Jason Kahn 
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Works for Radio
"In Place: Piazza Cella, Zürich"

Technique: amplifier, speakers, cd player, text

Berlin, Germany

October 23+25, 2011

hear the recording

"In Place" is a series of works which deal with the notion of "the field recording" in current practice.

I think a lot of the work around field recording has involved the notion of using devices to record sound in the field, whereas for me I often feel that the process of recording, of being in a certain place, spending time there, absorbing that place, as it were, is really what I take away with me when I go somewhere to record. The recordings are really just a kind of documentation of the experience of being in a certain place.

My idea is to spend a day in a place and then, instead of recording this, writing a text about the experience of being in this place. So, in a sense the text would be the field recording. The recording of my voice reading this text would then be the final material for an installation. What you have, then, is a recording (audio) of a recording (text) of a place. I literally "read" a place.

In this case, I spent twelve hours -- from noon to midnight -- on August 6, 2011 at the Piazza Cella in Zürich's Kreis 4, a neighborhood primarily known for drugs, violence, bars, prostitution and, more recently, many galleries. Until 2009, the Piazza Cella used to be a taxi stand. In an attempt to rehabilitate this neighborhood the City of Zürich decided to make the Piazza Cella into a place for people to sit and linger--a bold concept for an area where lingering practically equates with some transgression against the legal code.

There is a small sign on the Piazza Cella which offers some historical context:

Piazza Cella
Erminia Cella (1888-1959)
Wirtin im Restaurant "Cooperativo" (1935-1952).
Damals treffpunkt der antifaschistischen italienische
Emigration und Mutter von Ettore Cella (1913-2004)
Schauspieler und Regisseur

The place was named after Erminia Cella, who operated for many years the restaurant Cooperativo, which was originally located not far from the Piazza Cella. Cooperativo was the epicenter for Zürich's Italian immigrants, many of whom lived and worked in Kreis 4.

