Krystian Woznicki: Your new work “The Matter of the Soul” is a symphony, a video installation and more – all based on a research trip that you took to the North Pole, more specifically to the Canadian areas that are still to some degree populated. Could you first explain what motivated this research trip in the first place?
Kat Austen: The focus of my work is the climate crisis, and I'm interested in the role that empathy plays in how we respond to anthropogenic effects on what we call the environment. I'm particularly interested in how the perception of a boundary between the self and others can be traversed by feeling along with something else. I'd already worked on artistic means of engendering empathy with coral, in a work called "The Coral Empathy Device". For my next endeavor I wanted to extend my method beyond another species to a whole ecosystem. The polar regions are at the forefront of climate crisis effects, and the ephemerality of the icy substance of the Arctic seemed a fitting subject for the work. I was awarded a residency with Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, One Ocean Expeditions and Bonhams, which took me to the Canadian High Arctic to carry out my research.
KW: How long did the research trip take? What geographies did you explore? What was your itinerary? Perhaps you could take us with you on a quick mental journey to the North Pole and share a bit of the atmosphere with us.
KA: I was away for two weeks, and we were exploring the Nunavut region of Canada. We flew into Iqualuit on Baffin Island, and from there we boarded the Akademik Sergei Vavilov to sail around the island and beyond. For a few days we were becalmed, unable to put into shore because of severe fog and sea ice. We were surrounded by monochrome monotony, floating in a grey world surrounded by water: beneath and above and around us. The only flashes of color were the red blood streaked across floating ice, traces of a kill. It felt as though we were traveling through a portal into another world of meaning, and when we emerged we had arrived in a land where water and ice meant something else.
The icebergs that had accompanied us on our journey now took on new meaning as sentinels waiting outside of time for the rest of the ice to return. They existed outside the human scale, floating without reflection in a satin seascape that mirrored light and land and sky. Within that ethereal landscape, humanity has roots. There are bustling villages and towns where old and new technologies and ways of life meld together, archeological sites, and the haunting site of Beechy Island that forms a memorial to explorers from the South who were bested by the conditions they met in the Northwest Passage. Finally, we ended up on the island of Resolute, where we were stranded due to the weather. There, strolling over a rocky landscape with tiny plants sheltering against brown pebbles, I met a weathered French sailor who was about to attempt to sail this same passage in a wooden-hulled ship, before the ice closed in. His blue eyes held the far reaches of the ocean. I don't know if he made it.
KW: What was your research design? What were its cornerstones and goals? And how did you come up with it? What did you want to explore?
KA: An ecosystem is a wide-ranging and complex system. As such, my idea was to focus on one process with which to empathize: the process of dispersal. My aim was to explore – using sound – the melting of ice and its transition to sea water, and to juxtapose this against the changes to culture that happen due to migration and human movement. For the ice melting, I knew that increasing the amount of freshwater – sweet water – in sea water changes the concentration of salt in the water, and its acidity. I knew also that changing the concentration of salt and the acidity changes the behavior of the water molecules within the water or ice: how they vibrate, how they dance.
I was interested in exploring the analogy between the changing behavior of these water molecules when they move from ice to sea water and the changes to an individual person when they move between cultures. Finally, I wanted to create a sound work that would be able to travel around the Internet as a data object that itself could change – be remixed or reused – as it dispersed.
KW: What did you actually do in terms of artistic research? How did you deploy and combine artistic, scientific and technological tools in order to go about finding out what you wanted to find out?
KA: I used a number of methods to explore these questions. I interviewed many of the people I met on my travels – discursive interviews where I posited to them my research and invited a response. I recorded everything. I photographed and videoed when something touched me. I gathered field recordings with hydrophones and microphones, gathered data on the ship's movement and passage, and the coordinates at which everything happened. And I gathered water samples, which I brought back with me and still use today in performances. I also created new instruments by which to play the water, by hacking scientific equipment that measures the properties of acidity and conductivity – a measure of water's saltiness.
I hacked instruments, donated by the teaching laboratory at UCL's Chemistry department, by circuit bending them. That is essentially the process of capturing changes in voltage across the circuit board of a piece of technology. The instruments then generate noise in response to measuring the chemical properties of water, and the recordings reflect the process of this measurement.
