Piss Walk№ 6 is the first of my stained perambulations to be published in the form of a limited-edition set of 13 purchasable A6 postcards. Printed on uncoated 600gsm card and seamed in ‘sunny yellow’ the photographic sequence retraces the sixth of my early morning ‘lockdown’ walks, as I sniffed around the back streets of Winchester and along the river Itchen. Each card is rubber stamped on the reverse, with the date of the walk and numbered with its position in the sequence of damp patches encountered that day. As discussed in a previous post, my lockdown walks had no predetermined purpose other than a modicum of exercise and time away from the paralysis of Zoom. Rebecca Solnit notes that the casual acquaintance of a meandering stroll ‘allows you to find what you do not know you are looking for’. My meander, coupled with the quiet physical vacancy of the ante meridiem environment, acquainted me with the occasional and previously unnoticed, damp trails of urine left by the toilet of local hounds. It became my habit to follow and photographically collect these moist encounters. A habit that has resulted in the creation of an unintentional archive of (to date) thirteen Piss Walks.
On the leash of the dogs’ morning privy, I tail the stained criminal records of an intimate act in a public space: an evaporating souvenir of corporeal presence. The obsolete technology of the picture postcard would therefore seem to be an appropriately ephemeral method of recording and mapping these trails. Sent back to where we are not, addressing those we are apart from, the cheap, disposable souvenir of a postcard, announces presence whilst confirming absence. As it passes visibly through the public body of the Royal Mail, the postcard reveals a dysfunctional relationship with intimacy, a mischievous liaison, characterised by the saucy offence of seaside communique and an obsession with bodily function.
The 13 postcards of Piss Walk № 6 have now been sold and sent. Protected and concealed by the hard-backed buff of a manilla envelope, each postcard has passed modestly through the systemised transit of national (and international) mail. Extending the scent of canine territories from Winchester to Brighton to Bristol, Wolverhampton and beyond the sea to Canada, the postcards are a souvenir of an evaporated walk, a memory dispersed, fragmented and lost in the post.
In a second limited-edition, Piss Walk № 9 has been published as a complete set of ten postcards. Archived and preserved in an ironically acid free box, the postcards will remain enveloped and unsent as part of the Artists’ Book Collection at Winchester School of Art Library.
I am also delighted that the damp traces of Piss Walk № 4, have been included in Right Here Right Now, Observations, Speculations & Hallucinations; a new book gathering together the personal lockdown of numerous artists, designers and writers. Published by Book-Lab 2020 (isbn: 978-1-71680-539-4), designed and edited by Danny Aldred, RHRN is ‘a kind of visual atlas [providing] multiple perspectives of the same moment.’ There are plans to exhibit the book at the Design Transfer Gallery (Berlin) later this year.
I have thought I might ‘celebrate’ the end of the pandemic by offering a Piss Walk Tour of Winchester. In direct competition with English Heritage, Jane Austin’s House and the public tours of private education, the WinchesterPiss Walk Tour would meet beneath a plague flag on Water Lane and proceed along the river Itchen, through the Water Meadows, around the u-bend of Winchester College, before passing down the cloisters of Winchester Cathedral and finally through the Water Gate, past The Quaker Meeting House and back across the bridge to rejoin Water Lane. Along the way I would recount stories of infamous stains and perhaps leave a trail of Piss Walk postcards in our wake. DM to reserve your place.
The arrival of ‘lockdown’ allowed me to indulge in daily early morning walks. My regular walk around Winnall Moors Conservation Reserve was unavailable, the Moors being closed due to recent flooding, so my journey had to take another path. Leaving home, I followed the meandering course of the river Itchen, down Water Lane, along the Riverside path, passing mam’s bench out to St Cross Hospital and then back along St Faiths Road to the water meadows, past Winchester College to Inner Cathedral Close, through the Water Gate toward Water Lane and home. With occasional variation this transit has become my habit.
At this early hour the streets and paths of Winchester are relatively empty, my solitude broken by the occasional key-worker, a competitive dribble of runners in pursuit of a personal best, and the hesitant, stray perambulation of dog walkers. Perhaps it is the quiet vacancy of my journey that focused my attention on the wet trails left by the toilet of dogs. Or perhaps because the piss was so fresh, it left a conspicuously dark trail, a trail which later in the day may have evaporated. Pulled by gravitational force, each stream of dog piss flows away from its source, immediately discovering and tracing its own unique path of least resistance. If this pee were a river, it would be running toward another body of water; a lake, the sea, an ocean. But this melancholy flow, rarely makes it home, the stream of piss, meanders, pools, dwindles and expires.
