Wrought – confessions of a wandering mind (Art and Work Symposium)

I spoke at the Occursus/Art Sheffield symposium today on ‘Art and Work’. Big thanks to the organisers and all who took part in this fascinating cross-disciplinary event. My tumble of day-thoughts was kicked off by first speaker, Bryan Ecclesall offering up the apposite view that:

“history [is] a series of accreted surfaces that are more or less revealed by the present [through the active looking or ignoring of the eyes and actions of positioned viewers]”

Here are my slides:

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My presentation in anothers’ words

And here is the summary of my talk, as ably interpreted and tweeted live by the event reporters (Isla & Ben of Article magazine). An impressive job.

“Luke Bennett’s presentation focused on the theme of the past tense of work. Sheffield as a “working” city and the possibilities of reading the landscape to combine the different points of view from the eyes of the law, the social and the pedestrian and history as a system of accreted surfaces.

Luke uses his blog to question these themes, through wandering and wondering- are these activities of work, labour and production? A way in which places are made by our work practices- realm of on site practice and their materialities.

Luke is both an environmental lawyer and a social researcher – wanting to blend the different ways of reading and engaging with the city, the reality physicality of city-process carried out by lawyers, surveyors and inhabitants- all read through the concrete of the city and its ghosts.

The materialities are undeniable in the city and its uses, yet much is passed unnoticed until the human element engages with it- in a crack that causes destruction or accident that would otherwise be disengaged with. Luke is fascinated by valorization of mundane elements of the built environment- tracing psychogeography, urban exploration and play.

Luke urges us to notice the ghosts of the present and their fear of usage/non usage/liabilities/compliance, the ghosts of the future- forward gazing/ contingencies/planning/designing – how are we going to do it?/afford it?- and the ghosts of the past, a not fully known past always haunting the present and future.

We all see the concrete from partial cultural standpoints that shape how we see the places that we use. Getting to the science of the matter, Luke was here to investigate why we see and notice what is noticed and not noticed in the landscape and want to bring these together.  To blend and explore the intersection of multiple – heterogeneous- perspectives, from legal scholarship: deductive, hermetic-study as code-system, social science- inductive/ generalisations- (make claims to “scientificness”), and the arts- phenomenonological- specificity of one thing looking at rather than code/general.

Luke works “towards a psychogeography of the dropped curb”- what is missing is a sense of the mundane shaping force of law- adding the concrete and combining the ghosts. To “trace the humdrum within the spectacular” through noticing everything- from all angles and doing something with the outcome.

 Out of a carrier bag- Luke produced a brick- and embodied labour of the landscape-from the landscape to build the landscape. Hoping to trace the history and document an archive photographical depiction of this- Luke demonstrates the ability of landscape to be seen through all angles, law, concrete, ghosts and all.”

More resources and reflection on this event are available at the conference blogsite: http://sheffield-art-and-work.tumblr.com/

New uses for old bunkers #13 – Switzerland – the country primed to demolish itself

bunker defense suisse 05 Les bunkers Suisses

A short one this – to direct the interested reader to BldgBlog’s recent post summarising a 1984 book by John McPhee, La Place de la Concorde Suisse which examines the ways in which the Swiss have co-opted mountains and their infrastructural tunnels and bridges in the defence scheme for that country. BldgBlog provide various fascinating illustrations of these geo-defensive multi-purposing, including the following quote from McPhee’s book:

“Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide”

Here’s a link to the BldgBlog article: http://bldgblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/various-forms-of-lithic-disguise.html

The photo above is from http://www.laboiteverte.fr/en/les-bunkers-suisses/ where there are a number of instances of bunkers disguised as mountain outcrops.

