Sound effects

Art - Richard Cork finds the BBC's latest commission is in tune with the times

When the BBC erected its flagship headquarters in the early 1930s, the governors made sure that contemporary art was included in the building. Nor did they play safe. Eric Gill, one of the most fiercely debated sculptors of the day, was commissioned to produce a series of carvings for the exterior and foyer of Broadcasting House. In response to the rather literal request for a sculpture of a man "broadcasting", Gill made a frankly biblical, eight-foot figure of The Sower for the entrance hall. And outside, the culmination of his carvings was a monumental Prospero and Ariel above the main entrance. Even before the unveiling, it proved controversial.

Standing on a globe, the bearded patriarch and his playful, pipe-brandishing messenger enlivened the facade by celebrating the delights of drama and music alike. But the governors were disconcerted by Gill's uninhibited handling of Ariel's naked body. In March 1933, they insisted that he remount the scaffolding and reduce the size of the young spirit's well-hung penis. Although Gill reluctantly complied, his efforts failed to satisfy an enraged local MP, who declared that Prospero and Ariel were "objectionable to public morals and decency". He demanded the statue's immediate removal, but the home secretary wisely declined to act.

Gill's carving may have been saved, but the whole farcical episode seems to have discouraged the BBC from repeating its admirable experiment in art patronage. When Television Centre was created at Shepherd's Bush in 1960, nothing half as memorable as Gill's sculpture was commissioned for the premises. And the Corporation's more recent offices, built on unprepossessing sites near the noisy Westway flyover, were unalleviated by artists' interventions of any kind. Around the same grim time, the number of BBC arts programmes drastically declined. So it seemed as if the Corporation no longer cared very much about fulfilling its potential as an enlightened patron. Gill's contribution to Broadcasting House looked increasingly like the work of a golden age, distant and irrecoverable.

Now, at last, philistinism has been replaced by a far more adventurous policy. The architect Richard MacCormac is designing a superb extension to Broadcasting House. His enthusiasm for art means that he is collaborating with the BBC and Modus Operandi Art Consultants on an ambitious programme of temporary and permanent commissions. They involve an impressive array of artists in projects that give them exemplary freedom, using light, colour, language, video, photography, film and interactive technologies.

Not that painters and sculptors are excluded from the programme. Fiona Rae recently produced a colossal image for the boarded-up front of Broadcasting House, using luminous forms filled with references to urban life at its most glossy, neon-lit and exclamatory. At the other extreme, Rachel Whiteread was invited to explore Room 101, the inspiration for George Orwell's notorious torture chamber in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The room itself has since been demolished, as part of Broadcasting House's remodelling. But Whiteread's melancholy plaster cast survives in the Victoria and Albert Museum as a glacial reminder of an interior that still haunts us with Orwell's indictment of a world dominated by ruthless, brutal thought control.

Whiteread is not the only artist who has been encouraged to explore the history of the BBC's headquarters. William Furlong, who works with sound, has now installed an elaborate piece called Acts of Inscribing on the facade of Broadcasting House. The prow of this building, where Fiona Rae's banner-like work was once displayed, is now covered by his immensely tall photographic image of the BBC's former radio sound effects store. It shows rack upon rack of objects, all piled up under the eaves of the old building.

The room was subsequently pulled down, so in one sense Furlong's installation is a homage to the history of broadcasting. Sound is the very stuff of radio, the medium that brought the BBC into being. And Furlong was fascinated by the start-ling jumble of objects he found in the store. They ranged from toys, straps, buzzers and shoes to coconut shells, which sound uncannily like horses' hooves when they hit a hard surface. But Acts of Inscribing is not simply a memento mori paying nostalgic tribute to a past era. Sound effects are still a central part of radio's output, and increasing numbers of contemporary artists are discovering the unpredictable potential of sound in the work they produce.

Before arriving at Broadcasting House, I feared that the impact of Furlong's new piece would be dissipated by urban mayhem. Positioned just north of Oxford Circus, the building is constantly besieged by traffic as well as the clangour generated by excavation and construction work on the site. But I need not have worried. Even from a distance, the eight white loudspeakers, installed at pavement level on neutral grey screens hiding Gill's Prospero and Ariel, are able to transmit effectively enough. Placed both at adult and child height, the speakers relay their sounds so well that a passing police siren could not defeat them. While I lingered there, surprised pedestrians paused all the time, intrigued by Furlong's cacophony and wanting to find out more.

The acoustic world the speakers conjure here is an arresting, staccato affair, punctuated incessantly by eruptive intrusions. It begins with a crash, followed at once by the sound of a bottle being filled with liquid. Birdsong ensues, reminding me of the lyrical work Furlong once recorded for the Serpentine Gallery's garden. But this installation is far removed from a lyrical evocation of nature. We hear shoes treading urgently on gravel, a door squeaking, and a saw manipulated with vigour. Furlong is not afraid to startle us with a banging drum, the clash of a cymbal or cutlery thrown down in a harsh, jarring crash. And he realises, too, that protracted clamour can be strikingly contrasted with a period of silence, in which a solitary triangle is struck. But respite does not last long. Soon the barrage resumes, assailing us with running feet, a drill and a mobile phone ringing dementedly to the tune of "Frere Jacques". After a while, the incessant din takes on a manic quality. People on the street could be forgiven for concluding that the BBC was a lunatic asylum.

In the end, though, the control Furlong exerts on his disparate material dispels such thoughts. Sounds normally deployed within the overall texture of radio drama are here isolated, held up for aural inspection and treated as potent phenomena in their own right. Furlong marshals and juxtaposes them with the seasoned ease of an editor who, for the past 30 years, has also been adept at recording conversations and interviews for his magazine Audio Arts. This time, however, he is dealing with cash registers, sleigh bells, hoovers, tins and whistles rather than human voices. The outcome amounts to a kind of hectic urban music, composed by an artist alive to the timbre of our discordant, fractured times.

Acts of Inscribing continues until April