Searching for Sound, Distracted by Colour – Exploring the exSoviet base at Vogelsang
Peter Cusack is a field recordist, sound artist and musician with a long interest in the environment. In recent years he has made several research trips to Vogelsang, north-east Germany, in search of the sound of this slowly disappearing town.
Vogelsang is an abandoned Soviet military base 60km north of Berlin that once housed nuclear weapons aimed at the UK and the West. At its height in the 1970/80s it was a thriving small town of more than fifteen thousand people – soldiers, officers, administrators, army personnel of all kinds and their families. Today its buildings are abandoned and slowly decay hidden in the forest. Some have become dangerous, some have been demolished, others have fallen of their own accord, but many remain.
Cafes, a school, power plants, a cinema, washrooms, sports halls, refectories, apartments with original wall decorations, are open to explore. Colourful murals acclaim the Soviet army. It is a powerfully atmospheric place, full of ghosts. Intriguing maps and technical inventories in Russian and German can be found. Owls, cranes, deer and woodpeckers make homes there. Despite its obscurity, specific people regularly visit. Birdwatchers, graffitists, photographers, substance abusers and GPS games players all leave their marks. There is constant evolution as, for the moment, nature gradually reasserts its dominance.
I find such ruins fascinating and have been there many times in the last three years. The train journey from Berlin is easy and takes you out of the city into the countryside. After changing onto a two coach, single track, branch line that passes lakes, fields and mixed woodlands, you arrive. It is immediately a different world; a few houses stand beside a road, otherwise it’s trees. Only light traffic disturbs the quiet. The station itself is moss covered and was boarded up long ago. It is so little used that to stop the train you must let the driver know beforehand by ringing a bell and to catch the return hold out your hand as if flagging down a bus. From there you cross the rails, skirt a plantation of infant Christmas trees and enter the forest. Again it is relatively easy. The path is totally straight and, although carpeted by dead leaves and occasionally blocked by fallen trees, very solid. You are walking on toughened concrete built for tanks and missile carriers. The woodland either side is marshy with pretty wetland flowers, scattered birdsong and mysterious metal pipes probably for taking groundwater samples to check for pollutants. In twenty minutes there are two large earth mounds that once might have carried flagpoles and you have reached the former Soviet base of Vogelsang.
Its extent only becomes apparent as you explore. Buildings constantly emerge from amongst the vegetation and precarious looking chimneys rising above the trees offer other points of distance. After several hours there is still plenty more to find. So far I have discovered something new on every trip. After regular visits longer-term changes become noticeable. Buildings just disappear. I have photographs of power plants, shower rooms, a clock tower that no longer exist. Sometimes a bare patch of ground indicates where something once stood. But even these traces soon vanish. New saplings germinate, the undergrowth spreads and thickens. I find these processes of natural regeneration and the weathering of an entire town utterly compelling. It is one of Vogelsang’s main attractions.
Opposite a row of derelict garages with Russian and German ‘no smoking’ and ‘fire’ warnings written in red, is a two-story building that has become key for me. The ground floor looks like offices but upstairs is a corridor of apartments. They are quite empty but the decorations are lovely. Each room has its walls and ceilings covered with different patterns and colours in the plaster. Dark pinks, yellows, blues, browns and greens make up simple abstract or geometric shapes. For someone brought up on cold war propaganda of the drab grey eastern block this was quite a surprise. I have used these rooms to shelter from thunderstorms, record the sound of doors banging in strong winds and return here on each visit. I am not the only one. Empty beer bottles are often to be found, on one occasion used drug debris too. These spaces are now increasingly affected by decay. Large patches of plaster have fallen from the ceilings and cascade down the walls taking all their colours with them. It is a loss that these pretty decorations are ending their days as piles of damp grey sludge on the floor. Sadly, this is happening all over Vogelsang. Anyone interested to see the place should not leave it for too long.
There is colour to be found in other buildings too. The school has a bright mural of gnomes and pixies now flaking badly; another hall has a frieze of folk musicians dressed in traditional costumes; a delightful cat and mouse play on the walls of a side room to a refectory that itself sports images of fruit, meat and other foods. Washrooms often have intensely pigmented tiles, dark blue, orange, pink and wallpapers in living spaces show lower key but appealing designs. Amongst Vogelsang’s highlights are two long walls of painted images sculpted onto concrete that depict socialist ideals and the exploits of the Soviet military. A life-sized Lenin once stood here too but was removed in 2017 to become a museum exhibit elsewhere. As far as I know this is the only item being saved from the whole base.
But there is new colour too. Vogelsang has become a magnet for graffiti artists and their tags, designs and paintings are slowly taking over. Many walls, inside and out, are now covered. Some of the additions are apposite and fun, but others show little sensitivity to the place. In the main sports hall, the likeable symbols of different sporting activities are now smothered by day-glow tags. A real shame.
As a field recordist my original interest was in the sound of Vogelsang. Since then my fascination has widened considerably because the atmosphere so strongly affects all the senses. Nevertheless, for a sonic artist the place asks some very pertinent questions. What do history, absence, abandonment and decay sound like? What does one record in places that are actually very quiet? Recently the whole area has been re-designated as a nature reserve and this is one answer. I have recorded wildlife. During springtime the songs of woodlarks and golden orioles, the drumming of woodpeckers and the haunting trumpeting of cranes are beautiful. But what of the buildings? They may be acoustically alive but do not make sound for themselves. Here the weather helps. Gusty winds make structures creak and doors still swinging on hinges bang. Rain drips musically onto pieces of broken glass and old metal objects. But these spaces also invite gestures, even performances, and I have found myself creating sounds just by being there. Footsteps resonate according to a room’s size, their aural character quite different on wood, concrete or lino. Scattered debris snaps and splinters under one’s weight. Rotten floorboards crack dramatically if stepped on with force. In these one hears the abandonment and decay loud and clear, framed by the overall stillness that permeates the entire site. Former heating pipes once connected to radiators long since removed hang down, or protrude from, the walls. When hit with a wooden stick their clangs reverberate spectacularly. Shorter pipes have definite pitches and take on a second life as ready-made xylophones. But even with these possibilities it is the quiet that inevitably returns. Perhaps in the end Vogelsang is not really recordable; I certainly have no answer on how to record its history. This place is disappearing, gradually changing into something quite different. Maybe it’s appropriate that its sounds fade too.
For more background information on Vogelsang please visit:
To hear Peter Cusack's sound recordings from Vogelsang please visit: www.favouritesounds.org
Peter Cusack has two publications available in the Edgework shop:
Cusack's new book 'Berlin Sonic Places: A Brief Guide', which examines relationships between soundscape and urban development, was recently launched at CRiSAP – Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice, at London College of Communication. Cusack is currently a research fellow at the University of the Arts, London.
For further information about Cusack's work please click here.