Louise K. Wilson – In the ‘chthonic underworld’


Note: The remaining unsealed well at Dukes Wood has now been located. While excavation may not be as simple as first hoped – an attempt to gain (audible/ visible) access will be made shortly. Currently it is a cavity filled with imaginative possibility. In the meantime, I wanted to consider artists’ engagements with holes in the ground – and their acoustic potential.

If you enter “microphones + drilling + holes” or a similar combination into a search engine, it is likely that accounts of a sensational occurrence will be returned. It concerns a group of Russian scientists /geologists who were conducting deep drilling experiments in Siberia in the late 1980s. After breaking through the earth’s crust (at approximately nine miles down), they installed a heat tolerant microphone to monitor movement.  The scientists were shocked to pick up not the expected data but the screaming of millions of souls in torment – or so the story goes. Leaving aside such confabulations, there are of course credible scientific endeavours to listen to the movements of seismic waves. The desire for artists to listen and record down – deep down – into the ground has a relatively recent history however. In September of 1969 Bruce Nauman’s proposed UNTITLED (1969) – in which he succinctly exhorted us to:

“Drill a hole about a mile into the earth and drop a microphone to within a few feet of the bottom. Mount the amplifier and speaker in a very large empty room and adjust the volume to make audible any sounds that may come from the cavity.”

Forty years later, this thought experiment was realised by his fellow compatriot Doug Aitken with Sonic Pavilion (2009). This contentious commissioned work is permanently installed in the high expense open-air art gallery/ botanical garden of Inhotim in Brumadino in the Brazilian rainforest. Following a considerable period of planning and construction, a hole – approximately one mile long and one foot in diameter – was successfully bored.  An array of accelerometers and microphones were lowered down at various depths and the resulting sounds of the rotating earth and of seismic activity were “transposed” into the range of human audibility and amplified by eight speakers. Nauman’s ‘empty room’ was realised in this instance as an austere circular pavilion. The work subsequently received a critical mauling by Seth Kim Cohen in the review pages of Artforum (November 2009) where he denounced the thinking to parade such mediated sounds as ‘folly’. Surely this work problematically continues a naïve notion of sonic essentialism he argued. Philosopher Christoph Cox roundly attacked this critique against sound purporting to deliver a “noumenal essence of the world”. According to Cox, this work – amongst other pieces of sound art – is not attached to essentialism but to a “philosophical naturalism (that) insists human beings are of a piece with the natural world we inhabit”.

An arbitrary and certainly not exhaustive survey of other deep (as in subterranean) listening experiments brings to mind the crisp audible delights of Chris Watson’s sound collage Vatnajökull. Watson excavated into this eponymous glacier in Iceland with hydrophones, to bring back a varied uncanny selection of knocks, creaks, groans and more tender harmonics that were then collaged together. Time was compressed – a “10,000 year climatic journey of ice …and its lingering flow” was condensed into an eighteen-minute work (on Weather Report).  Jem Finer’s Score for a hole in the ground (in Kingswood Forest, near Challock in Kent) is not reliant on overtly technical devices. It takes inspiration from the suikinkutsu, or musical water chimes in Japanese temple gardens in which water from overflowing stone bowls drips down through stones to resonate in concealed dishes. These explorations of duration, of found musicality and of process demand close listening. Let the underworld speak!


By Louise K Wilson

Thanks to Alec Finlay for this expression




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