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Someplaces: Radio Art, Transmission Ecology and Chicago’s Radius

Jeff Kolar with Radius' mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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This week Sounding Out! is proud to present the first post in Radio Art Reflections, a three part series curated by radio artist and senior radio lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University Magz Hall. Focusing on innovative approaches to radio art, the series will bring together three leading practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the U.K.

We begin with a fascinating exploration of “transmission ecologies” in recent works in Chicago, Iceland and elsewhere, written by Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz – one of the most exciting radio artists working today — who discusses how transmission art has shaped her practice.

– Special Editor Neil Verma

From the early avant-garde Futurists to present-day, utopian dreams litter the history of art meeting technology. When it comes to radio and wireless, these often include the dreams that each new technology will conquer space and time; that the overcoming of distance will enable the symbiosis of human with machine and the union of self with other, while the overcoming of time will bring about a simultaneity of experience. For many radio and transmission artists (myself included), our work with so-called “trailing edge” media seeks to critically engage these myths, positing wireless transmissions instead as time-based, site-specific encounters between people and devices over distances small or large, where the materiality of the electro-magnetic spectrum is experienced within a constantly shifting transmission ecology in which we all, people and devices, function.

If one hallmark of radio art is the desire to appropriate broadcasting by rethinking and re-using technologies of transmission and reception in service of crafting new mythologies and futures for the medium. Artists have long questioned the policies and norms established by state and market around radio broadcasting which delimit experimentation and autonomous practices. Bertolt Brecht‘s call in 1932 for radio to exceed its one-to-many broadcast format in favor of a democratized, transceptive (or many-to-many) medium still resonates with contemporary artists and activists alike. What else could radio become, we ask, if not only a disseminator of information and entertainment, acoustic or digital? If radio so far has largely acted as an accomplice in the industrialization of communications, artistic appropriations of radio can destabilize this process with renewed explorations of radio and electromagnetic phenomena, constructions of temporary networks small or large, and radical explorations of broadcast beyond the confines of programming and format norms.

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

Curators, producers and art historians typically describe radio art as the use of radio as an artistic medium, which is to say, art created specifically for the technical and cultural circumstances of broadcast, and which considers these circumstances as artistic material. Today these circumstances have exceeded terrestrial broadcast to include satellite, online, and on-demand forms; similarly radio art has also expanded to include sprawling telematic art exchanges, online podcast series, and unlicensed temporary interventions into the radio dial. As a further reclamation of radio as a medium, many artists pull radio out of the studio to create installations, performance works and public actions which consider not just the act of transmission or the creation of artistic content, but also the material aspects of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and the circuits of people and devices which activate and reveal them.

Japanese media theorist and artist Tetsuo Kogawa describes broadcast radio art as art radio, where art is the content of a transmission. By contrast, radio art involves directly playing with electro-magnetic waves as the artistic medium. Galen Joseph-Hunter of Wave Farm further expands Kogawa’s formulation of radio art with the term transmission art, so as to include audio visual broadcast media and artistic activities across the entire electro-magnetic spectrum, such as work with Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves, or high frequency wireless networks. These definitions of radio and transmission art emphasize that radio is not a container for content, but is defined as relationships between people and things, occurring in the context of the electro-magnetic spectrum within a transmission ecology.

I apply the term transmission ecology in reference to both the symbolic spaces of cultural production such as a radio station, and to the invisible but very material space of dynamic electromagnetic interactions, both of which feature the collaboration between people and things. Transmission ecology asks more than “who owns the airwaves” by questioning the shifting relationships between all actors in the environment, from human to device to localized weather system to nearby star, and thus is not defined by homeostasis but by constant change. These relationships also support a theory of technology where people are not the absolute controllers of things, but where a push and pull of collaboration occurs within complex material and cultural environments.

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009. 

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009.

All activities in the electro-magnetic spectrum form ecologies in relation to one another conceptually, performatively, and materially. Consider the Radia network, an international alliance of independent radio stations who share radio art programming as an alternate transmission ecology within the broader culture of private broadcast radio stations. Another kind of ecology is formed by radio receivers all playing the same station diffused across countless cars and households, as they function in relation to other kinds of wireless devices and electronic systems nearby. Such a muster of receivers can be physically brought together, for instance, in a multi-channel radio installation, to reveal the complex relationships among devices, as each receiver also becomes a sender by electronically effecting its neighbor. A mobile phone receiving wireless internet likewise functions within the instability inherent in the surrounding transmission ecology shaped by all aspects of the built environment, such as the electrical grid and other urban infrastructure, as well as weather or time of day or solar flares. Human bodies and devices alike register the invisible electromagnetic activity that surrounds us as physical, measurable, and affective.

