Archived entries for psychogeography

something is happening

After nearly three years, it’s time for a new site. #psychogeography will remain the emphasis.

Previous posts will be in an Archive section.

In the meantime, check out the links page.

george georgiou – invisible: london

Not seen work this good for a long time. Just so brilliant.

building the Victoria Line

A rather amazing British Transport film of the Oxford Street canopy installation. You can see where they got the inspiration for Quatermass and the Pit

These were the days when major infrastructure was designed, built and managed by individuals who actually knew what they were doing – can you imagine what the 1960s chief engineer would have thought of Boris The Oaf and Mad Ken… love the way the media are so polite and respectful. And quite rightly.

And not one Hi-Vis jacket in sight – plenty smoking too… even underground (but then the blitz was a recent memory, so a little Woodbine or Capstan Navy Cut in awkward places was utterly nothing). I wish todays’ crowds who have to endure the underground in all its human crap-ness could appreciate the thought and ingenuity behind the system – and the respect given to those who overcame huge engineering challenges – now long forgotten.

From berg london

Ben Cooper interview

Ben Cooper is a prolific Scottish urbex and hinterland explorer who uses dramatic photography to record the hidden, the misplaced and the out-of-bounds. His images celebrate not just buildings and interiors, but also the people who built them, worked there.

Heritage/history documenting off-piste is often illicit, yet forms a sometimes moving record of the forgotten fortunes of people working within heavy manufacturing, transport, power, security and healthcare infrastructures – usually invisible to us, the take-it-for-granted consumer-citizen.

this sort of thing needs certain physical / personal skills, with many risks on-site – we’re not wanting to bore you with the obvious… but don’t try any of the following at home.

finnieston crane and squinty bridge, glasgow © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: Ben, you’ve become well-known in urbex circles for both the physical/technical audacity of your exploits and the quality of your photographs – what was it that first brought you to urbex?

BC: I got into it pretty much by accident – as a kid, like most kids, I liked exploring. Later, as a student, I briefly got interested in tracing the old rail lines of Glasgow on my bike. That really fizzled out until I got interested in photography and was running out of interesting places to photograph – I can’t remember if it was St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross or Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens Station [FZA - both classic west of scotland explores] that I went to first, but it was really just a new place to photograph. The interest in urbex itself came later.

There are a bunch of attractions. It’s still fun to just create good photographs, of things and places most people don’t get to see. It’s also satisfying to document locations that are disappearing – I love getting emails from former workers who have memories of what a place was like. Then there’s the fun of sneaking about, being a bit naughty and playing at being a ninja.

FZA: The Milk Crate Gang, from Glasgow, were one of the first organised groups that did post-industrial urbex in Scotland – how would you describe the community now?

BC: Coincidentally, my mother-in-law was a founding member of the Milk Crate Gang – I didn’t know this until after i got into urbex. In Scotland, the community is sadly quite fragmented – there aren’t really all that many of us who explore and publish, there are some more who explore alone or in small groups but don’t share with any wider community. I’m not sure why this is – there is, I think, some distrust amongst older explorers of new upstarts (like me) and there is also quite a bit of paranoia about explorers from elsewhere coming to “our” best places.

FZA: The community at 28DL is very tight-knit, for obvious reasons. Should Urbex remain secretive, or do you think there’s a case for it being more widely-recognised?

BC: Much of urbex has to remain secret for it to work – we rely on the owners of the places we explore not knowing or not caring that we get in. If there is publicity, especially negative publicity (and rarely is it otherwise) then the opportunities to explore close down. We are also in a reasonably good position legally at the moment. Explorers in other countries have to break the law to explore – we do not, and it would be a great pity if publicity led to the government taking more notice.

I don’t see any need for it to be more widely recognised – there are mostly negative outcomes from increased public awareness of urbex. There is actually a strong argument for not making any urbex public – having no public forums like 28DL, no public pictures on Flickr, nothing. Running completely under the radar makes quite a lot of sense – until you think about why we do this, and this is different for everyone. For me, it’s important to record and document places for others to see, both now and in the future.

