a blank room which, with a bit of futuristically simple computer wizardry, can become a fully tactile and immersive recreation of any environment the user chooses. Want to stop by a quaint Irish village, or a 60s Las Vegas cabaret? No problem. It can be darker too, if you like – in one episode of Voyager the Holodeck gets taken over by a rogue species who expand its powers to turn the whole ship into a World War 2 re-enactment. 

The Holodeck is one of my favourite TV plot devices. For one thing, it allows for some gloriously silly diversions from space exploration. In doing so it gives not just the characters, but also us viewers, a break from Starfleet. To be in Starfleet is to subscribe to utopian grand morals of good-vs-evil, upholding justice for all living beings, and the virtues of duty and rank. With the 80s/90s Star Trek series each being about 20 episodes long, this performance of perfection would get really dull. Seeing what worlds they choose to create and how they act in them shows us that these characters have personalities beyond that, too. It makes Starfleet more realistic as a place where people, rather than avatars, exist.

Though it’s never described or discussed as such, the Holodeck could arguably be the future’s greatest innovation in self-care. In the confines of a Starfleet ship, travelling for months or years at a time, I reckon it could be difficult to get out of the daily routine. The Holodeck offers a space of retreat where you can escape to somewhere completely different for a while. 

From this cue, Fran Disley has used the concept of the Holodeck as the basis of her new Pattern Buffer exhibition at Bluecoat (its name is also taken from Star Trek technology). Originally opened in March, albeit for only the briefest time before Covid-19 hit, Disley’s show is conceptualised as a meditation on “the things we do to feel better about ourselves”. Pattern Buffer shares with the Holodeck the quality of being about how we choose to act and spend our time. 

Liverpool has become a strange place to me lately. What I love about the city is it being a place of mingling, spontaneity and accessibility, things which have largely been shut off thanks to Covid. Doing things which should be normal, like going for a coffee or a pint, have become laced with a need for guardedness. The city is not a place to be able to relax, not right now.

But I’ve written for various publications over time about how Bluecoat has, for me, long been a place to find space, an oasis of calm in the middle of what’s often a busy day. Pattern Buffer works with and emphasises this quality – though its potential has been hurt by lockdown. Downstairs, four small tables stand empty. They would be pretty enough in their own right, but each is scarred by a white “do not touch” intruding the centre of its pattern. These were intended as spaces for jigsaws and other game spaces of collaboration, which have been forcibly retired by circumstance. They wanted to keep them as objects but I rather wish they hadn’t really. Their presence is a reminder of what I’ve taken to calling the “before times”, a symbol of a kind of tactile interaction that’s not possible any more.

They’re an intrusion of reality in what is otherwise a rather nice world to sit in. I like the shades of green the Holodeck-inspired grid is painted in, and the plants apparently growing out of the walls and earth mounds. They’re signs we code as ‘alien-esque’, and they work especially well in contrast to the activity of passers-by going on just on the other side of the full-length windows. I’ve spent hours in this particular gallery in the past as both a volunteer and visitor, and this is the exhibition which transforms those windows most radically into a barrier. Sitting here I felt particularly detached from the outside world that I could see but not hear. It feels more natural here amongst the plants and the green, despite the formalism of the grid, than out there. It’s quite powerfully restorative to sit with an awareness of that. 

Pattern Buffer’s upstairs space is perhaps even more transformed by circumstance. An enormous blanket which was originally intended to fill the floor as a communal space of relaxation is now hung on the wall, leaving the space empty. Yet rather than feeling barren, there’s clarity to be found here. The secret to finding this lies in its soundtrack. There is a guided meditation which plays on the hour every hour, but the rest of the time you’ll hear the sound of birdsong being gently played. Birdsong is a sound which has taken on new significance since lockdown, widely rediscovered in the absence of normal urban bustle. When I was going out on my daily walks I’d actively listen for it, using it as a way to quickly feel connected to at least my surroundings, when I couldn’t feel connected to anything else. Though you might think it incongruous to the logically gridded space, its effect is quite remarkable if you sit with it for a while. With the birdsong the blank spaciousness gets a personality, an openness and potential. 

Taking time to sit here, I find myself having all kinds of thoughts. Usually in a gallery such thoughts would be focused upon a work of art. Here there’s no such direct intention, and I like that. I need that. I need to feel that it’s OK to think like this, to have a place where the mind is meant to wander, where I can let it happen without direction without feeling like this is a fault or a failing. Because I’ve been doing this a lot this year and I do usually have this sense of underlying guilt that I should be using this time to work, produce, be better. Being at home all the time has only made the inescapability of this worse – this feeling isn’t boxed off into ‘work’, but takes over all of my space. Here in Pattern Buffer, there’s no such demand. It’s calm and quiet and spacious. I feel like I have permission to mentally wander. I like this being a place to process, a place that’s not the four walls of my house and not a place where I need to achieve anything.

So I wonder if actually, I’d like it as much as I do up here if the blanket were still on the ground and I was being directed towards it. It would be different; it was apparently meant to support making connections with strangers, and that’s usually important too. But right now that’s a source of nervousness for many of us, and instead what I need right now is the space for my mind to sit with itself, alone. I’ve visited Pattern Buffer twice, and will again when I’m next in the city centre. Disley’s ‘Holodecks’ can’t boast the technology of the 24th century to take us away – and not all the interventions of the present are welcome – but its ability to be a self-care space is still important.

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