A Different Pitch: Listening to Water Through Contemporary Art in a Time of Extraction

Ruth Beer and Caitlin Chaisson

Abstract: This arti­cle address­es the inter­sec­tions of water, extrac­tion, and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice through a con­sid­er­a­tion of sound in con­tem­po­rary art­works by Ruth Beer, Rebec­ca Bel­more, and Mia Feuer. Qual­i­ties of sound have been tied to envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies and assess­ment for decades, but these artists con­sid­er audio-visu­al and immer­sive sit­u­a­tions that fos­ter the abil­i­ty to lis­ten amidst eco­log­i­cal complexity.

Résumé: Cet arti­cle exam­in­era l’intersection des ques­tions de l’eau, de l’extraction et de la jus­tice envi­ron­nemen­tale à tra­vers l’étude du son dans les créa­tions artis­tiques con­tem­po­raines de Ruth Beer, Rebec­ca Bel­more et Mia. Feuer. Depuis des décen­nies, les qual­ités du son ont été liées aux études et mesures envi­ron­nemen­tales, mais ces artistes s’intéressent à des sit­u­a­tions audio-visuelles et immer­sives qui four­nissent la capac­ité d’écouter dans un con­texte écologique complexe.

Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.OI.10.2.6 | PDF

[E]arth, waters, and cli­mate, the mute world, the voice­less things once placed as a decor sur­round­ing the usu­al spec­ta­cles, all those things that nev­er inter­est­ed any­one, from now on thrust them­selves bru­tal­ly and with­out warn­ing into our schemes and maneuvers.”
- Michel Ser­res, The Nat­ur­al Con­tract (1990)

[C]limate cri­sis is also a cri­sis of cul­ture, and thus of the imagination.”
- Ami­tav Ghosh, The Great Derange­ment (2016)


The debates and dis­course per­tain­ing to resource extrac­tion and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice are increas­ing­ly being framed through water. If we look to the ways that extrac­tion and glob­al warm­ing are cov­ered in main­stream and social medi­as­capes, the tragedies of water feel par­tic­u­lar­ly immi­nent. We hear, for exam­ple, of vul­ner­a­ble water­sheds that face threats of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, pol­lu­tion, and dev­as­ta­tion from extrac­tion process­es, and of count­less com­mu­ni­ties whose access to safe drink­ing water is com­pro­mised by heavy indus­try (Lui). Over six­ty long-term drink­ing water advi­sories still remain in pub­lic sys­tems on Indige­nous reserves, and there exist many more still that are not yet des­ig­nat­ed as long-term, or are out­side the purview of pub­lic sys­tems (on the for­mer, see “End­ing long-term drink­ing water advi­sories”). We also now hear of treach­er­ous and unfor­giv­ing waters. Ris­ing sea lev­els due to car­bon-induced cli­mate heat­ing, and increas­ing­ly fre­quent and severe storms due to warm­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures, which present an encroach­ing and poten­tial­ly indomitable force. Water is a pow­er­ful exam­ple of how envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion exac­er­bates exist­ing social vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and affects human and oth­er-than-human lives with dif­fer­en­tial consequences.

Resis­tances to mega-extrac­tion projects through­out North Amer­i­ca are thus increas­ing­ly advo­cat­ing for the preser­va­tion of inland and coastal water­ways, sig­nal­ing the high­ly per­me­able and porous rela­tion­ship between water and land. In Canada—and across the globe—there has been a remark­able surge in envi­ron­men­tal defend­ers form­ing “Water Pro­tec­tors” or “Water Keep­ers” groups, pri­mar­i­ly led and mobi­lized by Indige­nous peo­ples. These pro­tec­tors posi­tion them­selves on the front­lines of large-scale fos­sil fuel, min­ing, and hydro­elec­tric projects that jeop­ar­dize impor­tant water­sheds, tak­ing up affir­ma­tive strate­gies (like pro­tec­tion) in place of mere­ly dis­sent­ing strate­gies (like protest). This recent and cru­cial shift in ter­mi­nol­o­gy aims to “break the neg­a­tive pre­de­ter­mi­na­tion of the gener­ic terms ‘activist’ and ‘pro­tes­tor’ that por­tray defend­ers as just anoth­er group engaged in vac­u­ous strug­gle and vague threats” (Glaze­brook and Opoku 90). This dis­tinc­tion is a vital­ly impor­tant one when it comes to chal­leng­ing the stig­mas of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence and risks of crim­i­nal­iza­tion, as the align­ment of protest with pro­tec­tion takes up the unequiv­o­cal human right to water as a way to make it more difficult—and hope­ful­ly unconscionable—to dis­miss these strug­gles against extrac­tion projects.

Today, these con­tentious land-use debates are tak­ing place amidst a major fed­er­al attempt in Cana­da to mar­ket an empa­thet­ic gov­ern­ment that “lis­tens,” an activ­i­ty that has been large­ly ori­ent­ed around cam­paign promis­es of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. But giv­en that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is a “trou­bled and trou­bling term often used to impose a sense of clo­sure on expe­ri­ences of col­o­niza­tion that are very much alive and ongo­ing” (L’Hirondelle Hill and McCall 1), and gov­ern­men­tal duties to engage in hon­ourable and mean­ing­ful con­sul­ta­tion have repeat­ed­ly failed in court chal­lenges, more com­pe­tent strate­gies of lis­ten­ing are evi­dent­ly required. Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and Chair of Indige­nous Gov­er­nance at Ryer­son Uni­ver­si­ty, demands envi­ron­men­tal reviews con­sist of “not just lis­ten­ing to con­cerns but tak­ing sub­stan­tive steps to address and mit­i­gate them” (9). Palmater’s con­cise call to action is dis­tress­ing in its obvi­ous­ness and unnerv­ing for even need­ing to be said. But as reports, recrim­i­na­tions, non-bind­ing poli­cies, rec­om­men­da­tions, approvals, pre­dic­tions, denun­ci­a­tions, out­cries, denial­ism, and cat­a­strophism con­tin­ue to bub­ble up in the form of heat­ed and vit­ri­olic debate in the var­i­ous medi­as­capes, where do we—as gen­er­al publics—begin to lis­ten? How can we learn more expan­sive and com­pre­hen­sive lis­ten­ing strate­gies by attun­ing our­selves to these resources and places? What ways can con­tem­po­rary art inspire and instruct us in alter­na­tive forms of listening?

