Corbyn mania

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Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to our national security, our economic security, and the security of your family. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership poses a threat to our national security, a threat to our economic security, and to the security of your family. The Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, now threatens not only our national security, but also the future of our economy, the future of your family, and the future of every single subatomic particle involved in your entire existence, including the ones we haven’t discovered yet. And Jeremy Corbyn will continue to be described in this way for as long as the cameras keep rolling.

Jeremy Corbyn is so obviously unelectable that we are spending all of our energy explaining to the electorate just how unelectable he really is, to make sure they understand.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reluctance to wear a suit and tie is a worrying sign of his antipathy towards Great British traditions, and his u-turn on wearing a suit and tie shows that he is too easily influenced. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to wear, or not wear, a poppy, which may be red or white, is an insult to the Queen and the veterans who fought for our freedoms. Jeremy Corbyn did not sing a song about the Queen, and this non-singing was a narrow-minded, bigoted affront to our much-loved monarch. His decision to sing the song in future is a disgraceful betrayal of his own principles. Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to agree, in a BBC interview, to kneel before the Queen, is a national disgrace and a gross abdication of his responsibilities as a party leader.

Jeremy Corbyn describes the IRA as “great craic” and says that Hezbollah militants “just need a hug”. Jeremy Corbyn thinks that Batteries Not Included was superior to ET, and that the Police Academy films got better as time went on. Jeremy Corbyn insists that the acting in Hollyoaks is quite good, and was genuinely disappointed when Judy Murray was voted off Strictly. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it would be “really, really cool” to form a soft rock covers band called “The Jeremies” with Jeremy Clarkson, Jeremy Paxman, and a Jeremy Beadle look-a-like standing in for the dead Jeremy Beadle.

Jeremy Corbyn keeps forgetting whether envelopes go in the paper recycling bin or the packaging one. Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses show dangerous levels of pixellated jaggy artefacts when viewed in low resolution JPEGs. Jeremy Corbyn still thinks it is hilarious to answer his mobile phone by shouting “whazzaap!”

Corbyn jaggies

Terrible jaggies on Jeremy Corbyn’s glasses in lo-res JPEGs: an insult to Britain, The Queen, politics etc

Jeremy Corbyn is too old, too tall, too short, too grey, too left, too rebellious, too red, too pale, too republican, too weak, too strong, too straight, too male, too woolly, too wrinkly, too bearded, too direct, too ordinary, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too democratic and too autocratic. His voice is too brittle, his hair is too uneven, his smile is too angular, his clothes are always the wrong colour, size and style. His teeth are not white enough, his skin is not tight enough, his bow is not deep enough. His feet slope too steeply, his chin is too simple, his eyes are too elliptical and his policies are incoherent outdated rehashed fantasies from the past which no-one will ever vote for at all. If you type Jeremy Corbyn’s phone number into a calculator and turn it upside down it says “bumtrousers”.

Jeremy Corbyn is a socialist, a trade unionist, a communist, a Marxist, a Leninist, a Stalinist, a sexist, a racist and a cyclist. Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet appointments show his terrible lack of judgment, and have brought politics into disrepute. There are too many men, not enough women, the wrong distribution of women, too many lefties, too many people who set fire to hotel curtains ten years ago, not enough experience, too many divisions, not enough ethnic minorities, not enough working class disabled lesbian transgenderpeople, not enough [**add more here. Midgets/dwarves? Cancer survivors? Possibly link to Madeline McCann somehow**]

Jeremy Corbyn is utterly inept at evading journalists’ questions. He is disturbingly incapable of the obfuscation, on-message repetition and trite focus-grouped sound bite shite required for his profession. He struggles to give the same answer over and over again, and his reluctance to trade in facile clichés is deeply troubling.

Jeremy Corbyn’s toxicity is so potent that even the tiniest exposure to his face on TV will pollute your children forever. Jeremy Corbyn will come into your house, Jeremy Corbyn will eat your crisps, Jeremy Corbyn will do a dump in your toilet without flushing, and use up all the toilet roll without buying any more.

We respect Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and congratulate him on his victory. It is a remarkable achievement, and we will do everything in our power to undermine it. We are on your side. We are all in it together. We support hard working families. We want a Britain for the strivers, not the shirkers, in which work always etc etc. Something about curtains in the morning. A Britain where those with the broadest shoulders bear the something something. A Britain based on some other things that initially sound good but on closer inspection turn out to be vacuous. A Britain dominated by English values, although the other UK nations do make quite nice holiday destinations. A Britain whose sense of its own importance in the world is vastly overinflated. A Britain that is truly Great again.

