This Sound Installation Reminds Us that History and Geography Are Always Intertwined

Phantom Railings (2012), Catalina Pollak

A walk along this wall in Bloomsbury, central London, is not simply a walk. It is also an engagement, whether intentional or not, with a sound installation by Chilean artist Catalina Pollak: Phantom Railings.

Phantom Railings was installed in 2012, but dismantled in 2014. The work has now been reinstalled in its habitat behind two great relics to the past: the British Museum and the Senate House.

The sound of iron railings being struck accompanies you as you walk along the wall, which lines one side of the perimeter of Malet Street Gardens. But there are no railings above the wall — instead, metal stubs where railings used to be line the walls top surface.

During the Second World War, iron was a much-needed material. Many of London’s parks had their railings sacrificed to the war effort. Malet Street Gardens was one such park.

Though very much a real sign of a munitions shortage, this material sacrifice was glossed over in propaganda as part of a process of “democratisation” in London’s parks. George Orwell was one to criticise the move as simply a “democratic gesture”.

But while the railings of many parks were replaced after the war, the railings of Malet Street Gardens have remained as stubs ever since.

On the surface level, then, Phantom Railings replaces the sounds once known to the park’s perimeter without reinstalling the objects from which those sounds were once produced. As though their stub’s are severed limbs, the railings are felt, at least in a sonic dimension, by people who encounter the work.

The pitches of the sounds produced are varied according to the velocity and distance, captured by sensors, as the passerby walks along the wall.

Phantom Railings (2012), Catalina Pollak

Pollak’s sign, next to the work, reads:

The length of wall to the right of this gate is the site of an interactive sound sculpture that uses the movements of pedestrians to evoke a phantom of a lost iron fence. Inspired by the wartime initiative to democratise parks and gardens by removing their railings, the project engages with the accessibility of public space. The aim is to bring this subject into question, promoting a critical awareness of the social and spatial history of the city.

On a deeper level, Phantom Railings, through interactive means, makes a gesture towards a point which is seemingly obvious, yet easily neglected (or, indeed, walked past): that history and geography are always intertwined.

Pollak’s work prompts an interesting question: How can we know what has taken place in the sites we pass through in daily life? Archaeological excavations focus on the ground, the dead, that which was left in specific places. But history is produced above ground, by the (then) living, in the air.

This question is mostly lost in time. Historical literature treats places without exactitude and bodies as individual actors or else artefacts of groups. What is the relationship you have with the exact space you’re in now? Do you feel you have some kind of stamp over it? How many people do you think have felt that about the same spot over the course of humanity? Do you think about who occupied your bedroom before you did? and what they did there?