Piss Walk 6:14 08.05.20
Piss Walk 7:8 10.05.20
As part of an ongoing series of piss walks, I started to photograph the urine trails. These photographs draw a map of my daily promenade, but also that of the dogs. You might even say that the dogs are taking me for a walk: I am on their tail, visually sniffing after their presence. The dogs too are following, inhaling the wet perfume tales of absent mongrels and pedigrees, which linger in the air. Steven Connor, considers all walking ‘a kind of self-ghosting.’ The dogs and I walk invisibly with each other, haunted companions following the ghosts of presence recently departed.
Although the intention was to document rather than curate, there was some aesthetic pleasure in the wandering form of particular trails: the piddle finding its course, as it seeks out the guttering cracks in tarmac and paving slabs. Whilst some trails fade over time, the stain of others remains conspicuously strong. They become familiar landmarks in the landscape of my walk, surviving until the rain pours down and the stain erased.
Piss Walk 7:10 10.05.20
Piss Walk 9a
There is a rhythm to the piss walks. Certain popular locations offer a sudden glissando of wet notes, interspersed by long periods of dry silence and the occasional damp patch. The reason for this melodic popularity is perhaps more architectural than bladder related: the perpendicular elevation of post or wall offers a place for the urine to mark. Perhaps the mere sight of an elevation incites a call of nature, or perhaps the fragrance of that call induces others to reply. The walls of Winchester College are a very popular – I like to imagine that the mutts of Winchester are using their kidneys to pass vernacular comment on the inherent inequalities of the private education system.
Piss Walk 1:10 15.04.20
Piss Walk 4:7 15.04.20
The perpendicular is not the only landmark of preference. The corner of a path or road also seems attractive. In the Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard considers the corner a haven: ‘we take refuge in a corner’, it encloses us in ‘an imaginary room [rising] up around our bodies.’ An intimate, interior space of solitude: ‘in our corners we remember […] the silence of our thoughts.’ In opposition to the security of this poetic right angle, the reflex of a corner in the road, is an edge-land, a non-place, where the familiar meets the unknown: we do not know what is around the corner. Perhaps the profusion of pee is a way for the dogs to cope with the anxiety of this displacement, a method of owning and knowing where they are. Or perhaps it is more thuggery in intent, each dog scrawling a stinking tag on the perimeters of their manor and telling the rest of us to ‘piss off!’
I recently composed a new soundwork for Sonospace, the online sound art gallery, curated by Harry Sumner. The piece is based on field-recordings made on a short walk through the water meadows near St Cross Hospital in Winchester. This path follows the River Itchen and is part of Keats Walk, which retraces the steps of the poet who visited Winchester in 1819. On the 19th September 1819, Keats traced the river, through the meadow and along the desire line of this footpath. Returning from his walk he composed OdeTo Autumn, a poem of three stanzas in which language pronounces a landscape trembling with sound:
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
I did not choose my route for its association with Keats, although, like him I was drawn to the soundscape of the meadow. I have walked the trail many times, although only recently have I noticed a particular note hanging in the landscape. As I approached St Cross, a distant and quiet whine appeared, a ‘treble soft’, on the cusp of audition, intermittent yet regular. Approaching closer, the whine was joined by others in a phased pattern of plaintive cries, at once near and at a distance. The sound, as fragile as swallows and reminiscent of the electronic whistle of radio tuning, seemed to possess a form; an acoustic arc, that begins, curves and closes. The arc turned out to be the sound of people moving through the landscape, opening and closing the four kissing gates, which interrupt the path. As I meet the first gate and perform the choreography of its action, lifting the latch and swinging the kiss of its arc, I hear space opening and feel the vibration of its close in my hand. The sound trembling through my body causes a blurring of the distinction between the materiality of my body, the gate, and the landscape. In the sounding of our ‘vibrant matter’, the material and immaterial are hinged.
The physicality of the gesture and the vibration it creates, directs attention away from the surface and toward the interior, the whine being only the audible tip of a soundscape detained in substance: a ‘Music, slumbering’ (Coleridge) inside the gates metallic arch.
In a line with four arcs, contact microphones are used to record and listen to this internal soundscape. Recording each gate in succession, a line of movement is mapped through a landscape, and the abstract terrain beneath the visible uncovered. Distinct from the ‘soft floating witchery of sound’ present in Coleridge’s Eolian Harp, this micro-phonic contact reveals a ‘wailful choir’, a mournful howl of space rent open. Awoken from its slumber we can hear substance singing as it disappears.
The exhibition in Sonospace allows images to be used with the sound exhibited. I wanted to emphasise the abstract qualities of the work, so rather than simply using imagery from the walk, I decided to appropriate images from other sources: images e from other places, but which seemed to correspond with the sound of the arc.
