The Disappearances: field recordings as place-ghosts

Originally presented at the Art and Sound symposium in Leicester in 2015

In 2013 we had started collaborating after discovering a shared fascination with construction sites and with the city as a place of transformation – somewhere that’s constantly in a state of flux. Our two home cities, Moscow and London, both have long, albeit very different, histories of construction, destruction and reconstruction and we were intrigued by the multiple reasons behind these interventions in the built environment, as well as the traces left by such transformations.

We started making work that invited participants to imaginatively reshape the city by cutting up a map in order to ‘demolish’ buildings or streets; in return they provided us with reasons why. This process generated a map of holes and an alternative map of micro-stories. We wanted to use this rich material to make something new and initially we started visiting the ‘demolished’ sites in London with the idea of making an audio tour.

The demolitions generated by the Demolition Project’s work with maps have included flats, offices, buildings, streets and whole areas; also less predictable suggestions such as a tree in Hyde Park, a stretch of water in the River Thames and an entire ring road in Manchester. Participants do not have to make an argument to support their demolition, but they must write down a reason of some sort, whether personal, aesthetic, political or even whimsical.

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This process leaves behind two maps: a map of holes and an alternative map full of words – of carefully reasoned arguments, cries of pain or rage against greed and ugliness, calls for revolution, and tiny personal stories.

While this work is satisfying in its own right in producing thought and discussion about the built environment and how choices are made to shape it, we started to be interested in the rich material it generated and its potential to be developed into something new.

In our earliest stages of developing The Demolition Project, we had been thinking about using it as the basis for an urban tour or walk of some sort through the spaces our participants had ‘demolished’. The first thing we had ever made together had been an audio tour, inspired by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Missing Voice: Case Study B. The Missing Voice uses binaural field recordings and simple in-ear headphones (not the heavy-duty noise-cancelling type) to enable the audience / walker to experience a mixture of sound from the time of the recording with the live, unscripted sounds of the city as they walk through it. We were exhilarated by this collision of past and present – which also, by implication, elides the factual and the fictional, even before the addition of a narrated story. And the use of sound to frame the visual and physical experience of walking through the city gave rise to a heightened experience without disrupting the fabric of the city itself.

This mixture of now and then, fiction and reality also seemed to be implicit in our project. Everyone who had chosen to demolish something from the city represented in our map had committed to the imaginative exchange and taken it seriously. Each session we did generated a parallel reality in which a trail of destruction had taken place, and one that had a vividness and a solid emotional weight – whether that was a sense of release and catharsis, or guilt and responsibility, or simple joy in the transgressive act of destruction. This was something we wanted to capture and communicate beyond the span of each presentation.

We started visiting the ‘demolished’ sites in London and taking photographs, making short videos and writing down ideas, with the idea of making an audio tour inspired by Cardiff’s.

Alisa filming

However, it quickly became clear that the distance between the individual sites made an audio tour a tricky proposition. Instead we found a way to use some of the material we were collecting to make a performance-lecture which we presented at a theatre in east London in May 2014. It took a storytelling approach to the demolitions, highlighting the micro-stories behind each one and ultimately leading the audience into a London that had been transformed, where Oxford Street had become an aquarium, the animals from London Zoo had been released to roam free and the city lay waiting for inundation after the disappearance of the Thames Flood Barrier.

For a while, the project, which we named The Disappearances, was put on the back-burner while we got on with new work.  This included a couple of other audio walks – Groundworking, which recreates the experience of exploring an excavation site long after the hole has been filled in, and Follow Me, about following strangers through the streets. Neither guided the listener along a route – instead they choose their own way of responding to the voice in their ear and the sounds recorded in the place or places in question. We’ve been learning about recording and editing as we go along, borrowing binaural mics to record sound on site  and using Garage Band to mix field recordings with narration and interviews recorded on a little Zoom H1.

When we found time to return to our idea for The Disappearances, we found ourselves looking afresh at the ‘map of holes’ that had been produced by our participants’ demolitions at each presentation of the work. A particular photograph of the shadows cast by one of these maps had the effect of removing it from the everyday context of the streetmap and transforming it into a ghost of our work, an empty space pockmarked with voids caused by the trauma of demolition.

We decided The Disappearances should become an installation involving the map of holes – a memorial to the city’s destroyed, demolished and removed and a relic of a parallel reality. What we wanted was some way to show the traces of what had gone, beyond simply the holes left by their disappearance.

We lighted on the idea of a field recording as a trace of a place caught somewhere between physical existence and willed/imagined non-existence; a ghost, perhaps, of a vanished place. The work of the London Sound Survey in capturing and mapping the sounds of the city is another inspiration here, triggered by a talk by Ian Rawes of the LSS at the Museum of London in which the echoes of vanished worlds crackled across time with a vivid sense of place and life. In a rather different way, Graeme Miller’s Linked – a sound trail in east London in which the participant carries a receiver to tune in to voices, music and sounds from streets that were long ago demolished – helped plant the idea of sounds as a ghost presence, a way that places long gone could haunt the present.

demo3

We decided each void on the map would have its own field recording, a record of the sounds in that place made before its putative destruction, and the sounds would be anchored to their source by headphone wires. The map would take on the semblance of a crumbling concrete wall pitted with holes, each hole sprouting wires in the way that the reinforced concrete of a building mid-demolition sprays out thin steel rods. A visitor to the installation would be able to pick up the other end of a wire and listen to an individual field recording, perhaps going on to graze through all the recordings and build up a picture of the city’s absent places.

When we had the idea for the installation, we did not realise how extraordinary we would find the process of making the field recordings. The act of visiting participants’ sites of destruction has become a form of pilgrimage to an imagined city, in which each journey contains a small disruption between the concrete world we perceive and the knowledge that in a parallel world it has been razed into rubble. Then there is the ritual of silently walking through (or standing in) the demolished site, listening to the environment through binaural headphones as we record it for up to 20 minutes; a way of being in a space that  produces a sense of a heightened reality in which the smallest sounds come into sharp relief, with the mics capturing voices across the street, the rasp of leaves blown across the pavement, the brush of sleeve against coat.

hole map

Then there is the final part of the ritual – playing back the recording later, an act of separating the soundscape from the landscape in which it is embedded. Displaced from their visual and physical context, the meaning of these sounds fractures into texture: fragments of speech; the rumble of traffic; the grind and thump of construction work; rustling leaves; scouring wind; birdsong.

And yet each soundscape – or place-ghost – has its distinctive character. Kingsland Road (demolished in April 2014 by Idel) is a journey through a fluctuating stream of roaring and revving, punctuated by shards of human voice at each junction; Wapping (destroyed, apologetically, by Krystyna in June 2013) is a meander patterned with breezes, bird caws and siren cries, climaxing in a storm of helicopter rotors; Primark in Oxford Street (removed by Neil in June 2013) is full immersion in a shifting, swirling hubbub of speech, muzak and the thrum of commerce.

Eventually, we will present The Disappearances as a historical or archaeological artefact – a collection of sounds frozen in time, each one moored to its void on the transformed map by the cord of the headphones. In the meantime, the process of making the recordings continues to be a complex and rewarding experience for us, transforming our sense of the city with the sense of travelling through layers of time and dimensions of reality.

A version of this was presented at Art and Sound symposium on Place. Art. Life. on 4 July 2015 at Phoenix Square, Leicester.

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