Acoustic Caretaking and the Near-Ruin

MA Dissertation: last edit 13/12/16

Introduction

My intention at the beginning of this project was to bring archaeoacoustics which is the study of acoustics in the context of archaeology, the artefact and the ruin, into heritage buildings at risk, whose fates have not yet been sealed. There are many buildings that fit this title all across the UK, owned by councils or residing on registers, lying empty and without purpose. Though they are watched over by those who are assigned responsibility, they are only ever kept at a state that is just above what is considered a ruin, and in a lot of cases, are signed off as too dilapidated to be fixed, yet too historically important to be erased completely. It was my focus to experience the liminal at risk building, and create a sense of empathy and proactivity from the communities they reside within.

 

Buildings at risk

I grew up with a lot of change in my community, transformation and growth as well as loss and destruction. There were instances of overnight demolition before an old building could become listed, just because a business wanted a larger driveway for their property next door. A particular incident brought great sadness to my family and others who had felt a bond with our community. It was the emptiness, and soon after destruction of a local family run school, that I, and many others attended and worked at over the years it was open. The loss of Fernwood school happened over time, but the abandonment was fast, with only a few pictures of what was left behind accessible to those online through break-in photography. The house was torn down in 2014, and has since been replaced by three expensive show homes, contributing nothing to the community.

The fear of my own childhood home becoming too hard to maintain has always been present. It is a Victorian building that is old and in need of constant repair, with leaks in its roof and problems with the drains. This constant worry shaped my interests in archaeology and listed heritage buildings, and always kept this uncertainty for my community’s future in the forefront of my mind.

 

Archaeoacoustics and Art in Context

I began the project with a focus on archaeoacoustics and the ruin. I was reading ‘Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening’, paying particular focus on the comments about cave dwelling and resonance as a means of navigation for early settlements. I had a particular interest in the experience of sounding the cave and finding that the most interesting resonances could be linked to being the most socially active and lived in spaces within this network.

A particularly helpful source during my initial research on archaeoacoustics was a published paper called ‘The Research for an Archaeoacoustic Standard’ by the SBRG Research Group. This paper outlines in detail ultrasounds, infrasounds, the ‘sacred site’, various techniques for studying the space, and most helpfully, a description of the recommended starting process for researching archaeological sites. Firstly, this process highlighted the use of an electronic sound generator to identify certain frequencies, which was played from a laptop and active portable speakers. The next stage would be to test the acoustics for musical instruments and voice. Testing for musical instruments would typically be done using a shamanic drum made with animal skin as compared to synthetic skin. It is important to remember that the majority of research taken in archaeoacoustics is applied to sacred or spiritual archaeological sites in particular, so the inclusion of ritualistic instruments such as the shamanic drum would be genuine to the possible past uses of the spaces dealt with, and therefore could give a clearer understanding of its previous acoustic properties.

In testing voice, the SBRG Research Group recommended the use of ‘harmonic songs which maintain the same note for a long time’. It could be considered that songs are the best medium for testing spaces such as these, as not only were songs a large means of communication throughout history, they also allow for a larger range of pitches to be covered when listening to the possibilities of feedback within the site. The suspension of notes could allow a greater period of time for the researcher or listener to recognise pitch and listen to its reverberance as well as echo on silencing the source. It is suggested in the paper that both male and female voices are used, presumably for balanced results as well as a greater diversity of sounds produced. These methods were a useful starting point for my own research.

There are a few artist’s work that have been influential and of a similar context to my own. I have reflected on a lot of Mikhail Karikis’ work, and feel there are themes that interlink. A recent piece of his was called ‘Ain’t Got No Fear’ (2016) which was a film created with local young boys in the Isle of Grain. It depicted various disused tunnels that the boys would explore, as well as an old power plant that used to be a source for many jobs on the island, whose closure was a memorable moment within the community. I feel this work deals with the notion of heritage, and the unnoticed and forgotten monuments that made our communities. It can be a unique passed on skill or profession that becomes the heritage, like that of his piece ‘Sea women’ (2012), or a choir of ex-coal miners recalling past sounds and experiences of the mines in which they once worked in ‘Sounds from Beneath’ (2011-12). All of his pieces involve a lot of time spent on the sites or in the communities, and have a strong narrative within them.