With this in mind consider radio art as occupying “radio space,” a continuous, available, fluctuating area described by the reach of signals within overlapping fields of influence and the space of imagination that invisible territory enables. The extrasensory nature of radio space allows for a productive slippage between real material signals and audible imaginary landscapes. Many radio art and transmission art works specifically draw attention to the transmission ecology in order to question the naturalization of mainstream communications systems, the normalization of practices within those systems, and the pervasiveness of electrical infrastructure, proposing alternate narratives and experiences.

So what is some of this work like? In the past year I have had the pleasure to work with Chicago-based Radius, an experimental radio-based platform which curates monthly episodes broadcast locally using the Audio Relay Unit, an unlicensed autonomous low-watt FM radio transmitter system developed in 2002 by Temporary Services and the Intermod Series. Radius neatly unites radio and transmission art by embracing the production of artistic content for broadcast, sampling existing content for artistic expression, and artistic use of the electro-magnetic spectrum generally. Radius functions as an intermittent exhibition space and as an intervention into the predictable daily grind of the FM dial. Artists compose their pieces specifically for the interference-prone radio space where their work may only be heard in fragments, as the instability and fluctuations of the relatively small Radius signal in relation to the big commercial stations broadcasting from downtown all form the context for experiencing the radio art works. Radius broadcasts one episode per month, on a schedule determined by the artist, with pieces varying in length and repetition, and some following a strict schedule related to cosmic or social timing.

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Photo of my private transmitter + antenna pointing out the window in Seydisfjördur, Iceland

Recently I crafted an episode for Radius while on an artist residency in Seydisfjördur, Iceland. The town was the site of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph link between Europe and Iceland in 1906, which was also the year that Reginald Fessenden first broadcast a human voice over radio from his workshop in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Iceland is remote enough that the electro-magnetic ‘pollution’ from human signal activity is notably absent, and located far enough to the north that in October the light disappears rapidly, so that each day loses eight minutes of daylight. The piece was called Radiotelegraph, a beacon crafted from spoken morse code and sampled signals, then sent from north to south, simulcast on my own low-watt FM transmitter in Seydisfjördur at sundown each day as well as on Radius in Chicago. The transmission marked time passing, beginning earlier each day as it followed the path of the sun. My intention was not to overcome but to experience and recuperate distance through the relation of a remote radio outpost to another minor outpost further south within a metropolis; to hear distance and feel it; to understand that distance, however finite, is a necessary condition for communication and relationship, and that distance is the key ingredient of situated, time-based, spatialized sonic experiences.

Here is the Radius episode featuring Radiotelegraph:

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Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

As part of a recent yearly theme on “Grids” Radius tackled the electro-magnetic field space of the city by inviting four artists to create new works to be performed near power stations. In his piece electrosmog, Canadian artist Kristen Roos utilized a high frequency receiver to sonify signal activity in the 800 MHz – 2.5 GHz range, which includes mobile phones, wireless phones, wifi, and microwaves. His site-specific performance took place overlooking the Fisk Generating Station in Chicago, and included microwave ovens and micro-watt transmission to a sound system made of radio receivers. Thus the work was site-specific to both the transmission ecology of urban Chicago and the field effects of the electrical grid, mixing material signals with a speculative approach as to what the cumulative effects of living in this built environment characterized by centralized power could be. In Roos’ work, radio space contextualized and revealed the real–though naturalized and often invisible–relationships between people, things, and systems, where a microwave oven gestured at both danger and musicality.

Listen to the Roos piece here:

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Kristen Roos' set up for his Grids performance

Kristen Roos’ set up for his Grids performance

These radio art works enact places in radiophonic space, and experiment with transmission to question the status quo of how the airwaves are controlled and used. As radio trickster Gregory Whitehead notes, it is position, not sound, that matters most with regard to radio. Artists remain committed to making radiophonic someplaces, however temporarily constructed, inhabited by interpenetrating and overlapping fields and bodies.

Featured Image: Jeff Kolar with Radius’ mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Used with permission.