So there has to be, for me, a balance between keeping secrets and making explorations public.

Urbex really doesn’t have one community, there are lots of overlapping groups – trust within the groups is very important, however. Trust that someone won’t publicise a place and get it locked down, trust that someone you tell about a great new place won’t go there and smash it up. We also have a duty to other people – I have had many useful tips from company employees, and more than once a friendly security guard has turned a blind eye or even given me an unofficial tour, and I don’t want to get anyone fired.

scottish & newcastle breweries, edinburgh © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: You do both urban and hinterland explores – which do you prefer?

BC: I like both. There’s something a bit Through-The-Looking-Glass about exploring in the city, being only a sign or a hoarding away from normal people, or being above the night-time streets watching people and police cars pass by below. However it’s also nice to go for a quiet, relaxed stroll somewhere where you don’t need to be so alert all the time.

FZA: What is your approach to being challenged on explores? And how do you prepare? (mapping, GPS, etc)

BC: Honesty is almost always the best policy. If I’m challenged by security, I explain that I’m just a nosy photographer, not there to steal anything – having a polite manner and photographic equipment helps with that. On some live sites, it’s possible to pretend to be there with permission – a fluorescent vest and a confident attitude will get you very far, sometimes.

I have a master list of prospective sites on Google Earth – that’s a great tool for locating places, and StreetView helps a lot. Then it depends on the site – some are do-able on a first visit, some need several visits at different times of the day or week to work out how to do them. On the largest sites – Bishopton, Ardeer, places like that – I use GPS mapping on my phone to find places I’ve pre-marked as interesting buildings to visit.

FZA: What’s been your scariest moment…

BC: I think probably something high up – climbing the [glasgow] Armadillo was a rush, even though I was using safety gear for most of the climb. It was just so exposed, with a long slide and a drop to certain death on every side, and with the worry of the police helicopter nearby.

But there have been plenty of times where I’ve done something which I wouldn’t want to have to repeat too many times – getting into Methil Power Station, with it’s climb up rotten rusty gantries, then a squeeze through a narrow window 20m over solid concrete would be a good example.

FZA: …and your most surprising moment.

BC: Finding something epic where I don’t expect it – going for a stroll in Bishopton and finding a massive explosives factory was pretty surprising. I stopped off on the way past to somewhere else, just for a quick look as I was there, and ended up spending three days exploring every corner of the massive site.

Then I got a visit from the police, which was surprising in a different way…

FZA: Name one place worldwide you’d like to explore.

BC: The Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral would be a pretty cool place to see – not on an official tour, of course, but getting into the parts no-one is meant to see.

FZA: The breakdown of the UK’s manufacturing base has opened up a new window on people’s past working lives for us. But what do you think urbex will focus on in years to come, chronicling our lifetimes?

BC: The UK’s manufacturing base is not dead yet – there’s still quite a few possibilities there. Sometime soon, there’s going to be a new generation of old power plants to explore – that’ll be fun, though the nuclear ones might be tricky. With the seeming short lifespan of many modern buildings, there should also be some old modern architecture to explore as well, and if Scotland becomes independent there will be a lot of redundant military sites to see!

FZA: Following on from this, urbex tends to focus on the remnants, the visible. I’ve always thought that council refuse dumps might provide an unexplored palimpsest into the past – what do you think a test bore into an old refuse landfill site might reveal? What would you like to find?

BC: Interesting, that’s a more high-tech way than the usual tip digging technique, using a shovel! The tips near old hospitals often have wonderful collections of old glassware and crockery. I’m not sure a normal landfill would have much I’d like to find, though. I’d like to find the stacks of shipyard plans and models that must have gone up in smoke when yards closed down, the working models of cranes and bridges that were lost, things like that.

FZA: On the photography side, we’re impressed by your lightingcamera work – what is your basic camera / flash / photoshop / panorama setup?

BC: There is nothing particularly special about my setup – I now use a full-frame camera, a Sony A900. I’ve always liked wide angle lenses for urbex photography, so I mostly use a Sigma 12-24mm, but I use a 50/1.4 prime quite often as well.

