Jana Winderen – Uncovering the Hidden Sounds of the Environment

Jana Winderen – Uncovering the Hidden Sounds of the Environment

November 29, 202014-18 min read

Written by:

Andrew Choate

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Jana Winderen’s sonic artworks are deeply representative of the contemporary moment. Her practice focuses on recording and sharing difficult-to-access audio environments. These are often water-based, like the cracking ice of melting glaciers, the sounds of courting fish, and the growth of algae in response to the fluctuating dynamics of arctic seas. Her work reveals distinctively non-human sounds that are pointedly related to human interactions with the environment, like an aural microscope probing the interface between where humanity begins and where it ends.

The idea that our individual and collective actions disturb that boundary floats like an unconscious spectre throughout my experiences with her work. She maintains that her sound-works are not particularly related to climate change. Instead, it is the environment itself, with humans as a part of that ecology, that centers her work.

Winderen grew up in Norway, first in a small flat in the city until she was seven, then further out in the country, with hills, trees, and time. She developed her relationship to the outdoors by spending long stretches alone with the wind, her primary companion a horse. While spending time with her grandfather, she was told about the fish in various bodies of water within close proximity––lakes, seas, and rivers––that she never witnessed; they were already gone. The inspirational vividness of those stories––they literally shaped her career and her life––meld in her work with an imagination driven by empathy, and a scientist’s rigor regarding research and contextualization. She nurtured an instinctive love for creatures and plants – where they thrive, how they grow, and how their ecosystems function as a whole.

Her practice has three primary facets: the designing of sound installations/ exhibitions, the creation of recordings, and the development of performances. Most of her work centers around uncovering hidden sounds in the environment – whether rats scuttling in RATS – Secret Soundscapes of the City or decapods feeding in The Noisiest Guys on the Planet. The sonic end results straddle both the topical and the abstract. You can listen to any of her recordings for a purely musical experience, basking in the abstract glory of audio activity. On the other hand, you can also listen to her recordings as examples of sound demonstrating this or that facet of modern life.

We began communicating after the novel coronavirus pandemic began. I asked her if she was making any recordings during the crisis, and what she was focusing on.

Jana Winderen: I have a lake here, where I am now, at my grandparents’ house, where I grew up: Mjøsa, the largest lake in Norway. My kids are here, my mother is here. I got a 6mm wetsuit and have started to work locally here on the lake. I was supposed to be in the Baltic Sea’s brackish water, so I’m looking at the same issues here. Trying to find the local pike. And to study the development of the blue-green algae over the summer. The situation with this algae is also the main problem in the Baltic sea, with dead zones caused by over-proliferating algae.

I don’t feel the need to record all the time, but I am listening a lot. I’ve learned several new bird sounds. Nesting, mating. New species. To sit and listen and be involved in the listening has been great.

Kids are screaming their heads off when they’re outdoors, a total symptom of this stressed-out environment. The local kids scream so loud. And I tell them – it’s not for me you shouldn’t scream, but for yourselves, because you’ll scare away everything: birds, deer, badgers, foxes, and mice. There’s all sorts of animals nearby. And you won’t be able to hear or see them if you scream.

I open the window early in the mornings and walk outside, listening. I keep thinking “soon the human-made sounds will start – like rush hour, as usual.” But no, it hasn’t happened, so it has been good in that way. Every day some swans fly over, about the same time in the morning, I can hear them coming––from far, far away––and I listen to them disappearing from farther away than I have ever heard before. It is like the space around the farm has become larger. If I close my eyes, it is like a new place. It sounds larger.

I was supposed to be in Helsinki, and in Tulum, Mexico; I was supposed to be out recording, preparing shows…

I have made some recordings locally. During heavy winds on March 16th, under the tree my great-grandfather planted, 110 years ago. This recording became the basis for the release Surge, for the Isolation project by Touch.

What are the future animals you most eagerly anticipate being able to record?

The pike in the lake! They make a grunting sound.

Clip from Late Junction on BBC Radio 3: Anne Hilde Neset with Jana Winderen

Have you imagined the virus in a sonic form?

I haven’t thought about it as a sound. I haven’t really been friends with it.

