Festival 2018: Sonica Presents Portal

'IS IT really scary,' asked a woman pushing a pram, at the end of our health and safety briefing outside the entrance to the Clyde Tunnel. 'Naw,' said the security man confidently. The collective shoulders of our small group sagged a little in disappointment. What about the monsters?

Portal PIC: John Devlin

Clyde Tunnel, Glasgow ***

This was officially the opening day of Cryptic’s Portal, and already its 12 day residency in the south pedestrian Clyde Tunnel was officially booked out, although the organisers say they will find a way to release more tickets, and it certainly seems that rocking up in the middle of the week on the off chance is worth a try.

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The popularity of Sonica’s new subterranean adventure is not hard to fathom; the advance word is that the 762 metre pathway under the Clyde has become a home to futuristic robots and inchoate beasts. Mostly, however, it is pitch black. After the gloom swallows up the daylight by the entrance, we were guided by a white luminous track fizzing deeper inside the tunnel, and occasional lowkey sidelights. The Teenage Mutant Ninja pizza shop at the Balshagray entrance started to feel very far away; except that, like the Turtles and New York’s alligators we now seemed to be in the kind of sewer environment that might be capable of evolving something ominous and biological.

Even with its usual fluorescent lighting and without Sonica’s audio-visual installations, the isolated walk from Whiteinch to Govan can feel dankly oppressive. Now it throbs with Alex Menzies’ electronic score, and soon after the descent a bot waving a surveillance camera scuttled out of the darkness towards us like a spider checking out the contents of its web. In the distance, lights briefly flickered to frame the tunnel’s arch.

What follows is a half hour walk and a series of woozily unsettling encounters framed by multimedia artist Robbie Thomson. A watertank draped in salvage and fishbone fronds occasionally bubbles significantly, and a carcass of pipes squirts water at inattentive passing visitors.

Portal feels like a haunted house put together by Ridley Scott in his 1980s Alien and Blade Runner heyday, a cinematic age before CGI where unease was created out of metal and latex. The fusion of subway and submarine nightmare packs plenty of mood, but it barely breaks a sweat when it comes to pressing your buttons, despite the robotics. It might have been more challenging and transformative to create something to interrogate and challenge our automatic dread of a tight underpass that leads who-knows-where; a bright, breezy Little Mermaid-type world for instance, rather than a sombre spacewalk of morbidities and technofear.

Despite the reassurance above ground, there are works that might resonate for some time after you climb up towards the light at the end of the tunnel, such as a bald mottled human head which comes to life, the mouth gulping fishily and the eyes struggling to open. Like Portal’s underpass adventure, it is strikingly creepy and certainly worth seeing, if not entirely persuasive.