Ecologies of the Unseen

Rhian Morris

Audience walking amongst the architecture of Raumklang. Photo credit: Pieter Kers

During FIBER 2021 Robin Koek and Zeno van den Broek presented the premiere of Raumklang; an aural architecture responding to the soundscape of the Muziekgebouw. This experience invited audiences to engage with a different mode of sensing our shared environment, allowing visitors to step away from an ocular hegemony towards another, more embodied, mode of knowing; a mode of perceiving that lies patiently in wait within the spaces we inhabit. Sonic experiences such as these remind us of our unique entanglements with our more-than-human kin, by breaking us out of stagnant modes of classifying and structuring ourselves and our societies. Raumklang responded to the sounds present not only in the atrium of the Muziekgebouw, but under the water of the IJ and outside the building, engaging the listener fully within the environment we constantly feel so detached from. The artists intended to incite a conscious mode of listening in the audience, which Robin cites as allowing us to ‘reevaluate the spaces around us and how we relate to them… The more we allow ourselves to open up and channel ourselves to the complexities and layers of every auditory space the more information there is.’

Audience member exploring the aural architecture of Raumklang. Photo credit: Pieter Kers

Take a moment to notice the space you are in right now.

Close your eyes and listen to the sounds that surround you, that emanate from the space you are in.

There may be sounds in the foreground, and sounds more distant, almost imperceptible…what is the sound that is the farthest away from you, so far in the background that you can barely notice if it’s coming from the space or your imagination?

Focus on this sound…how does that shift your relation to the space around you?

Sound Ecologies participants at de Kaloot, Borselle. Photo credit: Mark IJzerman

Running simultaneously to FIBER 2022 was the Sound Ecologies Lab, where a group of 14 participants researched the potential of sonic experiences to make audible the otherwise invisible and unheard effects of the Anthropocene. On the second day of the lab we took a collective field-trip to Borssele, a small beach outcrop in the Zeeland peninsula where the constant humming of nuclear storage facilities melds the onshore and offshore lands together. The field trip laid the ground work for the rest of the week of the lab, being a shared experience which lab participants could then respond to. This is emblematic of how Xandra van der Eijk, co-curator of the lab, structures her own design practice. She commented that the lab itself is an unseen ecology, as ‘together we visit a place that nobody’s visited before…we bring ourselves into a certain environment, that’s an ecology in itself, we all try to relate to each other and to the space, which is a very difficult thing to do if you’ve never been before.’ In my own experience of the lab, this comes down to allowing space for the unknown to unfold. In the empty spaces we can witness what needs to be birthed, creatively and socially. This is a lot to do with being able to really listen, to hold space and to intuit signs from people and places alike.

COVRA, luminous in the twilight. Photo credit: Mark IJzerman

During the field trip we were taken on a guided tour of COVRA, a nuclear waste storage facility. There we witnessed a cloud chamber, which is used to detect ionising particles. We were captivated by the dissolution of alpha and gamma rays of radiation. The movement was hypnotic to watch, as the alpha and gamma rays effortlessly arose and dissipated, the invisible becoming visible before our eyes.

Cloud chamber shows the differing dissolution of alpha and gamma rays of radiation. Photo credit: Amy Cutler

Later in the day, Sharon Stewart led a deep listening session where we merged our voices with the myriad voices woven around us. The hum of power stations, whirr of wind turbines, creaking of metal poles in the wind, and the incessant sea. As our humming voices intertwined with the tones of our nonhuman companions, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate which was a human voice and which not. Often I found myself tuning in to a tone, only later to realise that it was emitted from one of my human counterparts and not machinery. Dissolving, fading, switching, we sent our voices out like threads to connect to the various elements of our environment which would otherwise not be heeded. The threads of our voices wove together, entangling ourselves with environment until it was not clear who was human and who not. Only sound, only space.

As we stood up and visually returned to the environment, we noticed a murmuration of birds flying directly overhead, as if heralding our attempts of de-centralised authorship.

Moments of dissolving between COVRA and the Noordzee. Photo credit: Mark IJzerman

Through conscious listening and attuning ourselves to the multi-layered soundscapes of the environment we find ourselves in, we become more aware of the interplay and interdependence between natural and man-made forces. This is a theme prevalent in the research of Patricia Jäggi and Christoph Brünggel, two participants of the Sound Ecologies lab, who collaborate as artists and researchers in investigating the unstable ecologies between weather, manmade structures and ourselves as listeners. Their current research, ‘Sounds of Systems’ (working title), explores the architectures and landscapes of energy production and the 24/7 production and noise of its machinery. Patricia and Christoph have visited the dam at Albigna as a site of sonic exploration. This dam is installed high above the Bergell Valley, in southern Switzerland. Here, the interdependence between manmade and natural ecologies is revealed by long sustained sounds interrupted by deafening thunderous cracks, as the sun heats up the dam and the concrete cracks in return. As these recordings are played in our lab space in Amsterdam, the ghosts of these otherwise unheard acoustics inhabit our space - or rather we inhabit theirs.

Photo of my notes taken during Christoph and Patricia’s talk.

This relationship between listener and space is something sound artist Vito Willems enquires to deeply with his artistic practice. He asks, who are we as listeners and how do we relate to the spaces which enable us to become listeners? During the Sound Ecologies lab, Vito Willems gave a technical introduction to our spatial sound set-up which he had installed. During the talk he shared his philosophy on the art of sound, revealing how imperative it is that we analyse the role of the listener, how we position ourselves as listeners in space, and how we can subvert this power relation to allow room for non-hierarchal modes of engaging with our environments.

The 360 degree spatial sound set-up was used for lab participants to develop work. Photo credit: Mark IJzerman

Through spatial sound installations, such as Raumklang, we can experience a de-centralising of the self, we can bear witness to what it feels like to dissolve into a space by becoming aware of all the other voices that occupy it. These different sonic configurations deconstruct the sweet spot and re-position ourselves as listeners who are not at the centre of the universe; we are everywhere and nowhere, we are particles vibrating in space, echoing through silence, we are sound itself and we touch everything just as everything touches us.

All we have to do is just listen.

Listen…

What can you hear?

Radioactive waves lapping against the shore of Borssele. Photo credit: Amy Cutler

By embracing this other mode of knowing, one where we hold significantly less control, we open ourselves to other possibilities of interacting with each other and our environments. In becoming aware of these sonic relationships we start to gain an embodied experience of how we are interdependent with our surroundings. The border between ourselves and the world is a blurry one, constantly shifting as we navigate through this thing called life. Just like the radioactive waves at Borssele, we oscillate perpetually, self and world, human and nature, rational and embodied. In sonic experiences we get the chance to be neither sea nor shore, but the space in between the two where any and all possibilities exist.

Rhian Morris is a scenographer and artist researcher. In her practice she always tries to offer audiences a surrender to the unknown, through sensory or embodied experiences, and through networks of radical honesty. In a post-corona world this looks a lot different than it did previously, and she is now turning her attention to curating social scenographies; by facilitating experiences and spaces for conversation and contemplation on more-than-human timescales. She is a co-founder of Gaia’s Machine, a performance collective researching and developing collaborative methodologies to work and think through ecological issues. As a collective they strive to enact and enable dialogue, looking for non- hierarchical ways of (con)fusing science-art, human-nonhuman and theory-practice.

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FIBER

Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2022, mid-May