We did not extort public funds through parliamentary expenses. We did not deregulate the banks, or bail them out with billions of made up government money when they crashed. We did not defend the right of bankers to continue receiving lavish bonuses. We did not try to tax pasties or caravans, nor did we hastily change those plans in the face of popular opposition.

We did not exaggerate the case for war, or contribute to death and destruction in distant lands through the questionable deployment of our armed forces. We did not refuse asylum to people fleeing foreign conflicts, some of which we did not help to start. We did not turn a blind eye to widespread child sexual abuse. We did not allow the police to cover up the avoidable deaths of 96 football fans. We do not keep pushing for ever more privatisation of the NHS. We have not sold off major public assets to people who were already rich. We have not invited state run companies from other countries to operate our railways at a profit.

We have not persisted with an outmoded, unrepresentative electoral system. We have not allowed tax avoidance to continue on a massive scale. We have not presided over increasing poverty, inequality, the use of food banks and widespread public disillusionment with mainstream politics. We did not appoint a cabinet mostly made up of millionaires to oversee massive cuts in services for poor people. We did not appoint profit-making companies to reduce the benefits bill by inaccurately assessing disabled people’s fitness to work, and these assessments have not led to any deaths. We did not introduce tuition fees for higher education, and by not doing this we have not left many young people with crippling debts.

We did not claim public funds for a duck house, or for pornography. We did not award peerages to tax exiles. We did not take drugs or use prostitutes. We do not have a leader with a face that looks a bit like an oversalted ham, and he did not put his genitals inside the mouth of a dead pig [**CHECK – have photos emerged yet, what do they show?**]. We do not have a boss with a shrivelled punched-up raisin head whose journalists did not bribe police or hack the phones of murdered children.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to go back to old ideas from the mid 1970s, which no-one will vote for because they are ridiculous idealistic garbage which no-one will vote for. We have fresh new exciting modern ideas, developed by Thatcher in the late 1970s, and by Blair in the 1990s, which have led to untold prosperity and joy for the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas can bring only despair and a return to the three day week. Jeremy Corbyn is made up of too many molecules, his name has too many syllables, his initials are blasphemous, and he’s so old and out of touch he probably doesn’t even realise that Zayn Malik has left One Direction, if he’s even heard of them, which he probably hasn’t.

We congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on his overwhelming victory, and wish him all the best in his new role. [outro music: Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream]

Concrete modernism: architecture about us

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I love post-war modernist buildings, particularly the hulking grey concrete ones. I like their repetitive patterns and the textures of their weathered surfaces. Many people find them horrible, but for me there is inspiration in their scale, their boldness and civic, socialist values. It is also fascinating – if sometimes depressing – to observe what happens to them over time, as historical remains in an age of voracious capitalism.

Over the last few years I’ve been researching the ruins of St. Peter’s College, a contested 1960s modernist site near Cardross in Scotland (see this website and this journal paper). This year I’m part of a project about Modern Futures, which has given me the chance to think more broadly about what post-war modernism is, what it does, and why, against all the odds, I like it so much.


The most common attitude to these buildings has become a popular cliché: “concrete monstrosities, knock them down!” Demolitions attract crowds of spectators, in a late capitalist mutation of the public hanging. In some cases charity raffles have been held, with the lucky winner appointed to press the button to trigger the dynamite. It’s as if society has decided that this kind of architecture is unarguably worthless, that it must automatically be complained about, like traffic, wet weather or Simon Cowell. But this view is increasingly being challenged. As well as blistering pro-Brutalist polemics from commentators such as Jonathan Meades, and architectural experts insisting on the historical value of post-war modernism, there have also been surprising levels of public support for campaigns to prevent the demolition of controversial modernist relics such as Preston bus station and the Apollo Pavilion.

