Performance at Spektrum, Berlin on Saturday 3rd March 2018 During Alien Organs, part of the Sonic Vibrations series, curated by Alfredo Ciannameo
Oceans are drastically changing. Seawater is less salty, and is becoming more acidic. The crisis in our seas is intrinsically linked to humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels. We release carbon dioxide into the air, causing temperatures to rise and ice to melt, we use them to make plastics, and we burn them to move ourselves around.
Two of my works specifically addressing these issues were shown at Spektrum, Berlin earlier this month when I debuted Concentration the first performance from my Arctic project, The Matter of the Soul, next to the Coral Empathy Device.
The performance,The Matter of the Soul | concentration, with live video from Hiroshi Matoba, is a sonic exploration of acid crystal immersion. By controlling acidity and salinity, scientific instruments scream their truths about the consequence of changing oceans.
The Matter of the Soul is an ongoing work comprising musical performance and sculptural installation to engender empathy for dispersal and transformation in the Arctic region. During a residency on the ship the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, sailing through the Canadian High Arctic, I made field recordings of the acidity and salinity of Arctic waters using hacked pH and conductivity meters. I have used these recordings, along with my hydrophone field recordings, in a composition that accompanies a live performance where I play the hacked scientific musical instruments by manipulating their physical environment with acid, crystal alkaline and salts. Forthcoming artworks from The Matter of the Soul are a sculptural installation and a longer musical composition with live performance focussing specifically in three-parts on the process of dispersal and transformation in the Arctic.
The Coral Empathy Device was exhibited along with the performance. This artwork is an experiment in interspecies empathy, aiming to create a conversation between humans and corals under anthropogenic influence. It explores differences in the way we perceive the world, and translates between a coral’s physical experience in its native marine environment, making its experience understandable to a human in their native terrestrial environment. Worn over the head, the device is driven by hydrophone recordings from the marine environment and DIY chemistry investigations into microplastic pollution near Norwegian coral reefs.
Works created with support from:
Piksel Festival, NYU Shanghai Gallery, Programme for Creativity and Innovation NYU Shanghai, Mono Shop, Friends of SPRI, Bonhams, One Ocean Expeditions, Polar Museum, Chemistry Department, University College London, and Cultural Institute at University of Leeds
Last night I had the honour to introduce George Monbiot’s Liberty Lecture at Opera North in Leeds, UK.
Ahead of his lecture, George and I joined Simon Moore from the University of Leeds to discuss our work for environmental and sociopolitical change. Here we are talking about the importance of complexity, hyper specialisation and bottom-up initiatives.
Starting this month, I’ll be working with researchers and students at the University to further my project The Matter of the Soul, which uses sound and touch to explore empathic response to climate change in the Arctic. More info can be found in this lovely article about my forthcoming work from the Priestley Centre for Climate Change.
I’m eager to get out on the ice – I’m so obsessed with this project and I’ve been taking every opportunity to make recordings however I can and to play with my equipment, work on concepts for the form, and interview everyone I can speak to.
I’ve so far had little opportunity to get onto land to interview residents. I recounted in my last post my first day on the island, in Iqaluit. I subsequently had a second trip ashore near Iqaluit where I spoke to an Inuk resident of the island who is training in tourism. This was very interesting because it was a three-way conversation and I could observe how my fellow shipmate – a professor of medicine from California – interacted with the other participant, and could read his underlying preconceptions in the way he asked his questions.
For this residency with Friends of SPRI, One Ocean and Bonhams, I am making recordings not only of the visitors and residents based around Baffin Island, but also of the ocean and ice. My aim is to create a sound and sculptural work, contextualised by video, that engenders empathy for the Arctic region, in much the same way that I endeavoured to do the same for coral with the Coral Empathy Device. As the region is so huge and diverse, I am focussing in on one particular feeling – that of dispersal. The working title for the artwork is The Matter of the Soul.