 A ‘half-round, rectangular, trapezoidal or V-shaped enclosure with a hinged gate trapped between its arms’, a kissing gate is so named because of the gentle collision of its close: ‘to kiss, to caress, to ‘touch gently’. The word ‘kiss’ is onomatopoeic in origin: ‘an imitation of the sound of the thing meant.’
Formed by the prevailing winds of longshore drift, the shingle spit of Orford Ness is now a National Nature Reserve. Previously the site of an early radar navigation system, during the Second World War the ness was also used as an Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. The ness remains haunted by the abandoned buildings and unexploded ordinance of this military occupation.
Orford ness is a restricted landscape; visitors are warned to keep to the ‘route’ and large areas are off limits. The geometry of blast walls, laboratories and observation stations interrupts the terrain. The architecture of these derelict sentinels quietly observes the horizon, amplifying a sense of vacant stillness. Through the concrete stare of windows, the buildings keep watch on this vacancy, the isolation and secrecy of their accommodation, strangely reminiscent of bird hides. On the roof of bomb ballistics building, binoculars place the ness under the surveillance of a military lens, a series of lines measure and map the landscape viewed. Whilst a breeze ascending the metal staircase, surrounds the building in a harmonic mist, an almost inaudible howl, which hangs in the air like tinnitus.
In accordance with the source of its formation, the soundscape of Orford ness is dominated by the aerial and intermittent: the rumble of wind against the ear, the pits of silence that appear when the breeze drops or is physically obscured. Inside the buildings and behind the blast doors, the occasional draft and clatter of metal interrupts an empty quiet. Outside, animated by the wind, the rope of a flagless pole taps out a signal of distress: a telegraph of unknown content delivered to an anonymous recipient.
air on a hinge: composition for three doors
A monochrome tower in a flat and pallid landscape, inclined to the ocular, the Black Beacon seems appropriately conspicuous. The word ‘beacon’ has its etymological roots in light, fire and desired visibility. However, in counterpoint to this emphasis on the visible the conspicuity of the Black Beacon also results from an allusion to the unseen, invisible and auditory. Built in 1929 as part of the Orfordness Rotating Wireless Beacon Radar System the BlackBeacon was once part of an audible map of the terrain. (Ra)dio (d)etecting (a)nd (r)anging the unseen, the beacon provided a navigational fix for those otherwise lost at sea.
As I climbed the stairs of the beacon my ear was caught by a slight and plaintive whine. This transmission was occasional and intermittent, suspended moans followed by sharp high frequency yelps. I used the rotation of my ear and the volume of the sound to detect the site of its origin. Through this physical radar, my ear (and eye) fixed on the rusted hinge of a door, which, when caught by the draft of a sea breeze, transmitted a sonorous aerial code. As part of its station sequence the Black Beacon had once broadcast in Morse the letters “V” and “B”, now the hinged air pronounced its own alphabet, an ethereal dot and dash, a persistent unanswered signal enunciating loss.
The final part of my seasonal quartet, four walks around a year, is now available from the German sound art and field-recording label Gruenrekorder Digital. Based on two years of recordings made in the Winnall Moors Conservation Reserve (Winchester, UK) the four sound walks have been slow released throughout 2013, beginning with spring in May 2013 and concluding with winter in January 2014.
Working with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, the sound walk project (documented on the project blog) was intended to not only to record the different elements of the soundscape, but also to use recording to reveal and disclose the temporal patterns and sonic qualities of the moors landscape. The resulting sonic perambulations would provide a form of audio guide that would enable visitors to walk around the moors in the acoustic company of a previous season.
Listening to the cold, empty and brittle soundscape of the winter walk, I was struck by its contrast to the present landscape of the flooded moors in 2014. Recent rainfall has caused the Itchen to break its banks and pour across the moors. The gravel paths around the reserve are now under several inches of river, with the mumbled voices of water leaking everywhere. The previous creaking transit of footfall over a frosted and frozen boardwalk is now replaced by the splish and splash of puddles and wellington boots. Coincidently the winter walk begins with the anonymous chit-chat of people reminiscing about other winters, when the posh boys from Winchester College, would cut through the banks of the river to flood the moors with freezing water, turning them into a temporary ice rink.
WordPress allows several sound files to be played simultaneously, which permits the initial intention of mixing together the past and present soundscape to occur, without having to visit the moors: people may now flood this previous winter with the dank sounds of the present inundated landscape. The sound files below include extracts from four walks around a year: winter alongside a series of recent field-recordings from the flooded moors. You are invited to use the sounds to listen and compose your own flood of winter.