As both con­cerned cit­i­zens and cre­ative prac­ti­tion­ers, our inter­est in these top­ics emerged from our involve­ment in a research-cre­ation project enti­tled Trad­ing Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Futures, which explores the role of extrac­tion in Cana­di­an com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly those affect­ed by indus­try infra­struc­tures. Trad­ing Routes emerged at a time when cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal pro­pos­als to fur­ther expand the net­work of crude oil pipelines across the coun­try were grow­ing. These pipelines would effi­cient­ly and invis­i­bly move Alber­tan oil across a vast dis­tance to tide­wa­ter amidst a cli­mate emer­gency. Trad­ing Routes was devel­oped with a desire to exam­ine the rela­tion­ship between water and extrac­tion through an artis­tic lens. As researchers and artists, we are com­mit­ted to explor­ing how Trad­ing Routes can broad­en the way extrac­tion is con­sid­ered in the pub­lic realm, by using cre­ative prac­tices and con­tem­po­rary art­works as vehi­cles for gal­va­niz­ing imag­i­na­tion and cre­at­ing provocation.

In this arti­cle, we present an explorato­ry overview of con­tem­po­rary engage­ments with sound, the envi­ron­ment, and extrac­tion. In so doing, we exam­ine Ruth Beer’s prac­tice-based artis­tic research (emerg­ing out of her cre­ative con­tri­bu­tions to Trad­ing Routes) along­side the pow­er­ful art­works of Rebec­ca Bel­more and Mia Feuer. Through­out, we con­sid­er sound from the per­spec­tive of artis­tic prac­tice, as dis­tinct from the impor­tant work that is already being done in sound stud­ies and musi­col­o­gy, as the artists pur­sue var­i­ous audio-visu­al rela­tion­ships that pro­duce mul­ti-sen­so­ry and immer­sive engage­ments. While the art­works we dis­cuss remain firm­ly posi­tioned with­in exhi­bi­tion practices—at a safe remove from the front­lines of disruption—we hope to under­score some of the ways they might be able to sug­gest ally­ship with direct action strate­gies. These art­works are not obvi­ous illus­tra­tions nor indict­ments of the colo­nial extrac­tion project, but, through their dif­fi­cul­ties and chal­lenges they pose to inter­pre­ta­tion, the works become impor­tant for devel­op­ing the skills need­ed to grasp the com­plex­i­ty of extrac­tive indus­tries. The art­works are also invi­ta­tions to explore imag­i­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of engag­ing with the world and mate­ri­als around us in a way that will begin the long work of chang­ing social con­scious­ness about water. As we sug­gest, lis­ten­ing is not a pas­sive ges­ture of over­sen­si­tiv­i­ty, but an affir­ma­tive and cre­ative strat­e­gy that plays an impor­tant role in the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of envi­ron­men­tal social jus­tice. If “both in the­o­ry and prac­tice, lis­ten­ing is the cru­cial inter­face between the indi­vid­ual and the envi­ron­ment,” how can con­tem­po­rary art sup­port diver­gent forms of lis­ten­ing in a divi­sive time of extrac­tion (Tru­ax 13)?

Fig­ure 1

Ecological Sensitivity Through Sound

Much work has been done to con­tex­tu­al­ize and the­o­rize the role of sound with­in envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. In 1962, Rachel Car­son pub­lished Silent Spring, a wide­ly influ­en­tial analy­sis on the dev­as­tat­ing bio­log­i­cal effects of indus­tri­al and domes­tic pes­ti­cide use. The book begins with a fable of an unusu­al­ly qui­et spring dawn­ing on a small Amer­i­can town. The famil­iar cho­rus of song­birds has disappeared—as pop­u­la­tions have been dev­as­tat­ed by chem­i­cals like DDT—and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal changes as a result of the loss of the birds begin to ensue. This nar­ra­tive, which places sound at the heart of a major dis­tur­bance, is poignant in its use of a son­ic unit-of-measure—the birds’ chirping—to appre­hend the some­times furtive or oth­er­wise “invis­i­ble” aspects of eco­log­i­cal health. In the 1970s, the analy­sis of sound as an indi­ca­tor of well-being emerged ever­more force­ful­ly. The World Sound­scape Project (WSP), devel­oped by R. Mur­ray Schafer and col­lab­o­ra­tors at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Pul­sa Group’s Har­mo­ny Ranch at the Yale School of Art were fol­lowed by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fields like acoustic ecol­o­gy, sound­scape ecol­o­gy, eco­mu­si­col­o­gy, geophonog­ra­phy, and bioacoustics—among oth­er variants—that con­tend with anthro­phon­ic, bio­phon­ic, or geo­phon­ic sound sys­tems. As sound artist Hilde­gard West­erkamp exclaims, these projects attend­ed to the way “the small, qui­et sounds in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment are sym­bol­ic of nature’s fragili­ty, of those parts that are eas­i­ly over­looked and tram­pled, whose sig­nif­i­cance in the eco­log­i­cal cycle is not ful­ly under­stood” (91). Today, projects like the World Forum for Acoustic Ecol­o­gy, among oth­ers, con­tin­ue the edu­ca­tion, study, and preser­va­tion of the son­ic environment.