Anna Friz is a Canadian sound and radio artist who specializes in multi-channel transmission systems for installation, performance, and broadcast. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from York University, Toronto, and recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has performed and exhibited widely across North America, South America, and Europe, and her radio art/works have been heard on the airwaves of more than 25 countries. She is a steering member of the artist collective Skálar |Sound Art | Experimental Music based in Iceland.

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Sounding Out Podcast #36: Anne Zeitz and David Boureau’s “Retention”

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Sound and Surveilance4

It’s an all too familiar movie trope. A bug hidden in a flower jar. A figure in shadows crouched listening at a door. The tape recording that no one knew existed, revealed at the most decisive of moments. Even the abrupt disconnection of a phone call manages to arouse the suspicion that we are never as alone as we may think. And although surveillance derives its meaning the latin “vigilare” (to watch) and French “sur-“ (over), its deep connotations of listening have all but obliterated that distinction.

In the final entry to our series on Sound and Surveillance, sound artist Anne Zeitz dissects the theory behind her installation Retention. What are the sounds of capture, and how do the sounds produced in and around spaces of capture affect our bodies? Listen in to find out. -AT

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This podcast presents Retention, a quadriphonic sound installation made with David Boureau. It considers the sounds of surveillance, detention and migration. Retention concentrates on the “soundscape” of the Mesnil Amelot 2+3 detention center for illegal immigrants situated to the North of Paris just beside the Charles de Gaulle airport. This center constitutes the largest complex for detaining “illegal immigrants” in France, with 240 places for individuals and families. Approximately 350 airplanes pass closely above the center over a 24 hours time span, creating intervals of very high sound levels that regularly drown out all other ambient sounds. Retention uses quadrophonic recording technology to capture and diffuse a live transmission of communication between pilots and the Charles de Gaulle control tower. The work also integrates recordings from inside the center made by communications via mobile phones. In the short intervals of silence (always implying sounds of some sort), the atmosphere seems suspended. This suspension is paradigmatic for the clash between the local and the global, between those who are trapped in a state of detention before being expulsed by the engines moving over their heads and those who circulate freely (nonetheless under surveillance) in our global society. Retention exhibits a changing sonic space in order to consider how “waiting zones” and processes of mobility meet.

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Featured Image (c) Anne Zeitz and David Boureau, Retention, 2012.

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Anne Zeitz is a researcher and artist working with photography, video, and sound media. Born in Berlin in 1980, she lives and works in Paris. Her research focuses on mechanisms of surveillance and mass media, theories of observation and attention, and practices of counter-observation in contemporary art. Her doctoral thesis (University Paris 8/ Esthétique, Sciences et Technologies des Arts, dissertation defence November 2014) is entitled (Counter-)observations, Relations of Observation and Surveillance in Contemporary Art, Literature and Cinema. Anne Zeitz was responsible for organizing the project Movement-Observation-Control (2007/2008) for the Goethe-Institut Paris and collaborated on the exhibition and conference Armed Response (2008) at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg. She is a former member of the Observatoire des nouveaux médias (Paris 8/Ensad) and of the research project Média Médiums (Université Paris 8, ENSAPC, EnsadLAB, Archives Nationales, 2013/2014). Her most recent research concentrates on the work of the American artist Max Neuhaus with the publication of De Max-Feed a Radio Net (2014), part of the Média Médiums book series. She is the artist of this year’s Urban Photo Fest and participated at the Urban Encounters / Tate Britain in October 2014.

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Erratic Furnaces of Infrasound: Volcano Acoustics

Surface flows as seen by thermal cameras at Pu’u O’o crater, June 27th, 2014. Image: USGS

Hearing the Unheard IIWelcome back to Hearing the UnHeard, Sounding Out‘s series on how the unheard world affects us, which started out with my post on hearing large and small, continued with a piece by China Blue on the sounds of catastrophic impacts, and now continues with the deep sounds of the Earth itself by Earth Scientist Milton Garcés.

Faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and founder of the Earth Infrasound Laboratory in Kona, Hawaii, Milton Garces is an explorer of the infrasonic, sounds so low that they circumvent our ears but can be felt resonating through our bodies as they do through the Earth. Using global networks of specialized detectors, he explores the deepest sounds of our world from the depths of volcanic eruptions to the powerful forces driving tsunamis, to the trails left by meteors through our upper atmosphere. And while the raw power behind such events is overwhelming to those caught in them, his recordings let us appreciate the sense of awe felt by those who dare to immerse themselves.

