They wanted to pay tribute to the original architecture of the galleries by using it as a raw material for their work.
“As the space is a provocation to artists and curators, so the installation is a provocation to the building,” Diller told Dezeen.
“One of the obvious attributes is this transparency and how it creates a provocation to everyone using it. So our first instinct was to create a problem for that transparency and to flirt with it in a different way.”
The glass walls of the larger gallery space to the left of the main entrance are coated with a liquid crystal film that fades in and out of transparency as an electric current passes through it.
“Liquid crystal film has been around probably for about twenty years or more. Generally it goes off and on. What makes this film unique is that you can control it,” explained Scofidio. “You can actually dial it down so it gradually changes to transparent, to translucent.”
“We tried to make it as invisible as possible,” added Diller.
A red plastic bucket on wheels appears to be the only occupant of the room. Inside the bucket is a camera and sensors that guide its movements around the space to collect drops of water that fall from the ceiling, as if there is a leak. As each drop falls, a loud noise sounds.
“We came up with this kind of mischievous thing, this leak. Just a leak, but it’s a very smart leak with a very smart bucket that captures it,” said Diller. “The [idea of this] empty space with just one very kind of banal object that is actually doing something very smart – it grew out of that. And then we thought: okay what do we do with the sound of that drop? How do we relate it to the next space?”
The smaller gallery to the right of the main entrance is occupied by a large screen that hangs parallel to the floor like a suspended ceiling, but just one metre above ground level.
To view the images being shown, visitors are invited to lie down on black loungers supported on wheels and propel themselves underneath the screen or use curved mirrors controlled using long black metal handles.
Once underneath, the moving image they see is a blown up version of the video footage captured by the camera in the bucket moving around in the space opposite. As each drop falls into the bucket, the surface of the water ripples, with the effect becoming amplified on the screen.
The sounds initially generated to accompany the drops of water also become distorted in the second room and choral voices are added to the acoustic arrangement, which was devised by American composer David Lang.
“The notion of, in one space – in the big space – doing something very tiny, almost invisible, almost nothing, and then taking that to the other space, makes it into the comic here and the sublime over there,” said Diller.
“It’s doing something that’s very ethereal in a way, but also grotesque, with that very large image and that drop becoming very forceful and the compression of watching with that very low floor-to-ceiling height.”
“We started by doing installations in galleries and it’s only now that we are the other side of the wall,” said Scofidio.
“We never said ‘one day we’ll be doing this’ or ‘one day we’ll have a big office’. It was never our intention. We were simply doing things that interested us and using the way that architects conceive the world to investigate conditions which we generally don’t pay a lot of attention to.”
The sanctum sanctorum of Abbey Road is Studio Two, the room where the majority of The Beatles’ recordings were made.
Standing at the threshold of Studio Two, it doesn’t look all that different from a small school gymnasium: a big rectangular box with white walls, 24-foot-high ceilings, and a parquet floor. But as soon as we entered, any thoughts of dribbling basketballs fell away, as I began to remember images of John Lennon and Paul McCartney standing around a microphone at the far end of the room, working out their harmonies.
When each of the tools in that display was first introduced, many music experts were totally wrong about the impact they would have on creative culture. “Records will kill live music,” they said as the phonograph gained popularity. Tape recording was initially viewed with suspicion by recordists accustomed to using disc-cutting lathes.
As digital technology arrived, many people thought it would surely relegate analog recording equipment to the scrap heap. In what seems like a stunning example of shortsightedness, some of Abbey Road’s most noteworthy gear was sold off in a 1980 sale as “memorabilia” at bargain-basement prices. One example—A 4-track recorder used on “Sgt. Peppers’” went for just $800 (that’s $2,300 in today’s money).
For melodic pop music, Studio Two has physical, tonal qualities which transcend its humble appearance. “It emphasizes the midrange,” Kehew says, ”and has a warm, short reverb unusual for a room its size.” These reverberant qualities are so well known that Abbey Road’s rental contract actually prohibits any sampling of its distinctive acoustic signature. As I stood in the room, I could hear the echoes of the vocals and kick drums on some of my favorite recordings of all time.
Kehew agrees that every tool can have a place as part of an artistic palate. “Old is not good or bad,” he said. “Question it. Try it. Listen. Buy weird bad gear and great quality gear—see what it does for you. I love Jon Brion’s quote—‘I don’t want to be Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi, I want to be ALL-Fi!’”
