Border by Water

Stolen Voices
The Felixstowe Affair by Emily Godden, from LADA DIY #14

by Stolen Voices (Johanna Linsley and Rebecca Collins)

All we had to do was listen.

Listen.

All we had to do was listen.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

To one side of a conversation, to a rhythm, to an atmosphere, to a voice, to the texture of a place, to multiple places.

We’re Sonic Detectives – that’s what we do. We listen.

I. Everything was already happening

So.

So, as you know, something has happened.

As you know, something happened. An event(s) took place and we were summoned.

As you know, something had happened and we would have to investigate.

We were attentive to the connections between things.

As you well know.

You can listen anywhere, but we didn’t. We listened somewhere(s). We listened in on the coast.

The coast: a border by water.

The rhythm was constant, compelling and all-consuming.

We started listening before we knew what we were listening for. We started listening before we lived in Brexit Britain, before we had ever lived in Scotland, before the Tory party formed a government with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Still, still, still – everything was already happening. We started in the South and we ended up in the North, but our progress wasn’t linear. The journey involved backtracks and leaps and bending the rules and detours down the Thames. We were listening to the British coast, and everything was happening.

Everything was already happening.

II. We knew how to

We were upskilled, highly trained in the pleasures and perils of the overheard, the incomplete. We knew how to extend our bodies for acoustic capture. We knew when to put our tongues to the roof of our mouth and listen. We knew bodies of running water made excellent cover for secret conversations. We knew how to put technology to work and make technology work for us. We knew how to exploit architecture for acoustic advances. What we didn’t know, we would have to listen out for. With an ear to the sea, we felt vibrations between the UK and France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway.

All we had to do was listen.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

III. Good as their team

There were leads, of course there were – and there were red herrings. No surprises here. Hear, geddit?

But Sonic Detectives are only ever as good as their team. We assembled our team of eavesdroppers as we went: library users, university students, former school teachers, teenagers, community radio producers, independent artist collectives, waiters at a vegan café, acousticians and geoscientists, the children of coal miners, the parents of shift workers on offshore rigs. The owners of a B&B/vintage dress shop in Lowestoft. A former travel writer. A man who lives in caves along the coast of County Durham, and the women who worry about him. A taxi driver in Aberdeen with a strongly worded opposition to the local Donald Trump-owned golf course. An NHS nurse in uniform having an after-work drink at everyone’s favourite gay bar. An immigration lawyer and a property solicitor. Three white men in black suits entering an occult book shop in central London. A woman in hijab with her three children gazing over the railway fence at the container shipping port in Tilbury.

Anyone with their ears to the ground.

A team not so much recruited as simply recognised, sometimes briefly, sometimes at length and in depth.

We listened for listeners everywhere we could. We read David Toop’s Sinister Resonance, a kind of guide to seeking the sonic in the visual.  We looked at Nicolaes Maes’s paintings of the eavesdropper as a female figure, at the door, listening in. She is the sonic counterpoint to the flâneur – domestic, dependent, hiding, and yet like the flâneur, in thrall to observation. To what extent might this figure be deviant, be a detective? What lens might that figure use to attend to the listening that they are undertaking?

We thought about rhythm, method and the event. We read Eleni Ikoniadou’s The Rhythmic Event – her investigation into digital art practices in terms of affect, resonance and experience struck a chord with our endeavour. We felt further drawn into the unknown and unfamiliar yet ready to face the increasingly real zones of the event(s) spurred on by the suspicion that Ikoniadou confirmed: something – the event – was already going on and it was our job to hear it. It was our job to overhear it.

We found in the modernist novelist Dorothy Richardson a comrade in the effort to figure a feminine flâneur, and we found in her novel sequence Pilgrimage (1915-67) a model for a sonorous sensibility (to borrow a phrase from writer Salomé Voegelin). Details of concerts, piano playing and vocal renditions serve to trigger memories, indicate social dynamics and situate the protagonist, Miriam Henderson, as she feels out the rhythm of her own national identity. This complex rhythmic exploration takes the form of an English self-consciousness, with which some of us feel a sympathy. Early in the first novel, Pointed Roofs, Miriam is depicted as a solitary listener as she walks up the stairs in her family home, grateful for some solitude: ‘It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over […].’(p.15). Richardson develops Miriam into a listener-thinker, attuned to resonance, social effect and atmosphere. This is acutely clear as Miriam listens in on some ‘wonderful German women’ in a café:

She managed intermittently to watch three or four of them and wondered what kind of conversation made them so emphatic […] she had never seen women with such decision in their bearing. […] she heard German laughter about the room. The sounds excited her and she watched eagerly for laughing faces. (p.102)

The semantic content of overheard conversation is often irrelevant, or to Miriam’s ears not worth hearing. Listening for extended periods of time, particularly to the sounds of the piano, transports Miriam to her childhood, evokes emotional responses and reminds her of smells and landscapes. In one section, thin voices pierce through darkness to provide comfort to Miriam as she discusses the translation of English novels with Mademoiselle, the French teacher with whom she shares a bedroom.  The potential of the voice, its echoes and the distinctive pitches are detailed as Miriam attends to the minutiae of vocal tones. She likens the voices she hears to stringed instruments and through her listening hears yearnings and promises. Listening is an activity which is returned to throughout the novel as Miriam makes use of a sonic sensibility to hear other worlds or realities into the present she describes.

IV. This close to the sea

You never know what you might hear, or what you might overhear. We used our imaginations to fill in the blanks.  In any investigation, there can be mistakes – there can be pitfalls which take their toll.

