Æ må fortæll dæ nåkka1
Jagged cliffs plummet into the fjords, a lush oil colored whale tale contrasts against the watercolor spread of the midnight sun; recalling the colorful illustrations of a mythological world, it's difficult to believe that the postcard perfect images are depicting something real. The striking nature-romantic imagery of the Lofoten islands dominates its representation to a distant world. Bodies are enveloped and humbled by the grandiose presence of nature in the way that Romantic landscape painting miniaturized mankind in its declaration of nature and the imaginary as superior to a rational human existence.
In its vain efforts to capture the visual experience, the imagery inevitably falls short in presenting a feeling of life. The surreal beauty remains as distant and intangible as an idea; it is unable to penetrate the body as a real experience. In a time when the eye dominates the ear in sensory perception, the relevancy of the sonic - sound as information, sound as both an enhancer of the imaginary and a grounding of sensory experience - is often taken for granted. When we share the gaze of the sunset contrasted body, diminutive and lost on a protruding cliff edge, we know what Lofoten looks like, but what does it sound like?
With Sounds Like Vågan , Siri Austeen seeks to answer this question through her documentation of the sounds of the Vågan municipality in Lofoten. While the overwhelming scenic environment typically treats sound as a complimentary, yet generic soundtrack to the visual experience, Austeen's recordings attempt to hone in close to the specific and everyday workings of the life that inhabits the landscape. What we hear is a complex conversation between man and nature. These are the sounds created by those who experience the day-to-day; the sounds familiar, the sounds hidden, the sounds ignored - the sounds of the living environment. These sounds assure us that yes, this place is absolutely real and has stories to tell.
Field recordings often find their way into the art world through entertaining attempts to foster a realistic or exaggerated sonic experience through dynamic surround systems and composed soundscapes. Given the saturated spectacles the eye is accustomed to encountering, and the seemingly instantaneous capturing of visual experiences in contrast to the time-based nature of the sonic, sound seems to have a lot to compete with. Austeen abandons the temptations to construct an artificial 'real world' or constructed composition with her captured sounds. Her presentation is quiet, and seeks to maintain a sense of intimacy, emphasizing isolated moments in time. A cd player holds user-selectable sound samples to be heard through earphones at will. This sonic archive is augmented by a video which presents juxtapositions of sound and image which serve towards contextualizing the extracted sounds and further contemplating the sound/image relationships. Fit for a library research kiosk, her approach may seem more documentary and archival than artistic. However, with greater frequency, artists have been freely negotiating between disciplines, incorporating modes and methodologies from other disciplinary areas and positioning their hybrid manifestations in art exhibition contexts. These contexts maintain an advantage of assembling a public who expects to encounter catalysts that prompt contemplation on many levels at once. It is a context that seeks to present the questions as subjective experiences, rather than neatly packaged answers. While Austeen's approach certainly qualifies itself within the far-reaching grasps of art production today, behind its subtly lies a conceptual wealth that reminds us that there is more than meets the eye.
The project began as what might be described in other contexts, as a 'design objective'. Since the Vågan municipality is visually represented by the image of a skrei , the 'arctic cod' on its crest, what might sonically represent Vågan? This quested comprised the premise for a sound workshop Austeen held for a group of school children in Vågan. Here stated was a 'question', 'goal', or 'objective' that might have otherwise appeared on the 'white board' of a media design firm hired to produce the first official sonic logo for a Norwegian municipality. This question, however, was the exploration ground of an intimate exploration between an artist an the inhabitants of an environment. Austeen believed that the question was an interesting challenge to further investigate, conclude, and offer to Vågan in the form of a 'sonic mark'. She suggested the idea to the municipality's cultural committee who officially accepted and supported its realization. The task would also provide the framework for a socio-cultural exploration that might release the familiar imagery from fantasy and ground perceptions in the everyday. In this, the sensibility of the artist took hold as she initiated an investigation of the relationship between the sound and the image, a conceptual premise that Austeen builds upon throughout much of her work.
For many of the children in Austeen's workshop, Vågan would best be described by 'the sound of cod'. Cod is the imaged on the Vågan crest, it's fundamentally important to the living economy of Vågan, so it makes immediate sense. Perhaps, the sound of cutting out their tongues", specified one child. Cod tongue-cutting has a high status with Lofoten youth and is well paid. It should be "the sound of shock" said another, because shock is what everyone experiences when they see how beautiful it is. "Silence," reported another, because the weather is so loud...
Inspired by the children's sonic perspectives, Austeen decided to listen for herself.
