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.