In the immediate shadow of Wembley stadium stood (and still stands) the former Alcan Foil Factory. By 1995 the building, operated by Acorn Storage Centres, had been divided into 650 storage units and filled with the overflow of London's sprawling commercial and domestic expansion. As you walked down long metal corridors, all the spaces looked the same: a red metal door with a padlock, set in a grey sheet metal wall. But inside they were charged with a kind of intimacy, containing things hidden, protected. To have looked into one of these private spaces is to have looked into a corner of someone else's world. Samples of exotic woods; pizza boxes imported from Poland; boiler cleaning fluid; collections of pornography; complete train sets; garden furniture. They were all somewhere in storage.
Through this strange and furtively populated urban interior, visitors were taken on an intricate journey through whispering corridors of stored items, sounds and visions jointly conceived by Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and a team of collaborators from the Royal College of Art. What came to be called the Acorn Research Cell was drawn from a wide range of disciplines across the RCA including photography, illustration and architecture, and its works ranged from a painter lying submerged in a tank of water to a complete recreation of a student bedsit. Eno and Anderson have both exhibited in visual arts domain extensively as well working in music-related fields, but Self Storage was their first site-specific project together.
This audio piece is an excerpt from the Self Storage soundtrack by Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno, which is available to listen to on Soundcloud.
Image: A dramatically lit hallway filled with identical padlocked storage units, uring Self Storage installation, 1995.
Laurie Anderson, 2002
Self Storage was one of those projects that seemed to come together quite magically. And by this I mean that other people did all the groundwork. So by the time I joined,Self Storage was not just a realized concept but a place as well. Artangel and Brian Eno had made all of the arrangements, thought about how to get people out to the site, spooked around and found interesting caches of belongings that were already there and enlisted a number of young artists to work on installations.
I joined in the spirit of last-minute collaboration and all I actually provided were some stories that Brian very cleverly made into an audio narrative that drew the visitors through the space. I was on tour at the time and so after just a visit or two to the space and a few conversations, this magnificent show appeared. Probably my favorite room was a closet-sized space that contained The Vizir of Memphis, a mummy on loan from the British Museum.
For me it was a bit like writing some music for a film without knowing the plot or the action or any of the characters. Fortunately for me, Brian is a genius and made these small stories into narrative lines; he gave them structure and drama. I've always been a bit leery about 'acoustiguide' tours but this had the function of linking the space and connecting some of the secrets with a rambly strand of sound.
Image: A woman in white trousers and shirt lurks under water, in a small container suspended from the support beams of a wall as part of the Self Storage Installation, 1995.
By Brian Eno, 2002
Artangel approached me in late 1994 with the idea of doing a project in a huge storage warehouse in Wembley, North West London. The idea was to create a path through the complex (which was a labyrinth of three unmatched warehouses that had been joined together) punctuated by occasional storage rooms containing... something. At the time I was a visiting professor at the Royal College, and, since the warehouse space was so huge and seemed to demand much more material than I could possibly produce alone, I put the idea out to the students at the College.
Eventually we ended up with a team of about 25 people from many different departments in the College - including Industrial Design, Fine Art, Curating and Illustration. The question now was what we were all going to do and whether it would - or should - make a coherent experience.
We had several meetings out at Wembley. It was freezing. It never seemed to get warm the whole time we were there. Things went very sluggishly at first, and everything seemed vague and half-formed. There was a lot of discussion which produced many proposals that were technically too ambitious, or far too expensive, or too 'arty', but gradually there appeared some brilliantly simple ideas which looked like they might work.
Over a few weeks the ideas started to take shape. An identity began to form - a sense of what kind of adventure this might turn out to be. I had been working with some of Laurie Anderson's recorded stories, and her soft voice started to suffuse through the industrial permafrost, pulling things together around itself. The voice suggested a narrative for the whole journey, or at least gave the idea that there might be a narrative rather than a set of disconnected events.
We were working in 42 rooms, if I remember it correctly. The smallest had a floor area of about a square metre - and was therefore only about as wide as the sheet metal door that opened into it - while the largest was going on for 300 square metres. Between those extremes we had all sorts of sizes and shapes, all sorts of surfaces and lighting conditions.
As the opening approached, there was still very little evidence of an actual show. There had been a lot of talk, and a lot of promises, but very little existed. In the three days before the opening, however, people appeared from everywhere with the things they'd been making at home or at the Royal College, and quietly installed them. It was a very exciting and nerve-wracking time. Every time you walked round the labyrinth, there was a new delight. Suddenly the whole thing came together, and was rather glorious.
It remains one of the wittiest and most interesting in the field of Sound-Art [...] It is elegant, economical and clever, and makes me wish I'd thought of it first. — Brian Eno on Janek Schaefer's Recorded Delivery, retrospectively.
