Duncan Whitley reflects on his Nest Residency
I applied for a NEST residency to revisit my personal archive of sound recordings, distributed across a number of drives in my studio. I was interested in collating and catalogue recordings which connected to the subject of the wind: some of these would be recordings made incidentally during the production of moving-image projects, others captured with the specific intention of recording the ambiental sounds of wind. In reality, this time spent cataloguing and editing during the residency formed part of a wider process of listening, reading and thinking about the connections between the medium of sound, and that of the wind.
The NEST residencies offer artists time and space to research and experiment without the pressure of producing an outcome. My last five years have been mainly dedicated to two experimental film projects produced collaboratively with composer Abul Mogard, Kimberlin (2019) and Phoenix City 2021 (2021). For me the residency was, first and foremost, an opportunity to step away from ‘projects’, and to instead return to thinking widely about the medium and nature of sound – my primary medium before transitioning to the field of artists’ moving-image. So, whilst researching future work around the subject of the wind, this residency was also an opportunity to think deeply about the medium which has driven my creative thinking in the visual arts.
Thinking through some analogies…
The wind is usually considered problematic for sound recordists, who look for ways to avoid its buffeting since it doesn’t play nicely with the delicate diaphragm of the microphone. The aggressive rumble of wind on the diaphragm tends to break with the transparency of the recording, and distracts from its intended subject. And yet to the naked ear, the sound of the wind can be beautiful, meditative, and even musical. Of course, the wind becomes sonorous only as it comes into contact with the surfaces of the earth, shaped by the contours of the landscape. The soughing of the wind give voice to the world, and bring its contours into relief, much like the rain in this famous passage from John Hull’s Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness:
“Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience… I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me.”
Sound, like the wind, is shaped by the contours of the landscape, flowing through and around, colliding and reflecting off its relatively immovable surfaces. Land, vegetation and buildings shape airflow, and inside our buildings the walls and furniture likewise sculpt our experience of sound, and with it our perception of space.
Sound is also tactile in a way which directly corresponds to the materiality of the wind: the thudding bass of the sound system pounds the chest and the gut, and is felt through the sensitive soles of the feet. In the world external to us, the forms we perceive as sound (once interpreted through our nervous systems) are, like the wind, movements of air molecules provoked by changes of pressure. I have a particular memory, an epiphany with some parallels to that described in John Hull’s passage on the rain, in which I recall my attention being brought to the susurration of the wind through a group of trees in front of me, in an apparent ‘bringing to life’ of the world around me. Seconds later I felt the same air which I had just observed animating leaves of the trees a few yards away, now brushing against my cheek – a moment of synaesthesia through which a particular understanding of the physical world came into focus. An entire set of relations momentarily became ‘visible’ for me through this ‘medium-in-between’, which connects us to the world.
Thinking through this analogy, it is an unexpected outcome of this residency to find myself returned to one of my first sound works: my degree show piece Gunshot Corridor (1999). Installed in a 30-metre long corridor in the sculpture department at Kingston University, this early work has proved foundational to my understanding of sound as medium. It was an ephemeral work in which the negative space of the corridor was animated by the intermittent sound of gunshots, which rifled down the passageway, fleetingly breaking the inert quiet of the space. The movement of air of the gunshot, and that produced by the movement of the physical cones of the loudspeaker enter into an analogous relation, as the acoustic pressure wave is briefly made ‘visible’ in the negative space of the corridor. I pursued the expression of this set of relations through a number of installation works at the time, including a series of site-specific pieces which employed the sound of pigeon wings as metaphor for the movement of sound.
Bullet Shock Wave (1970), Harold E. Edgerton, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
The respiration of the world
Amongst the sound recordings in my personal archive which I returned to during my NEST residency, I ended up spending a lot of time listening to recordings from a particular project The Creature in Between (2016). The Creature in Between was a pilot project initiated by Claudia Fontes, an experimental colaboratorio taking place in a Wichí community in the north of Argentina (with sculptor Elba Bairron, photographer Guadalupe Miles and hacker Mateo Carabajal). The project was conceived as an intermedia and intercultural exploration of what it means to be a person living in the world with other creatures, in which “artists, hackers, potters, writers and musicians will come together to collaborate in creative processes, finding novel ways of translating their perceptions across cultures, generations, languages and species”.
During the 10-day residence I worked closely with Mawó Mendoza, a member of the Wichí community who took me daily to sites in the savannah where he would attempt to share with me his deep understanding of the acoustic language of his natural environment – and where we would produce a series of over 25 collaborative field recordings. These recordings culminated – at least it felt like a culmination, I’m not sure this was merely my perception or whether Mawó had intended it this way – in two recordings of the sounding of a sacred object, which I now know to known in the English language as a bull-roarer, but which Mawó described to me as “the caller of the winds”. This delicately carved wooden object, shaped like a slightly twisted leaf attached to a long string, was traditionally used by the Wichí shaman to “call the four winds into conference” in times of drought. In Mawó’s understanding of the world, without the wind we cannot breathe and the plants shrivel (and of course, this is entirely true: it is the wind that moves clouds and brings moisture across great distances).
When I listen to these recordings now, they seem to synthesise a set of relations which trace a line from the analogy of sound to wind (the object which Mawó called “the caller of the winds”, known in the wichí language as Lhayialh, is effectively a sounding instrument which displaces air as it is swung in a circular motion), to interactions between Mawó and the birds around us via this instrument. Listening across other of our recordings, I hear other moments in which birds of varied species appear to be reacting – somehow animated but I can’t speculate as to what is really going on – to the changing intensities of the wind, in the exact same ways that they appear to react to Mawó’s bull-roarer.
Sounding clay vessels produced collaboratively during The Creature in Between (2016). The making of the vessels was undertaken at a communal table once the direction and speed of the wind was considered favourable for this act of creation. Image by Guadalupe Miles, courtesy of The Appreciation Society.
In Wichí tradition and thinking, the wind is understood as synonymous with breath – and I think it is principally this lesson from the Creature in Between which led me to be sat at the NEST revisiting these recordings, ideas and memories. The Wichí people and other of the ‘pueblos originarios’ (‘original communities’) do not deal with trivia, their folk tales tend to deal with the essential knowledge which is central not only to their own survival, but moreover to the harmony of the entire natural order.
Lhayiahl (2016), by Duncan Whitley and Mawó Mendoza. Audio track selected for The Slow Bird, curated by Claudia Fontes for Affective Affinities the 33rd São Paulo Biennial 2018.
I don’t yet feel able to draw together everything which I began to unpack during the two-week residency into a neat form (and I am a long way from these strands becoming reconfigured into the form of an artwork), but what the residency has enabled for me is to identify a number of threads from which I could plan out future research.. The residency went beyond a realisable process of identifying and collating recordings in my personal archive, to a far messier process of throwing onto the table a set of sounds, memories and concepts which have haunted me since my first visit to Argentina in 2016 (and perhaps since I first began to study contemporary art in the late 1990’s). The next phase of this work will be to take these strands of this residency research into a practice-based exploration through sound, perhaps piece by piece through further small residencies or commissions.