Four walks around a year: winter / dawn with sporty
Two single-sided 10” records were made, each cut with a silent groove. Revolving at 33rpm, each record was ‘recorded’ without input and provides over 7 minutes of soundless revolve. Something strange and quietly hypnotic occurs when you place such a record on a turntable and watch as the dampened fall of needle finds the groove. The record ‘plays’ without the expected audible consequence, making silence appear to double. The lack of synchronicity between sound and action seems to cause time to pause. There is a sense of displacement, and I feel slightly transparent. But the experience is more meditative than disturbing.
In an act of microphone-less field recording, I used the two records to record the tides at Holme-next-the-Sea and Cley. On the beach at Holme, I walked to the shoreline and placed a record in a stream of seawater. As the tide came in, each wave covered the record in a layer of sand, the particles of silica rolling over the surface of the mute spiral. After seven minutes the record was rescued from the sea, tidemarks of sand appearing on its surface, as it dried in the sun. On the shore at Cley, the retreating sea pummelled the surface of the remaining record with waves of roaring shingle.
Tide: Holme-next-the-sea | sand | tide coming in | edit
Tide: Cley | shingle | tide going out | edit
Returning each record to the platter of the gramophone, the needle moves across the coast of the silent vinyl spiral, meeting and dislodging particles of sand as it listens to the damage done. The revolve of the vinyl echoes the rotation of the earth, while the needle redistributes the sand across the surface of the record, rebuilding it’s own coastline . In the surface noise of self-harm, we can hear the records memory of water, as two quiet tides of time and silence.
I now imagine a vinyl index of tides, a tidal clock, mapping the coasts of England, the rotation of the earth and the gravitational pull and push of the lunar calendar.
In June of this year I completed a sound piece for the BBC Radio 3 series Between the Ears. The programme called, It’s just where I put my words, was a kind of audio memoir or reverie of my mother’s voice, which I have been recording for over four decades. The piece explored not only my personal relationship with my mother’s voice , but also the wider issues of our desire to record and the particular qualities of voice as distinct from photographic records. A review of the programme appeared in The Independent and Spectator.
Produced in Bristol by Chris Ledgard, the programme was available for a week via the Listen Again feature of the BBC Radio 3 website. Now no longer available, I thought it might be interesting to post the piece in its ‘original’ form: that is, an audio collage or soundscape of voice and a script written for speaking. This will enable the listener to place the words with the recorded soundscape in their own time. I have divided the soundscape and script into four sections and added some imagery to locate these sections. I have also, where appropriate, included links to my website so that you may hear full versions of sound works, which are used in extract during the piece.
It’s just where I put my words: a voice remembered
BBC Radio 3 / Producer Chris Ledgard
Part one: our last recording
In September 2010, I made what was to be the last recording of my mother’s voice. Placing a digital recorder by her chair in the residential home where she spent her last year, I pressed record and released pause. We sat and chatted and sorted through her things. I searched the pockets of her beloved trolley, looking for her purse, which, like her spectacles and teeth, was always going missing.
Following a series of falls in her sheltered flat in Bootle, Liverpool, Mam came to live closer to me in a residential home in Hampshire. She never believed the care home to be her home; she was confused about where she was and why she was there. But the act of recording was familiar, something we had done together for more than 40 years.
Part two: Bellevue and Barthes
Our first recording was made on in the late nineteen sixties on Liverpool Lime Street station. My brother was ten and I was seven, and on the way back from a visit to Auntie Dot in Manchester, my mother treated us to a session in a coin operated record booth.
The audiocassette was yet to reach the outskirts of Liverpool, so these machines, which once loitered in the lonely, suspended landscapes of train stations, promised an almost cinematic experience: we could record our selves, hear our voice on vinyl.
As an artist, recording continues to inform my practice, and I collect, catalogue and experiment with sounds, editing and mixing them together to create audio works and soundscapes for installations, performances and radio. I am fascinated by how the simple, private act of recording can capture fleeting, unimportant moments and mark them with significance: just as two-minutes in a drafty coin operated booth, is marked, for me, as the start of a lifelong obsession with sound and phonography; it’s also the beginning of my story of recording with my mother; a story which concluded at 17.05 on the 18th September 2010, when, in a care home near Winchester, recording invented our last moment.
Many of the recordings I made with mam had no specific purpose, recording was a just a habit; something I always did. At other times they were intended as source material for my artwork and I would arrive at mam’s door encumbered by an array of digital recorders, microphones and the occasionally defunct tape player.
My mother was a Lancashire lass, born and brought up in Manchester. My dad was an Irish Catholic. He joined the army when he was 16 and spent the 2nd World War in the German prison camp Stalag 3D. After the war and a brief stop on Manchester buses, where he met my mother, he became a prison officer at Stangeways and later Walton in Liverpool.