The rela­tion­ship between sound and envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns is not a new proposition—but there are marked dif­fer­ences in how that rela­tion­ship is con­sid­ered today. At their time of emer­gence, projects like the WSP were aligned with the pre­vail­ing mod­els of sus­tain­abil­i­ty, con­ser­va­tion, restora­tion, and home­osta­sis (Demos 35). The focus was often on the social effects of noise pol­lu­tion and the health impacts that result from the tran­si­tion from a har­mo­nious sound­scape in nature (a hi-fi envi­ron­ment) to the oppres­sive noise of mod­ern life (a lo-fi envi­ron­ment) (Schafer, The Book of Noise). Noise pol­lu­tion con­tin­ues to be an impor­tant issue for acoustic ecol­o­gy; but while it might have for­mer­ly been the cen­tre of atten­tion, it has more recent­ly yield­ed to the incom­men­su­rable top­ic of the cli­mate cri­sis. In par­tic­u­lar, this shift is evi­denced by the major growth in prac­ti­tion­ers who are engaged in the cre­ation of field record­ings to gen­er­ate “base­line” sound maps from which to mea­sure the effects of cli­mate change, pre­dic­tive mod­els for future aur­al envi­ron­ments, and the explo­sion of prac­tices that exper­i­ment with the soni­fi­ca­tion of cli­mate change data—including infor­ma­tion relat­ed to the sta­tis­tics on ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, flood­ing sever­i­ty, storm inten­si­ty, and refugee migra­tion pat­terns (Ins­ley et al.; Paine; Polli).

Extrac­tion can very con­crete­ly impact sound­scapes, through, for instance, the inces­sant hum of indus­try, or—even more specifically—through the legal­ly required peri­od­ic can­non blasts meant to spook aviary away from land­ing on the tox­ic sur­faces of tail­ing ponds (Hern and Johal 98). Much of the quan­ti­ta­tive sci­en­tif­ic work of acoustic ecol­o­gists has offered insight into the sever­i­ty of these son­ic events. But extrac­tion is clear­ly chang­ing acoustic com­plex­i­ty in oth­er sig­nif­i­cant, albeit more cir­cuitous, ways that require our lis­ten­ing capac­i­ties to change and evolve as well.

Immersive Modes of Sensory Engagement

Neither Beer, Bel­more, nor Feuer iden­ti­fy as sound artists specif­i­cal­ly, but instead work through inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artis­tic prac­tices that incor­po­rate dis­parate media and poly­phon­ic ele­ments. Togeth­er their works help enable new per­spec­tives on the use and inter­pre­ta­tion of sound. Their prac­tices fuse sound and sculp­ture by using the lat­ter as a tool for ampli­fi­ca­tion. These son­ic objects col­lect sounds that are beyond the nor­mal realm of our imme­di­ate hear­ing or atten­tion. Rather than extract­ing or manip­u­lat­ing these sounds, the artists yield to the “phys­i­cal medi­um of sound trans­fer” and the way that sounds can be imprint­ed and “account­ed for through the phys­i­cal lay­out of the envi­ron­ment” (Traux 15 and 61). This entan­gled rela­tion­ship between aur­al and visu­al per­cep­tion serves to height­en the com­plex­i­ty of inter­pre­ta­tion, requir­ing audi­ences to draw upon mul­ti­ple modes of sen­so­ry engagement.

The artists’ strate­gies of immer­sion exper­i­ment with and manip­u­late audio-visu­al expe­ri­ence. This exper­i­men­ta­tion is achieved pri­mar­i­ly through a rela­tion­ship-ori­ent­ed form of immer­sion, which builds upon Pauline Minevich’s esti­ma­tion that immer­sion “sug­gests a social life of sounds that sit­u­ates them in rela­tion­ships cre­at­ed around a par­tic­u­lar sound, the mate­r­i­al of its media, and the phys­i­cal­i­ty of its sur­round­ing” (5). Here, the for­ward-fac­ing expe­ri­ence of visu­al under­stand­ing is paired with sound that “comes at us from behind or from the back, from any direc­tion, and sur­rounds us” (Berland 34). Their immer­sive strate­gies also require in turn mul­ti­di­men­sion­al, mul­ti­di­rec­tion­al modes of analy­sis that are able to come at the work from many dif­fer­ent angles.

In an immer­sive sit­u­a­tion it is dif­fi­cult for artists to direct their audience’s atten­tion. Instead, atten­tion roams and flows. Lis­ten­ing becomes multivalent—perhaps even divided—because son­ic atten­tion con­stant­ly shifts. This state of dis­tract­ed recep­tion has been com­pelling­ly the­o­rized by the Stó:lō schol­ar and artist Dylan Robin­son. In West­ern sound stud­ies, the per­fect lis­ten­er is the lis­ten­er who is devout and unwa­ver­ing in their atten­tion, where­as the dis­tract­ed lis­ten­er is demeaned and dis­missed as lack­adaisi­cal and inat­ten­tive. Robin­son decon­structs this hier­ar­chy, and posits dis­tract­ed lis­ten­ing as a tool for sub­vert­ing the assumed supe­ri­or­i­ty of direct or autonomous lis­ten­ing, “act­ing in oppo­si­tion to nor­ma­tive, tele­o­log­i­cal, and struc­tur­al regimes of con­tem­pla­tion” (8). Dis­tract­ed lis­ten­ing is fun­da­men­tal­ly not about the listener’s direct acqui­si­tion and com­pre­hen­sion of sound, but is instead about rela­tion­al prac­tices that under­go con­tin­u­ous change. As Robin­son argues, dis­tract­ed recep­tion is the result of complication—the inabil­i­ty and inad­e­qua­cy of lis­ten­ing that is “pre­cise,” “effi­cient,” or “objec­tive.” To shift the under­stand­ing of dis­tract­ed lis­ten­ing “from its cur­rent con­no­ta­tions of inat­ten­tion, to a poly­va­lent, de-cen­tred method of recep­tion allows us to re-con­cep­tu­al­ize recep­tion from a goal-ori­ent­ed search for under­stand­ing a prod­uct (dis­rupt­ing the flow of infor­ma­tion as sta­ble com­mod­i­ty) to an under­stand­ing of recep­tion as a con­tin­u­al process” (15). By anal­o­gy, we could say that com­pli­ca­tion is the defin­i­tive qual­i­ty of eco­log­i­cal under­stand­ing. Cul­ti­vat­ing the skills to be able to lis­ten both through and with com­pli­ca­tion will be vital in the efforts to untan­gle the com­plex­i­ty of the social, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and envi­ron­men­tal aspects of extraction.