Feet crunch through the shell-sand during a stroll along the shore; a lone mountain bird chirps a cricket-like call; a radio compliments conversations during the packing of whalemeat... Sounds Like Vågan's objective list of sounds confront the generic assumptions of 'nature sounds' with the specific utterances of Vågan's living societies. Revealed are the harmonies and tensions of the co-habiting local life economies. The sounds included in Austeen's archive intertwine the romantic and the real.
During a visit to a Heron nesting ground, Austeen recalled having to press herself through a thick growth of fir trees to locate the source of their immense sound. Finding herself at last in a clearing, she was surrounded by a surprising and intimidating number of the large birds and a thick carpet of feathers and broken eggs underneath her feet. Listening to the recording, we might think them disturbed by her presence and to be threatening defense, but Austeen felt no danger. The Herons knew they were in control of the situation; she was in their world. Other sounds voice an intersection of worlds. The rhythmic moan-songs of the wooing male cod during the mating season surprises the ear and symbolically marks one of the complex intersection points between Vågan's living beings. This is a sound usually unheard by the tourist or even the local inhabitants of Vågan, but it is a sound that signals the continuation of life for the cod, and the continuation of a life's economy for the people of Vågan who have depended upon cod fishing so heavily for generations. Sonically, it symbolizes sustenance, and practically, it whispers of a pathway for sonic manipulation; the use of sound as an alternative and selective method of fishing is currently an active area of scientific research and of keen interest to the fishing industry. Yet intense and disturbing sounds have are also known to disorient and literally frighten the fish and other sea animals to their death.
The mountain creek bubbles, the café crowds babble... The dock flies swarmed as Austeen left the otherworld of the Heron nesting ground to stand on the pier, in the 'real world', where enormous slabs of whale meat were being hung from cranes for inspection. The fishing of whale meat is illegal in Norway, but there is a quota allowed for research. What is not used scientifically, is allowed to be sold on the market. As whales are endangered species, and many are rendered deaf and inadvertently beached by the sound pollution emitted by sea-faring vessels - an rapidly increasing problem - whale songs and whale discussions are filled with a conflict of emotions. It's a melancholy tune that many don't want to hear, yet amidst the silencing, Austeen show us that for those directly involved, opinions sit on the tip of the tongue.
Austeen describes the Vågan folk as speaking directly; the words and ideas are very grounded and present. Listening to some of the recordings in speech, I noticed an interesting tonal and rhythm quality that was quite different from, for example, the sonic qualities of a typical Oslo way of speaking. How, I wondered, would one describe the sound of the spoken language? Outside of syntactical differences that differentiate between Norwegian dialects, what are the sonic tonal and rhythmic patterns that might be unique to the Vågan local? The listener doesn't have to be a native Norwegian speaker to recognize or even delight in the musical rise and falling over of sounds over words which seem to sing through sentences. Of course, this is somewhat of a subjective aesthetic assessment that changes with the perceiver, and only a subtle undercurrent in Austeen's presentation, but an area of discovery and play that may, perhaps, find its way into future manifestations of the project given previous projects.
Austeen's 1999 co-production with José Ortiz, Silbo de Gomera , featured the documentary narration and recordings of the Canary Island melodic whistling language, 'Silbo de Gomera'. This form of long-distance communication was at one time, a necessity for the people living between the mountains and the valleys to be able to communicate without having to traverse the terrain. A sound complimentary to the sounds and acoustics of the natural environment, its unbelievable abstraction seems to the ear as a mimicry of a bird song, but there within, lies a language communicable amongst human beings. When the spoken word is stripped to its essential forms of tone, rhythm, duration, and stress, the inherent musicality of speech is revealed. With today's ease of transport and communication, the language risks extinction. In installation, Austeen played the recordings through windows overlooking a highway that emerged from a mountainous Norwegian landscape.
As the fender groans and the meat hooks clang, gulls cry and laugh into the splashing of waves while locals discus the wind. Life is sounding on land and under the sea in rhythmic timbers that dynamically compose life's experience through an ear onto Vågan. "Kom nu, kom nu, kom hit," one child described the voice of Vågan, "ae må fortæll dæ nåkka... stæmmen går over I måselyd." 2
Oslo, September 2008
1. Roughly translated as "I must tell you something", the title of this text is quoted from one of the children in Austten's sound workshop who sought to quote the voice of Vågan itself. The phrase is in a dialect of the region and brings to mind the unique sonic qualities of the language as spoken in Vågan.
2. " ' Come now, come now, come here, I must tell you something' "...the voice transitions into the sound of seagulls."