Nurrungar (listening station) | 2007
A specially-commissioned sound work with related contextual pages for the Soundscapes CD (curated by David Toop for the Ecology, Luxury & Degradation issue of UOVO #14, July- September 2007)
In 2006 I made two visits to Nurrungar, a disused American satellite ground station in the South Australian desert, about 15 km south of Woomera. Once one of the most secret places in Australia, Nurrungar was critically important to America’s defenses during the Cold War. It was operational from 1969 until 1999 when its activities were moved. Originally built to detect global missile launches from the Soviet Union or China directed at the United States, by the time of the First Iraq War, the technology at Nurrungar was sufficiently advanced to be able to track smaller weapons. As with Woomera, the name (meaning “listen”) has been appropriated from one of the Aboriginal languages.
BM worked at Nurrungar for 25 years as head of security and still lives in Woomera. He escorted me twice to Nurrungar as an unofficial tour guide. On the long drive down an unmarked road off the main highway, we passed through numerous locked gates, an abandoned checkpoint, and a ‘cage’ that B himself had had built to temporarily restrain protesters attempting to penetrate the compound. Each year during the 1980s and 90s demonstrators descended en masse to rally against the presence of this US military behemoth on Antipodean soil, taking exception to its presence for exposing Australia to the possibility of a nuclear attack.
The previously pristine enclave has quickly become encroached upon by the elements and the natural world. Extraordinary funnel-like swallow nests have sprung up under the eaves of the entrance building and weeds grow up through gaps in the concrete tennis court in this ex-enclave of the US. The most dominant and visible structure inside the high security perimeter fence however is a white radome, housing the only remaining antenna. This skin was to protect the satellite dish from dust and presumably from unofficial visitors. The exterior white paint has not been re-applied in years and is flaking off, creating an unruly stained-glass effect inside.
A five-minute audio piece, entitled Nurrungar (listening station) was subsequently constructed from a series of recordings. The piece begins with a double-layered recording of a slow walk through the glass fragments from two light bulbs, dropped from the first level gantry to effect reverberation. The scale of the radome is made perceptible through the further crushing of these insignificant shards. Occasionally the signature creaks and groans attendant in such abandoned structures are audible. The second section is a truncated tour of the main facility building given by M. We walked into the majority of the empty spaces – the administrative offices, canteen, computer rooms and so on and I quietly recorded his commentary on a video camera. The walk (originally lasting over twenty minutes) was made from daylight to darkness as we ventured towards the ‘inner sanctum’ and the talk turned to the near-instantaneity of data transmission that was effected. The different sizes of spaces, floor coverings and so on effect the acoustics, and are clearly audible. From the sound of the footfalls and the ‘grain’ of the voice, the listener can also imagine the age and physique of McCarthy.
The last section is an abstracted composition of the extraordinary acoustics in the radome building. Numerous recordings were made of the reverberation, recorded on various gantry levels and with different microphone set-ups. Bursting balloons, mostly by B himself, created the necessary ‘impulse responses’. Convolution reverbs were created from these and linearly arranged forward and in reverse. Two pure sine tones are carried on the room’s reverberations. The energy released in the impulse response was to be heard as sounding out territory in a constant process of coming together and dissolution.
There is an airiness to these compter-enhanced sounds, created from disrupting recordings made in linear time. The messiness, the opacity of what really happened at Nurrungar (and still happens elsewhere) is dissolved in this final section. The building has been made to sing through deliberate and contrived human activity.