May 3, 2012
Displacement Activities are a series of audiowalks using extended techniques intended to throw up questions and surprises regarding our relationship with place and history. Traditional histories and standard tour-guide approaches are detourned in an attempt to develop a deeper, bodily understanding of the vagaries of each unique space we inhabit whilst emphasising the (un)commonalities of human experience through spoken memories of the everyday. Ideally, Displacement Activities occur after sundown when visual senses are dampened and audio-tactile sensitivities are heightened. I am currently working on developing locative media/smartphone technology to provide pervasive sonic layers that can be accessed in perpetuity wherever Displacement Activities happen.
At about 9.30pm on Friday 23rd March, 2012 around two dozen walkers from the To Be Told group set out from Hosteria Hiron to Giotto’s Campanile where the displaced audiowalk was to begin.
The route itself was an exact transposition of the original Displacement Activities walk I designed for Light Night Leeds (2011), superimposed upon Florence. The idea for the Florentine Displacement was to displace some of the Holbeck audio with new material gathered from interviews and field recordings made in Florence. Due to an impossible editing task within the timeframe though, I had to cut down the original full audiowalk involving six audio files and around two hours of walking to a more compact version utilising just three audio files and requiring much less walking. The three audio files were intended to yield an essence of the central idea of displacement within the Florentine geography.
A basic principle regarding these displacements is to find at least one plausible connection between the Holbeck area and the place to which the route is displaced. In the Newcastle Displacement (2012), for instance, the fact that Matthew Murray (1765-1826) was born in Newcastle provided the connection. Murray, now buried in St Matthews graveyard in Holbeck, was a great inventor and mill-owner who was pivotal to the fortunes of the Leeds flax industry. The Florentine connection lies in the fact that William Bakewell’s design for the Tower Works Giotto Chimney of 1899 was based on Giotto’s Tower in the Piazza del Duomo, completed in 1359.
I like the clash of theory and practice when an aspiring hi-tech locative media production encounters feet-on-the-ground reality and people scramble around trying to find the right audio file, get it ready, and join together in a manual synchro-play by pressing the appropriate button on a count in: THREE, TWO, ONE… GO! On top of that, the carefully placed stereo sounds are listened to through shared earphones, or even distorting speaker-phones, as people and cars meander by adding to the sonic mayhem. As with any live performance, it is a question of being flexible and adaptable to circumstance while trying to maintain some sense of the intended arc of the experience. While audiowalks in general may be designed for personal, individual contemplation, the social event of a whole group out audiowalking with a guide, becomes a form of site-specific urban theatre where overlaps of private, public, present and historical space become merged within a dynamic, embodied experience of place. Undoubtedly, the prepared audio is a primary focus for the event, but it must take its place within a wide range of sensual interventions.
After a short walk, we rounded the corner to see Giottos’s Campanile looming above us. We gathered together for the first audio file.
Audio One (Over the Canal): this was an unassuming selection intended to state gently some of the Holbeck oral history within its displaced context –listening to Holbeck voices and memories beneath Giotto’s magnificent erection. We heard an architect talk about Holbeck Urban Village; an account of “Hookers’ Alley”, haunt of prostitutes; an older story of the ‘ginnel’ (small alley) to Flocktons and Kays Catalogue Building and Fox’s Steps; a cultural broker waxing lyrical about ‘phenomenological listening’; memories of gas lamps and bonfires. The audio ended with a live recording of some of the drumming that presaged the entry into “The Wasteground” on the original Displacement Activities walk in Holbeck.
Using the pivot of the Giotto Tower to set the Displacement route, I was astonished to find that the Holbeck Wasteground coincided exactly with the Piazza della Signoria. The Wasteground is potent symbol of what has happened to Holbeck over the last few decades. It was once the site of the Northern Distribution Centre for Kays Catalogue. This Centre provided many jobs and attracted people from all over Leeds, and further afield, to buy cheap deals from the warehouse shop. In 2004 it was closed down, and by 2009 it had been demolished. Now an empty zone composed of flattened rubble, this once thriving area is the home of a few hardy plants, a dog’s skeleton, and a forbidding steel perimeter fence that prevents anyone from entering or leaving. What I call the ‘Hole in Holbeck’ is a dismal place lying dormant awaiting the economic recovery when, presumably, it will be sold off and play host to new speculative ventures. During the original Holbeck Displacement Activities, a grim ritual took place there. Bemused walkers congregated around a spluttering sonic totem bedecked with the skulls of lost souls while being harangued by four urban wraiths shouting through megaphones, weaving their broken memories into a terrible, incomprehensible climax before vanishing.
The bizarre inverted resonance of this with one of the prime tourist sites in Florence, the Piazza della Signoria, is both palpaple and poignant. It turns out that the Piazza has a dark history of its own. In 1487 Giralomo Savonarola, Dominican friar and governor of Florence together with his followers sought out every profane item they could possibly think of and made a huge Bonfire of the Vanities (Falo dena Venita) in the Piazza. Consuming everything from from paintings by Boticelli and ancient manuscripts to chess pieces and women’s hats, the fires burnt for days. In a final act of poetic justice, Savonarola himself was hanged and burnt in the same square when he lost his grip on power in 1498.
