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Recreating the Sounds of Antarctica

With dripping, creaking, flowing, artist Katie Wood and scientist Grant Macdonald build an uncanny aural simulacrum of a melting continent.

Grant Macdonald and Katie Wood (photo by Joe Sterbenc, all photos courtesy Katie Wood)

Antarctica is in a unique position with regard to climate change. Uninhabited for most of history, the continent is now home to just a few thousand people (mostly researchers and associated staff), making for an immense space with little human activity. But the interconnectedness of the planet’s climate means that global warming can now be readily identified there, often through the dramatic impact on its wildlife. Earlier this year, studies confirmed that ice in East Antarctica — the coldest place on the planet — is melting. Making that distant reality perceptible to people living across the rest of the globe presents significant obstacles. But dripping, creaking, flowing, an art project by Katie Wood and Grant Macdonald, wants to surmount these barriers through our subjective relationship with sound. 

The project follows Macdonald’s research trips to Antarctica, and attempts to reconstruct his experiences at the bottom of the world via audio and photography. The two hope to make evident the continent’s transformation in ways that might not be easily communicated via scientific data and reporting. “We were interested in coming up with a project that would help us bridge across disciplines, with the shared concern of giving people a way to connect emotionally to the changing landscape in Antarctica, because it is so remote,” says Wood, currently an artist in residence at Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. While pursuing an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, they reached out to Macdonald, a glaciologist and PhD candidate in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. Through support from an Arts, Science + Culture Initiative Grant, the two developed dripping, creaking, flowing.

Wood sourcing sound at Indiana Dunes National Park

Rather than document the sounds of Antarctica through field recordings from Macdonald’s travels, Wood and Macdonald worked to recreate the sounds using foley techniques (as is often done in audio for film, a topic Wood taught while a graduate student). The machinery heard at an airstrip, for example, is sourced and edited from recordings made at a construction site in Chicago. In a studio, Wood and Macdonald stomped on granulated sugar to mimic the crunching of boots on snow. These recordings are then placed on an interactive digital map of the areas of Antarctica MacDonald has traveled to. The result blurs the boundaries between documentation and recollection. Wood believes the project “focuses on how sound is filtered through memory and emotion,” and that it reflects “the human-made quality of ‘natural’ environments in [an] era … when all places have been touched by human economic and social systems.”

The effect is uncanny. Despite knowing that the sounds are recreations based on interpretations, it can still feel as though you’re hearing live recordings made at some of the most remote places on the planet. There is an immediacy and immersive character to the tracks. By squaring audience expectations against these remembered and recreated sounds, Wood and Macdonald want to encourage conversations about what changes human activity has already made, and what can still be done. The map of Antarctica they use is not static, but instead a series of satellite photos from recent years laid out on a timeline. Wood and Macdonald wanted to present the landscape “as a process that unfolds over time, rather than an object that is just sort of fixed.”

Sourcing sound at Indiana Dunes National Park

Wood says that “I think that’s specific to working in a time-based media” like sound. “Sort of the same way, with a sculpture, you might acknowledge that it’s in a particular place … There’s an acknowledgement that has to occur, a responsibility to that time and towards the possibility of potential energy that might unfold in a certain way in the future, or maintaining an inertia that is inherited from the past.”

Wood believes this temporal aspect of the project “opens the window a sliver for hope.” If Antarctica is still changing, then that implies the potential for different routes the future could take. Wood and Macdonald are considering developing their project further, possibly by expanding it into an installation that foregrounds these potentialities. Wood describes early ideas for a space that would allow audiences to walk through and hear reconstructions of Antarctic landscapes at various points in time, including in hypothetical futures in which humans prevent — or further facilitate — the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. They want to shift our focus “from what is communicated to how is it communicated,” according to Wood. “Is there an experience that can stay with people that they’ll take with them and maybe consider later, and could inform their future actions?”

Recording foley sound in studio

dripping, creaking, flowing is an ongoing project.

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