TCS interviews Viv Corringham, local international sound artist [Part One]

[International sound artist, Viv Corringham, recording Lake Calhoun.]



[The Minneapolis skyway system. Midsummer. Midday. Office workers rush past through the marbled corridors, going to and from their workplaces. TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS sits at a coffee shop cafe table and fumbles with a microphone. VIV CORRINGHAM, a thin woman with short hair, sits across the table.]

Viv Corringham: [With a friendly smile and an English accent.] My name is Viv Corringham. I’m British but I live in Minneapolis now. I guess I define myself as a sound artist though I always cringe because it sounds so pretentious. My background is in visual art and also as a musician.

Twin City Sidewalks: First let’s just say where we are. We’re in the skyway system in downtown Minneapolis. I came across your work at a coffee shop in Saint Paul, you had a sound installation where people could listen to work that was about the skyways in Minneapolis.

VC: The Skyways Project started about 2 years ago and I spent 2 or 3 months walking around the skyways listening and recording. I still don’t know my way around here. What a maze it is. Then I worked on the project for quite a long time and it’s had quite a few outcomes. I made the piece that you heard, and I’m delighted it was working the day you went in. I’ve had a few technical problems switching it on and off.

TCS: It’s not always up and running?

VC: No it isn’t, no. I also made a video of it as well using photos I took in the skyways. It’s more like a moving slideshow really, with fades, than a true video. And I’ve used it as a basis for a solo performance and I’ve also given examples of sounds that I recorded to the group Zeitgeist, in Saint Paul. Do you know them at all? They’re a new music group.

TCS: I think I might have run across them before.

VC: Well they invited me to do a sort of guest composer thing with them. So I just brought these little sound worlds, very different because the sound in here has so many different facets. It can be very big and echo-y or it can be kind of small and all very staccato where in, you’re in this sort of small narrow tunnels with very bright surfaces. And there are all sorts of different areas. There was also a wonderful heater that was a bit broken, and rattled and kind of made this great sound and I gave them that as well. And they used them as sound worlds to improvise and develop sound stuff. So it’s had a lot of outings which is nice.

TCS: Let’s just talk about the skyways for a second. They’re kind of the most controversial thing that I deal with in some ways. I really have a strong opinion of them, and it seems that a lot of people who come here and who work here, it seems to be really divisive.

Urban critics who come here, there was a famous committee who came into town of famous urban designers from Europe, and they looked at the skyways and immediately id’ them as one of the reasons why the street life in Minneapolis is so terrible, having a negative architectural function. But a lot of people who use them all the time really really like them. What intrigued you about the skyways? Is it cause they’re so unique? They’ve been tried in a lot of cities, and haven’t worked everywhere. But they seem to work here in a certain way?

VC: I suppose being from England I’d never come across them in my life before, and they stunned me. On several levels. [Short pause.] Why am I interested in the skyways?

Because, they struck me first of all, I noticed the lack of a street life, or the limitation of the street life. So that downtown Minneapolis felt very dead compared to the size of the population, and I couldn’t’ figure out where anybody was. And I actually asked someone, because I couldn’t’ find a coffee shop. And they brought me in here and walked me around to somewhere like this. And I was just amazed because the street life was brought in doors.

But I guess I have so many things to say about the skyways I’m not sure where to start. Just on the most basic visceral level, I found them ugly, alienating, banal, you know decoration completely banal, except for these beautiful bridges that go over the road. You know, steel and glass, and yet they just float over the road and you see the traffic but you don’t hear it and I think at that point they’re very beautiful.

And there are some photographs. You must know the photographs by Catherine Opie?

TCS: I don’t.

VC: Oh you must look at those. She was artist in residence some years ago at The Walker. She made some photographs, first of all she made them of the ice houses on the lake.

TCS: I love those too.

VC: Sort of mind boggling. But she did some photos of the skyways, only from the outside. And only as they crossed the road, and they’re very beautiful. So there’s this weird. Its all contradictions to me so that’s why I’m fascinated. They’re ugly they're banal they’re beautiful they’re futuristic in a rather old fashioned way… That kind of 70s Star Trek or something. You’ve got this futurism that isn’t quite, and yet when you come its like you’re in any shopping mall. There are so many contradictions. They’ve brought the street life indoors, so the dominant sound... You know, as a sound artist I’m always listening … The dominant sound is human rather than traffic, which is nice…

TCS: Traffic is human too, right?

