Newcastle upon Tyne (2012)
Surrogate City was a site-specific art installation in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, during the latter half of 2012 that tied in with a limited release of the James Joys album Glyphic Bloom. Six tracks from the album were embedded in six unusual locations across the city via wooden plaques laser cut with spectrograms and QR codes that, when scanned using a smartphone, allowed the participant to stream and download a track from Glyphic Bloom. These tracks were constructed out of many sounds (raw and processed) that had been recorded in each area of the city over several years. To listen to and download the entire EP, one had to walk the city – all locations were within a 2.5 square mile area – and quarry these places' inherent strangeness.
Users were directed to six audiovisual works on a dedicated website (surrogatecity.com) that re-imagined each of the six locations via strange and unsettling audio narratives. These were spoken by musician and artist Bennett Hogg. While seeking to re-imagine each place, the texts also alluded to rhythmic and temporal playfulness of the music of Glyphic Bloom, and more generally to my own compositional approaches. You can listen to each story by clicking on the links below. The website also housed six additional stories I called Future Relics. These were conceived as looping radio broadcasts from the future (the year 2032) featuring a voice recounting the next twenty years of Newcastle’s history through the frame of each of the six sites in the installation. Eavesdropping on a moment of time folded back on itself, the user “tunes” into a future archaeology of place that in its incessant looping, seems frozen, displaced and suspended. These stories were improvised one-take recordings in order to give a more realistic sense of someone recounting and remembering. They are speculative futures that haunt the future-past.
I grew up in Belfast, a city where “the city” was denied to its own population via “no go” areas, willed into being by institutional, religious and political segregation. Military gates and concrete bollards masquerading as brutalist plant pots prevented free access into the city centre, while movement throughout the rest of city was controlled by a network of militarised valves manned by understandably paranoid soldiers or sectarian paramilitaries. To walk was to open yourself up to suspicion by the British Army, the RUC, or anyone wary of outsiders inside their territory. Consequently, few people walked let alone wrote of Belfast as they did London, Sheffield, Brighton, Liverpool and Newcastle. Indeed the great agitator of city planners in the 1960s, Iain Nairn, barely remarked on Belfast, instead writing an uncharacteristically unconvincing essay on Derry in 1961 and a postscript in 1967, one year before the RUC assaulted civil rights protesters and ignited “the troubles” that, over thirty years, decimated Belfast’s architecture and cleaved its population firmly in two. Nairn, an architectural critic, did not consider Belfast one of the United Kingdom’s “changing towns”. Perhaps he saw a city stalled, a behemoth unable to pull itself from post-war industrial decline in the way that other similar-sized cities like Liverpool, Glasgow and Sheffield seemed, at the time, to promise.
Living amongst Newcastle upon Tyne’s unique architectural heritage of grand projects and grand absences is a nourishing experience. To walk it is to trace the multi-grooved legacy of John Dobson, Richard Grainger, T Dan Smith, John Poulson, Ralph Erskine and many other “top down” planners and architects whose work indelibly turned Newcastle city centre into a complex, if not confusing, place to walk around. Nairn himself said that the “chares” – the medieval steps struggling up from the quayside – produced a kind of ‘topographical ecstasy as you go up and down’ (Nairn, 2013, p.15). Later would come a network of elevated walkways, cast in concrete, cleaving pedestrians and cyclists from the cars and lorries on the new motorway below. After that, the creeping indoor streets of Eldon Square shopping centre - Newcastle’s tumorous heart – would stretch from Northumberland Street west to Newgate Street, devouring John Dobson’s 1842 Georgian terraces in old Eldon Square. Today, it continues its expansion further westward. Looking at Newcastle’s architectural legacy, it is surprising how grand the designs for a city the size of Newcastle were, but also how it embraced these projects arguably without losing its peculiar impact, although I would contend that the naturally multilevel topography (especially towards the quayside and the east) and the vertiginous and optimistic architecture of spires, bridges and towers perched on top, is what remains fundamental to Newcastle’s visual thrill.
The Surrogate City project aimed to celebrate and probe, via sound and fiction, this curious, delirious city.
CLICK ON THE IMAGES BELOW TO NAVIGATE THROUGH THE ARCHIVE.
Newcastle offers, on first wander, a duality of movement present throughout the entire city; the elevated walkways for pedestrians and the motorways below for cars. But soon you might notice the subterranean footways that creep below the roads and perch above the underground metro system. You might hear of the invisible rivers that still flow underneath Grey Street and the Highbridge quarter south towards the Tyne, culverted and as silent as the coal tunnels that run from the west towards the Ouseburn valley in the east. There is a third movement, glimpsed as dramatic shards elevated high above the wanderer on Dean Street and the Ouseburn; the east coast railway line overhead. Newcastle gives you a thrilling sense that there is always another groove cut underneath you, or above you. It innervates the wanderer and proffers a modality of movement - that of the hop, skip, and cut - analogous to the syntax of musical and poetic rhythm. The city is crosscut and overlaid with conditions and registers of speed, and made alive by those who use them...
Brendan Ratliff built the installation's dedicated website (www.surrogatecity.com) and masterfully configured its integration with belligerent smartphones.
Bennett Hogg provided his voice and geordie diction for each of the six spoken word pieces.
Culture Lab Newcastle was my artistic home for four enjoyable years and provided workshops, equipment, materials, and expertise.
All photography, words, and music by James Joys.