It is important that any celebration of concrete heroics doesn’t airbrush out the trickier details of post-war modernism. Many modernist buildings were experimental, failing to function as was hoped. Some quickly became grim places, usually due to a complex mix of factors. The uncompromising aesthetics of this type of architecture can be intimidating, particularly in the UK, where damp climate and overcast skies turn concrete into a drab mass of rainy grey. There is also an undeniable white male arrogance in Le Corbusier’s ideas about rectilinear rationality triumphing over nature, as expressed in Towards A New Architecture. That arrogance has been mercilessly exposed by the premature ruination of many modernist buildings, either through neglect or deliberate destruction.


Yet the remains of modernism have much to offer. Aesthetically, they are uncompromising landmarks that stand out against the increasing blandness of contemporary cities. Culturally, they are material remnants of 20th Century social history. Politically, they provide a connection to a socialist worldview, in which architecture was seen as a way to engineer better lives for people, rather than as a way of wringing profit from space. These things are all important, but most of all I love modernism for its anti-romanticism. I find it honest – refreshingly, shockingly, brutally honest – about the nature of modern life.

Take the St. James Centre, a shopping centre, hotel and ex-council office block in central Edinburgh, shown in all the photos in this post. A grainy charcoal slab looming over the genteel Georgian new town, it is widely hated. For the majority of Edinburgh residents, its imminent demolition, making way for a more upmarket retail and hotel development, will be an occasion for cheers not tears.




I’m one of the very few people who like this building. For me, there is a mischievous joy in how the St. James Centre punctures the cosy heritage theme-park feel of the city. Its presence is audacious, disrespectful to the point of being outright rude. Scraping against the veneer of its picturesque surroundings, it blocks scenic views from all directions. The building is so offensive that in recent years a giant redevelopment banner has been hoisted across one of its most visible façades. The effect is like a loincloth failing to cover up an embarrassing erection – a desperate attempt to preserve modesty until the wrecking balls swing into action.


Scottish arts promoter Richard Demarco apparently claimed that “no argument can defend the overscaled, heartless and meaningless modernism of the St. James Centre development.” (source: here) Well, here’s my argument.

The building functions as an insitu critique, showing the city for what it really is: a utilitarian, functional, impersonal space, where goods are traded and services provided. The St. James Centre affronts the bourgeois sensibilities of Edinburgh like the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes defecating in public in Athens. His behaviour was neither dirty protest nor exhibitionism, but rather an attempt to cut through the bullshit of Athenian manners by living in a way that exposed the basic nature of human existence.



Buildings like the St. James Centre are unavoidably modern, unmistakeably urban, unashamedly rational. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Their direct, upfront qualities are the result of an optimistic post-war mood. Modern life was seen as something to celebrate, to display with pride, not something to be ashamed of or hide away. Brutalist architecture openly expresses the incessantly repetitious, mass-mechanised character of late industrial societies, just as a thatched cottage in a rural village reflects the agrarian culture within which it was built.


There is a serious incongruity when people aspire to live in country manors or mock tudor houses, but spend their lives eating food produced by industrial farming, operating mass-produced machines, immersed in a haze of electromagnetic signals, all powered by fossil fuels extracted through heavy engineering. We can denigrate this way of life as escapism, distraction, pretense, denial, or we can enjoy it as bricolage, mash up, a post-modern merging of past and present. But either way, the fact is that a lot of architecture conceals rather than reveals the structures and processes on which contemporary society is built. Dispirited by the violence of modernity, by its ravaging of life, we try to cover it up, or knock it down.

This is why we need modernist architecture, in its successes and failures, in its rationality and madness, in renovation and in ruins: to help remind us of who, what, when and where we are.


Thanks to Hannah Neate, Ruth Craggs and the AHRC-funded Modern Futures network for providing space in which to think about these ideas.

Common wealth? Glasgow’s games, urban regeneration and modernist housing

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Unless you’ve been in a total media blackout for the last million years, you’ll have noticed that in 2014 Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games. At the time, I was working in the city, so the games were unavoidable. Like other international sporting mega-events, they were also revealing of the processes of global capitalism. This post presents some reflections on these issues.

Photo: Steve Spiers Photography, Creative Commons

The games commenced in July, after months of interminable anticipatory hype, non-news coverage of some baton or other being shipped and helicoptered around the planet, and a run of gaffes and cock-ups of the sort that now come as standard with sporting mega-events. The mainstream media were keen to focus on the competition rather than the surrounding controversies, but I found myself pulled in the opposite direction. The games themselves proved less interesting than the clunking apparatus of event management, urban change and media coverage that surrounded them.

