In July 2014 I led a two-day workshop on two different islands in the Baltic Sea with a group of ten people (1). The workshop was about de-industrialising one’s understanding of self and place and cultivating a fully embodied sense of the world. It came out of an urgency I feel in my work to build the kinds of relationships that will help us survive whatever chaos and destruction might come our way with global climate change and increasing income inequality.
In these workshops in Finland we explored various kinds of exercises together and then discussed them. The exercises were about realising the wide range of human capacities for both experiencing the world and opening up to unfamiliar and uncommon interpretations of encounters such as bird sounds, wind blowing through trees and the silences of vast landscapes.
The exploration that I want to share here was inspired by combining instructions from people who have done pioneering work around sound and listening, and thinking about how we can be more fully present in the world. The composer Pauline Oliveros and her ideas of ‘Deep Listening’ have had a big impact on the shape of these exercises. Deep Listening uses our full range of capacities and not just our ears: paying attention to all the sounds we hear at once, how they interrelate, how they hit our bodies and are registered in unexpected ways. Specific to this exercise was the work by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, to preserve natural silence and combat noise pollution in national and state parks in the United States. Hempton has spent decades listening to and making recordings of landscapes. He has some powerful things to say about how to refine and pay attention to our incredible sense of hearing to do things like absorbing entire landscapes at one time.
Our task, on the island a few kilometres from the centre of Helsinki, was to listen to the Baltic Sea, to the 30–50 square kilometres that were in front of us, as we sat on a stormy, rock-lined coast. Not only were we going to listen to this enormous space, we were going to listen to its silences instead of its noises, those necessary temporal spatial beings that give sound its shape, location, setting, emotional potential, and unleash billions of relationships with where we are and how we locate ourselves in ways that have sprawling meanings.
We went to a spot on the shoreline of the island. I gave instructions to everyone to look at the vast distances we could see from our vantage point. The group were asked to think about all the silences that were there to make it possible for one to understand what it was we were seeing, hearing, and experiencing. There was a lighthouse on a small island we could see a few kilometres off the shore. I asked everyone to think about a firework being set off next to the lighthouse. We would quickly hear the sound, locating it without effort. We would instantly understand the distance, the silence that the lighthouse had been enveloped in just moments before, and all the silences around that remained in order for us to locate this one sound. The sound would occur for us both in the moment but also in the context of its very recent past and future silences. We always hear the silences when we hear sounds; we just don’t realise this and pay attention accordingly. And our perceptions of time are extremely elastic, too. Many of the workshop participants talked about stepping out of time, or at least time as they usually conceptualise and experience it.
We listened to the silences in the land and seascape during the day’s strong wind and sporadic spats of rain. The wind had an immense presence, like a throng of people pushing onto a crowded subway car. This was even more of a confrontation: we had only just completed an exercise that sensitised us to how we gather sounds, how they hit our bodies in many more places than just our ears, and the enormous range and layers of things we are able to perceive when we take the time to listen deeply. We were cautious of the intensity of the wind insinuating itself into our awareness; the strength of the wind turned our ears into an active part of the soundscape.
The wind alone is completely silent. Only when it crashes into and careens around things can one discern an audible trail. This was certainly the case as the wind grabbed the sea and threw it repeatedly at the rocky seashore.
We were on the shoreline of the island of Suomenlinna, an old military base and UNESCO World Heritage site that is part geological formation and part massive landfill. It is an odd place, filled with stables, barracks, cannons from multiple military epochs, museums, churches and harbours. Bunkers lined the shore facing the open Baltic Sea.
We stumbled down one of those staircases often found in large outdoor parks where the angle of descent is awkward and the spaces between steps are not scaled for an adult human. The harsh sea weather had also had an undue influence on the staircase, turning it green in places, causing plant life to settle in others. The stairs descended from an old fortification wall down to the place where we would do our listening, to learn something from the sea.
Everyone was eager to do another listening session, to test their new found awareness at a different location, as the first one provided such strong and varied responses. We had all heard the same things, or so we thought, but the narratives of what we each had heard, what we thought it was, the emotional impact it had, prompted significantly different understandings. There were some agreements amongst the listeners about what they had heard or how the impact of a sound – the loud voices of two drunk men shouting at each other, for example – had registered on their senses, but what to make out of it afterwards and in conjunction with the entire experience was very different for each person. The same thing happened during this exercise.
We sat on rocky outcroppings close to the wall of sound that was by now pummelling all of us. The sun was teasing us, appearing and disappearing, the warming and cooling of our bodies adding impact to our listening exercise – almost warming the very act of hearing for some, making others more receptive to what it was they were going through. We found our places on the rocks, some closer to the crashing waves than others, sitting, working ourselves into an intimate connection between our bodies and the hard surface, getting ready to listen.
We breathed deeply, filling our lungs fully and then emptying them utterly, relaxing our bodies until we felt all muscles release their tension and settle into the task. We were ready to pay careful attention. Because of the intensity of the wind and water, it took very little time to get lost in the phenomenal encounter. It was already difficult to talk as I gave instructions on getting into a relaxed state and the task of reflecting on the silences of the seascape. Upon closing my eyes, the vast spaces that had been there moments before rushed onto my body, ears, hands and my unprepared consciousness.
