The failure of voice

I’ve been writing a paper about the sounds of the voice. Thinking about the topic reminded me of a brilliant gaffe from BBC Radio 4 presenter Jim Naughtie a few years ago. I’m not sure if this will make it into the final paper, but here’s a bit lifted from my current draft, with a YouTube clip of the memorable moment.

Voices are machinic from the very beginning. They arise from vibrational systems, as lungs, vocal cords, throats, tongues and ears get hooked up to architectural spaces, bodies of air, microphones and amplifiers, telephones and answerphones, audio and video recording, headsets, headphones and loudspeakers, scripts and autocues. From the first moment that Bell spoke to Watson on the telephone, from the earliest etchings of Edison’s words into phonograph foil, sound machines have pulled apart the humanist subject, reminding the voice of its humble origins amongst vibrating body parts. Not only does listening to the technologized voice tell us as much about contemporary existence as the classic interpersonal interview encounter, but that encounter itself must be rethought to recognize the voice recorder as a key actant.

In its restless movements through multiple machines, voice can never completely express the self as a conscious, contained, definable identity. It may present an illusion of rational self-possession and self-presence; it may be eloquent, articulate and clipped, with received pronunciation; the machines may black box its body out of sight and out of mind; and yet still the voice fails.

Take the Scottish radio presenter Jim Naughtie. For over two decades his voice was a regular feature of the Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news and current affairs show. Naughtie’s voice, like most official BBC voices, produces a sense of effortless rationality. It’s male Scottish accent achieves perfect clarity of enunciation, authoritative without ever being overbearing. Vocal apparatus combines with large diaphragm condenser microphones, pre-prepared scripts, acoustically treated studios and carefully optimised dynamic range compression to produce the most articulate and comprehensible of utterances. Phonemes roll out fully formed. Cadences rise and fall properly. And yet on one memorable occasion in 2010, when introducing Conservative minister Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary, Naughtie’s voice accidentally swapped the ‘H’ of Hunt and the ‘C’ of Culture to shocking and hilarious effect.

Whether this incident was simple Spoonerism or Freudian slip was of less interest to me than how Naughtie’s voice broke down in the immediate aftermath, like a tower block crumbling following the dynamite blast of demolition. Valiantly continuing to read out the headlines, the voice starts choking on its words, beset by dry coughs and awkward pauses. Utterances are spat out, forced through hoarseness, vocal cords seizing up. In this thickened, viscous tone, veering between laughter and tears, mundane lines about high speed broadband networks and Egyptian shark attacks take on a strangely gasping, almost morbid quality. The rational voice-from-the-ether suddenly acquires a body, which intrudes noisily, all-too-human in its frailty and fallibility. “Excuse me,” Naughtie eventually splutters, “coughing fit” – an excuse whose obvious inadequacy compounds matters. Such is the desperation of a man struggling with his own mouth, or words struggling to be voiced.

Such incidents, where the body trips up the voice, are not uncommon. Broadcasters, presenters, actors and singers routinely experience voices misfiring, script lines being forgotten, communication lines going dead, bouts of laryngitis, guests who say too much or not enough. There is a whole programme genre based on outtakes and bloopers, exploiting the humour that bubbles out when gaffes and fluffed lines puncture the performance of voice. If vocal breakdown can happen to trained, experienced, rehearsed voices surrounded by sophisticated technologies, it can happen to anyone.

Power, surveillance and digital media

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.

Concrete modernism: architecture about us

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

In 2014 Glasgow hosted the Commonwealth Games. At the time, I was working in the city, so the games were unavoidable. Like other major international sporting 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 anticipatory hype, daily non-news coverage of a baton 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 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 previously presided over an 11-day website shutdown when handling ticket sales for the 2012 London Olympics. 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 poor your delivery systems are. People have no option but to sit there clicking themselves into carpal tunnel syndrome until the computer finally says yes. 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 performance was 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.

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 to the city and to Scotland 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 vast amounts 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 eyewatering 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 transfers of public finance into private hands, the modest provision of so-called affordable housing in the games redevelopment looked 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

This mix of aspirational urban cleansing, wrecking-ball regeneration and local disenfranchisement came to a head in an astonishing plan put forward by the games organisers: to demolish Glasgow’s iconic Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony.

Glasgow’s Red Road flats. Photo by Nick Hogg.

Red Road was a cluster of high-rise tower blocks built as social housing in the 1960s. It became a local landmark, with some of the tallest buildings in the city. At the time of the Games, the flats were due to be demolished anyway; but 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)

The idea that a global live feed of social housing being detonated might acts as a ‘respectful recognition and celebration’ frankly beggars belief. It is beyond satire. Who exactly hatched this plan? And more to the point, what drugs were they on at the time?

Objections swiftly surged in from all angles. Glasgow residents pointed 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” were 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 17,000 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.

Legacy?

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.

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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 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 the strength of feeling is a reaction to the boldness of tower blocks, their sheer intensity and monumental presence. These buildings project confidence, against all the odds, and embody lost ideologies from more optimistic times. Their shameless masculinism and muscularity is shocking. Seen in this light, the desire to blow up modernist buildings as a spectator sport could be seen as a backhanded compliment; a tacit admission of the intrinsic power of this type of architecture. As a comparison, 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.

Passionate attachments to modernist architecture can be seen 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.

To sum up, modernist architecture seems to have a capacity for concentrating and intensifying energies, generating sparks of enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is powerful. It has the potential to 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

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.