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"In Place: Galerie Ravenstein"

Brussels, Belgium

October 13, 2011
7:00–17:00


The fourth intervention of the "In Place" series. This text was also read as a performance at the 2011 Q02 Field Festival in Brussels. The photo above shows the room where I spent the day.

"I arrive shortly after seven a.m. in the rotunda of the Galerie Ravenstein. I enter from Rue Ravenstein above and plunge into the relative darkness of the space, where I'll spend the next ten hours. At first I'm a bit puzzled, everything seems so much darker and run-down than when I was here four years ago. Traffic sounds filter in quietly from the Rue Ravenstein above and from behind, further down the main corridor of the gallery from Rue Cantersteen. A steady current of cool air accompanies the faint morning sounds.

I take a seat on the steps leading up to the first floor of the rotunda and have a look around me: the restaurant Exki already has its tables and chairs out, and a few early birds have stopped there for a quick coffee before heading off to their offices. Fashion Food, Exki's main competitor and the only other business on the ground floor of the rotunda, is still closed. A trickle of people enters from the Central Station down behind me, and they make their way up the stairways to Rue Ravenstein. Sounds waft around me, I can't seem to locate their source. Up above on the second floor and closed off to the public, the Center for Fine Arts Brussels has its offices and a cafeteria for its employees. They use metal chairs and tables up there and occasionally these screech across the stone floor sounding like some prehistoric birds disrupting the new day's tranquility.

Aside from the morning cold and my still being a bit drowsy, the rotunda creates a comforting atmosphere. Like being submerged in a warm bath of sound. Indeed, over the day I'll keep returning to this idea of being immersed in a huge tank of water. I envision the space getting inverted, with spectators looking in from the empty shop windows into the rotunda, filled now with water and dolphins or colorful fish, rekindling memories of family trips to Sea World or the Monterey Aquarium. But the only place where there might have been water here is the dry and cracked fountain in the middle of the rotunda. Painted a light blue and decorated with embossed palm leaves – a nod to some colonial reminiscence, I guess – I can't picture the fountain having held water for years. The strange thing is, most people passing through the rotunda walk respectfully around the empty fountain, as if it still held water or perhaps just in deference to its former glory.

An elaborate mosaic of half-inch tiles covers the floor, the walls and the eleven columns towering the length of the rotunda's height. I feel like I'm in some giant Turkish bath and the effect is not dissimilar: sounds constantly swirl around, build, achieve an incredible density and then miraculously evanesce into the heights of the glass dome above. At times this all feels like a psychedelic sound experiment, not only sonically but also spatially perplexing.

Walking around the ground floor of the rotunda I listen for all the areas of reflection, moving towards the middle, back towards the walls. Sounds seem to be clearer the further away from the center I move. Going up the stairs the body of sound begins to thin out, as if in direct relation to the growing intensity of daylight cascading in from the glass roof above. Moving towards the entrance to Rue Ravenstein feels like crossing a raging river, with light and sound and cool air pouring in from the street above. The mood is brittle and harsh up here and I head back down to the relative warmth and hospitality of the rotunda's ground floor.

By nine a.m. or so a continual parade of people bustles through the main hall and up the stairs of the rotunda. It's astounding how little they talk, the sound of their scurrying footsteps fills the space, the occasional high heels clicking like machine gun fire up the stairs or across the tiled floor to the entrance of some offices located in the rear of the rotunda. All this sound hangs like a clinging gray mist in the space, arousing memories of navigating foggy streets in London.

The door of Exki ruptures this morning sound field every couple minutes or so, as it swings closed with a dreadful crack. At first this bothers me but I soon learn to live with it, even this sound of disruption finding its place in the balance here. Occasionally, one of the restaurant workers will try to prop the door open, but within moments an indignant customer slams it shut again. This will go on and on until the rotunda starts to warm up with morning sunlight and no one minds leaving the door open.

Around ten a.m. the morning rush hour seems to be over and a hush settles over the rotunda. Individual sounds become more discernible now, even sounds from outside the gallery making themselves present: a police siren, a large truck moving slowly by, cars honking their horns. And voices from the top floor trinkle down like light rain: a laugh, a salutation, someone sneezing. All of a sudden, like a wave gaining momentum on the horizon, a troop of school children starts marching up the main hall of the gallery. They enter the rotunda with squeals of laughter, screaming, shouting, the teachers barking out orders in turn. The whole cavalcade like an imploding train of sound snaking its way through the gallery. As they reach the upper floor, their peals of laughter sound like bells going off and before I know it, they've vanished out onto the street above. With them gone, the silence in the rotunda swoops down like a demolishing hammer blow. It's as if all these kids' voices have swept the rotunda clean of its sounds, leaving a yawning vacuum behind them.

