A Record of Fear (2005) interrupts once-secret transmission activities and destructive technologies at a military testing site located off the remote Suffolk Coast, East of England. What is revealed is a complex landscape of quiet cacophony, ruin and beauty where Orford Ness structures previously hushed its inner workings. Now these buildings are returned to nature, the National Trust’s policy of ‘continued ruination,’ situated across from a town whose residents could only speculate about the site’s activities. Like a desert or island, destructive potential churned at a distance.
I became interested in using sound, or perhaps rather in privileging the use of sound in artworks because of its ability to unsettle, to make strange, to ‘disarrange’…
Wilson engaged numerous listening processes onsite at Orford Ness. She collected sounds of the buildings, many of which have been taken over by migratory birds and other wildlife.The viewing gallery of the Black Beacon building was the location for manipulated sound recordings. Visitors were invited to listen carefully to what is already there as well as what is generally inaudible to the human ear.
An array of contact mics, hydrophones, ultrasonic recorders and regular microphones captured the subtle ambient sounds of the site. Hardware allowed the artist to ‘touch’ the sound and bring it subtly forth to waiting ears. Crackly sonics; expansive reverberance; skies filled thick with bird song; a quiet musicality of architectural hums; startled screeches of mammals; human footfalls amidst the ruined, crumbling constructions meld into an odd ‘record’ of sorts. Our imaginations soar above and through this sound. More than blissful daydreaming or attempts to identify the exactness of a sound, a stark meditating experience occurs.
Ideas are sometimes generated by chance encounters, by brief conversations. Orford Ness is a very uncanny place.
Calling this work “a record” implies documentation of the space and activities within it, such that an understanding of the Cold War would evolve. There isn’t a narrative structure to Wilson’s artistic practice so much as a sense of conspicuous sound and an ever-evolving site; intrusion and chance are its documentation. When sound montage occurs, it blurs reality. Wilson has said that the wind animates, producing noises like oddly tuned musical or percussive instruments and symphonic voices. It’s a soundtrack to a landscape that encourages just standing and staring and listening.
Composer David Toop has written beautifully about the uncanny nature of sound (in Sinister Resonance), about its intangible nature: “ … a phenomenal presence in the head, at its point of source and all around, so never entirely distinct from auditory hallucinations …” Orford Ness is a perfect location to consider this notion.
The Exmoor Choir were invited to perform madrigals in some of the remaining military buildings including the centrifuge pit. The human presence—and these particular emotional and era-based songs—countered the stark interiors and their previous inhabitants.
Slowly sung song seems to mourn the passing of a golden age. Lines from the madrigals eerily resonate with atomic winter and an imperiled planet: “Behold, the sun hath shut his golden eye, the day is spent” conjures the light of a thousand suns followed by nuclear winter: “…all hopes do faint, and life is failing.”
Of the numerous tracks that comprised an accompanying CD to Wilson’s book, A Record of Fear,, the final one offers a mix of recordings of the working centrifuge and was temporarily installed in Lab 2 for one day only. It provides a stark, machinic opposition to the madrigal singers with its heartbeat-like pulsations jamming the ear, speeding, then slowly fading towards finitude, towards a secret and beautiful ruination.
It’s a noisy place (animated by the wind and circulating mythologies). The project then was a response to this, really a cumulative set of experiments. Ideas were built up from small nuggets—like hearing that the centrifuge once used there was still in use …
Wilson acknowledges Orford Ness’s Cold War history is not a comfortable one, and so it shouldn’t be made to be a comfortable place. It isn’t a place in stasis either. The buildings and activities had much to do with broadcasting and eavesdropping. Wilson’s ‘listening’ uncovers a still-powerful sonic ambience, but also a serendipity: “I happened to be in one of the ruinated pagodas and heard the sound of a doomed bird trapped in a ventilation duct … listening to binaural recordings made a day previously in the company of an archaeologist while looking from afar at the empty building where the conversation took place.”
There is a disturbing intimacy in listening to something through headphones that is not matched by looking through a viewfinder. Tiny events and processes can become monstrous in the way they are recorded. Ideally, I have to feel a bit frightened by this.