Fallender ton für 207 lautsprecher boxen

I’ve been collecting speakers on the streets of London for many years. This summer, I filled my car with as many as I could squeeze in – about 45 – and drove to Berlin. Once there, I secured sponsorship from a recycling company and collected another 162 discarded speakers.

In the studio, it became immediately apparent that each of these rejected pieces of consumer technology had a story to tell, a history which endowed them with a kind of personality. Although it was far from my original intention, I decided to arrange the speakers in what the curator, Wolfgang Schlegel, described as “a field of social tension” which would suggest a sort of narrative but also draw attention to the personalities of the individual speaker boxes, projected through their design, the marks of use and misuse, the modifications carried out by their owners, and even their smell.

The huge speaker which appeared to be emerging from the wall (or was it crashing into it?) must have once lived in a pub, as it was sticky with old beer and smelled of stale cigarette smoke. The sound emerging from it was a set of very slow Shepard Tones, which give the illusion of falling continuously in pitch – forever. This is impossible, of course, because the sound would soon go below the frequency threshold of human hearing: Shepard Tones, as developed by Roger Shepard in 1964, are the aural equivalent of an optical illusion. Circulating through the other 206 speakers in 7 audio channels were fixed frequency sine tones tuned to the resonant frequencies of the gallery, as well as a set of sounds I synthesized in response to the ambient sounds of the building and the surrounding environment. When the falling tones crossed the frequencies of the fixed tones, a pronounced beating occurred as the sound waves moved in and out of phase with each other.

Although a story of some sort was clearly suggested by the ‘personalities’ of the speakers and by their arrangement, the interpretation of possible narratives was left open. I wanted to create a feeling of suspension in time, of travelling but never arriving, but I wanted it to remain unclear whether this was a moment frozen in the middle of a disaster, a miracle, or something altogether more quotidian. Consequently, some visitors saw it as a concert hall scenario or a choir, others as a cityscape, still others as a political rally. Although most people immediately saw the humour of this absurd gathering, after a time some found the atmosphere contemplative, others unsettling. Associations were made with the Jewish Memorial in Berlin, with 9/11 and with wartime bombs.

At the opening, Ulrich Jansen spoke to me about how strongly this collection of speakers brought back memories of all the music he’s heard in so many different places in his life. After my return to London, he emailed me the following thoughts:

Speakers - there are really a lot of them during my life. Some of them I could have said were mine, some of them I wanted to own and some of them I really didn’t even want to touch.

At the age of 16, I had a girlfriend whose parents had an open living room with an open fireplace and a classic big stereo. Sometimes if her parents were not home we played some of our stuff (I was into Rory Gallagher), and it was cool to hear the difference between my own little Universum Stereo Compact Amplifier System and this really big one. One day just before her parents were due to come home, I had this thought that if her parents realized that we played our music on their stereo, they might think that the speakers could go out of tune - I mean really get out of tune like a instrument.

In our kitchen we had a little radio 40x15x15 cm and my father was very proud of it. It was made of wood imitating plastic. All day this little cube was yelling the news - there was very little bass and the high frequencies where a bit cut off. Sometimes we changed the station and with a little luck they played Popcorn. As trashy this song was, it was perfect for this kitchen radio.

With the first money he earned, my brother bought himself 2 big Dual drei weg Boxen - 3-way speakers, wood or wood imitation, who knows. After a few months I found him in father’s workshop in the basement opening these speakers with a screwdriver, and there was something else inside this cube, a kind of rockwool, like house insulation. Later I heard that the real ones use sheep’s wool.