NEW PROJECT: Steve Messam with one of the bells he created for the exhibition
NEW PROJECT: Steve Messam with one of the bells he created for the exhibition

TOP installation artist Steve Messam’s latest work is to surround Newcastle’s city centre with a wall of sound.

The Teesdale-based artist, who is famous for creating a paper bridge strong enough to support a Land Rover Defender, is creating the unique installation as part of the Great Exhibition of the North, which gets underway next month.

The sound sculpture sees 16 steam engine whistles reverberating around the city’s historic walls at 1pm on each of the 80 days of the exhibition.

It has been designed to recall the role of the North in engineering and the invention of the railway, sparking memories and forging links between past and present.

The work is an engineering feat in its own right, with each of the whistles being hand-cast and controlled by a modern IT system.

Mr Messam said the whistles were made from drawings produced by William Armstrong, with additional measurements being taken from an original whistle held by the North East Locomotive Preservation Group. He added: “They are cast in brass and cast in the last foundry in Middlesborough. It is cast by hand – I mean there is no way to automate it.”

Some 17 whistles, including a prototype, were cast by the William Lane Foundry and were developed with help from TT Elecmech, in Darlington.

Mr Messam said the challenge was getting the whistles, which work on compressed air, to sound as if they were triggered by steam.

This was achieved by adding a metal disc which changes the pitch.

He said: “It still doesn’t sound exactly like steam because it is still air.”

High Force Scaffolding

The release of the compressed air into the whistle is governed by a Raspberry Pi computer programmed by Newcastle-based Nebula Labs. Each mini-computer is connected to the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock in London.

Mr Messam said: “We want these to fire at exactly one o’ clock. So when we do one o’ clock, it is the most accurate one o’ clock you can get. If the wifi goes down they are all automated, it just won't be as accurate.”

Each is powered by batteries that are kept charged by solar energy.

Also ensuring the green credentials of the sound sculpture is the fact that all of the materials used will be recycled afterwards.

Each of the whistles is placed at a significant part along Newcastle's town walls, including within Eldon Square Shopping Centre, which was the site of the Bertram Monboucher Tower.

The artist said: “They are positioned around the town wall which is a medieval construct that went right around the town centre. Outside of York it is the most intact wall in the North of England.

“They are all tuned slightly differently so you can tell them apart. In most places you will hear three of them”

A priming circuit is carried out shortly before the 1pm sounding each day. This takes the form of a short pip lasting a fifth of a second from each whistle in sequence.

Mr Messam said: “That is like a domino cascade, so you can hear them going round.”

The Great Exhibition of the North runs from June 22 to September 9.