Sound Mirrors


One of the works that will be shown in the Courtisane 2010 exhibition – titled “Digest Sound’ – is Barry Hale’s ‘Blackout (The Antiphony Video Supplement)’ (1997), a video which was produced as part of a project by Disinformation (Joe Banks) and conceived as supplementary to images taken by photographer Julian Hills which appear on the sleeve of the Disinformation ‘Antiphony’ CD (Ash International, 1997). The video (later more or less copied by several other artists, notably Tacita Dean. See Brian Dillon’s article ‘Listening for the Enemy‘) is an audiovisual survey of the so-called “sound mirrors”, acoustic detection early-warning devices designed to pick up sounds from approaching enemy aircraft. The structures were devised by the British air force in the 1920’s, as part of a plan to install a chain of “concrete ears” along the coast that would peer out over the English Channel. The plan was never completed, but some of these decaying structures can still be seen alongside the UK coast, at Abbots Cliff between Dover and Folkestone, West Hythe, and on the Dungeness shingle at Denge. Reportedly there were three types of sound mirrors: “with the circular, concave 20- and 30-foot-diamater concrete bowls, movable, cone-shaped metal sound collectors were used, connected by tubing to stethoscopes worn by the operators. The other type were strip mirrors, curved in elevation and plan of 26 by 200 feet. With these structures, microphones were placed on a concrete forecourt in front of the mirrors and wired to a nearby control room. All the sound mirrors were located in positions that attempted silence. A 1924 report suggested that the sound mirrors were ten times more sensitive than the human ear, and they were tested by blind listeners in 1925.” (Steve Goodman,’ Sonic Warfare’, 2010)

This is what Joe Banks wrote about Sound Mirrors in Sound Projector, Issue 5 (1999)
“Following promising experiments in the grounds of Binbury Manor, near Maidstone, Kent in 1916 – in which a Professor (probably FC) Mather sculpted a parabolic sound mirror into the face of a chalk cliff – Dr W S Tucker of the RAF Air Defence Experimental Establishment experimented extensively with sound mirrors as passive acoustic early-warning detectors, designed to provide directional fixes on the sounds of incoming enemy Zeppelins, planes and ships. Mirrors were installed at several sites on the Kent and Yorkshire coasts – the awesome monofiths documented in the ‘Disinformation Antiphony Video Supplement’ by Barry Hale – and at Baharic-Cahaq in Malta and plans were drawn up to extend the UK coastal network and build similar chains for colonial defence in Hong Kong Singapore, Gibraltar and Aden. Tests were conducted using aircraft, ships, and also concrete tubes projecting low frequency drones at frequencies below 50Hz to simulate aircraft noise. Dr Tucker also designed an active sound mirror to project an acoustic beam – guiding aircraft to safe landings on fog-bound runways; these experiments were abandoned after a number of serious accidents at Biggin Hill aerodrome. lt is tempting to speculate that, should this prove to have been the first experiment with blind-landing Dr Tucker may have been in effect the unsung father of controlled airspace and contemporary air traffic control.
ln his booklet ‘Mirrors by the Sea‘ Richard Scarth reports that the decision to abandon the sound mirror early-warning system was made by the Royal Engineers in May 1939 – they had been rendered obsolete by the increasing speeds of hostile aircraft and, more importantly, by the invention of radar. Nonetheless in January 1940 Dr Tucker conducted ‘experiments to investigate the nature of the disturbance produced by explosions in large, concave, concrete reflectors’ at the Greatstone site near Dungeness.”