VC: Traffic is human, but traffic unfortunately takes up such a lot of the wavelength that it tends to dominate. That’s my problem with traffic. You know I try to be non-judgmental about sound, because it all interests me but unfortunately with traffic its just such a kind of thick block of sound very loud that it does dominate that’s what most streets… Unfortunately, that’s the strongest sound on most streets unless they’re pedestrianized. So that’s nice. We brought it indoors, so you've got human sound, except that human sound in this quantity doesn’t really work in this kind of space. You know even now, its kind of quite hard to hear you.

TCS: It’s a bit echo-y, yeah.

VC: It's echo-y, very trapped in small and you know, just the space, the architectural space, a lot like most architectural space, has had no consideration for sound in it whatsoever. So it can feel a bit abrasive or swimmy or overwhelming.

TCS: People don’t think about sound very much. It's constantly around us, it makes up a huge portion of how we experience the world around us but we don’t think about it.

VC: Well, we’re a very visually dominant culture, so I guess that’s why. That’s for sure, I mean I do. For me, it's very important. So that is something that bothers me.

TCS: It's something you notice when you’re having a dinner party and the music you had on in the background stops or whatever… And even though everyone is acting the exact same way in the exact same spaces everything is different without that ambient noise, without that bed on which conversations can take place.

VC: Yeah, that’s right. You know the tendency for restaurants is to be very acoustically unfriendly now, because everyone wants to be stark and modernist in design, its had a very unfortunate effect on the sounds. It's actually quite physically uncomfortable after a while to spend a long time in one of those very big warehousey restaurants. There’s quite a lot here. There’s fewer in London because we haven’t got the space, so people are much more crammed in. So people are soaking up the sound more, but here sometimes it's kinda, yeah, very disturbing.

TCS: Well, I’d like to talk to you about sound in general, and the difference between the UK and the US. But before you do that, I want you to tell me a little about your methods for the Skyway Project.

You said you spent two months in the skyways. I hope you’re exaggerating?

VC: I’m exaggerating a little, but it was over a two months period, and I did spend an awfully long time in and the reason I don’t know my way around is that I wasn’t looking, I was just walking and listening.

TCS: Your eyes to the ground?

VC: Not entirely. That leads me… before I answer that can I go off on another diversion, because one of the other things about bringing the street indoors is that that’s not what you’ve done. Because this is private space.

TCS: Exactly.

VC: That’s the point. And this is the whole problem. Or its half private half public, very ill defined there’s a heavy security presence. And I have to say that, walking around, because I’m you know I’m a middle aged woman so I’m very safe. So I don’t get a second glance. But I noticed that anybody who behaves like me who’s male and young, and maybe looks a bit like they might be homeless … They’re noticed pretty quickly by security. And because in a way I was behaving like a homeless person. I was purposeless. I was walking that way. I would stop, look out the window. I would stop. I would walk back...

TCS: And you’re probably moving at a different speed than most other people.

VC: I was, yes, that’s all a part of it. There’s unwritten codes of behavior in the skyways that I found very interesting, and I began to learn them. People walk at a regular speed. They don’t actually overtake. There are certain places they don’t overtake, like they don’t seem to overtake on these bridges across the road. They have certain places that they overtake. And I’m sure no one knows that they’re doing that, they just are. People don’t look out the windows. They don’t stop. They don’t turn round and go the other way.

TCS: Is that because there aren’t any places for people to stop? Or because no one else is stopping? Or because people are in a hurry?

VC: I guess they are in a hurry. They know where they’re going. Why would they stop? They’ve seen it a hundred times. They’re not shopping there or working as far as I can see. People in winter are often not carrying coats. And I was walking in January and February, and I assume that people without coats … I suppose they left them in their cars, which is possible, but they all seemed like they were going to their offices or their places of work. So there’s that, yes, they’re in a hurry. They don’t want to look because they’ve looked before.