I very rarely use flash – really only in situations where light painting would be difficult or impossible, and then it’s just a flashgun mounted on the camera. Light painting with a selection of torches produces far better results in almost every situation, I’ve found.

I shoot in RAW, and post-processing is done in Lightroom, with Photomatix for HDR sometimes – I’m not a fan of overdone HDR, but there are situations where it’s useful to most accurately record a location.

For panoramas, I use a Nodal Ninja tripod head, fitted to my urbex tripod – a Manfrotto Modo tripod that I’ve hacked about to take a different head and other fittings. I use Hugin or Autopano Pro to stitch the images.

zaha hadid’s riverside museum, glasgow © Ben Cooper 2011

FZA: One last question – how did you get into Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Riverside museum, mid-construction? I’m a big fan of Hadid, so those images are amazing for me.

BC: The Riverside was remarkably simple the first couple of times – climb through a hole in the hoardings, then through one of the holes where a door or window hadn’t been fitted yet. The last time, it was a bit trickier but not much. Building sites can be surprisingly easy as the buildings aren’t completely finished, and with so many workers from different companies working on-site someone often forgets to lock every door! The images were embargoed on request by GCC so as not to spoil the surprise for visitors on opening day.

FZA: Many thanks Ben for taking time to share your experiences. The Milk Crate Gang lives on!

ben cooper : transient places website
ben cooper : explosive scotland book

London Sound Survey interview

Ian Rawes is the sound recordist and archivist behind one of the UK’s most significant soundmapping projects – London Sound Survey.

LSS explores London’s sound landscape – street, hinterland, rural; both human and natural – via map overlays, linking historical maps to the contemporary recordings. The site also lists references to sound in London literature; plus Ian’s blog, essential to anyone interested in ambient sound recording.

FromZtoA, with Jonathan Prior of 12 gates to the city, interview Ian on his approach and motives.


FZA: Ian – London’s ambient sounds – why?

IR: There were all sorts of things which drew me towards it, I can’t remember which came first. Curiosity about London’s history, and how the city was changing. Also, I started work some years ago at the British Library Sound Archive, helping to store and look after LPs, wax cylinders, tapes and so on. Many of the field recordings had been made by enthusiasts over the years, especially on tape and minidisc, and so it started to dawn on me that I could make recordings too.

The Archive took delivery of a job-lot of ten Tascam cassette decks and I came across one of the engineers putting them in a rack. He said: “These should do us for the next hundred years or so”.

Any archive has to plan for the long run as a matter of course, but it was thought-provoking to hear that goal stated in such a matter-of-fact way. I didn’t like the idea of my life adding nothing to the world beyond a few tons of rubbish in a landfill site, so I thought a documentary collection of London sounds might be more worthwhile, even if just one person comes across it years hence.

Brick Lane market traders’ cries by London Sound Survey

Coryton oil refinery sirens Essex by London Sound Survey

Pipistrelle bat sonar, Lewisham by London Sound Survey

So the site is done mainly for my own pleasure, but sometimes with that single future listener in mind too. I put in an application as a member of the public to the British Library’s Web Archive service, and they’re now archiving the site in a similar manner to how the Wayback Machine works. This makes the notion of the future listener less fanciful than before, but it’d be good to stick some of the recordings onto LP masters if I can ever afford to.

FZA: Recording the sound actions of voices in the city – touts, buskers, souvenir sellers – is a key part of what you and others are doing. Tell us about some of your experiences.

IR: At first I only thought of recording voices. Not snooping on private conversations, but recording people holding forth in public, broadcasting some sort of message or trying to get others to do something.

It’s easy to think of all sorts of examples and anyone will know where the nearest such sounds can be heard because they’re distinctive and attention-grabbing. Musicians, street preachers, market traders and the like…

The first proper recording I made was in 2008 of market traders’ cries at Petticoat Lane, which for a long time had been a big feature of the rag trade in London. There was plenty going on there that Sunday morning with a Christian mission singing at the top of the Lane and all kinds of traders’ cries and voices. I couldn’t wait to get home and listen to what had been recorded.

