San Francisco echoes with sirens: fire trucks chasing false alarms, turbocharged squad cars, a steady stream of ambulances, fog horns, nocturnal rashes of car alarms, choreographed spectacles of security cavalcades escorting diplomats. Despite its chill West Coast vibe, the city’s rolling gridded heart refuses to beat quietly. As a critical node in the industrial fabric of globalization with a history of PTSD, it can sound like a city acting out with tremors of memories past, where fires and earthquakes still loom over the skyline of its urban psyche.
One siren that stands out is the city’s Outdoor Public Warning System (OPWS). Every Tuesday at noon, over a hundred installations emit an old school, seemingly hand-cranked emergency alert tone for fifteen seconds, followed by a very sedate voice that repeats, “This is a test. This is a test of the Outdoor Public Warning System. This is only a test.” At first listen it can be a bit surreal, in a Twilight Zone-meets-Cuckoo's Nest sort of way.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, about fifty sirens were installed around the city in 1942, the year San Francisco began interning the region’s American-Japanese citizens. The fact that the sirens were first aired in the context of implementing an Alien Enemy Control program means that despite their current innocuous replay, they remain a reminder of a hysteric xenophobic past. While most ignore the broadcast today, the sirens still fill the sky with the historic anxiety of both foreign attack and domestic paranoia. When they sound out in unison across the city, they comprise a different kind of flag-waving, an antiquated security cloud echoing against imagined threats, yet floating its own urban nightmare. We might suggest the siren is a monument to a practice rooted in institutional racism mere decades old, that still quietly sings to itself behind the virtue of its sterile theatrics. Whereas yesterday the loudspeaker was an extension of the city’s historic Whitcomb Hotel (which, as Martha Bridegam reminds us, served as the “West Coast headquarters for the systematic exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans” that began in 1942), today it’s just a parcel of the city’s blustery ambiance.
As a military infrastructure, however, it has always exercised a sonic power over the city. The way it continues to play each week at precisely the same moment produces a multitude of experiences and subjectivities for a variety of people that interlaces the city’s own memory and fantasy of itself with the individual listener’s. This may be partly its greatest effect. While tourists are generally alarmed, locals are mostly oblivious to it. As long time residents, it’s always fascinating for us to hear the siren and immediately be located by it, as if it were a spotlight to timestamp a fossil of ourselves. Even though it’s only heard once a week, it enforces the subtle cadence of a peacetime military clock, forcing us to register ourselves according its own time zone. And that can be captivating, but also dangerous.
The fact the weekly “test” networks the city in multiple languages conjures certain images about the city’s cultural, neighborhood, and demographic reintegration after WWII, doing it’s best now to forget its cruel past. Today’s siren buries the memories of Asian internment by speaking to a global diversity. And, in its very own monotone and self-forgiving way, it preaches an overbearing illusion of the city’s victory over earlier prejudice. But is this just an evolution of further monumental ignorance? Does the system also announce its own amnesia? The sirens geographically demarcate starkly different listening edges as well. This map suggests the entire city is well alerted, yet begs examination of less obvious dead spots.
The siren scape also realizes a vertical border of the city’s audible range. All of them are installed atop poles or on roofs of buildings, and listening to them from different locations can signal interesting delays and cross-faded effects that almost mimic a hallucinatory interplay of the city’s acoustic skeletons. This ambiguous reflective space of both foreground and background is intriguing. When hearing “this is a test” every week, one wonders what a test can be beyond intention. What other tests might be going on? The repetition of "This is only a test" accumulates meaning and impact over time; in some cases, it normalizes itself, slinking further into the background to the point of never even being heard. Yet, it’s catapulted into the foreground the split second it begins, arresting with immediate power similar to the church bell and call to prayer, which is simple and difficult to ignore at the same time. Regardless, for fifteen seconds every Tuesday, precisely at noon, the city is veiled by a sonic canopy that is an blaring indication that the military apparatus is always present. R. Murray Shafer, whose classic work—The Soundscape—on how sound has tuned the world from medieval and pre-industrial “sacred noise” to the modern’s “profane,” writes: “Wherever noise is granted immunity from human intervention, there will be found a seat of power.”
While the banal power of the weekly OPWS’ earworm can be substituted by the listener’s own personalization, it becomes an adapted prosthesis, if not a permanently fleeting annoyance, and therefore a mandatory intrusion. And yet, when for whatever reason it doesn’t play on Tuesday at noon, or when it’s tested on any other day but Tuesday at noon (occasionally, by mistake), a strange panic sets in. Ironically, it may be the very innocuous nature of its repetitive display of control that sets itself up for either true efficacy or failure in the end, depending on how it will be used when actually needed. And how it goes on conditioning us without our realizing it.