The sound work BelleVue includes extracts from a reel-to-reel tape of my mother telling stories of her nights out as a teenager at a large entertainment park near Manchester. This voice is accompanied by a covert recording of her getting ready to go out some sixty-years later at the age of eighty. The stories are fragmented and layered, disrupting the narrative, yet revealing that in her voice there remains something which is essentially her, something beyond the story told. I later re-played this piece to my mother and recorded her response. Although she recognises fragments of the stories told, she didn’t recognise the voice telling them. But finding it familiar she places it genetically close, attributing the ghost of her words to her sister Joan or my father’s sister, Auntie Maureen.
Although I have photographs of my father, I have no recordings of him speaking. He was a gentle, lonely man, who was abnormally prone to silence. He never once spoke of his time as a prisoner of war, or even of his childhood. When I remember him now, I can no longer hear his voice, but I can hear him in the tales that my mother tells.
My mother died in April 2011. Since then, listening back to my audio snapshots, I have been reminded of Roland Barthes book Camera Lucida. Barthes describes sitting alone in his recently deceased mother’s flat, ‘sorting’ through her photographic remains. But finding only a fragmented ‘likeness’ amongst the photographs, he writes:‘I missed her being, and therefore I missed her altogether…If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak’. That Barthes should allude to the audible qualities of language in order to identify that which was essentially lacking in these images, recognises the vital qualities of utterance and voice.
Listening to a recording of voice offers a reanimation of the past, bringing the once was, back into the present. Unlike the mute ‘flat death’ of photography, the recorded voice returns in a manner with which we are acquainted: the telephone and radio have allowed us to grow accustomed to hearing voice without sight of those speaking. In fact, in what Gaston Bachelard calls the ‘logosphere’ of telephonic communication our bodily presence ‘appears by virtue of voice alone’.
Part three: a ghost in the receiver
Dad died when I was fifteen and my brothers emigrated to America, so my mother and I were left together. As I grew up and moved away from home the telephone became our main way of speaking and I listened to her more often than I saw her. It became a way of being there and as good ex-catholic boy I was there most every night. The answerphone machine allowed me to be there even when I was not there then.
We abandon our voice, time stamped and wanting in the emptiness of answerphones. These soliloquies for empty rooms are full of melancholy, a melancholy enhanced by the audible corruption of cheap tape. The messages left are not intended for keeping, they hang like an adjourned presence waiting to be heard and erased. The act of being saved only serves to amplify the vulnerability of the voices kept.
My mother’s sister Joan lives in Clevelys near Fleetwood, where she once ran a chip shop with Uncle Fred. When I visited my mum in Liverpool, I would often drive her to see Auntie Joan and her dog Harry. Joan could sometimes be persuaded to play her organ, and we would drink our tea listening to Moon River, Delilah and the occasional Bob Dylan. Normally, before we set off on our day out, mam would phone Joan, just to check that she was there.
The essence of speech does not necessarily reside in the ability of voice to communicate and tell tales. It may also reside in what Barthes calls the ‘patina of consonants and voluptuousness of vowels’. Listening back to my mother, it is in the rhythm, intonation and imperfections of her voice that I hear her speak. These hesitations, inflections, stutters and errors are the non-verbal noise or crackle of language, tracing speech back to its etymological roots: to crackle, to rattle and hiss.
For the philosopher Gaston Bachelard words are the ‘shells of speech’ and the telephone places these shells against our ear. We hold voice close; so close we can hear language as it is inhaled. Our being there is fragile; there is always the possibility that we might disappear, that we may, unannounced, return to the silence from where we came.
I had many telephone conversations with my mother. In Duet for Radio, I edited a recording of one of them, removing my own voice and filling it with the silence of telephone static. My mother’s voice, bereft of reply is isolated and widowed. Interrupted by forgetting, her tale of daily survival emphasises the lonely fragility of body and memory. And this is where I find her: a brittle presence in a spectral landscape: a ‘ghost in the receiver’.
Part four: putting voice away
Mam always liked to take care of people and in particular me. All her bingo prizes were saved and wrapped as presents for Birthdays and Christmas. As she grew older and more vulnerable, there was a change in our roles. I did her shopping on-line, sorted her bills and fought with social services for the luxury of a weekly bath and two days at Connelly House, the day centre, she so loved
Following the death of my father she became a Catholic; hoping that this would enable her to, one day, be reunited with him. For one of my early performances, I recording her singing Ave Maria and together we were interviewed for Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope. Off air, she said that performing was better than Bingo. But on air, her voice trembles with an unease and vulnerability that was never there in our own recordings.