Ruth Beer’s art­work exper­i­ments with immer­sion and dis­trac­tion through the simul­ta­ne­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties of radio. In radio, simul­tane­ity is not only tem­po­ral, but also geo­graph­ic. A sound emits in one place, only to bridge vast geo­gra­phies by its recep­tion else­where. Ter­ri­to­ri­al­i­ty is entrenched in radio, as “broad­cast­ing is in part about the con­sti­tu­tion of space” (Berland 33). The con­nec­tive pow­er of radio emerged his­tor­i­cal­ly out of the “mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al lin­eage” of the medi­um (Lan­der 13). As the pol­i­tics of Cana­da shift towards var­i­ous eco­nom­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal crises, ques­tions regard­ing the ways in which resource use is com­mu­ni­cat­ed and con­veyed to publics have led Beer to con­sid­er fur­ther the pres­ence of radio and the motif of the tow­er in a num­ber of recent artworks.

Anten­na (#1) is a weav­ing made out of thin-gauge iri­des­cent cop­per wire that is sus­pend­ed from a tall steel struc­ture. At the base of the struc­ture, a dense black form appears as a back­drop for the weav­ing. Play­ing with ambi­gu­i­ties in weight and scale, the dark shape anchors the steel struc­ture at the same time as it is buoyed by it. The weav­ing bil­lows around the frame­work as though it were the undu­lat­ing line of an oscil­lo­graph, which even­tu­al­ly pools into a fringe on the ground. One of these loose strands of cop­per is pulled away from the rest, and con­nect­ed to a small broad­band radio. A pow­er­ful con­duc­tive mate­r­i­al, the cop­per wire trans­forms the entire weav­ing into an enor­mous anten­na, which dom­i­nates over the receiv­ing box. The art­work con­nects a mul­ti­tude of spaces, act­ing as a bridge that con­dens­es, grasps, and trans­lates vibra­tions into sounds we can hear.

The radio is pro­grammed to scan live chan­nels, look­ing for any accept­able trans­mis­sions or sig­nals with­in the area. This pro­gram­ming has made the work high­ly vari­ant and site-depen­dent. Beer, who ini­tial­ly con­ceived the work to be shown in gallery-spaces near the coast, was inter­est­ed in the way the ama­teur radio scan­ner might col­lect snip­pets of mar­itime traf­fic, weath­er reports, and search-and-res­cue trans­mis­sions. But in prac­tice, the scan­ner also picked up a sub­stan­tial amount of com­mu­ni­ca­tions sent and received through taxi dis­patch­es. In one of the saved record­ings of the radioed scan sequences, we rapid­ly ric­o­chet between water and land. Vibra­tions of diesel motors cut through the heavy sta­t­ic as some­where near­by, cap­tains nav­i­gate boats in and out of traf­fic, radio­ing one anoth­er as a means to avoid col­li­sion. Intel­li­gi­ble con­ver­sa­tion sub­sides and we hear spo­radic trans­mis­sions that include white noise and muf­fled voic­es that buzz, crack­le, and purr. The radio scan­ner makes the leap from dis­joint­ed con­ver­sa­tions to the con­stant drone of the weath­er sta­tion, where highs and lows are dis­tin­guished by the author­i­ta­tive radio-voice. The scan­ner leaps again. We hear the inflec­tions of rich­ly diverse lan­guages, as a pre­dom­i­nant­ly immi­grant pop­u­la­tion of taxi dri­vers coor­di­nate the pick-ups and drop-offs of pas­sen­gers. The sounds are dis­joint­ed, inter­rup­tive, and non-lin­ear in their broad­casts. Rather than dis­miss­ing these sounds as a neg­a­tive­ly dis­tract­ing com­pi­la­tion, Anten­na (#1) offers us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to per­ceive the con­junc­tions between marine and ground trans­porta­tion. The ini­tial desire to fill the gallery space with the sounds of water inevitably brought with it oth­er com­pli­ca­tions that mate­ri­al­ize on land. Despite the lim­it­ed reach of the radio to detect sig­nals from only close dis­tances, the sounds are sur­pris­ing­ly and com­pelling­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the glob­al flows of peo­ple and products.

