Arctic ice, just outside Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island
Arctic ice, just outside Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island

I’m eager to get out on the ice – I’m so obsessed with this project and I’ve been taking every opportunity to make recordings however I can and to play with my equipment, work on concepts for the form, and interview everyone I can speak to.

I’ve so far had little opportunity to get onto land to interview residents. I recounted in my last post my first day on the island, in Iqaluit. I subsequently had a second trip ashore near Iqaluit where I spoke to an Inuk resident of the island who is training in tourism. This was very interesting because it was a three-way conversation and I could observe how my fellow shipmate – a professor of medicine from California – interacted with the other participant, and could read his underlying preconceptions in the way he asked his questions.

For this residency with Friends of SPRI, One Ocean and Bonhams, I am making recordings not only of the visitors and residents based around Baffin Island, but also of the ocean and ice. My aim is to create a sound and sculptural work, contextualised by video, that engenders empathy for the Arctic region, in much the same way that I endeavoured to do the same for coral with the Coral Empathy Device. As the region is so huge and diverse, I am focussing in on one particular feeling – that of dispersal. The working title for the artwork is The Matter of the Soul.

While the human and cultural perspective of this is captured in these interviews, and will be woven into the sound work, the water-related element will be captured by taking chemical recordings of the ice and water. In this work, solid and liquid water are viewed as cultural artefacts of the coming together of individual water molecules, just as culture emerges from the coming together of individual human beings. Water in ice both has its behaviour shaped by its environment and is party to constructing this environment, just as we human beings are shaped by and construct our culture. When the water moves and leaves its culture behind to venture into the ocean, and to migrate all the way down – into Mexico, I’m told by SPRI researcher Liz Morris – its behaviour and trajectory is changed by the ocean that it has joined and become part of. Just as when we travel – either for tourism or migration – we change and exchange with the cultures we encounter, and within ourselves.

We are becoming pixelated

How to encounter these changes? To do so I am both using and critiquing the measurement process. I brought with me a pH meter and conductivity meter donated to me by Crosby Medley at the Department of Chemistry, UCL. I have a long-term artist residency at UCL’s Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences, and I have been incredibly fortunate to work over many years with the exceptional staff at the university, predominantly those in the Chemistry Department who have supported my madcap ideas with an enthusiasm and interest that spurs me on.

I worked with Monoshop in Berlin to hack the pH meter to make sounds. In a separate post I will expand further on how we did this, with documentation. Suffice it to say that our final route to creating sound from this instrument was to circuit bend the digital display. The resulting sound is reminiscent of 1980s video games, and captures the jumps in measurement shown on the screen as the pH meter equilibrates around the final measurement of the water samples’ pH. This method of capturing  the act of measurement – offset, abstracted, non-representational – intentionally shines a light on the process of measurement itself, and its place in our action with respect to climate change.

The central question for my work is: when we know so much about human effects on climate and the environment, what else do we need to know before we make material changes to our lives to ameliorate these effects? This work, like the Coral Empathy Device, will be exploring how to convey felt and sensual knowledges about a non-human agent in an attempt to engender embodied and emotional knowledge.

The sounds I’m recording with the pH meter are unique. I can already see the shape of the work forming in front of me. I have recordings of the ship’s motion – my favourite is from when we hit choppy seas in the middle of the night and I awoke, put the recorder on, and fell back asleep for 10 minutes. I shall definitely be able to use this in the sound work as an envelope for the piece. The next step is to sonify the output of the conductivity meter, which I am working on between interviews as the ship races towards the Arctic Circle, which we should cross within the next few hours.

I wish I could share images of what I’m seeing – sometimes a formless, foggy grey sitting above the blackest sea I’ve ever seen, and sometimes a sluggish water dotted with waiting icebergs, blue and white – sometimes with a dash of blood red – which stretch on as far as the eye can see. As yet, all we’ve seen are birds, and ice ice ice – which suits me just fine. I wanted this isolation, these far, uninterrupted horizons. It’s bringing me peace and an expanse of senses and mind. I feel like I’m able to touch this place.

Communication and culture || Arctic Notes 3

The process of hacking the conductivity meter has been an emotional journey, immersed as I am in this Arctic expanse. We have spent days sailing in the open water, with barely a break in the horizon except the occasional vibrating expectant mass of icebergs.

The studio, deck 7, Akademik Sergei Vavilov

Here on the ship I am ensconced in my 7th deck studio, myself and my hot water bottle wrapped up against the cold in the few clothes I had room for in my suitcase amongst the tools and materials I’ve needed for the residency. Happily, sacrificing clothing for equipment has paid off – I have used almost everything I brought and have finally succeeded in sonifying the output of the conductivity meter.

The meter measures the electrical conductivity of my water samples, by passing a small current through the water and detecting what reaches the other side of the probe. I tried to read the change in voltage through the recording ports on the back of the Jenway 4010, but as with the pH meter I had no success. In the end I resorted once again to circuit bending; a new technique for me, which I learned from Simon Schäfer at Monoshop, Berlin, when hacking the pH meter.

Running an open studio on board, I spent the day yesterday variously demonstrating circuit bending to interested shipmates, swapping in and out different resistors and probing the soundscape of each little dab of solder and pin on the conductivity meters’ board. The conductivity meter was a more temperamental beast than the pH meter, and half way through the day I despaired of finding anything that could work as a sonification of the measurement, as the buzzing and whistling noises coming off the board seemed completely uniform. Finally, I took to holding one of the resistors in my mouth while lifting the probe in and out of the sample for every pin, swapping resistors with different resistances in and out. I discovered just one pin that varied its sonic output – and it did so by pulsing the volume of the sound when counting down from the measured value of conductivity – say for instance 50 – to zero once the probe was removed from the sample.

And so here I am, with a sonified conductivity meter that speaks to me not of what it measures, but of the absence of measurement. This delicate, barely perceptible change in volume as the signal dies is a moving analogue for the incremental sigh of the dispersing Arctic ices.