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Electric Dreams: An Interview With Haroon Mirza
Robert Barry , June 25th, 2017 13:58

British sound artist Haroon Mirza takes over a former U-Boat base on the French Atlantic coast

hrm199 : Haroon Mirza & Francesca Fornasari, feat. Nik Void & Tim Burgess, Vue de l’exposition /\/\/\ /\/\/\ Production LiFE – Ville de Saint-Nazaire, programmation hors les murs du Grand Café – centre d’art contemporain,Saint-Nazaire, 2017, Photographe Marc Domage

I’m standing in a geodesic dome, snapping my fingers. The clicking sound, of tension pent up and released between finger and thumb, multiplies instantly as the vibratory waves ricochet wildly around the dome. It sounds distinctly inorganic, processed, unnatural, like a ProTools plugin ramped way beyond any believable simulation, or a dense choir of geiger counters cosying up to an atomic pile.

Geodesic domes like this once promised the dream of a better world. For Buckminster Fuller, the form represented his vision of ‘spaceship earth’, a holistic system hurtling through space, every aspect designed to minimise waste and contribute to the harmonic functioning of the whole system – just like the design of the Apollo spacecraft that were being launched as Fuller wrote and lectured, spreading his ideas across a newly switched-on America. But in the hands of the cold warriors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, these structures became something else entirely. They became the material embodiment of the East-West detente as a war fought, to a significant degree, acoustically.

At the top of Teufelsberg, there still stands a dome, now occupied by neo-hippy squatters who will charge tourists a small fee for a guided tour through the now-graffiti-covered concrete. But once upon a time, these great white spheres towering above the Grünewald forest made up of the US military’s most important listening stations, a kind of vast receiver for picking up signals from the East.

The dome I am standing in now was once the twin of the Teufelsberg domes. From 1983 to 2003, it stood atop a high tower at Tempelhof airport, functioning as a radome full of long-range surveillance radar. And then, by way of gift from one neighbour to another, it was taken and transported from Berlin to Saint-Nazaire, where it now stands, and where I now stand, clicking my fingers and marvelling at the weird acoustic effects.

Three years ago, in early 2014, Haroon Mirza was standing here, too, in exactly the same place, doing exactly the same thing, equally bewitched by the sound. He filmed himself snapping his fingers on his phone, the rich yellow sunlight of the French Atlantic coast filtering through the mildewed white panels of the dome just as it does today.

Downstairs, in a structure just as awe-inspiring, and almost as acoustically weird, as the dome itself, that video is now playing, mixed up and collaged into a dense skein of other images, from the famous victory earlier this year of Google’s AlphaGo software against nineteen year-old Chinese champion Ke Jie, to the 1992 Sega Genesis game, Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, to the two teams of Channel tunnellers meeting and shaking hands in the middle, to Marine Le Pen interviewed on TV. Each of these images, in ways more or less oblique, relate somehow to the twin narratives of the dome: as harmonious total system or weapon of acoustic warfare.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Mirza says to me, recalling the first time he came to the LiFE, a giant space for contemporary culture housed in a former submarine base in Saint-Nazaire, on the French west coast, “just the sheer scale of it.” I, too, recall my eyes opening a little wider, my jaw dropping slightly, as my taxi pulled up by the side of this great mass of a thing, like a football stadium designed by Smithsons, 300 metres long, 130 metres wide, and 18 metres high. Concrete as far as the eye can see.

It was built by occupying German forces in the first half of 1941 as a u-boat port, specially selected for the role by Organisation Todt. In 1942, it was the target of a British commando raid, Operation Chariot. The dry dock next door was successfully destroyed. But the submarine base survived. Today, it houses a museum, a restaurant, a cafe, and a rolling programme of cultural events and exhibitions – including, at this precise point in time, an installation by the British artist Haroon Mirza.

It was the acoustics of the building that impressed Mirza, the first time he visited. “When I went it was quite dark,” he recalls. He was in town to do a show at Le Grand Cafe down the road, had no idea that several years later, he would be invited to take over the interior of the LiFE itself. With the lights off inside, the scale of the thing was hard to get a handle on. “But there’s really incredible acoustics in there.” Odd then, perhaps, that the first thing you encounter there as a visitor today is another military technology, designed precisely to neutralise sound altogether.

“I studied at the art school in Winchester,” Mirza says when we meet up at his studio a few days after my return from Saint-Nazaire. “And at the University of Southampton, which Winchester is part of, they’ve got this research facility called the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research. Something like that. I used to go there and hang out in the anechoic chamber.”

Anechoic chambers were first developed at Harvard during World War Two, part of a massive psychoacoustics research effort made by the American military intended to help soldiers cope with the increasingly noisy, quasi-cybernetic environments inside what were then newly-hi-tech aeroplanes, tanks, and other war machines. Covered throughout their interior with jutting foam cones, they were intended to absolutely reduce all acoustic reflections, to create a totally silent, ‘dead’ space. But they became famous in the 1950s after John Cage stepped inside the anechoic room at Harvard and discovered he could still hear two distinct sounds, leading him to conclude that there is no such thing as silence. Later, the appearance of the anechoic chamber became the model for the interior of Thomas Jerome Newton’s space ship in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Recent studies, have suggested that even just a few minutes spent in the total sensory deprivation of an anechoic chamber can lead to hallucinations and the creeping onset of panic. Haroon Mirza used to just “hang out” in one in the University of Southampton in the late 90s.