Another sound artist I have considered who deals with heritage and the narrative is Susan Philipsz. Her piece ‘Lowlands’ (2010), a purely vocal rendition of a Scottish 3 part ballad originally positioned under 3 bridges in Glasgow, brings forward an awareness of space, resonance and the importance of the site in which it is displayed, which is a context my work fits within. Her sound sculptures express attention to the positioning and direction of sound, and the effect it can have on the listener, and when looking at her works, the importance of placement has been brought into the forefront of my thoughts when considering the installation of the final piece.

 

Practice Based Research – Exploring the Ruin

A lot of my acoustic research was based in the Bedfordshire area, mainly because I still felt a strong connection to my extended community there, but also because it was accessible in terms of being close to my father who helped me with various bits of wiring and technology where I needed support, and I was able to track down information for the sites without too much trouble.

The ‘Disused Factory’ was the first site I applied some of the archaeoacoustic methods to. This factory is based in the woods of Woburn Sands, and was used to obtain fuller’s earth, a clay-like material found underneath the ground in this particular area. The factory, though a shell of its former self and adorned in graffiti, was formed of strong metal pillars with fragments of metal roof still intact as well as other sections hanging precariously in the wind. This seemed like the perfect site to test a modified version of the electronic sound generator mentioned in the SBRG Research Group’s paper.

As this was my first attempt at something of this kind, it was important to split it into parts. I needed a portable power source, so a car battery seemed a sensible option. This was wired to a three pin plug adaptor so an amplifier could be connected, in this case a large bass amplifier, to create enough noise to resonate effectively in the space. The amplifier would then be connected up to a device on which to play the electronic sounds. A laptop seemed the most versatile option, as it was light and also portable. Finding or producing the electronic sounds was initially a little more complex, but I managed to obtain a CD created for the purpose of checking the acoustics of buildings called ‘Sound Check 2: Audio Test and Demonstration CD’. This CD played through different frequencies as well as white noise, pink noise, and different sine waves, with a description of pitch and type of sound before each one was played, with a pause between each to listen back. Though not exactly like the manual generator that may normally be used in archaeoacoustic study, this sound check CD was a useful tool for experimentation.

The equipment was taken to the venue and set up under a patch of metal roof, angled to bounce off the most enclosed metal surfaces. The CD was played through for a total of an hour or so, broken up into sections. This was mainly due to the fact that it was still a public area and there was a worry that it would disturb those going for walks as it reached late afternoon. The whole process was recorded with a Zoom H4n, as well as various home made contact microphones. These microphones were brought to use on the extensive metal pillars which ran throughout the building’s shell. I attached the microphones to a pillar at one end, and then my father would walk up and down hitting other pillars at different points so as to try and create a sense of distance between the positioning of each one through sound. The Disused Factory was a good starting point in my experimentation as it allowed me to experience reverberance from a very active position, but also taught me hear the different frequency responses within the remains of the architecture.

Since bringing the factory research forward to my peers, I already found I had a greater understanding of the direction my major project would take. I felt it was important to move forward with further experimentation, so I chose the shamanic drum as another method to explore within my work.

As shamanic drums were not the easiest or cheapest things to obtain, I found a better option that would give similar results was a Bodhran drum. Made of wood and goat’s skin, similar in size and layout, the only main difference was the stick used which was all wooden, as shamanic stick had a wooden handle but a leather head. I modified the head so it was wrapped in leather and found the overall timbre of the instrument was almost identical. After learning a few basic shamanic drum rhythms and techniques, I was ready to test it on some sites.