Fig­ure 2

The ordi­nar­i­ness of the pro­ject­ed sounds and the banal­i­ty of infor­ma­tion we hear pulsed back and forth through the radio is made more sub­stan­tial through Beer’s mate­r­i­al explo­ration of the phys­i­cal­i­ty of the trans­mis­sion of sound: first­ly, through cop­per, and sec­ond­ly, through oil. Nav­i­ga­tion­al medi­ums like radio, GPS, and oth­er elec­tron­ics are sim­ply not pos­si­ble with­out cop­per wiring. Cop­per has fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the capac­i­ty to tra­verse dis­tant spaces through tech­nolo­gies that shape how we com­mu­ni­cate and locate our­selves. And yet, the pro­duc­tion of cop­per gen­er­ates long-term and dev­as­tat­ing envi­ron­men­tal impacts as it is mined and refined, par­tic­u­lar­ly in rela­tion to water sys­tems. Min­ing involves blast­ing through the crust of the earth and scav­eng­ing through dense het­ero­ge­neous rocks, where­by min­er­als are syn­thet­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed through tox­ic sol­vents and rins­es that pro­duce efflu­ent waste in tail­ing ponds (Place and Han­lon). This ener­gy-laden process is pos­si­ble entire­ly through the tech­nolo­gies devel­oped and enabled by petro­chem­i­cal pow­ers. As artist A. Lau­rie Palmer notes, most min­er­al com­modi­ties are “linked in some way to oil,” whether it be through mil­i­tary or defence strate­gies, or through the way that oil prof­its are often used to invest in the high cap­i­tal costs of min­ing projects (7).

Fig­ure 3

We don’t hear the sounds of extrac­tion process­es direct­ly in Anten­na (#1), but we do hear the con­sump­tion of some of those prod­ucts in real time as we are visu­al­ly con­front­ed, head-on, with the way our abil­i­ty to even lis­ten to these sounds is eco­log­i­cal­ly com­pro­mised. The art­work takes up the simul­tane­ity of radio to bring togeth­er sounds of the water, the land, and the cul­tur­al ambi­ent noise of the gallery, exper­i­ment­ing with weight­i­ness and scale in rela­tion to our under­stand­ing of extract­ed mate­ri­als through the sin­gle unit of the radio receiver—which appears so small, in rela­tion. Impor­tant­ly, it also allows us to expe­ri­ence the mul­ti­tude of rela­tion­ships between extrac­tion and nav­i­ga­tion in a more nuanced and mul­ti-direc­tion­al soundscape.

Ambient Thresholds: Rebecca Belmore Wave Sound (2017)

In an inter­view fol­low­ing Rebec­ca Belmore’s pre­miere of Foun­tain at the 2005 Venice Bien­nale, the artist not­ed, “we are approach­ing a time when water could be an issue more seri­ous than oil. I hope that day nev­er comes” (Bel­more and Wat­son 27). In the years since, Belmore’s pre­dic­tion has dis­tress­ing­ly come true, and her art-mak­ing has cer­tain­ly reflect­ed this shift in con­cerns. Recent­ly com­mis­sioned as part of the Land­Marks cura­to­r­i­al series, Wave Sound (2017) is com­prised of four sculp­tures sit­u­at­ed in Banff Nation­al Park (AB), Pukaskwa Nation­al Park (ON), Geor­gian Bay Islands Nation­al Park (ON), and Gros Morne Nation­al Park (NL).

Fig­ure 4

Each of the four sculp­tures has been cast from the ter­rain imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ing the site where the piece is installed, which has the effect of mak­ing the sculp­tures quite dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish from the imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment. The alu­minum-cast son­ic cones are placed with their receiv­ing-ends fac­ing bod­ies of water. The sculp­tur­al form fun­nels the dis­tant aquat­ic sounds to the nar­rowed point where the sculp­ture meets the listener’s ear. The instal­la­tion of Wave Sound in Banff, Alber­ta, can­not be expe­ri­enced from an upright posi­tion, and the sculp­ture directs you to crouch down and rest your body close to the land. Apply­ing your ear to the end of the cone, your entire audi­to­ry focus shifts. The ebbs and flows of the water are ampli­fied in tremen­dous detail through Wave Sound, which chan­nels son­ic events heard from as far as the mid­dle of the lake. The remark­able sharp­ness and clar­i­ty even allows you to over­hear con­ver­sa­tions aboard the recre­ation­al boats ser­vic­ing guid­ed tours, where inter­na­tion­al vis­i­tors learn about the tra­di­tion­al grounds of the Stoney peo­ple, and the his­toric town­site that was sub­merged dur­ing the damming of the glacial lake for a hydro­elec­tric project (“His­to­ry of Lake Min­newan­ka”). As you lis­ten, it becomes appar­ent how the very geog­ra­phy around you has been smoothed and shaped by the water’s forced and forcible movements.

Fig­ure 5

In a num­ber of ways, Wave Sound can be seen as a re-vis­i­ta­tion of one of Belmore’s ear­li­er influ­en­tial art­works, Ayum-ee-aawach Ooma­ma-mowan: Speak­ing to Their Moth­er (1991, 1992, 1996, 2014). Bel­more pro­duced a two-meter wide wood­en mega­phone that trav­elled through remote and urban com­mu­ni­ties from coast to coast, intend­ed as a direct expres­sion of protest in the wake of the Oka Crisis—and the ongo­ing trau­ma of resolv­ing Indige­nous land claims. By offer­ing an invi­ta­tion to Indige­nous peo­ples to speak to their Mother—the land—the work oper­at­ed in sync with a shift in the polit­i­cal land­scape for Indige­nous peo­ple at that time. Ayum-ee-aawach Ooma­ma-mowan: Speak­ing to Their Moth­er began a rever­ber­a­tion through­out the nat­ur­al land­scape, by both sym­bol­i­cal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly offer­ing agency to com­mu­ni­ties to address the land and their rela­tion­ship to it. From hill­tops, val­leys, and lakeshores, hun­dreds of voic­es rang out into the distance.

