Installation: Untitled, Anglia Square

When recording, your body becomes quieter. Feet are placed rather than stepped. Breathing is longer and slower. The inevitable human noise is reduced in order to amplify the sound of the world. We are used to forcing ourselves through the air, projecting our voices and our bodies through space. George Berkeley might say that this is simply how to live: existence is nothing unless it is perceived, and the perception of something requires that you are aware of its presence. This noise that our life makes is simply the will to exist.

What is it like to do the opposite? It is an unusual feeling, to be drowned in the sound of your surroundings, refusing to participate. Every day conversations become singular in their rhythm and cadence. The most banal scrapes, clicks and hums become part of an orchestra, part of a song that covers the surface of the earth.

I am sitting outside the Rendezvous cafe. This song is about what might be referred to as a plaza; I am hesitant to call it ‘a square’ because the location of Anglia Square – both as an idea and as a physical, geographic space – bleeds out beyond the high walls of this area. It is this Square which has been the subject of a collaboration between myself and the photographer Angus Sinclair. This collaboration quickly became more than ‘two artists working together in the same room’ and turned into a single installation. Rather than talk about the installation as a whole, however, we independently decided to think about the aspects of the piece that we were initially involved in; therefore I am talking here about sound, whereas Angus’ writing (available here) starts from the image. We have not read each others pieces before posting them, but I would be very surprised if many factors didn’t overlap.

You may want to listen to the audio side of the installation while reading. The option is here:

Or you can download a higher quality mp3 here. You may also want to turn your computer’s volume up to compensate for the quiet mastering.

One of the most interesting parts of this installation for me has been the interaction between images and sounds, and how the unique (and probably unreplicable) room placed Angus’ photos on the opposite wall to my speakers. It was at the same time an invitation to hear one while looking at the other, a juxtaposition between mediums, and a conversation. If we take a basic definition of the dialectic to mean two sides of a discussion working towards a shared conclusion, then I find it hard to imagine a more suited space for a dialectic between two pieces of art. In my mind, the sound map and the photographs are completely connected, and not just because of a shared theme. I now find it hard to discuss one without mentioning the other.

While accepting the installation as a whole, I did start thinking again about the differences between image and sound – or rather the different reactions to image and sound. At the Judaku (or ‘Three Gardens’) school in Japan, one of the first exercises for young students involves transposing/notating the sound of the city. When I first read about this I thought it was a beautiful, pure idea that helps to humble any artist. Why, then, do I not think the same about landscape painting? As with much of my own preconceptions about the possibilities of sound recoding as opposed to painting or photography – or, in fact, any visual media – it is the history of the practice which offers my own personal explanation.

So: recording the landscape visually is imbued with a cultural knowledge of precedents and techniques. The genealogy of the visual is older and richer; in terms of a new painter or a new photographer, there is an inevitably a degree of almost a priori knowledge of the medium. Even the most basic preconception conveys something of the grandeur and history of visual recording.

For the same reason, we have learned to think visually rather than aurally. If we hear a sound, we usually attempt to ascribe it to something that we can picture1: in terms of the recordings for this installation, we immediately recognise the sound of voices (which is perhaps the only aural knowledge we are used to) but it takes a few seconds for us to contextualise the rest of the piece. That sound is a bus; that is the buffer of the wind, that is footsteps; we deconstruct what is essentially a wall of sound into its constituent parts in order to reconstruct them visually as a picture, as a place.

To a certain extent, the need to deconstruct these specific sounds is a fault of my sound map rather than of the listener’s tendency to want to visualise. Because there is a lot happening at once, the listener becomes overwhelmed. At points, it was definitely my intention to create this disorientating wall of sound – mixing some parts of the map became fairly complex:

There is a marked difference between recordings like this and recordings which focus on a single sound, a single moment, amplified louder than you would hear it, and studied for longer than you would study it – the trickle of water, the closing of the metal door over a shop front. This is why the transcribing at the Judaku school seems, initially, like the beginning of the formation of an abstract work – it is a way of experiencing that which we are unfamiliar with for an extended period of time.

However, this is the closest we can take sound recording to visual art. The singularity of the sound either makes us concentrate on it completely, on its tone and duration and texture even before trying to work out what it is…or else we know what it is so quickly that it no longer becomes a ‘game’, and there is no puzzle to work out with this piece of art, and so the viewer/listener looks further into it. Either approach is, of course, valid;2
a) the puzzle can be a process that mirrors the creation of the piece, connecting recorder and listener, or
b) the listener can revel in the disorientation of the piece, inhabiting and opening the singularity of the sound.