“I was a guinea pig for one of the researchers,” he says. “We had this exchange. I’d go in and be a guinea pig for him – he was a PhD student – and in return he’d give me time in the chamber to mess around, do recordings and things.” He still recalls sitting in that coned room listening to recordings of a bee buzz around his head, or scissors snip away around him, as if at the hairdressers. “It was quite realistic,” he says. “But you always knew it was a recording.”

At the LiFE, after walking into the great hall of the submarine base itself, you soon come across a room within a room. Stepping into that room, you find yourself in a corridor covered on the inside with the distinctive jutting cones of the anechoic chamber. As you walk down this corridor, there is a certain point where, by turning your head one way or the other, you can more or less choose – to hear the booming reverberating sounds of the exterior, or the subtler sounds inside. For in the very centre of this mini-labyrinth, there is no minotaur – just a stream. A suspended tube, lets flow a constant stream of water into a pool beneath a grate under your feet. On either side of the stream there are two sets of LED strip lights, one red and one blue, such that, when viewed from the side, you see the water current as an entwined red-blue double-helix in constant motion, like two waves flowing up and down.

This double spiral figure recurs throughout Mirza’s exhibition: in the spotlit bright yellow cables teeming down the side of the wall to the side and snaking across the floor towards the other exhibit, and in several of the clips that make up the big four screen installation that comprise the show’s main attraction, snakes entwined, bewitched the charmer’s pipe, the double helix of the DNA code. In one clip, we see a diagram of two soundwaves, equal but out of phase, cancelling each other out to produce total silence. As a man explains in another of the videos, we can conceptualise zero as not just an emptiness, but as the sum of all possible positive and negative numbers, as an “infinite whole.” Just a sidelong glance separating total noise from total silence.

It was his dad’s eclectic taste that first got Mirza excited by music. He recalls mixtapes in the car that would stretch from “80s pop music, to qawwali, or Jean-Michel Jarre.” At school, he would stay behind after class to mess about with the electronic keyboards in the music room. “In the holidays, I’d take one home,” he says. “Once I blew one up.’

“I didn’t have the power adapter for it,” he explains, “and, being really bright, I thought you could just put a cable in the plug socket and just stick it in the other side and turn it on and it would just work.” He starts giggling at the memory, at his own youthful naivete. “I set the carpet on fire. Because the whole wire just went whooosh all the way to the keyboard. I had to stamp it out. It was pretty bad.”

Did it make a sound as it blew up? I ask.

“Yeah,” he says uncertainly. “it made a… sound.” I’m curious whether this was the start of Mirza’s interest in electrical sounds, the buzzes and crackles that still make a significant portion of his distinctive sonic aesthetic.

In the 00s, Mirza became well-known for sculptural assemblages that marshalled synchronised light and sound and a sometimes bizarre assortment of physical objects to create sounding sculptures, often animated by electrical signals and sounds, by buzz, hum, hiss, and crackle. It’s practice he started during a design MA at Goldsmiths spent “trying to look at novel ways to engage with or create music,” he says. “They just ended up being these sort of weird sound-making objects. And then, to be honest, from that point onwards, it’s just been a development of that. The basic principles are the same.”

At the end of the hangar, at LiFE, there is another dome, a geodesic dome like the one on the roof, only a little smaller, and incomplete. It has no roof, as if only half-built. All the signals from throughout the exhibition end up here: the buzz of electricity, the trickle of water, the sounds from the many videos on display, ending up in a circle of twelve speakers that you can stand inside and walk around in.

Chatting in his studio in Camden, I suggest to Mirza that the half-built dome, the videos detailing psychedelic experiences, AI bots, European unification and scission, all point to some idea of the 1960s as an incomplete project. This is the legacy of the counterculture, I suggest, and where those dreams have ended up: in Silicon Valley capitalism and the Californian ideology, in a Europe first united and now divided, in computer games simulating war.

“It’s interesting that you got that,” he says. “I wouldn’t have put that together with the parts of the puzzle that you just put that together with, but I would say the same thing. The work itself isn’t trying to be didactic. I hope it’s not didactic. But if I were to talk about my own ideology, in reference to what you were just saying, it seems like it’s a moment for a sort of revival of that counterculture movement.”

“I’m not a revolutionary,” he insists continuing on the same thread. “But I wonder if it’s possible. Can you have a counterculture which is responsible, which is not just about getting high? Because if there’s a moment for it, it’s now.”

Haroon Mirza’s installation is at the LiFE, Saint-Nazaire until 24 September 2017. From 21 July, he will be exhibiting at the Pérez Art Museum, Miami. From 28 September, he will be exhibiting at the Zabludowicz Collection in London

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