In this installment of Hearing the UnHeard, Garcés takes us on an acoustic exploration of volcanoes, transforming what would seem a vision of the margins of hell to a near-poetic immersion within our planet.

– Guest Editor Seth Horowitz

The sun rose over the desolate lava landscape, a study of red on black. The night had been rich in aural diversity: pops, jetting, small earthquakes, all intimately felt as we camped just a mile away from the Pu’u O’o crater complex and lava tube system of Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano.

The sound records and infrared images captured over the night revealed a new feature downslope of the main crater. We donned our gas masks, climbed the mountain, and confirmed that indeed a new small vent had grown atop the lava tube, and was radiating throbbing bass sounds. We named our acoustic discovery the Uber vent. But, as most things volcanic, our find was transitory – the vent was eventually molten and recycled into the continuously changing landscape, as ephemeral as the sound that led us there in the first place.

Volcanoes are exceedingly expressive mountains. When quiescent they are pretty and fertile, often coyly cloud-shrouded, sometimes snowcapped. When stirring, they glow, swell and tremble, strongly-scented, exciting, unnerving. And in their full fury, they are a menacing incandescent spectacle. Excess gas pressure in the magma drives all eruptive activity, but that activity varies. Kilauea volcano in Hawaii has primordial, fluid magmas that degass well, so violent explosive activity is not as prominent as in volcanoes that have more evolved, viscous material.

Well-degassed volcanoes pave their slopes with fresh lava, but they seldom kill in violence. In contrast, the more explosive volcanoes demolish everything around them, including themselves; seppuku by fire. Such massive, disruptive eruptions often produce atmospheric sounds known as infrasounds, an extreme basso profondo that can propagate for thousands of kilometers. Infrasounds are usually inaudible, as they reside below the 20 Hz threshold of human hearing and tonality. However, when intense enough, we can perceive infrasound as beats or sensations.

Like a large door slamming, the concussion of a volcanic explosion can be startling and terrifying. It immediately compels us to pay attention, and it’s not something one gets used to. The roaring is also disconcerting, especially if one thinks of a volcano as an erratic furnace with homicidal tendencies. But occasionally, amidst the chaos and cacophony, repeatable sound patterns emerge, suggestive of a modicum of order within the complex volcanic system. These reproducible, recognizable patterns permit the identification of early warning signals, and keep us listening.

Each of us now have technology within close reach to capture and distribute Nature’s silent warning signals, be they from volcanoes, tsunamis, meteors, or rogue nations testing nukes. Infrasounds, long hidden under the myth of silence, will be everywhere revealed.

Cookie Monster

The “Cookie Monster” skylight on the southwest flank of Pu`u `O`o. Photo by J. Kauahikaua 27 September 2002

I first heard these volcanic sounds in the rain forests of Costa Rica. As a graduate student, I was drawn to Arenal Volcano by its infamous reputation as one of the most reliably explosive volcanoes in the Americas. Arenal was cloud-covered and invisible, but its roar was audible and palpable. Here is a tremor (a sustained oscillation of the ground and atmosphere) recorded at Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica with a 1 Hz fundamental and its overtones:

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In that first visit to Arenal, I tried to reconstruct in my minds’ eye what was going on at the vent from the diverse sounds emitted behind the cloud curtain. I thought I could blindly recognize rockfalls, blasts, pulsations, and ground vibrations, until the day the curtain lifted and I could confirm my aural reconstruction closely matched the visual scene. I had imagined a flashing arc from the shock wave as it compressed the steam plume, and by patient and careful observation I could see it, a rapid shimmer slashing through the vapor. The sound of rockfalls matched large glowing boulders bouncing down the volcano’s slope. But there were also some surprises. Some visible eruptions were slow, so I could not hear them above the ambient noise. By comparing my notes to the infrasound records I realized these eruption had left their deep acoustic mark, hidden in plain sight just below aural silence.

Arenal, Costa Rica, May 1, 2010. Image by Flickr user Daniel Vercelli.

Arenal, Costa Rica, May 1, 2010. Image by Flickr user Daniel Vercelli.