But, I think that this code of behavior thing is built in. And there’s something about this design that makes that happen, which I find very interesting. I think that I became very aware that when I stopped and look out the window I was interrupting the traffic. You know, the people were going very nicely and they’d have to go around me. So I was very aware often that I was an interruption. And I would suddenly have a thought that I wanted to write down about it, so I would just kind of stop and write. And that was a really annoying thing to do, because the flow has to go on either side. And I notice that if there were any people who were just kind of hanging around, they became very visible.

If you break the codes, then you are really an outsider. And everything I did showed me as an outsider. And as I say, I think I got away with it because of being female and not particularly suspicious looking. [Laughs.] But you know, when I started taking photographs in here, then I became much more aware of how many security people there are, and I was very cautions. I was cautious. Because I had been told that someone had been stopped.

TCS: I had that experience, too, taking pictures in here for my own curiosities.

VC: And were you stopped?

TCS: No, but people give you funny looks.

VC: Yeah they do, and I thought well I get away with it because of the accent. I’ll just be, you know, British tourist, "look at your skyway system!"

TCS: Do it up with some big sunglasses and a straw hat.

VC: [Laughs.] Yeah, I should. Get an ascot or something. Sorry, that was nothing to do with what you asked me. You asked me about your physical process.

TCS: You’re walking around and listening. Are you recording the whole time?

VC: I’m recording pretty much the whole time. There are sometimes when I don’t. If I’m just walked through Macy’s three times then I’m probably not going to record it again. But sometimes it’s just better to switch it on and leave it. The one thing I really liked about the recordings was the little snippets of people's lives that came out. I don’t know if you noticed.

TCS: Yeah. There’s lots of little voyeuristic things that people say.

VC: And you really want to know what they said next or what they said before, and often they’re very poignant. You know. “My week hasn’t gone good.” Someone says. “My week hasn’t gone good”. You think, “Why? What’s wrong?”

TCS: Have you ever seen the website Overheard in Minneapolis? They’re precisely people who overhear conversations, just snippets, and post them on the internet. The most interesting ones get read the most.

VC: Oh, fantastic. That’s nice to know. I’ll check that one out. Well I certainly overheard some amazing things. People saying, "in our youths we were brave", or something. Just little bits of people’s lives.

TCS: But it’s hard to hear in these spaces, right? Because they’re echoing?

VC: Well, yeah, in the echo-y spaces it’s hard, but a lot of the skyways is not echo-y. A lot of the skyways is a bit empty, and it’s spooky. You can walk…

Obviously I can’t tell you where, because I obviously don’t know my directions. But I would find my chance, in these empty corridors with one person walking by, maybe talking on a mobile. And, actually, this is without out word of a lie, the moment I switched on my recorder for the first time, someone walked past me, on a cell phone saying “I’m in the skyways of Minneapolis.”

TCS: And that made it to your final piece, right? Wow, good luck for you.

VC: Isn’t that lucky? Yeah. Oh, I hope I hope I pressed record properly! He said, “I needed a break, I’ve gone to get an espresso”, and its actually kind of a banal sentence but at the beginning of the thing it's amazing.

TCS: So you walked around and got a lot of audio of different spots in the skyways, and then what happened?

VC: Well, I had hours and hours and hours and I was using mini disks at the time, hi def mini disks, and I just had piles of them. And that’s what took me, you know, so long. I just listened through them all and just decided which bits I wanted. And I have a software editing program and I put them all into that

TCS: Which one do you use?

VC: I use Wavelab. And I there’s also another very important element for me is the singing. And I tried to sing in the skyways, and some of the singing you hear is recorded in the skyways but I must say I got a bit too self-conscious.

TCS: Singing is a big part of your work, and so that’s how you got started in thinking about walking and sound collage art? From singing while walking? And it seemed to me that one of the things that’s easy to sing and walk in the outside. And nobody can hear you. But the acoustics are very different up here.

VC: Yeah they are. I use binaural microphones, which means, there’s two microphones and they sit just near my ears. So…

TCS: Does it make you look like an alien?

VC: No, they’re tiny. It makes me look like I’m listening to music. It’s the best thing. They’re very very discreet. If you looked at me you wouldn’t have any idea I was recording. So they’re very close to my mouth. So I don’t’ sing very loud. What I tended to do here was to hold a mobile phone. [Laughs.] And even singing, I’m quieter than most people on their phones. So that was a very good way of doing it. But it didn’t work everywhere. Because sometimes it was just very obvious that I was singing and I was just embarrassed frankly. So some of it was added later in the studio. I don’t normally do that, but I had to here. [Laughs.]

