Artist Christopher Steenson Shares Progress of Almanac for a Walled City Project

Artist Christopher Steenson Shares Progress of Almanac for a Walled City Project

After a busy latter part of 2022 with workshops and research activities for our Almanac for a Walled City project, artist Christopher Steenson takes us through some of the highlights from the schools, groups and organisations he’s been working with so far.

Almanac for a Walled City is a site-responsive, immersive sound artwork designed for Derry’s historic city walls, which will culminate in the form of a spatial sound composition to experience via an app later in 2023.

“I travelled to Derry at the start of November 2022 to begin a series of site-specific research workshops to help inform and guide the process for the Almanac for a Walled City artwork. In order to fully immerse myself in this research phase of the project — and to really get a sense and feel for the city — I needed to live in Derry for a full month. This included a number of workshops with community groups and a class of P7 students from the Model Primary School in the city. I’d also make a number of sound-based field recordings to capture the unique sound-marks of the city, its people, and the all-encompassing weather systems that pass through it.

The first workshops kicked off with a series of listening walks with community groups in the city. Using Pauline Olivero’s instruction to “[w]alk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears”, I led participants along the city’s walls, focusing on the ways in which the sounds around them changed at different points along the route. On this enjoyable listening journey, we made sound maps, stopping frequently to discuss what we were experiencing. These sessions provided lots of great feedback from the people who took part.

During these community group sessions, we also had informal discussions to talk more generally about the city and its weather. It’s certainly true that Derry folk love talking about the weather. But whilst the discussions were easy going and flowed naturally, they also raised some difficult questions around how the weather in the city has changed and the responsibilities we have in paying attention to and caring for the environment around us. After these sessions, I interviewed a number of the participants individually to discuss their memories and ideas relating to the city and its weather. These interviews were recorded and the ideas from them will certainly be used as part of the Almanac artwork.

During this time, I was busy preparing and running a series of workshops with P7 students from the Model Primary School. There was plenty of chat in these workshops too, but whilst the community groups workshops were calmer and more collected — focusing on discussion to gather ideas and memories — the primary school workshops were much more raucous; focused on getting the kids to engage with the act of listening and understanding the weather by making some noise!

Participant workshop exploring the sounds of the Derry Walls

For one workshop, we focused on the practice of foley sound – a technique used for film, whereby the sounds around us are recreated using everyday objects. We had special guest Shelley Roden – a foley artist who works for the world famous Skywalker Sound in California, who made a number of videos demonstrating how she uses foley sound in her work. Shelley also demonstrated how everyday objects can be used to create different weather sounds, ranging from howling wind (e.g. rubbing a glove on a nylon sheet), to rain (e.g. gravel dropping on a stretched piece of fabric) or thunder (e.g. thumping a metal box). We put these skills to use by making our own weather orchestra and foley soundtrack to the classic storm scene from the Wizard of Oz.

In another workshop, I invited John D’Arcy, lecturer at the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the experimental vocal choir Hive, to allow the kids explore various ways we can use our voice to express the sounds of weather. The pupils learnt about graphic scores, made the sounds of the wind with their mouths, and clicked their fingers to make rain by following each of their individual heart beats. I also took John’s brilliant exercises and recorded small groups of the kids making these different sounds using Nerve Centre’s very own recording studio. These recordings are brilliant and will definitely be making their way into the artwork in different ways.

School workshop with John D’Arcy

Living in Derry turned out to be really beneficial. Each day I was able to walk into town and explore different sections of the walls, using each journey to think intimately about how to develop the final Almanac artwork. I was also able to observe the various fluctuations in wintry weather across the course of the month. Of course, there was plenty of rain while I was there, but also lots of dry days that I took to my advantage, taking in the views and sounds along the Foyle, and travelling across the Peace Bridge to St Columb’s Park. These different journeys were used to make a number of sound recordings of the city, using a wide arsenal of recording techniques, such as using an ambisonic microphone to capture 3D renderings of the city’s soundscape, to using underwater microphones to record the sounds of the mighty River Foyle.

Alongside these activities, my time in Derry was also spent working on an odd yet ambitious paraficitonal artwork, titled Department of Dreamtime. This project was very much related to the wider Almanac for a Walled City project, acting as an extra node of research in the city that would allow me to engage with a larger section of the city’s public. Consisting of a freephone number that was advertised online and across the city, alongside a website and an installation in the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Derry~Londonderry’s Project Space, the Department of Dreamtime presented itself as a fictional non-departmental public body, that sought to understand the dreams and future-orientated concerns of Derry’s citizens.

Dept. of Dreamtime display at CCA

People were encouraged to phone the Department’s 0800 phone line and leave a voicemail to express how they felt about the future and what they thought the future might be like. It was really interesting hearing the ways that people interacted with this phone line and the messages that they left to the Department. Some of these voicemails (the audio and people’s general ideas) will certainly make their way into the final Almanac artwork.

In between workshops and city recordings, I made regular trips to ESB’s Coolkeeragh Power Station, located just north of the city along the western banks of the Foyle. As well as learning the basics of how electricity is generated, I also interviewed different people who worked at the plant and made various different recordings of the plant during normal day of operations, from the sound of its gas and steam turbines, to capturing the sounds of radiating electromagnetic fields and using contact microphones to capture the vibrations of various pieces of machinery that rippled across the turbine halls.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the workshops — Jude Mullan for all of his help in organising the workshops, as well Joe Carlin — Jackie, Paul, Tony, Jim and Laura for taking the time to let me interview them as part of my research for the project — everyone at the Nerve Centre — Shelley Roden and John D’Arcy for all their help with the workshops. I’m now busy sifting through all of this material from my time in Derry, writing a script and creating sound compositions that make up the Almanac for a Walled City artwork."

Watch this space for the next stage of Almanac for a Walled City project.

Almanac for a Walled City is supported by the ESB Brighter Future Arts Fund in partnership with Business to Arts.

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