Roadside Picnics - Disinformation and Sound Mirrors

Joe Banks & Caroline Grigson

The following text was written in 1997, but did not appear in print until it featured under the title "Antiphony Architectural Supplement" on pages 57-64 of issue 6 of Sound Projector - an experimental noise magazine published in 1999 (Sound Projector is still going strong, but issue 6 is no longer available). The "Antiphony Architectural Supplement" was published to document and explore ideas suggested by the imagery of the Disinformation "Antiphony" double CD and "Antiphony Video Supplement" (later retitled "Blackout") - both created in 1997, which featured images by photographer Julian Hills and film-maker Barry Hale of air defence Sound Mirrors found at various sites on the UK coast. Julian's pictures were in fact taken in January 1996, and it would be an understatement to say that these projects have since proven highly influential. The sense of this comment will become clear later, but, on a point of detail, readers should rest assured that this author is not naive about the political symbolism of this article's other subject - Dani Karavan's "Andarta Memorial", nor indeed about the political symbolism of the Sound Mirrors themselves. In a chance encounter at a London noise gig in late 2000, Dani's daughter suggested that (as postulated in this article) the word "Andarta" does indeed translate as (roughly) "memory". This article is also reproduced here as a document of not one, but in fact of two literal roadside picnics...

"There is no war without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification. Weapons are tools not just of destruction, but also of perception - that is to say, stimulants that make themselves felt through chemical, neurological processes in the sense organs and the central nervous system, affecting even the perceptual identification and differentiation of objects " Paul Virilio "War and Cinema"

Audience responses to low frequency sound-installations and performances suggest that many people instinctively associate booming, droning, roaring and rumbling sounds with dreams and also with war. Apparently Goethe believed true poetry lies not in the provision of authentically new experiences, but in stimulating the recollection of memories which would otherwise remain forgotten. There are few more poignant surprises than to be prompted to recover people, moments or sense-memories from the depths of the distant past. Hyperacuity in darkness (hyper-sensitivity of hearing, similar to the well-known audiological effects of blindness), the tendency of damp night air to absorb high frequencies and favour the long-distance propagation of low frequency sounds, and dramatic reductions in the masking effects of ambient noise at night all conspire to implant abyssal bass and infrasounds deep into subconscious memories of hypnagogic states and dreams.

I have always been fascinated by very deep sounds - perhaps because during childhood I often drifted-off to sleep to a hypnotic soundtrack composed by the propellers of Hercules transporter planes circling the aerodrome at RAF Lyneham, the aeronautical goods depot of the MOD - formative sense-memories encoded by the restless nocturnal traffic of constant preparedness for war.

In London, in the early 70s, now and then the night's sky still resonated with the deep wail of fog-horns aboard the last few merchantmen working the river Thames. In later life the sheer face of the cliff above Brighton station deflected sound upwards, with the effect that when living just back from the cliff-edge the to-and-fro of mail-wagons in the small-hours was often felt rather than heard, oscillations rumbling-up through the ground itself, into the foundations of the house, gently rocking the hillside, resonating the walls of my room. It was both in and as a tribute to this atmosphere that the Low Level Urban Funk Campaign's "Before the Parachute Opens" and "Ghost Limbs" were 'composed' for a broadcast on local radio "thousands of tiny sense-memories sprinkled on a dark lake of rising sound". A live version of "Ghost Limbs" (a track subsequently released as "Untitled" by "Anonymous" on disk 2 of Disinformation's "Antiphony" remix CD set) was described by a member of its audience as "like walking into a dream".

Similarly, but at a very much deeper level of encoding, real danger triggers the so-called fight-or-flight reflexes which place the autonomic nervous system on full-alert, flooding the body with adrenaline, hypersensitizing the senses, and dramatically extending subjective perceptions of time. As Barry Convex says in David Cronenberg's classic "Videodrome", "something to do with the effects of exposure to violence on the nervous system opens up receptors in the brain and the spine". During the WW2 nocturnal Blackout procedures were tantamount to a policy of compulsory mass hyperacusis. Venturing outdoors at night, particularly the urban population, already hypersensitized by fear, found their hearing heightened still further by immersion in levels of darkness which were unprecedented since the introduction of street-lighting.

The basic hypothesis here is that the experience of defensively listening, consciously and unconsciously, for the dull-thud of explosions, the whistle of rockets and bombs and the roar of planes is the mechanism by which such autonomic states encode, at a fundamental neurological level, as conditioned, reflexive responses to ambient low frequency sounds. These high states of arousal are necessarily those in which individuals are most receptive to sense-data. These responses are also culturally transmissible - primarily through the medium of cinema. It is worth noting that extreme sensitivity to sound (of the exact sort idealised by the composer John Cage) is not only a state of heightened ¾sthetic awareness, but also a recognised medical condition, often associated with debilitating phonophobia and the onset of conditioned tinnitus - and during the war advertisements in Picture Post magazine suggest there was a roaring trade in sedatives, not only for people but also for household pets.