Chance often determines what sounds you’ll come across, and the best way to improve the odds is to roam far, and often. Once I encounterd an old man on the South Bank who would recite a poem from memory if you gave him some money. The batteries in the recorder had gone flat, and it was two years before I came across him again by accident, luckily while out on a walk to record something else.

One ‘sound act’ which has proved elusive is the speech given by beggars who work their way along tube or overground trains. Different beggars make the same speech, it’s a formula. It goes: “I’m really really sorry to bother you. I know you’re all tired and want to go home and the last thing you want to hear is someone like me asking for money. As you can see I’m homeless, and all I’m asking for is just a few coins so I can get a hostel bed and not sleep on the streets again like I did last night.”

One man who did this would work the trains in south London regularly, and after a while he added an innovation in the form of a marked stammer: “I nuh-nuh-nuuuuh-know you don’t want to huh-huh-hear this . . .” But he’s not been around for a while and you have to expect the worst, since street people don’t have very good life expectancies.

Pretty much anything that breaks the monotony of the modern-day street soundscape is to be welcomed. But the trend is away from open-air broadcast speech. People keep to themselves more and their voices are increasingly aimed at only those they know.

FZA: Like radio, soundscapes can be a powerful stimulus for the imagination. What do you think of sound artists like Susan Philipsz and Janet Cardiff?

IR: The London Sound Survey is maybe similar in outlook to website projects like Subterranea Britannica. Most of its influences come from stuff that interests me like biology, history, and literature. One of the sound-related sites which was most impressive was the Xeno Canto birdsong database, how it’s organised and set out. That too is run as a pastime by its founders and they’ve achieved a great deal.

There are some people in the sound art world who’ve been very helpful and supportive, in particular Felicity Ford of the Domestic Soundscape, Helen Frosi who runs the SoundFjord gallery, and the sound artist Mark Peter Wright. I should repay that by learning more about their own fields of practice.

FZA: I was intrigued by your recordings made at some distance from the city – like the Thames estuary at Allhallows Marshes. This is the natural, ageless sound of London as a location, stripped of its human element apart from the low rumble of traffic and aircraft. Are there any locations in the city itself which offer this sense of nature, minus us?

IR: No, there are none, and there can be hardly anywhere in Britain where the soundscape does not bear the signature of human activity. Not just present-day intrusions like airplanes and traffic, but right back to the clearing of the forests thousands of years ago.

Parts of London abut onto a hinterland where there was more going on in the past. There you find abandoned railway lines, disused quarries, tumbledown buildings and so on. The Estuary has a lot of ex-industrial land like that. It reminds me of parts of Lanarkshire, that sense of something vital and important having gone and what’s left being given over to the slow process of weathering [FZA - and the effects of pollution from the closed Ravenscraig steelmill, which "melted" many old sandstone headstones in the surrounding area].

It took some patience to make the recording in Allhallows Marshes because there was all sorts of irritating noise going on. There was a speedboat race being held on the Estuary, and as it was a Saturday there were light aircraft going overhead from airfields in Essex.

So marsh toads croak against a background of aircraft and boat engines. This is likely to be the future of nature in general. Few aspects of it will exist independently of us.

By the way, if you get into field recording you might find yourself turning into a noise puritan. I was really happy when the volcano in Iceland stopped all the flights.

JP: In what ways do you think that sound mapping can act as a communicative or educational tool?

IR: Obviously it has the most potential in those areas where there is already an interest in auditory phenomena and where meaningful geographical variation is to be expected. So sound maps can be informative for ethnomusicology, the study of animal communication, linguistics, and perhaps the study of radio or the recording industry. You’d expect their use in such fields to increase as the coding skills needed to make them work diminish or disappear. Then they’ll be taken for granted as a file access tool in much the same way as a thumbnail gallery is now.

