Sound art in the representation of climate change
by Sophie Hardcastle
Whilst working in Antarctica during 2017, I slept out on the snow. The silence was deafening. Something I’d assumed would be beautiful and romantic was strangely terrifying – I might have gone deaf. ‘Antarctica is silence,’ writes author Bernadette Hince. Then, in the early hours of the morning, I was woken by the sounds of a nearby glacier calving. It cracked, folded in on itself, exploded and grinded. ‘It is also piercing sound’, she completes. Ancient chunks fell into the sea. Violently, Antarctica was making itself heard. The glacier screamed as world stories, embedded in ancient ice, sunk and melted, and the sea waters still rise. In that hour, I became lost to myself. I was nothing but hearing. At the end of the sky, the earth cries out. This is our last chance to hear.
So why aren’t we listening?
I believe human action is motivated by emotion. Artists have a unique ability to shift environmental consciousness by stimulating feelings. But where pictorial representations fall short, sound art has the potential to voice and represent nonhuman landscapes. After all, it is the cry of Antarctica that we find most affecting. Sound art exposes us to a non-verbal, non-homocentric language that takes the listener outside or beyond their own experience, towards a state of ‘figuring out’. It’s in this space, outside or beyond that the nonhuman can reveal itself more fully. It is here that we engage emotionally; here that we listen.
French artist Jean de Pomereau's photograph Fissure 2 (2008), taken in the Pridz Bay Region of East Antarctica, captures a vast sheet of ice stretching back to a distant cluster of icebergs. At the time it was photographed, Pomereau described a thin mist that had descended upon the landscape, blurring the horizon as if the sky was coming to rest on the earth’s shoulder. In Fissure 2, pale blue light is smooth and velvety. However, this landscape, untouched and peaceful, is violently torn open by a bold fissure in the ice sheet that rips all the way back to the distant icebergs, severing the work into two. The landscape’s texture is soft; it resembles skin, the pallid flesh of Antarctica’s body. The vast, even expanse, juxtaposed with the shock of the jagged fissure alludes to the condition of a wound, enabling a human sympathy with a site of feeling that far outstrips our experience.
Early artistic representations of the poles in the 18th century such as The Resolution and Adventure (1773) painted by William Hodges, and Islands of Ice (1773) by Johann Georg Forster during the first expeditions of The Heroic Age sought to capture the grandeur of landscapes that man wished to conquer. Contemporary representations are radically different. Artists, ‘profoundly conscious’ of the threat climate change poses to the white continent, articulate acute fragility and the scale of damage instead of irreducible grandeur. The fissure is emblematic of the instability and vulnerability of the Antarctic, a nonhuman body literally cracking open. Bodily conceit, typical of the visual arts, helps us to understand nonhuman environmental degradation as a form of self-mutilation. And while this can facilitate a sympathetic response, must we always picture a nonhuman body as synonymous with our own before we can empathise with it?
In Timothy Morton’s concept of ‘dark ecology’, the shadowy in-between – constituted by horror, ugliness, negativity and irony – warns mankind of ‘their potential annihilation.’ When artists making work about climate change peer into this chasm of unknowable darkness, they encourage the viewer to contemplate the impending catastrophe that will likely arise from unabated climate change. The crack in Fissure 2 toys with the concept of dark ecology as we are invited into the abyss. It is both unnerving and unsettling. But sound art, engaged with dark ecology, doesn’t turn to the human body as metaphor to foster a sense of sameness with the nonhuman; instead the production of nonhuman soundscapes is a process of defamiliarisation that makes us strangers to ourselves, unsure of our own sensory awareness. It calls on us to question our relationships with ourselves, and in doing so, we are prompted to question our relationships with the nonhuman. Through rigorous interrogation, a listener may come to extend their sympathies beyond their own human understandings – may perhaps even empathise with nonhuman entities.
Though Fissure 2’s depiction of an injured Antarctica is affecting, it does not displace us as viewers. This is because its conceit lies within our experience, and because the darkness of the Antarctic sublime is difficult, if not impossible, to capture pictorially. In an image, we can place the landscape, identify and measure it. We can comprehend, or at least assume comprehension of scale. But sound art is able to simulate perversions of human scale that are beyond comprehension. Similarly, one can experience deep anxiety when disorientated spatially and temporally, when one is unable to identify sources of a sensory stimulus in their surroundings. Anxiety involves a feeling of being at a loss: when one is on the brink of knowability, only almost able to identify the unfamiliar.
