City Audio Services: Arts Projects

Time and Tide: This was our first project with Kent artist Stephen Turner. He had devised a project to create some artworks through Millenium night. Stephen's focus (to quote one of his project websites) is on 'aspects of time and the dialectics of transience and permanence' so the dawn of the new Millenium offered him an opportunity. His work is also heavily based on natural 'found' materials and processes. So his plan was to create his work based around the tide in the Medway estuary. The project had three main elements. The first was his tide paintings, created naturally by the river on white canvases staked out on the river mud at low water. The second was a thirteen hour recording (low tide to low tide) through Millenium night. The third was the subsequent exhibition at the Chatham Dockyard church which combined his canvases with the recording and many hundreds of clay models produced by local schools.

Stephen approached us to undertake the recording and to provide the audio playback hardware to provide the soundscape for the exhibition at the Church.

This presented a problem: nothing I knew of could record a thirteen hour audio file in high quality 16 bit stereo. Worse was the fear that the power might fail - remember the Millenium Bug? In the event we wrote software for the RiscPC and built some low noise mic pre-amps which directly fed the samplers. In the event we recorded two tracks, one in stereo, the other in binaural stereo. And the whole lot was battery powered.

There was no rehearsal of course and the biggest risk was that I could not possibly guess the level of sound we'd get during the night. I could have altered the volume as we went but the intention was, so far as would be possible, to make no changes to anything so that the recording would be as true as possible. Happily in the event it all went to plan. It was a cold night, but very successful.

For the exhibition we rigged up speakers around the church. The whole system worked beautifully, so much so that many visitors did not realise the sound was a recording: it sounded as it should, a natural backdrop for the art. We did also provide a CD of tracks visitors could select from and listen to the different soundscapes at hourly intervals on headphones: the difference between the almost absolute calm of the millenium dawn and the fireworks and ships horns at midnight just a few hours earlier was truly dramatic.

Sadly there is no web site for this project. But perhaps I'll assemble some pictures and add a few of them here in due course.

Grotta: Another, but much simpler, Stephen Turner exhibition, Stephen created a 'Grotta' a traditional cone of oyster shells, for Whitstable Art Gallery. The project celebrated the cairns of shells that have long been a tradition in Whitstable where the shellfish have been so important to the fishing industry. For this project CAS mixed recordings Stephen had made at local schools of children whispering their own Grotta poems. The playback system used a speaker embedded into Stephen's artwork with a computer randomly selecting and playing back the poems. The effect Stephen achieved was enchanting.

The Turner Gallery: Another Stephen Turner shell project to mark the opening of The Turner Gallery (not named after Stephen but his more famous namesake JMW Turner who had strong links with the town) This time his shell sculpture was comprised of mussell shells. The brief for us was a little more tricky: to record snapshots of sound from microphones fixed at half tide position, the result being that the sounds changed with time from being above water to below and back again. We built a pair of waterproofed microphones into a steel wire frame (to protect them from direct contact with flotsam) and attached it to a steel ladder on the side of Margate's jetty. Another cold night was spent recording five minute segments every hour, plus keeping an ear open for particular events, for example the sounds as the microphones were partially submerged and, as luck would have it, as a small fishing boat departed and later returned.

On this occasion playback was simpler, the sections were merged into a single track and playback was on a simple looped CD.

The Red Telephone Box: This was fun. Another local artist had spent some years developing her art around the Red Telephone Box, a sight largely now gone from our streets. She wanted a selection of tracks, montaged backgrounds incorporating city and country sounds with sections of old telephone sounds, not only the sounds of the old telephones, but also recordings made of telephone operators in action. The artist had also found some recordings of Post Office staff providing training on how to use the old phones.

For the exhibition we provided half a dozen computers, each connected to its own trigger and speaker. The result was that as visitors moved around and explored the exhibits, their movements would trigger the relevant audio file to complement the installation.

Sea Forts: Stephen excelled himself with this one! We didn't do any audio on this project but we were commisioned to provide the technical expertise. The idea was for Stephen to maroon himself on a WWII Maunsell Sea Fort and stay there alone for weeks. These forts were the forerunners of today's oil rigs and look rather similar - except smaller, older and a tad less safe. To cut a long story short a support team set him up on the fort and left, our contribution being the power system (wind generator, batteries and a petrol generator for backup) and an Apple MacBook set up with a GPRS modem and directional aerial so that Stephen could send data back to his web site despite being twenty plus miles off shore. If you want to learn more, have a look at his SeaFort web site.

Moon View: To see what Stephen was up to on this one go to his Moon View site. To be honest we didn't do much - just helping out with getting the cameras working properly.

Gaps Between: For the moment, as observed elsewhere, this project for a Kent based Arts Collective is a little mired in red tape. (There's no problem with the art or the hardware, the problem is finding the place to exhibit it!) As and when anything actually happens I'll post it here.