the walls have ears – exploring the sounds of senate house library

Sound artist Hannah Thompson has spent the last year on a mission to explore the sounds and memories of the iconic and Orwellian-looking Senate House Library in London.

This art-deco building, designed by Charles Holden, is so special. It was planned and half-built in the 1930s, but part of it was never completed. This building served as the Ministry of Information during the second world war, and George Orwell’s wife actually worked here then, for the Censorship Department, which inspired the Ministry of Truth in 1984. Besides that, it’s always been devoted to education and it’s the University of London’s main library.  I’ve been walking around it for the last ten months with a lot of different equipment to record sounds in it through this period of disruption and change.  

I sometimes feel a bit funny walking around people’s workspace with a microphone. One time, somebody even asked if I was measuring asbestos. The installation I’m building to culminate the year is inspired by Orwell. It’s called Memory Hole (inspired by 1984) and it plays with questions about privacy and transparency. But in reality, this place is completely transparent and that’s quite healthy.

The Memory Hole will be an installation where information and sounds I’ve gathered through the year will be played back to the public – and they’ll be able to feed into it too.

My work is about the things that appear to be and the things that are. The Memory Hole will be an installation where information and sounds I’ve gathered through the year will be played back to the public – and they’ll be able to feed into it too. I want the public to think about the importance of archives: the fact that something will always have to be missed out. Who decides that? How do you know that it’s the truth? What is the difference between selection and conspiracy? I’m using technology I’ve repurposed from 1984 and from the 1940s in honour to both the novel and the time Orwell wrote it. It’s huge and I love it – everything is so tiny and efficient these days, you can fit this library times 60 onto something the size of my fingernail, but to enter into this memory hole there’s a lot of technology involved.

I’m also preparing a public performance with sounds of the building on a 3D soundspace (which will change during the event through my live-coding) in the building itself. I love that idea – it will be almost like a Russian doll. I’ve also been using sensors to pick up temperature and humidity and air pressure, to compare the characteristics of the building through its changing population, over weeks, over the academic year.

I know the building inside out now, from the basement with all the pipes to the flagpole at the top. This place has fascinating archive materials that seems like they were too subversive for the British Library, like collections about witchcraft and pornography…

I’ve been talking to and recording many of the thousands of people who work and study here too. Going through these carpeted rooms in the build-up to exams, as it’s getting fuller and fuller with students, it literally sounds like ants. People come into my makeshift office all the time too. At one time, I felt like a therapist – people would just come in on their way to lunch and I’d realise they were just here to offload, which is cool! What’s also funny is people speaking in hushed tones, acting as though it’s really quiet, while at the same time this really loud drilling is happening all around them! But somehow they’re able to act and behave as if they’re in complete silence, even though there’s this rage going on all around us. You can’t have a more clear juxtaposition than sound art in a library, and that’s been really interesting.

So why did I do all of this? It all started because of the noise band I’m in. When someone from the library who knew my band heard the building work outside, she asked me if I wanted to do it. I’m not sure it’s a good thing if every time people hear drilling they think of my sound! I was originally a violinist, and got through university busking and doing spoken word. It all changed when I got a mixing desk and realised it was an instrument in itself. With the violin there’s only so much you can do to make the sound different. People think electronic music is less expressive than acoustic music, but when you open up an electronic instrument and you touch the circuit and you touch electronics, it feels very organic and expressive.

Because the building is listed, nothing can be removed. But at the same time it’s designed as really functional – it was the first large-scale building to have a central heating system in England – and this combination creates unique sounds and looks. The boiler room sounds incredible, as does the air conditioning, which has been the same one since 1937. So you’ve got these sounds of the mechanical age, 20th-century sounds, and then, as technology develops, you’ve got the new systems. There are all these strange rooms that aren’t really rooms and they’re there because nothing can be removed, they’re almost spaces between the different stages of technological development.

People think electronic music is less expressive than acoustic music, but when you open up an electronic instrument and you touch the circuit and you touch electronics, it feels very organic and expressive.

I love recording the rooms full of books, with this muffled acoustic, and recording the sound of book moves, which is quite symbolic, because right next to here is the Warburg Institute, based on Ali Warburg having to move an entire collection of books from Hamburg to flee the Nazis. These huge trolleys going on parquet floor and their metal banging onto surfaces sound like the trolley wheels in The Shining.

I think this building has a very confused identity with itself. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I find it quite oppressive. It’s partly very proud, standing up here and used in films, and then it’s also something that wasn’t quite built. Some people think it’s got this fascist architecture, but there’s nothing fascist about it! It’s always been a secular building and, as the library for the University of London, its history is connected to the first degrees awarded to women. This is also a way to reflect the whole challenge libraries face in the digital age. I guess in the end it’s about the silence, and the serendipity of going into a library and who you might meet there.

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