Sleeping on Antarctica involved spreading my awareness laterally and awakening my senses to the ‘multiple nonhuman entities that constitute the local landscape.’ The shifting of my sensory perception fostered an emotional connection; an awareness of shared ancestry. I was at the end of the earth, yet I’d never felt so connected to a place. Artists who wish to communicate the story of climate change in a way that is meaningful and emotionally-moving must also make work that is visceral; work that involves audiences spreading their awareness laterally to experience the nonhuman from all angles; work that demands sensory multiplicity.
I was at the end of the earth, yet I'd never felt so connected to a place.
The soundscape Chronography Animal (2012) composed by sound artist Jay Needham, upon his return from the end of the earth, repositions the human subject spatially and temporally. It takes an individual beyond his or herself, and into the realm of an Antarctic infinite. As John Luther Adams writes, soundscapes are ‘not necessary to change the world, but rather to change the quality of our attention to the world,’ prompting us to reimagine the world such that matter comes to matter. A soundscape can open up a porthole onto Antarctica’s sublimity, immersing the viewer in a nonhuman landscape because of its intimacy. It can create the illusion of far-off distances, or the chilling sensation of the nonhuman breathing down one’s neck.
Chronography Animal was a live electroacoustic performance in which Needham improvised sounds with an antique gramophone layered over a soundtrack of field recordings in Antarctica. The work was a bridge to connect sound art and improvised music as an evocation of place. Although Needham worked with real field recordings, the additional sounds he layered on top in his performance were selected to resemble the geological and biological voices of Antarctica. Faint rumbles, as though far-off in the distance, and louder, closer cracks and groans evoke a sense of scale that disorients the listener. It is consistent with Jacob Smith’s assertion that sound can be used to ‘play with spatial scale, performing a kind of auditory zoom from place to planet that works to diminish the human.’ The feeling of being reduced or diminished facilitates a levelling of the human and nonhuman; a levelling that can incite shifts in environmental consciousness when one comes to understand their place, entangled with an animate nonhuman world.
Needham’s later work, Resonant Evidence (2012-5), produced in collaboration with Douglas Quinn, is comprised of polar field-recordings of weather and ice. The sounds of waves lapping, wind whistling and ice cracking are layered to create depth and achieve new textures. They increase in volume throughout the first half of the piece until the voices of Antarctica become overwhelming, and a thick wall of noise begins to feel impenetrable. Throughout the second half, ambient sounds fade and fall away at points to reveal the mechanical sounds of ice moving, or the crash of a wave in isolation, showcasing each sound as a distinct voice. The recordings function as a kind of acoustic fossil; an archive of Antarctica’s many stories. Perhaps more importantly, however, these geological sounds reveal that the landscape has agency: is an active factor in its own continual movements and transformations. In this work, the ice moves. Creaking, groaning, and murmuring, the ice is animate. The repetition of wind whistling throughout fosters a sense of continuity, the impression that this is a space with its own historicity. This is significant as it drags the listener towards a history that was written long before humans.
Another sound artist, Lawrence English, produced Viento (2015) to a similar effect. The work is a compilation of wind recordings, captured at an Argentine base at the end of the earth. This work is important as it points to the significant role Antarctica plays in global weather patterns. The soundscape portrays Antarctica as the lungs of the planet, showing us a landscape that breathes. Speaking about his work, English remarked,
‘Listening back to these recordings, I am struck by the sheer physicality of the wind. It’s rare that you feel physically reduced by the motion of air. But in Antarctica, that is just how I felt. A small speck of organic dust in a howling storm.’
Hard pans in Viento imply vastness and create movement. They emulate the experience of winds ripping through distant mountains, as well as the sensation of a body intimately close, of someone breathing down one’s neck. The duality of far-off and up-close impressions works to disorient the listener, turning their sensory intelligence outside their self. ‘By being outside, we ask new questions,’ writes Jacob Smith, ‘and in the process of answering them, defamiliarise our own.’ Thus, there in sound art’s darkness, in its vague horror, lies the potential for us to rethink and reimagine our relationship with the nonhuman world.
Illustration by Issy Davies
Sophie Hardcastle is the Provost's Scholar in English literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford. She is an author and an artist.