15 Sep 2012

'after bexley' in f&ss performance series, The Physics Room, Christchurch

the audio recordings comprising After Bexley were captured by Reuben Derrick and Sally Ann McIntyre on two field trips into Bexley on 11.9.2012 and 13.9.2012, and re-sited within a small-radius programme transmitted at the Physics Room’s gallery spaces within the same week, on 15.9.2012. They can be seen as a response to the idea of silence, itself co-opted as memorial a mere week after the earthquake event of 12.51pm, 22.2.2011. As Prime Minister John Key put it at the time, “two minutes as a sign of unity for the people of Canterbury who are enduring a tragedy beyond what most of us can imagine." (The New Zealand Herald, 27/2/2011) 


“Thus, too, the sites of many villages and towns that anciently existed along the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by the water and the mud it brought with it. The sedges and reeds that arose completed the work and left nothing visible, so that the mighty buildings of olden days were by these means utterly buried.”
 -Richard Jefferies, After London, Wild England, 1880
“No-one seems to be cleaning up the silt in Seabreeze Close any more. The grey slop that burst through roads, lawns and homes has redefined the landscape of the Bexley cul-de-sac, obscuring driveways in dusty mounds and piling up in the corners of abandoned living rooms. Nature is already reclaiming this street, where all but four houses have been abandoned.
– ‘Seabreeze Close going back to Nature’, The Christchurch Press, 17/2/2012

Different nations commemorate differently, reflecting contestations over the meaning and significance of traumatic events. As an indicator of the way new Zealand understands public grief, there were many striking things about this truncated memorial silence, aligned here with ‘the unimaginable’, one being how the radio represented it : in Auckland at the time, I recorded various stations, on one ‘the silence’ was represented as birdsong, on another, prayer. A year later, on the anniversary, there was even bagpipes. Dead Air, it seemed, was not allowed. People had to know the radio was on. 
In his 1987 essay ‘Radical Radio’[3], R. Murray Schafer wrote speculatively of a project he called ‘wilderness radio’ which would, as he put it, “put microphones in remote locations uninhabited by humans and broadcast whatever might be happening out there: the sounds of wind and rain, the cries of birds and animals – the uneventful events of the natural soundscape transmitted without editing into the hearts of cities.”  

But just as our concept of ‘nature’ has gravitated toward a forced questioning of the notion of the inherent stability of ecosystems, and the questioning of the very existence of ‘remote locations uninhabited by humans’, within the current global media environment, the afterlife of modernist communicative structures, such as the medium of radio, can no longer realistically include this kind of centre-periphery model of distributed listening, in which home becomes the receptacle for an aural appreciation of the untouched wilderness, the bucolic comforts of situating “what is happening out there” as entertainment within a zone of domestic restfulness. If, through its own lack of centrality, burgeoning obsolescence and displacement as popular entertainment medium by the internet, its own sounds being numbered among the endangered audible worlds a classical acoustic ecologist might wish to preserve, Radio has largely been left in a commercial wasteland, ripe for marginal activity, and reinvention.
Might we shift the idea of nature being passively received on the radio by listeners, this centre-periphery model of broadcast, toward rendering these listeners active receivers within a sonic locality? Such an approach can be seen in the work of Tetsuo Kogawa, who has since the 1980s developed the concepts of narrowcasting and micro-casting to describe a more nomadic, embodied radio : “Our body has no ‘home’ (substance) but is interwoven with rooms, tools, city… Our body is no longer the centre of the world but it could be a pressure point. And every point has its own singularity”. 

Radio Cegeste is a micro-radio project station built in a workshop with Kogawa in 2006, and its series of programmes has been developed and performed in bounded spaces, from urban shopping malls, to gardens, to biosecure ecosanctuaries, critically engaging with small radius transmission as a form which, as one commentator put it, “takes field recording back to the field”, localising the transmission, and recognising radio as a medium which, while no longer centralised, can see artistic and critical potential in an analysis of place-based specificity, and allowing its environment to ‘speak back’ as receiver.
‘After Christchurch’, this project could have been called, but perhaps ‘Christchurch’ is a term that is not currently usable. For all the talk about heritage, some places haven’t survived long enough to have a memory. Take Bexley, for example, or specifically the subdivision made up of Seabreeze Close, Waireka Lane and Kokopu Lane, which contains around 60 homes, built over the last 5-10 years on land reclaimed from the nearby wetlands. Going out to this ‘forgotten’ locale, the city seems atomised, in process of becoming something else, the rupture of the events of 2011-2012 meaning also a destabilisation of the notion of ‘home’ as the place where events do not occur. 
After Bexley? when does it end, that identity? The event of its ending is historical. But a kind of listening, in which there is perhaps very few human ears present, stays after it. It sounds like silence, but it has no boundaries. The distant rumble of cars along the motorway, not a constant drone, frames it, as do the sounds of honking waterbirds in the wetlands behind. Closer in, we initially see an interiority has gone, the houses emptied out, thin, almost on the verge of non-existence. In some, the outside has come inside, whole ecosystems flourishing in living rooms, bathrooms drowned by silt. Some have already been erased, the fragmented pottery shards and wilding garden vegetables which mark the cleared sections with traces like instant archaeological digs, the atomisation of the built environment, still resolutely hanging on to visibility. But as the wind and the rain occupy structures no longer perfectly square, these become Aeolian shells for wind, structures of amplification, like musical instruments, containing and framing the sounds which are those that will still be here, once the houses are gone. It is as though the houses themselves have become a process. Through animal alarm sounds, territorial markers, the presence of the recordists themselves wandering through the area is noted. Like car alarms in the city.

Transmitting these sounds back into the city, we hear them not as silences but through the understanding that this is the sound of “a specific present - that is, a sound chamber for the resonances of an event of thinking,” (Ranciere). Bexley takes its place, its non-place, in the movements of air. Here we can hear Christchurch anew, the re-staging of a moment of this city’s current life as something like nothingness. What is at stake here? The momentary articulation of an emptiness, a volume of silences, where the cancellation of “the everyday” allows for a listening more aligned with the experience of wandering, of drift, through the abandoned spaces themselves. The gap widens, through what must seem for the residents of such spaces an eternity of indecision and waiting – the houses are sinking, the wetlands, drained, are reasserting themselves. But there are signs in windows : “we are still living here”.

 After Bexley is not ‘information radio’ or ‘message radio’, but something analogous to what we still think of as ‘silence’. It is the sound of what is there, now the map has been inverted, the wilderness has come into the house. It is the experience of the non-spectacular, as the silence bursts its banks, its framing in a two minute memorial. The site specificity of playback of the ‘silences’ in question opens up one area of the city’s built environment into another. But this in itself is not a channeling of a periphery to a centre, more a sharing of specificities, non-monumental moments. We use the radio already used as part of another aspect this project, we look for linkages and accumulations, we situate this temporary, shifting soundscape within an ephemeral, fleeting context. The Physics Room is now itself de-centralised, however temporarily, itself active within a more provisional site. But then, with the whole idea of a centre in flux right now, and with mobile projects perhaps being more appropriate critical responses, perhaps we have a chance to listen more closely to something, in this gap.
Sally Ann McIntyre, 15.9.2012

1. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/christchurch-earthquake-2011/12-51/our-people/6414258/Sticking-it-out-in-Seabreeze-Close
2. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10709086
3. R.Murray Schafer: "Radical Radio" in: Festival for a New Radio, 1987, New York.