Sound Walk and Art Installation, September 2021-September 2022
Sound Walk September, a global festival, has come round again and I am minded to reflect on the year that No Birds Land has been in the Trinty Tunnel on the Edinburgh cycle paths. Here is last year’s blog with all the details about location, transcript and documentation.
Funded by Sustrans and the RSPB, No Birds Land was shortlisted for a Sound Walk September award in 2021, and a year later, No Birds Land is still up, albeit in a different form.
The preparation time for No Birds Land consisted of lengthy email conversations, and long hiatuses between communications with lots of departments of the City Council and tunnel owners; a frustrating process. I was in contact with all my local MSPs and Councillors, most of whom were very helpful, and some who pulled strings behind the scenes I think. In the end someone (maybe anonymously) telephoned me and suggested I just went ahead instead of waiting for permissions!
Although I had initially planned for wooden A boards at either end of this place where birds cannot nest or sing and hardly ever fly, the signage folk persuaded me that street signs would be better, given the weather and so on, and they have been fantastic, standing stalwart through wind and rain. With their air of familiar street furniture, you need to look twice before realising that they are something a little bit different. Furthermore, covered in graffiti and stickers nowadays, they blend into the tagged landscape beautifully.
The sound endures on the cloud. The QR code printed in indelible inks, its distinctive black and white geometrical pattern prevailing, is the interface between the ubiquitous mobile phone and ‘Soundcloud’, where it sits waiting to be triggered and listened to. It’s an eerie experience for me to walk or cycle through and hear my own voice: “What can you hear? Hear, hear. What can you he-he-he…?”
I never thought it would still exist so much later, indeed I was asked how long it would be up and warned that it wouldn’t last long, what with vandals and so on, that I better watch out for any danger it might cause.
So what has changed?
The very long string of bunting with bird images and sounds on it, was trickier to install than I imagined even though I had my friend, tall-Andrew, to assist, so people stopped. They wanted to know what we were up to and immediately started to help. This community involvement has continued.
For 6 weeks it was untouched, but in October when I proudly led a group of Pilgrimage for COP26 hikers through to show them, it had suffered its first attack and much of it was lying in pools of bright orange water, the run-off from the walls which had collected ores and elements on its way down.
I had been checking almost daily before we left for Dunbar and the start of our Climate Trek. I would stand or sit close by to watch people interacting with it, listening to their conversations if they were in groups, and asking them what they thought if I sensed they were up for a chat. Despite my fears, it had stayed whole.
At this stage of the Pilgrimage, we had a journalist with us who was interviewing me as we walked and my distress was obviously clear because other members of the group started to kindly collect the parts and attempt to make good. However, we had to continue on our way to South Queensferry, so I phoned artist-Lesley that evening and asked her if she might do her best to attend to it until I was able to do so myself, and she kindly obliged.
It has taken on a life of its own
Since then, unseen passers by have often repaired and rehung lengths. I used to do it myself but after 6 months, I thought I would leave it to have its own life, and now I see new types of string connecting the pennants, and sections which weren’t there one day have magically reappeared the next. Little changes have been made, signalling the care that has been taken, and also showing, subtly to me, that there is understanding of the work itself.
The graffiti scrawlers add to it, another artist has complemented it, and nature has made many changes. Walking with Jim Slaven along the canal as part of the Art Festival in August 2022, I was interested to hear him comparing the 2 tunnels along the Forth and Clyde, how one was built soundly, is dry and in tact, and the other was not and lets in the rain. Well the engineer who built the Trinity Tunnel, Thomas Grainger (no relation, even though that’s the exact name of my grandfather who was also a tunnel engineer and worked in Trinity House in London!) didn’t do a great job, because ‘my’ tunnel is verr-ry damp.
And it seems to still have life because when people ask what I do and I tell them about No Birds Land, they know what I mean. They say “Oh yes, I’ve seen it and like it”. Walking along an adjacent path recently, I met a Community Policeman and he knew it too. Talking to dog walkers who were telling me what they thought of the new Sound Walk / Installation, The Wall (my entry for the Sound Walk September 2022), I heard, “Oh you are the artist! Yes, I listened to that and told my neighbours on the stair, ‘you must listen to The Wall’. We need more of these.” It’s heartening, of course.
What is much harder to ascertain, is the effect that No Birds Land has had. Has it informed people about the plight of our nesting birds and why that is happening? Has it suggested alternatives to the prevailing habits of designing glass buildings with no ledges for birds to perch on, nor eaves for them to make their nests under, for example? That is so much more difficult to guage.
This type of long-term intervention in a public space, which is used by commuters and other regulars as a through-way between the sea and the city, encourages people to eventually stop and check it out, it allows for re-listening and sharing with friends and family (I have been told this). It went up at the tail end of the Covid restrictions, at a time when walking was still super-popular, and so there is a high footfall (12-48 people an hour depending on whether it’s a week day or a Sunday). It has repurposed the space and brought art outside and to its audience.