The phonograph record promised the spoken word a life beyond the grave, but by giving voice permanence and substance, it was also subject to loss and decay. Just as the photographic image is perishable and in Barthes words ‘attacked by light…fades, weakens and vanishes’, so too the recorded voice is vulnerable to age and awaits an audible disappearance beneath the surface noise of time and neglect.
The recording of my mother’s Ave Maria was played at her funeral and I later had it cut as a 10” vinyl record, revolving at an archaic 78 rpm. Such physical regression takes voice back into the history of its own recording, repatriating it in time.
In a further act of repatriation, I took her voice back to Sheffield, where once we had performed together and she had sung her Ave, and where now Duncan Miller used an Edison phonograph to transcribe her voice onto a wax cylinder.
In our last recorded conversation, I reminded my mother where she was and gave her spectacles a wash. She was my mother but also my child. Recording her voice was an extension of care, a way of keeping her close and holding her dear.
Sealing her words in the fragile surface of a wax cylinder, I put her voice away, like an heirloom or time capsule for previous generations. Silenced by the obsolescence and vulnerability of the recording medium, her voice becomes a record that playing and listening may harm. Each time this recording is played another small detail of my mother’s voice is lost and she disappears further into the cracked silence of surface noise.
This cylinder is perhaps my own Ave, a farewell to a voice that I keep preserved in silence. For Barthes a photograph is best seen with our eyes closed, he writes we ‘may know better a photograph we remember than a photograph we are looking at’. The visible silence of a wax cylinder, reminds me that there is more to my mother’s voice than its record, there are those unheard memories of her speaking, which only I can hear.
Addendum: the nearness of silence Although our conversation in the care home is the last recording of my mother’s voice, we did make other recordings together. In March 2010, mam was placed on the Liverpool Care Pathway, the significance of which I never fully understood, refusing to realise or accept that this path lead in one direction only. Her breathing pattern became erratic and she was put on a morphine drip. As she lay asleep, I realised that listening to her breathing, although painful to hear, was a way of being with her: in the absence of voice we shared silence. I recorded this silence, the rhythm of her breath, the inhalation and exhalation and the dreadful pause between the two. I did not do this with the intention of the recording ever being played or heard again, but rather, to keep her close in the ‘nearness of silence’.
‘When language ceases, silence begins. But id does not begin because language ceases. The absence of language simply makes the presence of Silence more apparent’.
Max Picard, The World of silence
I have just completed a short sound piece for the BBC Radio 3 series, Between the Ears. The sound work takes the form of an audio memoir or perhaps reverie, based on recordings of my mother’s voice, which I have been making for over forty years. My mother died in April 2011, and listening back to these intimate fragments of her speaking reminded me of Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, in which the author sits alone in his deceased mothers flat, sorting through her photographic remains.
The Camera Lucida ( light room) to which the title refers, is an optical device that allows artists to view simultaneously their subject and the surface of depiction, thereby enabling the creation of a highly accurate image. But such accuracy may still lack the essence of the subject. As Barthes sorted through the images he finds only a fragmented ‘likeness’, he writes:‘I missed her being, and therefore I missed her altogether’. He continues: ‘If I were to show them to friends I could doubt that these photographs would speak’.
Listening to my mother’s voice, there is a likeness and accuracy to its reproduction. But there is something more, something vital, which lies beyond the fidelity of tone and the familiarity of the story told. When Barthes appeals to the audible qualities of language in order to identify that which was essentially lacking in his mothers image, he tacitly recognises the vital qualities of voice and utterance.
In this new sound piece for radio, I take a journey with my mother’s voice, listening for her in the recordings we made and the sound works I composed, reflecting upon the act of recording and our relationship with memory and loss.
I would like to thank to Chris Ledgard, who produced the show in Bristol and who sensitively and eloquently edited my ‘script’; studio manager Mike Burgess for his erudite attention to detail, and Duncan Miller for the transcription of my mother’s voice to wax cylinder.
‘Film, as distinct from video, is like paint; it’s a tactile material that can be used to make powerful spatial illusions’ (Guy Sherwin, File Note #75).
In a maudlin and rather pedantic tone, I often hear myself reminding students that film is not video; they are different in nature and substance. Hold a film up to the light, run it through the fleshy gate of your fingers and you will see oblong frames of colour and form; try doing that with videotape.
In counterpoint to the flippant immediacy and temporal incision of digitally encoded video, film inserts a chemical delay between the moment an image is taken and the moment that image reappears: in the photographic darkroom we can actually watch this process taking place, we can be there when the once present reappears and light becomes substance.
For those of us familiar with the rituals of the Super 8 process, the additional delay that the international postal systems confers, adds another anxious yet delicious adjournment of presence. It takes a fortnight (an appropriately outmoded measurement of duration) for three minutes of time to arrive or rather return, wrapped in a 50ft coil of film, 8mm wide. The film is immediately laced up in the digital projector of our fingers and the nearest available light source, just to confirm, to see, that something is there.
