Gone, Gone Beyond – People Like Us at Barbican

“For the first ten minutes you’ll try and work out what everything is,” says Vicki Bennett, aka People Like Us, as she introduces the first London showing of her new work, Gone, Gone Beyond. “After that, you’ll just go with it.”

Across three decades as People Like Us, Bennett has released a stream of head-spinning collages on album, DVD and radio. Delivered with a wry sense of humour, her work samples sound and vision from across popular culture and recontextualises it through the medium of the mashup. Sometimes these pieces take on a narrative, other times they just unfurl in streams of vibrant sonics.

A multi-screen, multi-speaker work, Gone, Gone Beyond was commissioned by San Francisco-based composer and curator Naut Humon and has been created specifically for diffusion on the CineChamber, his own surround sound apparatus. Though containing some similarities to Bennett’s 2020 album The Mirror, Gone, Gone Beyond finds her collages strung out across an extra plane, so that music and images fly at you from all sides.

In the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, screens fill the four walls and cushions have been laid out for the audience. The space takes on a bunker-like quality but the dark confinement never feels claustrophobic; instead, it’s as if Bennett has built a den from which to experience this criss-crossing sensory bombardment.

Sometimes the lateral movement across the screens is like a psychedelic conveyor belt passing through your head; at other times it’s as if you’re the axle of a strange carousel. During the moments of maximum media overload, the impression is of adopting a vantage point outside regular time and space; a meta position on flows of information and stimuli.

The audio follows a similarly hallucinogenic pattern, as fragments of pop songs and movie soundtracks twist and bend into each other. Oldies like ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ or ‘Do You See What I See’ are cut into loops and spun around; appearing in new contexts, they slip out of their usual retro baggage and become far more uncanny.

At times the experience is overwhelming, but this intensity doesn’t feel designed to conjure the terror of the “semioblitz,” the word coined by cultural theorist Mark Fisher to describe the onslaught of visual and sonic stimuli experienced in modern cities and virtual spaces. Rather than ruminating on the saturation of signals, Bennett plays in the tide of signs and signifiers, gleefully channeling the current and finding new patterns in the swirl.

It all feels remarkably open-ended. That’s partly because the experience differs depending on your placement and orientation in the room, but it’s also sentimental, made poignant by the fragments of music you recognise and the memories they hold.