Banks also explored these ideas, suggested by the imagery of his ‘Antiphony’ CD and the ‘Antiphony Video Supplement’ (later retitled “Blackout”) video, in an article that was featured in issue 6 of Sound Projector, under the title ‘Antiphony Architectural Supplement‘. An excerpt:
“During the WW2 nocturnal Blackout procedures were tantamount to a policy of compulsory mass hyperacusis. Venturing outdoors at night, particularly the urban population, already hypersensitized by fear, found their hearing heightened still further by immersion in levels of darkness which were unprecedented since the introduction of street-lighting.
The basic hypothesis here is that the experience of defensively listening, consciously and unconsciously, for the dull-thud of explosions, the whistle of rockets and bombs and the roar of planes is the mechanism by which such autonomic states encode, at a fundamental neurological level, as conditioned, reflexive responses to ambient low frequency sounds. These high states of arousal are necessarily those in which individuals are most receptive to sense-data. These responses are also culturally transmissible – primarily through the medium of cinema. It is worth noting that extreme sensitivity to sound (of the exact sort idealised by the composer John Cage) is not only a state of heightened aesthetic awareness, but also a recognised medical condition, often associated with debilitating phonophobia and the onset of conditioned tinnitus – and during the war advertisements in Picture Post magazine suggest there was a roaring trade in sedatives, not only for people but also for household pets.
In the light of this hypothesis it seems natural that sound should be an ideal medium for abstract representations of war – so it is not surprising that some of its greatest sculptural representations rely heavily on the effects of sound. My interest in these sculptures originally stemmed from recognising the cultural primacy of visual images over intellectual concepts (“people eat with their eyes”, “a picture speaks 1,000 words”) and therefore the commercial necessity and challenge of finding visual analogues which could encapsulate and advertise the Disinformation brand-name noise repertoire.
The solution was provided by an article by W. Harms in Shortwave Magazine, which described a series of massive concrete monoliths which still stand, slowly crumbling into waste-land at a site near Dungeness in Kent…”

The Sound Mirrors are also mentioned in Steve Goodman’s (aka Kode 9) recently published book ‘Sonic Warfare, Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear‘, an excellent read about the use and impact of sonic tactics and acoustic forces. Like Banks, he also draws heavily on some ideas Paul Virilio offered in ‘War and Cinema’ (see earlier posts). Some excerpts:
“Just as Virilio found the logistics of military perception within the history of cinema, especially the emergence of cybernetics in the postwar period, we can locate, updating an ancient history of acoustic warfare, an undercurrent of research into sonic tactics guiding a symbiosis of noise, bodies, and machines. Across the continuum of war, from sonar to nonlethal acoustic weaponry, this logistics of perception in its vibratory, resonant, affective, and virtual sonic dimensions is now assuming new permutations in cultures mutated by the impact of global terrorism and assymmetric warfare.
This logistics of (im)perception does not merely seek to intervene in the “normal” functioning of psychophysiological circuitry, but, in McLuhanist terms, also involves perceptual prosthetics: an extension or an amputation. Conceived differently, for philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the focus shifts from what a body is, even in its technologically extended sense, to its powers – what it can do. The body of sonic warfare is therefore always a speculative question, which does not return home to a pregiven human, corporeal demarcation. The episodic history of sonic warfare’s perceptual assemblages can therefore equally be found in electronic and electromagnetic cartography, the distributed nervous system of technical sensors that feed it, and the flood of information these systems produce.
In the cybernetic phase of martial evolution, which emerged out of the detritus of World War II, turning this data flood into workable knowledge became as important as the efficiency and accuracy of weapon systems. The logistics of perception has been confronted by the ravenous information hunger of military systems, generating a chain reaction of problems in the gathering, transfer, and processing of data. The more sophisticated the military’s distributed nervous system, the more overpowering the sheer weight of information to be dealt with. And as an unavoidable corollary, the more exposed the battlefield becomes, the more appearance gives in to an array of camouflage, decoys, jamming, smokescreens, and electronic countermeasures. To be percieved is to be “taken out”. So investment in forces co-evolves with the investment in their concealment. Stealth, secrecy, and the logistics of perception signal, for Virilio, that the war of images has in fact superseded the war of weaponry. Whether we agree with Virilio’s historical argument or not, his insight is to draw attention to how the evolution of weapons and armor is paralleled by the co-evolution of visibility and invisibility and, by implication, of audibility and inaudibility.”

Follow Goodman’s research on his blog.

Images: Julian Hills