‘And then the sea came back’ – using sound art to tell stories of climate change

AUSCCER’s Anja Kanngieser talks about her sound art piece telling stories of climate change:

“To recall the day that the earthquake happened is to recall the immensity of devastation, beyond what one could imagine, beyond what words could explain. I can’t even tell you, I can’t find the language to convey the scenes of that day… There was a vacuum, a vacuum of air, of understanding, of words. And then of course there wasn’t. And then of course the sea came back. And it told its own story”

In 2016 I was commissioned by ABC Radio National’s sound art program Soundproof to make a radio work about climate change. Working with audio-visual artist Polly Stanton in our collective form of Burrow, we decided that we wanted to make a radio piece as beautiful as it was chilling, which would have the possibility of revisiting an event of anthropogenic, or human caused, environmental crisis through myriad historical, political and affective narratives. We called our piece And then the sea came back.

And then the sea came back began with a sound. Or rather, it began with the absence of sound. A few years ago a first hand account surfaced describing the aftermath of the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake that took place on the 26 December 2004. The earthquake registered at 9.1 to 9.3 on the Richter Scale; it catalysed a series of tsunamis, the waves of which impacted the lands bordering the Indian Ocean. It was the third largest earthquake ever recorded, with the longest duration of faulting under human observation, killing over 230 000 people. The author of the story recounted the experience of witnessing the tsunami, which hit Aceh following the earthquake. She told of the sea sucking back into itself just moments before the tsunami struck, and about the creatures and debris that was left on the sea floor. She described how the people watching from the esplanade ran onto the beach, surprised by the strangeness of that scene. In her account she emphasized the silence that fell as the sea pulled away, and how time was suspended between the moment of surprise and the moments of horror that came afterwards.

In the recording studio

The silence the author described became the core of the radio piece’s story. I developed the figure of the geolinguist, a reader of the earth’s languages (introduced by science fiction author Ursula Le Guin) to provide the guiding narrative as the voice of the author. What we liked about the geolinguist was the complex and difficult idea of humans holding the power to interpret the earth’s movements and patterns. In her writing on the geolinguist, Le Guin (2014) explicitly references sound, and the role of listening in this process of interpretation, stating:

May there not come even that bolder adventurer, the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate trenchant lyrics of the lichen will read beneath it the still less communicative still more passive wholly atemporal cold volcanic poetry of the rocks, each one a word spoken how long ago by the earth itself in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.

For us, then, the geolinguist was a figure not only able to listen to, and actively hear, the liveliness within the silence before the sea ‘came back’, but also to make sense of the stories resonant through its violent return. This inferred to us sensitivity to the environment and its surroundings, to temporal and geographical place and the ways in which moments can contain multiple and contesting possibilities and outcomes. With the themes of sound and environment framing the piece, the geolinguist felt like an appropriate character through which to raise issues of human and extrahuman experiences of climate crisis, and the unequal and racialised ways in which populations feel its effects.

This emphasis of sound was also critical to the composition of the musical score. Thinking about the role that art works can have on the telling of global environmental change, we wanted to ensure that the piece could communicate the gravity and intensity of massive ecological and geopolitical shifts at the same time as remaining attentive to the overlooked and often invisibilised stories and experiences contained within them. These were stories we wanted to tell through the artistic score as much as the spoken word, and thus the score was conceived to try to encompass these different scales. The score was comprised of field recordings of singing wires, the inside echoes of water towers, rivers and wild bush environments. These were interspersed with the ringing of bells and gongs, electronic drones, sine waves and sound effects. Rather than making the sound represent the words that were spoken we wanted it to weave through, overlay and underpin the voices, allowing the sound to provide a parallel and intersecting voice contrasting to that of the human. This deviated from a traditional radio play format in that the sound was given a focal role, rather than a representational or supportive one. We began the compositional process imagining the sorts of sounds and tones we would want to place along the story line and diagrammed a score. This combined sounds, words and images to create a sense of the mood and affects we were trying to convey.

Working as interdisciplinary artists meant that we were able to bring together a range of mediums, voices and influences to tell the stories held within And then the sea came back. Because of our interdisciplinary approach, first hand accounts, scientific analysis, race and geopolitical theory was brought into dialogue through prose and sound art, and made into a radio piece aimed at a national listenership through ABC Radio National. The edges of the stories told were left pointed, and the politics in the events recounted were allowed to be antagonistic and hard to hear. By using artistic methods for the Environmental Humanities and Geography to communicate experiences of global environmental change, it became possible for us to reframe data and facts, to reveal hidden narratives and forgotten realities and to invite different kinds of responses to these. At a time when humanities and science disciplines are looking for novel ways to engage audiences with the enormities of climate change, experimenting with artistic mediums and strategies might offer some ways to build different relationships to environmental and political events, and to those that struggle to maintain existence through them.

And then the sea came back was first aired live on 2nd December 2016. It is available for streaming and download here.

 Anja Kanngieser is a UOW Vice Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow with AUSCCER. You can read about her research here and follow her on twitter @geotransversals

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