I then realized one could chronicle an eruption through its sounds, and recognize different types of activity that could be used for early warning of hazardous eruptions even under poor visibility. At the time, I had only thought of the impact and potential hazard mitigation value to nearby communities. This was in 1992, when there were only a handful of people on Earth who knew or cared about infrasound technology. With the cessation of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1980 and the promise of constant vigilance by satellites, infrasound was deemed redundant and had faded to near obscurity over two decades. Since there was little interest, we had scarce funding, and were easily ignored. The rest of the volcano community considered us a bit eccentric and off the main research streams, but patiently tolerated us. However, discussions with my few colleagues in the US, Italy, France, and Japan were open, spirited, and full of potential. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were about to live through Gandhi’s quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Fast forward 22 years. A computer revolution took place in the mid-90’s. The global infrasound network of the International Monitoring System (IMS) began construction before the turn of the millennium, in its full 24-bit broadband digital glory. Designed by the United Nations’s Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the IMS infrasound detects minute pressure variations produced by clandestine nuclear tests at standoff distances of thousands of kilometers. This new, ultra-sensitive global sensor network and its cyberinfrastructure triggered an Infrasound Renaissance and opened new opportunities in the study and operational use of volcano infrasound.

Suddenly endowed with super sensitive high-resolution systems, fast computing, fresh capital, and the glorious purpose of global monitoring for hazardous explosive events, our community rapidly grew and reconstructed fundamental paradigms early in the century. The mid-naughts brought regional acoustic monitoring networks in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America, and helped validate infrasound as a robust monitoring technology for natural and man-made hazards. By 2010, infrasound was part of the accepted volcano monitoring toolkit. Today, large portions of the IMS infrasound network data, once exclusive, are publicly available (see links at the bottom), and the international infrasound community has grown to the hundreds, with rapid evolution as new generations of scientists joins in.

In order to capture infrasound, a microphone with a low frequency response or a barometer with a high frequency response are needed. The sensor data then needs to be digitized for subsequent analysis. In the pre-millenium era, you’d drop a few thousand dollars to get a single, basic data acquisition system. But, in the very near future, there’ll be an app for that. Once the sound is sampled, it looks much like your typical sound track, except you can’t hear it. A single sensor record is of limited use because it does not have enough information to unambiguously determine the arrival direction of a signal. So we use arrays and networks of sensors, using the time of flight of sound from one sensor to another to recognize the direction and speed of arrival of a signal. Once we associate a signal type to an event, we can start characterizing its signature.

Consider Kilauea Volcano. Although we think of it as one volcano, it actually consists of various crater complexes with a number of sounds. Here is the sound of a collapsing structure

As you might imagine, it is very hard to classify volcanic sounds. They are diverse, and often superposed on other competing sounds (often from wind or the ocean). As with human voices, each vent, volcano, and eruption type can have its own signature. Identifying transportable scaling relationships as well as constructing a clear notation and taxonomy for event identification and characterization remains one of the field’s greatest challenges. A 15-year collection of volcanic signals can be perused here, but here are a few selected examples to illustrate the problem.

First, the only complete acoustic record of the birth of Halemaumau’s vent at Kilauea, 19 March 2008:

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Here is a bench collapse of lava near the shoreline, which usually leads to explosions as hot lava comes in contact with the ocean:

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Here is one of my favorites, from Tungurahua Volcano, Ecuador, recorded by an array near the town of Riobamba 40 km away. Although not as violent as the eruptive activity that followed it later that year, this sped-up record shows the high degree of variability of eruption sounds:

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The infrasound community has had an easier time when it comes to the biggest and meanest eruptions, the kind that can inject ash to cruising altitudes and bring down aircraft. Our Acoustic Surveillance for Hazardous Studies (ASHE) in Ecuador identified the acoustic signature of these type of eruptions. Here is one from Tungurahua:

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Our data center crew was at work when such a signal scrolled through the monitoring screens, arriving first at Riobamba, then at our station near the Colombian border. It was large in amplitude and just kept on going, with super heavy bass – and very recognizable. Such signals resemble jet noise — if a jet was designed by giants with stone tools. These sustained hazardous eruptions radiate infrasound below 0.02 Hz (50 second periods), so deep in pitch that they can propagate for thousands of kilometers to permit robust acoustic detection and early warning of hazardous eruptions.

In collaborations with our colleagues at the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) and the Republic of Palau, infrasound scientists will be turning our attention to early detection of hazardous volcanic eruptions in Southeast Asia. One of the primary obstacles to technology evolution in infrasound has been the exorbitant cost of infrasound sensors and data acquisition systems, sometimes compounded by export restrictions. However, as everyday objects are increasingly vested with sentience under the Internet of Things, this technological barrier is rapidly collapsing. Instead, the questions of the decade are how to receive, organize, and distribute the wealth of information under our perception of sound so as to construct a better informed and safer world.