As visual media becomes more immersive and addictive, a reaction against it might become more common in education, trying to remind children that they have senses other than vision which are also worth exploring beyond speech and familiar musical genres. Soundmaps might play a role in that, since they can be compiled in a collaborative way, and they don’t dispense with vision, but place it in a supporting rather than dominating role.

FZA: Your site has become a rich sound archive of London life – both from the past, via literature, but also contextualized to our googlemaps-now, through the historical maps overlay – as you say, “a background to the modern-day sounds of London” – it’s a great way of poking a hole into the past. Do you feel this sense of the past in the present when making recordings?

IR: There isn’t much continuity that really leaps out. I’d hoped the historical maps would highlight contrasts of the “this was all fields once” variety, under the assumption that people tend to be more interested in differences than similarities.

Historical accounts suggest that the city’s public sounds have become less varied. Life is lived less in the street, the traditions of public political oratory and rabble-rousing are almost extinct, the street markets have dwindled, hardly any industry is left, and a lot of spoken information has been centralised through pre-recorded announcements on buses and at train stations. Even songbirds aren’t kept as pets much nowaways and, perhaps vaguely related to this, the habit of whistling is on the way out too.

Some survivors are the cries used by the older street market traders and these haven’t changed much since Henry Mayhew jotted them down for his book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ in the mid-19th century. The traders are like a clan that hand down their traditions.

I sometimes get a sense of the past hearing church bells. They must be one of the most constant man-made sound features in London, as in many other cities. Even if you don’t know anything about bell-ringing you can make out the rhythms and this might bring to mind the thought of the generations before yours, the cycles of birth and death, those who made it to a good age and those who didn’t, and yourself as part of this living biological stream. It’s a feeling of local patriotism for your city.

A group of bell-ringers once told me they were into bell-ringing because they could make a lot of noise and get away with it.

FZA: I recently discovered Tilda Swinton reading over a soundscape by Max Richter that strongly evoked a moment spent in a particular place – in this case, Paris. Do you have any plans for collaborations with poets or musicians?

IR: I don’t have any such plans. I’m not against it in principle. But between running the site, making recordings, going to work and so on, there’s not much time left over. There is a new site section planned though, which is going to take a lot of research… I feel a little bit intimidated by it’s requirements to be honest.

FZA: One of my favourite books on London is London Perceived, by Victor Pritchett, with quite remarkable photographs by Evelyn Hofer. Both really get at the heart of the post-war city, but clearly only through their careful pre-study and knowledge/intuition of the city. How do you approach making new recordings? What are your disciplines? Are recordings planned or do you just follow your ears?

IR: Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door made good reading, so many thanks for recommending London Perceived. Pre-study and local knowledge are vital because good sounds can be hard to come by. Photographers have it much easier. Think what Robert Mapplethorpe got up to without even leaving his studio.

It does help to know your home town well, but there are still self-imposed limitations of territorial habit to overcome. Few people have the need to visit any more than a small fraction of a big city and over time you accommodate yourself to that, like a hermit crab fitting into its seashell.

I did a series of recordings based on the grid system used on the site, where London is divided up into 112 squares. The Ordnance Survey co-ordinates were looked up for the centre of each square, and I then spent a few months trying to get to those points to record whatever was going on. If you have an element of completism to your personality, then that’s maybe one approach to consider. Perhaps a more pleasant option is to follow the courses of rivers and canals, which I’ve started doing.

But eventually the easy options become thin on the ground, and that’s when you have to start sending out emails to get access to places.

JP: There have been a number of criticisms aimed at visual maps for the way that they are presented as impartial, objective representations of the world. Do you think there are similar dangers with sound mapping practices?

IR: The potential problems of bias in a soundmap are likely to have little to do with the mapping component. They’re more to do with the recordist’s own preferences, agenda and the limits to their resources. The same problems would arise if you had a simple list of recordings under a placename heading. They are different to those which arise from, say, the projection method used for a world atlas.

Anyone familiar with a particular place could potentially refute the claim that a sound recording was somehow representative of that place. Many people are aware of the principle of the representative sample. But how would someone unfamiliar with geometry work out that there must be other global projection methods besides that devised by Mercator, and that the apparent sizes of continents will look very different depending on the projection method?

