Secrets Of The Sun

One of three items received from the label Every Contact Leaves A Trace…the odd English micro-label from whom we last heard in 2014, specialising in quite marginal sound art with a somewhat conceptual dimension…they also continue to adhere to their weird packaging strategy of issuing CDRs in cardboard sandwiches held together with bulldog clips.

Helen White is an artist in residence at The Watershed gallery in Bristol, specifically operating in the “Pervasive Media Studio”. Her work there is something to do with the environment, and she’s interested in working with data collection to make sound. On Solar Wind Chime, the CDR we have in front of us, there are three manifestations of her experiments with satellite data. What it comes down to is that we’re hearing “energy being released by the sun”, which I naively assume is being emitted and captured as some form of radio signal (my knowledge of astro-physics is less than zero). If you went to the Watershed, you might be able to see Helen making a visual representation from the same data sources. Come to think of it, the insert showing a network of overlapping and intersecting purple lines might be just that. I see from the web page that her work received coverage from Physics World and The Weather Channel.

We could note that Disinformation / Joe Banks was doing similar things in 1996, though I hasten to add I don’t think art should be seen as a “competition” to be the first artist to use a particular method or technique. That line of thought tends to see conceptual art and sound art (and fine art) as little more than a series of “gimmicks”, where success depends on being the first – and the only – person to use such a gimmick. What interests me in this instance is how similar source data can, in different hands, create two totally distinct forms of sound art. Disinformation’s Stargate record, which presented radio emissions from the sun and noise storms associated with sunspot activity, sounds completely different to Helen White’s more soothing Solar Wind Chime. Stargate was a record of “the seashore effect” as some have called it, a somewhat threatening roaring sound, which to my demented imagination suggested the terrifying power of solar flares. Solar Wind Chime is, by contrast, a rather benign if slightly strange droning tone. Through Helen White’s vision, the sun is certainly a smiling entity shedding its warm rays upon the earth, much like the sun as drawn in a book of Renaissance science.

Solar Wind Chime is also surprisingly unengaging as a listening experience. I applaud the method: White has noted the recent growth in scientific datasets and their availability, and set herself the task of “giving form to an aesthetically bereft mass of data”. Presumably this means that the digital data by itself was not something that could really be considered art, and she found ways to reprocess it into an aesthetically pleasing shape. One method has been the processing of real-time data from the satellite into this droning sound. It comes close to being music. But it’s difficult to find much of interest in this unvarying long tone; it does change, but not in very interesting ways, and the basic inertness of the source material keeps showing through. Me, I like more sublimation, not just process for its own sake. A more successful instance of what I’m talking about is Yird Muin Starn, the 2013 record by Kaffe Matthews and Mandy McIntosh. Part of this work used data derived from star constellations to reprocess field recordings made in the Galloway Forest, and the results were far more imaginative and aesthetically pleasing. However, this is still a worthwhile and interesting experiment, and it’s nice to have these snapshots of the work published in CD form. From 29th September 2016.

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