I was delighted (and flattered) to be invited to participate in a multi-disciplinary symposium, held in Winchester in October, titled Chalk: Time, Sense, and Landscape, part of the town’s biannual 10 day arts festival. Winchester is securely rooted in the chalk, but while this was the overall theme title of the festival, and inspired by Thomas Huxley’s public lecture On a Piece of Chalk, this symposium ranged widely over distinctly non-calcareous themes. Organised by sound artist Sebastiane Hegarty, its aims were to explore “worlds beyond and beneath the visible” and “sound and the unseen or imagined landscape.”
I thought long and hard as to how the views of a geologist might contribute to these themes and decided to explore the cultural and individual perceptions of landscape that I had touched on in The Desert. Borrowing from Antoine de Exupéry, I titled the talk “Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…” and, given the interest of the audience in soundscapes, began with a recording of booming sand dunes – the acoustics and the sound set-up were so good that even I was startled.
The summary of the talk was as follows:
As the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry remind us, the landscapes of the desert notoriously play havoc with all human senses. Rare sounds become amplified, aromas, other than some kind of unfathomable minerality, are entirely absent, and the range of what seems visible becomes exaggerated. Our sense of scale is comprehensively challenged – a single sand grain and a sea of dunes vie for our attention (and seem equally fascinating). The great chronicler of the deserts of the American southwest, Edward Abbey, wrote: “There is something about the desert that human sensibility cannot assimilate.” Our response to what is seen, and unseen, is very much subjective and cultural, the perception of landscape, time, and scale being quite different for the insider and the outsider. And then there are the stories that the landscape tells the geologist…
I have now been alerted to a review of the symposium by Jodie Dalgleish for the New Zealand based art review EyeContact, and her full essay. I much appreciate her discussion of my talk, and, throwing all modesty to the desert wind, take the liberty of copying it here.
Beginning the second part of the day, geologist, sand expert and author Michael Welland charges my imagination with a desert field recording, made by French researcher Stéphane Douady. It sets up palpable vibrations within the room, an elemental sonic shaking and fullness, bringing to my mind Don Ihde’s description, in Listening and Voice, of the auditory imagination as a sound field that surrounds and invades the imagining subject and places them at the centre of their own auditory space. Revealed by Welland to be the singing, or booming, of a sand dune—40 of which have been identified by geologists as unique in their song from Chile to the Gobi Desert, it is a natural and known sensory part of the Bedouins’ life and environment, with given names for such places ‘the mountain of drums’ and ‘the thunder of singers.’ Referring also to the aboriginal people of Australia, Welland recounts the affecting story of the way Alfred Canning forged a stock-route in the first decade of the 20th century, constructing 51 wells across the ‘outback,’ capturing indigenous inhabitants and torturing them for the location of their water sources. Canning’s resulting map shows a strip through the landscape, defined only by his route and wells. Whereas, a 3.2 x 5 metre painting, Martumili Ngurra (This is all Martu’s Home), made in 2009 by six Matu women of the Martumili collective, reveals a network of stories, information and knowledge in a desert that is far from empty, a living and sung landscape where every part is named, over generations. As Welland illustrates further, with reference to Yi-fu Tuan’s landmark book of humanistic and philosophical geography Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values, there is an unseen ‘landscape’ that is formed by a cultural and personal view. Concepts such as time, scale and horizon change drastically depending on where you have made your home, and what you have learned. For him, as a geologist, the Sahara Desert is also, simultaneously, the Green Sahara with its verdant green valleys and the detailed traces of rivers etched in stone beneath the sand. ‘Landscape,’ I am reminded, is always a flexible cultural construct, and ‘place,’ one of the affective bond of inhabitation. In my own mind since, I am made to wonder about the soundscape, such as that of a field recording. What does the inhabitant, and the inhabiting recorder, of a visible, or non-visible, place understand and imagine vis-a-vis someone from an entirely different place, and does it matter? Does the sound of the not fully known, such as Welland’s dune song, open auditory spaces more fundamental to experience, as might the detail of the known open spaces to another kind of attention? And how might a topographical understanding of ourselves and our environments affect us as artists and makers?
Thank you, Jodie, and thank you Sebastiane for inviting me in the first place – I enjoyed immensely thinking and working on the talk and the diverse and stimulating events of the day. And thanks to Victoria Rick for the photo.