Monday, 18 March 2013

in praise of things not seen

In deepest Bloomsbury, just before Museum Street turns into Tottenham Court Road, there is a small patch of land known as Malet Street Gardens; a tiny square of green hidden by trees and flanked protectively by the back walls of Gower Street university buildings. I have eaten lunch in this garden before (it really isn’t big enough to be called a square) and have marvelled at how secluded and empty it is. Nestling between Senate House, the British Museum and the various schools and colleges that make up the University of London you would imagine it to be riddled with picnickers, mess-makers and (worst of all) tourists. But it is still quite secret (quite safe). Not many people seem to know about it and if they do they assume it is not open to the public. This assumption is not without reason, the gardens are closed during the winter months and the imposing iron gate that serves them carries a sign which reads “THESE GARDENS ARE NOT OPEN TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC”. However, in the summer, they are. Made all the more special for this limited period of existence, time in the gardens is stolen and consequently golden. The trees exude a sort of historical mist and the place is full of pollen, greenfly and a glimmering nostalgia made up (in part) of the residue of Virginia Woolf’s daydreams mingling with A.C. Grayling’s sighs (his office looks out onto the patchy green grass). It is the proverbial idyll, the clichéd oasis, it is the secret garden.


All last summer as I made my way from Malet Street to the wind tunnel of Senate House I was charmed by what I took to be a particularly tuneful erection of a marquee taking place inside the garden. The sounds of poles being bashed against poles had never sounded so sweet, as though the builders were playing a game, making hand percussion like children with wood blocks on the edges of an orchestra (the edges where those not to be trusted with violins or trumpets can be safely housed). I did wonder from time to time why the construction of the imagined marquee was taking so long but as my hours are irregular and my pace from street to library conscientiously fleet, I did not ponder on it for long. In London the sounds of construction are hard to avoid, and with the British Museum newly covered in a net of scaffolding and the snowy tips of a tent emerging over a cloud of plane trees in the nearby Bedford Square, I did not have to search far for possible sources of the noise. Come October (when marquee season is clearly over) I began to wonder why I could still hear the sounds. Peering into the secret garden, through dark trees, and seeing only grass and benches I stopped in my tracks, where were the happy builders? Where were these sounds coming from? I got close enough to the low stone wall that surrounds the space to notice a long black box dotted with perforations and the occasional blinking diode. The sounds were recorded! The happy orchestra of construction workers never existed! On the gate I read the following proclamation.

Phantom Railings; The length of wall to the right of this gate is the site of an interactive sound sculpture that uses the movements of pedestrians to evoke a phantom of a lost iron fence. Inspired by the wartime initiative to democratise parks and gardens by removing their railings, the project engages with an ongoing debate about the accessibility of public space. The aim is to bring this subject into question by promoting a critical awareness of the social and spatial history of the city in a way that is entertaining and accessible to all.

 At this point I still thought that the sounds were issuing in their random burbling from a spool of tape. I did not realise until I watched a couple walk towards me that it was the pedestrians themselves who were making the plinking and plonking of railing on railing. Every person who walked past brought the railings into being, as though running a stick along them like a child might. I returned later that day with my sister (interacting with sound art is best done with a partner) and we ran up and down Malet Street madly and gleefully. We played for about half an hour, running until we were out of breath, trying all the varieties of sound-making that occurred to us. We tricked the system by ducking under the sensors and then jumping back up, speeding up and slowing down, tearing back and forth and back again, listening to the rhythms we had made by throwing our bodies through space. It was miraculous. Running in the street is not normally something I can get behind unless in pursuit of a thief, a bus or an uncooperative umbrella. And yet there I was running jumping screeching and laughing, oblivious to the raised eyebrows of the students smoking outside the school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, impervious to the wry smiles of the Senate House librarians who had clearly made the discovery of the railings long ago.


The creators of this ‘public intervention’ are the Orwellian-sounding organisation C4CC (that’s the Centre for Creative Collaboration to the uninitiated). C4CC sound like the kind of group it is best to avoid. One imagines a keen and attractive bunch of innovators wearing white coats and lock jaw smiles that reach from soap-soaked ear to ear; the kind with mission statements and motivational strategies for ‘team building’ who would as readily develop happy pills as tear gas. –Which goes to show that it does not always pay to be sceptical about abbreviations. The C4CC are crediting the British government with a little more socialist zeal than they deserve when they write that the removal of the railings from outside Malet Street Gardens was part of an initiative to “democratise parks and gardens”. They were in fact removed for scrap metal to salvage material for the war effort. Some railings taken from other parks and gardens were ‘saved’ and replaced (Hyde Park has been re-hemmed since the late 194os) while some were not fit for use and therefore ended up in the Thames (something the rag and bone men of today should probably look into). It was George Orwell who thought the removal of the railings was democratising. He saw it as one in the eye for the ground-landlords of London who, in his words, “are just about as useful as so many tapeworms” . The removal of the railings opened up the parks and squares of the cities to the public and put them back into that rare group of spaces which belong to nobody and everybody at once.

 "Except for the few surviving commons, the highroads, the lands of the National trust, and the seashore below the high tide mark, every square inch of England is ‘owned’ by a few thousand families."

 It is interesting to think about that select group of spaces and the way in which ownership and codes of behaviour encroach upon almost every space we find ourselves in in the course of a day. Interesting too to note that it is through the erection rather than the dismantling of a new kind of boundary that the space of the street has been transformed in Bloomsbury. Something that should have been divisive has opened a seam in the street which produces a series of playful possibilities and practices. The C4CC have created something amazing. Not, I hasten to add because they have achieved their (profaned) aim of “promoting a critical awareness of the social and spatial history of the city” but because they have radically changed the way people use and enjoy the road. I have seen countless stone-faced pedestrians make the same discovery I did with a mixture of bemusement and delight. And these small mis-directions, the wrong-footing of the everyday, are part of the joy of what being in a city should involve. They are minute but they are meaningful.

And the ‘intervention’ is successful because it doesn’t actually intervene. Rather it insinuates itself into the landscape and, like the Malet Street Gardens, it is pleasurable because it is secret; the notice on the gate is quiet and sober and only noticeable if you are actually looking for it. I am almost loathe to write this article because I do not want to spoil the discovery for the rest of you (then I remember how few people will read it and I am consoled). The railings do not make me think about public space they make me play with my body, my ears, my hands and feet, they make me ignore the rules of the street, and in their innocuous and secret nature, they let me make discoveries. The piecemeal way the work fingered its way into my consciousness was a perfect example of the joy of accidents and surprises. No one can tell you ‘this public space is for you’ or ‘this art work if going to make you play’ because it won’t, but if you discover it for yourself it allows for a creative appropriation of both the space and the way in which you use it; it is not designated, it is just yours. Michel de Certeau cites Foucault’s idea of the unseen ‘grid’ of discipline (which subverts will with habit) and asks if we cannot identify “the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline’.” He posits “a network of an anti-discipline” which is where we can argue we can place the invisible railings. I am writing this article to urge whoever makes these decisions to keep the railings there permanently, why are they coming down? How can we chain ourselves to them to stop the scheduled dismantling on October 20th?


This was written last October just before the railings were taken down. There is now a plan to put them back up. Please help the plan by signing the petition here