A Sound Walk and Installation on the Western Breakwater, Granton Harbour, Edinburgh, Scotland. 31 July 2022
The developers have shut off the area – ironic (see below) – and it’s currently impossible for anyone to get to this installation. However, you can listen below and look at the photos, imagine you are walking and listening.
Artists Talk / Tour of The Wall Tuesday 20 September 6-7pm Book here (eventbrite). Free. I will post here if it looks like it will be possible to do this.
At the very edge of the harbour, bordering a piece of scrubland whose time is nearly up – it won’t be long before it is ‘developed’ – is a tall wall separating the reclaimed land from the sea. It’s hard to find out who built it and why, but I have a pretty good idea. It’s marked as Granton Breakwater on google maps, although there are in fact three ‘arms’ to the harbour: the best known is Eastern Breakwater (note that the beach, Wardie Bay, is to the east side of that); the Middle Pier (recently renamed Chestnut Street – why?); and the Western one where the soundwalk is located.
This is a spot of ‘guerilla art’, in the same vein as guerilla gardening!
Walls have been in the news in recent years and this unprepossessing one tends to go unnoticed, with the general exception of dogs and their companions. It borders the area which is, as I say, undergoing intense development, most of it for the luxury market. The plans show that there will be concrete walkways and a communal ‘garden’.
Walls serve complex functions and produce varying effects on the socio-geographical aspects of an area, an area in this case which has a rich history. The Granton community used to work and play here every day, it was alive with industry, and their voices can still be heard if you listen carefully.
In the meantime, small parts of the harbour have been returned to straight channels of water, and the railway line and its attendant buildings have, in the most part, disappeared.
It is a psychogeographer’s dream!
Keeping people in check – restrictions
The wall has a distinctive voice. It is not shy to speak, indeed it wants to be heard, it has something to say. After all, it’s another of those structures, like trees and the sea, which is always in one place, come rain, come shine, and has therefore witnessed a lot of what goes on over the ages. The southern end is still covered with roughcast, a sort of pebbledash, and if you look carefully there are fragments of crockery and other interesting hints of these lives.
(Beware the thistles! And try not to crush the chamomile, although if you arrive before midday you can gingerly remove a handful of flowers for a tisane which will taste quite delicious compared to the tea bags you can get in Lidl. The plants will simply send out more blooms in response, and their days are numbered).
This is a land of fences, and as fast as ‘they’ put them up, people have found ways through. Mostly. This was, after all, common ground for nearly 200 years. However, there are two places now where access / exit is impossible, making it necessary to approach the installation the long way round, past security cameras, and for no discernible reason.
During the past few years, place names have been changed, walls have been smoothed over, fittings removed, and ‘messy’ buildings have been redecorated so as to almost wipe out any hint of their former daily functions. The result is a gentrification and appropriation (in the name of regeneration), which erases most external reminders of the past. It must be remembered, though, that ‘the past’ was made by people, and many of those people still live in the area. Their memories are part of who they are; this past is a valuable part of their lives.
The chalk mural will disappear over time, and if a previous installation, No Birds Land is anything to go by, it may also be vandalised. These changes will be part of the duration and time-based aspects of the piece. It will be difficult to know who walks, hears and sees the installation, but by pacing the edgeland like this, learning about this liminal area and feeling the effect it gives, it is hoped that you and it will be stimulated. (Since then I have used spray chalk to redo the mural which should last longer in the weather.)
You can locate this soundwalk and installation by taking the West Harbour Road, and turning onto Chestnut Street. There is a ‘Private’ sign. Turn left onto Hesperus Crossway, and go to the very end of the road.
what 3 words: ///voted.cycles.impose
Slip through the fence and walk forwards. It is a dead end, and in front of you is The Wall.
There is a new fence to your left, meeting the wall at right angles, part of which has been pushed down. You can go over that into the section of scrub land and walk towards the wall. There you will see the QR code to scan with your mobile phone and can then listen to the walk (headphones will probably be best).
You will see some of the chalk drawing ahead of you, and the wall stretching to both sides with the main part of the installation to the left. Once you are listening to the audio, you can walk in each direction according to the instructions, or make your own choice. In total the sound walk is 13 minutes 44 seconds, and it could take you around half an hour to 45 minutes to explore the whole.
Please note that there is nowhere to park except on West Harbour Road, so it’s best to cycle or walk. Or, you can get a bus to Granton Square (16, 47, 19, 200) and walk from there – it will take you around 10 minutes.
If you are not in Edinburgh or cannot get to the harbour, here is a link to the audio part.
Quotes and references are from/to
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Wreck of the Hesperus
Rachel Carson Under the Sea Wind
RLS ‘From a Railway Carriage’
Local street names
I have tried to upload the walk to the Echoes app but it has been unsuccessful. I will try again later.