Houghton House could be considered a unique type of ruin, as it did not fall to ruin through time and the elements, but was instead stripped of all of its interior and roof by the 5th Duke of Bedford in 1794 and made a ruin. The structure was in fact restored to be what is accessible today as an English Heritage property. Through all of my research I felt it was meaningful for me to take into account the public and residents of the areas I was working in, this meant that if the site I selected did not involve contained sound (intact roofs and insulation) that I would need to choose my hours of noise making carefully and avoid disrupting audiences who had come to experience the site. I set up a few different experiments, the first involved positioning the microphone which was again the Zoom H4n on a stand in the most enclosed section on the west front of the building. This allowed the possibility of movement with the drum in the form of a drum circle, with the microphone as a central point. Another successful recording involved placing the microphone in what would have been a main hallway, and going on a small sound walk of the building, hitting the drum as I entered the different skeletal rooms. This was an attempt similar to the contact microphone and metal pillar study done in the Disused Factory, as it was a means to try and depict the distances of rooms and boundaries around the building from a particular listening point.

I also tried the drumming on another ruined building, this time an old church from the ancient parish of Segenhoe. All Saints Church dates back from the 11th century, but has received constant modifications over the hundreds of years it has been around. It was announced derelict in 1912, and finally declared a ruin by Bedfordshire Council in 1982, now existing as a monument and graveyard, as it displays centuries of historically important mismatched sacred architecture.

The materials I used at All Saints Church were identical to that of Houghton House, but my rhythms and movements about the site were different. As the size and shape was much more compact than that of the manor, I adapted my performance accordingly. The microphone was positioned in a wind sheltered area in the middle of the structure, and I paced the space with the drum first starting in front of the microphone, then moving away, pausing for a little longer in places I believed to be most resonant. For example, more time was spent under the Chancel Arch, an arch from the 11th century that spans two thirds of the churches width, as I knew that would have been where the altar was placed and the choir would have stood, singing out during the service.

Being aware of the drum as a musical instrument, but using it as more of a research instrument brought a new level of understanding to me towards acoustic practice. The drum could be manipulated and played with in many ways due to its materials, so was a creative and more improvisational acoustic sound generator in contrast to the previous electronic one. It also gave a sense of performance, something that I felt my work would involve more as it moved towards a final piece.

 

Curzon Street Station – Introduction and Access

The transitional building continued as a theme in the forefront of my mind when trying to think of the site I wanted to sound for my final piece. I found myself looking at buildings at risk not only as a liminal building but also as places that embodied or aided transition in their purposeful previous lives. When looking at influential examples such as Fernwood school, a place of continuous movement through it’s doors as children grew and progressed, I found myself contemplating a kind of building all over England whose purpose has come and gone with the shifting of towns and cities – the train station.

It was on going through the Historic England ‘Buildings at Risk’ register that I came across Curzon Street Station in Birmingham. Having been to Birmingham a few times before (although never seeing the station) it seemed accessible, at least from a travel point of view.

The difficulty was gaining access to the building itself, as this was not a public building and being ‘at risk’ often means a building hasn’t been cared for and is unsafe, so you would require the confidence of the owning body, in this case Birmingham Council, to even step on site.

The Historic England register had one telephone number and no email for the station. It took four different phone calls before I finally had a council member on the phone who knew the building I was discussing, but he was nervous about accessibility and told me to put my requests in writing in an email but the chances were unlikely they could help me. Two weeks of uncertainty passed before I received an email from a gentleman called Matt who wanted to grant me access. It would be with a caretaker called Mick, who looks after multiple empty buildings owned by the Birmingham Council, and would happen only a few days later so planning was imminent.

The first visit was a slot of one hour, and as I had planned with Matt that I needed a few more hours in the building, I organised my time so this period would be exploratory and about gaining as much information as I could about it’s rooms, history and acoustics. A plethora of photographs were taken, and unchartered rooms visited, as my father who had joined me for this particular journey spoke to Mick in the cellar. I also did some field recording with my Zoom H4n, leaving it to run in the central stairwell while I went up and down the stairs filming, and also taking it with me when walking round the cellar and the caretaker’s rooms. I also gained a recording of the caretaker himself discussing the mummified cat that was found sealed in the walls, that was later stolen and now lies in storage.

