On my old blog I wrote a longish article looking at how climate change was changing the Arctic, and the new strategic importance of the newly uncovered fossil fuels and shipping lanes in places once covered with ice to the countries surrounding the North Pole.
Now two different sound art/music projects have caught my attention for highlighting the ways that the role of the Arctic and the Antarctic are changing in our collective imaginations. The polar regions have always held a strong fascination, especially in Britain. Many writers have highlighted the ways that they provided a “white space” on which countless explorers, artists and writers could project their own ideas about masculine heroism and nation building. The races to the poles embody the idea of the national importance of conquering this environment, which for nineteenth century British imperialism provided one of the few limits on the reach of their global power.
Indeed, near where I grew up a whole city has attempted to brand itself in reference to a proud Arctic past. Dundee dubs itself “The City of Discovery” after the ship used in a pioneering Antarctic exploration mission led by the ill-fated Captain Scott, and the ship itself forms the basis for one of the city’s main tourist attractions, in whose visitor centre I briefly worked. The ship was built in Dundee, with the expertise that came from building ships capable of penetrating ever further North, the better to slaughter whales.
The desire to tame the Arctic, to make it useful and part of the imperial world system can perhaps be demonstrated by the centuries long quest for the North West Passage. Ironically, this legendary path may in the near future become a major shipping lane, as climate change opens up a faster route between Chinese near-slaves and Atlantic consumers through the once-frozen North.
The massive impact of human activity represented by the melting ice was not always so evident. In the face of one of the few remaining environments that resisted human control, many responded with horror. From Frankenstein to H. P. Lovecraft to The Thing, the ice has often been the hidden home of monsters and horrors.
But now the Arctic and the Antarctic demonstrate a very real horror, a palpable threat that many can’t bear to face. Ice which represents millenia long eras of freezing is disappearing at an unbelievable rate, melting which is worse than many climate change predictions had warned. One of the greatest causes of polar exploration in recent decades has in fact been the drilling of ice cores, cross sections of ice that are the hidden history of the world’s climate over huge stretches of time. The process of fossilisation that gave us the fuel to do i
t took millions of years, and now we have burnt a significant proportion of that accumulated time in about 200. Looking at the expanses of time recorded in the ice gives us an insight into just how rapidly we’re unmaking the conditions on Earth that allowed the evolution of civilisation.
As has been pointed out by the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants, the first place we can see the changes which are going to affect all of our lives is in the Arctic. The immense quantities of water, if not locked up in ice, are going somewhere else. Contemplating the destruction we’ve brought to the ice and its consequences for any length of time is pretty terrifying, and it’s something that many people, including apparently the heads of government of the world’s powerful countries, would really rather not confront.
Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica is a new work by turntablist, artist and academic DJ Spooky. He travelled to Antarctica and set up a mobile studio to make sound recordings of the changing ice-forms, put under stress by global changes. These sounds were then incorporated into a seventy minute multimedia performance featuring the sampled sounds coupled with a special score, alongside visual information conveying scientific and geographical information about the frozen continent. Below is a pretty amazing short film showing some of the sounds and sights presented in the performance:
From DJ Spooky’s site:
“In 1949 the British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams created a metaphorical portrait of Antarctica entitled Sinfonia Antarctica that he began with a poem adapted from the poet Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:
To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite.
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent,
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:
This… is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone life, joy, empire and victory.
As the only uninhabited continent, Antarctica has no government and belongs to no country. Various countries claim areas of the landmass, but essentially, the area between 90°W and 150°W is the only part of Antarctica, indeed the only solid land on Earth, not claimed by any country. In the era of satellites, wireless networks, and fiber optic cables, its ever harder to see the vision that Vaughn described for his orchestral work. What DJ Spooky’s Antarctic Suite: Ice Loops portrays is a land made of complex ecological interactions. Instead of a metaphor, the composition aims to go to Antarctica and record the sound of the continent. More than 170 million years ago, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Over time Godwin broke apart and Antarctica as we know it today was formed around 25 million years ago. Using digital media, video, and high tech recording equipment, DJ Spooky will go to Antarctica and paint an acoustic portrait of this rapidly transforming environment. . .He aims to bring Antarctica to the contemporary imagination by digitally reconstructing it: historical maps, travelers journals over the last several centuries, crystalline ice’s resonant frequencies, and the Earth’s magnet poles – will all be paints for the audio palette he will work with. Essentially, he will go to the continent and create a recording studio that will be portable enough to move all over the territory. Think of it as sampling the environment with sound – something that Vaughn could only do with metaphor in 1949. The difference Is that Miller approaches the task with a technological background that fosters a direct interaction with the territory that inspires the composition. . .
For most people, thoughts of exploration in Antarctica typically center on dogs, skis, snowshoes, and people in fur, not paintbrushes or sketch pads. Actually, art has always had a prominent place in the exploration of Antarctica. Photography began in the 1830’s and only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was it possible to take photographs in cold environments. Therefore, it was common for explorers of polar regions to be accompanied by artists to visually record the sights and phenomena for research and for popular distribution in books and articles. In the modern era, artists continue to venture to Antarctica. Their intent is not simply to record but to provide visual interpretations of the continent, based on direct observations combined with artistic talent. . .
Miller creates a separate scenario from those envisioned by these artists by focusing on the acoustic qualities of ice and its relationship to geography.
In another film showing the project, DJ Spooky emphasises the idea of music as information, implying that his Sinfonia Antarctica communicates essential, but hidden, knowledge about the processes at work on our planet:
On the project’s page on DJ Spooky’s site there’s also a lot of Antarctic images, including posters he made to represent an imaginary Antarctic revolution.
But another project, by artist Katie Peterson, puts an even stronger focus on the melting ice. In 2007 she laid a microphone in the ever-expanding Jokulsarlon lagoon, which has been created by meltwater from Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, and one of the largest in the Northern Hemisphere. During the time it was there the sound input from it went through to a telephone line, so that people could call a number and literally listen to the sound of the Arctic melting.
But after this process of recording she then took the process a step further. The sounds made from recordings at three other Icelandic glaciers were pressed into records that were made from frozen water from the lagoons. These records were then played continuously on a trio of turntables, creating a new sound, combined from the original recordings of a melting glacier and the actual sound of those recordings melting. The result is a powerful recreation and re-enactment of the hidden destruction created by humans in the northern part of the world. The sound itself is, especially in context, really menacing:
Sound of ice melting, on a record melting
The records that were made no longer exist, but they are preserved in the form of three DVDs, and there are clips from the original sounds on her site.
What these projects highlight for me is the changing role of the polar regions are coming to play in our culture, as they morph from the arenas for displays of heroic human achievement, to a testament to our unwitting destruction of the Earth. The fact that these two artists have used sound to allow the environments to speak for themselves, as opposed to the stock wind sound effects that once would have stood in countless Arctic-based films, is really interesting, and tries to make our intellectual engagement with what’s going on there that bit more real. The fact that at least some people, culturally, artistically and politically, are willing to engage with the scientific facts of what is happening to the Arctic and Antarctic is a source of hope in the face of the new terror: the destruction of what was once endless white.