We would like to thank customers for their patience and understanding

Take the ticketing fiasco. Official vendor Ticketmaster screwed up ticket sales for the 2012 London Olympics with an 11-day website shutdown. So with the Glasgow games, the firm had a second chance, an opportunity to learn from mistakes made. But if you’re the sole provider of an in-demand commodity, it doesn’t matter how rubbish your delivery systems are, people will still sit around for days on end, clicking themselves into carpal tunnel syndrome, until they’re finally allowed to hand over the dosh. One person reportedly spent 31 hours in an online queue, a feat of endurance that surely deserves some sort of medal.

Screen grabs from the ticketmaster website. Source: BBC

Ticketmaster’s lazy dominance and technical ineptitude were thrown into sharp relief by the figure of the athlete, striving for excellence in a fiercely competitive field. By contrast, here was a company whose supposed mastery of tickets involved it being serially incapable of selling them.

Ticketmaster’s success has been built on the use of electronic ticketing. So they don’t sell tickets as such, but rather electronic allocations of space, which amounts to co-ordinating the on-off status of lots of tiny switches inside some computers. In a world of everyday technological marvels, these lumbering chumps managed to screw up a basic data handling task.

But Ticketmaster had a monopoly; games-goers had no choice but to buy tickets from them. The suffix ‘master’ is perhaps appropriate after all. The word can mean ‘expert’, but it can also mean ‘controller’, or, as a verb, to dominate, grasp or commandeer.

Regeneration and displacement

Meanwhile, on the ground in Glasgow, away from podiums and pundits, grim realities were unfolding. To recognise this is not to dismiss the achievements of the athletes, or to devalue sport as a form of popular culture. Nor is it to suggest that there were no benefits from hosting the games. Rather it is to question the manner in which sporting events are increasingly being harnessed as drivers of unjust urban change.

The Jaconelli family had been in their Dalmarnock home for over 30 years when the Glasgow 2014 organisers decided to knock it down to clear space for the athlete’s village. The family were served with a compulsory purchase order, offered compensation worth a third of the value of their property, and, when they refused, forcibly evicted in the middle of the night by the police. Such flagrant disregard for the lives of ordinary people is directly at odds with the principles of the Commonwealth Charter, such as human rights and respect for human dignity.

As Jack Jaconelli was overheard to say during the eviction: “All this so arseholes can run about in shorts for two weeks” (source: here). There is nothing intrinsic to sports events that requires the reckless destruction of people’s homes. Architect Malcolm Fraser points out that the Jaconelli’s tenement block could easily have been incorporated into the new development were there a will to do so. The problem is that, despite the rhetoric of community engagement and legacy, the real priorities lie elsewhere.

As my colleague Neil Gray has argued, sporting mega-events have become an opportunity for a small number of corporations, property developers and land owners to make a tonne of money under the guise of regeneration. Local benefits are often marginal by comparison. Some of the figures for land sales in Glasgow are eye-watering. Neil writes that

“The most controversial deal was with Charles Price, the Mayfair developer, who bought property on the projected Games Village site for around £8 million in 2005-06, then sold it to the City Council for £17 million in 2008”.

In another deal, £5.1million was paid to former Rangers owner David Murray’s company, for land the company bought a few years before for £375,000 (reported in this BBC news article). Set against these shocking transfers of public finance into private hands, the modest provision of so-called affordable housing in the games redevelopment looks tokenistic.

Add to all of this the demolition of a disabled people’s day care centre to make way for a Commonwealth Games bus park, and the erection of an 8-foot security fence lined with CCTV cameras segregating the athlete’s village from surrounding homes, and it is hardly surprising that local people felt excluded, a sense “that the games are not for ordinary people in the east end to be part of or enjoy” (source: here).

The tearing down of modernist buildings

The sickly mix of aspirational urban cleansing, wrecking-ball regeneration and local disenfranchisement came to a head in the games organisers’ crown-jewel fuckup, a failed plan to demolish Glasgow’s Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony.