A sound activated tape recorder travels overnight through the UK Post Office via Recorded Delivery service in 1995. The dictaphone automatically edits the 15 hour journey down to a 72 minute recording, capturing only the significant sounds right up until the parcel is signed for at the end, where it is to be exhibited in a self storage building. The highlight is the early morning post office workers talking dirty about things that they wished had happened the night before. Serendipity working wonders.
An excerpt of this recording is available on Janek Schaefer's Vimeo.
Image: Detail of the cold metal walls housing a walkman playing Janek Schaefer's Recorded Delivery, in between two large metal bolts, Self Storage installation, 1995.
Thanks again, a thousand times, for all your help in getting this project towards a successful conclusion.
It's odd now, in the end, it did turn out to be about quite a few of the things we talked about all those months and even years ago. It was 'song-storage', it was something new in London's cultural landscape, it was a new kind of collaborative work - though I think a lot of the significant collaboration was between the two of us.
I really enjoyed that part of it. You're a great person for ideas, and a great midwife for the ideas of others not least because you're unafraid to kill off the weaklings at birth as well as wholeheartedly encourage and nurture the strong. I really hope we get a chance to work together further on some future adventure, and if you think I could be a helpful voice on anything you're working on, please do ask.
Personally I was pleased about two things: first, generally, that I can make installations without many of the things I had previously thought essential (including various bits of technology and total darkness), and secondly, in particular, Plato's Cave. For me that piece has real quality and confidence. I like the fact that it's made from near-junk, and I love its relationship to the voice.
This idea of narrative installations is really strong and I hope to develop it further. Since the show I've been flooded with cheap, low-tech, site-specific ideas ....
Of course, and as always, I wish I'd had time to develop a few of the other things in the show a bit more, and that I hadn't got so bogged down in making tapes.
I dream at night of what could have happened in that wedge room. There was a brief 15 minutes on Sunday morning when I knew I had something great going on in there, but I just didn't have the composure to ignore all the other bits and pieces that still needed doing and carry it through. I will one day. I dream also of what else could have happened in the Ballroom, how that could have been a story room too (but it would have required making a whole new sound-piece - at least a day's work and would have used several bloody machines).
Oh well, oh well .... But on the whole, it felt really convincing as a show. I got very good reactions - ones that seemed genuine - from the people I spoke to.
I haven't of course seen any reviews or suchlike, but no doubt I will.
Please give my thanks and best regards to the other Artangels and to Sko. They were bricks.
Image: A single bed with plush pink headboard is nestled into the corner of an unloved room, with walls covered in graffitti, posters and notes and surfaces covered in epehmera during Self Storage installation, 1995.
There are Eskimos who live above the timberline. There's no wood for the runners of their sleds. So instead they use long frozen fish which they attach to the bottoms of their sleds to slip across the snow.
My friend Gordon died really fast. He got sick suddenly and then they told him he had only twenty four hours to live so since he was a Buddhist he asked two lamas to come and help him. When his heart stopped, the lamas started to shout into his ear. Because supposedly your hearing is the last thing to go - for about half an hour after your heart stops - you can still hear, it's falling away quickly but you can still hear things and so the lamas are shouting things into his ears.
'Gordon! You're dead! You're dead now! You'll see two lights. Go towards the one that's farther away. Don't go to the close one.' And they yelled these instructions for about an hour and they told us we were supposed to be sending him on his way, not calling him back.
I used to spend some time seeing a psychiatrist. I would get there around eight in the morning and come into the office and she sat in the corner and on one side of her was a window and the other a mirror and she could tell by slight movements of my eyes whether I was looking at her or at the mirror. I looked at the mirror a lot and one of the things I noticed was that on a Monday it was perfectly clean and clear but by Friday it was covered with these lip marks. This was a process that seemed bizarre at first and then predictable and finally more or less inevitable. Then one day in passing, I said, "It's like the lip marks that appear on your mirror." And she turned around and said, "What lip marks?" And I realised that because of the way the sun was coming through the window and hitting the mirror at an angle that she couldn't see them. So I said, "Why don't you sit in my chair? You can see them from here." And I'd never seen her get up before but she got up (she could actually walk!) and she came and sat in my chair and she said, "Oh! Lip marks." The next time I saw her was the last time. She said she had discovered that her twelve-year old daughter had been coming into the room during the week and had been kissing the mirror and that the maid would come in on the weekends and wash off the marks. And realized that we were seeing things from such literally different points of view that I wouldn't have to see her again.
Image: An arrangement of ceramic and stone dog figurines on a pyramid, plinth and dirt, during Self Storage installation, 1995.
Never before have the corrugated plastic suburbs of DIY land seemed so full of poetry. — Giles Coren, The Times, 14 April 1995.