Perhaps this is merely the nostalgia of a man of a certain age reflecting upon the technology that recorded his childhood. Or perhaps there is something essential in films relationship with light and substance, something that impinges upon our experience of not only the image we see, but also the moment and place that we experience that image in? A relationship Guy Sherwin alludes to in his introduction to the exhibition Film in Space at Camden Arts Centre: ‘Images are formed through certain processes and that affects our understanding of them’ (ibid). For me the strongest parts of this exhibition occur when the materiality of film is most apparent, when light and substance oscillate.
On entering the exhibition we are greeted with the continuous mechanical chatter of a pack of 16mm projectors, biting at the glossy tongue of film and chewing image into light and presence; the occasional film-edit introducing a momentary gulp for air. That the images which Lucy Reynolds’ films project, should concentrate on words, emphasises a distinct lack of voice, language stripped back to the noisy mastication of its production: the hard ‘tittle-tattle of the teeth’ (Stephen Connor) rather than the soft wet vocalisation of lips, tongue and larynx.
An air of the mechanical continues in the large empty space where William Raban’s Diagonal (1973) awaits projection. Here we are presented with a lifeless, lightless, projector and a wall mounted push switch. The motor memory of previous light switches that linger in my tarsals, overcome the awkwardness of the gallery situation, and I witness my hand reaching for the button, causing a temporary change in the state of an electrical circuit and plunging the gallery into a moment of measured light. The ‘kinetic melody’ of my gesture brings with it tangent memories of the dark staircases and deserted landings of Wolverhampton bedsits in the 1980’s: impoverished non-spaces where even light was rationed.
The resuscitated projectors mechanically wrench stillness back into motion. The first familiar static breath of film sound, prefacing the re-animation of images photography has stilled. The whole process of switching the film on is strangely reminiscent of those fairground automata, which suddenly awake as a coin is dropped into their slot. The origins of film are full of such spectral reference: the phantom rides of the Lumière Brothers, the staged illusions of Georges Méliès, but to find such echoes here, in an exhibition concerned with the materiality of film, is unexpected.
In Gallery 1, I discover Sherwin’s Newsprint (1972/2012), a film I have seen and shown many times. The original curl of the actual film, covered in its now yellowed newspaper, hangs on the wall next to the effigy of its own projection. In my previous single-screen viewings of this film, I have been struck by the physicality of the sound produced. The dull sonic cosh to the back of the head as the printed text rubs against the optical heads of the projector and language escapes from meaning. But here the projector is in front of me, wall mounted on a do-it-yourself shelf. A constructed armature fixes a mirror to the machines body and projects the text down onto a grey table, a speaker, skinned from its box hangs down beneath the projector. The formerly abrasive escape of language is now delicate and visually confused with the interference of a loose wire or poor connection. It is as if language were between stations, trying to break through,to return here from somewhere else. As ‘what is inaudible becomes audible’ I am reminded first of the EVP experiments of Raudive & Jürgenson and then of the poetic resistance of voices that emerge from the chauffeurs radio in Cocteau’s Orphée (1950).
Steve Farrer: Clawless Bolex & 10 Drawings
The ghosts of film’s history continue with a long printed strip of landscape from Steve Farrer’s Clawless Bolex (1878-9), where the artist has removed ‘the claw and shutter from [a] cine camera to record the landscape rolling past a train window’ (Sherwin, ibid): another phantom ride through time and space, resulting in an emergent spectral landscape reminiscent of the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey. In a visual echo of Sherwin’s Newsprint, the ten ‘drawings’ of Farrer’s film, 10 Drawings(1976), are mounted on the wallnexttotheir illuminated future. The drawings are exquisite; a grid of six rectangles, each consisting of 50 strips of clear film stock laid side by side, upon which Farrer has drawn (or printed) simple geometric forms, producing astronomical linear patterns of light and dark. The drawings are deconstructed and spliced into the thin extended line of 16mm film and projected as an oblong of visible light next to their original forms. The optical sound head of the projector translates the patterns of line and light into pulses of sound. It is as if we are listening to the transmission of a signal or wavelength from some far away source, a pulsating star, a distant and active galactic nucleus: a signal we can find on our channel but which we cannot decode or receive due to lack of vertical and horizontal hold (I like to imagine that 10 Drawings was included as part of Voyagers interstellar message). Although, in both Newsprint and 10 Drawings, I am conscious that the sound I hear is a result of the image projected, there remains a ventriloquial gap between the site/sight of utterance and the sound enunciated, as if this vocal burst of electronic communication was coming from some when and somewhere else or other.