Scott touched on this in the lecture too, recounting that this was the approach that caused Beatles producer George Martin to turn down Abbey Road’s first 8-track recorder for use on the White Album. The 4-track recorders used for years by The Beatles had been specially modified to help create some of their signature sounds. Because the new 8-track recorder lacked those modifications, Martin declined to bring it into the session. His thinking, Scott said, was that it would be better for the process to maintain continuity.
In an ironic twist, Scott mentioned that The Beatles themselves had a different idea. They decided to use the 8-track without Martin’s permission, which got Scott and another engineer into a fair amount of trouble. The fact that the device was used to track parts of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” probably helped accelerate the forgiveness. Even though new technologies can kill off old ways of working, it’s ultimately up to humans to decide the hour that they should.
“It was the 60s,” Scott said of the incident. “Rules were meant to be broken.”
At the beginning of the Beatles era, technicians had to complete what amounted to an extended apprenticeship program—and were even required to wear white lab coats (Winston Churchill once quipped that Abbey Road made him feel like he was visiting a hospital). Prospective engineers were brought up through the ranks slowly and instructed on the “rules of the process” at each stage.
But as the 60s went on, culture—specifically counter-culture—began seeping into the studio and changing that dynamic relationship between the engineers and their tools. Over time, the room became filled with incredibly skilled people who were willing to break any rule if it helped their artists create new and interesting sounds.
It was this combination of playfulness, openness to risk-taking, and deep professionalism which enabled Abbey Road’s technicians to respond to seemingly off-the-wall requests from The Beatles. Engineers began to record amps inside cupboards to get unique sounds. The studio’s tape recorders were rewired to automatically double-track performances. The tapes themselves were sped-up, slowed-down, sliced, and looped—to great effect. Even a joke, Scott says, was turned into an engineering puzzle that he had to solve when John Lennon took him up on his “suggestion” to fit the entire band in a small utility closet for the recording of “Yer Blues.”
A sort of positive feedback loop was happening: Culture was driving the development of technologies which, in turn, emboldened that creative culture to go even farther to create new tools and techniques. This embrace of the unorthodox didn’t mean that the Abbey Road staff abandoned everything they had been taught in the “white coat days,” though. In fact, Scott says it was that training which gave engineers the necessary skills to successfully and intelligently break the rules and develop all those new sounds and techniques.
When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago, though, you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.
Today’s creative paradox is that this human element, which often makes a song distinct or artistically interesting, is the thing which is almost always erased from modern productions.
“Do mistakes make music better?” I asked Kehew. Not really, he responded. It’s just that, when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.
“I’ve done it and seen it many times,” he said. “Take something flawed, work on it ’til every part is ‘improved’ then listen. It’s worse. How could that be? Every piece is now better. But it’s a worse final product.”
This tendency towards incessant improvement has been encouraged by the power of modern tools. These days, sounds are almost always passed through a computer at some point in the recording process. These computers have their own working paradigms—things like cutting-and-pasting, the automated repetition of tasks, and “infinite undo”—which gives them incredible power to alter performances. It also adds more potential for overpolishing and something recording engineers refer to as “option paralysis,” a state where the sheer number of choices available prevents decisions from being made. Almost any element of a recording can be changed, right up until the moment that a song is released to the public.
The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial by comparison, and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process. If, for example, an engineer wanted to exceed the number of recorded tracks that their tape machine allowed, two or more tracks had to be mixed together and “bounced” to an open track elsewhere. Cuts were physical, done with razor blades and tape. Mixes were performed by engineers in real time. Big mistakes at any point in the process could force an entire recording to be scrapped.
It was because artists were often stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them. Once while recording a Beatles song called “Glass Onion” Scott accidentally erased a large number of drum parts that had been painstakingly overdubbed. Certain that he’d be fired, he played the tape to John Lennon. To Scott’s surprise, Lennon said that he liked the unexpected effect created by the glitch—and both the track and Scott stayed.
Scott was clear in his opinion: It isn’t so much the use of these new tools as it is their overuse that serves to undermine musicality.