 

Materials and Methods

After reflection on the space, it was important to work out what elements of the building and what themes would be the main focus within my work. Much discussion with my supervisor Mark highlighted my interests in the experience of caring for the site at risk as compared to merely just sounding it. I wanted to spend a little longer in the building, working with elements of its dilapidation as well as its acoustics, and after meeting the caretaker I found myself putting on more of that role. I began use the term ‘acoustic caretaker’ to refer to the sound artist within the building at risk, as I found myself looking at every decision and thought I had from the perspective of care and tending. An early poem I wrote on anticipating the building before I had been granted access became a strong starting point for writing my final vocal performance, something I felt would be a perfect way to express the resonant stairwell of the train station, as well as communicate the singular, lonely relationship of the caretaker and the building at risk.

The main method I used to produce work within the building was a ‘List of Care’, mirroring that of a task list, a means to organise the things I wanted to get done within the allotted time.

Once I had decided on a recording of the stairwell in the station, it was important to get the right equipment, as a Zoom H4n microphone as previously used would not be as sensitive or as high quality a recording as I needed. I wanted a microphone that would show the delicate nuances of the empty space. I opted to hire a Sennheiser MKH 418 from the university, as I was told it was a wonderful spatial Mid-Side field recording microphone. This would mean I had to edit the recording to position the two tracks into perfect stereo, but it seemed the clearest option. It plugged straight into my Zoom H4n, with +48v phantom power, and I would only need an extended power source and a stand for each device in order to make the recording. I would also bring along items to aid me in my list completion such a notebooks and drawing materials, as well as the drum I had experimented with in previous works, which I felt would be a powerful instrument within such a resonant space.

It was essential I tried out the equipment before taking it to Curzon Street Station, so I took a long walk to a hidden ruined house and farm in the area of Brogborough, which I felt would be a quiet area to test the microphone out and get used to its presence. The Round House, Brogborough Park Farm is a Grade II listed ruin from the 19th century that was once a manor, built on top of Ringworks which were occupied in the medieval period until the late 12th century. The remains of the manor and farm were also used as a shelter for quarrying that took place in the landscape surrounding and cut through portions of the Ringworks.

I carried the Sennheiser by hand, with the Zoom H4n positioned around my neck, and managed to successfully have a portable system I could wander the landscape with. I did a lot of recordings to hear the clarity of nature surrounding the area, as well as some of me drumming about the quarry-modified and ruined manor. This was a good exercise as it helped me to be comfortable with the equipment and learn to use such a precious microphone set up safely before bringing it into the station. I also had an opportunity to cut and mix some tracks so I could assess the difficulty of the process in preparation for the final sound recording.

 

Schedule and Process

The main body of my work in Curzon Street Station was organised over two sessions. I preferred this over one longer day session as I wanted time to reflect in between, but was also told the chance of three days in a row was incredibly low as it would take up too much of the council’s time.

I had all my equipment with me on the first of the two sessions, and began working through my list. There were certain tasks that were faster than others, with ‘brush the dust off an unnoticed object’ being a fairly quick task if the object selected wasn’t incredibly large, in this case I selected an old teacup sitting alone on the counter of a dark staff kitchen. I managed to do 12 of the 19 tasks and try out the new microphone set up in just an hour and a half, and felt prepared for the final session in the space the next day, which I had saved for doing all tasks that in some way related to the final recording of my singing.

I drove and hour and a half to the final session to find the gates locked and a voicemail from Matt on my phone saying the caretaker Mick was unwell and therefore couldn’t make it.  I was forced to reschedule a potential session for a week later, which although it still fit into the schedule of when I wanted the recording done by (I planned to see my supervisor Mark in good time to have his feedback on the work as a final piece before returning the equipment), it pushed back a lot of editing time and meant I had to renew my equipment. Luckily I received an email confirming that Mick would make it to the final session. I was surprised to find that when I arrived, he asked roughly how long I would be and left me alone, stating only that I should put the latch down to lock the door when I leave. This allowed me complete trusted freedom in the building that I didn’t expect, and meant that my final session was as focused as I had hoped it could be.