The Red Road flats. Photo: Graeme Maclean, Creative Commons

A cluster of high-rise tower blocks built as social housing in the 1960s, Red Road is an iconic landmark with some of the tallest buildings in the city. The flats were due to be demolished anyway; turning their toppling into a live spectacle would, the organisers insisted, make for

“a bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people…An estimated television audience of 1.5 billion people around the world will also bear witness as the 30-storey blocks fall spectacularly to the ground, transforming the city’s skyline forever. And, while this will serve as an unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future and changing for the better, it is also intended to serve as a respectful recognition and celebration of the role the Red Road flats have played in shaping the lives of thousands of city families for whom these flats have simply been home over five decades.” (Glasgow 2014 press release)

This beyond-satire piece of opportunism was an idea whose boldness, at least, deserves some acknowledgement in an age of watered down committee-consensus decision-making. Unfortunately, it was boldness firing in the wrong direction. A tidal wave of public outrage sank the whole thing within days. Objections surged in from all angles.

Many Glasgow residents disagreed that the plans were a ‘respectful recognition and celebration’, pointing out that the flats had been people’s homes, and that making entertainment out of their destruction was crass and insensitive. Claims that the event would be managed “in a sensitive manner” sounded ridiculous in the face of the obvious brutality of dynamiting five enormous skyscrapers. For some people, an act of mass destruction seemed an overly negative way to start the event. Serious concerns for the wellbeing of nearby residents were raised. That one block housing asylum seekers was to be left standing also provoked heated debate about social exclusion.

A petition gathered over 17000 signatures, local politicians and architectural groups queued up to voice their opposition, and before long the organisers abandoned the whole idea, with a carefully-worded statement from the Chief Executive citing security and safety concerns as the deciding factor. In retrospect, we can only speculate about where a live video feed of collapsing monoliths would have fitted into the opening ceremony’s kitschy mix of tartan tat, national cliches, gay kissing, imperialist pomp and celebrity-fronted charity appeal.


Some commentators have argued that the Red Road episode was simply the latest expression of deeper, longer political currents: the relentless privatisation of housing across the UK, and attempts to break with an unglamorous industrial past, re-branding cities as places for leisure and culture. For Neil Gray, this is about erasing “all traces of progressive modernist social housing through disinvestment and demolition in order to maintain the ideology of private home ownership” (see his incisive article here). Likewise, Fraser MacDonald argues that this impulse “to detonate our towering achievements” is not only about destroying buildings, but about destroying the very ideals that they express – the notion of housing as public good rather than private property, as social service rather than investment opportunity. Demolition as spectacle, writes Gerry Mooney, “somehow manages to cue to a wide audience that it is waste of time and money to try and provide council housing for working-class people. It always ends up in failure.”

But there was also something else going on here. The Red Road opening ceremony plan, whilst breathtakingly ill-conceived, flushed out strongly-held sentiments about social housing and urban renewal. The proposal acted as a catalyst for public discussion, albeit brief, about the legacies of post-war modernism, and the question of what to do with the imposing physical structures it has left behind. Some of the online debates, in comments on the BBC’s news pages for example, were witty and revealing.

BBC red road comments

It is often said that tower blocks and brutalist architecture are hated by the general public, who see them as concrete monstrosities. What the Red Road episode showed was that in fact they are highly contested. These buildings elicit passionate feelings, of loathing and love and everything in between. There is something about modernist architecture that continues to fascinate, to activate imaginations, to exert a magnetic pull, or to repel, repulse, annoy and disgust. These forces are as evident in the pro-modernist polemics of commentators such as Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades as they are in the nostalgic anti-modernism of figures such as Prince Charles.

Perhaps it is the boldness of tower blocks, the confidence they project against all the odds, the lost ideologies they embody, their monumental presence, their shameless masculinism and muscularity, or the way that they evoke the recent past through material form. The desire to blow up modernist buildings as a spectator sport could be seen as a backhanded compliment, a tacit admission of their intrinsic power. Put it this way: it is unlikely that, in fifty years time, anyone will want to dynamite the bland low-rise housing of the Glasgow athletes’ village as part of a public spectacle. It would be a damp squib.

Passionate attachments to modernist architecture can be felt elsewhere too: in the campaigns to save Preston bus station from demolition by the local council; in the refurbishment of the Apollo Pavillion in Peterlee; in the skaters resisting their removal from the concrete undercrofts of London’s Royal Festival Hall; in community opposition to the demolition of the Heygate estate in London; and in the work I’ve been involved with helping arts organisation NVA to reinvent the ruins of St. Peter’s College in Cardross.