In the light of this hypothesis it seems natural that sound should be an ideal medium for abstract representations of war - so it is not surprising that some of its greatest sculptural representations rely heavily on the effects of sound. My interest in these sculptures originally stemmed from recognising the cultural primacy of visual images over intellectual concepts ("people eat with their eyes", "a picture speaks 1,000 words") and therefore the commercial necessity and challenge of finding visual analogues which could encapsulate and advertise the Disinformation brand-name noise repertoire.

The solution was provided by an article by W. Harms in Shortwave Magazine, which described a series of massive concrete monoliths which still stand, slowly crumbling into waste-land at a site near Dungeness in Kent. These structures, built in the 1920s and 1930s, formed a primitive experimental early-warning system - several elegant, but extremely austere concave shapes designed to allow the precise triangulation of directional-fixes on the distant sounds of incoming enemy Zeppelins, aircraft and ships.

These shapes rise up out of the Kentish shingle like the strange ceremonial relics of a dead civilisation or unknown tribal culture (and if you consider military R&D as an anthropological entity as well as a purely technical enterprise, then perhaps this interpretation is not as wild as it seems). Appearing alongside a picture of the abandoned Church of St. Giles in the village of Imber (the ghost-town on the tank-ranges of Salisbury Plain) and digital artwork representing the anthropomorphic slang of the RAF, the sound mirrors provided photographer Julian Hills with his Disinformation 'remix' for "Antiphony".

Extensive literature and archive research has so far uncovered a total of seventeen mirrors, sixteen on the Kent and Yorkshire coasts, and one at a site in Malta (which, according to Casemate magazine, is "approached through a slurry of cow muck and dead chickens"). Ten of these can still be visited today, one is buried, two have collapsed, while there are four more mirrors whose status remains, from my point of view, unknown. Architecturally many of the sound mirrors look as though they could have been designed yesterday, and it is on close inspection that they their true state of distress is revealed. It is hard not be impressed by this geometry - the striking contrasts between elegant, concave parabolas and their rough textures, their impressive solidity and substantial physical forms.

Everybody loves a ruin, and, viewing obsolete military architecture from the vantage point of the close of this brutal century, the long-term structural shortcomings of reinforced concrete have manufactured relics which resonate across a timescale that tangibly connects to people's lives. The anthropomorphic connotations of such structures make them appropriate physical counterparts for a repertoire of noise... ears sculpted in uncompromising concrete and steel. War itself expresses mankind's darkest spiritual aspirations, and, as a sculptural genre, the technological products of military R&D represent their reflexive artistic expression.

Today much contemporary architecture monumentalises little more than sad, but perhaps historically inevitable victories of style over content, in strict conformity with the needs of the broader marketplace. Empty mental space is parodied in the pale, fashionable, acoustically harsh concrete of uncomfortable designer bars, clubs and restaurants - architecture designed to look good and sound awful, disregarding millennia of accumulated acoustics expertise. In marked contrast these desolate sites resonate with the fears of close ancestors - looking out over the sea, in dread anticipation of the innovative unknowns of an apocalypse of air bombardment, which, at the time of their construction, was the latest technical atrocity in the pandemic mechanisation of violence to haunt the public imagination.

Approaching the largest mirror site is like walking into a scene from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" - a sensation amplified by the barbed-wire, the apparently ubiquitous dead animals, and the ominous presence of the nuclear power station nearby. Sadly most of the Kentish mirrors have fallen prey to vandalism and neglect. Plans to extend the UK sound-mirror network and build similar chains for defending the colonies of Aden, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malta and Singapore were shelved in 1939 when the mirrors were rendered obsolete by Robert Watson-Watt's superior radio-detection-and-ranging programme, Radar. Nonetheless their architects - the (so far) mysterious Professor Mather, the RAF Air Defence Experimental Establishment, and in particular its Commander W.S. Tucker have bequeathed an important legacy to modern sculpture - a potent vernacular Futurism.

Both in terms of physical and psychological presence the mirrors surpass virtually everything with which they can be compared. They easily compete with sculptures by ADEE contemporaries such as Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein, and anticipate works by Anish Kapoor and Dani Karavan by decades. However where Karavan's work, as we will see in a moment, suggests he has a real interest in the creative possibilities of architectural acoustics, in contrast when I tried to listen to Anish Kapoor's parabolas I was nearly thrown out of the gallery in which he was exhibiting.

