Liquid City

BJ Nilsen

BJ Nilsen
Eye of the Microphone
UK TOUCH TO:95 (2013)

Having received a scholarship to be the artist in residence for a year at the UCL Urban Laboratory in London, Nilsen, as part of his approach to introducing sound as an art practice, went on unplanned journeys through the landscape. Coming from Guy Debord’s psychogeography, the idea was to wander off predictable paths and through this bring a new awareness of the urban landscape. The archaeology and geography subconsciously direct the traveller with the aim of providing a new and ‘authentic’ experience. The microphone that accompanies, seeks out the details that pass us by in our everyday interactions. This approach fits in well with his interest in how sound affects humans, as well as the 2014 book The Acoustic City, co-edited with Matthew Gandy.

The recordings chosen are whittled down from many hours which document a city in its many guises and cover both night and day. Listening to it I recognise many sounds that are familiar to me, having lived in London for the majority of my life, and as someone who now regularly returns. Nilsen though seeks to embrace more than this, at times picking up and focusing on the minutiae that make up and give character to each of these environments.

The focus on specific sounds, without their accompanying visual stimuli, allow these particular spaces to be interpreted differently. Nilsen, of course, has made editorial choices in what to pass on to us as listener, through editing, choosing what to record, microphone placement, even in the equipment used. His selection directs us to what he wants us to hear, but, so far, is no different to those made in the strictest ‘audio vérité’ sense. The merging of one part of the stroll with another, means that we are never going to be presented with an ‘as is’ situation. The added electronic manipulations also are not likely to see Nilsen on top of any purist’s Christmas wish list any time soon. But then that was not what he set out to achieve. His aim is more to present ‘an imaginary world’, one based on the real one. Or showing us the possibilities in/of ‘an imaginary world’ might be fairer. In this world we can bring our associations to his sounds, some evidently dormant in my case, waiting to be triggered afresh. Obviously his is a personal view, each of us would, if given the choice, come up with a different selection, based on our own connections, memories and predilections for particular sounds.

This bringing of your own baggage was made apparent to me straight away by the bells that open the first track, ‘Londinium’. Immediately, I was transported back to my youth, walking across Hampstead Heath, listening to the church bells drifting across from Highgate, summoning the flock to service. Finding out the bells were recorded next to Victoria Station, in the afternoon, a place of temporary calm amongst the bustle of the city, comes almost as a slap across the cheeks. However, what attracts Nilsen to this scene is that out of the calm, sounds erupt. The bells merge into the sound of a passing vehicle, a cyclist braking to turn, a distant cellphone, backed by the constant idling of a train at the station.

Each of the three tracks tells a different story. The first, on the surface appears the most ‘authentic’, reflecting more natural sounds. Moments did make me wonder as to how much enhancement was being added. The second reflects more the underbelly of urban life, capturing the sounds we do not hear, picking up the electromagnetic world that surrounds us, the hum of machinery, a breeze catching a plastic bag. The third, is almost a combination of the two. Starting with the sounds of the Lea Valley we hear the birds of the marshes, water, the train in the distance, an airplane. Into this comes Nilsen, I presume replicating these electronically. He does say that “maybe a pure field recording is not the most accurate representation of a place”.

So, where does this leave us? The resonances that landscapes provide have, until fairly recently, remained obscured by the seeable, their role in shaping our perceptions of the landscape obscured. Landscapes are spaces of community and segregation, of inspiration, mystification, nourishment, and devastation. Landscapes are a principal constituent of our being, a major part of our interaction with the world. Which is what I believe is lacking here. The trouble with Nilsen’s desire to produce “an imaginary world” is that the sounds he provides haven’t always lived side by side, haven’t been part of a process of negotiation within their space. By presenting it as a “world”, instead of as a sound work that just happens to be drawn from a city, means that this has to be raised.

Linking it so firmly with London brings further problems. Is this an ‘imaginary world’, or is it London? London is such a large place, its borders now leech out into the satellite dormitories of the past. It means different things to many people. Nilsen does, in part, negate this by having a day-trip out to the Lea Valley, but it leaves a lot of ground uncovered. He talks about the importance of water and especially the Thames. The latter, I suspect, the view of an ‘incomer’. Obviously, water does play an important role within city life, but the size of London tends to focus this on ponds, brooks, rivers (some underground), the water within each person’s locale. A more frequent encounter would be the puddles that have to be negotiated, the traffic splashing passing pedestrians, the drips after rainfall that match the manmade ones from leaking overflows.

This all might seem churlish on my part, but I came away underwhelmed, wondering what exactly it was I was expected to applaud. I really wanted to like this. All I can think is that me and BJ just don’t get on well through CD. I have come out from listening to some of his other releases feeling the same. This feeling, I hoped had been transformed by a glorious concert I saw him give in Cambridge two or three years ago, which had led me to believe that maybe we had turned a corner. I’ve listened to it as I would most CDs by any artist. I have also cut it into small sections so that I can concentrate solely on what he has to say over two ticks of a lamb’s tail. There are moments I have admired, the depth of sound that he brings at times, the way the idling train of the first track morphs into a barge on the Thames. But it wasn’t until I was mulling over what to say, and with my iPlayer on shuffle, I heard Tram Vibration by Haco and Toshiya Tsunoda, and I realised it was lacking that ‘je ne sais quoi’, that life, that feeling after listening, of being grateful to be alive.