putting sound into site

nigel helyer: no longer empty on the road, liverpool biennial

Never records, Ted Riederer

Never records, Ted Riederer

Never records, Ted Riederer


I knew I was getting close, somewhere on a cobbled side street just off the Rope Walks, in Liverpool’s manic club zone. I finally stumbled into a doorway with the correct address, but no, just a very funky record store, with a bunch of feral dudes setting up piles of well worn equipment. “Some kind of sound art show around here?” I ventured, “Sorry pal, maybe over the street like.” It looked interesting though, so I hung around a bit; there was even a record cutting lathe in there and heaps of old vinyl—but I was on a mission, my cultural stamina flagging and pressed for time, so across the cobbles I went.

The light switched on only a day or so later while I was discussing the Biennial with Asher Remy-Toledo the curator of No Longer Empty on the Road. I realised the funky record store was indeed an art project, but so convincing a simulation that even the roadies were duped!

Ted Riederer recreated his Never Records project which had made its debut in January 2010 in the old and abandoned Tower Records store in New York City. Riederer’s angle was to propose the record store as a site of social exchange and cultural production, part shop, part archive and part recording studio (hence the roadies with all that gear). During the Biennial, Never Records worked directly with the community, running performance and recording sessions and cutting and publishing vinyl—the local musos were very impressed!

No Longer Empty (www.nolongerempty.org) is a relative newcomer to the New York cultural scene but has already been astonishingly prolific. NLE is a volunteer-run program that takes over empty buildings and public sites, transforming them with temporary site-specific installations and events, often with little or no financial support. Not some flakey, mural painting hobby group, it is structured around professional museum curatorial practices, but is also plugged into the grass roots of artistic production in NYC and offers a platform for young arts professionals to volunteer their services in curatorial, management and PR roles. Asher Remy-Toledo, the co-founder and co-director of NLE, has recently branched out with an international version, NLE on the Road, with the first incarnation at Liverpool (so watch this space).

Okay, just across that cobbled street is a large semi-industrial building, either half-finished or half-demolished, another of those grand architectural projects that ran out of cash, another still-born investment. But just because it didn’t make it as a suite of IT or architects’ offices doesn’t mean it can’t resurrect as a great venue for sound art! Normally contemporary architecture makes a vile context for the sonic arts but this structure is so unfinished and labyrinthine that the 10 audio projects survive without too much cross-talk.

I head for the basement where traces of harmonic pulsing are seeping up the fire stairs. As I fumble around in the darkness of this bunker-like space the harmonics rise and fall, accompanied by swirling, circular traces of LEDs. The eyes acclimatise and the skeletal towers of Ray Lee’s Murmur come into focus, each topped by a rotating jib armed with a speaker, a visual ballet mechanique but sonically closer to the drone of a million industrious honey bees. Concerned about the work’s capacity to hypnotise, I head upstairs.

Turning a corner I narrowly miss falling into Phil Jeck’s Pool of Voices, a whimsical sculptural re-working of 1960s vinyl record players and paraphernalia. Jeck discovered three large pits sunken into the concrete floor and developed a site-specific work around them, literally turning sections into pools in which vinyl discs sink or swim, whilst others contain serried ranks of late valve or early transistor-powered turntables playing a chorus of voice fragments and synthetic sound. Jeck, a Liverpudlian who has worked with records and electronics since the 1980s, focuses on the excavation of meaning and poetry from the traces of history and memory that infuse abandoned technology, as one of his aptly titled prior works announces—Vinyl Requiem.

Leaving the domestic and anecdotal metaphors of the Pool of Voices, I enter a mausoleum-sized space to the sound of Old Glory and a visual horizon formed by five large and very black coffins. Giuseppe Stampone’s Play is inspired by the five countries that have contributed most effectively (and generously) to the collapse of the world economy. Play is a disarmingly simple work, at once theatrical and sinister and as such not unlike any normal funeral. This medley of national anthems is a wake for the wellbeing of millions in which profits have been privatised and debt has been made public—are you still proud enough to sing along?

I have run out of time (and space) and have to jump on a train (and plane) to get back to my own sound art show in Finland, but just before I go, around the corner from Lime Street station is another sound work in the historic Renshaw Hall, now incongruously (one might say savagely) gutted as a car park. Marina Rosenfeld’s soundscape Public Address No. 2 emanates from old-style spectral speakers mounted in the gods of the building, sweeping the transient vehicular traffic with fragments of an abstract composition. To broker a deal to install sound in a public space is one of the trickiest things ever, ergo the almost total paucity of permanent public sound-works. We make a polite and concerned tech-check with the lads in the pay booth and ask after their tolerance for really loud sound art. They grin; as we already know, Liverpool lads are pretty tough!

No Longer Empty on the Road, curator Asher Remy-Toledo, SQUAT program (Social Questioning Using Art Today), www.squatliverpool.com, Liverpool Biennale 2010, Liverpool, UK, Sept 18-Nov 27

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 38

© Nigel Helyer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2010