Theresa Baumgartner and field recordist Chris Watson submerge us in the sounds of oceanic noise pollution.
For Seaphony, artist Theresa Baumgartner reunites with David Attenborough field recordist, sound designer and Cabaret Voltaire founder Chris Watson to create an immersive, audiovisual representation of the alien soundscapes of the ocean floor. “Chris was approached by Oceans 21, an NGO trying to raise awareness about noise pollution in the oceans, which is a huge problem that kills sea creatures,” explains Baumgartner. “Ship traffic, oil drilling, military radar are all really stressful for the animals because after about 100 meters down into the ocean there’s complete darkness, hearing is the main form of communication.” During an expedition to record blue whales in the Sea of Cortez in Baja, California, Watson and fellow field recorder Tony Myatt captured a stunning collection of recordings of not only marine life, but the rupture of these natural environments by human hands. Describing earth’s oceans as “the largest and most sonorous habitat on our planet,” Watson stitches together the recordings captured with Myatt into an hour-long audio piece, simulating the sounds of the deep.
This composition will form the sonic backbone of Seaphony, an installation that will feature three-dimensional ambisonics, courtesy of Tony Myatt, as well as lighting and sculpture from Baumgartner. “The visual effects that we see in the teaser is just a zoom-in on custom light fixtures that I built, which are four-meter-high columns with an LED core,” she describes. “They create this really beautiful, ice melting, glacier effect. I’ll have eight of them in the room and then the whole room will be covered with mirror foil. I wanted to try and disturb the sense of space as much as possible by having a mirror floor, you don’t really know when the room ends and where it starts. The dimensions create this ocean vastness.” Condensed into a single channel, Seaphony takes on a painterly aspect, translating the light, shade and colour of the ocean viewed underwater into a gently warping picture that gestures as much towards Watson and Myatt’s field work as it does Baumgartner’s own background in painting.
In both iterations, Seaphony serves as both an aesthetic experience and a sobering warning of the ill health of the earth’s oceans, or as Baumgartner describes it, “one more thing to add to the list of the many ways in which the planet is dying.” Oceans 21 funds a number of commissions and projects that raise awareness of how industrialization and the incomprehensible scale of the planet’s supply chains are affecting the oceans. “Sound travels very differently and for a long time underwater,” continues Baumgartner. “It stresses oceanic life out and they get disoriented. It’s one of the major reasons why schools of dolphins end up on shores, they get into the wrong stream and then they lose track and they all die.” Though troubling in it’s own right, it isn’t so much the complex relationship between man and nature that insenses the artist, but rather ignorance and complacency.
“This is something that is quite easily fixed,” she emphasises. “You can build noise barrier walls that would make the ocean way quieter. You could put noise fences around oil platforms or have seaways where there are a lot of fish and sea mammal populations. There are ways to fix it that wouldn’t be so hard to attain.” Plunging her audience into an audiovisual representation of these conditions is a natural extension of Baumgartner’s democratic approach to her art practice. As opposed to keeping her meaning and message concealed by concept and aesthetic, Baumgartner, Watson and Myatt allow us to experience the issue instinctually, providing us with the space to be submerged in sound.
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