Exercise 2: Developing your research skills

Katie Paterson Vatnajökull (the sound of) 

This piece is a site-specific installation in Iceland. It makes available a continuous feed of amplified sound from the Vatnajökull glacier via telephone. An audio loop is available as a sample on the artist's website and appears to consist mainly of ice cracking and the running of meltwater.

Unlike Longplayer, another audio installation, there is a greater sense of distance between the source of the sound and the listener. This is not just because of the physical distancye between Iceland and wherever the listener might be in the world, but because the source of the sound does not seem as obvious. In the case of Longplayer the video gives the listener something to look at and a sense of being "present" at something recognizable as a performance, even if the musical notes may someday be sounded by computer rather than musicians. With Vatnajökull, on the other hand, we do not have the same sense of immediacy or agency: what does the installation look like and how was it done? Is there really a continuous feed of sound from the glacier 24/7, or are we listening to a very long audio loop that repeats? Is there really an installation at all? Put another way, is there really a "there" there or are we being tricked?

Nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that Katie Paterson is playing fair with her audience because she has shown such great care in researching and producing her other pieces. Whether it is Future Library or Fossil Necklace, Paterson has painstakingly worked to create objects and happenings that are rooted in specific places and times. If anything, her work is often preoccupied with an interest in very long stretches of time and cosmic dimensions, such as can be seen in Ancient Darkness TV and All the Dead Stars.

On the face of it, Vatnajökull is largely about place, being named for a large, well-known ice cap. It is the source for Iceland's famous glacier lagoon visited by many thousands of tourists each year and, even without having visited the site, most people could conjure up something like it in their imaginations supported by the sound of moving ice and water droplets alone.

On reflection, however, Vatnajökull is also very much about the passage of time. Even though Katie Paterson's use of text in the piece is very limited and provides few interpretive clues, glaciers are all about time. The formation of an ice sheet takes many hundreds of years and I remember the tour guide at Jökulsárlón telling me that the pure glacial ice she handed me to taste was over 1,000 years old. While it was still in my mouth, it dawned on me that Vikings were roaming Iceland when the snow fell that created the icy diamond! But the constant dripping and cracking we hear in Paterson's piece reminds us that the ancient ice sheet is melting at an ever-increasing pace because of global warming. And, as we look forward, we can imagine a time when there may be no Vatnajökull at all -- along with the related climactic, economic and social impacts that we really don't understand yet.

In this way, there is both a strong, ancient character to the work blended with a warning about the fragility of all natural things that are subject to the passing of time and the effects of human activity.  

 Jökulsárlón at the foot of Vatnajökull (taken Septermber 23, 2015)

Jökulsárlón at the foot of Vatnajökull (taken Septermber 23, 2015)