Civil Defence Siren: Spatialisation and Spatial Plasticity

2021, Extended Essay for the BA (hons) Interaction Design, The Glasgow School of Art


To the victims of the Feyzin disaster


[As this extended essay is currently assessed and scrutinised by electronic tools I cannot yet offer an online version. If you wish to read this paper in full please send me an email]

‘how terrifying is the thought of being remembered every day the imminence of our own death ; and how exhilarating is to be remembered every day that we are in fact alive, well and safe?’

The research have started with this beautiful object (in picture) of the civil defence siren which very characteristic sound both recalls the soundscape of my childhood and the unique geopolitical context of my hometown, Lyon. As it rings every first Wednesday of each month at noon, this sound inherited from WWII acts both as a call for remembrance and an ominous reminder of the war threats, the terrorism and the unbelievably high risk of industrial catastrophes with the city’s very high concentration of chemical factory and nuclear power plant. This strong spatial context leads on a conversation about remembrance (with John Donne’s metaphysical and humanist meditations) and owning the narration of tragedies and catastrophes in displaying them (with Susan Philipsz’s work Study for Strings). Making sound in a ‘visual art’ realm calls for new definitions and challenging the pre-existing ones which (in the anglophone area) are exclusionary of emerging and ambivalent art forms such as sound art and new medias (hot take: we have other senses than the sight). In re-contextualising what it means to ‘be’ and to ‘belong’ somewhere (with the help of Gascia Ouzounian and Brandon LaBelle’s brilliant theoretical writings), I finally deconstruct this idea, making abstraction of it, to concentrate only on the physical space, architectural and 3D volume. Through the lens of Thom Kubli’s playful interaction and materialisation of sound in space and my synaesthetic experience of the acousmonium , I propose to imagine sound as a ‘physical matter’, a ‘plastic’ we can model and shape, a sculptural medium transcending sense, the space itself and our body: this is ‘spatial plasticity’.



Synopsis


This extended essay investigates the potentiality for sound spatialisation to mediate awareness of identity, place, space and self by taking a humanist stance on the narration. I draw upon the geographical concept of spatialisation and the notion of space and place as outlined by Gascia Ouzounian and Brandon Labelle in their respective field of acoustics research. I offer a new vocabulary for the Visual Arts that is more inclusive towards Sound Art as well as ambivalent and emerging practices in the notion of ‘plastic’ art and ‘plasticity’ of a material.

I first contextualise the sound and place of the siren from which emanates the question: ‘how does a situated sound like that of the Siren of Caserne Sergent Blandan reflects cultural identity and affects sound art practices?’ This takes the shape of a civil defence threat assessment of my hometown and an overview of its singular geopolitical context through local history to engage a discourse on spatial relationships. This holistic overview finds that the siren’s ring and its risk education campaign should in fact remind us that the prosperity of the city and our choice to live there comes at the expense of the unavoidable imminence of a major disaster.

John Donne’s meditations to the bells in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions supports my subsequent reflexion on our ambivalent but converging feelings of impending death and doom, remembrance and belonging to mankind when hearing our respective situated sound (siren and bells). I invite to see the siren and the bells as an incentive to look, remember and learn from places and times of conflict and turmoil. The second part of the reflexion opens up on remembrance and to ‘sound the tragic’ with Susan Philipsz’s Study for Strings at Documenta 13. Put in contrast with a study on ritual of griefs I posit that remembrance affords to own a narrative in its display, to cope with our feelings.

The last chapter takes a radically different approach subtracting context, identity and human bodies in profit of pure architecture of space. I offer a new definition for practices – such as Thom Kubli’s – which consideration for the plastic manipulation of sound objects in the pure product of space and architecture could be defined as ‘spatial plasticity’. This is exemplified with a hypothetical mental visualisation of a country filled with siren’s sound, and with Thom Kubli’s Black Hole Horizon which fills the exhibition space with soap bubbles, blown by air horns. I posit that sound is made of a matter, three-dimensional plastic substance, which qualities transcend the visual paradigm. And that in fact, materialising sound is also materialising space. I finally close this essay at the intersection of space and place with the immersive – and almost-synesthetic – acousmonium. I draw a parallel of experience with Gascia Ouzounian highlighting a reciprocal partial synaesthesia in an immersive re- appropriable artificial place. I find that sound in space is an experience in itself which transcends senses, the space in which one’s body is situated, and the body itself. And I conclude by stating that we must regain or take consciousness of our environment, our body and redefine our interpersonal relationships.