IRIS Links

http://www.iris.edu/spud/infrasoundevent

http://www.iris.edu/bud_stuff/dmc/bud_monitor.ALL.html, search for IM and UH networks, infrasound channel name BDF

Milton Garcés is an Earth Scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the founder of the Infrasound Laboratory in Kona. He explores deep atmospheric sounds, or infrasounds, which are inaudible but may be palpable. Milton taps into a global sensor network that captures signals from intense volcanic eruptions, meteors, and tsunamis. His studies underscore our global connectedness and enhance our situational awareness of Earth’s dynamics. You are invited to follow him on Twitter @iSoundHunter for updates on things Infrasonic and to get the latest news on the Infrasound App.

Featured image: surface flows as seen by thermal cameras at Pu’u O’o crater, June 27th, 2014. Image: USGS

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Catastrophic Listening — China Blue

Catastrophic Listening

Ames

Hearing the Unheard IIWelcome back to Hearing the UnHeard, Sounding Out‘s series on how the unheard world affects us, which started out with my post on the hearing ranges of animals, and now continues with this exciting piece by China Blue.

From recording the top of the Eiffel Tower to the depths of the rising waters around Venice, from building fields of robotic crickets in Tokyo to lofting 3D printed ears with binaural mics in a weather balloon, China Blue is as much an acoustic explorer as a sound artist.  While she makes her works publicly accessible, shown in museums and galleries around the world, she searches for inspiration in acoustically inaccessible sources, sometimes turning sensory possibilities on their head and sonifying the visual or reformatting sounds to make the inaudible audible.

In this installment of Hearing the UnHeard, China Blue talks about cataclysmic sounds we might not survive hearing and her experiences recording simulated asteroid strikes at NASA’s Ames Vertical Gun Range.

– Guest Editor Seth Horowitz

Fundamentally speaking, sound is the result of something banging into something else. And since everything in the universe, from the slow recombination of chemicals to the hypervelocity impacts of asteroids smashing into planet surfaces, is ultimately the result of things banging into things, the entire universe has a sonic signature. But because of the huge difference in scale of these collisions, some things remain unheard without very specialized equipment. And others, you hope you never hear.

Unheard sounds can be hidden subtly beneath your feet like the microsounds of ants walking, or they can be unexpectedly harmonic like the seismic vibrations of a huge structure like the Eiffel Tower. These are sounds that we can explore safely, using audio editing tools to integrate them into new musical or artistic pieces.

Luckily, our experience with truly primal sounds, such as the explosive shock waves of asteroid impacts that shaped most of our solar system (including the Earth) is rarer. Those who have been near a small example of such an event, such as the residents of Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 were probably less interested in the sonic event and more interested in surviving the experience.

But there remains something seductive about being able to hear sounds such as the cosmic rain of fire and ice that shaped our planet billions of years ago. A few years ago, when I became fascinated with sounds “bigger” than humans normally hear, I was able to record simulations of these impacts in one of the few places on Earth where you can, at NASA Ames Vertical Gun Range.

The artist at the AVGR

The artist at the AVGR

The Vertical Gun at Ames Research Center (AVGR) was designed to conduct scientific studies of lunar impacts. It consists of a 25 foot long gun barrel with a powder chamber at one end and a target chamber, painted bright blue, that looks like the nose of an upended submarine, about 8 feet in diameter and height at the other. The walls of the chamber are of thick steel strong enough to let its interior be pumped down to vacuum levels close to that of outer space, or back-filled with various gases to simulate different planetary atmospheres. Using hydrogen and/or up to half a pound of gun powder, the AVGR can launch projectiles at astonishing speeds of 500 to 7,000 m/s (1,100 to 16,000 mph). By varying the gun’s angle of elevation, projectiles can be shot into the target so that it simulates impacts from overhead or at skimming angles.

In other words, it’s a safe way to create cataclysmic impacts, and then analyze them using million frame-per-second video cameras without leaving the security of Earth.

My husband, Dr. Seth Horowitz who is an auditory neuroscientist and another devotee of sound, is close friends with one of the principal investigators of the Ames Vertical Gun, Professor Peter Schultz. Schultz is well known for his 2005 project to blow a hole in the comet Tempel 1 to analyze its composition, and for his involvement in the LCROSS mission that smashed into the south pole of the moon to look for evidence of water. During one conversation discussing the various analytical techniques they use to understand impacts, I asked, “I wonder what it sounds like.” As sound is the propagation of energy by matter banging into other matter, this seemed like the ultimate opportunity to record a “Big Bang” that wouldn’t actually get you killed by flying meteorite shards. Thankfully, my husband and I were invited to come to Ames to find out.