And finally here’s an upbeat tourism video that wanders the Swiss countryside strolling from gun emplacements disguised as picture-postcard chalets to mined roads and the domestic fall-out shelters under every home…

New uses for old bunkers #12 – Amherst – the books piled up in the former war room

“[A] bunker reflects the society that made it [and] …bunkers have always had as part of their purpose, the protection and transmission of culture. They operate as a cultural ark – and what is preserved/valued  for preservation speaks of what is privileged in the host society. The afterlife of the bunker now lies in the provision of secure archival storage. These places that once offered shelter for people or national treasures now live on (if at all) as data stores. Eisenhower’s underground command centre, near Euston station [in London], now serves as Channel 4 TV’s media archive. The bunker remains as a survival machine, one that can preserve organisational culture, but not one that now requires (many) humans to enable that process. [And our] bunker metaphor[s] may have to evolve too – if the bunker no longer has any humans in it.” (Bennett 2011:168)

Please excuse the self-quotation here – but it’s a good launchpad for looking at an interesting issue underlying Amherst College’s co-option of the former military bunker that it has been using for book storage since 1994. The bunker was created by hollowing out part of the Holyoke Range, to create a backup battle centre for the U.S. Strategic Air Command. If its central base in Omaha had been destroyed, control of nuclear warfare would have switched to Amherst.

The following audio-visual tour (from 2004) gives a great account of the conversion of, and current use of, this bunker and features many evocative photographs by Samuel Masinter:

There’s nothing particularly novel about a military bunker converted to storage of cultural artefacts, but has got my attention is the way in which the documents are stored in a portion of this facility that is leased to five other colleges. The approach is described thus:

“The Five College space is in a separate section of the bunker from the Amherst depository and features an unusual system for maximizing book storage. The books—mostly serials and government documents that are least often requested from the libraries—are not stored by call number or the Dewey Decimal System (which was invented by Melvil Dewey, Class of 1874).  They are not sorted by subject. Rather, the books are sorted by size, with  each shelf holding only books of the same height. And the books are not shelved spine out, but in long cardboard trays, packed in whatever direction most efficiently fills the space. The trays, in turn, are shelved end out, and each is given a distinctive code that’s entered into the depository computer. Because it is impossible for anyone to find a given book without knowledge of the computer codes, users are not allowed into the depository but must instead request the books through their library. To further save space, the bookcases are  motorized and ride on tracks to minimize aisles. According to David Spoolstra, the librarian for the Five College depository, the unusual storage system allows the depository to hold twice as many books as conventional library systems. He also notes that the bunker has the added benefit of having floors that can hold 500 pounds per square foot. It has the additional benefit of offering bomb-proof protection for the books, as well as constant temperature and humidity.” (Amherst College 2003)

What strikes me is that the absence of a physical system of arrangement to separately categorise and organise the stock of the books (other than via size) places total reliance on the electronic catalogue to give that collection meaning (i.e. any purposeful interrogation and retrieval faculty). If the electronic catalogue were to become lost, then this stock of knowledge would lapse to amorphous shelved heaps of data.

This challenge to durability (the ability of a stock of knowledge to carry itself – and its interpretive integrity – forward through time) is not unique to the Amherst bunker, but it is perhaps taken to its logical conclusion here, as the documents sheltered here could survive all perils that the passage of time (human or geological) can through at them – but survive only as amorphous data, because the scheme of arrangement is virtual, and entirely dependent on the continued maintenance of the electrical and IT infrastructure of ‘now’ into the future. In this regard, Brown & Duguid (2002:200) note the weak ‘time binding’ characteristrics of modern information systems, and the attendant irony that “the most threatened records in modern archives are usually not the oldest, but the newest.” (201)

To be fair, the Amherst depository is not intended to be a ‘future beating’ temporo-cultural transmission vehicle. Its a place to store (and access) books and other items in the ‘here and now’. A practical use of a vast underground void-space left behind when the military moved out. But, wrapped within the context and design of a facility engineered for survival it does at least resonate these ark connotations and (for me at least) conjures up the opulent (but anxious) dreams of all who have ever thought of a library as a repository (rather than depository) of a culture. As Battles (2003: 214) puts it:

“Here in the stacks, the library may seem a place where books go when they die. In their totality, they disappear amid their own mystifications. From age to age, libraries grow and change, flourish and disappear, blossom and contract – and yet through them all we’re chasing after Alexandria…haunted by the myths of knowledge and of wholeness that books spawn when massed in their millions.”

 

Postscript: I’ve been informed that there have been changes at the depository over the last 10 years and that the Five College collection has now been integrated with the Amherst one. I’m also told that the electronic catalogue is backed up (electronically) at three secure locations, other data bunkers…

With thanks to Martha Bridegam for pointing me in the direction of this bunker.

