Seth Cooke ‘No Locus’

“That place… where the imaginary comes into contact with the local and the real, is what we strive to create.” Michael Pisaro, Ten Encounters

 In the West Yorkshire Police control room we used the word ‘locus’ to describe Pisaro’s place-which-is-not-a-place, a descriptor for the cloud of subjectivities and contingencies that exists around initial reports of any incident before a scene can be established. A ‘scene’ has actors, script, setting, spatial-temporal bounds and a context within a larger narrative. The locus is more slippery. ‘Locus’ means a place, position or configuration of co-ordinates – but it can also describe a focal point of activity or concentration. There are loci of events, of ideas, of possibility, of uncertainty. Through custom and practice, West Yorkshire Police parlance defined the ‘locus’ as a superposition of potentials, mapped from emergency calls, that sets the parameters for an initial response. The ‘scene’ is the collapse into materiality of those potentials, determined when officers arrive and make their assessment. The struggle in emergency response, always, is for an accuracy of relation of locus to scene.

On 20th March 1995 members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult orchestrated a sarin attack during rush hour on the Tokyo Metro, killing thirteen people and injuring hundreds. Emergency services, the Subway Authority, hospitals and the media were all criticised for their handling of the incident, ill-equipped to diagnose and respond to circumstances. Those involved in planning and executing the attacks exploited the ambiguity of loci. Initial reports of the five co-ordinated attacks were confused – accounts of unexplained symptoms delivered piecemeal by panicked casualties, caused by an airborne nerve agent spreading throughout trains, tunnels and stations, carried on clothing and communicated outside by direct contact. In case of the Ikebukuro-bound service, the targeted train was only taken out of service one hour and forty minutes after the first package of sarin was punctured. The locus of events, sites and potentiality was vast, confused, moving and growing – an invisible unbounded territory of ideas, of which the eventually identified scene constituted a materialised subset. The slippage between idea territory and actual territory cost lives.

The scene cannot be understood without acknowledging the lingering shadow cast by the cloud from which it emerged, yet “what is most important is what cannot be measured” [i]. Discard the context of emergency response and the principle holds when considering any location. The divisions and conditions determining what constitutes a ‘place’ – whether bounded by geography or ideas, people or process, intention or accident, change or stasis, circumstance or potential – exist in the nebulous realm of the locus before boundaries are marked or maps are drawn. We reside in this ideaspace; “we do not operate behaviourally directly upon the world, but rather we operate through a map or model (a created representation) of what we believe the world to be” [ii]. Evidence-based judicial systems resolve these ambiguities at the earliest opportunity; elsewhere ambiguity accumulates and the locus persists alongside the scene. As musicians, recordists and sound artists our most immediate resources exist in that scene – in objects, acoustics, systems and the overall environment. While documenting or interacting with the scene, the locus often eludes us. Microphones cannot point to it, sound does not reflect from it, we cannot handle or manipulate it. But if the struggle in emergency response is to achieve a resemblance between locus and scene, in art we are not held to any such standard.

It is here that land artist, sculptor and writer Robert Smithson’s conception of the non-site has continued relevance. In his terms, By drawing a diagram, a ground plan of a house, a street plan to the location of a site, or a topographic map, one draws a ‘logical two dimensional picture.’ A ‘logical picture’ differs from a natural or realistic picture in that it rarely looks like the thing it stands for… It is by this dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it – this is the non-site.” [iii] Smithson’s non-site sculptures consisted of geometric containers, assembled in gallery spaces and filled with matter gathered from the represented site, with accompanying materials illustrating the dialectic between the two – a dialectic characterised by an inversion of qualities: “The range of convergence between site and non-site consists of a course of hazards, a double path made up of signs, photographs, and maps that belong to both sides of the dialectic at once. Both sides are present and absent at the same time… Is the site a reflection of the non-site (mirror), or is it the other way around? The rules of this network of signs are discovered as you go along uncertain trails both mental and physical.” [iv] In music and sound art, site-specificity is often achieved through field recording, acoustic strategies or the deployment of objects found at the site. While these may characterise the scene through its physical properties, Smithson’s technique enables the mapping of territory beyond the physical through the parallactic dialectic of site/non-site, addressing the locus by arresting the collapse into a polarity of representation/represented.

