Industrial soundscapes on screen

Ruhr (James Benning, 2009)
By Miranda Iossifidis

Filmmakers have long been drawn to the powerful imagery of industrial production. Miranda Iossifidis looks at how sound is a vital part of these depictions, and chooses some key meetings of sound, film and industry.

Industrialisation completely reshaped urban life, and the ensuing multiple realities and imaginations of ‘modernity’ have compelled artists and film makers for centuries. However, the sound of industrialisation is relegated as less significant when considering representations of urban life; the eye remains privileged, despite the experience of urban sociality being an inherently synaesthetic conflation of the social with the sensory. As Derek Gregory points out, ‘it is still possible to hear the muffled murmurs of the real, of the traces of an older, and somehow more authentic everyday life, by opening oneself to the music of the city, to rhythms that can never be captured by sequences of images’ (1997, 204). These rhythms enunciate the richness of meaning that industrial sites can invoke, and the soundscapes of industrial sites depicted in James Benning’s Ruhr, Antonioni’s Red Desert, and Tacita Dean’s Kodak are important instances of the ways that socio-economic, political and cultural positions can be expressed through sound. These films depict everyday life in such sites, and employ sound – indeed, elevate its role – in order to examine different aspects of industrial production and landscape.

Tacita Dean’s 2006 study of the Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, before it closed its 16 mm production facility, is an elegy for a passing medium . The entire process of manufacturing is illuminated, a rare occasion in itself, as a brown piece of paper is also passed through so that darkness is unnecessary. We travel through the spaces of the factory, as if following the film material being made, with each scene accompanied by tones of shifting whirrs, buzzes and clunks. A constant granulated sound stages the activity, through which Dean captures the calming aspects of machinery performing repetitive actions. The sonic world of productivity, always in movement, is somewhat reassuring. This quiet invocation of the imaginative geography of the factory is entwined with a nostalgic vision of production; the human touch still has a place here, and Dean carefully observes the craftsmanship involved. The social life of the factory is hinted at too; workers leaving the floor are pre-empted by flapping plastic file curtains, conversation in corridors by whistles and chatter echoing through the hallways. This is a stark contrast to dystopian depictions of the Machine Age, where the voices of machines, with their roars and groans, deafened workers into silent submission.

The most stunning parts of Kodak are concerned with capturing the beauty of production itself, scenes that are to disappear and that have to be catalogued and exposed before they are lost. However familiar they seem now, the sound of these machines will soon be gone, and perhaps this is an attempt at preservation akin to the BBC sound effects vinyl series: an exercise in audiovisual archival, an essay on obsolescence. Kodak is a subtle statement on the shifting modes of industrial production positioned in a time of flux for analogue production, and Dean herself is at the forefront of a political campaign to save 16mm film manufacture. In Kodak we enter into the belly of this beast, we are shown the interior of the industrial site and the ways in which it is a world in itself, not merely a belching exterior. Dean exposes the artfulness of production, visibilising the invisible, rendering it beautiful. The machines dance in sound; they twirl, creak, glide, and tap from one section to another.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 drama Red Desert has snatched moments of such dancing machines, yet the director’s ambivalent position on industrialisation is strongly suggested through the dichotomous representation of the imposing scale and power of the industrial site within the Italian landscape. As he told Godard in Cahiers du Cinema in 1964: ‘I would go as far as to say that by setting the story for Red Desert in the world of factories, I have got to the source of that crisis that like a river, collects together a thousand tributaries and then bursts out into a delta, overflowing its banks and drowning everything.’ The film’s dominant soundscape is one of electronically manipulated field recordings, a haunting yet playful sound collage of musique concrète and drone. The composer, Vittorio Gelmetti, an audible contemporary of Xenakis, used sounds that had rarely before been heard in cinema, to depict both the landscape and the character of Giuliana’s response to an industrial sublime which affirms alienation of people from nature, and from each other. Matthew Gandy sees this contemporary resonance of the sublime as the ‘disjuncture between our aesthetic and cognitive abilities to read these kinds of modern spaces’ (2003) and while the displaced psychological interior of Giuliana is aestheticised by means of this soundscape and landscape, so too are the wider transitions of modernisation occurring within Italy at the time. The ‘malaise of progress’ as Antonioni put it, is baldly rendered by these disembodied, futuristic sounds and textures, which together with the richly coloured features of the factories, have a profound effect on Giuliana’s mental state. The residuum of post-war affluence via industrialisation is thus represented through sonic fragmentation and existential dilemmas. We are repeatedly pulled towards the excrement of the industrial site, the oozing craters of sludge with the constant reiteration of pulsing chimney smoke; as Giuliana’s husband Ugo says, “factory effluent must end up somewhere.”

James Benning’s Ruhr (2009) approaches the excrement of the industrial landscape in a radically different fashion. Benning’s first full-length film in HD, discarding 16 mm after decades due to declining production standards, is comprised of still shots and field recordings. Part 2 is a single shot of an hour’s length, made from 90 minutes of footage of a coke factory in Schwelgern periodically regurgitating psychedelic billows of smoke. Certain tropes found in Red Desert are echoed here; the rhythmic, urgent fire pulsating from the vast chimney in the opening scene and the later overwhelming engulfment of the screen with smoke. Benning’s method of prolonged shots is a means to investigate place and he does so with an attentiveness that arguably can now only be achieved in the physical and philosophical space that cinema provides. We are unflinchingly forced to really listen, to really look, and reflect upon our relationship to the industrial sublime.

The repetitive scene is hypnotic and meditative, and the soundscape painterly, minimal and abstracted, akin to a Morton Feldman piece. It invites us to notice the small details, as does Kodak. However, Benning’s ambient depiction of industrial sites is divergent from Dean’s approach, as it lacks a specific narrative. It engages with the industrial sublime, like Red Desert, yet it does not make a statement on it. Others have written how Benning’s lone chimney stack builds upon imaginative geographies of Warhol’s Empire and the World Trade Center; however, it seems better analogous with natural landscapes, crudely akin to footage of a volcano erupting, with Turneresque lightness of clouds of smoke. Benning makes no distinction between the industrial and the pastoral scene, crudely dichotomised by Antonioni, and while Dean romanticises production, Benning leaves his perspective open to interpretation. The function of sound and image here, turns capitalist logic of spectacle on its head (Flanagan, 2010) as our attention is re-engaged with listening and seeing everyday instances of industrial production, spectacular soundscapes in themselves. Ruhr is a representation of contemporary industrial production which invokes Heidegger’s call for ‘a sensitive, caring, patient listening to reality – letting reality reveal itself in its own terms, rather than seeking to grasp reality in the language of preconceived models’(1968 in Zui, 2000).

Cinema’s potential to represent the multi-sensorality of industrial existence is explored in Ruhr, Kodak and Red Desert: all three films consider the intertwined nature of sound- and land-scape which transcend strictly binary notions of dystopian or utopian modernity. These ambivalent narratives are works that examine and comment upon the specificities of industrial landscape and production in ways that both effect our understanding of everyday life and affect the changing human sensory apparatus, and enable us to inhabit multiple performances of industrial space.

Miranda Iossifidis is a freelance writer on urban studies and image-maker based in London.

Sound and Music|3rd Floor, South Wing, Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA|Tel +44 (0)20 7759 1800||Registered Charity: 1124609|VAT Reg No: 937 5533 96 

Designed by Fitzroy & Finn|Built by Platform3|Copyright © Sound and Music 2016