All photos by Samuel Masinter and taken from https://www.amherst.edu/aboutamherst/magazine/nooks/bunker

Amherst College (2003) ‘From bombs to books’ in Amherst Magazine, Winter 2003: https://www.amherst.edu/aboutamherst/magazine/issues/2003_winter/college_row#from

Battle, M. (2003) Library – an unquiet history, William Heinemann: London.

Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management’, Culture and Organization, 17 (2): 155-173

Brown, J.S. & Duguid, P. (2002) The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press: Harvard

New uses for old bunkers #11 – what’s the first thing you do after moving house…?

So you’ve just moved to a new town. You have a young family, unpacking and home-making to attend to. What do you do first? Excavate the Anderson Shelter you’ve stumbled upon at the bottom of your new garden?

I’ve just come across a fascinating blog by Stephen Geraghty in which he enthusiastically recounts – blow by blow – the discovery and excavation of his very own air raid shelter shortly after moving into his new home. He’d found a mound at the bottom of the garden whilst looking for somewhere to dump some rubble. He took an interest and set to work digging. He unearthed the shelter and – when it was too dark to dig – provided the world with progress updates on a blog set up for the purpose.

Getting ready to shift some of that soil

Three thoughts spring to mind here:

First, I get it – and his blog is a great read. It wonderfully captures the way in which you can become gripped by an urge to see a task through, especially the urge to uncover something.

Secondly, it smacks of classic ‘displacement activity’. This condition is defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as follows:

“the performance by an animal of an act inappropriate for the stimulus or stimuli that evoked it. Displacement behaviour usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating. In courtship, for example, an individual afraid of its mate may, instead of fleeing or courting, stand still and feed or groom itself. “

Applied to this 36 year old male human, perhaps the urge to uncover this bunker loomed into view and blocked out the raw heat of the 1000 things requiring his urgent attention back in the day to day domestic world.

And thirdly, it reminds me of an article of mine that will shortly be published in the academic journal, Gender, Place and Culture. In that article I look at the gender bias in bunker hunting, specifically the question “why is it mostly blokes who have these urges?” Amongst a number of avenues that I explore in the article is an attempt by me to look upon bunkers as shed-like, the potting shed being the classic male refuge.

Here two quotes (which I explore in more detail in the article) are helpful, they come from an article in the Independent 10 years ago by Joan Smith, who writes witheringly of men and their shed-love thus:

“I spent years trying to find a man with an internal life and ended up with a series of blokes with sheds”, and

“The point of a shed is that it is not a domestic space. It is a refuge, embodying fantasies of impermanence, making do, the frontier spirit. It also provides an escape from women.”

In my article I take issue with Smith on some of these points, but for now we will leave Stephen to his shelter.

Stephen’s blog: http://myandersonshelter.co.uk/ (well worth a read)

Bennett, L (2012) ‘Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers’, Gender, Place & Culture [forthcoming]

Smith, J. (2002) ‘Beware men with sheds’ The Independent, 13 October

Banksy on the bank? – On noticing the Greenwich Peninsula’s pre-cast concrete time-tunnel

Around this time last year my son and I took a trip to London to visit the Titanic artefacts exhibition at the O2 arena. Each of us was rather underwhelmed by that experience. We had a few hours to spare, so went for a stroll along the rather battered coast path that leads down to Greenwich proper. For me the walk was, in part, inspired by Christian Nold’s sensory mapping of the peninsula, in which he’d used biosensors to plot the emotional recall of residents wandering this zone. I wondered what we – as ‘out of towners’ would find. My son probably wondered that too (but without the theory bit).

On a desolate strip of wharfage, a demolition site behind, with the sound and smell of bricks being ground back into dust, we came upon some abandoned sections of precast concrete tunnels.

They were just sitting there. Scattered like discarded kids’ building blocks. But these tunnel sections were each van-sized. There was a crane nearby, and a slightly unnerving instruction to venturers to these parts that they should await the handsignals of the operator before proceeding further along the path. I wondered what arcane signals he might use to communicate crane-speak to me, but sadly the cab was empty.

