James Wyness (sound artist) in conversation with Kate Foster (environmental artist).
As a sound artist, James Wyness works on listening environments, in the Borders Region (where he is based) and elsewhere. He compared notes with Kate Foster about settling into work in the Borders, valuing what the area offers our respective practices. Here James elaborates on ideas from a thought-provoking exchange.
KF: You said that a sound artist has to be aware of how space, places, are made. What would an example be, of how such connections develop, through listening?
JW: Yes, my interest here specifically is in how spaces are produced, following the research of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre pointed me towards the fact that the production of space, by people, carries with it intention and deliberation. Produced spaces, many of them complex if we care to investigate, are often taken for granted as simply ‘there’ since time began, when in fact they have undergone all manner of politically directed transformations.
For example, an important part of my artistic practice involves listening to the region in which I live, the sparsely populated (one might even say underdeveloped) Scottish and English Border regions, including the Northumberland National Park. If we listen with a very generalised ear – or, easier still for most of us handicapped by the predominant visual drift in contemporary popular culture, if we look at the region on one of those noise maps which gives a colour coding according to ambient noise levels, what do we see for large swathes of our region? Nothing, or very little. It’s a very quiet region with little background noise from traffic arteries or urban centres. Relatively speaking, for a very crowded island few people live here. Large tracts of land are turned over to ‘wilderness’ with a little sheep farming.
Image and comment by KF: it’s not really wilderness though, is it?
JW: Certainly not in the sense of untouched or left in peace for the sake of it, despite the peace and quiet you might find there. So if large areas of this region are indeed so quiet and underdeveloped, why should that be? I don’t believe for a second that any of this happens by chance, especially in Britain whose governments have led the world in matters of controlling, administering and exploiting land or territory, who had at one time almost full political and military control of enormous tracts of land in the ‘Orient’, from the Middle East to India. Perhaps more than any government or established political system, successive British governments and their administrative machineries with their structures, doctrines and processes would use their home turf for whatever use suited them. So I have to ask why would a ‘wilderness’ be permitted to exist in an overcrowded island?
My theory, and this is only scientific inasmuch as I would love to have it disproved, is that the military/defence interest at Otterburn has determined to a large extent the geographical make-up of this large region. I say this first of all because Henri Lefebvre noticed a similar situation in his native France. I came to my conclusions following his conceptual framework and arguments. This is not a conspiracy theory except of course in the sense that the machinations of successive British governments, in matters of defence, now national security (this is an interesting shift of focus), are in fact usually conspiring towards some undemocratic end.
If I might elaborate, we have a historically troublesome border which always required a strong garrison, in particular on the English side. Over time the mentality of the garrison has become embedded in geo-political thinking. I’m sure that research would show that efforts will have been made to keep the region free of development to allow the free play of large scale military manoeuvres, including low flying. Having trained at Otterburn in my time as an RAF officer I’m aware that the use of tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery requires particular kinds of space. I believe that the creation of the National Park will have suited very well the prolongation of the Otterburn agenda whereas allowing substantial development would in time lead to calls for constraints placed on military activity.
So our noise free region is actually punctuated by bouts of extremely violent military activity on both sides of the border: low flying fighter jets, artillery exercises, helicopter exercises. It constantly baffles me that nobody seems to be able to effect collective action against ‘friendly’ fighter jets flying at lower than 500 feet over primary schools without warning. Having had a privileged inside view I could go on, but the Official Secrets Act prevents me from doing so.
KF image and comment: I keep trying to snap low-fliers
JW: What I’m saying is that the space has been produced, as a result of an accumulation of conscious political and military decisions, affecting freedom of movement and particular kinds of development or uses of space, negating the possibility of differently produced spaces, of the adjoining social space, including the ‘wilderness’ of the Cheviots. This is done by proxy – planning in the Northumberland National Park is tight to say the least. In my reveries I often contextualise the region as a more northerly extension of Hadrian’s Wall.
