‘BEEFing Up’ Portland Square’s Subterranean Vibrations

1 portland square

This geophone ( a spiked microphone SM24) was picking up vibrations from under Portland Square.

Portland Square subterranean vibrations (listen with headphones)

The louder sounds heard are those of feet walking near the geophone. The softer sound is the ‘growl’ of the city and vibrations (audible and inaudible) from kilometres away in all directions.

Here in the new buildings of BEEF (Bristol Experimental Expanded Film) and on the day of the Launch of this new venture, several artists showed evidence of some of their experimental processes. Being new to Portland Square I read Bette. R. Burke’s book of the square’s long history and her recollections of living in this very building for over 40 years – Cinderella Square: A History of Portland Square. Listening under ground was my own initial exploration of the place.


3 front of building

The visitors to the Launch came through the front door and climbed the stairs to the second floor. The geophone cable however went up the front of the building and through a 2nd floor window.

5 in 2nd floor

Taking the vibrations live into the building via the cable could bring the experience of outside (and underneath the ground outside) to the inside of the building. Vibrations were being picked up from directly under the square and from down underneath the city, amplified with a preamp close to the geophone, run up the wall into the building (2nd floor window) along the corridor, into one of our new studio spaces, into an amp and subsequently into a couple of transducers placed on a table and chair.

6 in to the studio

The visitors were invited to come in and sit at the table experiencing the vibrations from the transducers, through the seat of the chair and the surface of the table.

8 instructions

They jumped when the transducer on the table rattled loudly, especially when someone walked along the pavement close to the geophone.

9 transducers on furniture

The power of the 3000W amp (Buttkicker) and transducers designed for extreme effect (Buttkicker) created some loud thumps along with the burr of the rattling lower frequencies. It was fed back to me that these oddly spaced and random occurrences seemed,

“… like the messages received in a séance.”

After having read so recently the book about Portland Square’s history, I couldn’t help thinking of the vibrations made by countless feet and indeed hooves over the centuries, impacting on the paving stones, cobbles and tracks around the square. Those times, though easy to imagine amongst the Georgian buildings of the square, seemed as transient and changeable as the nearby and new re generation (Cabots Circus!) of the city.

On the day of BEEF’s Launch, mixed with the experiences of the subterranean vibrations of the current activity of the city, the experience of the underlying vibrations of the deeper ground and strata, continued beneath as it has done for millions of years. The time frame I had been considering of a few hundred years, from the building of Portland Square to the present, was a mere instant in comparison.

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