Sunday, 22 July 2012

Phantom railings

I really like the look of “Phantom railings”, a public art intervention at Malet St. Gardens, Bloomsbury, running from 24 July to 20 August as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Developed by a collective of artists and academics at the Centre for Creative Collaboration at the University of London, it is 'an interactive sound sculpture that uses the move­ments of pedestrians to evoke the ghost of a lost iron fence'. This is how they describe it:

'The site of the intervention is a garden in Bloomsbury, whose railings were removed as part of the 1940s war effort and never replaced, leav­ing a line of iron stumps along the surrounding wall. Using sensor-based acoustic devices, the installation makes evident the absence of railings by creating a resemblance of the familiar sound produced by running a stick along an iron fence. The pitch of each railing’s "sound" is set to vary according to the pedes­trian’s speed and proximity, allowing the “phantom railings” to be played and tuned as desired.'

You can find out more on the website
I wrote this four years ago about the railings around London squares:

In all the anniversary discussions of May 68, I have not seen any reference to Britain's most unusual, homegrown variation on the Parisian evenements . Forty years ago this month, in Notting Hill, a loose alliance of hippies, community workers and locals scaled the gates of the private garden squares and claimed them for the people. The psychedelic poet and playwright Neil Oram called the occupation a symbolic quest to convert "unturned on people" and start "a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world".

As you may already have guessed, this didn't happen. But the Notting Hill insurgents did succeed in a more modest aim. They persuaded the council to buy the overgrown, privately owned Powis Square and turn it into a playground. Campaigners poured on to the grass and erected a banner: "Powis Square belongs to the people at last."

Granted, this isn't quite as dramatic as students from the Sorbonne defending the Latin Quarter with barricades built from iron railings and paving stones. But protests against railed-off gardens have a distinguished place in the English radical tradition. When cast-iron railings began to appear widely in the mid-19th century they were a hated symbol of the enclosure of common land. The Reform League marched on Hyde Park in 1866, pulling down the railings and trampling on the flower beds. And when the railings around London's private squares were removed for salvage during the second world war, many welcomed it as a democratic gesture. At the end of the war George Orwell noted that makeshift wooden railings were being erected so that "the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of their treasured keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out". For Orwell, the resilience of Britain's keep-off-the-grass culture was a victory for its few thousand landowning families, who were "just about as useful as so many tapeworms".

The idea that these gardens might ever have become permanently communal now seems rather quaint. In a scene from the 1999 film Notting Hill that unconsciously mirrors the 1968 occupation, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts climb surreptitiously into the private Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Powis Square. But Grant is no one's idea of a long-haired revolutionary ("whoops-a-daisy!" he says, as he slips), and at the end of the film we see them both relaxing in the gardens, presumably having bought one of the surrounding houses.
Personally, I cannot see why private garden squares are any more invidious than private back gardens - which just goes to show, I suppose, that I am a liberal wuss who will be no use to anyone when the revolution comes. More importantly, it shows that we now live in a relentlessly privatised society, in which postcode prestige and gated communities (both official and unofficial) are the norm. If you have to pay several million pounds for your Notting Hill house, then it seems reasonable enough to expect a key to the garden square.

No one today would think, as Orwell did, that railings reinforce the legalised theft of land ownership. Over the past few years English Heritage has been campaigning for the restoration of the railings in London's squares as "a vital component of the public realm". In my own area of Liverpool, I have noticed people installing traditional railings outside their houses, in the pursuit of what estate agents call "kerb appeal".

It is easy to dismiss the occupation of the Notting Hill squares as countercultural self-indulgence. But these revolutionaries realised that social change had to take place in the mundane spaces of everyday life, where inequities of money and class are naturalised. Today we look through railings as though they are invisible; we should remember that what they really mean is "keep out".

Mundane quote for the day: 'No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil.' - Virginia Woolf


  1. Really nice post.Thanks for the shearing.Please keep position about such articles the really spread useful information.I hope it stays updated ..

  2. Yes, I like Phantom Railings too, thanks for this post.