While the human and cultural perspective of this is captured in these interviews, and will be woven into the sound work, the water-related element will be captured by taking chemical recordings of the ice and water. In this work, solid and liquid water are viewed as cultural artefacts of the coming together of individual water molecules, just as culture emerges from the coming together of individual human beings. Water in ice both has its behaviour shaped by its environment and is party to constructing this environment, just as we human beings are shaped by and construct our culture. When the water moves and leaves its culture behind to venture into the ocean, and to migrate all the way down – into Mexico, I’m told by SPRI researcher Liz Morris – its behaviour and trajectory is changed by the ocean that it has joined and become part of. Just as when we travel – either for tourism or migration – we change and exchange with the cultures we encounter, and within ourselves.
We are becoming pixelated
How to encounter these changes? To do so I am both using and critiquing the measurement process. I brought with me a pH meter and conductivity meter donated to me by Crosby Medley at the Department of Chemistry, UCL. I have a long-term artist residency at UCL’s Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences, and I have been incredibly fortunate to work over many years with the exceptional staff at the university, predominantly those in the Chemistry Department who have supported my madcap ideas with an enthusiasm and interest that spurs me on.
I worked with Monoshop in Berlin to hack the pH meter to make sounds. In a separate post I will expand further on how we did this, with documentation. Suffice it to say that our final route to creating sound from this instrument was to circuit bend the digital display. The resulting sound is reminiscent of 1980s video games, and captures the jumps in measurement shown on the screen as the pH meter equilibrates around the final measurement of the water samples’ pH. This method of capturing the act of measurement – offset, abstracted, non-representational – intentionally shines a light on the process of measurement itself, and its place in our action with respect to climate change.
The central question for my work is: when we know so much about human effects on climate and the environment, what else do we need to know before we make material changes to our lives to ameliorate these effects? This work, like the Coral Empathy Device, will be exploring how to convey felt and sensual knowledges about a non-human agent in an attempt to engender embodied and emotional knowledge.
The sounds I’m recording with the pH meter are unique. I can already see the shape of the work forming in front of me. I have recordings of the ship’s motion – my favourite is from when we hit choppy seas in the middle of the night and I awoke, put the recorder on, and fell back asleep for 10 minutes. I shall definitely be able to use this in the sound work as an envelope for the piece. The next step is to sonify the output of the conductivity meter, which I am working on between interviews as the ship races towards the Arctic Circle, which we should cross within the next few hours.
I wish I could share images of what I’m seeing – sometimes a formless, foggy grey sitting above the blackest sea I’ve ever seen, and sometimes a sluggish water dotted with waiting icebergs, blue and white – sometimes with a dash of blood red – which stretch on as far as the eye can see. As yet, all we’ve seen are birds, and ice ice ice – which suits me just fine. I wanted this isolation, these far, uninterrupted horizons. It’s bringing me peace and an expanse of senses and mind. I feel like I’m able to touch this place.
Communication and culture || Arctic Notes 3
The process of hacking the conductivity meter has been an emotional journey, immersed as I am in this Arctic expanse. We have spent days sailing in the open water, with barely a break in the horizon except the occasional vibrating expectant mass of icebergs.
Here on the ship I am ensconced in my 7th deck studio, myself and my hot water bottle wrapped up against the cold in the few clothes I had room for in my suitcase amongst the tools and materials I’ve needed for the residency. Happily, sacrificing clothing for equipment has paid off – I have used almost everything I brought and have finally succeeded in sonifying the output of the conductivity meter.
The meter measures the electrical conductivity of my water samples, by passing a small current through the water and detecting what reaches the other side of the probe. I tried to read the change in voltage through the recording ports on the back of the Jenway 4010, but as with the pH meter I had no success. In the end I resorted once again to circuit bending; a new technique for me, which I learned from Simon Schäfer at Monoshop, Berlin, when hacking the pH meter.
Running an open studio on board, I spent the day yesterday variously demonstrating circuit bending to interested shipmates, swapping in and out different resistors and probing the soundscape of each little dab of solder and pin on the conductivity meters’ board. The conductivity meter was a more temperamental beast than the pH meter, and half way through the day I despaired of finding anything that could work as a sonification of the measurement, as the buzzing and whistling noises coming off the board seemed completely uniform. Finally, I took to holding one of the resistors in my mouth while lifting the probe in and out of the sample for every pin, swapping resistors with different resistances in and out. I discovered just one pin that varied its sonic output – and it did so by pulsing the volume of the sound when counting down from the measured value of conductivity – say for instance 50 – to zero once the probe was removed from the sample.