“The trick,” Kehew says, “is a savvy or talented producer or engineer knows when to be bold and stop. To let character and roughness and lack of polish exist. I can bet most people spend more time polishing something than writing or creating the substance of it. The only cure is to work faster, more often, so you don’t treat every damn thing as being so precious that ‘It Must Be Perfect For All Time.’”
I asked Kevin Ryan if he was able to heed Scott’s warning in his own work. He laughed and acknowledged that knowing the risks of overusing digital tools didn’t make it any easier for him to resist that temptation. Kehew’s final word on the subject was, I thought, an especially Beatle-like principle for not overworking something: “Let it be what it was,” he says. “If it’s not that good, you shouldn’t be recording it.”
Today, Abbey Road straddles a line between modern culture and English Heritage. It has become Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey: partly a tourist attraction, partly a working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed.
Abbey Road is still producing hits though—even as tighter budgets and rising costs have caused many other recording facilities to close. An almost unbelievable number of influential artists and projects have worked (and continue to work) at the studio. Even if you eliminated the entire Beatles oeuvre the list is impressive. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was tracked there. Acts like Kate Bush, Elton John, Oasis, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Green Day, U2, Radiohead, and Kanye West have all recorded there. Countless film scores, too—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings.
Not long ago, viewers of CBS’s 60 Minutes were treated to an intriguing bit of political theater when, in a story called “The Pentagon’s Ray Gun,” a crowd of what seemed to be angry protesters confronted a Humvee with a sinister-looking dish antenna on its roof. Waving placards that read world peace, love for all, peace not war, and, oddly, hug me, the crowd, in reality, was made up of U.S. soldiers playacting for the camera at a military base in Georgia. Shouting “Go home!” they threw what looked like tennis balls at uniformed comrades, “creating a scenario soldiers might encounter in Iraq,” explained correspondent David Martin: “angry protesters advancing on American troops, who have to choose between backing down or opening fire.” Fortunately — and this was the point of the story — there is now another option, demonstrated when the camera cut to the Humvee, where the “ray gun” operator was lining up the “protesters” in his crosshairs. Martin narrated: “He squeezes off a blast. The first shot hits them like an invisible punch. The protesters regroup, and he fires again, and again. Finally they’ve had enough. The ray gun drives them away with no harm done.” World peace would have to wait.
The story was in essence a twelve-minute Pentagon infomercial. What the “protesters” had come up against was the Active Denial System, a weapon, we were told, that “could change the rules of war and save huge numbers of lives in Iraq.” Active denial works like a giant, open-air microwave oven, using a beam of electromagnetic radiation to heat the skin of its targets to 130 degrees and force anyone in its path to flee in pain — but without injury, officials insist, making it one of the few weapons in military history to be promoted as harmless to its targets. The Pentagon claims that 11,000 tests on humans have resulted in but two cases of seconddegree burns, a “safety” record that has put active denial at the forefront of an international arms-development effort involving an astonishing range of technologies: electrical weapons that shock and stun; laser weapons that cause dizziness or temporary blindness; acoustic weapons that deafen and nauseate; chemical weapons that irritate, incapacitate, or sedate; projectile weapons that knock down, bruise, and disable; and an assortment of nets, foams, and sprays that obstruct or immobilize. “Non-lethal” is the Pentagon’s approved term for these weapons, but their manufacturers also use the terms “soft kill,” “less-lethal,” “limited effects,” “low collateral damage,” and “compliance.” The weapons are intended primarily for use against unarmed or primitively armed civilians; they are designed to control crowds, clear buildings and streets, subdue and restrain individuals, and secure borders. The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.1
That race began in the Sixties, when the rise of television introduced a new political dynamic to the exercise of state violence best encapsulated by the popular slogan “The whole world is watching.” As communications advances in the years since have increasingly exposed such violence, governments have realized that the public’s perception of injury and bloodshed must be carefully managed. “Even the lawful application of force can be misrepresented to or misunderstood by the public,” warns a 1997 joint report from the Pentagon and the Justice Department. “More than ever, the police and the military must be highly discreet when applying force.”
In this new era of triage, as democratic institutions and social safety nets are increasingly considered dispensable luxuries, the task of governance will be to lower the political and economic expectations of the masses without inciting full-fledged revolt. Non-lethal weapons promise to enhance what military theorists call “the political utility of force,” allowing dissent to be suppressed inconspicuously.
