Ever walked home late at night and become conscious of somebody else’s footsteps behind you?
I was taking a short walk on Malet Street when I was startled by a strange sound that seemed to echo my footsteps.
When I walked faster, the beat of this uncanny tune became quicker, too. When I stopped, it all became quiet again. I was puzzled and curious.
As I walked on, I reached the gate to the Malet Street Gardens and the mystery was revealed to me at once.
The sound I could hear was produced by technological devices, which on detecting the sound of footsteps replicates the rhythm with a metallic sound, as if a stick were running along the iron railings.
These ‘Phantom Railings’ have been here for about a year, and I’m glad I stumbled across them. It’s the work of ‘Public Interventions’, an artistic collective dedicated to developing innovative ways of engaging the public within the urban environment of London. They are particularly interested in using technology to establish new lines of communication and aesthetic response: in this case, they successfully manage to draw your attention to the strange absence of iron railings.
Malet Street Gardens is one of few places where the iron bars taken off during the Second World War were never replaced: the residual trace of the past punctuates the wall with dark metal stumps. The historical dimension of the installation also made me think of another evocative use of sound: Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet (‘Fallen Leaves’) in Berlin’s Jewish Museum: this uses 10,000 metal ‘faces’ carved in metal discs, and placed in an area of the museum that visitors are invited to walk on.
‘Phantom Railings’ speaks of a past that once was but also of the meaning of fences, barriers, and other kinds of lines demarcating private spaces. Such borderlines are expressions of power, status, ownership. They are reminders that the city has fewer and fewer public spaces. At times, the railings become, themselves, contested spaces. Like proper frontiers, they are the site of urban conflict: the number of signs urging cyclists not to attach their wheels to railings is on the increase.
These kinds of warnings – and the transgressions associated with them – make me think of a poem I read when I was studying English at school: Jenny Joseph‘s ‘Warning‘.
Here the poet, who was only 29 at the time, longs for the little subversions she will be indulging in later in life, breaking all the rules and regulations she is abiding to as a young person:
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
When was the last time you broke a rule? And how did it make you feel?