Ayum-ee-aawach Ooma­ma-mowan: Speak­ing to Their Moth­er oper­ates very clear­ly in the realm of protest and has been his­tori­cized as such, but is it appro­pri­ate to inter­pret Wave Sound as a sim­i­lar­ly polit­i­cal act? In many ways, the answer is yes. In both of these works, Bel­more chal­lenges the assumed thresh­olds of hear­ing. The mega­phone changes the thresh­old for which Indige­nous voic­es are heard by the nation-state, and Wave Sound changes the thresh­old by which we are able to hear the water around us. But in the two and a half decades between the cre­ation of these art­works, Wave Sound might indi­cate cer­tain shifts in engagement—particularly in modes of listening—that are rel­e­vant to decolo­nial activism today. In par­tic­u­lar, the tran­si­tion from lin­guis­tic to a non­ver­bal audi­to­ry realm opens up pos­si­bil­i­ties for the recog­ni­tion that sounds car­ry their own intel­li­gence, putting the water in a more-than-ambi­ent role (Oliv­eros). The non-lin­guis­tic lis­ten­ing required by Wave Sound requires sen­so­r­i­al, intu­itive, holis­tic, and deeply per­son­al modes of engage­ment. The still­ness of the body in rela­tion to the unend­ing move­ment of the water in the work, and the humil­i­ty in the rela­tion­ship between the body and the water sig­nif­i­cant­ly changes the hier­ar­chies of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Wave Sound encour­ages us to alter our eth­i­cal, polit­i­cal, and con­cep­tu­al rela­tion­ship with water by nur­tur­ing empa­thet­ic modes of listening.

Interfering Feedback: Mia Feuer, Mesh (2015)

The rela­tion­ship between sound and the phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of land­scapes or geo­gra­phies res­onates clear­ly in the work of Mia Feuer. Exhib­it­ed simul­ta­ne­ous­ly at Locust Projects in Mia­mi, Flori­da and Esker Foun­da­tion in Cal­gary, Alber­ta, Mesh (2015) pre­sent­ed the shape-shift­ing qual­i­ties of water in a work that tra­vers­es mul­ti­ple states of gov­er­nance. In a transcon­ti­nen­tal under­tak­ing, the instal­la­tion cre­at­ed con­nec­tions between Sval­bard (Nor­way), Flori­da (Unit­ed States), Alber­ta (Cana­da), and Louisiana (Unit­ed States).

Fig­ure 6

As an art­work, Mesh is a com­plex inter­laced struc­ture where sound, mate­r­i­al, and place are inte­gral­ly linked. Ema­nat­ing from speak­ers sur­round­ing the work are the rush­ing sounds of water and the creak­ing and groan­ing of under­wa­ter Arc­tic glac­i­ers. Record­ed with hydrophones at the Horn­sund Fjord, Sval­bard, the aquat­ic noise reg­is­tered by sci­en­tist and ocean acousti­cian Grant Deane is used to mea­sure the calv­ing of glac­i­ers below the vis­i­ble sur­face of the water. The record­ed sounds con­vey end­less activ­i­ty. The record­ed audio is streamed into Feuer’s mul­ti­fac­eted, rec­i­p­ro­cal, and even unsta­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the rela­tion­ship between water and land.

The artist cre­at­ed two dif­fer­ent sculp­tur­al instal­la­tions for each exhi­bi­tion in order to reflect the envi­ron­ments in each respec­tive place. In the coastal city of Mia­mi, the sculp­tur­al form takes the shape of blocks of con­crete and jugs, sug­gest­ing the sea­walls or floata­tion mate­ri­als that pre­oc­cu­py munic­i­pal plan­ners in this sea-lev­el munic­i­pal­i­ty (Urbina). In Cal­gary, a moss-cov­ered tree is anchored by a con­vey­or belt, a scene not too dis­sim­i­lar from the felled trees at clearcut extrac­tion sites through­out the oil-rich province of Alber­ta. In both exhi­bi­tions, a salt carv­ing of the three-dimen­sion­al topo­graph­ic map of coastal Louisiana lies below the sus­pend­ed forms. As the ambi­ent sounds of the under­wa­ter record­ings fill the space, the instal­la­tion is pro­grammed to release a drip of blue indi­go dye each time a calv­ing event is heard. The bub­bling, hum­ming and roar­ing of the glacial sounds excites a visu­al trans­for­ma­tion, as each drop of dye dis­solves the mapped sculp­ture below. Mesh com­pos­es a sit­u­a­tion where res­o­nant sounds alter our visu­al evi­dence. In a sense, lis­ten­ing reveals the ways in which cer­tain forces re-shape the visu­al world.

The sounds of glacial events rebound against the bay­ous of Louisiana. Feuer has stark­ly con­densed the miles of dis­tance between Nor­we­gian fjords and south­ern Unit­ed States. The art­work is unapolo­get­i­cal­ly direct: melt­ing in the Arc­tic destroys the coastal land­scape of the Amer­i­can South. In fact, “Coastal Louisiana has expe­ri­enced one of the high­est rates of rel­a­tive sea lev­el rise in the world” (Mal­don­a­do et al. 606). In Ter­re­bonne Parish, where Feuer con­duct­ed much of her research, the impacts of these changes are already being felt by the Indige­nous nations in the area, includ­ing the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, and the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.

Mesh posi­tions lis­ten­ing as a series of feed­back loops that have visu­al and son­ic con­se­quences. Feuer’s unabashed use of petro-prod­ucts like vinyl plas­tics and sty­ro­foam, bathed in an eerie glow of cool light, is dystopic in its excess. These prod­ucts are part of the car­bon econ­o­my that leads to the melt­ing of the glac­i­ers in the first place, but the glac­i­ers exact their own costs on the sculpture’s visu­al form. The use of record­ed sounds sit­u­ates the expe­ri­ence in the midst of events already past, fur­ther­ing the bleak deter­min­ism of these processes.