In a corner of this gallery a silent and almost apologetic table and chair invite the physical company of a solitary viewer. Upon the table, a strip of film hangs over the illuminated Perspex window of a light-box, a line of film held in tension between two metal spools. As my hand cranks the film from one side to the other, the handle of the spool I am not holding rotates in sympathy with my action, as if another invisible hand was shadowing my movement. When my hand stops, the film continues to spool…“spool”. The solitary intimacy of this situation augments the delicacy of Annabel Nicolson’s hand printed film, Slides (1971). My position mimics that of the filmmaker, as I thread the film through the small rectangular aperture of light. The ritual of this encounter is enhanced further by the attention of the gallery assistant, who, following the departure of each audience, carefully rewinds the spools to ensure that the film is held in perfect tension.
Annabel Nicolson: Slides (1971)
In the artist studios of the gallery, Lynn Loo presents a selection from her personal archive of Expanded (live) cinema. And here I find Sherwin’s performance of the film Paper Landscape (1975-), which seems to me an almost perfect conclusion to the exhibition. As a projector starts we see Sherwin painting into existence the white rectangle of a cinema screen. As this action progresses upwards, the hands of a much younger Sherwin begin to appear, tearing away at the bottom of a paper screen, through which a landscape becomes visible. As the process of painting and tearing conclude, Sherwin is immured behind the image of the landscape revealed. The filmic apparition of Sherwin’s younger self, steps through the torn paper screen and walks toward the camera, before turning back and walking away into distance and absence. The image trembles as the screen begins to tear again, the present Sherwin steps through the landscape of his past, bringing his body back into matter and presence. Once more I am reminded of Cocteau’s Orphée and a return to substance through the refracted portal of mirrored light.
set: to seat: to place: to put: to fix: to put, place, or fix in position or required condition: to apply: to cause to be: to plant: to stake: to put on eggs: to put under a hen: to spread, lay cover, as a table: to compose, as type: to put in type: to embed: to frame: to mount: to beset or bestow about: to stud, dot, sprinkle, variegate: to form or represent: to imprint: to make to become solid, coagulated, rigid, fixed or motionless: to begin to form: to regulate: to appoint: to ordain: to assign: to prescribe: to propound: to present for imitation: to put upon a course, start off: to incite, direct: to escort: to put in opposition: to posit: to pitch as a tune: to compose or fit to music: to sharpen as a razor: to indicate by crouching: to lease or let to a tenant: to become befit: conversely to appear to advantage: to sit: to hang in position: to be in session: to go down towards or below the horizon, to decline: to offer a stake: to become rigid, fixed hard or permanent: to coagulate: of a bone to knit: to settle down: to begin to develop as fruit: to dance in a facing position: to acquire a set or bend: to apply or betake oneself: to have or take a course of direction: to begin to go.
This section from the set of my live: dissolve, was performed as part of a Sunday afternoon of experimental sound at We Are Collective (Chapel Arts Studios) with Joe Evans (runningonair) and Dirty Demos and organised by Tom Mortimer & David Dixon.
Here, beneath the ancient carbon dioxide of a dissolving ammonite, lies a redacted recording of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia (1983), from which all dialogue has been removed. This silenced landscape of absence and gesture, is employed here as a form of unwritten script for the other sound events that overlay it. This includes the drone and attack of air passing over wire fences stretched out between the beaches and reed beds of Cley Marshes in Norfolk. Synchronised by ear and a graphic score, a wildlife record of birdsong accompanies the host of birds, which escape from the robes of a statue of the Madonna del Parto in the opening scenes of the film. Later, the time-signal of BBC sound effect records introduce a damaged sequence of closing doors echoing in the emptied cinematic spaces of Nostalghia’s vacant landscape. The piece concludes with a chorus of alarm calls as a herd of Cranes is released sonically into the acoustics of the chapel, remembering the escape of birds from the robes of the Madonna.
In recording this set, I place the live moment in digital aspic (a word whose ancestry recognises the fatal consequences of such attempts at permanence, evolving as it does from the Old French basilisk: ‘a serpent…said to kill by its breath or look’).
In contrast the graphic score, although setting the sounds in a determined sequence, also provides the potential for error, variation and change: it prepares for use and sets in motion, events that are otherwise solid.
set: to put somebody or something somewhere; to become, or cause something to become solid; to cause something, or somebody to begin doing something, or begin to do something; to become permanent or fast; to arrange, place, or prepare something to be used; to portray something as happening in a particular place or time period; to heal up and become solid after being broken; to cause somebody to sit somewhere; to fit in a particular way; to come to a gradual end and pass into eclipse or obscurity; to move below the horizon.