PSNEurope is standing amid the blades of an enormous turbine, listening to the sound of World War II bombers. It’s quite a sensation for both eyes and ears – and might be terrifying in other circumstances. But the propeller hasn’t spun for decades, and the approaching aircraft are merely a vintage recording. Welcome to the Wind Tunnel Project.
Located on the Farnborough Airport base, the Wind Tunnel Project ran for six weeks ahead of and during this year’s International Airshow. Saved by the FAST trust as a Grade 1-listed site, but too expensive to re-open, arts producer Artliner devised an imaginative plan to temporarily re-open these aerodynamic test and research buildings adjacent to the airfield, as cultural arts spaces. These listed premises have stood dormant and unused since the 1990s – buit in 1935 they were to be made accessible to the public for the first time.
Artliner, in turn, commissioned artist and sound designer Thor McIntyre-Burnie (www.aswarm.com) to create something suitable for the space. Sponsors including Canadian aerospace Bombardier and Breitling lent financial support to the endeavour.
The Project was spread between two buildings, and it’s in the first, Q121, that McIntyre-Burnie’s vision for the space was realised with true dynamism and grandeur of scale. Q121 is a massive purpose-built wind tunnel, with a 24-foot (7.5m) propeller that sucks air around a return tunnel 40 feet (12m) high by 300 feet (91.5m) long. It was here that planes, cars, bikes and other items were suspended for aerodynamic testing back in the day. “Its a fascinating place for sound,” says McIntyre-Burnie (pictured right), a composer and artist of some standing who has won commissions for sound design and music for arts projects and dance events across Europe. “It is all architecturally designed to funnel air around as efficiently as possible and reduce any turbulence and this does very interesting things with the passage of sound.” McIntyre-Burnie worked onsite for about a month, playing with both equipment and sound design, experimenting with the recordings of John Taverner’s vocal works and suchlike to see the effect on the space.
For the finished installation, the sound designer built a suspended sculptural rig where the test subject would sit, projecting sound and focus back into the tunnel (using both a gramophone horn with unbranded driver and Tannoy's VX12 drivers, driven by Lab.gruppen amps). This then interplayed with speakers (three Tannoy VX8 Actives) hidden within the tunnel’s wind veins. While the scale of the propeller is more than enough food for the imagination, the choice of programme material could not be more fitting. McIntyre-Burnie was able to obtain a 1942 BBC recording made in the garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison, who had noticed that the resident nightingales accompanied her whenever she played her instrument there. The live broadcast of the recording was cut short because it accidentally picked up the sound of a bombing raid heading to Europe – and at the time this was deemed a risk to British security.
Main photo: Forgotten Heritage Photography