As the strug­gles against extrac­tion projects become loud­er and nois­i­er in the pub­lic realm, con­tem­po­rary art can con­tribute by enabling us to lis­ten to the sonor­i­ty of water in new and vital ways. Sound is not a dis­crete event in the same way that an ocu­lar expe­ri­ence might be, and its immer­sive and respon­sive qual­i­ties towards sur­round­ing envi­ron­ments allow for dif­fer­ent forms of per­cep­tion. The way that sounds unfold through space and time opens pos­si­bil­i­ties for think­ing about the far-reach­ing reper­cus­sions of extrac­tion pol­i­tics and glob­al warm­ing. Short­sight­ed poli­cies that fail to see the vast hori­zon of these impli­ca­tions might very well be improved by embrac­ing the com­plex­i­ty of sound.

The focal points of audi­to­ry atten­tion dif­fer sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the work of Beer, Bel­more, and Feuer. The artists present mul­ti­fac­eted son­ic objects that immerse the audi­ence in an envi­ron­men­tal expe­ri­ence that man­i­fests up-close in Belmore’s Wave Sound, from mid-range in Beer’s Anten­na (#1), and from an unthink­able dis­tance in Feuer’s Mesh. Despite these dif­fer­ences in spa­tial rela­tion­ships, all of the artists present their audi­ences with com­plex and simul­ta­ne­ous issues, requir­ing them to lis­ten through dif­fer­ent scales, change their thresh­olds for lis­ten­ing, and ulti­mate­ly lis­ten through feed­back and inter­fer­ence. In all these art­works, the audi­to­ry sig­nif­i­cance of water speaks through mate­ri­als, space, and form.

As T.J. Demos observes, “there is no sin­gle solu­tion or sole approach to our eco­log­i­cal predica­ment. Indeed, mul­ti­ple paths are required” (260). Since we can­not expect to find a pre­cise answer that will fix every ill, mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary approach­es are both desir­able and nec­es­sary. Explor­ing these ideas through cre­ative method­olo­gies, we under­stand how the visu­al can pro­voke straight­for­ward con­tem­pla­tion, while sound tran­scends these con­fronta­tion­al bound­aries. Sound can some­times be more dif­fi­cult to pin­point, how­ev­er, mak­ing height­ened forms of lis­ten­ing all the more impor­tant. The capac­i­ty of art to lead to real and mea­sured change in rela­tion to geopol­i­tics and envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion is sim­i­lar­ly dif­fi­cult to pin­point. While what needs to be done to achieve the scale of change required to divert the world away from envi­ron­men­tal calami­ty is exhaus­tive, there is a com­pelling sim­plic­i­ty to the belief that “pat­terns of behav­iour, includ­ing lis­ten­ing, can be changed” (Tru­ax 27). Lis­ten­ing dif­fer­ent­ly and ded­i­cat­ed­ly to complexity—instead of lis­ten­ing in spite of it—will be imperative.

Works Cited

Bel­more, Rebec­ca and Wat­son, Scott. “Inter­view.” Rebec­ca Bel­more: Foun­tain. Edit­ed by Cindy Rich­mond and Scott Wat­son, Kam­loops Art Gallery and The Mor­ris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2005, pp. 25-28.

Berland, Jody. “Toward a Cre­ative Anachro­nism: Radio, The State and Sound Gov­ern­ment.” Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Trans­mis­sion. Edit­ed by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lan­der, Wal­ter Phillips Gallery, 1994.

Demos, T.J. Decol­o­niz­ing Nature: Con­tem­po­rary Art and the Pol­i­tics of Ecol­o­gy. Stern­berg Press, 2016.

End­ing Long-Term Drink­ing Water Advi­sories.” Gov­ern­ment of Cana­da, 22 Feb. 2019, https://​www​.sac​-isc​.gc​.ca/​e​n​g​/​1​5​0​6​5​1​4​1​4​3​3​5​3​/​1​5​3​3​3​1​7​1​3​0​660.

Glaze­brook, Trish, and Emmanuela Opoku. “Defend­ing the Defend­ers: Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tors, Cli­mate Change and Human Rights.” Ethics & the Envi­ron­ment, vol. 23, no. 2, Fall 2018, pp. 83–109. EBSCO­host, doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.23.2.05.

Hern, Matt and Johal, Am. Glob­al Warm­ing and the Sweet­ness of Life. MIT Press, 2018.

His­to­ry of Lake Min­newan­ka.” Parks Cana­da, 6 Apr. 2017, https://​www​.pc​.gc​.ca/​e​n​/​p​n​-​n​p​/​ab/ banf­f/vis­it/les10-top10/min­newan­ka.

Ins­ley, Stephen J., William D. Hal­l­i­day, and Tyler de Jong. “Sea­son­al Pat­terns in Ocean Ambi­ent Noise near Sachs Har­bour, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries.” Arc­tic, vol. 70, no. 3, Sept. 2017, pp. 239–48. EBSCO­host, doi:10.14430/arctic4662.

Lan­der, Dan. “Radio­cast­ings: Mus­ings on Radio and Art.” Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Trans­mis­sion. Edit­ed by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lan­der, Wal­ter Phillips Gallery, 1994.

L’Hirondelle Hill, Gabrielle and McCall, Sophie. “Acknowl­edge­ment.” The Land We Are: Artists and Writ­ers Unset­tle the Pol­i­tics of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Edit­ed by Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall, ARP Books, 2015.

Lui, Emma. “On Notice for a Drink­ing Water Cri­sis in Cana­da.” The Coun­cil of Cana­di­ans,March 2015, http://​cana​di​ans​.org/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​r​e​p​o​r​t​-​d​r​i​n​k​i​n​g​-​w​a​t​e​r​-​0​3​1​5​.​pdf.

