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New Zealand Music Features


A wanderer encounters an empty, almost haunting, School of Design. What does she find? In her latest forensic reading, Claire Mabey examines Tiny Ruins' School Of Design - a story of instincts, institutions, and time behaving strangely
Tiny Ruins performing Live at Slowboard Records Wellington

I’ve always liked the name Tiny Ruins. You can turn it over again like a shell. It’s perfect for a singer-songwriter: On the one hand it speaks to minimalism and vulnerability, and on the other to vastness, timelessness, and sprawl.

The last time I saw Tiny Ruins live it was at the Khandallah Hall pre-pandemic. I had that little-bit-gig-drunk feeling and I loved every second of it. The warmth of the hall, the close crowd, the pinkish lighting, held no sign of what was to come. Over lockdown I found myself craving Hollie Fullbrook’s sound: the dreamy, rousing quality and the surreal romanticism of the lyrics. Somewhere between The Beatles and Cat Power.

Tiny Ruins is so good at feelings. The lyrics, the voice, and the music all work to conjure emotion and send them off to wind themselves around you, like a snake charmer.

School of Design, a song about the way feelings can arrive like an alien visitation, works for me like my favourite kind of poem: it leads you to places both familiar and unexpected.

“I was struck by a feeling that’s hard to describe”

I think we’ve all been there. Hit with a sudden urge to act on a momentous surge of energy or change. This song in many ways is one of private industry and personal scheming and dreaming. But what I love about it is its nod to the uncanny. The potential of an empty building where everything is not as it seems. 
I found a school of design
It was in a wealthy town, a river ran by

It was empty, holidays, who knows?
But I went in, I was killing time

The first four lines deftly establish a vast and cinematic view: Our narrator is exploring (‘found’); the town she’s in is well kept, possibly grand (‘wealthy’); and the location enjoys the movement, aesthetic and activity of a river. But, most evocatively, the place is ‘empty’. 

The emptiness, I think, is referring to the school of design itself but the atmosphere leads my mind’s eye to roam across deserted streets, empty shops and vacated cafes. I’m in the strange-familiar, which is rich territory for gothic stories, suspense and thriller narratives. The most important part here though is that the emptiness doesn’t seem to bother our protagonist: 

It was empty, holidays, who knows
But I went in
I was killing time

We’re compelled to know what kind of time she needs to kill… Is she waiting to depart? Waiting for some kind of event? A meeting? Is she stranded? Or simply bored? The sense of limbo is casual but curious: is our protagonist slightly at odds with this place or is it at odds with her? 

The next verse expands on a sense of the uncanny with a nod to a classic horror movie location: The Hallway. 

Moving through the halls
There was fresh paint wet on the walls
Everything was white and all the clocks were
Well designed, all ticking in time

Hallways are staples of suspense and horror genres. You only have to think of The Shining to get yourself straight into that claustrophobic tunnel of unpredictable energy (In fact here’s a whole article on hallways in horror films). Why is there fresh paint, so fresh it’s wet, on the walls? Where is the painter? Such a recent sign of another human’s activity propels the growing sense that this building might just be home to ghosts. Or at least the solid idea of them. The discomfort of this is only exacerbated by the image of multiple clocks all ticking in time together in a stark, clinical world of white. 

Time behaving strangely is another marker of an unusual space: those physical places that thin out the boundaries of this world and the next by stretching and tangling time. These are environments within which portals can lurk. In so many of our stories humans stumble upon doors to other worlds in seemingly ordinary places (the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia is a classic). I think our protagonist has stumbled upon such a blip: a town, a building that contains within it the potential for strange happenings. 

I was struck by a feeling
It’s hard to describe
The urge to bust through the ceiling
Raise glass to the sky

Architecture is a powerful thing. The way a space is crafted can affect the way we feel in profound, and sometimes unexpected, ways (This is an interesting article on this concept). Here, in a freshly painted, white, time-conscious design school our protagonist is having a powerful surge of emotion and energy. The idea of busting through a ceiling seems overwhelmingly positive: to break boundaries and remove limitations is a progression. ‘Raise glass to the sky’ however is ambiguous. On the one hand it may mean toasting/acknowledging (raising [a] glass to) blue skies, or freedom and possibility. But on the other it could mean lifting glass into the sky and so establishing a glass ceiling. Either way she feels and then moves on:

I found the archives
At the school of design
Crowded cabinets of books
So I went in
I was killing time

Tiny Ruins

Archives are by nature texts that mess with time. The past can pull you back, sideways and new ways. The many voices of history speak to us and either challenge what we think we know or they furnish us with more, and different. Often we imagine archives deep inside a place: in basements or in particularly meticulous rooms watched over by specialist librarians. Here, our protagonist seems to have stumbled upon them, unintentionally, as though compelled towards them. The image of ‘crowded cabinets of books’ conjures the aesthetic of a Victorian-style collection, which again embellishes the haunted house set up. 

Turning pages frail with dust
I couldn’t help but smile
At the ideal shape and make up of things
Written like words divine

What would archives at a school of design reveal? Archives of designs themselves? Of the building? Of the students and teachers, so far, so absent? There’s something potentially thrilling about archives: of the discoveries that could be made: The one scrawl in a margin that might change the trajectory of knowledge forever; the contradictory fact hidden among a thousand lines that could alter an idea. Here, the archives are old, dusty and disused but they are offering the wanderer cause to smile.

Institutions are notoriously contradictory: on the one hand they can be houses for thought, and progressive education and continuous learning. But on the other hand they can be rigid slaves to the system they build and then work within. ‘The ideal shape and make up of things’ seems to me something impossible to arrive at: once something is proclaimed as the ideal there is always something or someone to dispute it. Perhaps this is what makes her smile? The fruitless attempts at keeping records, faithfully, truthfully, only for them to lie in dust while time ticks on without them? 

What are ‘divine words’? Religious texts? Gospels, hymns and sermons? Or perfect words: phrases that aim at beast, beauty and the true nature of humanity. I think that’s what religion attempts: to look at the dark and light of us alongside each other and offer frameworks for the why and the where of them. They try to keep order by explaining everything. Putting stories around our triumphs as well as our miserable failures and double crossings.

Our wanderer is smiling at the world. She’s smiling at the archives: perhaps representative of frail attempts to impose a dusty old-world order. Perhaps her smile is a knowing one: that those ideals will soon be busted by new designs, new approaches, new people. She’s literally ‘killing time’ by fossicking in places that place her mind in the past and the present (and possibly the future) simultaneously. 

I was struck by a feeling
It’s hard to describe
The urge to bust through the ceiling
Raise glass to the sky

We finish with the enigmatic refrain. What more might our wanderer encounter? Will she ever get out of the school of design? Will she manage to act on her urge to bust through the ceiling? This story is full of unanswered questions. It is a musing on what happens when we embrace adventures in solipsism and venture into new territories. Ultimately I think the heart of the story is about instinct: the feelings that can strike us out of the blue, inexplicable but welcome all the same. Instincts can lead us places: it’s where they come from and whether and why we trust them can so often remain a mystery.

Tiny Ruins live in Wellington

Main and bottom photos by Ben Howe - shot on 35mm film at Slow Boat Records, Wellington. Record Store Day 2018. 




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