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Trans Mittere by David Briers

IXIA excellence in public art Autumn 2004

Ewan Forster and Christopher Heighes have developed, as an artistic partnership, a so far unchallenged genre of artwork in the public sphere, situated between site-specific art installation, visual theatre, performance art, and a critical interpretation of our built heritage. For a month this summer, during Architecture Week and as part of the cathedral’s Centenary celebration, they presented an installation in the tower of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. In this instance, they strayed additionally into the realms of ‘sound art’ and ‘radio art’.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s cathedral is a structure dating entirely from the twentieth century, incorporating concrete and brick and electric lifts. But it is out of time, a painstakingly conceived repository of all our culturally received models of High Gothic cathedralness, harbouring secret corners and generating mysterious sounds, all bathed in a glow of immanent nostalgia.

Liverpool Cathedral is to public architecture what the English composer Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is to concert music. Composed during the 1920’s when the construction of Liverpool Cathedral’s tower was in its early stages, Brian’s nearly unperformable symphony is similarly massive and unwieldy, and likewise conceived at the cusp of an entrenched formal tradition and the liberating advent of international modernism. The aesthetic, ethical, and political paradigm shifts, which occurred during the abnormally protracted period of Liverpool Cathedral’s construction, formed the basis for Trans Mittere.

The installation was sited in three unusually unvisited spaces, functional and devoid of architectural embellishment – “unwritten” spaces, as Forster and Heighes call them. In the Ringing Chamber, old wireless sets were placed on trestle tables around the space, each lit with a single suspended light bulb. The dials of these radios bore evocative litanies of the names of foreign radio stations – Beromunster-Falun-Kalundborg-Hilversum – many of which were also painted on the floor of the chamber. The entire floor space had in fact taken on the form of a giant radio dial, from the centre of which, in the pit lined with sawdust in which the bell ringers stand, stretched a red pointer permanently tuned to 550m.

All the radios were broadcasting the rolling archival sound collage that formed the important aural component of the installation, and sounded like a vintage Home Service programme replete with BBC announcer voices and atmospheric interference. It centred on a broadcast recorded by Giles Gilbert Scott for the Home Service in 1944, his first public pronouncement about Liverpool Cathedral, made forty years after its commencement. Reminiscent in spirit of the composer Ian Gardiner’s piece for radio, Monument, commissioned for Radio 3 in 1994, the sound montage also included such things as the fascinating narrative of Wittgenstein’s only visit to Liverpool. Interspersed throughout were specially recorded fragments of piano music by Britten, Rubbra and Rawsthorne, providing a refreshingly unhackneyed musical thread for the spoken commentaries, comprising in fact just the sort of recondite recital repertoire that was the staple fare for the BBC Home Service in its pre-streamed years.

Despite the evident theatricality of this setting, the sounds we heard were really being broadcast on a short-term restricted service license via a one-watt transmitter to listeners in their kitchens and on their car radios in the vicinity of the cathedral. The medium wave band was a fitting place for this to be located, being part of the broadcasting spectrum now as “unwritten” as the spaces appropriated by the artists.

The Damping Chamber is a dark void that serves to muffle the full cacophony of the bells immediately above. Here, either side of a model of the bell tower festooned by bell ropes and standing on a compass rose, two cloud studies by Ruskin had been transcribed in much enlarged form in chalk on the floor of the space between the joists. Gilbert Scott’s epithet, “I am a concrete man” had been stencilled in large capital letters on one of the massive concrete joists spanning the space, large pools of oil and sawdust had been left in place like clouds, maps, or Rorschach blots.

The high Bell Chamber is protected from the weather only by oak louvers, its changing atmosphere conditioned by the meteorology outside. On top of the massive concrete housing for the heaviest bells in Europe had been vertiginously placed a pylon-like transmitting tower, somewhere between Tatlin and Fritz Lang, from which bell ropes extended like electricity cables. Closer scrutiny revealed that the tower had been constructed from plain unpainted wood, like a life-size architectural model. At the base of this erection, as a protective barrier, was a rustic hurdle fence. The undisguised hand-made quality of these elements reflected the essential theatricality of the cathedral itself. Forster and Heighes share a background in theatre studies at Dartington and the fabrication of their often elaborate ‘props’ has become a central element in what they do.

The strength of this project (which was actually Part Two of Middle English, Part One being a “performance lecture” created for an academic symposium in 2003) is that it could be encountered on a number of equally rewarding levels, from a literal one to a potent poetic and critical one, congruent with the films of Patrick Keiller. Each visitor, Forster and Heighes suppose, will have been “engaged in their own translation of Liverpool Cathedral. Whilst the installation bordered dangerously on being an academic conceit on the one hand and a museum educational project on the other, it managed to steer a course of its own. The idea was not that it should remain there “forever”, like the deadening interpretive panels at heritage sights. The aim was “to allow the building to speak for itself before its official history is articulated and celebrated by others.

Forster and Heighes should be parsimonious with their hybrid projects, before their now fresh version of the “artist’s intervention”, arising from cultural interstices, hardens into another conveniently methodised sub-genre to be adopted by a welter of conforming graduates.

David Briers

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