ⓒ 2011 - 2020

Collective Signal (2017 - ongoing)

The national warning system (air raid siren) is scheduled to be decommissioned in the future. Before this happens, I am hoping to perform a special composition as a swan song for the system which fits the technical specs and acoustic qualities of the hardware.

This piece will sound through all 4300 sirens of the Netherlands at a set time in the future - its sound enveloping and reaching everybody. Potentially, this will also be the largest sound installation of the country; in any case it is the biggest instrument available here.

A national warning system scheduled for decommissioning
The maintenance is expensive (about €4 million annually on the national budget). The system has been around for about 25 years - we’re talking ‘ancient tech’ here. By now, the initial maintenance contracts have ended and new agreements are to be negotiated. A cell broadcasting alert via mobile phones is to eventually replace the trusty sirens. However, there is an ongoing debate around retirement of the siren; with a constantly shifting deadline. The sirens are still more effective and failsafe than the cell broadcasting alternative. The reach is simply bigger, the sound is recognizable. It even has its own mantra. In Dutch: ‘ga naar binnen, sluit ramen en deuren, zet radio of televisie aan’ [go inside, close windows and doors, turn on radio or television]. This formula is a part of collective memory.

Why would you make swan song for technology?
As a sound artist, the sound of the national warning system fascinates me and I’d be sad to see it go. I have been dreaming about working with it for years. The siren plays a special role in daily life, our current system being a remnant of the Dutch welfare state from around the Cold War. It is related to the mechanical sirens and early warning systems from earlier world wars, and akin to warning entities of countries dealing with frequent natural disasters.

A siren is a centralized and collectivist sound with a fixed place in society, and can adapt a similar role as church bells from before other means were available. It is a sound of control, regulation and safety. In times of upheaval the sounding of the siren gives the listener a sensation of discomfort and fear. The aesthetic of this transgression combined with the historical double connotation of the siren and the collectivist component makes for a rich starting point.

The composition and performance of a swan song is a way of celebrating the siren and thanking this titan for years of service - it is the end of an era and a certain way of functioning of society as a whole. For once more, I’d like to make people aware of the importance of the system and embrace everyone with the sound of it by using the existing and still active infrastructure of the national warning system.

Video by Timo de Kruijf.