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Susan Philipsz: The Internationale

Nathan Budzinski

Sound artist Susan Philipsz has been nominated for the Turner Prize this year (along with The Otolith Group, one half of which is The Wire contributor Kodwo Eshun). It reminded me that we shot some footage of an installation of hers at the ICA back in 2008.

The Internationale was shown for two days at the ICA in central London off The Mall, a wide boulevard leading from Trafalgar Square up to Buckingham Palace (monarchs use The Mall to impress during state visits and other ceremonies). To experience the piece, a small group of visitors were led to the rear of the ICA and up a ladder onto the bare roof terrace. A single loudspeaker attached to the façade of the grand building broadcast Philipsz’s voice softly warbling its way through the anthem of international socialism, blending with the background drone of city traffic. Philipsz’s work takes the form of a series of cover versions; studies in how particular songs can mutate, displacing them from their own time, projecting them via a different voice (usually her own), and mixing them into different spaces (usually public, transient ones). Filter, one of her better known works, has the artist singing pop songs by Radiohead, The Velvet Underground, The Vaselines and The Rolling Stones through the public address system at a supermarket in East London. An earlier version took place in Belfast’s main bus station, both installations eliciting a wide range of responses, from interested to irritated (as covered in Cross Platform, The Wire 244)

Philipsz has presented several versions of The Internationale. The first was in a pedestrian underpass in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1999. Another took place in 2000 at Berlin’s Friedrichstraße Station, a notorious border crossing between East and West Germany during the Cold War. Both of those installations, situated in the former Eastern Bloc, would seem to turn the song into an elegy for a time when international socialism was a reality. It’s less certain what’s happening in this London version though. Situated in the heart of the old British Empire and current capital of finance, the displaced Internationale has either lost an authoritative voice or is just being drowned out by the city’s noise.

The Internationale was made as part of Out Of Bounds, a short series of artists interventions in the private spaces of arts institutions around central London.

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