TCS: So you edit it all together, and there’s some singing, and some post-production singing too. What is it supposed to invoke for the listener?

VC: I don’t know if it’s supposed to invoke anything. Because I’m the one singing and I’m the one making all the decision in the editorial process, it’s impossible not to put my stamp on it.

[YOUNG KID approaches with a box full of candy bars.]

Young Kid: Wanna buy a candy bar for a [indecipherable charity]?

TCS: Sure. How much is it?

YK: One dollar.

TCS: OK. Do you have change at all? I only have a five. [To Viv.] Does this happen to you? This is a very unique skyway experience, right here.

VC: Huh. This is an unfamiliar one.

YK: I have three dollars

TCS: I’ll get two then. Thanks. Did you give me the change? [YOUNG KID exchanges a pair Twix bars for money.] Anyway, we just were visited by a candy vendor.

VC: I haven’t seen that before.

TCS: Me neither actually. And I’m sure it’s against the rules.

VC: Wildly against the rules. Enterprising children.

So you were asking me what its meant to evoke. I suppose if it's meant to evoke anything it’s the contradictions about it. I don’t normally sing in such a sweet way, I have to say. It was a kind of an idea of the angel of the skyways. There was a kind of presence there. What I feel here is the presence of so many people having passed through, you know. Not passed on, but passed through.

And there’s something like… I’m not a spiritual person or a superstitious person in any way, but that feeling that there is a kind of essence of the skyway, I guess, is what I was thinking when I was singing.

And the poignancy of it, you get these little glimpses, and most of the things that jump out at you kind of seem to be a bit sad for some reason. People weren’t saying wildly happy things. And that wasn’t particularly my selection, there was a lot of very banal stuff that I could have used but the things that struck me were a little bit poignant.

TCS: I really liked the end where you go out onto the street, and it seems really clear to people from the acoustical changes and from the light rail train that you had on the audio, which is familiar to anyone who lives in Minneapolis or spends time downtown. That now we’re outside, and its like you’ve gone and there’s a change in pressure of some kind, all of a sudden you’re released into a space that’s radically different, and you get fresh air in your ear, you know. Although it’s only at the very end. I don’t know. There’s a kind of containment or a different sort of atmosphere on the skyways than on the street.

VC: Very much so. In fact, I’m glad you noticed that. In the original piece, I ended it within the skyway, so it never went out, so it was like its own world. And there was a feeling that I wanted to keep it there, I didn’t’ necessarily want to leave it. I wanted to leave you inside it.
But I go to this composers group and it was particularly unanimous among them, the wanted the closure, they wanted to get out. [Laughs.]

TCS: I like that little touch. [Dramatic pause.] So what is the difference between street space and skyway space? I think you hit on a few things, but …

VC: Its regimented. The sounds are completely different.

TCS: Just talk about sound I guess. I take a lot of pictures, but I don’t record.

VC: Usually in the street you hear a lot of traffic. You hear a kind of ebb and flow, the traffic will stop, and then it will get very thick. Even on a busy road, there will be an ebb and flow. People’s voices will kind of pop up above that. there will be other sounds. There’s an airiness about it. They kind of float out into the air.

Here, everything is contained. There’s no traffic noise. There’s machine noise, there’s quite a lot of things going on.

TCS: There are these hums in buildings you hear which you don’t ever notice, like air conditioner hums or different refrigerators…

VC: Yeah, I’m really interested in those. So I was deliberately recording by some of them. Everything you pass. I can hear a hum here coming from out there. Different lows. Its cool. There must be an awful lot of machinery working.

So there’s all those mechanical sounds that go on in here, they’re not as dominant as traffic. I mean, maybe they are in another way, a subliminal way, sort of taking in all these drones without noticing or hearing them.

What else about sound? I think that’s probably the main thing.

TCS: Well some of the other differences that jump to mind are the street musicians. You don’t find them up here, they’re on the street level.