We lingered here for quite a while, each of us inspecting these tunnel sections. Each for our own reasons. He because he’s young enough to still find graffiti and swear words exciting and shocking. Me because the urban art with which these tunnel sections were festooned was not all recent. By my guess, many of these words and images were inscribed here in the mid 1980s. The youth of today don’t seem to invoke Charles Manson in the way that he was paraded around as an icon of the ‘alternative’ back in the day. And seal clubbing doesn’t seem to get much of a look-in to public discourse either nowadays. These concrete sections thus reeked for me of a certain ’80s counter-culture. Triggering a partial nostalgia, but also a realisation that things come and go (but leave behind some traces).

And then I spotted the rats. The sprayed on rats. Small and down in a corner. But looking very much like Banksy rats. This concrete array then seemed stranger. Like some alien art-ship that had crash-landed here or the skeletal hulk of a tattooed cement whale, who had lost his way in a worm-hole sometime in 1986 and ended up stranded here.

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I realise Banksy hunting is something of a sport these days and that there’s quite a lot of his stuff around. But all the same. This concrete time-tunnel is probably worth a lot more than the wrecking crew realise…

Details of Christian Nold’s sensory mapping project: http://www.softhook.com/emot.htm

Fear and trembling? Metal theft and the voice of God

In the course of preparing for a talk I’m giving on metal theft later this week I’ve stumbled upon a rather interesting conjunction of the sacred and the profane.

Theft of lead from church roofs has hit the Church of England and its main insurer, Ecclesiastical, very hard recently: in 2011 an estimated £10million for the CofE and £4.5million for its insurer (via 2,500 claims). This claim rate tops the level reached at the height of the pre-credit crunch metal theft wave (2,400 in 2008).

With over half of Britain’s Grade I listed buildings on its books, the church’s insurer has recently launched a campaign to show how lead theft from church roofs might be best deterred.

In launching its ” Hands Off Our Church Roof” campaign the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, invoked imagery reminiscent of barbarian pillage, describing the crime wave thus;

“Since the metal vandals have descended in such hordes over recent years our duty of maintenance has become nearly impossible. New Government legislation will undoubtedly help, but we all need to remain vigilant and try to get a step ahead of these well-organised raiders.” (Quotes from Bingham 2012)

Sharing the platform with the Bishop, actress Liz Hurley incisively added the observation:

“Beautiful old churches are at the heart of so many of our communities and I find it truly shocking that anyone would steal lead from a church roof. I heartily endorse the campaign to have alarms fitted.”

Her prescence also gave the press ample scope to make ‘the actress and the bishop’ jokes. A temptation which I will – of course – resist…

But what grabbed my attention the most was the suggestion that the alarm system could be characterised as ‘the voice of God’. You get a brief glimpse of this effect in Ecclesiastical’s video. A creeping figure prowling the shadows of the churchyard. Shinning up onto the roof via a carelessly unsecured wheeliebin.

A few moments later the trumpets of Jehovah ring out (well an electronic alarm) and a  recorded message (a deep-ish voice but more likely New rather than Old Testament in tone) booms out, warning the would-be thief that this premises is aware of him. That the church has sensed his presence, and is summoning human assistance. That the eye of an omniscient observer is upon him.

I’d love to hear the full message and watch CCTV of how mortals react to this spiritual ambush.

 

 

Bingham, J. (2012) ‘Voice of God to scare church raiders’, The Telegraph, 23 February

Details of Ecclesiastical’s campaign: http://www.ecclesiastical.com/churchmatters/churchguidance/churchsecurity/roof-alarms/index.aspx

Tracework – a forthcoming collaboration with Katja Hock

       

I’m very pleased to announce that photographer Katja Hock and I are planning to collaborate on some ‘tracework’ projects. Each of us are interested in tracing ‘absent presences’ in our own disciplines and practices and we thought it would be interesting to have a go at hunting these ‘ghosts of place’ in parallel.

Our first collaboration is likely to centre around the (almost) invisible former quarries and brickpits of northern Sheffield. The surrounding city was built from these small, local sources of brick and stone. But these workings are now all but erased – partly because extraction creates emptiness, and partly through subsequent uses of these resultant voids, for many of these holes were subsequently infilled by the city’s waste and rubble. In the municipal valleyside recreation grounds, retail parks and not-quite natural looking cliff faces we will hunt our quarry.

