Artist Di Mainstone makes Tower Bridge ‘sing’

We speak to artist, designer and filmmaker Di Mainstone about her newest, exciting art commission, which celebrates the 125th anniversary of the iconic Tower Bridge.

Celebrating its 125th anniversary, this year Tower Bridge is launching its latest art commission, working with internationally renowned artist and filmmaker, Di Mainstone. To mark the landmark anniversary, Mainstone has written and directed a film that reimagines the iconic bridge as a giant musical instrument.

Called Time Bascule, the film will be on display as part of an immersive exhibition called Making the Bridge Sing, hosted in Tower Bridge’s Victorian Engine Rooms. Running from the 29th January into March 2020, the exhibition aims to showcase the making of the film, and give visitors the opportunity to play a range of specially created musical instruments. We spoke to Mainstone to find out more about Making the Bridge Sing and the process behind it…

Tell us about yourself and your work?

I’m an artist, designer and a filmmaker; I create body-centric instruments and installations that combine sculpture, music, dance, technology and film. I started my career as a fashion designer, so my work is inspired by the human body, costume and movement.  Generally, my process starts by designing and building what I call a ‘body-centric’ object or instrument; often, these inventions are interactive and trigger sound or transform in some way when the user or ‘movician’ moves or plays with them. I started making films to explain how these sculptures or installations worked, but now filmmaking has become my obsession, often with these playful objects at the centre of each narrative. 

To give you an idea of the diversity of my work, as well as the Making the Bridge Sing commission,   just along the river at the Southbank Centre I’ve created a large scale installation called Soundpit, which invites visitors to explore sound, vision and touch in giant, beautifully illuminated sandpits.  As well as this, I create sculptures; and all being well, my giant kaleidoscope sculpture will be landing somewhere along the Thames in London fairly soon, though I can’t reveal the location just yet. I must confess, I’ll be ecstatic to have a trio of Thames artwork!

How were you commissioned for this project?

Making music with suspension bridges has been an obsession of mine, ever since I lived and worked as an artist in New York City. Most days, I would make my way to the Brooklyn Bridge, sit on the pedestrian walkway and watch the world go by.  I listened to all the sounds – footsteps, chatter, traffic, and the elements – and I noticed that the wooden walkway reminded me of a giant xylophone, while its steel cables were the strings of a vast harp. Inspired, I wondered if I could collaborate with scientists and musicians to develop an instrument that would enable pedestrians to play the vibrations travelling through the structure.

Returning to London, I went to Queen Mary University to see if they would help me develop instruments that could ‘play’ the Brooklyn Bridge, in time for its 130th Anniversary.  We called the instrument the Human Harp – and so started my musical bridge adventure! It has since spanned between New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, Omaha’s Bob Kerrey, Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, Sunderland’s Northern Spire Bridge, and now London’s iconic Tower Bridge.

The Tower Bridge commission came about when I had hoped to apply for the bridge’s 2018 artist residency programme. I missed the deadline by just an hour or so, but decided to send them my portfolio of bridge installations. Several months later, I received an exciting email saying that Tower Bridge was keen to commission me to ‘play the bridge’, in celebration of the crossing’s 125th anniversary!  I was wildly excited by this news; after so many years of travelling from bridge to bridge I could play one of the world’s most iconic bridges – on my own doorstep. 

I met with Natalie Cane (head of learning at Tower Bridge), and we decided that rather than making an installation or do a performance on the bridge, we would make a short film that would depict the bridge being played by a character from Tower Bridge’s own 125 year history. The historical character I became obsessed with was one of the very first women to work on Tower Bridge: Hannah Griggs, cook to the Bridge Master from 1911-1915.

Tower Bridge introduced me to her descendants, granddaughter Susan Belcher, and great granddaughter – and namesake – Hannah.  Speaking with Susan, I discovered that Hannah Griggs had other strings to her bow aside from cooking; she was passionate about plants and, on leaving the bridge, grew fruit, vegetables and flowers of all kinds which she sold at market. A faded photograph of Hannah Griggs’ daughter smiling in the abundant garden with a gramophone at her side made me see that this was a family that loved nature and music. 

This connection between music and horticulture began to inspire me.  I started to wonder if perhaps Hannah Griggs was ‘playing the bridge’ in order to nurture the plants around it; perhaps it was her intention to transform Tower Bridge into a garden through music.  Next, I developed four large scale instruments for Hannah to play: a giant tuning fork, a three meter long bow, four giant piano hammers that sound the suspension rods, and a gigantic music box. 

The music box operated using a piano roll, similar to the kind found in pianola, with perforated notation inspired by the array of rivers that flow along Tower Bridge’s chains.   I worked with my musical collaborators, Architects of Rosslyn (Mandy Wigby and Howard Jacobs), to transcribe this pattern into a midi format – the result was beautiful, becoming the beat that is used in the music box scene in the film.