I set up the equipment immediately and spent the first 15 minutes practising and refining the song I had written. I had made a point to do the majority of writing for it within the space as that was the command I had set myself. Warming up my voice in an ice cold train station, I walked the many flights of stairs, leaving the microphone recording throughout on the ground floor, angled towards the high up edge of the stairwell where I would be standing and projecting my voice. The song I had written was made of three melodically similar verses, taking inspiration from that of folk ballads, known for their narrative, which I felt was a key feature of what I wanted to portray in the final sound piece. The verses had moments of rhyming but this wasn’t the main device I wanted to use, I felt the phrase ‘left alone’ at the end of each verse created a continuity, but also worked as a conclusion. The use of rubato accented certain phrases and also alluded to the absence of an accompaniment, allowing the vocalist, in this case myself, to go their own pace and respond to the building as it resonated back.

I did a total of 5 takes, some in different positions, for example two were on the level lower and nearer to the microphone. Some takes had different ornamentation from each other and perhaps one or two flat notes, and I had narrowed it down to two performances I was happy with by the time I had finished, without even hearing them back yet. The difficult part was putting everything back where I found it, switching off the lights and packing up my equipment in the car. I then nervously, and with full awareness that my time of caring for the space had ended, closed and secured the door – the final task on my list.

 

Installation – ‘Care Taken’

There were a lot of components to bring together for the installation. I had already acquired the noticeboard before the final recording session at Curzon Street Station, but still needed to arrange the pieces within it. This was done in part at the train station, but finalised in Dilston Grove. The speakers used would be provided by the university as would the cables.

The moment I saw the gallery space, I felt drawn to the organ loft and balcony. After visiting Curzon Street Station for the first time that it became incredibly clear that my voice should be recorded from the top floor of the stairwell, as only that positioning of the song would express the space the way I wanted it to. This needed to be reflected in the projection of the sound piece when transposed to the new gallery site.

Though there were complications of me using the loft initially as others might have been too close with quite loud pieces of their own, the works began forming and it became clear to the curator that in fact, surprisingly no one had claimed the space and it may be perfect for my sound piece after all. It was of a general agreement that my noticeboard should be on the back wall of the gallery, as certain sections were meant to be lit while others in darkness and mine required light to give the right attention to details within the display. So once the final recording was made at the train station, the separation of the two pieces seemed logistically and aesthetically the right thing to do.

The noticeboard was an important guide within the work. It took the form of a collection, creating an overall narrative as each piece suggested the building, and the List of Care I had written as a form of caretaker’s task list and work in itself. This particular noticeboard was selected for its size and ability to display small objects, but also restrict through a closed clear glass door. It is an antique that dates to around that of the train station’s early years, so hints to a time of prosperity as the building existed as the centre of travel in Birmingham. The List of Care also worked as a score, aiding my movement about the building, and helping me proactively make the most of my short time there. A lot of documentation was made of my list-work, but only select pieces that I felt hinted to the building and my experience within it were put on the noticeboard. The first piece was a drawing in charcoal of a boarded window in a room I wanted very much to tend to. I felt a strong attachment to the room as it felt forgotten in the highest, furthest corner of the building, on a floor still adorned with old curtains and carpets as if the council never saw the importance of stripping it as they had done the others. The next item was a small fragment of the building I had found in the cellar amongst various stacked chairs and old boxes. I wanted to bring a physical part of the building into the gallery space, like an archaeologist might display a fragment of a site they had excavated. The next piece was a victorian pocket watch, alluding to the notion of timekeeping as well as time having passed as it is dated to the era of the station’s opening. The following piece is a photograph taken showing the positioning of an unaddressed envelope I left behind in the building amongst various files and receipts I found dated to the 1980’s. The envelope was put together to form a small time capsule, alluding to my visit and a time frame in which it happened, but never personal to me. Inside the envelope I placed every train ticket I had used from my first entering the building, to my final session there that day. This photograph was arranged to perfectly lead on to the train ticket I had displayed in the centre below, which was bought for the 3rd December, the opening of the exhibition, for a booked train from Birmingham stations to London terminals, the line that Curzon Street Station once ran. This was selected to bring a sense of the immediate to the piece, showing something that was present and relatable for a viewer, as well as expressing the original purpose of the building. The following piece was a caretaker’s key, found amongst many other unnamed keys in the basement of the station. This object represented the role of the caretaker in their most assertive form – the keeper of keys. In control of who enters and exits the building, and the security of everything within, it is the most vital position. Next to the key was a tuning fork, this was added as it is a sounding object and hints at the sound piece which also deals with acoustics and resonances. Finally at the bottom right corner there is a handwritten reflection piece, written about the stairwell and the condition of certain elements of the building, written in the form of a conversation or diary entry. One of the tasks on the list was to reflect outside of the building, and this was a piece written away from the sight on memory of a first impression of it.