For me the project will be an interesting adjunct to my currently ongoing study of how abandoned quarries are perceived by their owners and recreational users. It will also give me an opportunity to revive and reflect upon some professional skills that I once used daily as a jobbing environmental lawyer in order to ‘know’ such places as these. For the physical past of deceptively now-flat sites matters greatly in a development context. To the ‘manager’ maps, geological reports and trade directories shed valuable light on the hidden features – the sometimes problematic legacy left by former use. Meanwhile legal documents create an invisible layer of obligation, restriction and risk allocation for these places. I will also hunt others’ traces and readings of these places – the workers, the techniques, the dependencies and the material significance of these ‘local’ sites.

We will seek to depict such traces, each in our own way. To notice the unnoticed. To counterpoint artistic and managerial representations. We will each explore the liminality of these places – neither natural nor entirely man-made; neither indoor nor truly outdoor; neither populated nor entirely unpopulated; neither present nor entirely absent.

Katja is a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and characterises her approach thus:

“As a practising artist I am interested in the relationship between what is shown and what might only be suggested in the photograph. I explore how photography, in its representation of architectural space and landscape, frames and refers both to human presence and to transience. Focusing on institutional sites and woodlands, my photographs do not show any people, leaving only the memory of activity. Through this apparent emptiness I intend to prompt the viewer to reflect on their experiences with such sites, allowing space for the viewer’s imagination to enter the photographic field.”

The pictures below are from Katja’s doctoral project, Hospital and are reproduced by permission:

New uses for old bunkers #10 – Embleton – they go and do it in that old pillbox

It was going to happen sooner or later. This NUFOB series couldn’t stick with the genteel, art-inspired re-uses of bunkers forever. For balance there needs to be this tangent. The co-option of the bunker in aid of basic biological urges, away from prying eyes. A sheltered, damp and musty place for an illicit congress, rest or relief.

Perhaps I can segue into position by invoking The Halt’s recent haiku:

“A sunken pill-box, / looming in the withered light, / bids me make my bed.” (The Halt 2012)

But what I’m really focussed on here is bunker-as-toilet. At a recent conference I was approached by someone who had heard me give a paper on bunkers the day before:

“Ah, you’re the bunker guy. It was interesting what you had to say yesterday. When I was growing up in Suffolk there were abandoned bunkers everywhere. But they were cold, damp smelly places. You wouldn’t want to go inside. I was scared by them. People used to wee in them. But, not me, of course…”

To illustrate my theme here I pick out Embleton in Northumberland and its coastal pillboxes, not because this place is anymore exposed to the co-option of abandoned bunkers as toilets or teenage drinking dens than anywhere else, but just because I’ve been there and have a trail of material that I can draw on to give a site specific depiction of this type of bunker-dwelling.

Let’s start with a 2008 report for the local council which cryptically outlined potential threats to the Conservation Area value of the village thus:

“An appropriate solution to the vacant pillboxes, which are open to misuse, should be found, especially that to the south.” (NECT 2008: 37)

And then a 2009 report for the National Trust which put it more explicitly:

“The amenity value of the coast has less attractive consequences for pillboxes. The evidence from inside them suggests that those which are still accessible, particularly towards Embleton, are used for evening drinking amongst teenagers and somewhere to dump dog waste and nappy changing bags.” (Archaeo-Environment Ltd, 2009: 24).

The report includes a photo of a litter strewn pillbox interior, and I think the pillbox shown there is one I clambered into when I visited in 2010. There was some litter there then, and I recall having to gingerly step through a puddle of broken glass at the entrance. Once inside it was quite cosy. You wouldn’t want to bunk down on the floor, but yes – it would be fun as a teenager to hang out in there, away from adults’ prying eyes.

Leader (2011) captures something of this arena of bunker after-use when he writes:

“…the bunkers have lost the symbolic value that they once had: that of modernist precision, of imperialism, of protest and of military hindrance. These spaces have not only become uninhabited by people, but by symbolic value itself. They have become odd liminal spaces filled with graffiti, piss, litter, condoms. But where we would expect these transformations to signify some kind of mortification and death… [they actually testify to]…a strange kind of life perhaps, and one we might wish to avoid, but life all the same. Piss, excrement, condoms, obscene graffiti all testify to presence not absence, the side of human life that gravitates to the points where symbolic value has been extinguished or undermined.”