I'm back sitting on the stairs now, staring across the sea of tiles spread out before me: every now and then, among the blue, yellow and beige patterns, a small red tile punctuates the space, most of the color long since rubbed away on the tiles nearing the center of the hall, those along the wall still a bright crimson. I don't even want to know the work that went into doing this. It's absolutely insane. Looking up I see a boy and a girl with sound recording equipment. Now, this was something I wasn't prepared for. I mount the stairs and attempt to casually saunter by. The boy eyes me suspiciously. I walk over to the other side of the rotunda. They spend around ten minutes making a recording then move back down to the ground floor and do the same. I guess it's not that interesting for them, though I can't for the life of me imagine why not. But then, they probably couldn't in their wildest dreams appreciate why I would find it so interesting to spend ten hours standing around here all day doing nothing. Maybe I don't really understand this myself, either.

And the strange thing is, no one seems to pay me any mind. Or at least they politely refuse to acknowledge my existence. Not many people loiter here: the occasional homeless person, maybe someone stopping to make a phone call or sit down for a minute to read a map or newspaper. Virtually no tourists arrive – which is fine by me – and only very rarely does anyone stop to look at the space or snap a photo. I start to feel sorry for the rotunda, it seems to have been forgotten or perhaps never even discovered in the first place. All its grandeur has slowly decayed, its stores stand empty, travelers dash through every morning and every evening but none of them prizes the intricate tile work, the wonderful acoustics, the body of light showering down from the glass dome above.

At midday the tempo picks up again, the office workers make their way to Exki and Fashion Foods for lunch. Pretty soon all the tables in front of these restaurants are filled, the rotunda surges with the sound of conversation, percolating up from the ground floor and colliding with the same lunchtime rhythm in the cafeteria of the Center for Fine Arts up on the second floor. That light and airy feeling from the morning is gone now. The sound is compact, compressed, taught, like a monstrous block distending outwards to fill every nook and cranny of the rotunda. I walk from the ground floor to the first floor, trying to find some respite from this onslaught, but everywhere I go it seems the same, just this one impenetrable field of pulsating sound.

Within an hour or so most of the workers have returned to their offices. It feels like the rotunda is now digesting all this sound which it has gorged itself on for lunch. I think of this space feeding off the sound its visitors bring each day, for if they won't show this grand old hall their appreciation they can at least contribute the sound of their voices and motion. I walk again slowly around the perimeter of the ground floor, savoring this new lull in the day's rhythm. Standing in front of one of the abandoned stores I abruptly hear voices. It sounds as if someone is talking right over my shoulder. I turn around and look into the store: only darkness, not a person inside. And also nobody near me in the space. This brings back memories of being in the Gol Gumbaz tomb in Karnataka, India, where one can send whispers around the interior wall. Does the rotunda of the Galerie Ravenstein work the same way? This could hardly be possible, but all day I've felt this disassociation from sounds and their sources, with suddenly a voice or a scrape or some indistinguishable noise raining down on me, murmuring over my shoulder, appearing before me like a visitation from another world. I guess I must be hallucinating at this point, punch drunk from too many hours spent in this churning turmoil of sound. I'm losing my bearings.

And then three teenage boys suddenly careen up the stairs behind me, hooting and hollering, just like my kids do when we're hiking up in the Alps and want to hear the way their voices echo back from the stone ridges around us. But these kids' voices don't echo, they ring out like an anarchic pinball machine gone berserk, with electric vectors of sound zigzagging back and forth from wall to wall, ceiling to floor. They slice the air of the rotunda into pieces. It's exhilarating and I find myself wanting more of the same. The sun has finally broken through the clouds and fierce white light fills the rotunda. And now I'd like to hear something analog to this brilliant luminescence: even more kids screaming, sirens and horns and a thousand secretaries in high heel shoes and every metal chair and table screeching across the stone and tiled floors of the rotunda. But no, the three boys are gone as rapidly as they appeared. The sun withdraws again behind a patch of dark cloud and the gray cap of the glass dome above bears down slowly, filling the space with a somber silence, not unlike a mausoleum.

As I'm getting ready to leave around five p.m., droves of workers enter the rotunda from the Rue Ravenstein above. They scurry and dart to make the trains waiting for them below in the Central Station. Like in the morning, their shuffling feet and occasional voices fill the space, though maybe now there is more laughter for their work day is done and they can go home. And I guess I should go too."

 

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