Arthur Russell’s 1986 composition, The Name of the Next Song [v], maps a conceptual space around California by evoking a sense of how that place is referenced throughout popular culture. The piece is constructed as a modular configuration of subsongs, each based on permutations of the same music. Each subsong is introduced with a pause and a new title; “The name of the next song is ‘Anti-America’”; “The name of the next song is ‘Painted Box’“; “The name of the next song is ‘I’m Sorry, but This is How I Learn’” – yet the lyrics for each remain a repeated and constant “California, here I come / California, here I come.” One only needs glance at the Wikipedia page listing Songs about California to appreciate Russell’s device – The Name of the Next Song doesn’t just represent his ideas about California, it represents every idea about California throughout the entirety of popular culture. It is the locus of California as it exists within the cultural collective unconscious, a non-site the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere, capable of encompassing all the hidden meanings behind Russell’s oblique titles. The listener is left with the impression that the version presented on World of Echo is some kind of fractal, a tiny fragment representing a song that continues out of earshot, in infinite configurations, forever.

Russell’s composition is illustrative of the capacity of the locus to contain conflicting and even diametrically opposed material within its field. A graphic example of this can be found in the context of emergency response. On 5th July 2012, armed police, fire crews and bomb disposal experts closed a twenty seven mile stretch of the M6 motorway in Staffordshire for four hours after a report that a coach passenger had poured an unknown liquid into a bag, producing visible vapour. The locus bore several similarities to the Tokyo sarin attack: an ambiguous location defined by an uncertain event in progress, with the possibility that it might be spread for miles and affect thousands of lives. The scale of the response seemed informed by that earlier tragedy and the impending Olympic Games; the scene, once established, was the result of a member of the public describing vapour rising from an electronic cigarette. These similar loci, in Tokyo and Staffordshire respectively, collapsed in opposite directions, but until the scene can be established all potential scenes must be considered as a single cloud of probabilities. The Zone of Alienation around the scene of the Chernobyl disaster is another example, with its simultaneous conceptual existence as both radioactive wasteland and flourishing wildlife reserve, with a future collapse in either direction being dictated by political as much as – if not more than – scientific  considerations. Addressing the locus can enable a simultaneous description of both polarities in a manner that is difficult or impossible when focusing solely on the scene.

Vermont takes on a similar significance in July Mountain [vi], Michael Pisaro’s setting of the Wallace Stevens poem, a composition for percussion and twenty mono field recordings “made in mountain areas or valleys if possible.” Ten of these recordings are superimposed at any given moment, with the score containing instructions for timings, fades and panning. The result is an extraordinary density of respatialised sound, at once chaotic and harmonious, representative of an essential landscape – a construct that, by confusing the borders between each location, holds potential co-ordinates for all such locations. The instrumentation consists of an array of percussives (a total of one hundred and forty three discrete parts) played using techniques that highlight their timbral capabilities while minimising their attack (bowing, rubbing, sounded with projected sine tones, with seeds or rice placed on their surface or wrapped in tin foil) and selected to cover a similar range of frequencies as the location recordings. The percussion corresponds to and models the field recordings, with the locus mapped by the parallactic tension between the two overlapping constructs. In Stevens’ poem, “when we climb a mountain, Vermont throws itself together.” The composition illustrates how a vantage point confers a special momentum to the processes by which we represent and mythologise locations, as our perspective of sensory and conceptual material shifts relative to our position.

Pisaro extrapolated upon these concerns at What is Field?, an event at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, London: “…when we talk about Hollywood we mean… a whole collection of images, some of which might have real world components to them and some of which might be imaginary, some of which can be met by an experience and some of which you conceive of yourself.” [vii] Pisaro refers to this assemblage as ‘place’, yet moves beyond this by positioning the Vermont of July Mountain in terms of another Stevens poem, “Description Without Place”a concept only possible in description. We arrive at the end of the poem at a place, or what might originally have been called place, Vermont. But that is no longer really that place, it’s no longer Vermont. No longer, in Stevens words, “a false facsimile” but something else.” [viii] In the slippage between representation and represented, the properties of the map aberrate to the extent that it can signify something other, a description freed to ambiguate.

James Saunders’ Location Composite series achieves a similar effect using a technique that abstracts compositional material from a location via a process of deletion [ix]. In Saunders’ words, the series “comprises geocaches containing verbal scores. The scores ask the finder to interact with the local environment in an activity which contributes towards the production of a secondary score. These secondary scores are used for subsequent performances.” The activity asked of the finder is the creation of a listening score, a description of the auditory submodalities [x] experienced at each location, with references to the point of origin of each sound redacted. Over time, each listening score becomes an assemblage of multiple visits, or multiple subjective responses to the same visit; an additive process of spatial-temporal layering representative of the locus rather than resembling the location as it can be encountered at a single point in time. These listening scores are used as the basis for performances in which the location is modelled in sound by musicians responding to the earlier listeners’ abstracted map, representing a zone experienced by multiple subjectivities on multiple occasions.

