Chris Whitehead: Habitats for Metal Plants

In the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics, I worked for a while in the construction industry. During that time, I was lucky enough to talk to people who had overseen the creation of the 256-hectare Olympic Park.

I soon became fascinated by the early stages of the project – the dirty, back breaking work of making a crumbling and polluted site, previously home to chemical works, food processing facilities, concrete plants, bus stations and railway sidings that had to take place before any building work could start.

The problem, they told me, was that 200 years of industrial activity had filled the site’s soil with all sorts of gunk. Chemicals, minerals, debris – all sorts of crap. ‘Contaminated land’ was the industry term for this, and it needed to be decontaminated – or ‘remediated’ – before anything else could be built on it. In all, the remediation teams excavated and treated more than two million cubic metres of soil in three years, much of it through three ‘soil hospitals’ on the site.

Nice clean soil is what we all want, right? Well, sound artist and musician Chris Whitehead might disagree. His latest work, ‘Habitats for Metal Plants’ released on the fine Linear Obsessional net label, is a thought experiment around the ecological consequences when industrial land isn’t cleaned up.

“Plants growing in these environments have, by means of Darwinian natural selection coupled with sheer determination to survive, managed to incorporate various metals into their very DNA”, he says in the booklet accompanying his release. “The resulting species display a variety of features only made possible at the point where biology and metallurgy combine.”

This strange, whimsical and yet also haunting records is, Whitehead explains, designed to be played to such plants to help them flourish. It’s a joke, obviously, and a pretty good one at that – check out the illustrations and examples of metallic plant species that Whitehead has put together for in his release notes, as well as the lovely artwork on his website – to see what I mean.

The Northallerton Nut and Bolt plant (photo copyright Chris Whitehead)

These tall tales enables the record to shed light on some of Whitehead’s abiding concerns – the fragility of ecosystems, the environmental pressure placed on landscapes almost everywhere you look – in a slightly less apocalyptic way than in ‘South Gare’, his previous album for Linear Obsessional.

Like ‘South Gare’, the new pieces combines recordings with a variety of manipulations and sound making activities to produce echoing, abrasive soundscapes. The first piece, ‘Abandoned Magnesium Works, Hartlepool’ starts with a ghostly, metallic ringing, soon complemented by a high-pitched yowling and metallic scraping. As it  continues, the whines fade, replaced by an electric scrabbling and scraping, as if something is trying to get out.

Finally, there’s a repeated banging of metal on metal, harsh, insistent, pounding – like a machine that’s still working, still doing its job long after everything else has been shut down, the lucrative contracts long gone, the workforce let go, production moved somewhere else with lower labour costs and easier corners to cut.

The sounds of these pieces work together with their titles to summon up an odd sense of wonder and nostalgia at these contemporary ruins, like Paul Virilio marvelling at the wreckage of Nazi sea defences.

This sense of ‘Ruin Lust’ is heightened in the second piece, ‘Derelict Ball Bearing Factory, Sheffield’. This is a denser, busier piece, buzzes, whirrs and abrasive sounds coming in and out of focus during its 11 minutes. At certain times during the piece, we hear snatches of field recording which poignantly evoke times when the building was in use. Halfway through, minimal violin drones start up, adding a bare kind of melody to the scraping and clanging.

This is a strangely affirming record, the desolate and melancholy textures balanced by the unexpected moments of melody and whimsy (the Jews’ Harp in the strange, short piece that ends the record, the descriptions and drawings of the fictional metallic plants created so lovingly by Whitehead in his release booklet). Whitehead seems to see the future  – a strange hybrid ecology – as well as the past in the shattered locations he evokes, giving us a sense that the land will endure despite the havoc wreaked upon it.

Chris Whitehead’s website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s