When the leveling power of mass communications has increased the ability of protesters to achieve concrete political gains, the Pentagon and federal law-enforcement agencies have responded by developing more media-friendly systems of control. Now, under cover of the “war on terror,” the deployment of these systems on the home front has dramatically escalated, an omen of a new phase in the ongoing class conflict.
The commission recognized that in riot control, the dilemma facing police was “too much force or too little.” Warning that excessive force “will incite the mob to further violence, as well as kindle seeds of resentment for police that, in turn, could cause a riot to recur,” the commission identified the problem as the lack of a “middle range of physical force.” It saw the solution in “nonlethal control equipment,” and called for an urgent program of research, noting some of the possibilities:
Distinctive marking dyes or odors and the filming of rioters have been recommended both to deter and positively identify persons guilty of illegal acts. Sticky tapes, adhesive blobs, and liquid foam are advocated to immobilize or block rioters. Intensely bright lights and loud distressing sounds capable of creating temporary disability may prove to be useful. Technology will provide still other options.
The ultimate goal, it seems, is to fight “Military Operations on Urban Terrain” (MOUT), using weapons with a rheostatic capability that, like Star Trek’s “phasers,” will allow military commanders to fine-tune the amount and type of force used in a given situation, and thereby to control opponents’ behavior with the scientific precision of a wellmanaged global production system.
The first significant use of these new weapons, appropriately, was against the fierce anti-globalization demonstrations that began at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in 1999. The largest upsurge of the left since the Sixties, the anti-globalization movement mobilized thousands of separate groups in a campaign against the human and environmental costs of corporate imperialism. Protesters had a new technology of their own to exploit — the Internet, which provided an unprecedented means of organizing and sharing information. More than 40,000 protesters converged on Seattle that November with the widely announced intention of “shutting down the WTO” in order to highlight its predatory “free trade” policies. With mass civil disobedience coordinated by cell phones and laptops, teams trained in nonviolence formed human blockades at strategic locations, snarling traffic, trapping trade delegates in hotels, and barricading conference sites; many thousands more swarmed streets in a “Festival of Resistance,” paralyzing the city’s business district.
Police attacked demonstrators with nearly every non-lethal weapon available to civilian authorities: MK-46 pepper-spray “Riot Extinguishers,” CS and CN grenades, pepper-spray grenades, pepperball launchers, “stinger” rubber-ball grenades, flash-bang concussion grenades, and a variety of blunt-trauma projectiles. But the protesters held their positions, forcing WTO officials to cancel that day’s events
Galvanized by their victory, protesters targeted economic summits in rapid succession, swarming meetings of the World Economic Forum, the G8, and other gatherings in a dozen major cities. But without Seattle’s advantage of surprise, they faced increasingly elaborate MOUT tactics.
With the launch of the Global War on Terror, “the gloves were off,” as the White House put it: authorities had free rein to target protesters as potential terrorists.
The Rand Corporation, for its part, had already anticipated the power of what it called “netwar,” in which networks of “nonstate actors” use “swarming tactics” to overwhelm police and military. As Rand analysts wrote in a 2001 study, Networks, Netwars, and the Fight for the Future, the practitioners of such tactics “are proving very hard to deal with; some are winning. What all have in common is that they operate in small dispersed units that can deploy nimbly” and “know how to swarm and disperse, penetrate and disrupt, as well as elude and evade,” all aided by the quick exchange of information over the Internet.11
Now new tactics were at the ready, and the antiwar movement stalled as protesters found themselves faced with fenced-off “free speech zones”; stockyard-gated “containment pens”; the denial of march permits; mass detentions; media disinformation operations; harassment and detention of legal observers and independent media; police and FBI surveillance; pre-emptive raids on lodgings and meeting places; and growing deployments of non-lethal weapons. Among the more foreboding of these was the presence at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City of two Long Range Acoustic Devices, or LRADs, which use highly focused beams of ear-splitting sound to, as the manufacturer says, “influence behavior.”
