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"In Place: Piazza Cella"

Zürich, Switzerland

June 25, 2011
8:00–20:00


The second intervention of the "In Place" series. A recording of me reading the following text was used in an installation exhibited by the Ohrenhoch in Berlin, Germany October 23–25, 2011. The photo above depicts a typical Saturday night on the Piazza Cella.

"Sitting down on a bench at the Piazza Cella the first thing that strikes me is the sound of water. Looking over I see a small fountain, water dribbling down from a narrow metal spout into a shallow granite bowl of water with a few cigarette butts and an empty beer bottle floating in it. I'm sitting at the bench nearest the Langstrasse, right next to the fountain and I decide that I don't want to hear this water for the next twelve hours. But what exactly do I want to hear? I looked forward to experiencing many things: music, traffic, screaming voices, shattering glass, people heaving, doors slamming, police sirens. In short, the sound of every red light district I've ever been too, just like this one. But I hardly hear any of this. If anything the Piazza Cella resembles more a quiet park on a Sunday afternoon.

The traffic in the Langstrasse moves by in an uninterrupted progression of listlessly crawling cars. Buses drive down their lane now and then, sucking all sound behind them in a great low pressure vacuum. Police patrols circle monotonously round and round the square, like patient vultures. When the officers bother to get out of their cars to arrest someone it's all amazingly orderly and devoid of any excitement. Not even the junkies and dealers and alcoholics and prostitutes and crazy people raise their voices. Then I remember that noon is probably like early morning for most of these people. They're not yet quite fully revived from the night before. But how many times have I walked by here in the evening and heard nothing but full fledged parties and fights and a roiling sea of boisterous voices filling the Piazza Cella till it seemed like it was going to explode with so much sound?

Two pretty drunk women appear out of nowhere. They hail passersby and comically harass the police, who ignore them, as they ignore all the crazies here who badger them with questions the whole day long. The officers smile, wag their heads, inattentively agreeing with whatever it is these women are telling them. I catch a steady issue of and “ja's” and “nein's.” The women giggle conspiratorially and falter away down the Dienerstrasse to their next destination.

I'm waiting for the music to start, to fill the Piazza with sound rebounding from the surrounding buildings. The Piranha Bar, The Longstreet, The Lambada Bar, Schweizer Deggen, Bar Locarno 2000, Bar Stella Alpina. There are so many bars here, each with its own signature sound, each a potential source of loud, abrasive music. But they're all silent still, open for business but not yet recovered from the previous night's festivities. My friend Dave lives above the Schweizer Deggen. One night I was making recordings from his window and all we could hear was totally distorted salsa music blaring with a savage ferocity from Bar Locarno 2000 across the street. And therefore I was sure of this, at least one loud jukebox. But so far just the wind, some dribbling water and a couple of drunk, exclaiming women are all I'm left with.

Over time I become aware of the confusing vortex of languages closing in on me: Swiss German, High German, French, Spanish, Italian, British English, Arabic, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Portuguese, a couple African languages which I can't place. Even something that sounds like Finnish. These people all gravitate to the Piazza, take a seat, watch the day pass by into night. Some speak in tongues, languages that didn't exist until these people arrived and found a spot here on a bench. Like the big guy in the suede Midnight Cowboy get-up to my right, intently mumbling something utterly incomprehensible to anyone but himself and his own private demons. He seems to know everyone on the square, tries to hug an old long lost friend, kiss a girl who waves to him. No luck, everyone eludes his clasp. He finally throws in the towel, passing out full length on the bench and snoring contentedly, his final contribution to the Piazza's sound pool.

I'm sitting under the only tree on the Piazza now. An old German guy walks by and asks, "Alles klar?" “Ja,” I answer. But I'm not getting what I wanted. It's still too quiet. Maybe I picked the wrong day of the week – it's Saturday. Or the wrong time of day – from twelve noon to midnight. Things do tend to pick up here around midnight, but I didn't want to just hear the party. I thought there might also be some guise of a daytime world going on here. Well, maybe not families out for a stroll, but perhaps also not just police, drug addicts and dealers.

After a while I start to feel the Piazza pulsing with all these individual sounds bouncing off the surrounding buildings, creating a standing pool of deafening tumult. Like a slowly whirling pool of water verging on becoming a stagnant puddle, the sound just seems to sit here, cut asunder now and then by a bus sucking through or a distant siren howling somewhere off in the city. After a few hours I begin to feel like I'm on the verge of delirium, concentrating on all the sounds, on all the sights, the people coming and going, the gray sky pressing down, squeezing the sound deep into the asphalt of the Piazza.

Some shouting finally going on in the Schweizer Deggen, of all places. The pressure's building, the clouds are settling in and it looks like rain. Everything slowly takes on a muffled tint, like damp cloth whacking against one of the benches. The police are here again. They just parked near my bench and stepped out of their van. They nod to each other and run across the street to intercept two typical Langstrasse suspects. A stealthy silence envelops the officers as they move efficiently through the traffic. Someone yells out "Hallo...!" The two suspects stop, shrugging their shoulders and looking down at their feet. The clickety-clack clickety-clack of two women in dangerously high heels pans across my stereo field.

These people just 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 prostitutes try to steal his plastic bag full of beer, concealed none too inconspicuously under his bench and practically begging to be stolen. He teeters off to cadge another cigarette from someone. Maybe I look like a cop, or an idiot, or a crazy, or a damned tourist. Some guy just sitting here all day, twiddling his thumbs, watching the world go by, the sounds sailing by. No, I'm listening, or watching, or just being. What a novel idea, to just sit somewhere and do nothing. Just be there. Take it all in. Start to hallucinate, to feel dizzy with all the detail, all the faces and voices and strutting characters.

After eight or so hours the sound field of the Piazza begins to collapse in on itself. I don't even know what all the sounds are anymore. It all just seems to dangle tightly above my head or drip slowly like drying paint from the blackened windows of the abandoned building next to Bistro Pub Aladin, with its two televisions tuned to perpetual sports channels. I start on a slow elliptical path around the Piazza, from bench to tree, tree to bench, stopping to take a long drought of water from the fountain, persevering bravely in its steadfast gurgle, the one sound unifying the cacophony of the square. I'm starting to enjoy the sound of the water now, it focuses my energies on something I can hold on to, my vantage point in the midst of this intoxicating field of sound. Now more than ever I want the night to come, for each bar to light up, each jukebox to roar. If I try hard enough I can almost hear the barrage of music. My head is spinning. It's fabulous. What a delirious pleasure. What if I sat here for twenty-four hours?

The sky's definitely falling, I can feel a drop of rain now and then. A gray swath of cloud exerting an onerous pressure on the square. The wind's died down and, as they say here, when the wind stops blowing that's when the rain starts to fall. I'm waiting under the tree again. And I hear the pitter-patter pitter-patter of the odd rain drop ricocheting from leaf to leaf. It's getting on to midnight now, and the rain's really starting to stream down. This is all I can hear, that and the unrelenting swish swish swish of the passing traffic. The rain doesn't cleanse away anything, it just turns the dust to mud. I'm getting wet. And I notice that my ears are ringing. Or is that just something going on in my head, like bells going off, or glass breaking? The Piazza is splitting apart, people are groaning. Or is that just thunder? The sky splits in two. At last the finale I'd been hoping the whole day for, a loud boom! ricocheting from building to building around the Piazza. I think it's finally time to go"

 

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