KW: I am particularly intrigued about the process of the project: doing artistic research at the edge of the world, gathering data, impressions, meeting people, including indigenous people, etc. How did all of these different sources and materials influence your research process? How did the other-worldliness and eclecticism of the experience push you to new boundaries?
KA: The most significant experience of all during my time in the Arctic was a culmination of touching dispersal, something that emphasized to me not only the sense of loss that accompanies the transition of dispersal, but also the importance of questioning our practice of positioning measurement as the primary mode of knowing the environment. It happened while I was hacking the conductivity meter to make sound, on board ship in my cold studio on the top deck. The conductivity meter was more temperamental than the pH meter, and I had despaired of finding anything that could work as a sonification of the measurement, as the buzzing and whistling noises coming off the board seemed completely uniform.
Finally, I took to holding one of the resistors in my mouth while lifting the probe in and out of the sample for every pin, swapping resistors with different resistances in and out. I discovered just one pin that varied its sonic output – and it did so by pulsing the volume of the sound when counting down from the measured value of conductivity – say for instance 50 – to zero once the probe was removed from the sample. The conductivity meter spoke to me not of what it measures, but of the absence of measurement. This delicate, barely perceptible change in volume as the signal dies is a poignant analogue for the incremental sigh of the dispersing Arctic ice.
KW: What were your encounters with indigenous people like? How and what did you learn about communal practices that go about the planetary challenge of climate change?
KA: I had the opportunity to meet and discuss ice, climate change and migration with many people from many places while I was on my trip. It's clear that living closely with the ice gives rise to a different relationship with it than the kind we have in warmer climates, and the difference in perspective and the sense of “us” and “them” was particularly apparent in visitors to the region compared to people living there. It struck me that this was an imbalance in knowledge. Specifically, it was an imbalance in the knowledge of ways of life other than one's own and it seems to correlate with the cultural legacy of colonialism. Did you know that most early expeditions to the Arctic took with them full dinner services?
KW: How strange!
KA: I found a fascinating metaphor for our present predicament on Beechy Island where the Franklin expedition met their end. The beach there plays host to the crew's tombstones, and to rusting remnants of cans of food. The explorers were stranded there over winter in the 1840s when their ships became icebound. None survived. Subsequent research has shown that lead poisoning contributed to their deaths, and that the source of this lead was either the food brought in tin cans brought from Europe, which were soldered closed with lead solder, or from the ship's water filtration system. Yet indigenous people in the Arctic had knowledge of how to traverse the land, and find sufficient food and water. This knowledge, in the 1800s, was not considered valuable or estimable in comparison to the new technologies being developed in Europe and the US. That there is still a struggle over the validity of knowledges derived outside of a specific, quantitative paradigm: embodied knowledge, traditional knowledge, tacit knowledge – these are all important in our human lived experience, and we neglect them at our peril.
KW: What would you describe as your findings from that research, and how are these findings part of, respectively constitutive for “The Matter of the Soul” as a sound and video piece?
KA: “The Matter of the Soul” relies on multiple channels of experience to convey what I felt and found in the Arctic. Rather than try and fail to describe the findings in words, it's better for people to experience the Symphony, or visit the installation or performance. People who have experienced it have told me that it has affected them in their body, that it has moved them emotionally. I've chosen to use the media of sound, music and installation to convey what I learned precisely because its full emotional weight cannot be conveyed through words alone.
Join the MORE WORLD project!
The BG’s 20th anniversary project MORE WORLD invites you to explore together communal tools for climate change. To this end, the BG has created a special section in the Internet newspaper berlinergazette.de which is open for contributions from all over the world. Moreover, the BG will organize a series of events and a big conference at the end of the year. Further information on that can be found on this website: more-world.berlinergazette.de
About Kat Austen
Kat Austen’s work focuses on interrogating the boundary between what we think of as the self and other(s). She makes artworks, music and workshops that explore this. She is based in Berlin, is a Teaching Fellow in Art and Science at University College London and has a PhD in chemistry.
You can find more about Kat Austen's project “The Matter of the Soul” on her websites https://katausten.bandcamp.com and https://katausten.wordpress.com/the-matter-of-the-soul. “The Matter of the Soul” | Symphony is currently on show at Art Laboratory Berlin until 17th March 2019. Kat Austen performs there on 16th March at 9 p.m. More info: http://artlaboratory-berlin.org/home.htm
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