Listening to the Architecture, Clerkenwell Magistrates' Court
An installation for the launch event of BBC2's Restoration project
Eight days to install, an hour to pack down. My thanks to to Crissij and Clare who made it happen, invigilators Kelly, Duncan and the twins and to Aaron, Dean, Steve and Scary Steve who provided help at key points where help was sorely needed.
Observing the behaviour of visitors to the installation during the evening is illuminating - for some reason people have refrained from tapping or blowing into microphones - I only witnessed this once. Perhaps the complicated court furniture (plus a couple of law books in the space which were there anyway and a glass of water on the magistrate's desk because it was a hot day) provide people with other props to play with, a different focus. My thoughts on removing everything from a space except the air and the sound are fine in theory but possibly less so in practice. One of the invigilators innocently commented on the quality of feedback (from visitors to the space).
The installation is finally exposed to the public - the BBC launch seemed to go very well, a great atmosphere on a beautiful evening. A lot of people in the installation space throughout the event.
The work has become more interesting with visitors in the space, the modulation of the intertwining feedbacks has a simple natural complexity - better than I dared hope for.
The volume level seems appropriate for the number of visitors and manages to cope with a variety of eccentric behaviour including An Actor who read the witness oath in best booming English Actor fashion and various others who took the chance to play the part of a hang 'em and flog 'em judge in a disturbingly accomplished manner.
Britain's trains are in chaos because of the high temperatures threatening to buckle the rails. So I was especially pleased that Michael Stanley, curator from Ikon, endured a three hour train trip from Birmingham to see the piece. Michael is curating the next series of installations in September. In conversation during the evening he raised and questioned precisely the issues that I'm raising in this notebook so maybe I am on the right track. Unlike the trains.
Another prime reason is that leaving anything with knobs on in a space open to the public means that at some point a member of that public will innocently turn one or more of the knobs, upsetting a fragile balance that has taken days to create. Part of me wants to leave the equipment, not to make a mystery out of it, but that requires both a different presentation and a different situation.
Before finally fixing everything down one last check on positioning and levels with people moving around the space. Anyone around who is involved in the production comes in after lunch, (Steve, the other Steve, Simon, Sonia and Clare in the picture, more outside the frame). The installation behaved, I'm confident that it's tough enough to withstand the attentions of 500 people tomorrow.
All equipment apart from microphones and loudspeakers has been moved out of sight. This is for a number of reasons - I don't want to make an exhibition of technology - introducing a visual complication into the situation.
Cable runs are more difficult than usual because the location is grade 2 listed - the wood panelling must not be damaged so nothing can be nailed down. Cables are temporarily held in place with a combination of blu-tack and gaffa tape, then fixed with silicon and the temporary fix removed when the silicon has set. For the silicon idea I have to thank Ray Burns, the superbly helpful Tate technician. Some cable paths through the fixed furniture of the witness box etc require inventive solutions, the last detail tomorrow is to paint some cables where no alternative pathway is possible.
Everything in position pending a final check tomorrow. Cleaning, tidying up and preparing the space for cable runs.
Tweaking and balancing. The microphone for system 3 had previously been facing a door and I was mostly testing with the door open. With the door closed, the feedback frequency changes and things become unbalanced, the pitch of the system 3 chain begins to feed into system 1 (where the active field is most equally spread through the space) and the whole room develops a tendency to become monophonic on this dominant note. I added another mic at the back of the room into system 3 and rebalanced so that both are active, broadening the range of the active space and offsetting the effect of the closed door.
A heatwave is underway, 34 degrees today. The painters in the car park have been working since early this morning and are variously suffering from paint fumes and heat.
Another loudspeaker is now mounted high up near the ceiling forming a symmetry with yesterday's. A little tweaking and it begins to work - the three systems are playing a kind of tune with the room. This is probably a key moment in the development of this installation so I recorded the empty room for a while.
Over the last year or so I have been recording each stage of the setup process of each installation with some idea that this might reveal the creative process. Or at least the working process. Difficult - the whole experience of the sound of each space is so dependent on the physical relationship of the listener to the space. I think the tapes reveal when it's not working, when the feedback is too dominant or uncomfortably out of tune or when the transducers are positioned badly in the space. When it is working the recording is fairly meaningless, as I have written elsewhere on this website, '...a recording is an inaedequate representation of the experience, you had to be there'.