A walk along its echoing corridors invites speculation. What lies behind the padlocked doors? The contents of private houses, private lives? Caches of stolen goods? Cannibalised car parts? Cannibalised bodies? 'It's marvellous, isn't it?' says Brian Eno, musician and mentor to a generation. 'I think this one,' - he thumps on a door - 'is actually several tons of sultanas.' In an upstairs room, Eno and a team from the Royal College of Art are at work planning what - it is safe to say - will be the first-ever exhibition of art to be staged in a storage centre. In fact, exhibition does not quite describe it. — Mick Brown, The Daily Telegraph, 1 April 1995.
A seven-year old girl came up with the best analogy: 'It's like an advent calendar'. Just so, though the kind of advent calendar a hard-core surrealist might give his offspring to keep them weird and naughty. You walk along yellow lines and every so often an arrow instructs you to pull a door open and see what you can see: perhaps a huge ebony sarcophagus from Ancient Egypt, last resting place of Sisibeck, Vizier of Memphis; perhaps a bed of oversized "flowers" made of loudspeakers mounted on wires, waving in the wind from an electric fan; or a bank of power drills that burst into deafening, screaming life the second you prise open the door. — Kevin Jackson The Independent, 6 April 1995.
The maze-like building requires that you are escorted (you might step over the skeletons of people foolhardy enough to enter without a guide) and by virtue of that fact your appreciation of these self contained pockets of artistic activity becomes something to do with other people. Your appreciation of the work becomes collaborative because you have to take it in turns to sniff the door or to put your head between the pipes. You discuss together whether it would be appropriate to sit in the chair in the room entitled Torture Chamber. You become aware of the unspoken etiquette which every informal group develops: tall people at the back, shorties at the front; don't push - take it in turns; come along, don't dawdle. And of course this fussiness is all part of the fun.— Pangloss, Everything magazine, 1995.
Brian Eno first worked with Artangel on Self Storage in collaboration with Laurie Anderson in 1995. He was on the judging panel in 1999 for the Open from which Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave and Michael Landy's Break Down emerged in 2001. He wrote the first in an ongoing series of Longplayer letters as part of Jem Finer's Longplayer in 2013, participated in the Longplayer Conversation with David Graeber in 2014, and joined 23 other participants in Longplayer Assembly – a non-stop 12-hour conversation relay presented live online on 26 September 2020, marking the twentieth anniversary of Longplayer.
Eno is a producer, musician and scholar. He is regarded as the godfather of ambient music, and a highly respected producers of rock music. Eno established himself as an accomplished and imaginative producer and musician in the band Roxy Music between 1971 and 1973. After leaving the group he embarked on a career as a successful solo artist and composer, releasing many influential albums of electronic, pop, and experimental ambient music. Eno trained in fine art at Ipswich Art School and continues to produce work as a visual artist and maintain his role as a visiting lecturer to the Royal College of Art. His work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Pompidou Centre, Hayward Gallery, and White Cube gallery.
Laurie Anderson first worked with Artangel in collaboration with Brian Eno on Self Storage in 1995. In 2005, she participated in the Longplayer Conversations series as part of Jem Finer's project Longplayer and in 2012, she recorded a radio broadcast as part of A Room for London and joined 23 other participants in Longplayer Assembly – a non-stop 12-hour conversation relay presented live online on 26 September 2020, marking the twentieth anniversary of Longplayer.
Anderson in a highly respected experimental musician and performance artist. Her career began in the experimental New York art scene of the early 1970s, and has extended to the release of a string of albums with Warner Brothers including Big Science – featuring the track ‘O Superman’ which reached number two in the British Pop charts in 1981. She has collaborated on the invention of musical instruments including the tape-bow violin and talking stick – a wireless 6 foot long MIDI controller shaped like a baton used in her work Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, a multi-media theatrical homage to Herman Melville’s 1851 novel. Anderson completed a two year stint as the first artist in residence at NASA which culminated in a film premiered at the 2005 World Expo in Japan. Her work has been shown at the Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Image: An Egyptian statute, the vizier of Memphis, stands upright in a small container unit, to the left a red door numbered 4601 remains closed, during Self Storage installation, 1995 (left); Portrait of Brian Eno, Photograph: Mary Evers; Portrait of Laurie Anderson at Longplayer Conversation, 2005. (above).
Who made this possible?
RCA Acorn Research Cell members (with links where available): David Blamey, Elaine Brechin, Michael Callan, Jason Coburn, Jason Edwards,Michelle Griffiths, Rachel Hale, Patricia Hepp, Tim Hutchinson, Chris Jones, Bettina Kubanek, Louise Lattimore, Daniel Lavi, J.E. Lewis, Lucy McDonald, Natasha Michaels, Tim Noble, Hannah Redler, Janek Schaefer, Simon Waterfall, Sue Webster