So, we set out for The Wasteground, navigating by our ears. According to principles developed by pioneers such as Murray Schafer and Max Neuhaus, I led the soundwalk down the Via del Calzaioli towards the Piazza della Signoria. A couple of dozen people in single file weaving our way down the street, passing close to shop doorways to hear their interiors, and generally ignoring visual stimulus as much as possible must have, paradoxically, created quite a spectacle. It turned out to be an exhilarating walk, rather strange for me since many of the subtleties of an unfolding city soundscape were erased by the relentless trundling noise-scape of tourists’ luggage trollies on the worn cobbles, it proved impossible to shake them off. I assume Marina at the rear of the long column must have had a very different experience. A distant memory of Bonomi’s Holbeck full-scale replica of the Temple of Horus at Edfu (1840), known as “Temple Works”, accompanied us in the sounds of Pamela Barberi’s be-jewelled scarlet Egyptian hip scarf tinkling gently as she walked the snaking path.
The transverse flagstones that marked the boundary to the Piazza della Signoria formed a barrier to us, insurmountable without due caution and some form of talisman or fetish. In the Holbeck Displacement I had handed out tiny metal Statues of Liberty accompanied by sonic purification in the form of djembi drumming. Here we engaged in an altogether different threshold-crossing ritual conducted by Pamela Barberi and Guy Wouete. Pamela held up a sapphire blue Egyptian coined sash and presented it to Guy who cut out tiny squares of cloth and distributed them to everyone for our safe passage into the most dangerous zone of the walk. Everyone waited patiently for their tiny piece of cloth before proceeding.
In the piazza we listened to the second audio file (The Wasteground). Here the Holbeck material had been completely displaced and, after further sonic purification, a recording of Giotto’s Campanile bell, we heard Guy’s account of his family’s experience of the 1956-62 genocide in Cameroon. A sombre mood gathered as birdsong signalled the return to the route, and we exited the Piazza. A complex layering of experiences and memories was already beginning to shape our journey.
Kati Heiszer led us on a tactile voyage down the Via Por Santa Maria towards the Ponte Vecchio. Our emotions were lifted once more. Again, overriding our visual sense we set out to touch the world around us: flowers, wood, stone… perhaps the most surreal happening was when we touched an old iron handle protruding from a wall on the Ponte Vecchio. It became an almost religious ritual, feeling the metal with eyes closed. We noticed a queue of tourists forming behind us, frantically trying to find an explanation in their guide books as they awaited their turn to touch what had become the Handle of Life.
On the bridge we arrived at the monument to one of Florence’s most illustrious children, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). This place coincided exactly with the memorial to Matthew Murray in St Matthews graveyard, Holbeck. The omens were right for a miraculous conjunction.
The third audio file (Matthew Murray) was played here. We listened to the beginning of my eulogy to the great man based on the original live performance in the graveyard. This rousing material was soon displaced, however, by a sound piece involving myself and Greta Grendaite made a few days earlier while touring the fair city of Florence. We found ourselves in La galleria delle carrozze di Palazzo Medici Riccardi where a strange and beautiful story began to unfold as we began to understand the nature of the place we were in. We were left with a story that has yet to be told. When the audio file finished a huge, spontaneous cheer erupted from our little group.
Given that we’d all come so far in such a short span of time and space, a fitting end to such an experience is to come together for a final group performance. In the Florentine Displacement, I collaborated with Pamela Barberi and Francesca Biagini to organise a performance of verses from Dante’s Divina Commedia, according to principles John Cage explored in his Indeterminacy Lecture series of 1959 – carrying forward the previous megaphonic finale on Holbeck Moor. We soon assembled before the statue of Dante Alighieri in the Uffizi colonnade.[i] The basic idea was for each walker to recite a piece of the poem within a strict time limit. No matter how long, or short, a person’s selection was, it would be read to fill an entire 42 seconds. Given the amount of people involved, I decided to displace 18 seconds from Cage’s original stipulation of sixty seconds, while observing Dante’s predilection for threes and nines. As designated Keeper of Time, I presided over proceedings armed with an iPhone stopwatch. Together we managed a truly disciplined performance that both Cage and Dante would undoubtedly have been proud of. Having carefully laid our displaced poetic fragments at the feet of their sage progenitor and we vacated the area in search of some of the best ice cream on the planet.
By approaching time, place and history in a multisensory way, deliberately skewed against the habitual dominance of the visual, this kind of intervention provides a powerful way for people to engage the material of oral history. Undoubtedly one of the strengths of located oral history is its ability to deepen a sense of a particular place and its past, but this fixity is also one of its weaknesses. It becomes impossible to experience memory outside its locality. Applying the technique of displacement we can avoid this weakness and turn it into a strength. Shifting memories from one location to another and gently mingling them with new material provides surprising conjunctions that lead to a deeper appreciation of the common resonances of all our stories without losing a sense of their precious, located, peculiarities.
Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to this and the previous Displacement Activities, I intend to complete the edits of all six audio files including other sounds and stories I recorded while I was in Florence. The resulting audiowalk will be placed on a virtual layer using GPS coordinates to trigger the audio on a smartphone when future walkers enter the designated zones. This will be a lasting legacy to an extraordinary week of creativity and laughter, a week full of memories and dreams that change futures.
Florence photos by Giovanna Petrone
‘Red Sash’ photo by Pamela Barberi
‘Holbeck Wasteground’ photo by Stuart Bannister
Tags: audiowalk simon displacement Dante displacement activities