Walk past the walled garden at the British Museum end of Malet Street and hear the notes of a stick being run along metal railings in unison with your steps. The Phantom Railings are back!
Phantom Railings (2012-14), an ‘Interactive Public Art Work’ by Malet Street Gardens, Bloomsbury uses sensors to trigger acoustically the passing of each pedestrian. The noise from the devices, placed discretely along the top of the wall, initially baffles the unsuspecting. The ‘Public Interventions’ website explains how they capture the movement and translate it into a sound of a stick passing across metal bars:
The pitch of each railing’s sound was set to vary according to the pedestrian’s speed and proximity, allowing the piece to be ´played´ as desired. The music produced by this urban instrument was captured as a real-time audio-visual score and streamed live (to the website).
The original railings surrounding Malet Street Gardens were removed during WWII for munitions; all that remains are the iron stumps along the top of the wall. The installation recreates the missing ‘ghost’ bars and at the same time draws attention to the changing debate over access to gardens and squares in London. Pre-WWII the spiked railings, symbolised control over public spaces (if not private ownership and exclusion), generating a desire to remove them and ‘democratise’ the spaces, for access by all. Melting them down for the war effort, meant that this happened out of necessity. Ironically, grants have since re-installed railings on many London squares. Malet Street Gardens appears to be an exception, possibly because it was already enclosed by a wall.
Wondering what curiosities the return of Phantom Railings (2012-14) had captured, from urban foxes to passing drunks to five-second bursts of running by children and others – intrigued by the reverberations of ghost railings – its previous photographic record shows that ‘music’ was created by a cross-section of Londoners, including a ‘bobby’ in uniform, a group of office workers in suits, families heading towards the British Museum and at least one SOAS Professor.
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