I had a feeling that the AVGR would produce fascinating new sounds that might provide us with different insights into impacts than the more common visual techniques. Because this was completely new research, we used a number of different microphones that were sensitive to different ranges and types of sound and vibrations to provide us with a selection of recording results. As an artist I found the research to be the dominant part of the work because the processes of capturing and analyzing the sounds were a feat unto themselves. As we prepared for the experiment, I thought about what I could do with these sounds. When I eventually create a work out of them, I anticipate using them in an installation that would trigger impact sounds when people enter the room, but I have not yet mounted this work since I suspect that this would be too frightening for most exhibition spaces to want.

Part of my love (and frustration) for sound work is figuring out how to best capture that fleeting moment in which the sound is just right, when the sound evokes a complex response from its listeners without having to even be explained. The sound of Mach 10 impacts and its effects on the environment had such possibilities. In pursuit of the “just right,” we wired up the gun and chamber with multiple calibrated acoustic and seismic microphones, then fed them into a single high speed multichannel recorder, pressed “record” and made for the “safe” room while the Big Red Button was pressed, launching the first impactor. We recorded throughout the day, changing the chamber’s conditions from vacuum to atmosphere.

Simple impact on the AVGR sand target.

Simple impact on the AVGR sand target.

When we finally got to listen that afternoon, we heard things we never imagined. Initial shots in vacuum were surprisingly dull. The seismic microphones picked up the “thump” of the projectile hitting the sand target and a few pattering sounds as secondary particles struck the surfaces. There were of course no sounds from the boundary or ultrasonic mics due to the lack of air to propagate sound waves. While they were scientifically useful–they demonstrated that we could identify specific impact events launched from the target—they weren’t very acoustically dramatic.

When a little atmosphere was added, however, we began picking up subtle sounds, such as the impact and early spray of particles from the boundary mic and the fact that there was an air leak from the pitch shifted ultrasonic mic. But when the chamber was filled with an earthlike atmosphere and the target dish filled with tiny toothpicks to simulate trees, building the scenario for a tiny Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion of an interstellar object in Russia, the largest in recorded history), the sound was stunning:

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After the initial explosion, there was a sandstorm as the particles of sand from the target flew about at Mach 5 (destroying one of the microphones in the process), and giving us a simulation of a major asteroid explosion.

Tunguskasim

66 million years ago, in a swampy area by the Yucatan Penninsula, something like this probably occurred, when a six mile wide rock burned through the atmosphere to strike the water, ending the 135 million year reign of the dinosaurs. Perhaps it sounded a little like this simulation:

 

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Any living thing that heard this – dinausaurs, birds, frogs insects – is long gone. By thinking about the event through new sounds, however, we can not only create new ways to analyze natural phenomena, but also extend the boundaries of our ability to listen across time and space and imagine what the sound of that impact might have been like, from an infrasonic rumble to a killing concussion.

It would probably terrify any listener to walk in to an art exhibition space filled with simply the sounds of simulated hypervelocity impacts, replete with loud, low frequency sounds and infrasonic vibrations. But there is something to that terror. Such sounds trigger ancient evolutionary pathways which are still with us because they were so good at helping us survive similar events by making us run, putting as much distance between us and the cataclysmic source, something that lingers even in safe reproductions, resynthesized from controlled, captured sources.

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China Blue is a two time NASA/RI Space Grant recipient and an internationally exhibiting artist who was the first person to record the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France and NASA’s Vertical Gun. Her acoustic work has led her to be selected as the US representative at OPEN XI, Venice, Italy and at the Tokyo Experimental Art Festival in Tokyo, Japan, and was the featured artist for the 2006 annual meeting of the Acoustic Society of America. Reviews of her work have been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Art in America, Art Forum, artCritical and NY Arts, to name a few. She has been an invited speaker at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkelee School of Music, Reed College and Brown University. She is the Founder and Executive Director of The Engine Institute www.theengineinstitute.org.

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Featured Image of a high-speed impact recorded by AVGR. Image by P. H. Schultz. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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tape reel

REWIND! If you liked this post, check out …

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