Inside The Circle of Fire- A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson

A couple of weeks ago I was in Sheffield to see Dr Anna Jorgensen from Sheffield University’s Landscape Architecture department to discuss her work on urban wildscapes. In my down time I not only had an excellent burger and Pulled pork fries at the Twisted Burger Company, but I also went to see Inside the Circle of Fire at Sheffield Millennium Museum.

Co-founding member of electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield-born Chris Watson has nurtured an enduring fascination with sound.

In this ambitious new exhibition, Chris will transform the Millennium Gallery into an immersive ‘sound map’ of Sheffield, charting its boundaries on the edge of the Peak and traveling its waterways to the bustling heart of the city. Recorded over the past 18 months at locations in and around the city, the sound map will use the latest technology to create a sound which changes throughout the gallery, depending on the listener’s location. By truly hearing the sounds of the city, perhaps for the first time, we hope that visitors will gain a new perspective on Sheffield in 2013.

You walk in to be confronted by 4 sofas set around a square rug, with 3 projectors behind you. The whole space is ringed by speakers, including some hung from the ceiling .

The exhibition space
The exhibition space

The projections show a slowly evolving series of black and white photos, mainly depicting the industrial decline of the city, inhabited by ghosts of it’s glorious past. Photos of the bell casting works, are accented by the harmonious peel of their creations, while in the background the foundry siren screams. This is even more evocative having walked past a series of Sheffield bells on the way into the gallery.

At times photos compete with each other on two opposite walls, either conflicting or in harmony with the aural motif.

In my opinion the main themes of the piece, apart from the industry, are the rivers and the football. Pictures of Hillsborough and Bramall Lane are devoid of people, but the ghosts of matches live on in the chanting and singing of ‘High-ho Sheffield Wednesday.’

Recording the sounds of the urban river
Recording the sounds of the urban river

It’s a real shame that sound work is such a hard sell with the general public, with many people walking in; realising there isn’t anything to look at and leaving. For those who take the time to sit and let themselves be enveloped in the sounds of the city, find they leave with a richer experience of the city’s personality.

Chris records audio for the exhibition
Chris records audio for the exhibition

The sounds had an ability to wash over you, and in fact I’m not sure if the photography actually took something away from the experience. When I lay back and shut my eyes I was transported to an image of the spaces.

Interview excerpt from The Quietus

How did you decide on using photographs to accompany the piece?
CW: I don’t often use visuals in my work and I was concerned, putting a sound piece in a public gallery, what I was interested in doing, of course, was engaging people. I thought one way to do this was to use visual aspects, apart from the lighting, apart from the comfy seating, so Alan, this great photographer who works at the gallery, came out with me and documented lots of the recording trips I did, and then we put this series of images together which were black and white, so it’s not too distracting. I mean people can go in and close their eyes and just choose to listen, [but] I know some people like that sense of being able to engage with an image, so we used a series of non-synchronised images. What I didn’t want was to have a slideshow – everywhere you see is a place that you hear in the piece, but not necessarily at the same time.

The early beginnings of Sheffield’s electronic scene in the 80s are readily apparent, with the mixture of field recordings echoing cabaret Voltaire’s first recordings. The sounds of Sheffield have always been informed by its industrial legacy.

Recording the industrial soundscape
Recording the industrial soundscape

Something that was documented in Eve Woods excellent film Pulp: The Beat Is The Law – Fanfare For The Common People.

“Watson captures sounds that we take for granted and illuminates them to art form level.”

The Guardian, click for full interview

One thought on “Inside The Circle of Fire- A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson”

  1. Hi Simon
    Your blog is beginning to obsess me……

    I was looking at the stuff on Chris Watson and I have another bunch of random thoughts based around the video clips and writings….

    He says at one point in his video regarding Inside the Circle of Fire, that he is creating a sound map and hopes that this will stimulate peoples’ imaginations. He also says in the same film that the work is site specific and that familiar sounds would be a memory stimulus. As with any art form participants in looking/listening/interacting will draw on remembered experiences. Our imagination can take us beyond current experience, but still I believe that this will be coloured by our perceptions, our memories and our experience.

    I was interested in his comment that we often “hear everything, but rarely listen” and I feel that this can be trans-located to nearly every art form; see everything but rarely look as an example. He says that our senses have become detuned to avoid distraction. Do we need this de-cluttering aspect in our lives? And is this why we find solace in wilder spaces?

    When we experience our environment we use many senses. One of the issues that artists have to address is how they respond in a medium that presents limited use of the viewers/listeners/participants response. For instance, I go out and see, listen, smell, taste and feel the landscape and the conditions in which it is existing, but I depict it in a way that is mainly visual. This is perhaps why as artists we push the content of our images; to combat the loss of senses in our representations. I think a lot of music deals with this too. (And then we have to consider the impact of how the work is made public/exhibited).

    From reading parts of your proposal, I find it interesting and appropriate that you are looking beyond just a visual response. I think this will inform your outcomes and add a dimension to your work that fixes the context in our current society.

    I am interested in some of Chris Watson’s spoken observations regarding the landscape around Sheffield. He talks of the water creating and sculpting a beautiful landscape. Hence his recording of water as an important aspect of this work. He is using terminology from other art-forms?

    He talks of active use of a particular sense to stimulate thought process to help achieve creative output. In the video the Colour of Sound he speaks of recording transitions within a place – I find this a concept that may be of particular interest for you with regard to Edgelands – where do they begin and where do they end, or is this all part of Nairn’s viewpoint regarding subtopias?

    Another thought for consideration would be the idea of collaboration between artists with specialisms in a different mediums. If like-minded practitioners in say film, music, photography, sound, painting/drawing (the list could go on..) were brought together, would a full “picture” of a place be built? What is the chance of their being such like-minded individuals? (I think this may be an oxymoron). Does such a “Renaissance-man” exist that could cover the whole spectrum? Is the picture actually always an individual response in any case?

    Hope this isn’t too rambling. And thank you for stimulating my brain.



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