MIAMI BEACH — Sound artist Jana Winderen lives today on the same farm in Norway that she grew up on. She vividly remembers becoming aware of the consequences of environmental destruction at seven years old, when the lake near the farm was suffering from a runaway algae bloom. When I met her in a café in Oslo, she talked about the lake as an entity, a living being: “The lake was being strangled; it was very scary for me because it was where we took our cooking water from, and I was frightened that the fish would die, and that this whole huge body of water would be dead.”
At around the same time, she read a book about the ecological problems facing life on earth. “That was in about 1972,” she says. “It covered all the stuff we’re talking about now. Today, the whole planet is in danger. And this is something we have grown up with.”
From a single, intimately known lake in Norway to the whole earth: these extremes of local and global characterize both Winderen’s artwork and its modes of distribution. In her practice, she visits particular places, where she meets local people and researches the area’s ecology and history. The field recordings she makes at these locales capture the noises that constitute the soundscape of a place: the movements of fish, the whisperings of trees, the bubbling of ice, and — inevitably — the distant roar of cars, boats, and planes.
Winderen then composes the sounds in her studio to form narratives and audio collages. Sometimes, her pieces are created for specific gallery settings; in the last year, she has produced immersive installations for the Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition in China, the Thailand Biennial, Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus, and Art Basel. For these pieces, she likes to familiarize herself with the acoustics, temperature, and air quality of the hosting location, talk to local technicians, and get a feel for the architecture of the space.
Other works are intended for digital distribution, via CDs, USB drives, or the radio. These pieces can reach an audience that far outnumbers site-specific works — for instance, a sound piece she created for the BBC World Service was heard by millions of people. As she notes, sound “can reach a lot of people. Sound can be used to communicate over the radio, traveling by itself across the world.” These pieces, she tells me, provide a useful lesson in relinquishing control, as she can’t ultimately manage how people will listen to her work.
Winderen stopped making tangible objects in 1992; she felt she couldn’t justify adding more things to a consumer world. After experimenting with found objects and experiential elements, she began to move toward sound. “I liked making objects and the process of sculpting, making, and drawing,” she explains. “But you can kind of do the same with sound; you can make collages, you build, you take away.”
Moreover, Winderen sees sound as uniquely able to help people connect to the natural world and to raise ecological awareness. In 2011, she won the Golden Nica from Ars Electronica in recognition of her work “Energy Field,” which she created over the course of four years, from 2007 to 2011. The piece is composed of recordings made in Greenland, where she used hydrophones to capture the noises made by water under the ice sheets. She comments, “I believe listening to the melting of the ice moved people; it’s very emotional.” Winderen feels sound affects us more directly than images, and gives us an unexpectedly close sense of connection to nonhuman entities.
While her work focuses on elements of the natural world, Winderen’s sound pieces invariably — and, indeed, inevitably — include noises derived from human activity. “Human-made noises are everywhere,” she states; it’s impossible to escape them. This raises important ecological questions about the impact of human activity on other entities, whether lakes, glaciers, or fish that use sound to navigate their underwater world.
It is this underwater domain that Winderen hopes to evoke in her upcoming installation for Art Basel Miami Beach 2019, The Art of Listening: Under Water, commissioned by Audemars Piguet. The 22-channel work will be installed in the minimalist setting of the Collins Park Rotunda, where it will be open to the public as well as Art Basel attendees. The work is inspired by the local ecology of Miami’s harbor, as well as larger issues of climate breakdown and rising sea levels — which are likely to have a huge impact on the wealthy city in the coming years.
The Art of Listening: Under Water draws listeners’ attention to the richness of submerged sound worlds — and highlights how human activity might affect it. While we don’t usually pay attention to these audible underwater landscapes, Winderen’s piece is a reminder of all the sounds that threaten to drown them out; from seismic testing to industrial shipping, human activity throws these delicate sound systems off balance.
Winderen also wants visitors to think about their own sonic footprint, all the sounds produced by a human life, from a single click on a laptop key to the deafening thrum of a plane engine. As she puts it, “Every movement that we make in one place will have an impact more broadly across the world.” Even hyperlocal actions (the reversing of a single boat in Miami harbor, for instance) have global consequences — and vice versa, as the storm-vulnerable city of Miami should know only too well.
Jana Winderen started her training as a scientist — she spent four years studying biochemistry and fish ecology in Oslo before she switched to fine arts at Goldsmiths in London. Now, she frequently collaborates with scientists as well as technicians and people with local knowledge about an area’s ecology, such as fishermen. “I think this is what we need to do now,” she says, speaking about the current ecological crisis. “We need to bring in all sides and all stories.” We need to raise awareness of nonhuman lives and the impact of human actions on the natural world because, as she rightly states, “we can’t be alone on this planet.”
The Art of Listening: Under Water commissioned by Audemars Piguet is on exhibit at Art Basel Miami Beach (Collins Park Rotunda, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, Florida) December 4-8. For more information, visit https://www.audemarspiguet.com/en/experience/