The next hurdle for non-lethality, as Colonel Hymes’s comments suggest, will be the introduction of so-called second-generation non-lethal weapons into everyday policing and crowd control. Although “first-generation” weapons like rubber bullets and pepper spray have gained a certain acceptance, despite their many drawbacks, exotic technologies like the Active Denial System invariably cause public alarm.13 Nevertheless, the trend is now away from chemical and “kinetic” weapons that rely on physical trauma and toward post-kinetic weapons that, as researchers put it, “induce behavioral modification” more discreetly.14 One indication that the public may come to accept these new weapons has been the successful introduction of the Taser — apparently, even the taboo on electroshock can be overcome given the proper political climate.
Originally sold as an alternative to firearms, the Taser today has become an all-purpose tool for what police call “pain compliance.” Mounting evidence shows that the weapon is routinely used on people who pose little threat: those in handcuffs, in jail cells, in wheelchairs and hospital beds; schoolchildren, pregnant women, the mentally disturbed, the elderly; irate shoppers, obnoxious lawyers, argumentative drivers, nonviolent protesters — in fact, YouTube now has an entire category of videos in which people are Tasered for dubious reasons. In late 2007, public outrage flared briefly over the two most famous such videos — those of college student Andrew Meyer “drive-stunned” at a John Kerry speech, and of a distraught Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, dying after repeated Taser jolts at Vancouver airport — but police and weapon were found blameless in both incidents.15 Strangely, YouTube’s videos may be promoting wider acceptance of the Taser; it appears that many viewers watch them for entertainment.
Flush with success, Taser International is now moving more directly into crowd control. Among its new offerings are a “Shockwave AreaDenial System,” which blankets the area in question with electrified darts, and a wireless Taser projectile with a 100-meter range, helpful for picking off “ringleaders” in unruly crowds. In line with the Pentagon’s growing interest in robotics, the company has also started a joint venture with the iRobot Corporation, maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, to develop Taser-armed robots; and in France, Taser’s distributor has announced plans for a flying drone that fires stun darts at criminal suspects or rioters.
Second-generation non-lethal weapons already appear to have been tested in the field. In a first in U.S. crowd control, protesters at last September’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh found themselves clutching their ears in pain as a vehicle mounted with an LRAD circled streets emitting a piercing “deterrent tone.” First seen (but not used) at the 2004 Republican Convention, the LRAD has since been used on Iraqi protesters and on pirates off the Somali coast; the Israeli Army has used a similar device against Palestinian protesters that it calls “the Scream,” which reportedly causes overwhelming dizziness and nausea.
It may be “tactical pharmacology,” finally, that holds the most promise for quelling the unrest stirred by capitalist meltdowns, imperialist wars, and environmental collapse. As JNLWD research director Susan Levine told a reporter in 1999, “We need something besides tear gas, like calmatives, anesthetic agents, that would put people to sleep or in a good mood.” Pentagon interest in “advanced riot-control agents” has long been an open secret
Penn State’s College of Medicine researchers agreed, contrary to accepted principles of medical ethics, that “the development and use of non-lethal calmative techniques is both achievable and desirable,” and identified a large number of promising drug candidates, including benzodiazepines like Valium, serotonin-reuptake inhibitors like Prozac, and opiate derivatives like morphine, fentanyl, and carfentanyl, the last commonly used by veterinarians to sedate large animals. The only problems they saw were in developing effective delivery vehicles and regulating dosages, but these problems could be solved readily, they recommended, through strategic partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry.16
such research is prohibited by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by more than 180 nations and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1997. Little more was heard about the Pentagon’s “advanced riot-control agent” program until July 2008, when the Army announced that production was scheduled for its XM1063 “non-lethal personal suppression projectile,” an artillery shell that bursts in midair over its target, scattering 152 canisters over a 100,000-square-foot area, each dispersing a chemical agent as it parachutes down. There are many indications that a calmative, such as fentanyl, is the intended payload — a literal opiate of the masses.
Schlesinger, who served under Richard Nixon, repeated a familiar argument. If riot-control agents were to be banned, “whether in peace or war,” he said, “we may wind up placing ourselves in the position of the Chinese government in dealing with the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. The failure to use tear gas meant that the government only had recourse to the massive use of firepower to disperse the crowd.”17
the formulators of our policy of pain compliance feel so limited in their options — confronted by citizens calling for change, their only response is to seek control or death. There are many other possible responses, most of them far better attuned to the democratic ideals they espouse in other contexts. That pain compliance seems to them the best alternative to justice is an indictment not of the dreams of the protesters but of the nightmares of those who would control them.