Last night I decided that the problems with system 1 could be solved with a delay approximately doubling the size of the room.
The original 'Listening to the Architecture' in Helsinki involved a delay in part of the signal path. This created the sound of a bigger space than the already cavernous gallery. This was a matter of emphasis, to draw the attention of the listener to the scale of the space.
So I'm trying this again - partly for the emphasis on the space and partly because the sound of this system would be slightly differentiated from the other two systems, clarifying the interplay of the three.
One of the system 1 speakers is mounted high up near the ceiling to try and involve the sound of the whole space in the piece. Seems to be working...
The second full day in Court 2. A lot of rain earlier so the basic installation has been on for a while in a static situation to see what happens as the equipment warms up or the humidity changes. It seems fairly stable, starting up sounding much like when I switched off last night.
The installation and the interplay between the systems and the space is fascinating but physically the effect on my hearing makes it exhausting being in here for any length of time, like listening to test tones in a recording studio. I have to leave the room every 20 minutes or so as the high frequencies in particular get to me.
I worry that this installation reflects the sound of the technology more than the sound of the space. I know what doesn't work, the glassed-off public gallery at the back is a no-go zone, taking a system 1 speaker in there created nothing more than severely unpleasant high frequency feedback. System 1 needs to capture and sustain more of the fundamental sound of the room but at the moment it is still dull.
Today's main activity is moving mics and speakers around, looking for nodes in the space where the presence of people will articulate the systems. System 3 is sounding good, 2 has the highest note and shortest gate time, sounding something like a bowed cymbal and appears less reactive to interference. System 1, the length of the room is not set up properly, I'm a bit worried about getting the speakers up high at the back of the room - my natural and perfectly reasonable fear of heights has made me abandon today's attempts to hoist a speaker up there. I need to try some temporary positions but I'm also worried about safety - if someone tripped on a cable everything could come crashing down, but it's difficult to fix anything at this stage as the building is Grade 2 listed - I can't drill into walls and I only need to check a speaker position for a few minutes, so everything is temporary.
Everything is running ok but needs refinement - the first system is sounding a bit dull, speaker positions are very rough at this stage - my intention is to explore the height of the space tomorrow.
The system is onsite and finally up and running. Initial setup has offered fairly promising possibilities - 3 independent systems: the first using the length of the room (mic behind the magistrate's position), the second system using the width and the third using diagonal reflections across the room. All three systems sound ok independently, their interaction is an act of fine balancing. This interface of amplification and feedback means that I can't just turn it up or down on the mixer, each element of the system affects the other parts of the system.
Very fiddly. Currently I'm a bit worried about being too loud - apparently audible in the car park.
Assembling speakers, testing and checking cables prior to moving everything to the location tomorrow.
Still working offsite, Dean Whatmuff is building new speakers for me down the road and I am rebuilding old speakers in my studio, writing statements and suffering from a bad cold.
My decision is to attempt a triple system variant of The Listening Room. The idea is to install the system in such a way that the height, width and depth of the Courtroom are all involved in the exposure of the acoustic situation. Testing on a triple system begins in my studio.
An initial site visit with project organiser Crissij van den Munckhof. The event will have a series of site-specific installations around the court building, Jane and Louise Wilson in a courtroom, Simon Tegala is doing something somewhere else and (rather hierarchical) there will be some 'younger' artists in the cells.
The best space for me seems to be one of the courtrooms, and a visit to the roof reveals that access is relatively easy, suggesting that an exploration of the height of the space may produce unexplored possibilities.
I begin to think about a triple sytem, involving all the dimensions of the courtroom, both exposing the volume and allowing the vertical function of the installation to survive if it turns out to be a particularly noisy event and the mass of people in the space begins to defeat the horizonal planes of the installation.
Uniquely of all the spaces I have worked in to date, the architecture was made for sound. Speech, not music, so the reverberation is less than a performance venue, but the acoustic/spatial relationships are curious. There is a definite relationship between the sound from the curved structure behind the magistrate's chair and the projection of that sound into the rest of the space. A power relationship certainly, but highly functional given the original purpose of the building. The curve seems to provide a focus where speech from elsewhere in the room is clearly heard in the magistrate's position and vice-versa.
Things to consider - the flow of people through the space - this is a launch event, not a formal gallery work and as such has to behave and survive.
Clerkenwell Magistrates Court Installation