Actually, before everything was cancelled, I was on my way to go look at things on a nano-scale in Portugal, at this nano-lab. I was going to look into the surface tension of water, on the molecular level. What happens when the insects bring air with them underwater, and how this is acoustically changing their experience. I am interested in the small, small, small worlds that we can use technology to access. Also the really, really large or the really, really deep. But as far as the virus, I haven’t thought about the sound of it.

You trained as a biochemist, and your first medium was sculpture; how did you transition to the sonic arts?

My starting point was when I recorded the Thames while at Goldsmiths. When I played it back, there was more of an absence of sound there. The memory of a sound that had been there. I was only using this sound as one component of a bigger project, but the darkness of this absence stuck with me.

Ten years later I began making interactive installations, but I stopped. I took workshops to learn various pieces of software, like MAX/MSP, but I got bored in the studio. From there I started using piezos and hydrophones. I went out with Chris Watson and we each had a hydrophone to record an ant nest, and from there I realized, “wow, I could use the same kind of thing to record ice!”

Jana Winderen at HeK (House of electronic Arts Basel), 11.06.2019
Jana Winderen at HeK (House of electronic Arts Basel), 11.06.2019

You gravitated back to the water. Your work, on a purely sonic level, has a lot of kinship to electronic music. Are you influenced by electronic music? What’s your relationship to it?

When I was 20 I was listening to Joy Division, and going to concerts constantly. I felt like it was dark all the time. I liked New Wave, Nick Cave. Then about 10 or 20 years later: Russell Haswell, Autechre. It’s more about the space inside of the sound. How to listen. Maryanne Amacher I became aware of later on. For me music is about some sense of the sound that goes past whatever medium or instrument or field recording you work in – it’s about a sense of listening. Regardless of sound sources.

Electronically made sounds are still made by a human. The choices that we make about the sounds that we keep also has to do with our environment. The instruments that we have built resonate with what we like to listen to, that we are deciding to keep, to nurture the existence of that sound: what we like as human beings, the sounds to be inside of. We like to be in an environment like the wind in the trees. We feel safe.

At the moment I’m reading a book called Music and Music Thought in Early India. It describes sound as moving through the body like a river. Indian classical music uses other words to put onto the physicality of the experience of sound. It’s making me more interested in human beings, more than I have been for a long time.

I was in a thunderstorm recently and it made me think about these Indian ideas, and how we perceive the world around us. The size of the audio environment with the thunder rolling over the sky. So uplifting and dramatic and fantastic to listen to. Standing still you have it all playing out around you. A little bit of rain on the leaves, the birds calling, and the bass...

Why are we really not at all in how to listen? Why do we not know all the birds around us in the neighborhood? Why isn’t that the first thing we learn in school? We don’t know our neighbours.

The question of Beauty doesn’t enter into Winderen’s compositional process as much as the need to create coherent listening experiences that utilize the force of storytelling basics: event, context, buildup, dénouement, resolution, etc. She structures the stories that she wants to tell using the placement of her microphones and hydrophones, varying the relationships between foreground and background sounds so as to have multiple angles from which to edit later on.

The story is created by where the microphones are placed. How far from the source of the sound. Their placement. The people, the cold, the heat, the fatigue – all of those inform my relationship to the sounds, but I’ve never tried to recreate what I hear. I’m not trying to recreate my experience, even in an installation. Just trying to give the feel. To trigger interest and curiosity, the most important thing for me is to hope that I can trigger interest in the underwater environment. Next time you’re on a boat, after you’ve heard my recording of a boat engine, maybe you will think about the other creatures that live under water and also need to be able to hear each other - how necessary that is. And maybe project about how hard it must be for other animals on this planet to be unable to hear each other because of all the sound produced by human activities and industries.

You have said that one reason you do what you do is so your audience "can hear the stress factors we are putting onto the planet." How would you characterize how those stress factors are expressed sonically?

Man-made sound in the ocean is everywhere I have been, from the tropic oceans of Thailand, to the Caribbean, to the Norwegian Sea, to Panama. You have to find small, small windows––when most people sleep––to record, to try to avoid the man-made sounds.