Research is carried with a blend of scientific academic reading, archival research and exhibition display analysis.

Keywords: civil defence siren, spatialisation, spatial plasticity, sound art


Table of contents


Introduction

Chapter 1 – Siren of Caserne Sergent Blandan

1.     The fridge-magnet campaign

2.     Lyon’s civil defence threat assessment

2.1.      Lyon’s singular geopolitics

2.2.      From the castle of la Motte to the sergeant Blandan barracks

Chapter 2 – For whom the siren tolls?

1.     Meditations on bells and siren

2.     On remembrance

Chapter 3 – Spatial plasticity

1.     Space bubbles

2.     Acousmonium

Conclusion


Bibliography


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Illustrations

 
Cover Picture and Figure 1. // p. 8
Reformed siren of caserne sergent Blandan. Photo by Author. Lyon, January 2020.

Figure 2. // p. 10
Composite picture of my mother’s fridge door and her les bons reflexes! (the good réflexes) fridge magnet. Photo by Author. Lyon, August 2020.

Figure 3. // p. 13
Gourbin, Didier: Corps de bâtiment est et tours est et sud-est. Vue des toits depuis le sud-ouest [East Building and East and South-East towers. View of the roofs from the South-West]. 2004. Photograph. Région Rhône-Alpes, Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel, Ville de Lyon in Fort de la Motte ; puis Caserne Sergent Blandan included in Ceinture de forts détachés Rouhault de Fleury, Dossier IA69005188 (2004). URL: https://patrimoine.auvergnerhonealpes.fr/illustration/ivr8220056901237nuca/cc5e49ae-fb4e-4cba-afe0-b1a8d516c3b3[04/01/2021]

Figure 4. // p. 14
François, Guy: Vue aérienne du fort de la Motte depuis l’ouest [aerial view of the fort de la Motte from the West] (Agence d’Urbanisme de Lyon, circa 1990). Aerial photograph. Région Rhône-Alpes, Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel, Ville de Lyon in Fort de la Motte ; puis Caserne Sergent Blandan included in Ceinture de forts détachés Rouhault de Fleury, Dossier IA69005188 (2004). URL: https://patrimoine.auvergnerhonealpes.fr/illustration/ivr8220046904587nuca/732976f7-810e-4096-9168-794fe2bfe841[04/01/2021]

Figure 5. // p. 15
Aerial view from the park with Lyon's skyline. BASE, LYON: Parc Blandan. Project page of the landscape agency in charge of the Parc Blandan’s refurbishment. URL: https://landezine-award.com/base/ [13/09/2020]

Figure 6. // p. 20
Susan Philipsz: Study for Strings. 2012. Eight-channel sound work. Installation at Kassel Hauptbahnhof, Documenta 13, 2012. Courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie. Photo: Eoghan McTigue. URL: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/soundings/artists/11/works/ [20/01/2021]

Figure 7. // p. 20
Susan Philipsz: Study for Strings. 2012. Eight-channel sound work. Installation at Kassel Hauptbahnhof, Documenta 13, 2012. Courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie. Photo: Eoghan McTigue. URL: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/soundings/artists/11/works/ [20/01/2021]

Figure 8. // p. 22
Thom Kubli: Black Hole Horizon. 2012-2017. Polyurethane, acrylic, brass tubes, piano-wire, latex tubing, electronics. Variable dimensions. Installation at Kunstverein Ingolstadt, 2015. URL: http://thomkubli.net/black-hole-horizon-eng/[20/01/2021]