Did you know that penguins are prone to what can be interpreted as existential crises?
This scene is from the documentary Encounters at the end of the world, and is said to be ‘’one of the great existential moments in modern cinema.’’
In the documentary, marine ecologist expert Dr David Ainley explains how every once in a while, he observes penguins who seem ‘disoriented’ and ‘end up in places they shouldn’t be, a long way from the ocean’. As they are filming, one of these penguins seems to be the subject of one of those existential crises, and turns away from the colony, towards the mountains. Dr Ainley explains that bringing him back to the colony would do no good – the penguin would simply resume its course towards the mountains, towards a certain death. No one knows why. This is an extraordinarily poignant portrayal of something that could have multiple interpretations – desolation, loneliness, madness, solitude, the search for a connection to something greater, a test of limits, a call of the wild, perhaps. Can’t we all relate to this penguin at some point in our lives?
On a more pragmatic note, this post is about putting some thoughts on paper on the subject of Sound Design, Process Art and Romanticism, and how these 3 things can potentially interlace and form the basis of a singular artwork, based on the idea of the call of the wild.
Similarly to my entry about Wabi-Sabi, Entropy and Acoustic Ecology, I will expose some underlying ideas and concepts behind all three topics of Sound Design, Process Art, and Romanticism, and point out some of the connections that exist between them and how I believe they can be combined in order to offer a meaningful experience.
The genesis of this post’s idea and ultimately the point I’m trying to make by writing it is the following : I have been observing (or gravitating towards) a tendency to feature a return to nature in artistic works and installations. I wonder if, in a time when the environment has made the headlines more than ever (rightfully so), when we are at a point of no return and when many of us feel quite powerless in the midst of this environmental crisis, I wonder if some works of art may be symptomatic of or demonstrating a return to nature, a call of the wild. I wonder if perhaps when faced with the inevitable and rapidly increasing decay of our natural surroundings, paired with the feelings of both responsibility and helplessness, one might seek to revive this somewhat lost connection with nature, this sense of admiration, respect, and reverence towards it. I wonder also if the will that some of us possess to put ourselves in a position of vulnerability towards nature might be an attempt to restore the power dynamic between us and our environment to something that feels more ‘natural’, where our fate is determined by nature’s clemency (or lack thereof), and not the other way around. I at least tend to find some sense of relief in being outdoors, seeking that sensation of feeling small and insignificant – maybe overlooking such vastness allows me to believe in the illusion of nature’s foreverness for a little while, and maybe that helps to lighten the burden of this planet’s fate on our shoulders, momentarily. It is also paradoxically a reminder of its fragility and the power we hold over it, and the responsibility we have towards its preservation. I can’t be the only one with such thoughts, as there actually exists a word defining this feeling of seeking proximity with nature :
Given this, I am hoping that art, through an emotional experience meant to bring people closer to nature, can contribute to communicate those feelings to a greater audience, and spread environmental awareness.
This brings me to the subject of this post – the connections that exist between Romanticism, Process Art and Sound Design, which inspire me to create something with the intention mentioned above, and hopefully can inspire others just as much.
Let’s start with some thoughts about Romanticism.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – Caspar David Friedrich, 1818
Present in visual arts, music and literature, the movement originated in Europe and reached its peak approximately during the period between 1800 and 1850. It is known to emphasise on emotion and individualism, and praises nature as well as the past (which at this point meant medieval rather than classical). Characterised by a return to nature, it is interesting to note that its existence partly emerged as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and scientific rationalisation of nature.
It seems that historically, a return to nature meant going backwards, and implied a regression, at least in a scientific sense. So in this light, ‘nature’ and ‘progress’ seem intrinsically incompatible. As if the ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘improvements’ had to mean that we as humans need to detach ourselves from our natural roots or origins. And yet, the Romantic movement also shows that when our dissociation from nature becomes greater, we tend to ‘crave’ it back. Indeed Romanticism follows directly and reacts to the Age of Enlightenment, where knowledge, science and progress were put forth. In a similar way, a return to nature today can be interpreted as a reaction to our highly digitalised environment, where our connection to our natural surroundings is minimal, if present at all, and where our interaction with the organic world is often, if not always, accomplished through electronic devices.
My hope is that we can find a way to reunite those concepts of nature and progress, where progress can be found in nature itself, and where nature doesn’t have to embody a symbol of the past, of the rustic and rudimentary, but rather a vision of power and resources which can become our ally in a sustainable and intelligent way.
One of Romanticism’s main aesthetic criteria is that it emphasises intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. It is meant to appeal to the senses and one’s subjectivity, as well as trigger awe while witnessing the sublimity and beauty of nature.
As opposed to a calculated, controlled classical approach, romanticism welcomes spontaneity and the impromptu, whereas passion is what should prevail over rationalism. Rooted in the German Sturm und Drang movement, intuition and emotion are valued as well as individual imagination.
To me, the whole movement seems symptomatic of a thirst for freedom in arts, emerging from a tightly controlled and scripted society. In that line of thoughts, it seems apparent that a ‘call of the wild’ is the reaction to an ‘absence of the wild’. That a ‘return to nature’ implies a prior ‘distance from nature’.