And of course, going much further back, apart from a few pockets of broadleaf, very little is ‘natural’ wilderness anyway, in the sense of ‘untouched by human hands’. For example the pockets of the Old Jed Forest are as natural as you’ll get anywhere, but the moorland, the bare hills have all been doctored and tailored over millenia, visually and, if we care to listen, sonically.
Such is the complexity of an investigation into soundscape. As a researcher I have several other produced spaces under investigation at the moment. With these I like to keep in mind Lefebvre’s observation:-
There can be no question but that the social space is the locus of prohibition, for it is shot through with both prohibitions and their counterparts, prescriptions.
KF: What are your thoughts about the relationships between sonic sensibility and ecological literacy?
JW: This seems at first glance to imply a flow between the aesthetic and the ethical, but perhaps in this case the two are tightly bound up together in the first place. Sonic sensibility, real sensibility as opposed to a superficial appreciation of this or that sound, would to my mind require a modicum of physical, mental and perhaps spiritual effort, some form of directed activity towards engaging with the world of sound, at all levels of experience, including the everyday. A bundle of values. This would affect one’s relationship to the immediate environment, urban or rural, how one lives from day to day, physical choices in one’s domestic and social environment and so on. I don’t mean to say that if you can live in a thundering metropolis you cannot be sonically sensitive – I know of one artist whose work in the field has been substantially enhanced and enriched by the urban experience. Nor am I taking a puritanical stance which denies pleasure in contemporary urban living. It’s simply that sonic sensibility requires a sustained effort.
True sonic sensibility would require informed choices in listening strategies vis-a-vis music consumption for example. I cannot reconcile the fact of spending hours of one’s daily life bolted to a mobile media device, cut off from the immediate sonic environment, listening to compressed audio, with a desire to nurture sonic sensibility.
Ecological literacy would be defined as at least some sort of awareness of one’s own stake in the game, as opposed to watching ‘documentaries’ in which David Attenborough becomes a parody of himself and where ecological awareness is given as a highly contrived representation dressed up as reality or truth. In addition I would take into account the choices one makes in one’s material surroundings and contingent actions, the awareness, nothing more, of the interconnectedness of all things, at least some sort of commitment to investigating who is doing well (economically or politically) from degradations and deteriorations in the amenity of those doing less well.
Sensibility and sensitivity to the sonic, or non-visual, often requires a deeper connection with the environment. The visual, especially in urban settings, is often given, forced, thrust in front of us, in the form of corporate marketing, architectural agendas based on maximum profit, as opposed to ethically or aesthetically driven. We fall under the spell of the visual so easily, where everything is appropriated and turned to profitable use. Listening to a soundscape, in my experience, allows a different and perhaps more interesting ecological unfolding than a visual appraisal of an urban bleakscape or a view of a pretty landscape. In fact the whole discourse around landscape and appreciation is fraught with difficulty.
In basic terms, sonic sensibility, of the individual or of the community, can raise awareness of ecological literacy. Finally, although much more research (and investment) is needed into the presentational forms of creative outcomes resulting from deep listening to the environment, the sonic artist working with environmental field recordings has an important role to play in raising the standard of ecological literacy.
KF: You admire how well Susan Fenimore Cooper and Aldo Leopold – American nature writers – listened. If you could magic them back, what sound art would you want them to hear?
JW: I’d give them all a quick primer in the use of modern recording technology and let them make their own art, a combination of sound and text. Just imagine! I’d let Susan loose on a few dawn choruses and some more discrete biophonies with incidental forest and wind sounds. With Aldo I’d focus on some of the long form natural soundscapes in true wilderness areas. Finally I’d watch Thoreau’s smile as he listened to the aquatic life of Walden Pond by means of a simple hydrophone.
(This article was developed by Kate Foster and ecoartscotland is very grateful for the opportunity to publish an original and fascinating contribution to our understanding of the politics and sonics Scottish landscape.)