I think I’m happy to follow Leader up to the final sentence. But surely excrement and litter are themselves symbolic – with a rich resonance in the art of the abject. And also, if we think of bunkers as solely concrete in their ‘prime’ we miss sight of the organic life (and indeed the organs) of those who dwelt within them during that previous era. Even then there were people there drinking, sleeping, sheltering and attending to basic bodily needs with nervous regard to the hostile ‘other’ beyond the casemate.

 

Archaeo-Environment Ltd (2009) Historic Environment Survey for the National Trust Properties on the Northumberland Coast – General Background Report and Management Recommendations (a report for the National Trust, ref: Report No: 0058/8-09). Available at: http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/File_transfers/Northumberland%20Coast/0058-8_Final%20General%20Report.pdf

Leader, D. (2011) ‘The Architecture of Life’ in Dillon, B. Ruins – Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery: London.

NECT (North of England Civic Trust) (2008) Embleton Conservation Area – character appraisal and management matters – designation report,  for Alnwick District Council. Available at: www.northumberland.gov.uk

The Halt (2012) Felixstowe to Lowestoft: a walk in 23 haiku. 97 miles, 3 days, no sleep, tweet 1 of 15 June: @thehalt

 

A Journey to the Past – a fascinating account of discovering the art of stone circles by Gordon Kingston

If you find my posts a little dense at times, but still stick with it, then I’d like to recommend a fascinating account written by Gordon Kingston on his Heritage Action blogsite.

In the post Gordon gives a very rich account of the intellectual journey that led him to his deep enthusiasm for ancient sites. Gordon’s journey was evidently a ‘high art’ one, and draws on extensive rumination on the role of the arts and art theory in awakening his appreciation for ancient stones. But for me what comes across most powerfully is the sincerity and depth of his appreciation for the places that are special to him.

The account is a great example of how – for some – the reasons for the apparently phenomenological pull of a place can be put into words and linked to wider biographical and cultural influences.

His post is at: http://heritageaction.wordpress.com/a-journey-to-the-past/

 

 

New uses for old bunkers #9: soundscapes for silent sentinels

Bunkers sit there, staring out to sea or at some other horizon of potential change. Day in, day out, these abandoned hulks must watch the same vista through their wide but thin rectangular window-slits. Come rain, come shine. Inhabited by the curious, or left well alone. They sit there staring, concrete slowly sinking into the ground beneath, or yet more slowly – glacially – eroding grain by grain.

  

And when they were in wartime use, humans stood at those windows watching those horizons. Brewing coffee or tea to take the edge off the chill or the heat-blast of the exterior world poking its climatic tendrils in from time to time. And – like the rough hewn surfer in that iconic 1990s Guiness advert, they waited. But they waited without knowing how long it would be, or whether it would ever be, that the horizon would populate with the enemy’s horde. And there would be no pleasure if that ‘perfect wave’ crested for them. The watching, the waiting of the sentry carried the mundane terror of contingency. The nothing-view was boring. The seat was cold and damp. But at least nothing had happened so far…

In this blog-essay I will look at some of the ways that contemporary artists have sought to engage with the bunker’s role as a silent sentinel, now left to watch the horizon alone. The image above is from Louise K. Wilson’s 2005 installation work at Orford Ness. I will say something of Wilson’s work below. But first I want to align this iconic image with audio recorded by Nick Sowers as part of his “acoustic taxonomy of bunker sounds” (Sowers 2011).

Stripped of visual context (and the very interesting account of his particular bunker hunting project in his article at:  http://places.designobserver.com/feature/soundscapes-atlantikwall/26878/) Sowers’ aural account may come close to true ambience – in the sense of being difficult to find anything tangible to grip onto. But if you listen to his short recording whilst looking at the above photograph, Sowers’ soundscape becomes haunting.  I won’t spoil the experience – suffice it to say that Sowers’ is not the only voice that drifts into what – at first – seems to be a straight, ambient field recording. The effect leaves me feeling that I’ve caught a glimpse of that mundane watching-life enacted there by this place’s former inhabitants. Powerful stuff, but I’m not sure who would have the appetite for sitting through all 300 bunker recordings.