Sound is one of the many stress factors imposed by people. The warming water, acidification, chemicals, heavy metals, dredging, oil pollution – it is endless; I could make a huge list of all the stress factors that are man-made.

Sound made by us can be turned off, then it is gone. It is actually possible to make restrictions, to avoid the feeding areas of whales, to avoid the spawning grounds of cod. It is possible to eradicate sound pollution: once we don’t make sound, it is gone.

What are the sonic characteristics of healthy environments?

How do you define a healthy environment? I’ve been at coral reefs that are dying, that look dead, that aren’t growing back. So they were a formerly healthy environment. But, compared to what it was? Not so much. Would a more diverse area be said to be more healthy? Where there is a good mix, a good balance, where creatures are living together in some kind of balance?

Over time, what determines if something is healthy? If you have a pollutant that comes in and kills things, there will be less sound. That kind of quiet is deathly, not healthy. But in some places a healthy environment would be even more quiet. Different kinds of silences mean different things.

In many really healthy environments, they are more noisy. But it depends what kind of noise. Sound masked by pumps, military testing, piling, drilling – all that is noisy, but not the noise of diverse biology. An unhealthy environment, underwater, can also be very quiet. The total absence of bird sounds for example. On the south coast of Norway, where I’m so used to lots of birds – when I don’t hear birds, it feels eerie, gross. The relationship between sound and health is very diverse depending on the nature of the sound and the nature of the environment.

Edward Burtynsky’s photos document the human impact on nature, often with luridly gorgeous imagery involving environmental pollution. Have you ever found significantly polluted environments where the sounds are beautiful and interesting?

The low rumble from a factory. It can be fascinating. The rhythms, the pulses – these can be a beautiful sound. We like to look at ruins. Derelict, big, open, half run-down spaces. We are fascinated by the tearing down of a building. It can be quite beautiful, though not necessarily healthy. It’s difficult. Humans are part of the ecosystem.

They recently told me that I need to cut a tree down on my farm because it sheds a lot of leaves and branches onto the roof, so the roof will be destroyed quicker. I thought – why are we not building with the idea that the tree is going to be there? We have to build our houses with the tree and not against it. And not “if it becomes too much trouble, we will cut it down.”

Presentation of Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone for 6 + 2 channels at Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College, California.
Presentation of Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone for 6 + 2 channels at Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College, California.

How can we keep our unconscious healthy?

I think that people genuinely don’t want to hurt their environment and the creatures around them. I don’t think we are made like that. I think if we knew more about what was around us, ecologically, and we got knowledge about our environment and our history and each other, I believe we would regain empathy for things in the environment. If we knew about them, we would have the empathy.

The thrust of your work is that many environments are changing so fast that they are becoming completely annulled. Some of your work, in fact, is actively documenting ongoing, contentious politicized areas, Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, for example. In an ideal world, people would hear your work, politicians would wake up, and governments would act in concert to build coalitions to stop irreversible environmental degradation, even at the risk of slowing the growth of profitable industries. Do you concern yourself with the impact of your work on decision-making entities that are related to the various places you’ve recorded?

I try to follow what happens afterwards. But I want to ask politicians: are you aware of the consequences of your decision right now? The sequence is usually like this: the politicians say “now we have listened to the scientists, now we will go off and talk politics and listen to the economists, etc.” The environment and science is just one voice to be weighed against other voices. But we cannot NOT listen fully to the scientists now. Economic thinking has failed us.

When they say, “We need to drill for oil so we can afford the green shift,” it’s like “We don’t have time for that!” The whole value system needs to change. The economy needs to change. If they say it costs too much money – what is too much money? If you destroy something and you can’t get it back, why does the money matter? We need to think of value in a very different way.

I don’t necessarily evaluate what I’ve done, if it has an effect. That’s not my job. We need to repeat, repeat, repeat things - until people get it, and that’s what I’m doing with my work. Drastic changes need to be done. I think people have had it.

About the Author

Andrew Choate

Andrew Choate is the author of author of several books including "Stingray Clapping" and "Learning". He is the curator of The Unwrinkled Ear concert series in Los Angeles and "the world's foremost bollard photographer", according to Slate.

@Unwrinkled_Ear andrewchoate.us
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