In Place: Piazza Cella, Zürich

The first thing I notice is the sound of water and looking over I see the fountain, water dribbling down from a spout. I'm sitting at the bench nearest the Langstrasse, next to the fountain and I decide that I don't want to hear this water for the next twelve hours. But what do I want to hear for the next twelve hours? I expected to hear many things: music, traffic, screaming voices, breaking glass, people heaving, doors slamming, police sirens. But I hardly heard any of this. If anything the Piazza Cella resembles more an island of tranquility. The traffic moves by almost quietly, not in a nasty snarled jam but a steady stream. The buses course through their lanes now and then, sucking everything behind them in a great whoosh. Police patrols circle round and round, silently, no sirens; and when they get out to bust someone no shouting, all very orderly, this is Switzerland, after all. Even the junkies and dealers and alcoholics and prostitutes and crazy people don't raise their voices. How many times have I walked by here, in the night, in the middle of the day, and heard people scream? And now, middle of the afternoon, nothing. Two women, pretty drunk hail passerby and comically harass even the police, who ignore them, as they ignore the crazies who badger them with questions the live long day about god knows what, the officers all the while smiling, nodding their heads, quietly agreeing or at least not letting on that they're just ignoring these lost souls. And I'm waiting for the music to start up, to fill the Piazza with sound echoing from the surrounding buildings. There's the Piranha Bar, The Longstreet, The Lambada Bar, Schweizer Deggen, Bar Locarno 2000, Bar Stella Alpina--all potential noise makers. But they're all silent. My friend Dave lives above the Schweizer Deggen and one night I was making recordings from his window and all we could hear was totally distorted salsa music blaring from Bar Locarno 2000. And so I was expecting this, or at least a loud jukebox. But nothing...just the wind, some dribbling water, a couple drunk ladies. And all the languages I hear around me: Hochdeutsch, Zuerideutsch, French, Spanish, Italian, English, Arabic, Turkish, Serbo-Croatien, Portuguese...even something that sounds like Finnish. These people all drift to the Piazza, take a seat, kill the time, speak their tongues, some speaking in tongues. Like the big guy in the suede cowboy getup. Neil Young gone bad astray. He's mumbling something the whole time, loud, incomprehensible. Knows everyone, tries to hug everyone, kiss the girls. No luck. He passes out on the bench and snores, his final contribution to the Piazza sound pool. I'm sitting under the tree now and an old German guy asks, "Alles klar?" I think so, but I'm not getting what I was expecting. It's too quiet. Maybe I picked the wrong day -- it's Saturday -- or the wrong time -- from twelve noon to midnight. Things do tend to pick up here around midnight but I didn't just want to hear the party, I thought there might also be some semblance of normal life going on here--well, maybe not families with Kinderwagen, but perhaps not just pushers and polytoxics. After a while I start to notice the Piazza pulsing with all these quiet sounds bouncing off the surroundings buildings--not exactly standing waves -- which would be impossible, anyhow -- but perhaps a standing pool of sounds, like a incredibly slowly whirling pool just verging on becoming a stagnant puddle. The sound just seems to sit here, cut asunder now and then buy a bus sucking through or a distant siren. After a few hours I start to feel like I'm hallucinating, concentrating on all the sounds, on all the sights, the people coming and going, the gray cap sky pushing down, squeezing the sound into the asphalt of the Piazza. Some shouting finally going on in the Scheizer Deggen, of all places. "Hey!" Das heisst "S-c-h-w-e-i-z-e-r Deggen. Also, Ordung there!" Well, this is what I'm thinking, not shouting, though maybe I should be shouting or at least I feel like I'm shouting in my head. The pressure's building, the clouds are settling in and it looks like rain. Everything slowly takes on a muffled tint, like damp cloth wacking against one of the benches. There's the police again, they just parked near my bench and got out of their van. One man one woman, they nod and run across the street and intercept two typical Langstrasse suspects, coulda spotted them a mile away, wouldn't need no po-lice uniform to do that. And they do that, what they do, they do that silently, swishing across the street, "Hallo...!" All very orderly. And the two dudes stop, they don't run, they don't shout. Hey, this is Zurich, we keep it down here. Is that right? I used to not thing so. I chose this spot because I though it would be a roaring circus, but what I got was dribbling water, wind brushing through the trees, quiet revving motors bouncing from building to building, one whore now or then cursing the goddamned pass controls over at the Lambada Bar -- three times already since I been sitting here. They stomp their heels and, now that I think of it, maybe this is the loudest sound I've heard today, these ladies strutting their stuff in danger heels, precarious. I guess if they went down the ensuing screams still wouldn't rival that clickety clack clickety clack panning across my stereo field from the bench perspective. They come and go. Everyone comes and goes here. I'm the only one who stays. Except for the old German guy, nobody asks me anything. He screams around a bit when two drunken whores try to steal his plastic bag ful of beer, hidden not too well under his bench and left vulnerable as he teeters off to cadge another cigarette, though I did see him smoking a cigar later (the best for last). Maybe I look like a cop, or an idiot, or a loser, or a damned tourist. Some white guy just sitting here all day, twiddling his thumbs, watching the world go by, the sounds swirl by, counting the number of Aargau license plates or some such nonsense. No, I'm listening, or watching, or just b-e-i-n-g. What a novel idea: to just sit somewhere, do nothing. Just be there. Take it in. Start to hallucinate, to feel dizzy with all the detail, all the faces and strutters and passing characters. After eight or so hours it all starts to just fold in on itself: I don't know what I'm hearing anymore, it all seems to be just there, just sitting in the air, hovering tight above my head or dripping from the abandoned building next to Bistro Pub Aladin, with its perpetual sports channel blaring, spilling a bit past the bistro's doors but not quite making its way to where I'm sitting. I start to walk around the Piazza, slowly from here to there, from this bench to that bench, grab a swig of fresh Swiss fountain water (fresh, that is, if one doesn't pay too much attention to the sopping wet cigarette butts floating in the fountain's basin, surrounded by a scum of spit and general debris which has made it's way here since god knows when.) I'm starting to like the sound of the water more now, it tends to focus my attention on something, I can grab this, my vantage point in the midst of all this thick soup of sensorium. I want the night to come, for each bar to light up, each jukebox to roar, that bad salsa, house... anything. But there's just no music here. Really. I'm surprised. And I was counting on more sirens. Nada. These polizei do their jobs so quietly, so efficiently. They don't even gun their engines, not even for fun or to ease the boredom. For certainly it must be incredibly boring to drive up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down the Langstrasse all the day long, looking for lone two-bit dealer junkies painfully schlepping themselves from one bus stop to the next. What a great service to the nation these officers of the peace provide. I feel so safe sitting on the Piazza Cella just thinking about this, I can't tell you... You know, when I was up in the Alps once I heard more planes passing by than here in the middle of Kreis Fuenf. I was also waiting for the helicopters all day. Or the ambulances. Nichts! Nichts los, or perhaps there's just so much happening that I don't notice it any longer. My head is spinning. It's fabulous. What a high. What if I sat here for twenty-four hours. I'd probably be pretty well bored out of my mind, or at least hungry. Well, I wasn't so dumb that I didn't remember to bring food along. And water. So I'm eating and drinking now and then. And trying to prick up my ears because that's what I'm here for right? This is some highfallutin' art project right? I'm my own "installation" (or some such other bullshit) right? No, I just some schmo sitting on a bench in the heart of Zurich's red light district, trying to see what I can see, hear what I can hear. But maybe I missed the boat? The sky's definitely falling, I can feel a drop now and then. Gray cap. The wind's died down and they say, when the wind stops blowing that's when the rain starts falling. So I'm waiting. Under the tree again. And I hear the pitter patter pitter patter of the odd rain drop. It's getting on to midnight and now the rain's really starting to stream down. This is all I hear now, that and the swish swish of the passing cars. The rain doesn't wash anything away, it just makes everything haesslicher, dirtier, smuttier, funkier, mudddier, stickier, slower, wetter. Yeah, I'm getting wet. And I notice that my ears are ringing. Or is that just something I imagine in my head, like bells going off, or breaking. Yeah, the Piazza is splitting apart, people are groaning...or is that just the thunder. The sky is really splitting overhead. Finally the sound I was waiting for: that loud boom, maybe not the four on the floor billig house I was expecting but still...boom, boom! Yeah, I like that, resounding from building to building. I think it's time to go. The finale I was always waiting for.