It is the absence of a visual element that makes Sowers’ work hard to place. Such sounds become easier to assimilate as ‘art’ where there is a visual dimension. Here we can invoke Emily Richardson’s short film Cobra Mist (2008). Like Wilson’s project, this piece also concerns the former top secret MOD site at Orford Ness. But in keeping with Sowers’ work what strikes me is the way in which Richardson captures the silent sentinel nature of the remaining (seemingly) ‘post-human’ (to nod to Sebald here) character of these military ruins. Richardsone employs 360 degree camera rotation and timelapse photography to capture poignantly both the passage of time and the eternal ‘watching’ performed by these structures (or at least presented as such – I realise that suggesting that buildings ‘watch’ is rather anthropomorphic).

Richardson’s film also presents a link to  the ascendancy of nature at this place (a classic trope of Romantic ruinology). Indeed the soundtrack to the film is composed of field recordings made on-site by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson (who was an early member of industrial music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, and is also an eminent ambient music ‘performer’). Richardson describes the haunting soundscape of this place thus:

“birds bursting out of the old vents that they nest in, water dripping from open roofs, the feint whisper of the World Service from the mast in the aerial field, the sound of the sea in the shingle and the wind whistling through metal railings.” (Richardson 2010: 48)

For her project Wilson also notes (and exploits) the sonic character of the ruins, that through their design features (either as intended or as encountered via dereliction) certain buildings have become “exceptionally reverberant” (Wilson, 2006: 29) both figuratively and literally. She notes how in the former Control Room “the wind intermittently enters the building through discrete wall holes to produce ‘symphonic voices’” (29) and in an echo of this arranged for a choir, the Exmoor Singers, to perform madrigals in the Control Room (closely crowded around a deactivated nuclear bomb).

Quite a few contemporary artists have engagedwith bunkers and other dark remnants of the Twentieth Century in recent years(see for example Schofield’s (2005) commentary upon this), but it’s with Sowers’ that I want to close this piece.

In his article Sowers positions his sonic surveys in the context of search for re-use of these now abandoned structures, thus:

“By recording these sounds, I hope to measure what the photograph cannot: the living presence across a duration of time captured by the bunker’s interior. One question persists, nearly two years after making these recordings: is there a way for recorded sound to suggest a kind of reoccupation, where the husk of military form provides fertile space for a new existence?”

Sowers’ work certainly adds something to the phenomenology of the bunker – and reminds us that our visual senses are not our only organs of perception. But I’m not sure that the afterlife of many of these bunkers lies specifically in their acoustic properties. However, I would certainly agree that sound can be used to (temporarily) energise some of them. At 14,000 bunkers along the length of the Atlantik Wall, running from Southern France to Northern Norway, only a fraction can become curated tourism or performance venues. But perhaps that’s Sowers’ point. But taking notice of the aural dimension – and taking it upon ourselves to visit, explore and listen to these places, a passing-through ‘use’ is created by whoever chooses to explore them.

As Sowers’ notes, the vast majority of bunkers are engaged with incidentally, thus:

“A bunker is an odd collector of things: seaweed and shore plants, graffiti art, the detritus of bottles and trash you would expect to find in any abandoned shelter. Children play on bunkers while sunbathers seek respite from the heat in their shadow. This soundtrack captures bunker space as a landscape continuous with the beach, a concrete hole which gathers sand and beachcombers.”

With thanks to @fifepsy and @Origin010 for pointing me in the direction of Sowers’ article.

Richardson, E. (2009) ‘Cold war kid’ in The Guardian & Observer Guides to Secret Britain – Part 2, London. Further details of the film are at: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/cob_mist

Schofield, J. (2005) Combat Archaeology: material culture and modern conflict, Duckworth: London.

Sowers, N. (2011) ‘Soundscapes: Atlantikwall’, the Design Observer Group http://places.designobserver.com/feature/soundscapes-atlantikwall/26878/

Wilson, L.K. (2006) ‘Notes on A Record of Fear: On the threshold of the audible’, Leonardo Music Journal,16, pp. 28-33. Image and audio resources for A Record of Fear are available at: http://www.lkwilson.org/index.php?m=proj&id=26&sub=overview&prev=