Some cryptic messages, or a found poem, on a shutter near the site. Click here for a full view.

found poem

found poem

Mapping the Site

A way to get to know the site. A feel for its dimensions. Noticing features (walls, gate). Starting to feel serious, working on the site. Taking the site seriously. Exploration and discovery. Mapping uncharted territory. Limitations imposed by equipment (short tape measure). Some parts are difficult to access due to plants. Questions of accuracy and detail. A rough plan but becoming more detailed. Measuring the minimum amount of different distances – pieced together dimensions, guessed right-angles, multiplication of error as measurements add up. Rough plan map has its own character. Subject to change, estimates, confusion.

Digging Test Excavations

Hope, thrill of searching. Disappointment when no record pieces found. But excitement at the same time. Self imposed methodology – keeping strict rules of labelling, measuring, choice of  excavation depth and location, but based on guesswork and mathematical superstition (second site must be 2m from first site. Again using rough right-angles). Intuition in testing surface. Rolling back turf is like opening a present. Again, a mixture of excitement and disappointment as spade hits rock or more burnt matter.

Hard physical work of digging and sieving every shovelful. Physical discomfort, fear of wasting my time, wasting my energy. Pushing my self to continue despite growing frustration. Overcompensating when finding anything vaguely interesting. Trying to keep up hope. Recognising beauty in semi-ordered pile of rubble next to sifted, sandy soil.

Digging to my self imposed rules, and the intense hope mixed with lack feels like a game I might have played as a child. I remember methodically grinding rocks in the back garden to make different coloured powders. A game taken very seriously. It really seemed to matter that I got enough of each colour. And frustration at a stone too hard to break. Slipping and crushing a finger between patio and rock. Playing very seriously with strict rules only known to me. Intense use of imagination to escape into a world of  work. I feel like I’m reconnecting with a younger me before the end of childhood and the onset of anxiety and the pressures of having to act like a grown up.

Finding bits of records

Initial excitement on (before) the first visit to the site. Finding bits of broken records and imagining their potential. Frustration at only finding small pieces and elation at finding bigger pieces in places I wasn’t expecting. Breaking the self-set rules of systematic recording, doing things in a certain order, sticking to set areas, with the elation of a new crop. This must be the temptation of a genuine archaeologist on making a discovery – rip it out of the ground, touch it and feel it, break off the dirt with two thumbs, look closely at the detail. Always imagining the potential in every piece. What sounds are there to be discovered? Why are these pieces here? Why are the fragments all broken up so much? Are there bigger pieces to be found deeper? Taking care with the pieces. Excited to try them out but cautious too, don’t want to do anything I can’t undo.

Last week on site I found a Nissan car radio buried in the top few centimetres of topsoil, as I was looking for pieces of broken records. Below are a couple of images I took today which I might or might not use as publicity shots.

rusty dug up radio

rusty dug up radio

Today I’ve been experimenting, trying out some ideas I’d already planned and playing with objects in the space.

First I tested out an idea based on the technique used in Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room, as also used by Jacob Kirkegaard in his recordings at Chernobyl. Basic idea was to record the environmental sound as through a rusty metal plate at the end of the garden, then play back that sound to resonate the plate and re-record the results. As with Lucier’s piece, resonant tones grow and multiply and the original sound is lost in translation. The image below shows the recording setup.

recording setup and resonator

The wind was particularly harsh today and, alongside the pathetically dim screen of my laptop, made the whole process pretty frustrating. Despite that, the final sound was satisfying, if a little harsh sounding.

Another idea I’d planned to carry out was to use a flatbed scanner to make an image of the inside wall of one of the test excavations I’d dug. It took a few minutes to widen the hole enough for the scanner to fit, and almost twenty minutes for the scan to complete  (A4 at 2400dpi). Unfortunately the scan didn’t come out,  but the photo below shows the setup.

scanning test excavation

I also experimented with placing some objects in different places on the site. The two photos below are my favourite. This is something I intend to explore further.

cymbals as sculptural objects

buried speaker

Finally, I also experimented with burying the above speaker in one of the test holes and playing a signal through it from a microphone.  Wedging the mic down the gap between the speaker cabinet and the inside wall of the hole gave some interesting feedback sounds, as did suspending it by its wire just on the threshold where feedback would occur (the wind blowing the mic to and fro like an automated version of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music). Unfortunately, the sudden onset of heavy rain stopped my experimenting, but below is an image of the fully buried speaker.

buried speaker with pendulum microphone

There’s a recording of the pesky rain here. I also had a frantic dig in the main excavation for a while but again, rain got the better of me and I chose the comfort of the pub. More experimenting tomorrow, plus the Lombard Method and British Racing Green opening in the evening.