In such sites, local residents often get actively involved – not necessarily in large numbers, not always in agreement, and not always achieving their aims, but certainly with a lot of emotional investment. These contested sites also have a tendency to attract artists and creative projects – sometimes working with conflicts, sometimes intensifying them or provoking resistances, but either way usually inciting lively responses. Red Road itself has inspired a remarkable array of arts and cultural works over the years, such as the drawings, photographs, videos and writings collected on the Red Road Flats website.

A ‘dialectogram’ drawing of the Red Road concierge station, by artist Mitch Miller.

To sum up, modernist architecture seems to have a capacity for concentrating and intensifying energies, generating sparks of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is powerful. It can help to galvanise resistance to the profiteering cycle of demolition and gentrification, of which the Glasgow games was just one example. Modernist enthusiasm might also help in developing alternative and more equitable forms of urban renewal, involving maintenance and repair rather than demolition, the provision of amenities for local people, and the creation of spaces to support inventive cultural activities. These would be forms of common wealth that could be genuinely transformative.

Environmental sound and urban space: the BE OPEN sound portal

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As part of my research on the relations between sound and space, over the last year I’ve experienced several works of environmental sound art and design – site-specific installations, performances, audio walks and so on. Many of them have been in cities, raising questions about how sound functions in urban spaces.

One example that sparked off some thinking was the BE OPEN sound portal, mentioned in one of my previous posts. I thought I’d air some more of my thoughts about it here.

Black secret technology

The BE OPEN Sound Portal was a black monolithic circular structure, containing a state-of-the-art, full frequency, nine-channel surround sound system, with space for around 20-30 people to gather inside. BE OPEN is a philanthropic foundation describing itself as a ‘creative think tank’, and run by a super-rich Russian businesswoman called Elena Baturina. The portal was designed by multinational engineering firm Arup, and originally installed in Trafalgar Square in 2012 with a programme of works by sound artists and musicians such as Squarepusher and Jana Winderen.

The portal was later relocated for a stint outside the Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2013, where it was used for sonic experiments by artists and students. Some of these students invited me to the opening night of their work, so I went along. The world of billionaire foreign patrons and global engineering corporations is unfamiliar territory for most environmental sound artists; no one quite seemed to know what to make of the whole thing.

Outside the BE OPEN Sound Portal

Outside the BE OPEN Sound Portal

Prestige public art

Arriving at the grand entrance of the Chelsea college, we were signed in and ushered through to a luxuriously wood paneled, plush carpeted room, to be plied with free wine and dainty, lengthily-titled canapés. In some cases it took longer for the impeccably-dressed waiting staff to tell us the names of these little morsels than it did to eat them. “Excuse me sir, would you like a feta and black olive tapenade crostini with caramelised onion and green pea veloute?” ”Ooh, thanks!” CHOMP. Gone.

The college website boasts that it is “one of London’s most prestigious art and design institutions”, and the event had that kind of vibe – aspirational, over-excited, lots of rubber-necking, climaxing in a brazenly congratulatory speech by a Russian man from BE OPEN. All of this fuss made it pretty clear that the Sound Portal was what Hall and Robertson (2001) describe as a prestige public art project, dressed to impress. This was art being used to make an urban space and an educational institution seem more cool, hip and exciting.

Eventually, half cut on free booze, we wandered outside and into the installation.

Inside the Sound Portal: Angus Carlyle and sound art students

Inside the Sound Portal: Angus Carlyle and sound art students

Excluding noise – and bringing it back in again

Jet black on the outside, pure white on the inside, the portal’s aesthetics were reportedly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A literal science-fiction, the portal shut out the exterior sounds of urban space, such as traffic noise, with acoustic baffles. This was a purified listening space, a highly controllable audio-bubble allowing artists to manipulate the sonic space at will.

Environmental sound artists, however, tend to have a different approach to acoustic designers: less interested in eliminating noise and more concerned with understanding sound in context. For example, one of the installed works, Strata, by Mark Peter Wright, Sophie Mallett, Yiorgis Sakellariou and Brigitte Hart, used field recordings of London to bring the sonic detritus of the city, excluded by the portal’s design, back into earshot.

