New uses for old bunkers #9: soundscapes for silent sentinels
June 11, 2012 Leave a comment
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=