Got quite a lot done today, but mostly experimenting so not much tangible to show. Still, although it meant running for shelter I got a nice recording of the rain from within the shelter of the shed.

Some images taken by Paul Newman of my process as I scour the site for pieces of broken shellac records.

excavation process image 01

excavation process image 02

The strings on the poles are really a safety feature to stop people falling down the holes. The trays I’m using are photographic darkroom trays, weighed down with bricks to stop them being blown away. The white tray, here, is for broken record pieces; the red tray for other miscellaneous bits and bobs. I also found a rusted old Nissan car stereo near this site, which will feature at some point in the work.

This week I bought a portable flatbed scanner with which to make some images on site. I’m planning to use it to scan the internal “walls” of some of the test excavations on site, to show up the bands of different types of soul, burnt matter, rust, coal, etc.

Below is a test image of some of the broken record pieces found on site last week. Click on the image for a closer view.

scanned image of broken record pieces (shellac) from the Rea Garden

Over the two days I was in Birmingham this week I met up with local artist Sarah Farmer of The Lombard Method who introduced me to, amongst other people, Jason Pinder of British Racing Green.

The Lombard Method is an organisation based in an amazing old industrial building in Digbeth. Run by the artists, the space boasts a large open plan studio and a workshop as well as two project spaces.  British Racing Green is a collective of artists based on-line but with its roots in Cardiff. BRG are currently on a residency at Lombard, working in collaboration with the artists there towards an opening/happening on Saturday.

Sarah works with sound so it was great to see her studio space and some of her work in progress. The image below is of some kind of mechanical sequencer in the space. She’s also done collaborative performances with members of the public making sound with a gramophone player.

Sarah Farmer - Mechanical Sequencer

Jason’s work is sculptural and uses found objects and commonly recognisable forms. Teacups, chairs and rope often feature in his work. In the project space he had installed a chair, held at an angle by rope tied to the wall with a hanging teacup on the end. Another work in progress, pictured below, involved standing crowbars painted blue. Again, great work, and really intersting talking to someone else on a residency in Birmingham.

Jason Pinder - Work in progress

This Thursday at the site I was concentrating on recording rather than digging (although, incidentally, I found loads of shellac pieces on the surface close to a test hole I’d already dug).

contact mics on metal plate

contact mic on metal plate

The two images above show contact mics on the metal plates used to board up the windows of the old building. I recorded the ambient sound of the site through two contact mics. The recordings are surprisingly clear, with even birdsong being picked up, but everything has a slight metallic decay and certain frequencies, such as passing cars, resonate the plate. The wind blowing the plates also comes through clearly.

I also experimented with another piece of galvanised steel to try and pick up the raindrops.

resonating metal plate with piezo transducer

resonating and recording metal plate

Next I used a contact mic as a resonator on the metal plate, by feeding a signal through an amp and a transformer.

contact mic on wood hit by leaves, also showing amp

The signal was of another contact mic on a piece of wood, which picked up the sounds of plants’ leaves hitting it as they blew in the wind.  While the resonator didn’t make sounds clearly audible by ear, as I’d hoped, the contact mics picked the sound up very clearly, again with the wind sound from the plate and the metallic plate-reverb feel.

In the morning I also bought a violin bow. I’d planned to try and get some sounds from the metal gate at the site entrance, though it didn’t seem resonant enough.  I did spend quite a long time playing the spades, shovels and a rake that I’d used for digging earlier, as well as a billy can and piece of galvanised metal which were around. The tones were generally quite grating, somewhat like a badly played violin and sometimes like guitar feedback. I did enjoy using the billy can – a rectangular aluminium saucepan – as I could get two tones simultaneously by playing the two opposite sides of the rectangle.

recording environmental sound from the bottom of a hole

The last two recordings I made were of the ambient sound of the site, first from the bottom of the first test excavation. The small space is acoustically dead-sounding, despite being only 50cm below ground level. For the last recording I attached contact mics to the corrugated ceiling of the shed at the back of the site. A warm sounding recording of raindrops and traffic noise.

Today in the studio I experimented with making sounds from some of the broken record pieces found on site. Initially I tried running the individual pieces over the stylus, but as the sections had only up to about 4cm of groove to play, the technique was limited. It was also difficult to keep the needle in the groove by hand.

Making a mosaic record

Next I  began to position the pieces on a blank ten inch record as a mosaic, then playing the record with the stylus held at a height where it would just touch the surface.

The recording here used this technique.