"Electronic_Khipu_," 2019, Patricia Cadavid. Experimental sound instrument, MIDI controller. Photo credit: Joaquin Jimenez.

Atmosphere of Sound: Sonic Art in Times of Climate Disruption

Sep
14
2024
May
31
2025
Ecology and Environmental Justice

Curatorial Perspective on Two Objects

Atmosphere of Sound was born of an interest in sound and vibration as a communicative form that transcends species and extends universally to encompass geographic features such as mountains and seas, minerals, stars, and interstellar bodies. The exhibition draws from Jane Bennett’s concept of “vibrant matter,” through which she proposes that living energy and political agency can be extended to all things through vibration so as to undo “the quarantines of matter and life” and Marcus Boon’s idea of “sonic vibration” as organized through cosmopolitical pluralistic, modal, and topological structures that we define as music: “The organization of sonic vibration that is determinant of subjectivity.” Vibration and resonance can pass between embodied living beings and nonliving objects, manifesting an interconnectivity that is typically theorized as characterizing the digital space but underexplored as an approach to the life world. Scientific evidence supports the idea that this interconnectivity is not only metaphysical but also physically and materially evident.

As humans seek to understand our planetary responsibilities in the face of climate disruption, this exhibition proposes sound and vibration as a way of thinking and feeling our way through the world. In doing so, we honor Indigenous ways of being in harmony with the land and co-species. We practice cellular, energetic listening in the traditions of our ancestors, Indigenous and non-western metaphysical practices, and scientific research directly supported by the Art|Sci Center and realized by collaborators including James Gimzewski (chemistry and nanoscience, UCLA) and Carlo Ventura (biology, University of Bologna) over the past two decades. In this spirit, this exhibition deprivileges sight and intellect— among other hierarchical characteristics of western individualism and humanist notions of sovereignty that we seek to unlearn as artists and scientists committed to positive change.

To open Atmosphere of Sound is Bill Fontana’s sound sculpture Silent Echoes: Notre Dame and the Dachstein Glacier (2022–current), to be installed at UCLA’s Royce Hall. This work originates with the live sounds of Paris’s Ile de la Cite as heard through the inactive South tower bell of Notre Dame Cathedral. Known as Emmanuel, the bell was placed in 1686. It has not rung since a devastating fire in April 2019 destroyed much of the cathedral’s roof, however microphones resting on the surface of the bell transmit a resonant stillness infused with the active sounds of the Parisian street. The metal surface of the bell is a conductor for the many sounds of the world outside, collected and amplified within an ideal listening shape that contains rather than refracts the sound since it has no right angles to scatter acoustic reflections. Of late, the tower bells have begun to be rung on occasion, in advance of the scheduled reopening of Notre Dame in December 2024. A separate feed transmits the sounds of the ringing bells as recorded spatially throughout the center of the city of Paris.

In the fall of 2024 as our exhibition begins, Fontana has arranged to bring a live feed of the bells’ “secret ringing” with occasional punctuation when the bells do ring aloud, to the site of the Dachstein glacier outside Linz, Austria in 2024–the fifth anniversary of the fire–so that both the man-made and naturally occurring “cathedrals” can resonate within the glacier caves which are natural formations made more extreme by human-induced climate change. In the glacier, climate change manifests not as flame but as water steadily melting within the ice caves. The melting ice makes a sound produced deep inside the glacier that is the direct result of global warming, a sound that fills a space mostly silent for millions of years. The heat of the fire and the heat of the atmosphere both threaten our way of life. The bells reflect the sound of human activity while the glacier drips away, making the urgency of climate change tangible and audible.

In concert with Fontana’s work will be placed Patricia Cadavid’s performative sculpture, Electronic_Khipu_, which derives from the form of the Incan quipu–a string assemblage used for computational and indexical purposes, akin to a simple computer. Indigenous Incans invented this technology prior to first contact with Spanish conquistadors, at which time the quipu was in widespread use throughout Peru and adjoining areas of contemporary Ecuador and Chile. Cadavid, who was born in Colombia and lives in Spain, has adapted early modern Incan technology to contemporary synthesizer music. Basing the form of her synthesizers and audio processors on technologies that predate, and were lost by, western conquest is a way to create new Indigenous forms of art while critiquing the colonial presumption that Indigenous Americans were uncivilized, pre-modern, or otherwise underdeveloped prior to Spanish rule.

The Electronic_Khipu_ combines simple technologies from the string form of the quipu and an analog synthesizer that operates as a series of gates either opened or closed by connection to a TS instrument cable typically used for patching instruments to amplifiers or pedals. Cadavid manipulates the sounds of the synthesizer by touching, twisting, and knotting the cables in a manner derived from the knotting of the quipu. In transposing these ancestral knotting motions into present technologies, Cadavid sonifies an alternative, indigenous future in which greater harmony exists between humans and their inherited cultures.

Fontana’s and Cadavid’s pieces together map the potential of sonic art to integrate humans with their environments. Viewers listen with their bodies, insofar as the molecular movements emanating from the brass of the Notre Dame bells and the strings of the Electronic_Khipu_ are carried through the atmosphere to vibrate cochlear hairs within the ears of exhibition visitors, and transform the electrical fields that emanate from actively engaged listeners. Through such ‘rewiring’ of perception, which we call cellular, energetic listening and which expands beyond visual stimulus to involve the body as a resonator, visitors are deeply attuned to environmental conditions.

Exhibition page.

UCLA Art|Sci Center presented at CAP UCLA

570 Westwood Plaza, , Los Angeles

TBC

For group tours:gtolson2@g.ucla.edu
"Silent Echoes: Notre Dame and the Dachstein Glacier," 2022-ongoing, Bill Fontana. Live, multi-channel sound installation with accelerometers and hydrophones. Photo credit: Bill Fontana. © Bill Fontana.
"Silent Echoes: Notre Dame and the Dachstein Glacier," 2022-ongoing, Bill Fontana. Live, multi-channel sound installation with accelerometers and hydrophones. Photo credit: Bill Fontana. © Bill Fontana.
"Silent Echoes: Notre Dame and the Dachstein Glacier," 2022-ongoing, Bill Fontana. Live, multi-channel sound installation with accelerometers and hydrophones. Photo credit: Bill Fontana. © Bill Fontana.
"Electronic_Khipu_," 2019, Patricia Cadavid. Experimental sound instrument, MIDI controller. Photo credit: Joaquin Jimenez.
"Electronic_Khipu_," 2019, Patricia Cadavid. Experimental sound instrument, MIDI controller. Photo credit: Joaquin Jimenez.
"Electronic_Khipu_," 2019, Patricia Cadavid. Experimental sound instrument, MIDI controller. Photo credit: Joaquin Jimenez.

Discussion Questions

  • If the scale and complexity of climate change exceeds the limits of human perception, how can artists represent it?
  • What stories are revealed when we understand that climate disruption upsets the balance between people, their communities, and the land?
  • How might we expand our acoustic senses in order to raise our attentiveness to inherited knowledge forms beyond the Western sciences?

Bibliographic References

Pauline Oliveros, “Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory (To Practice Practice).” Accessed May 20, 2024.https://s3.amazonaws.com/arena-attachments/736945/19af465bc3fcf3c8d5249713cd586b28.pdf.
Marcus Boon, The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022.https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-politics-of-vibration
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010. vii.https://www.dukeupress.edu/vibrant-matter