Visceral Sounds: three sound art projects attune to our shifting landscapes

STIR speaks with artists using sound as a tool, medium, and object of enquiry at the World Weather Network, a constellation of weather stations set up by 28 arts agencies worldwide.

by Niyati DavePublished on : Dec 26, 2022

Speaking about the weather has often been considered the epitome of banality—a topic one reverts to during moments of awkward silence. However, in 2022—as COP27 concluded with the Draft Cop27 agreement failing to call for a ‘phase-down’ on all fossil fuels and discussions on the ethics of climate protests ‘vandalising’ artworks spilling onto social media, all while heat waves, droughts, off-season weather events abound across the world—speaking about the weather is hardly banal; in fact, it should be one of the only things on our collective minds.

Conversations around the climate crisis often hinge on numbers: the year by which we hope to reach carbon neutrality, the PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the sophisticated climate models built using dizzying data sets. It is seen as the domain of expert scientists and mathematicians.

But what if we thought of the climate as something our bodies are attuned to and can sense through observation—the act of looking and listening? How would that change how we think of our place in being complicit and complacent in the climate crisis? The World Weather Network is a constellation of weather stations set up by 28 arts agencies worldwide, attempting to do just that.

Situating a 'weather station' in each of the agencies—which includes institutions such as Artangel, Khoj Studios, Dhaka Art Summit, the Yinka Shonibare Foundation, Art Jameel, and more—the network collates and shares ‘weather reports’ created by visual artists, writers, and creative practitioners to uncomplicate our understanding of weather’s effect on us and our effect on the weather.

How’s the Weather?, film, Miles Blacket, World Weather Network Video: Miles Blacket

Across stations, STIR spoke to people—curators and artists—behind three projects that go further into the act of listening, telling us about water narratives in the marshes of Mesopotamia, Iran; the impact of wind and weather on coastal communities across the South Pacific, and the sonic landscapes of underwater ecosystems across the world.

Jana Winderen, a Norwegian artist—working on site-specific and spatial audio installations—whose installation Listening Through Dead Zones investigates how human activity influences the dead zones in the Baltic Sea and similar environments close to shores and lakes, by recording marine soundscapes, says that sound is something we are constantly attuned to—whether we realise it or not. “We are all the time orienting ourselves to sound in our daily life and I think as soon as there will be no sounds outside, if there were no birds or humans, or nothing to be heard, you would really start to notice and be quite disorientated. If you close your eyes and you're standing outside somewhere, you really start to hear what is really far away, what is passing you, what is really close, you know, somebody passing. You get a lot of information that you don't get by just seeing.”

A view from the Rowing Stadium where Listening through Dead Zones was installed | World Weather Network | STIRworld
A view from the Rowing Stadium where Listening through Dead Zones was installed Image: Courtesy of IHME Helsinki
A wide view from the Rowing Stadium | World Weather Network| STIRworld
A wide view from the Rowing Stadium Image: Courtesy of IHME Helsinki
Winderen at the Rowing Stadium, Helsinki. | World Weather Network| STIRworld
Winderen at the Rowing Stadium, Helsinki Image: Courtesy of IHME Helsinki

In the Rowing Stadium in Helsinki, where the work was exhibited, while the water may seem still and sterile to viewers, listening is what makes them understand how marine life abounds—even in areas adjacent to urban centres. Paula Topilla, the Executive Director of Pro Arte Foundation Finland and IHME Contemporary Art Festival, who curated the project says, “people understood that it’s not silent underwater—that’s the main message of Jana’s work, that there is a whole world that we don’t know very much about, even if we live close to it, and our actions have consequences: we create so many different kinds of pollution, material noise, and chemical pollution in the marine environment that has direct consequences on the ecosystems there.”

Jana submerges a hydrophone to capture a recording | World Weather Network| STIRworld
Jana submerges a hydrophone to capture a recording Image: Courtesy of the artist

Listening Through Dead Zones situates listeners deep within the rich marine soundscapes, where the songs of pilot whales, the chittering of crustaceans and the quicksilver schools of fish changing direction remind us how animated our oceans truly are and what we stand to lose when they become ‘dead zones.’ For Jana’s work, she uses hydrophones to capture marine sounds from different depths in the ocean, but she talks about how, throughout her fieldwork, she has encountered indigenous methods of sensing in the ocean—in the Arctic regions, hunters put one end of an oar into the water and the other close to their head and can gauge different fish sounds; in Krabi, Thailand the method to sense fish is similar. 

Jana on a boat with a hydrophone to capture a recording | World Weather Network| STIRworld
Jana on a boat with a hydrophone to capture a recording Image: Courtesy of the artist

Playing with the concept of ‘scientific’ instruments that sense wind speed, direction, and other meteorological phenomena, The Weather Choir 'Kōea ō Tāwhirimātea,’ takes an approach similar to what Winderen describes indigenous communities using, through an ‘instrument’ that has its lineage in an ancient Greek harp. Curated by Te Tuhi, a contemporary art space in New Zealand, the project is made by a collaborative group called Breath of Weather, whose members include veteran sound artist Phil Dadson, hybrid Polynesian electronic artist Pasha Clothier, Niue-based artists Mark and Ahi Cross amongst others, and is situated across 8 climate-challenged locations in the Southern Pacific—across Aotearoa (New Zealand), The Kingdom of Tonga, Samoa and Niue Island. The project is centred around the Aeolian harp, a large stringed instrument that vibrates in response to the changing wind and weather.