And so here I am, with a sonified conductivity meter that speaks to me not of what it measures, but of the absence of measurement. This delicate, barely perceptible change in volume as the signal dies is a moving analogue for the incremental sigh of the dispersing Arctic ices.
The light up here is incredible, it feels like the sun touches one in a different way – it almost suffuses inside somehow. Lumps of ice and mini-icebergs are strewn across the barren landscape, perching on top of rocks like seagulls or floating next to tiny islands as if they’re biding their time, waiting for their chance. I wonder do they know it’s a dangerous game for them to wait?
Yesterday we were in Iqaluit for a short time. I had the opportunity to speak to two residents for my project, and to speak to one young man who didn’t want to be recorded. I met a man in the Visitors’ Centre who had come to use the wifi so that he could use Facebook to speak to his mother and friends who have gone South. Facebook is a well-used communication tool here. Straight off the bat, he told me that it was their choice to move. When I asked him how he felt about it, it seemed he didn’t want to judge but that it was something negative for him, so I asked him would he consider moving or did he want to stay? He said he wanted to stay, because of the countryfood, which made him feel good and healthy, and stomachfull.
The connection here to the food and hunting recurred over the day. In the Museum there is a temporary photograph exhibition called Portraits of the Elders, where young photographers have captured images of and interviewed Elders from Iqaluit. Next to the photos are significant answers to give a snapshot of the portrait’s subject, and in many cases the answers refer to happy childhood memories of hunting, and so significant is it as a point of reference, one of the questions is to tell what the Elders’ favourite countryfood is.
Unverified – needs further research to be done ashore: There’s reportedly a significant impact on hunting and animal behaviour due to climate change and human activity in the region. This apparrently has changed the availability of countryfood for residents of Baffin Island, which has resulted in a need to purchase rather than hunt food, changing the diet (to one that is less healthy) and financialising food availability where it was not linked to money before. This has had a knock on effect of threading money through the society.
I spoke to a charming young artist who was working at the Visitor Centre while studying Art, and who pointed me in the direction of a lot of information on First Nations artists. He himself had recently won first prize for the Aboriginal Arts and Stories competition, and as part of the prize he will travel to Toronto. He said he found this weird, following with “I didn’t know there were so many Aboriginals in Toronto”, but he didn’t really expand on this statement further.
Finally I spoke to the Museum curator, who had immigrated to Iqaluit in the 1980s and had been lecturing and working there ever since. She described her experience of “falling in between”, as she described it. Coming from Asia, she self-identifies as being frequently thought to be Inuit from her appearance.
However, though she has lived in the capital for around 30 years, she still feels – and is sometimes treated like – an outsider. Non-judgemental about the changes in the city, she recounted how, when she first moved here, every Saturday was the day to go to the market, and this was where everyone would meet and chat – a social occasion for the whole community. She says that now when she goes, she doesn’t know anybody, and that a large part of the new population – which went from 3500 to nearly 8000 in the time she’s lived here – are people who immigrate only a few years before leaving again. She says that there is less of a coherent community here now, and a lot more traffic.
The traffic here for me is as sad as traffic everywhere, but more situationally poignant when I look from the busy, dirty streets of Iqaluit across to the bay, and see the blue icebergs waiting for their moment to colonise the land again. A moment that is less and less likely to come.
I will be exploring the effect of melting ice on the ocean by focussing on the concept of dispersal. I’ll be creating a sound and sculptural work exploring the changes in pH and salinity of the Arctic Ocean around Baffin Island, drawing analogies with concurrent changes in culture and identity.
I’ll be taking with me scientific equipment (pH and conductivity meters, thanks to UCL Chemistry Department) which I’m intending to use to generate sound work for the residency by capturing the transformation of melting ice to ocean water.
These recordings will be edited together with interviews about migration and changing cultural identity with residents of and visitors to Baffin Island.