Any collection of recordings will bear the hallmarks of the recordist’s limitations. But it is useful to distinguish between self-imposed limits, and ones that the recordist has little or no control over. There are some places and situations a man can visit unremarked that a woman can’t, and vice versa. The Caribbean barbershop near where I live seems to be much more of a social venue than any barber I ever visit, fitted out with sofas and a hifi. But I can’t just breeze in there, just as there are limits to where a black or Asian recordist might avoid being the centre of attention.

Objectivity lies on an ever-receding horizon. I think better progress can be made by aiming to be representative, since that can usually be quantified in some way. Also by providing good metadata to go with recordings, so that the details of who, what, where and when are made plain and open to criticism.

FZA: Would you say there was a recognisable “sound signature” to some areas of London?

IR: Some areas do have quite distinctive sound signatures for all sorts of reasons. First, members of different ethnic groups don’t live at random around the city, there is some tendency towards clustering. As well as the obvious examples of various accents and languages being spoken, you also hear different kinds of music playing from shops and from cars.

There is almost no street life in upper-class areas like Knightsbridge and Kensington, once you get off the main shopping streets. Residents there tend not to hang about outside their homes and they don’t seem like to leave their windows open. So you never hear any noise coming out of their houses.

During the week you will hear more building work going on in north London suburbs than in south London suburbs. North London householders probably tend to be wealthier so they’ve got more money to spend on loft conversions and having their gutters fixed, and the newer suburbs, they are less likely to be in conservation areas.

Ring-necked Parakeets are now spreading all over London, but they’re still heard most often in south-west London, where their first colonies began. They make loud squawking contact calls whilst in flight. Collared Doves make a distinctive sound too, and they came across the Channel in the 1950s. You hear them in some parts of south-east London near the Thames, including Erith and Slade Green.

Light aircraft you hear most often in far corners of north-west London, because of a couple of aerodromes out there, and around Biggin Hill at the borders of south-east London and Kent. West London is dominated by the noise of jets going to and from Heathrow. I met a blind man who can tell which runway they’re going to, just by listening to them.

So there are still all sorts of local sound signatures, even though you might guess the general trend in the sound environment to be one of increasing sameness.

FZA: Following on from this, how would you define your own London “sense of place”? What makes London London? Is it one thing, or is it more mosaic-like, adding up to something more than a single identity?

IR: It is more like mosaic, and surely no two people would pick the exact same mix of elements if asked what makes London London. What could very different areas like Hendon, or Chiswick, or Stratford have in common? Perhaps it’s the absence of any large-scale plan, and the city’s cosmopolitanism.

You get a clearer sense of the whole city and its demands when you approach it from outside. Driving towards London at night you can see the clouds above it lit a burnt-orange colour from the mass of streetlights. More delivery lorries start joining the motorway, pylons and railway lines all point to London. It’s like a magnetic pole oppressively drawing everything towards it, including you.

There’s a good line from Patrick Hamilton’s novel Hangover Square. “The wheels and track clicked out the familiar and unmistakable rhythm – the sly, gentle suggestive rhythm, unlike any of its others, of a train entering a major London terminus, and he was filled with unease and foreboding as he always was by this sound.”

FZA: Finally, how do you see London Sound Survey developing?

IR: I’d like to get better at field recording and be able to listen more carefully. The site is more like a book rather than an interactive Web 2.0 venture, and I see no reason to change that. More sections or chapters will likely be added as time goes by.

This year there will be the start of a new section, taking a long-term historical approach which will require the help of others. I don’t want to say much more for now. “Never propose anything until you’ve done it,” according to the Wellcome Trust’s founder, and that seems like good advice.

FZA + JP: Thank you Ian, looking forward very much to more from you.

composite image above sound samples : H. G. Wells The Time Machine – The Rings (MGM, 1960)

from Z to A is a scotland-based psychogeography and urban topography magazine featuring creative, critical, playful urban journeys

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