Mal­don­a­do, JK, C. Shear­er, R. Bro­nen, K. Peter­son, and H. Lazrus. “The impact of cli­mate change on trib­al com­mu­ni­ties in the US: dis­place­ment, relo­ca­tion, and human rights.” Cli­mac­tic Change, vol. 120, no. 3, 2013, pp. 601-14.

Minevich, Pauline. “Intro­duc­tion: The Art of Immer­sive Sound­scapes.” Art of Immer­sive Sound­scapes. Edit­ed by Pauline Minevich and Ellen Water­man, U of Regi­na P, 2013.

Oliv­eros, Pauline. Deep Lis­ten­ing: A Composer’s Sound Prac­tice. iUni­verse, 2005.

Paine, Garth. “Acoustic Ecol­o­gy 2.0.” Con­tem­po­rary Music Review, vol. 36, no. 3, June 2017, pp. 171–181. EBSCO­host, doi:10.1080/07494467.2017.1395136.

Palmater, Pam. “The Real Fail­ure of Trans Mountain.(POLITICS).” Maclean’s, no. 9, 2018, p. 9. EBSCO­host, ezproxy.ecuad.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edscpi&AN=edscpi.A555547944&site=eds-live.

Palmer, A. Lau­rie. In the Aura of a Hole: Explor­ing Sites of Mate­r­i­al Extrac­tion. Black Dog Pub­lish­ing, 2014.

Place, Jes­si­ca and Neil Han­lon. “Kill the lake? Kill the pro­pos­al: accom­mo­dat­ing First Nations’ envi­ron­men­tal val­ues as a first step on the road to well­ness.” Geo­Jour­nal, vol. 76, no. 2, 2011, pp. 163-175.

Pol­li, Andrea. “Eco-Media: Art Informed by Devel­op­ments in Ecol­o­gy, Media Tech­nol­o­gy and Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence.” Tech­noet­ic Arts: A Jour­nal of Spec­u­la­tive Research, vol. 5, no. 3, Aug. 2007, pp. 187–200. EBSCO­host, doi:10.1386/tear.5.3.187_1.

Robin­son, Dylan. “Dis­tract­ing Music.” Musi­co­log­i­cal Explo­rations, vol. 9, Spring 2008, pp. 7–43. EBSCO­host, ezproxy.ecuad.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=34008299&site=eds-live.

Schafer, R. Mur­ray. The Book of Noise. Price Mil­burn, 1970.

Schafer, R. Mur­ray. The Tun­ing of the World. McClel­land and Stew­art, 1997.

Tru­ax, Bar­ry. Acoustic Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Ablex Pub­lish­ing, 1984.

Urbina, Ian. “Per­ils of Cli­mate Change Could Swamp Coastal Real Estate.” The New York Times, 24 Novem­ber, 2016, https://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2​0​1​6​/​1​1​/​2​4​/​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​/​g​l​o​b​a​l​-​w​a​r​m​i​n​g​-​c​o​a​s​t​a​l​-​r​e​a​l​-​e​s​t​a​t​e​.​h​t​m​l​?​_​r=0. Acce­sessed 20 Jan­u­ary, 2017.

West­erkamp, Hilde­gard. “The Sound­scape on Radio.” Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Trans­mis­sion. Edit­ed by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lan­der, Wal­ter Phillips Gallery, 1994.

Image notes

Fig­ure 1: Ruth Beer, Oil & Water, 2014. Pho­to­graph­ic prints. 101 x 76 cm. Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.

Fig­ure 2: Ruth Beer, Anten­na (#1), 2016. Cop­per weav­ing, steel tow­er, polyurethane, short-wave radio. Installed in Ground Sig­nals group exhi­bi­tion curat­ed by Jor­dan Strom at the Sur­rey Art Gallery, 2017. Pho­to cour­tesy of the Sur­rey Art Gallery, SITE Pho­tog­ra­phy, and the artist.

Fig­ure 3: Ruth Beer, Anten­na (#1), 2016. Detail. Cop­per weav­ing, steel tow­er, polyurethane, short-wave radio. Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.

Fig­ure 4: Rebec­ca Bel­more, Wave Sound, 2017. Cast alu­minum. Instal­la­tion at Lake Min­newan­ka, Banff, AB. Pho­tographed by Kyra Kor­dos­ki. Com­mis­sioned for Landmarks2017/Repères2017 by Part­ners in Art. Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.

Fig­ure 5: Rebec­ca Bel­more, Wave Sound, 2017. Cast alu­minum. Instal­la­tion at Lake Min­newan­ka, Banff, AB. Pho­tographed by Kyra Kor­dos­ki. Com­mis­sioned for Landmarks2017/Repères2017 by Part­ners in Art. Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.

Fig­ure 6: (Left) Mia Feuer, Mesh, 2015. Sty­ro­foam, rock­ite cement, met­al, papi­er-mâché, poly­eth­yl­ene car­boy, indi­go blue ani­line dye, sole­noid, vinyl tub­ing, PVA glue, salt, MDF, paint, cast drift­wood sourced from the Arc­tic Ocean, Span­ish moss and cast bark sourced from the bay­ous of Pointe au Chien, Lou­siana. Esker Foun­da­tion, Cal­gary, Alber­ta. Pho­to by John Dean. (Right) Mia Feuer, Mesh, 2015. Sty­ro­foam, rock­ite cement, met­al, papi­er-mâché, poly­eth­yl­ene car­boy, indi­go blue ani­line dye, sole­noid, vinyl tub­ing, PVA glue, salt, MDF, paint. Locust Projects, Mia­mi, Flori­da. Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.