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.


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.


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.


a letter to freedom

‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Ahead!, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?

‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Forwards, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?


At his recent show in Vinzavod (19.05-17.06 2013) a Russian artist Mikhail Zaikanov exhibited envelopes, which he has sent to all of the above cities. He addressed them to the non-existed people so that the post office had to return the letters back and make a stamp, which would confirm the existence of these places.

Together with those letters the exhibition consisted of canvases with fragments of the map. All of the colours and details were erased making these beautiful titles of towns and villages as if hovering in the created pauses.


So can you imagine how it feels to write, when filling your address, that you are not from London but from Happiness?

Photos by Anastasia Blyur

Surveying the territory: part one

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science. I thought writing something about it would be a good way to introduce the project, but then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought…

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science (English version here; Spanish original here).

I thought writing something about the story, or about Borges in general, would be a good way to introduce the project, which is a continuing exploration of maps and the city and people’s imaginative relationships with them. But then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought. Maybe The Demolition Project is too; hopefully we’ll find out more about that in the year ahead.

on exactitude

The story – I’m going to call it On Exactitude for short – tells of an empire with a sophisticated college of cartographers. These cartographers make increasingly large and detailed maps of the empire’s territory, until they finally make a map that is as big as the empire itself and covers the whole of it. Later generations find the map too awkward to use and let it decay until there are only a few tattered bits and pieces left in remote places. The brief tale is presented as a fragment of an old history book, thus avoiding the need for a tidy ending (or a neat opening), but it nevertheless has a sense of completeness.

On Exactitude itself is just a paragraph long – barely longer than this summary – and it feels a little like a fable or parable, and also like a shaggy-dog story, without really falling under any of these definitions. The central idea wasn’t original at the time – fifty years earlier, Lewis Carroll included a map the same size as a country in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. But in Borges’ version there is no enfolding narrative: this paradoxical map and its useless perfection is the heart of the tale. Importantly, though, it’s framed by the contrivance that it is a fragment of a long-forgotten history, echoing the fragments of long-forgotten map with which the story ends. And the title is also part of the frame (a frame around a frame?), telling us that it’s not a quirky fiction but has a larger message about the real world. Which is probably as reliable as any other assertion made by the author.

invisible territory

The image in the story does not just take to extremes the difficulties experienced by anyone who’s grappled with a large roadmap in a small car; it pushes far, far beyond that, over the border of the everyday world into the realm of the absurd. It lacks things that many readers expect in a story – detail, character, plot development, psychological realism. But its sparseness appeals to those who like playing with ideas. A few quick clicks through Wikipedia will let you freefall from On Exactitude to some big ideas in philosophy: Alfred Korzybski’s phrase, “the map is not the territory” (ie our models of reality are not the same as reality); Bonini’s paradox (the more complete the model of a complex system is, the harder it is to understand) and Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra (it’s reality that has fallen into disuse and we are actually living in the map – a copy of something that doesn’t exist).

With its image of an empire-sized map, On Exactitude conveys just enough information to tease out the reader’s imagination, goading us to make our own assumptions, draw our own connections and fill in the gaps with memory and speculation. In contrast, the map described holds too much information: the cartographers draw up ever-larger maps in order to include more and more detail – or at least that’s what the title suggests. When they include as much information as the territory itself the giant map becomes useless to travellers, town planners, invaders, or most of the other people who need maps, who would effectively have to walk around an area as big as the underlying territory to find out what they need to know. And the more closely you scrutinise the image, the more delicate and fragmented it appears.

invisible territory2

Alisa and myself tried to make and use a 1:1 scale map in a piece we made with Nauen Park and Li Yeun Jing called Invisible Territory. For part of this work, Alisa photographed the pavement of a small walled garden and printed out the entire pavement at 1cm:1cm in a series of photos; I then had to put them together again on site, matching each photo to the piece of pavement it showed (the pictures here are from that piece). Passers-by asked me what on earth I was doing and some of them understood straight away that it was an impossible task, as the environment had already changed since the pictures were taken only a week earlier – at this level of detail, leaves, rain, footprints etc had altered the landscape. Plus the photos were blowing away, getting wet and being trodden on.

invisible territory 3

This made me think properly about the (im)possibility of a physical map existing in the world of On Exactitude. There’s little to indicate how this map covers the empire – nothing to suggest, for example, that it is carried on supports or suspended from ropes above the ground. There’s nothing to tell you what it’s made of, except that the map falls to pieces through neglect, implying that it is not infinitely durable – although by the end, animals and beggars use the remnants for shelter, so it can’t be all that fragile either. Our photographs showed only the surface of the ground up to a level of a few centimetres – how would a 2D map show objects above the surface, such as trees and buildings? Does the map cover rooftops, and if so does it leave out sheer vertical surfaces like walls? Does it curve along with contours of hills and valleys? What happens to the map in the area of lakes and rivers? And if it’s permanently in place as a sort of carpet across the empire, what do farmers do with crops and grazing animals? I started imagining the map was made of a sort of porous paper that grass could grow through…

This level of ridiculously literal questioning makes the absurdity of Borges’ story even sharper, and all these questions and more are hiding within its bare bones. Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Could a map like the one described in On Exactitude be a map at all – and does it help us think about what a map is? At what size does a map stop being a map?

Photographs: Debbie Kent/Alisa Oleva except b/w photo, François Correia

Part two follows soon, in which some of this might start to make sense