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The Texture of Air: Capturing the personality in a building

Image Credit: EDI Courtyard Credit:  Bernadette Devilat in collaboration with the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL

Sound artist and filmmaker Olivia Bellas is the Creative Producer of The Texture of Air, a permanent art installation at the newly opened Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital and the Eastman Dental Hospital. The project is the result of a 3-year residency at the hospital’s former buildings on Gray’s Inn Road where a team of artists translated sensory and architectural aspects of the buildings into four highly personable public artworks. Here, Olivia shares her insights and selected anecdotes from the legacy project ahead of a special event as part of the Bloomsbury Festival, London (Friday 23 October 2020).

A creative residency in two now abandoned London hospitals explores approaches to social and physical preservation. Cultural memory is archived through staff and patient experiences and retold through artworks. People build the picture. The place itself resonates its own story. Walls do have ears and this is one way we’ve been able to show a building’s personality.


Image Credit: Ear Institute Credit: Ben Evans James & Andrew Mark: Jotta Studio

Place and People
The physical structures remain, their spirit has moved onto a new purpose built facility about 20 minutes walk away. The Texture of Air unfolds in the last days of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital (RNTNEH - est.1874), and the Eastman Dental Hospital, (EDH -est. 1930), both a stones’ throw away from each other on the Grays Inn Road, Kings Cross.

Deep listening, oral history, music, film, field recording, sculpture, 3D scanning - a team of creatives translated the hospital’s environment together with staff and patients. As Creative Producer on this, the ambition was to document the stories and the sensory experiences within the walls. A legacy piece honouring what had been and what was next as the transition took place from these old sites to a new unknown that was being built throughout the residency.

Joyce Cook, former Speech and Language Therapist shares an anecdote about exercising bats in the basement:
“They had a real problem - they had bats that needed decent exercise… I suggested perhaps you should use the basement in the hospital on the side I’m in… They got really excited...It gave them enough room to fly about….They would come with bats in boxes through the clinic room… I liked saying we ‘had bats in the basement’. They were doing some experiments on flying and sound”.

Joyce’s memories are historical and gave us clues to how things rolled. In a hospital that was leading with ear, throat and nose treatments - famous for discovering otoacoustic emissions - we quickly learned how quirky it was. As artists, we were already interested in sound as a medium: oral history’s listening to stories, music makers and sound art too. It changed our line of enquiry. We started to be more sensory and think about ‘acoustic architecture’ - the unique room tones, resonant frequencies that emanate from each space. We recorded these and various field recordings - moments that drew us closer to the meaning of the building.

Image Credit: Operating Credit: Bernadette Devilat in collaboration with the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL

Rosalind Meese a patient at Eastman Dental Hospital describes the sound of entering the building:
“You go in, you’ve got the ‘tshoow’ of the doors that open and shut merrily for you, but the overwhelming sound is the, I suppose it’s some kind of air con, it must be very ancient. You’d need a low instrument, you’d need something like a double bass to just be making it. Because you feel it, it's a vibration you feel in your body it's not just a sound that you hear with your ears.”

We spent time with Rosalind. Interviews on site and a day at her home by the piano. She’s a musician and told us more about how she imagined the hospital - if it were a piece of music. We asked others and heard everything from oompa loompas to mad flamenco dancers. Music became central over time in building up the personality of the building. Recordings of fountains with hydro mics turned magically into a ‘skip a heartbeat’ soundtrack.

Social Preservation (archive) and Physical Preservation (artworks)
We heard staff, patients, and the building speak through recordings of stair creaks, conversation snatches and equipment rumbles. They come together with hospital imagery to make a 20 minute film that opens the online archive; a home for all the social puzzle pieces to these buildings. There was warmth when exploring staff and patient experiences, that somehow needed to translate into physical pieces to be showcased in the newly built hospital accommodating both old sites. Suggestions came that 3D scanning would be a valuable legacy piece - an old world captured. Large areas of both old hospitals were preserved with LIDAR scanning technology. The hauntingly beautiful images were used in the film, blown up, lit and showcased in the new reception hospital, a sculptural relief of a staircase showed the transition and connection that came from the residency, and a bronze cast cross section of a head highlighted the curiosities of learning materials that came from another time.

Image Credit: Adam Rouilley Credit: Ben Evans James & Andrew Mark: Jotta Studio

All locked up
This residency came to an end when Covid started. 2020 will be memorable in multi-faceted ways. It’s also the year when for most of us, we’ve experienced the radical shift in the types of buildings we now spend most of our time. The news of cineworlds likely closing brought about sadness in me. The big screen is under new threat. The mega cinema structures they will leave behind stand lonely. Buildings all over the world have been empty in these covid times; workplace offices might have a handful rattling around, cultural venues have Facilities Management breathing in a few gasps of life that visitors once did. The EDH and RNTNEH old sites are vacant and new plans were in place well before a global health crisis hit. Their personalities live but a little more closed off.  

Patient James Tiblal Young discusses his loss of smell with ENT Surgeon Simon Gane:
Simon: Do you ever get any sense of smell back?
James: I think it’s a memory maybe...just randomly and then it will go away again. Fleeting…
Simon: And what kind of smell would that be?
James: This is gonna sound really weird...I know the texture of the air, do you know what I’m trying to say?

So holding onto those sensory aspects might be a way to re-think the unleashing of the personality and the way into preservation.

Interviews with over 60 people took on long-life story approaches, shorter equipment demonstrations, re-enactments and stories in motion as ‘walks and talks’.

We were thrown into 360°s in the BBPVA chair, explored the Eastman at night, and had a sound bath at the RNTNEH.

To find out more about the methodology, watch the film and ask questions of the producers - come to the event at the Bloomsbury Festival.

The Bloomsbury Festival is hosting an online event for the Texture of Air on Friday 23 October 1630 - 1800: Book your space: bloomsburyfestival.org.uk

Access the archive of interviews, music, recordings and images: thetextureofair.uk

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