I was also fascinated with the bridge’s ‘bascule’ device, which opens and closes using counterweights to allow tall ships to pass through – and was further enamoured when I discovered the word ‘bascule’ is French for ‘see-saw’. Halfway through writing the film’s script, I realised that ‘bascule’ had become the metaphor for my story; in this crucial time where the delicate balance of our climate ecosystem is under imminent threat, Tower Bridge and its ingenious ‘bascule’, is an iconic symbol for balance.

It seemed clear to me then that the song embedded within the fabric of Tower Bridge, released in its 125 year, is a musical metaphor for our collective need to establish new ways coexist with our natural world. It’s an urgent call to action to the wonderfully diverse inhabitants of our vibrant city, to work towards connection and harmony.

The finished film was called Time Bascule, and it comes in two formats: a short version of five minutes, and a longer format of 20 minutes.  The short film focuses on the character of Hannah Griggs ‘making the bridge sing’.  It is this element of the film that will be screened at Tower Bridge, alongside the exhibition. 

The longer film follows the discovery of Hannah Griggs’ story and her links to Tower Bridge, through the eyes of a young girl called Rose.  This second film features several of Tower Bridge’s staff and interviews with members of the public. It is a musical film featuring the compositions of Architects of Rosslyn, with additional vocals compositions by Bishi and IONA.  This full version of Time Bascule will be shared through a series screenings and will also be submitted to festivals.   

What were the challenges?

Making music on bridges is always challenging.  It’s quite an unusual concept, and so I have to begin by getting everyone on board and convincing them that it is a brilliant idea, explaining exactly how I’m going to do it.  My process involves working in a free experimental way, which often means that the journey to the final piece is not as linear as originally planned. This doesn’t always work, especially well when you have to fill out risk assessments!

Another exciting challenge is finding ways to harvest and record sounds from the bridge; in the case of Tower Bridge, I worked with Arup’s acoustic department, who helped me to capture the musical scale of the different lengths of the suspension rods using a device called an accelerometer.  We also recorded sounds from the Victorian Engine Rooms and the bascule chamber, which are layered into the film’s soundtrack. 

What are the highlights?

The highlights far outweigh the challenges.  Spending a lot of time on Tower Bridge was an essential part of my process and allowed the soul of the bridge to seep into my subconscious.  To understand the bridge, I felt it is important to talk to the people crossing each day, to hear their Tower Bridge memories and also to understand what the bridge means to them in a more poetic way.  Having this precious time to immerse myself in Tower Bride’s history was truly special. 

Another highlight was the access to film on an empty traffic-free bridge in the middle of the night. I will never forget standing in the middle of the road looking up at the bridge and then seeing that one of my giant piano hammers had been hoisted up one of the suspension rods.  The experience was exhilarating. 

What was it like working at a historic location like Tower Bridge?

I live in Whitechapel, so I would walk across Tower Bridge on my way to work every day.  I remember walking to the bridge on my first day of the commission, feeling so lucky to be working from one of the towers, where they had given me a studio.  It struck me how surreal it was; I felt as though I was walking onto a film set.

Later, I moved into the South West abutment of the bridge, which had a spectacular view of the whole bridge and the Thames.  This was the same space where Hannah Griggs would have lived and worked; it was where I began to write and develop her story. I really felt as though I was channelling ideas from Hannah and the bridge itself, and I just trusted the strong visuals that were crystallising in my mind.

How does technology inspire your work?

Technology has been an inspiration in my work since 2004, when I started to experiment with wearable technology. As a fashion designer, I began working from laboratories around the world, where I would experiment with a range of technologies and embed them into clothing to create wearable tech pieces.

Having experimented with a range of shape-shifting technologies and sensors within costumes, I realised that the technology that inspired me most were sensors that mapped body movement. I also realised at this point that perhaps technology should not be the focus of my work; instead, I wanted to imagine the possibilities beyond technologies - speculative futures - which I created through film.

How do you think this inspiration might change in the future as technology changes?

My work is a mix of real working inventions and also speculative creations, and I think this a great and limitless way to develop ideas around tech. Without worrying about the boundaries of what is already considered possible, I believe it’s easier to reach far into the future, solve problems and imagine a different way of doing things.

What do you hope visitors will take away from the new film and exhibition?

In my mind, Tower Bridge is already a really unusual place for so many reasons. I think as soon as you see the bridge and start to walk it, you enter a heightened state of fantasy – your imagination can go wild! There’s something very theatrical about the space; it can open up visitors’ minds to see the bridge and the city around them in a more creative way. 

I hope that Time Bascule will invite visitors to examine the bridge through a new lens, and to listen to the sounds they hear around them on the bridge in a creative way. I do hope that the story inspires people to do a spot of urban gardening around their own cities, and also to consider how they can affect environmental change in their own way.

Making the Bridge Sing runs from 29th January to March 2020 at Tower Bridge's Victorian Engine Rooms. Find more information here.

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