Yesterday I was teaching some of my students about Foucault, power and surveillance. These themes have never been more relevant to everyday life. The expansion of digital communications has created innumerable opportunities for the exercise of power through monitoring human activity, creating new kinds of vulnerabilities. This is especially the case for children and young people, whose lives are increasingly being played out online, warts and all.
Take Paris Brown, a 17 year old appointed in 2013 as the UK’s first youth crime commissioner. Her remit was to represent young people’s views to the police in Kent, and she invited them to use social media to do so. But social media came back to bite her. The tabloid press dredged up offensive posts from her Twitter account, including ill-advised racist, homophobic and violent comments, probably written whilst drunk. Her reputation was trashed, and a few days later she resigned.
Taken literally, the Tweets are lewd and unpleasant. Thinking about the context, however, it looks like this was just an adolescent seeking attention, perhaps showing off to her friends, expressing anger and confusion in a clumsy and foolish way, and pushing social boundaries to see what would happen. So – normal teenager stuff. For my generation growing up, you could say and do stupid stuff to get a reaction, cause a bit of outrage, and it was rarely recorded. That has all changed.
I also talked to my students about the UK government’s monitoring of communications through GCHQ. Afterwards, the question came up: is this sort of surveillance really such a bad thing? One student pointed out that GCHQ came out of Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, including cracking the Enigma code during World War II, which helped defeat the Nazis. GCHQ’s current work involves foiling terrorist plots, saving lives. What’s wrong with that?
Clearly it is too simplistic to suggest that surveillance systems are driven by malice, like a bunch of Bond villains trawling people’s emails in a secret underground lair. Surveillance is more rational than that: the state is threatened by actions such as terrorism, and the production of knowledge is a crucial way of exercising of power to regulate these threatening actions.
But in any kind of rationality, there is always an irrationality. The power exercised by GCHQ doesn’t just block terrorism. It helps to produce terrorism as a definable thing – a set of ideas and subjectivities that can be monitored, documented and regulated.
Mass surveillance also has unintended consequences, like the unpleasant side effects of a medical treatment. Storing all electronic communication in the name of counter terrorism compromises the privacy of entire populations. That changes the nature of social life, in ways that may be hard to perceive but which are nonetheless pervasive. Autonomy is inevitably curtailed. An email, for instance, might look like communication between two people, but it isn’t. Other people can examine it, log it, store it. It could be used in a court of law at a later date in some way that is impossible to foresee.
We don’t have to look hard to find examples of such powers being used abusively. I imagine many of those who helped gather information for the East German Stasi believed that they were doing good, protecting their state from dangerous ideologies. The power they exercised no doubt enabled certain things, protected certain values – but it also crushed people and ideas that didn’t fit with the dominant view. It is all too easy for power to slip into violence.
Foucault poses the question of how to let power flow whilst avoiding it solidifying into authoritarian forms of domination. There are no easy answers. But we have to at least keep asking the question. It may well be that many of those working in surveillance wrestle with this on a daily basis. However, if you believe Edward Snowden’s description of America’s National Security Agency, the employees there were definitely not questioning what they were doing enough, or even at all – and that is when power becomes dangerous.
Alan Turing’s groundbreaking role in surveillance may have helped to win WWII, but look what happened to him: suicide, following persecution for his sexuality. The state monitored his private activities, criminalised him and subjected him to enforced medical castration. Government interference in the most intimate of matters caused him irreparable harm. It is an unfortunate irony that the machines he dreamt up are now being used to insert surveillance ever deeper into people’s lives.
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!”
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]
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.
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.
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.
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 athletes’ 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). Sports events should not require 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. 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 athletes’ village from surrounding homes, and it is hardly surprising that local people felt excluded, “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.
Red Road was a cluster of high-rise tower blocks built as social housing in the 1960s, 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 exactly 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 laughable given the obvious brutality of dynamiting five enormous skyscrapers. For some, an act of mass destruction seemed an overly negative way to start the event. Serious concerns about 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 suggested that the Red Road episode was simply one expression of deeper, longer political currents: the relentless privatisation of housing in the UK, as part of wider efforts to break with an unglamorous industrial past, re-branding cities as aspirational places for leisure and culture. Neil Gray argues that the demolition of Red Road is just one of many “attempts to erase 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 around the Red Road opening ceremony plan. Whilst breathtakingly ill-conceived, it 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.
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. It seems 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.