Moving on to Process Art
Autumn Rhythm – Jackson Pollock, 1950
As the name says, Process Art is about the process itself rather than the end product. The process of making, creating, arranging, forming, sorting, defining, etc, is what matters just as much as why. The message is the intention, and is passed through actions rather than finality. It sees art as pure human expression, and in doing so encourages to define the actual doing as the work of art itself. Rather than a deliverable, art is the journey, where inherent motivation and intention are the central focus.
Following that line of thought, my idea of Process Art today (and in the context of raising environmental awareness) involves the audience just as much as the artist. The process exists in the creation just as much as in the reception of the work of art. In other words, the experience of the artwork becomes part of the process as well. The observer becomes a participant, and the work of art cannot be experienced without action or participation from the observer.
Process Art is a creative movement existing in both the US and around Europe during the mid-1960s, and holds its roots from Performance Art, the Dada movement and other significant artists who seemed to give their process as much meaning as their final product, such as the painter Jackson Pollock.
Some of its recurring themes include change and transience, the body, random occurrences, improvisation, as well as the use of non conventional materials and techniques. The idea of a certain ephemeral quality to the materials used was also prevailing.
In a way, Process Art reaches some Wabi-Sabi principles by acknowledging and valuing impermanence, degradation, entropy and decay. The idea that nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, nothing is permanent, and that stillness is an illusion.
William Basinski’s Disintengration Loops are a good example of this thought.
Here my idea of ephemeral doesn’t necessarily involve the artwork itself being temporary, but rather the various states of the artwork. If the artwork is self sustaining, ever evolving, responding to nature’s changes themselves, then any given state of the work is not only ephemeral, but unique and in constant flux, leaving it to the laws of nature to determine its patterns, its order and its chaos, its randomness and its organisation, ever changing, never finished, never really permanent, and always in motion, evolving from or towards something.
Process art and Environmental Art
Some parallels are definitely to be made between Process Art and Environmental Art, while process artists engage the primacy of organic systems, using perishable, insubstantial, and transitory materials. (…) The materials are often left exposed to natural forces: gravity, time, weather, temperature, etc.
In process art, nature itself is praised in a way that goes even a bit further than Romanticism dictates, while its mere symbolisation or representation are often rejected. Hence the idea of using nature itself as canvas, using its forces to sculpt the experience, and where the audience is in direct contact with their environment.
Finally, Sound Design
If you are reading this, you probably don’t need a definition of sound design but here it is in a few words for the sake of clarity.
As the name describes, it is a type of design (which involves creativity, ingenuity and initiative) which has audio for its subject. It is the process of creating, manipulating, acquiring, generating and making sounding elements. It is employed in a variety of disciplines involving media (films, television, theater, live performance etc), as well as exists on its own as a creative practice through sound art. Sound design is indeed such a broad practice that it would be extremely reductive to talk about it only in the context of certain media, as it explores one of the most prominent human senses – audition.
It is my own subjective experience that the auditory senses can reach an audience in a deep emotional sense. At least that is what sound does to me, it amplifies a sense of immersion and connection to the work (regardless of the nature of the work and type of media), so it is my wish to use sound as raw material to create, and I believed that using sound as well as nature in the context of an art installation can offer a truly meaningful experience, as well as provide means to interpret and translate nature’s forces and manifestations through a more familiar lens.
Some examples of the use of sound and nature in art installations include the following :
Composed by Chris Watson and produced by Iain Pate, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin was realised at Kielder Water & Forest Park in Northumberland on 24, 25 and 26 October 2014.
Audiences were led at twilight on a short walk into the deepest part of the forest. Settling down as darkness fell, participants heard the sounds of two thousand birds arriving in the canopy overhead to begin their conversations. Watson’s composition starts with the calls of distant ravens and concludes with a full raven roost overhead. The work anticipates and celebrates the return of these powerful voices to the forest, making a connection back to Norse mythology.
Deep in the forests right on the edge of Estonia, three gigantic wooden megaphones stand, scattered between dark-barked fir trees.
This is RUUP, designed and built by students from Estonian Academy of Arts, looking for a way to help us all notice and listen to the sounds of the forests. Ruup offers a place to rest your feet, as well as your thoughts. Sit, sleep, think, and listen. Ruup is an open library with just one book – the nature.
The instrument consists of a series of 35 tubes and a large resonating cavity, which is played by the wind and the sea. The organ’s music is eerily reminiscent of the melancholy sound of whale calls.
In summary, some of the themes that can be explored by using such a medium as nature itself, and in line with the idea of the call of the wild as well as some principles extrapolated from Romanticism and Process Art, are the following :
- Time (memory, perception)
- Order vs chaos (or the illusion of them)
- Ideas of scale and significance
- Escape (Romanticism turns to nature, mysticism and other such avenues as means of escape)
- Embracing nature as something beautiful and fortifying
- Individualism (in terms of the subjectivity of the experience, introspection)
- Evolution, transformation, degradation, decay, the ephemeral and entropy (the opposite of stillness)
- A sense of urgency
- Power and the natural forces
- Fragility (of nature, of ourselves)
Hope this was inspiring!