Writing in a recent English Heritage report John Schofield noted that military arch¾ology (the emergent field pioneered by the philosopher Paul Virilio, the avant-garde caving organisation Subterranea Britannica, the Fortress Study Group, the Centre for the Conservation of Defence Electronics and the Defence of Britain Project) is often more popular among the general public than it is among professional arch¾ologists. Apparently the observation that 20th century military structures "look black and white, even in colour" is representative of professional opinion. However it seems that English Heritage are nonetheless responding enthusiastically to the urgent challenge of their preservation, prompted both by increasing public enthusiasm and the accelerating decay and demolition of important historical sites.

"So the people shouted when the priests blew the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword." Joshua 6, v. 20-21.

Returning to a theme touched-on earlier in this article, the initial mirror visit immediately sparked the vivid recollection of a childhood experience in the Negev Desert in Israel. Many years ago my family went on an excursion to the Andarta Memorial, an extraordinary complex of concrete sculptures also known as the Monument to the Palmach Negev Brigades. Caroline Grigson's photographs of this site make up the introductory page of this supplement. This visit left a deep impression, and this recollection prompted some research into this striking architectural project.

This cluster of sculptures was designed by the artist Dani Karavan and completed in 1968, and nothing I have ever seen literalises Friedrich Schelling's concept of architecture as "frozen music" more completely or coherently. Looking at the largest, best-known mirror site made the Israeli monument appear as the explicit expression of an artistic impulse sublimated in the English designs. The tactical purpose of the UK sound mirrors, which were designed as an early-warning system to enable the RAF to glimpse a few minutes into the future, vindicates the choice of acoustics as a medium for symbolising memories. Dani Karavan's work was designed to offer its visitors a glimpse into Israel's past - and does so using a complex system to symbolise military action by the Palmach (striking brigades) in taking the town of Be'ersheba from the Egyptian army during the war of independence in 1948, and as a memorial to the soldiers who died.

The echo inside the monument's dome, the bird-song echoing inside the tower, the wail of stylised bullet-holes in the dome and tower singing in the arid wind, and footsteps appearing to change pitch in the passage in front of the dome are all sounds produced or modified passively by the structures themselves. These 'walls of sound' seem to recall potent symbols of Jewish culture. Jerusalem's Wailing Wall (or Western Wall), that vast remnant of the great temple of King David, divides the sacred sites of Judaism and Islam by inches (and it has recently been revealed that behind the wall is a network of passages which are alleged to contain the site of Creation itself). Readers may recall the Biblical story of the battle of Jericho, when the blast of trumpets brought the walls of the besieged city crashing down. Similarly, interpreting the acoustics of the monument's dome, as implied earlier it can be said that under certain circumstances the words "echo" and "memory" are interchangeable.

The memorial features symbolic representations of a stronghold, based on a complex of battlefield trenches; a Palmach tent; a well, an aqueduct, and an Acacia tree (presumably representing the irrigation and successful cultivation of the desert by Jewish settlers); the passage which aligns with the slot of the aqueduct; the dome of the memorial candle; the courtyard of the dome; an underground shelter; the wall of the reconnaissance fighters; a bird (meaning unknown); the tower, representing the watch-towers and water towers common in the early Zionist settlements; and a snake, cut into slices to symbolise the defeated enemy; a memorial garden; excerpts from the war diaries of the Palmach and poems by Chaim Goori and Nathan Shakkan impressed into concrete walls; and the "square of operations" in which maps of the battle are drawn into concrete sheets.

Barry Hale's Sound Mirror video has been shown at NTT ICC (Tokyo), The Royal College of Art (London), Galerie fur Zeitgenossische Kunst (Leipzig), The Art House (London), on board MS Stubnitz (berthed in Stockholm), Schirn Kunsthalle (Frankfurt), The Vox (Chemnitz), the now closed 121 Centre (London) and David Land Arts Centre (Brighton), in the Underground Nuclear Warfare Command Centre (Anstruther), The Dom (Moscow), and exhibited at The ICA (London), CCCB (Barcelona), The Mac (Birmingham), Now 1999 (Nottingham), Waygood Gallery (Newcastle), Quay Arts (Isle of Wight), Wrexham Arts Centre, South Hill Park (Bracknell), Saltburn Artists Projects, Q Gallery (Derby), Study Gallery of Modern Art (Poole), Event Gallery (London), Ginza Art Lab (Tokyo) and The Latvian National Museum of Art (Riga).

Further documentation of the Disinformation Sound Mirrors projects appears notably in The Hayward Gallery's "Sonic Boom" catalogue, pp. 26-29, 2000; in the "Sound Art - Sound as Media" catalogue, pp. 70-73, NTT ICC Tokyo 2000; in "The Analysis of Beauty" touring exhibition catalogue 2003; and the "Waves" catalogue, pp. 48-49, Latvian National Museum of Art, 2006; and in "Listening for the Enemy" by Brian Dillon, pp. 68-71, "Cabinet" 12, New York 2003.