Several of the participants said afterwards that they had to turn away because of the intensity of the wind and sound. When we talked after listening for about thirty minutes, many of us had very similar understandings of what we had encountered.
We had all heard a very powerful story from the sea. This was very important to understand. Things tell us stories, not in the sense that a rock starts speaking English or Finnish or any other human language, but we construct narratives instantaneously out of what it is we observe and understand. No matter how romantic, detached, analytical, mystical or skeptical you might be, you have to construct a story of your experience. You translate the sounds of the wind and water hitting the rocks, which are impossible to fully capture in any spoken language. Water hitting rocks smoothed by thousands of years of pounding by the sea sounds different than any other thing you will ever experience. We register this and attempt to communicate it to others.
The sea has a story to tell. It is a story that it has been telling for thousands of years. It can tell it in many different ways. The same spot on a shoreline can tell this story in an infinite number of variations given what the wind is like, the direction it is blowing in, the air temperature, whether it is raining or not and so on. What we heard was the sound of many waves crashing against the smoothed rocks. We know from encountering rocks before that it is no easy task to shape and smooth them as the waves have done. It would be nearly impossible for us to recreate the same process just with our bodies and no tools, even if we did it for decades on end. We understand what a rock is in a physical way as much as we do in a conceptual manner, though we are taught to privilege the latter understanding over the former.
We had heard a powerful thing during this short listening session. The sea was talking to us. Part of the story it had to tell was that it had been telling this story for a time that we are not really used to registering, deep time, time that extends beyond many generations of human lifespans. The sea was telling us that its story has been uninterrupted for this long period. What you hear at first are the waves crashing on the rocks, and this is familiar to anyone who has been to the sea. When you pay attention closely, you start to hear the diversity of tones, patterns, flows of energy that overlap, sometimes complementing one another, sometimes not. They all combine to tell the story of the relationships of the sea to the rocks, making the sounds intimate and more available to us. The crashes of the waves on the rocks, the pulling back of the sea, that wonderful crackling noise it makes, were happening all around us in multiple variations.
Because we had been sensitised by listening carefully, we could hold them all in our heads and understand them together. We heard the multiple patterns that synchronise and at times produce pleasing or jarring dissonance. Many of us felt that we were sitting on the edge of a crushing abyss. The way in which we were listening pulled the soundscape right on top of us. It comes incredibly close and when you open your eyes you are shocked by the visual distance of the sound’s source. The sound is always mediated and situated by seeing. Taking sight out of the experience allows us to pull the sound as near as it always is and to give it our close attention.
Sara Hannula, one of the participants in this exercise, had this to say about her experience:
If I think of specific moments that have stayed with me, a few things come to the fore. One of them is the Deep Listening exercise we did by the sea, and the responses that it evoked in our group. I was very impressed by the fact that so many of us were overwhelmed by the sea and the wind when exposed to them without any protection. I wonder whether it has to do with the fact that we are hardly ever asked to surrender and open ourselves to the raw elements, or things that are beyond our understanding and control. It is quite possible to go through life without having to do it by necessity, if one happens to live in the Western world. However, I think this process of exposing oneself to the immense forces that reshape our world is key now that the situation is getting more and more out of control and the conditions are increasingly unpredictable. We can no longer resist change or pretend to manage it with the tools that we have access to. We are no longer sheltered.
I was moved by how intensely the sea and the rocks seemed to be insisting on the story of their relationship. We have all heard waves hitting rocks many times before, but have not been given the training to sit down and focus in this way under these kinds of conditions. It is not a regular thing that we are encouraged to do: to try and receive all that a soundscape has to offer. Yet there is much to learn from behaving in this way. We have to be willing to slow down and give our care, openness and attentiveness. We can get a glimpse of other, geologic time scales, translated to our own short fragile ones.
There is no need to escape to an idealised ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ setting to understand the ways in which our petroleum-driven industrialised civilisation drastically limits who we are, what we experience and the vast unknowns that lurk in our embodied absorption of the world around us. These kinds of gatherings and collective work however enable us to immerse ourselves in a Deep Map of relationships within a place – a layering of narratives and understandings that demonstrate our abilities to hold multiple, often contradictory perspectives. These expansive capacities can be used anywhere, in cities and remote rural locations. They can reveal the lost worlds of ‘Deep Grandmothers’ (ancestral time) and the storytelling that is encoded in our DNA. Once activated, they can help us shift away from cultures of violent extraction and abstraction and instead build up cultures of care in the face of climate breakdown and the ensuing chaos it might bring in the coming time.
(1) The workshop was coordinated with the exhibition Dissolving Frontiers, one of many exhibitions, incubators, projects and gatherings that are part of ‘Frontiers in Retreat’, an ambitious five-year initiative that partners seven artist residency spaces ‘on the frontiers of Europe’ with over 20 artists working at the intersections of art, ecology and climate change.
A version of this essay appeared in the book Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing our Sense of Self (2015) available here for free download
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.