We pulled out of Basingstoke, gently rattling along, the red-brick rail station melting behind us. One of us, X (let’s say for convenience), casually tuned in on a voice a few rows ahead.

‘I have hay fever all year round. November and December are alright, and then in mid-January, the willows start blooming. Weeping willows? All kinds of willows. I’ve basically been coughing for two years. And allergic to antihistamines. Allergic to antihistamines? They make me sick. Not allergic to dust, house mites, limestone, sandstone, none of that. Only pollen. Good thing, too, because I don’t believe in housework. The hay fever is better in Bournemouth or Weymouth, but I can’t afford to live by the sea. Could live in Portland, but could only afford a flat, not a house’.

‘It’s possible to live on very little’, a man responded.

‘Yes, I know what you’re saying’.

X’s attention drifted to the business card laying on the tray in front of us, next to an empty cup of instant coffee. A generic corporate logo in the shape of a triangle incorporated the word ‘Sunbourne’. The card our client had given to us before telling us to go to Bournemouth, on the South Coast. We assumed when she gave it to us that ‘Sunbourne’ was the company she represented. But we hadn’t been able to find a business by that name in Bournemouth, or anywhere near. The closest things we could discover were a hotel near the Excel Centre in London, and a luxury caravan park in West Wales.

Calls to both yielded nothing.

We had briefly toyed with the idea that Sunbourne was an allusion to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In the novel, the eponymous Tess commits murder in a boarding house in a loosely disguised Bournemouth. One of us had suggested, hopefully, that the triangle on the card might refer to the tragic love triangle at the centre of the drama, but looking at the turquoise and light grey graphic overlaid with sans serif font, the rest of us had felt this was unlikely. We abandoned this line of inquiry entirely when we realised that Hardy had used ‘Sandbourne’ and not ‘Sunbourne’ as a pseudonym for the town.

Never mind, X thought. Our client had engaged us to undertake a sonic investigation of the events which she insisted had originated in or around Bournemouth, and that was what we’d do. We were Sonic Detectives after all.

The voice caught X’s attention again: ‘A man once let me drive a London Underground train for ten yards. I’m a train enthusiast’.

This close to the sea, the speaker did, indeed, sound less congested.

V. Sleep came through exhaustion

The investigation, at times tedious and often mundane, kept us awake at night. Thousands of questions asked time and time again. All the to-ing and fro-ing on British rail services up and down the shore. It wasn’t just the late nights or the early mornings – it was the long afternoons that got us. But unless we put in the time, we couldn’t feel we were pulling our weight.

There was very little let up – sleep came through exhaustion. A chance to catch forty winks was rare, and we grabbed it when it came. Often, one of us dozed off, but we never felt truly rested. We occupied that muggy post-festival feeling, navigating the line between too much caffeine and not enough alcohol. That’s what you get when you pay attention, when you pay too much attention. The apartment was littered with empty pizza boxes, crumpled beer cans and newspaper cuttings. There was string to complete the suspect board, but we never had time. We barely had time for a wash. The nomadic lifestyle had our personal lives in tatters and our personal hygiene at an all-time low. There were people around us, acutely aware of the duress of our task, offering roasts of gammon joint or a place to lie low. But just as we’d hang up our coats, the phone would ring with more acoustic evidence. Fragments in the soundscape don’t last long, ya know?

If there is a call, there needs to be a response.

 

About Stolen Voices

Stolen Voices is an ongoing inquiry based on eavesdropping conducted by Johanna Linsley and Rebecca Collins. In their first mission, unfolding since 2014, Rebecca and Johanna have focused on a series of locations on the UK coast, between Bournemouth and Aberdeen, drawing connections between Victorian pleasure gardens, the corporate headquarters of international banks, container shipping, the abdication of Edward VIII, a refurbished marina built with EU grant money next to a former coal waste dump in County Durham, and the waning North Sea oil industry, along with countless other relations, vibrations, sequences, and sonic artefacts lodged in the acoustic landscape of this border by water.  The project has taken the form of participatory workshops, new music composition, experimental performance, community gig nights, radio broadcasts and an interactive installation dubbed the Eavesdropbox, as well as a book project that’s currently in process which we are describing as a sonic detective novel. The forms of the project are developed to suit the direction our listening takes us. A core motivation for the listening itself is a semi-fictional story that we tell ourselves (and anybody else who might be listening in): some ‘event’ has taken place and we have been summoned and tasked with the job of figuring out what that is. See www.yourstolenvoice.com for further updates on the ongoing investigation.

Johanna Linsley is an artist, writer and researcher working on sonic fiction, queer domesticities and the politics of encounter and assembly. She is a founder of the London-based performance collective I’m With You and a founding partner of UnionDocs, a centre for documentary arts in Brooklyn, NY. Johanna is a Research Associate on the project ‘Acts of Assembly’ at the University of Roehampton.

 Rebecca Collins is an artist researcher working between contemporary performance and sound studies. Her practice, grounded in specific sites or communities, investigates the relationships between social, political and cultural phenomena. She is interested in how critical, fictional and performative interventions might cultivate attention towards our contemporary condition indicating potential levers. Rebecca is a Lecturer in Contemporary Art Theory at the University of Edinburgh.

References

Ikoniadou, E. (2014) The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media and The Sonic. London: MIT Press

Richardson, D. (1989). Pilgrimage 1. London: Virago

Toop, D. (2011) Sinister Resonance. London: Continuum

Voegelin, S. (2014) Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. London: Bloomsbury

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