Inspired by the model of the senses detailed in Aristotle’s On the Soul [xi], one is tempted to abstract the inverse of the locus by antonymising the submodality descriptors in Saunders’ listening scores. Robert Smithson deployed contrast and inversion in his site/non-site dialectic, even offering a table of dialectic correspondence – “Open Limits / Closed Limits; A Series of Points / An Array of Matter; Outer Coordinates / Inner Coordinates; Subtraction / Addition… (and so on).[xii] Smithson was known to cite Carl Andre’s maxim, “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not”, that everything contains the conception of its own opposite. By representing the location in auditory submodalities, bereft of referents, Saunders creates a user interface capable of accessing those properties of the locus that map potentialities. Language makes the locus manipulable, even reversible. The properties of any given map direct behaviour as much as they describe territory; changes to a map change our relationship to the mapped, enabling fresh possibilities as characteristics aberrate. Saunders uses this technique to superimpose descriptions as though layering temporal cross sections to form a four dimensional model.

On Chantier 1 [xiii], Pascal Battus, Bertrand Gauguet and Eric La Casa surprised a number of reviewers by presenting their work in reverse-chronological order. Self-defining as an improviser rather than sound recordist [xiv], La Casa constructed contexts encompassing improvisations by Battus, Gauguet and a Parisian building site [xv]. The musicians regrouped months later to recall the experience by way of a series of studio improvisations, two of which are included at the start of Chantier 1before the original building site recordings. In the words of Pascal Battus, “The concept of ‘remembering the building site’ was left deliberately imprecise… Memory could be a point of departure or a driver, or it could be a modulator of our playing. And of course we’d already listened to the recordings, so they were also superimposed over our memories and might have denaturalised or even supplanted our sonic memories of the lived experience.” [xvi] Thus the trio gave primacy to a non-site representation of their building site experience, emphasising the locus by occupying a meta position in relation to their earlier work. Having set that frame, the building site recordings are heard in a continuum that stretches beyond the site itself, into the non-place of the studio – a neutral environment as uniformly ubiquitous as a car park, public lavatory or art gallery.

Chantier 1 is characterised by instability. The ecologist Stewart Brand contrasts planning and construction through denominalisation [xvii]: “Whereas ‘architecture’ may strive to be permanent, a ‘building’ is always building and rebuilding. The idea is crystalline, the fact fluid.” [xviii] A construction site is an idea materialising, a process of becoming guided by an idealised representation of an intended result. Battus describes the workers as “the heart of the building site, but the site is a Tower of Babel with different and distinct communities (Africans, Arabs, Turks…)… when we were playing on the roof, one of the workers asked what we were doing, and when we explained and carried on, he took out his phone and made us listen to the music of his people: a Kurdish shepherd playing a kaval flute.” [xix] If the studio recordings can be described as a non-site representing the building site, then Chantier 1 also positions the building site as both a non-site for the wider world and a materialisation of the achitect’s conception of the locus. One can define Chantier 1 as an atlas of actors performing the script of an idealised place in a transforming setting alongside improvisers mapping alternate contexts, recalled in a space that could be anywhere.

A metaphor. Use it as you will, in sound or otherwise:

From the vantage point of the control room, emergency incidents are a collision of multiple, frequently conflicting maps. Triangulated co-ordinates of cell phone signals and postal addresses of landline subscribers are plotted on Ordnance Survey charts that are themselves undergoing constant revision; computer geobases conflict with the endless proliferation of local nicknames for places; impermanent landmarks of shops and public houses rebrand, change ownership or disappear altogether; new places are conjured into being then vanish, defined by seismic events in ways that are seldom static. Crime scenes are cordoned off, roads closed, suspects pursued, houses entered. Reportage is itself the product of psychic maps, consisting of first hand observation, second hand accounts, expert theory, rumour, supposition, mistakes, hallucination and outright lies. Language maps experience, slang jars against jargon, interpreters bridge cultures, dialects diverge. Perhaps all you have to go on is a shout, cry or whisper. The law is a consensus map interacting with local policy, national protocol, proactive strategies, risk assessments and the multiplicity of agendas and overlapping responsibilities of partner agencies and other involved parties. Ubiquitous cellphone and police radio lifelines compress and distort the sound of the scene, losing signal at vital moments, fragile sonic windows opening into environments familiar and unimaginable. Time relativises in confused perceptions, expanding throughout long, dark nights, contracting or repeating with shock, warped by adrenaline, vanishing in the unconscious. Incident logs and crime reports collage the debris of these ruptured maps, our best attempt to plot a course through uncertain territory.