One memorable element was a recording of the raucous hawking calls of cockney traders at a flower market. In the portal, these sounds seemed tongue-in-cheek, gently poking fun at its purist design. Highlighting the contrast between lively, bawdy, working class London and the elite, rarefied space of the Chelsea College, Strata traced a line from the accumulated wealth of a Russian billionaire (global markets) to the everyday trading tactics of a flower seller (local markets). The portal felt like a massive audio toy - technically impressive, over-the-top, even ridiculous, but fun to play with and to listen in.

In this case, environmental audio performed what Rendell (2006) terms critical spatial practice. The portal’s design was an abstract space conceived by acoustic engineers, purged of noise, attempting to offer full control over all sonic variables. But in the hands of sound artists, other practices came into play, reworking the space, playing with it, mucking it up. This kind of art takes the multi-layered, chaotic, vibrantly messy quality of urban space as its starting point, and adds to it, intensifies it, amplifies it. And artists were not only beings messing things up here. Chancing to look upwards, I saw that the pristine sheen of the portal had been spoiled by bird shit spattered onto the skylight. This, in the end, is what urban space is like – rough, uncontrollable, dirty, noisy, showing little respect for the intentions of designers and artists.

Not quite so prestige...bird turds on the Sound Portal's roof

Not quite so prestige…bird turds on the Sound Portal’s roof

Pulling space apart

Another work, Sounding the Portal, by Tansy Spinks, Emanuele Cendron and Sunil Chandy, unleashed an unholy chorus of groaning, creaking and screeching. These sounds were made by variably tensioned steel cables (a nod towards Arup’s methods of bridge construction), stretched across the interior of the portal and activated by bowing. The performance was recorded and then played back insitu, the portal resonating with the sound of its own playing.

Where Strata brought the outside inside, Sounding the Portal folded the inside back on itself, creating a sense of the space being pulled apart. Squealing and squeaking, the composition had a raw, hand-made quality that rubbed against the sleek interior, noisily evoking material fabric in a space whose materials were black-boxed and whited-out, hidden by smooth architecture and acoustic transparency. The portal began to feel flimsy. I imagined its fabric being torn open, starting to auto-destruct, collapsing in on itself.

Tansy later told me that her original intention was to stretch the cables over the top of the whole structure, but this plan was ditched as the portal turned out to be less solid than it looked. It might have begun to collapse for real, and the artists were told in no uncertain terms that this was not an option. Tansy also wanted to perform the piece live, but this too was ruled out for bureaucratic reasons.

Such compromises attest to the limits of art’s abilities to contest and rework urban space, and the conflicts that can arise between art and design. Strata inserted its critique into the operation of the portal, playing with its surround sound system, but Tansy’s initial ideas were clearly too oppositional. Confronted by the portal’s institutional framework, she had to negotiate a more compliant solution.

The research reported on here was generously funded by an AHRC fellowship.

Some thoughts about listening

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As part of my AHRC fellowship about audio methods and sonic environments, I’ve been thinking a lot about listening. Angus Carlyle and Cathy lane from CRiSAP have an edited book on the topic about to come out soon, ‘On Listening’, to which I’ve contributed a chapter, so I thought I’d rattle out a few of my ideas here.

Listening as practice

The more I work on environmental sound art, the more I’m convinced that what makes it interesting when it works well is a combination of both representation (an echo of another space and time, a there-and-then) and elements of performance, of practice (something happening in the present, here-and-now). Both are important. Thinking about the performative and practice aspects, listening is fundamental. It’s the most basic practice in sound art, the activity from which work begins and with which it ends. Here’s sound artist Mark Peter Wright sharing his thoughts on the matter:

I think Mark’s right: forget about all that purist sound-as-sound stuff, listening is a multisensory, multidimensional form of attentive experience, a messy mingling of self and world. The common social-scientific, political and mass media definitions of listening are a dead loss here. Social scientists in particular have cloth ears when it comes to sound. They make much of the importance of listening to the ‘voices’ of people, but in practice they’re mainly interested in the communication of meaning, an almost anaural fixation with writable words, a “linguistic imperialism that subordinates the sonic to semiotic registers” (Goodman, 2009: 82). Musical notions of listening at least acknowledge aurality, but still tend to privilege the expressive communication of human emotions. I like how sound art can open up a much more expansive sense of listening.