A dispatch from the Aeolian Harp on Rangitoto Island Video: Courtesy of the Breath of Weather Collective

James McCarthy, a member of the art collective, whose Harp is situated on his lawn in Whakatane (New Zealand), says that as an artist, while he can’t speak to the science of weather change, what he can do is devise ways to draw attention to it— “I know that during the duration of the project, the harp has already fallen over five times because of heavy winds and that three weeks ago, we had a crazy flood that caused a water drought, where it rained so much that crops ceased to grow due to water-logging.”

James’ harp at Whakatane | World Weather Network| STIRworld
James’ harp at Whakatane Image: Courtesy of Breath of Weather Collective
Harp Assembly | World Weather Network| STIRworld
Harp Assembly Image: Courtesy of Breath of Weather Collective

“When the weather is calm and everything's sweet, and we are all happy with the way things are going, the laminar flow produces beautiful strings of harmonics that are in consonance. When things get a little bit dissonant and wild with the weather, the harps scream—they scream and it's like an alarm bell. And to me, that is symbolic as a body of responses coming from different parts of the South Pacific drawing attention to the variabilities of weather (in climate-impacted coastal communities). And what we do with it is the big question for humanity anyway”— Phil Dadson, who has driven the project, adds in conversation with Te Tuhi.  

A discordant dispatch from Whakatane Video: Courtesy of the Breath of Weather Collective

Other members of the collective—Pasha Clothier and Mark Cross—both speak about how the existence of the Aeolian Harps in outdoor spaces, where they are visible to the public, has also created curiosity about what they are and what they do, which allows conversations around the specificity of climate change in these communities to develop.

In Māori mythology, Tāwhirimātea (or Tāwhiri) is the god of weather; the work’s name translates to a chorus for Tāwhirimātea—even the ‘Aeolian’ moniker references Aeolus, the ancient Greek god of wind. Both these names, along with the sheer visceral sounds produced by the harp during storms and gales, signal the primal response human bodies were conditioned to have in the face of inclement weather—a sense of awe and respect.

Sacred landscapes and folklore also find an iteration in Sherko Abbas’ ‘Tigris River Sound Lab,’ which is supported by the Ruya Foundation in Iraq, headed by Tamara Chalabi.  Sherko is a Kurdish-Iraqi artist whose practice engages with collective memory, sonic and visual memory, as well as the geopolitical situation of contemporary Iraq. In this work, the floating lab takes the form of a raft, similar to those used for trade and military purposes on the Tigris River for centuries. Abbas traverses the length of the river, going from the North of Iraq to Mosul, through Baghdad and Samarra, before ending at the port town of Al-Fāw, gathering recordings of riverscapes, and songs that serve as a record of people’s relationship with the riverfront that has often informed their lives and livelihoods for generations. Through the oral histories and narratives he gathers, eventually culminating in an exhibition, he traces how shifts in time have altered landscapes and the stories attached to them.

Assembling the floating sound lab | World Weather Network| STIRworld
Assembling the floating sound lab Image: Courtesy of Sherko Abbas and the Ruya Foundation

“I wanted to put two kinds of sound in conversation together:  how the sound of weather impacted the people living on the riverside and how the sounds of people—songs and stories—tell us the importance of the river. Nowadays there are many inspiring projects giving us data on what will be happening in the future. But my project is very different because I wanted to celebrate what exists rather than tell what's going to be happening in the future. I'm trying to say why this river is important for this area, and what else may disappear if the river disappears.” Water and song are inextricably linked, Abbas says, “The songs from the North are very different from the South because in the North they believe they have sweet water which makes them sing sweetly. But in the South, they have salty water, which changes how they sing.”

Sherko with his recording equipment. | World Weather Network| STIRworld
Sherko with his recording equipment Image: Courtesy of Sherko Abbas and the Ruya Foundation

As climate change, urbanisation, and fossil-fuel-powered development proliferate, it is not only tangible things such as land and ecosystems that are affected, we also lose narratives and myths and different ways of relating to the landscape. Abbas tells us about the myth of a Tantawel or Tantal, a mythical figure associated with the marshes of Southern Iraq. In the 1990s, these marshes were drained, after which the presence of the Tantal was diminished in the area. Now, even as the Iraqi government has restored the wetlands, local inhabitants say that the Tantal has not returned—“it was very sweet for me to find this kind of the story, of what happens when we dry some area. It's not just the killing of fish, or the riverbed, or humans, but also you kill the essence of our human history which came from these mythical aspects.”

A song from the Tigris Video: Courtesy of Sherko Abbas and the Ruya Foundation

At their core, all three projects delve into this idea of the intangible—whether it is making something as ephemeral as shifts in weather known through the screams of the Aeolian harp, or using sonic recordings to reveal the lush life that permeates our marine environments. These projects not only present evidence of a changing world—situating the bodies of listeners in relation to those changes, they eventually ask what we may do differently in our daily lives.

Weather and climate change are not only thematic—but they also form the ethical backbone of forms and processes of all three projects, which are conscious of their own carbon footprint and are created in ways that minimise it. As Paula Topilla, who commissioned Listening Through Dead Zones says, “ In our work as an art institution,  we not only work with artists who address these topical questions like climate crisis and biodiversity loss but also to take a stand as an art institution. This means we have ecological sustainability at the centre of everything we do, how we run the office, and how we produce the artwork. And how do we mediate the artworks to our audiences? This is also relevant when we think about our contribution to the World Weather Network—which is essentially an online platform that creates transmissions and exchanges while minimising movement and travel.  And this question also has to do with the limits of growth, which we all should be thinking about as well.” 

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