“When one scans the ruined sites of pre-history one sees a heap of wrecked maps that upsets our present art historical limits… The abstract grids containing the raw matter are observed as something incomplete, broken and shattered… How can one contain this ‘oceanic’ site? … The non-site, in a physical way, contains the disruption of the site. The container is in a sense a fragment itself, something that could be called a three-dimensional map… It is a three dimensional perspective that has broken away from the whole, while containing the lack of its own containment.”

Robert Smithson, A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects, 1968

Every control room is a non-site for its constabulary, the inverse of the force area. This is the realm of the locus, for which there are no standard maps, in which anyone can be forgiven for getting lost.


Dedicated to Daniel Bennett and my colleagues at various constabularies, past and present.

[i]      Haruki Murakami, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (Kodansha, 1997)

[ii]        Richard Bandler and John Grinder, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson Volume 1 (Meta Publications, 1975) – itself an extrapolation of A. Korzybski’s “A map is not the territory it represents” (Science and Sanity, 1933)

[iii]       Robert Smithson, A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites (1968)

[iv]       Robert Smithson, notes to The Spiral Jetty (1972)

[v]        A bonus track available on the 2004 Audika and 2005 Rough Trade reissues of World of Echo

[vi]      Engraved Glass 2010, Gravity Wave 2010

[vii]      What is Place? (Wolf Notes Journal 5, Compost & Height, 2013)

[viii]     What is Place? (Wolf Notes Journal 5, Compost & Height, 2013)

[ix]       “Linguistic deletion… relates to the fact that, in verbal statements, a person, object or relationship, that can enrich or even change the meaning of the statement, is left out or deleted in the verbal Surface Structure” Robert Dilts & Judith DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP University Press, 2000). “Deletion is a process which removes portions of the original experience (the world) or full linguistic representation (Deep Structure).” Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic Volume 1 (Science and Behaviour Books, 1989). Both refer to language patterns taken from Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar and modelled from therapists Gregory Bateson, Milton H. Erickson and Virginia Satir.

[x]        In Neuro-Linguistic Programming, submodalities are distinctions within each sensory modality (or representational system) that are used to map and operate upon an individual’s represented experience. They are sometimes presented as pairs of opposites – light/dark, quiet/loud, hard/soft – or as positions along axes, although dualism is inessential and deployed only when useful.  They are used for modelling and interventions, for creating maps with malleable properties. As a subjective tool, reliant on the plasticity of experience, the only limitation to the number and scope of available submodality distinctions is what can be usefully conceptualised in specific contexts. Calibration is vital – an astronomer may access different visual submodalities to a PhotoSynth programmer; a marine audiologist may access different auditory submodalities to an Ableton user; a Reichian therapist may access different kinesthetic submodalities to a silat instructor; a native Kuuk Thaayorre speaker may access different temporal submodalities to a native English speaker. The value of submodalities is practical; their existence apart from the systems and interventions that presuppose or suggest their presence left deliberately ambiguous.

[xi]        “The field of each sense is… determined as the range between a single pair of contraries, white and black for sight, acute and grave for hearing, bitter and sweet for taste…” Aristotle, On the Soul

[xii]      Robert Smithson, notes to The Spiral Jetty (1972)

[xiii]      Another Timbre, 2012

[xiv]      “I am not making a technical recording; I use my microphones to improvise a relation between the context and the musicians”  Interview with Simon Reynell, another

[xv]      “Chantier” is the literal French translation for “site.”

[xvi]      Interview with Simon Reynell, another

[xvii]     “Nominalisation is a transformational process whereby a process word or verb in the Deep Structure appears as an event word, or noun, in the Surface Structure…. Deep Structure is the full linguistic representation (of the world). The representation of this representation is the Surface Structure – the actual sentence that the client says to communicate his full linguistic model or Deep Structure.” Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic Volume 1 (Science and Behaviour Books, 1989)

[xviii]    Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn (Viking Press, 1994)

[xix]       Interview with Simon Reynell, another

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