As part of our contribution to Mark Owen’s 2012 End of Times reader, “Design for End Times,” Julie Moon and I collaborated on a project exploring the now forgotten air raid sirens that dot Los Angeles. Working with sound engineer Oscar Santos, we recorded an album of six “Siren Songs.” Below are two of the music videos as well as our essay from the 2012 reader.
Over 200 civil defense air raid sirens were built in Los Angeles from WWII through the Cold War. Designed to provide audible early warnings of enemy air attacks, the sirens operated for over 40 years before being abandoned in the 1980’s. The generalized warning of the air-raid siren was made obsolete by the implementation of the emergency broadcast system which could broadcast through tv and radio networks with specific instructions in case of a natural or man-made disaster. Following September 11th, the Los Angeles city council proposed reactivating the sirens, fearing that commercial broadcast systems might fail in a terrorist attack, but that idea was abandoned.
The emergency siren cry is an entirely ambivalent signal for both safety and danger…It is a form of audio signage capable of initiating levels of both fear and excitement. The siren is a warning, but it is also a call that lures. It is the non-verbal expression of the imagined feelings of the silence of the apocalypse. A call to recognize a loomng, overwhelming shift in reality. There is a universal understanding of the message of a siren. Something is happening-something is coming… Maybe you should keep away, but a siren by definition is something meant to draw you in and captivate your attention. It is a language of it’s own. Each siren carries with it a particular message of task and purpose. The shared understanding of the siren language mirrors how we’re trained to think about the end, or the moments before the end of the world. We can’t conceive of the reality of the end, but the sounds, and the evocations they carry can brings us to a place of understanding the imagined end.
The most likely reality is that the end will be silent. It may be a silence that passes over us as we don’t even realize we are in the midst of an apocalypse. A silence pregnant with the emotions of the history of hundreds of thousands of years of life as we know it. A silence that holds within it the un-expressable sentimentality of humanity. The beats of the sirens act as a temporal unit measuring our last moments.