The Scrub Transmissions series is an occasional installation project run by Julie Campbell aka LoneLady, in which she ‘cements an MP3 device into the fabric of a structure, somewhere in the city or its outskirts.’ It is a ‘rumination on the built environment’, a ‘discreet intervention.’
The first of these was sited under the Mancunian Way. This time it is Miles Platting, a ‘clump of unassuming inner city factory districts’ where LoneLady walked ‘to burn out anxiety patterns and seek consolation’, as it ‘seemed to offer a habitat, a place to belong.’ She wanted to listen to ‘the voices of the landscape’ here, ‘before they are scrubbed out’.
The word ‘scrub’ is used in a double-edged sense, as in scrub land, waste, but as a verb, to clean up, and in urban terms, to gentrify. LoneLady’s greatest edge on the rest of the pop world has always been her imaginative capabilities.
But there is something powerfully simple going on here too: One thing that pop music does is move people out of their private spaces and into public ones. Ever since the music hall and beyond, this has meant an audience, a stage and performers, a night out.
By siting an MP3 player in the urban landscape that you can go and plug into, LoneLady moves private bodies into public spaces again, but this time not into a venue. She wants you to see and hear what she sees and hears when she takes those recharging walks into Miles Platting, walks that may not be possible forever, or at least not in this form.
The history of sound and field recording has always had an ecological dimension to it. The Vancouver Soundscape Project captured the noise of shipping, horn blasts and steam whistles which became like an Edgard Varese piece, musique concrete, but with a critical side high modernism didn’t possess, or if it did, a la the vorticists, it had destrustructive tendencies. The Vancouver Soundscape Project mapped industrialising processes through sound.
So I set off to find the second Scrub Transmissions intervention, with writer Natalie Bradbury, and I made a field recording of our journey there.
The map provided to locate Scrub Transmissions No.2 – posted on the LoneLady website – doesn’t give you a didactic route in, it tells you where the site is in relation to Piccadilly Station and Piccadilly Gardens. But in this case all roads lead away from Rome, as you move through the whacky, thumbs aloft, grinning facades of peak Northern Quarter shop window displays, over the intermittent dereliction of the A665 ring road – only a digit away from the number of the beast in ‘666’ – to the now gentrified streets of Ancoats.
Alex Rhys-Taylor, a Sociologist, asks us to expand the way we take in landscapes, to add to the dominant visual sense of them sound, smell, taste and feeling. Rhys-Taylor wrote about the now-cliched Bow Bells in London’s east end, being within earshot of which supposedly gave you bona fide cockney status. Taylor went there in the early 00s and heard no bells. He heard jacked up hip hop beats, industrial drills and car drones.
More recently, the last bell foundry closed in the east. What this tells Rhys-Taylor is that the social world in which one could hear the chiming bells of the churches, landmarks via which people genuinely oriented themselves in this version of the city, has gone. But crucially, he does not insert a bucolic vision here, where the past could be redeemed and the bells could be heard again, people are just navigating by other means, cars, GPS, public transport, all of which can still be heard.
It might be tempting to assume that all of that applies to that very loaded area, the mythical east end, but not here. But this is not the case: The back streets of the Northern Quarter and Ancoats are currently undergoing transformations that will render them not back streets at all. They aren’t just being ‘cleaned up’, the total transformation of their surfaces will change the spaces completely; they are being turned inside-out, like a sock. Or rather, they are being turned outside-in, as all the stitching – the wires and rusting pipes – vanishes under the appealing patterns of the commercial city.
One could still see the same thing in Soho maybe forty years ago, there were back streets and front streets, but now, mostly, as the demand for space intensifies, there are only front streets. This is the opposite of what Engels observed in the 1840s, where front streets served to conceal the poverty out back.
The Manchester streets have been changing from places where private bodies traditionally made themselves public, the Free Trade Hall conversion to a Radisson hotel for instance, to spaces where public bodies make themselves expensively private.
The sound of angle grinders and road rollers drone out of the whole area, as though the buildings themselves are painfully growing out of the cavities they are in. It is the foggy sound of an anaesthetised migraine toothache, decorated with the occasional machine screech of molar growing pains. But this mixes with the smell of food, the nouveau bakeries and delicatessens. Again, Rhys-Taylor makes these observations in relation to London.
