Susan Philipsz sounds the One O'Clock Gun at 2012 Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2012

Susan Philipsz

2010 Turner Prize winner on senses, songs and Sirens

Not being a native of Edinburgh, it’s perhaps forgivable that Susan Philipsz knew nothing of the One O’Clock Gun. This capital tradition still terrifies visitors when it’s fired from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle every day. When the Edinburgh Art Festival commissioned Philipsz to create a new work for this year’s event, however, the Glasgow-born winner of the 2010 Turner Prize found herself drawn to the phenomenon and engaged with its history and place in Edinburgh’s cultural landscape.

‘I discovered it when I walked up Calton Hill, because it has a really great view of the city,’ she says. ‘That was where I discovered Nelson’s Monument, which has a big ball that drops from the top every day. It was for the sailors in the Forth so they could set their chronometers, almost like a visual clock, but of course it didn’t work when the weather was foggy. So that’s when they introduced the gun.’

She speaks with fascination about the length of cable used to span the mile’s distance between the gun and Nelson’s Monument in order to synchronise both signals. Now, both actions continue for the sake of tradition only, but Timeline – Philipsz’ specially commissioned work for the festival – will seek to re-establish the link between both locations using a sonic thread.

Sitting on a sofa in the bar of Glasgow’s upmarket Citizen M hotel in mid-May, she removes a bunch of papers from a plastic folder to illustrate her thinking on the project. ‘I considered using sirens, and as I looked into them I discovered they were invented by a guy from Edinburgh, a man called John Robison. But his original intention for them was as musical instruments that could be played underwater, as components of an organ. He called them sirens after the mythological creatures.’ A Siren was an alluring female with an irresistible song who would lure sailors and their ships to death and destruction upon rocky shores in Greek mythology.

From the packet, Philipsz produces a photocopied classical landscape of Athens, which she actually misidentifies as Edinburgh but which could almost be a view of the far-off Castle in the distance from alongside Edinburgh’s Shame on Calton Hill. Her intention for the project includes eight sirens placed at points along a straight line between Nelson’s Monument and Edinburgh Castle. Locations include Calton Cemetery, the roof of the Waverley Gate building which houses Creative Scotland’s office, North and Waverley Bridges and the roof of the Scottish National Gallery.

‘I’ll be using my own voice, a female voice, as it was with the Sirens,’ says Philipsz. ‘Very short bursts of sound, like a … well, I haven’t actually worked it out yet. But short bursts of harmonious voice at one o’clock every day, projected towards the One O’Clock Gun, into the sound of it, almost as if they’re fighting against it. It’ll be a different experience depending on where you’re standing along this path.’

Philipsz studied at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee before moving to Belfast where she established Catalyst Arts and finally settled in Berlin 12 years ago. She says she’s thrilled at the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Martin Creed and Richard Wright in creating a major new commission for the Edinburgh Art Festival. ‘There was no specific brief. They were quite open about what I was able to do. I could have set it in a gallery if I’d chosen to, but what I wanted to do first of all was just climb a hill and look around, because what interests me is architecture, history and acoustics. People respond to my work in different ways, and often that doesn’t even involve thinking. You hear it and become aware of the place you’re in, how the sound interacts with the space. There’s an element of surprise and a sense of self-awareness to the act of listening as well. ’

She tells of an exhibition of hers in Sweden’s Malmö Konsthall where the artificial walls of a warehouse-sized gallery space were stripped away and filled instead with her own voice, a simple construct she wasn’t sure people would buy into. Her Turner Prize-winning piece Lowlands had been staged in both a gallery setting and under the bridges of the River Clyde before its Turner presentation, and whose public iteration was enhanced for the listener, she believes, by the intervention of cars passing by on the roads, trains rumbling overhead and the rush of the nearby river.

That such a major commission as Timeline has been given to an artist at the forefront of sound art is further evidence of the form’s growing acceptance within the mainstream contemporary scene. ‘If you take away the visual aspect of a piece of art, what you’re left with is the context; it’s as if your other senses are heightened. People often describe to me the exact moment of experiencing a work, discussing the weather, even: that there was a slight drizzle or the clouds had parted, that there was a sense of anticipation and then the sound came. I find that really interesting actually, almost to the point of laughing. What is it with the weather?’

When I spoke to Philipsz, she had just come from a meeting of the judging panel for the first Scottish Album of the Year Award. Does she relate what she does to the making of music? ‘When I sing, it’s a sculptural experience where I project the sound into a space and define its architecture. I’m interested in how music works too, emotionally and psychologically. Or even just the effect the human voice has on the brain.’

So was she ever in a band herself? ‘I was,’ she laughs. ‘This was pre-Art School, we played the Sub Club and Glasgow Green. I was the lead singer, we were called Peach County and we were influenced by things like The Byrds and Gram Parsons. It was fun, although I was very young.’ We can only imagine how much the bootlegs might go for now.

Part of Edinburgh Art Festival. 2 Aug–2 Sep 2012

Susan Philipsz: Timeline

  • 5 stars

Susan Philipsz's installation is inspired by the One O'Clock Gun, fired every lunchtime from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle. The gun was introduced in 1861 as an audio backup for the time ball on Nelson's Monument, which was built as a time signal for ships in the Forth but which couldn't be seen in foggy weather.