So, then, perhaps it is not landscape painting that is a visual parallel to the Judaku notation of the city. It is paying attention to that which would not usually hold our attention. The unpredictable scraping sound of a leaf; rain on the metal of an office windowsill. Microcosmic images swelling at the edges of realism. Extended patience. In the visual, abstraction enters because we have never looked so closely, for so long. In the aural, it is because we have never really listened before.

That’s off topic. Back to the installation: the most prevalent theme of the Anglia Square sound map and photographs is overlap. With a single sound, disorientation opens up in a similar way to repetition. The same thing happens in photography. The viewer/listener inhabits the single subject, perhaps paying attention to a specific part, choosing where to start, where to highlight, where to stop. When the single sound is layered across other sounds, new points of reference have to be made by the listener; in Angus’ photographs, the conventionality of the large black frame and the 6×4 glossy prints is offset by the large black border inside the 6×4 space of the panoramic photographs. The forced border of each 6×4 print is further undermined by the overlapping of the multiple-exposed images:

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

So: let’s imagine the installation in action.

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

Already the overlap of image with image, of sound with sound, creates a gigantic aural and visual echo chamber of a room. Articles of comprehension become just the opposite: the comfort of sound, the comfort of the ear muff-esque headphones becomes disorientation; the usual banality of a 6×4 glossy print is invigorated into something new and unknown; when the viewer-listener turns from one to the other they are confronted with the familiar becoming unfamiliar; and this is when they turn to the window:

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

(c) Angus Sinclair, 2010

and find the outside amplified inside, images within the room framed again, in portrait this time, outside of the building; voices and sounds stripped of their original source, removed from the time in which they were created; a bus passes – minutes later, the sound of a bus; turning again into the room, they find the roof outside placed at an impossible angle on the opposite wall; sky running into tarmac; the sound of rain on a sunny day; footsteps on stones on glass.

This level of disorientation is not something that either of us necessarily intended, but it is a reaction that a few people have spoken to me about. One of my personal goals with this sound map was to create a concentrated experience of walking around Anglia Square throughout a single day. Taking a cue from Chris Watson – especially recordings like Weather Report and the recent Whispering in the Leaves at Kew Gardens – I mixed several hours of recording into a twenty minute loop.

Is this disorientation, then, a concentration of what I still experience when walking through Anglia Square? I remember when this was certainly the case – when I first moved to Norwich, Anglia Square and Magdalen Street were the most unexplored areas for the first year or so, and I found them much harder to navigate than the rest of the city. Living just outside of Anglia Square for over a year now, I find the concept of this unnavigability hard to comprehend. Anglia Square is still viewed by many as a (relatively) dangerous part of Norwich. I find this assumption bizarre; and yet, am I intentionally trying to uphold this illogical conclusion? Perhaps, rather, it is my own na├»vety of the inherent subjectivity of sound recording: I still believe that it is able to document more truthfully than any other medium. Of course, I am beginning to see the flaws in that sentence. I would never try and uphold such an absolute truth with regards to any other method of recording, whether with film or photography, drawing or painting.

I could write much more on this installation, but my ideas are starting to become increasingly unfocused. Luckily, a different permutation of the installation may take place on a larger scale in the Stew Gallery (again, just off Magdalen Street, in the vicinity of Anglia Square) in February 2011, where we plan to explore these wandering ideas further. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics of a larger room will change the experience, and whether the images and sounds will still retain the inseparability of this smaller installation.



1. This practice of ascribing takes on a completely different form when something has been labeled as ‘music’, but that’s another question for another time. [Back to main text]

2. I remember being intimidated by Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons before I discovered that some words can replace others within the text to construct a kind of psychological slip of a biography. It contains ‘highly condensed layers of public and private meanings’ (replacing words with Alice, for example, as in Alice B. Toklas). It also works as much with prosody as will literal meanings (one of my favourites: hardly more than ever). Once I knew this, it became a puzzle to work out; the impenetrability became a challenge rather than a concrete intellectual block. Before I completed the puzzle (is that even possible?), I came to understand the work as it was. The puzzle fell away to reveal the raw text. [Back to main text]


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