We move slowly away from the ring road and up past Will Alsop’s chips building, the crassest height of post-Olympic bid, post-IRA bomb regeneration postmodernism. It already seems to be slightly grubby, beginning to confirm Owen Hatherley’s predictions about the slums of the future. Manchester Modernist co-founder Maureen Ward explains that this has been a strong part of Manchester’s narrative over the last twenty years or so, the urge ‘to entirely restructure its landscape and public spaces into a series of distinct marketable quarters or villages, effectively commercialising all aspects of the “city experience”‘.
She explains that this ‘is part of a wider trend globally to repackage our cities’ and as ‘Debord would argue, our personal lives’ which are placed ‘into commodified packages for consumption rather than “living” in any tangible sense.’
This nod to the Situationist Guy Debord is utterly appropriate: Some people refer to this building as the ‘chip butty’, the ultimate working class food, carbohydrates delivered inside more carbohydrates, coming out of a culture of draining manual labour. But this iconic working class food has been forced into irony, like much else on the cultural landscape in Manchester and elsewhere, its working class origins are only tolerable if they are placed in scare quotes followed by ‘LOLZ’. This is New Islington after all. Blair’s sick grin hovers over the whole zone.
Dale Lately recently wrote in the Guardian about the Manchester ‘pawn shop bar’ Dusk Til Pawn and similar trendy haunts. But up above the chips building the landscape changes and the irony gets far bleaker, as we pass the abandoned Bank of England pub, on Carruthers street, a name conjuring a butler, or perhaps an upper middle class civil servant.
The Bank of England is shuttered in black steel, a single CCTV camera scans the side, or more likely, it doesn’t: The dead eye of zombie capitalism; it is ten years now since the crash of 2008. Credit and mortgage lending has been severely tightened by banks who caused the crash in the first place with risky lending.
The landscape changes again, yards full of lorries rear up, and shuttered industrial units, fragments of old industry. Here the dominant sense of the city is the grey noise of wind and traffic that seems so bleak and ubiquitously anonymous. It is a little like the area around Strangeways, it feels by turns abandoned, legitimate and shady.
What we hear in Miles Platting is the sound of post-industrial slump, uneven development as dark ambient music; again it might be tempting to think this is just grey noise, but no, the ‘scrub’ is transmitting perfectly clearly, its message is as obvious as that in the East End. Here is one of the last pieces of city-as-carcass. A last bit of dead flesh yet to be removed by the cosmetic surgeon.
After a wrong turn into some artist studios we find what looks like a factory reception after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. We walk through into the open air. Graffiti proclaims ‘FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE’. It is utterly chilling here. But it is honest, it is the place where those on the edge go, the necessary victims of capitalism. Here is the underbelly of the great pornographic spectacle of Manchester.
The MP3 player embedded in a breezeblock, the goal, is only the dramatic centrepoint of the piece. The journey to and away from it provide the fluctuating prelude and finale. They fluctuate because each journey will be slightly different, although the sound here, at the centre, does not alter. We plug Natalie’s headphones into the MP3 socket. LoneLady begins with a spoken meditation and the track starts.
I am reminded of a Janet Cardiff piece in London from 2003. The ‘audience’ picked up a portable CD player with headphones from Whitechapel library. They put the headphones on, pressed play on the CD, then followed the instructions, out into the street and right, then right again, then left. At points the narrative would talk about specific things, ‘see that man over there?’ In London, the chances of their not being a ‘man over there’ in the daytime are slim. The art, then, played with the line between myth and reality, fiction and fact, sound and walking, story and seeing.
But here, although each person who journeys to find the MP3 player will have a slightly different experience, the landscape itself is both narrative and narrator. The MP3 player is a kind of omphalos. There is a sense of an adventure game, to find a jewel – perhaps the pop fandom provides the urge – but once launched, we are into a wholly different space.
For a person growing up on Blake’s Seven and Tom Baker-era Dr Who, it is possible to feel like you are finding some sort of matter transmitter, or like some Michael Moorcock character, an anti-chaos device. In short, a broadcaster of meaning in all of the draining, primary-coloured meaninglessness.
This, in the end, is the wider purpose of the work and it is rooted back in the concerns of high modernism, particularly Beckett: The world is chaos, it verges on the pointless, it is up to us to find and make value in it.
Today we are privileged, we only have to find, as LoneLady is an exemplary maker of meaning.
Here is some selected photographic documentation on an A3 PDF.
Here is LoneLady’s page explaining the work: http://lonelady.co.uk/blog/scrub-transmissions-miles-platting/