Once Canada Square

2014, Digital Video

Once Canada Square takes London’s financial heartland as a starting point for a surreal architectural visualisation. The film-makers used photography and field recordings distorted through digital software and their own collaborative exchange to turn the material into a seductive, graphic animation that utilises the nature of movement to explore notions of progress and development.

Composer | Zai Tang

London Short Film Festival | ICA | Jan 2015
Dreams & Destruction | Demolition Series, UCL UrbanLab, London | Mar 2014
Around Sound | London | Jun 2014


Interview with T-R-E-M-O-R-S Magazine

(T-R-E-M-O-R-S) Let’s begin with your working methodology. Could you explain your collaborative working methodology with regards to psychogeography and how this leads to the creation of raw material for projects?

(Zai) Developed from Simon’s proposal for UCL Urban Lab’s Demolition Season, Once Canada Square emerged through a process of exchanging and refining short audio and visual sequences. These were developed from raw material collected during dérives in London that we conducted separately for our individual MA projects in 2009.

At that time we weaved Situationist ideas into each of our practises for differing reasons, however there was certainly overlap in our use of the dérive as a strategy to construct an experience of London away from the structure and routine that life in the city can dictate.

I was particularly interested in using walking as a means to explore the relationship between sound and my perception of the urban environment, so I embarked on a series of journeys stemming from different bridges along the Thames.

(Simon) We both shared an interest in walking as a way of engaging with the urban environment. I think it’s an attempt to understand and rationalise our surroundings by experiencing it first hand. I’ve always seen psychogeography as an approach, rather than something we set out to achieve.

When I first moved to London, I felt a strong sense of alienation from such a large and unknowable city. In particular, London’s skyscrapers dominate the view of the city and yet to me they were entirely inaccessible and sort of irrelevant. So the initial idea for the project was simply to walk from One Canada Square, which was once London’s tallest building, to the Shard, now the tallest building in Western Europe. This was fairly soon after the financial crash and I think I was questioning the point of these structures – what did they now represent?

This sort of journey, tactical walking if you like, is very much inspired by writers such as Guy Debord, Michael de Certeau and more recently Iain Sinclair and Will Self. They use walking as a way to deconstruct the landscape and develop their own understanding towards it.

How one documents this experience is, of course, subjective. I simply photographed elements of the landscape that I felt either encapsulated a particular point of the journey, or structures that seemed to symbolise my ideas towards it. But for us the work then takes on it’s own direction and becomes something that might be entirely detached from its original context.

(T) The material of the work appears complex and multi-layered. How is the raw material processed within the collaboration? Are there any particular techniques employed? Does this way of working have an impact on the experience of the work?

(S) Visually, the material I photographed has been through many phases of collage and distortion. I began by cutting up the images to form ‘shattered’ collages from the initial photographs. After playing with these shapes in animation software, I built more complex imagery out the resulting frames. When Zai and I started to work on the film I drew imagery from various stages of this process to create new animations. Each time the images are treated, something is lost and something new is created. It’s perhaps not obvious, but this process itself creates that multi-layered complexity.

Zai used the term ‘collaborative exchange’ to describe our previous work – Exploit (Bukit Brown Cemetery II) – whereby he would provide me with sound material (sometimes raw, sometimes effected) and I would respond with a visual representation of that sound. In turn, he would develop new sounds either to echo my visuals better or to take the idea further. Circumstances meant that this process was used less in the development of ‘Once Canada Square’. But I think the idea of destroying and creating material purely through collaboration is still there. By working with different media, we sort of had to acquiesce to each other’s ideas. The work took on a life of its own in this sense, something that is perhaps less controlled.

(Z) To the field recordings, I applied a varied palette of distortion and reverb effects, layering & EQing, time-stretching, granular synthesis, re-sampling, splicing and destructive editing*. These were applied to sculpt as close a relationship between sound & image as possible.

My sonic responses to Simon’s visual sequences were sketched ‘live’ using outboard gear. From these sketches details are elaborated on and refined. This approach provides a greater sense of involvement with the material, a chance to keep things fresh through ‘play’. It keeps the process enjoyable, allowing for more spontaneity and instinctive responses.

*Destructive editing; any process applied to the original file is permanent, i.e. you can’t go back to a previous version.

(T) Although the work is created in and appears to constitute an experience of London, it also seems to represent, for me, a more general claustrophobic, chaotic urban experience. How would you describe your urban vision?

(S) I think it’s significant that both the seed of the idea and the material we collected were developed whilst we were studying Digital Arts at Camberwell. It was essentially a Fine Arts course, but with a particular focus on digital technology and theory. Our interests in the built environment were framed by considerations of digital environments.