One other consequence of moving all this activity up in to the interior space is that the street level becomes a place for car parks or garages or that ‘caution car approaching’ sound. There’s some intriguing person on the internet who went around recording all those ‘car approaching’ sounds all over downtown Minneapolis. I found this a fascinating project too. You walked around listening to the sounds of downtown.

Acoustically speaking where are the most interesting spots in Minneapolis?

VC: I suppose I always head for water. That’s a human thing, isn’t it?

TCS: We don’t’ have any oceans, though?

VC: But the river is pretty noisy.

TCS: By the waterfall?

VC: By the stone arch. There’s a lot of noise going on there.

TCS: That’s’ a wonderful spot. And not just the sound but the spray and the smell, there’s just a all the sense are engaged there.

VC: And I think we humans like space, don’t we? That’s probably why we like the water so much. That there’s nothing in between us and ‘over there’ and we kind of like that feeling. So, I like the lakes as well for that. They do have quite a lot of sound about them.

TCS: Do they?

VC: Well, not coming from the water itself, apart from ducks and geese and things, but, you know, you hear sound in a different way when you’re walking by the lakes. Water is a very good conductor of sound, so you hear people talking much more than you usually would. Down on the street.

There’s also a similar thing, I’m actually planning on doing some recording walking around Lake Calhoun because I live near there, and again you get this stream of unconnected sentences that almost make sense. And just a snippet of people’s life and then they’re gone.

TCS: I go around a lake, Como Lake, and they often will have a neighborhood big band that plays in a pavilion on one side of it. And as you’re going around it, the sound echoes across the water in ways that change really dramatically as the sound echoes across the water and you get nearer and farther away. And it’s precisely what you’re talking about. Sound traveling in space. I’m intrigued by it.

You’re from the UK. It’s kind of obvious. What was it like to come from a place like… Are you from London?

VC: Not originally, but I’ve spent more of my life in London than anywhere else.

TCS: Well, that’s one of the great walking cities in the world, and Minneapolis is not known for its pedestrian friendliness.

VC: No.

TCS: So, how was that for you? You still don’t own a car, is that right?

VC: I don’t have a car, no. It’s not as bad as it could be, I suppose. The bus system is not too bad. It's pretty cold waiting for buses in the winter. I’m so glad some of these stops have heaters. [Laughs.] It’s not easy. It’s not easy. I kind of walk around feeling irritated a lot of the time. It seems like everything is biased towards the car and not the pedestrian, and you feel like cars are doing you a favor just in letting you cross the road. Always glaring at you like you’re some kind of madwoman, you know. But because…

TCS: It makes you feel kinda crazy. You were comparing yourself to a homeless person earlier, and that’s not… That’s something I feel, too, walking or biking around. You feel a little bit like you are the crazy person for not driving.

VC: Yes, you do. And you see people doing corners and they’re talking on their phone and they look about twelve to me. [Laughs.] Everyone looks twelve to me. And they’re going a really awkward maneuver and you know they haven’t seen you, and you develop this sort of bloody mindedness, and you’re just going to cross because its my turn. And then I’m probably going to die, so I’d better let them go. And at the end of the day all these things just kind of build up, and I’m often feeling really anti car drivers.

TCS: So do you have ‘pedestrian rage’?

VC: I think I do, yes. I have my own road rage… [laughs] But the cars are long gone, so they don’t get their…

TCS: They’re faster.

VC: Yeah. Its not an easy place, I think, some parts of America are on the coasts, New York is a very pedestrian easy place, and San Francisco is very easy. But this, this in the middle, this is the first time I’ve been here and lived here, and its not. It definitely isn’t, it's not designed for a pedestrian. Places are too far apart. There’s all these kind of weird wastelands, and you kind of wonder, what they were thinking of when they …

TCS: Big parking lots,

VC: Big parking lots.

TCS: But the UK is getting more like that, right? The Tesco phenomenon.

VC: Yeah, they’re trying. But they can’t do it. It’s so much more dense. They’ll never do it. Because even if they find a big lot there’s someone who will buy a corner of it, and someone else who will buy another part of it. Land is at such a premium, there no one can afford to buy a car park that’s that big.

[Finally, at 30:05, TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS is overwhelmed by a the task of transcribing. He looks out the window at the rain, and eats his oatmeal. INTERVIEW PART II continues here.]


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