Listening as affective

In his writing on film sound, Michel Chion suggests a three-way typology: causal listening, in which the listener strives to determine the source of a sound; semantic listening, which involves interpreting meaning, as in listening to spoken language; and reduced listening, a term borrowed from musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, in which attention is focussed on the aesthetic qualities of sound (timbre, texture, pitch, rhythm, etc.) without reference to source, context or meaning. But this is too limited as a schema for understanding environmental sound art, which gives rise to other kinds of listening as well. How about, for example:

  • Embodied listening, that part of listening in which sounds are felt not only in the ears and head but throughout the whole body as physical vibration. Geographer Michelle Duffy has been developing this idea through what she calls a visceral conception of listening.
  • Affective listening, those elements of embodied listening that give rise to palpable affects. If brought into conscious awareness, these affects will likely be understood afterwards as emotions. Steve Goodman writes about how certain extremely low or high frequency sounds, at high amplitudes, can generate a sense of dread, fear or anxiety. Other recent work on this theme includes Anja Kanngieser’s paper about the affective geographies of voices, and Paul Simpson’s paper developing a postphenomenological account of listening, drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy. All of this is quite different to the more anthropocentric understanding of emotional listening common in music, where emotions are understood as something communicated by the performer to the audience.
  • Associative listening, in which sounds evoke imaginative associations, the listener drifting into something more akin to Proustian reverie than a search for distinct causes or meanings.
Listening in Waverley

A listening walk in Edinburgh, led by Jonathan Prior, stopping to take in the cavernous reverberations of Waverley Station.

Listening as power

It’s time to ditch the assumption, common amongst sound artists, acoustic ecologists, musicians etc., that listening is always a ‘good thing’, that more of it will make the world a ‘better place’. Listening is involved in many techniques of power, if power is understood in Foucaultian terms as simply actions that affect other actions, operating at an everyday, micro-scale (see my papers here and here). If we follow Foucault we also have to accept that power is not necessarily bad; rather it is ambivalent, a productive force full of possibilities, but also dangerous, open to abuse. Like all good things in life.

Foucault emphasised the power of sight, the ‘gaze’ and technologies of “permanent visibility” (1977: 201), but many techniques of power centre on aurality. Think of listening in processes of self-creation, as in counselling and therapy; territorial sound-making, from animal distress and warning cries to geopolitical broadcasts to sound system culture; scientific forms of listening, from stethoscopes to hospital alarms to ultrasound imaging (Tom Rice has a new book all about this); listening as part of surveillance and controlling people’s behaviour in institutions such as schools; the increasingly common addition of audio recording to CCTV technologies; the automated voice announcements of modern transport, machines incessantly telling us what to do; all the tantalising and tedious forms of capitalist sound production in marketing and advertising; the use of forensic audio in crime detection; and exercises of outright control and domination through listening, such as in espionage and military situations. That’s quite a list.

Towards collective listening

So I think it makes sense to ask the question, of any instance of listening: what work is this listening doing? What are its effects? Sometimes the listening situations offered by sound art just reproduce the tired docility of the concert hall or fine art gallery: a passive audience, listening obediently to a revered artist. At the other end of the spectrum, home listening and headphones, while affording the comforts of privacy, can feel overly individualising, especially with internet audio. I find sitting at a computer checking out recordings on SoundCloud quite isolating after a while.

The kinds of listening I’ve been more enthused by lately have been set up to have more collective, participatory effects. There’s nothing particularly new about such approaches, and they are incredibly simple to set up. For example, Jonathan Prior recently led a listening walk around Edinburgh, taking a group of 12 people around the city centre through various sonic environments. At the end we all chatted about our responses, and all kinds of ideas and experiences came out. The walk properly reconfigured my sense of the city.

And as mentioned in my previous post, I’ve really enjoyed taking up James Wyness’s idea of the ‘soond gaitherin’ or, since I sound fake-ass trying to do a Scottish accent, the sound gathering: an informal situation where you book a room, set up a playback system with some half-decent speakers, and invite people to come along to play field recordings they’ve made, or just to listen, and have a chat about them. I find I listen more openly in a group setting, and as long as you can steer clear of it turning into a ‘guess the sound’ pub quiz round, the range of responses can be fascinating and thought provoking.

Actually giving people a chance to listen together, then to discuss and make sense of what they’ve heard: a simple, almost traditional idea, with none of the wow factor of the latest new music genre or technological invention, and yet with a quietly radical potential to reconfigure the audience/artist relationship.