Physical spaces now compete directly with digital environments, to the point that there’s no real boundary anymore. I’m interested in how this changes our everyday experience of the urban environment. The effect of being so intimately connected to people, places and information that is outside of my immediate vicinity seems to add another dimension to the urban experience. Its perhaps this idea that inspired the chaotic nature of the film.

In addition to this, I’m interested in how the physical World is represented and re-created in digital environments. Thinking of something like Second Life, in many ways it closely mimics the physics of ‘actual’ space. Yet when you think about it, there’s no need for gravity, or skies, or walls, or human shaped avatars. There’s a kind of absurdity to it. Parallel to this, there used to be an idea that dense urban centres would become superfluous once digital connectivity had reached a certain point. People would no longer need to be situated together physically in order to work together. This clearly hasn’t been the case, but there still seems to be something archaic about constructing statement buildings such as the Shard. Particularly so soon after the financial collapse. I had this sense that skyscrapers had served their purpose, providing space that wasn’t necessarily needed and representing an economic system that was on its knees. So the work itself is sort of absurd. There’s no up or down, no permanence.

(T) Considering the work is regarded as an experience, how does your experience of urban life directly inform the work? How would you like others to experience it? Is there an ideal context in which to offer this experience?

(Z) Being largely influenced by acoustic ecology, my experience of most environments (urban or otherwise) is largely mediated by my ears. I spend time actively listening and recording the sounds that affect my experience of places, as a means of forming a deeper connection and personal understanding of it.

In an increasingly urbanized world the soundscapes we inhabit are becoming homogenized and over populated. The sounds that imbue places with a distinctive sense of identity and provide us with a feeling of belonging are often drowned out by the perpetual morphosis of our lived environment. This is particularly noticeable in Singapore, where the rate of change is incredibly rapid.

If one listens closely, traces of these ideas may be heard within the choice and treatment of the sound material. That said, my only desire when it comes to experiencing and interpreting the work is that the audience use their perceptual autonomy.

(S) The context of producing and showing any work has changed drastically since the proliferation of the web. Its something that you now have to consider, even its merely in terms of promotion. The complete rejection of any web based content relating to a work or project would still, in some way, represent a statement towards it.

Once Canada Square was produced whilst Zai was living in Singapore and I was in London. So despite the collaboration, I was spending a lot of time at the computer alone. I like the fact that the experience of making the piece is then reflected in the way a viewer might experience it.

That said, I still value the cinema experience. The idea of an audience entering into an immersive space and releasing control to whatever a film-maker may decide to show. This was a concept that I considered in relation to architecture and urbanism when making the film. The ever developing landscape of a city is something we ultimately have to acquiesce to, there’s no control of over it for most people. Although one choses which films to watch, cinema’s are constructed so that once you’re sat down your only option is to leave if you don’t like what you see. That loss of individual control in both the urban experience and that of cinema is something I’m particularly interested in.

(T) Lastly, how do you consider the future of life within urban environments with regards to current trends in architecture, planing and development? What are your projections for the future of human experience in the urban realm?

(Z) Through multi-disciplinary studies, such as the Positive Soundscape Project, a strong case is being made for the relevance of acoustic ecology to both urban planning and architectural practice. As this field continues to expand the chance of positive cross-pollination will hopefully increase, bringing us toward a future urbanism that considers a place’s soundscape as integral to its experience, rather than simply being disregarded as a derivative of its creation.

We often talk about looking towards the future, but what about listening out for it? Life within the city often causes people to drown out their aural surroundings and immerse themselves in individual listening experiences, perhaps its time we remove our headphones and stop to listen to the sound environment we share. Only then might we be able to hear where we’re heading too.

(S) As mentioned above, I find the continuing construction of high-rise buildings slightly archaic. It was recently revealed that London can expect many more of these buildings over the next few years. And take up of office space in the Shard itself has been slow. These buildings seem to become redundant on construction. Obviously space in London is at a premium, but it appears to me that the desire for progress and development hasn’t died with the many millions of pounds that were wiped off of the economy in 2008. There’s an element of futurism to this that suggests technological progression and continued development is the only way out of a situation that it helped to create in the first place. All this points to an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere, where cities (or at least, London) are dominated by bleak, empty towers.

Having said that, it’s important to remember that London has been through more turbulent times than these. It constantly regenerates itself. Although I sometimes feel alienated from parts of central London, I think it’s fascinating that other areas, further from the centre, are seeing a new lease of life where new experiences are created.

I like to imagine a future where the dystopic centre of London is reclaimed by those who are financially exiled from it today and we can start the whole cycle all over again. I’ll be watching from a balcony, eating the dog.