Technology was an issue right in the last days of the installation, as the ‘Raspberry Pi’ with additional motion sensor I initially intended to use ended up having sound quality issues. The Pi had been programmed and tested in a space that was underground and must not have been near any interfering technology, as when it was brought into the gallery space, working and ready to be placed with the noticeboard, it was producing a large undertone of crackle and hum alongside the sound recording. Various methods such as earthing the Pi through the addition of a DI box, and even wrapping it in tin foil were tried, but none had any effect. A last resort involved getting hold of an external sound card and trying to program the Pi to use that as its default sound instead of its own, but that didn’t work out as it seemed to want to only play sound from its own source, despite recognising that the sound card was present.

The only other option that would give the same experience required of activating the sound piece from the noticeboard was the use of a small mp3 or iPod device. Irene the curator kindly lent me her iPod, and there was no interference this time when it was tested within the space. It was then important to consider how to display and instruct the use of the iPod. After much thought I felt a minimalistic and simple approach was the best way, as any over complication may have alluded to it being more than what it was, just a means to activate the sound piece in the organ loft. What I did do, was include a handwritten instruction that was sensitive to the noticeboard it was positioned next to. I chose to only include the words ‘press carefully’, as it was direct yet delicate, reiterating a strong theme of the work. The placement of the iPod on the plinth was for ease of use, and also for the flow of the gallery space, as many works made use of the plinths in similar ways. It also allowed me to hide wires successfully.

 

Responses, Conclusion and Further Work

From what I witnessed in the Exhibition space, the piece seemed to work well, with visitors finding the iPod accessible enough and responding how I intended to the voice sounding out into the space from above. The separation of the two pieces seemed to fit the gallery well, and it was a very positive experience to watch people interacting with my work without me being next to it and giving any guidance.

The purpose of this project was to try and create empathy from the viewers of my work towards the liminal building at risk, living in a state of absence yet presence with no purpose assigned to them. On reflection towards the end of this project, I find myself contemplating earlier thoughts I had at the beginning on the privilege of ruin. With the constant disposal and replacement of objects that have lost their purpose in today’s environment, I believe there is no opportunity for a building to fall to ruin like so many have previously through history. This has lead me to draw the conclusion that in fact, a building becomes a ruin the moment it becomes purposeless, thus making the liminal building no longer uncertain, but somehow confirmed in its state of ruin. As an extension of what is proposed, the acoustic caretaker, a role previously assessed as the position of the sound artist within the building at risk, would in fact become the ‘archaeoacoustic caretaker’, linking together what initially seemed a juxtaposition of ideas at the beginning of this project.

I plan to continue this research further, taking on the role of the archaeoacoustic caretaker in more buildings in a similar position to that of Curzon Street Station. I hope to experiment more with the link between care and the ruin, and with further clarification and study, put my findings into a thesis.

 

Bibliography

 

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Historic England. (2016). Heritage at Risk Register. Available: https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/heritage-at-risk/search-register/list-entry/1687831. Last accessed 5th December 2016.

Montgomery, W. (2011). Quiet Storms: Toshiya Tsunoda. Available: http://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/quiet-storms_toshiya-tsunoda. Last accessed 6th December 2016.