if we do nothing

My project if we do nothing began as a simple concept born of a failure to comprehend the endless streams of visual data on climate change. My idea was to sonify climate change data. The dynamics of climate change’s various drivers, for example rising CO2 or disappearing Arctic sea ice, would be represented in sound. I wanted to exploit sound’s advantages over forms of visual representation, principally its potential to afford immediate transformational experiences. Sound, as a phenomenological reality in itself, invites audiences to feel the movement of data, offering unique perceptions of the abstract complexities of climate change data.

Whether this concept was somewhat pessimistic or entirely realistic I can’t say for certain, but the more I looked into developing global scenarios, the more I understood that human-induced climate change is a civilizational problem and that the artistic community is as well placed as any to generate fresh thinking. I came to appreciate some of the differences between strictly media-specific arts and the contemporary eco-arts. The former exists within largely self-enclosed modes of production and presentational forms (I myself work almost uniquely with sound). Art/science collaborations on the other hand thrive on complexity and transdisciplinarity and are often oblivious to the imperatives of the established art world. My research brought me face-to-face with current lines of inquiry into adaptation, sustainability, the conditions and limits of science, and the importance of artistic endeavor in reframing the important questions.

Coding and sonifying climate change data.

I began with “big data” – representations of rising global CO2 and falling glacier mass (Switzerland’s Aletsch Glacier). Data monitoring for these two goes back some time; I chose 1880 as a starting date, around the time when the effects of the industrial revolution kick in, and took forward projections up to 2050, when tipping points are predicted to cause chaotic or irreversible conditions. My initial model, using glissandi (sliding tones), ran into problems having to do with the unpleasant effect of very high frequencies on the ear. I set this model aside and, with specialist assistance, looked instead at pulsar synthesis, an exciting research field in contemporary electronic music. As the name implies the sounds are small pulses or ticks, each with an element of pitch embedded in them. The speeding up and slowing down of the ticks offers a robust and convincing representation of the data sets. The synthesis modules were coded to produce almost infinite variations of the model, as well as a suite of choices with respect to duration and other parameters. Here you can listen to variations of the model with further details.

Next, I developed a model exploring one unique phenomenon. One of my original ideas had been to create a permanent fixed installation that would sonify real-time (or near real-time) data. My cryosphere colleagues gently (but firmly) convinced me that this would be impossible with big data as the changes are too slow to be perceived on scales of less than a decade. We agreed eventually on the idea of investigating arctic sea ice, the volume of which is disappearing at an alarming rate. Revisiting the method of taking historical data and projecting forward using best estimates, I gathered data mapping the disappearance of sea ice from 1980 (earliest records) to 2080, when some predict it will have disappeared altogether. The model uses two tones, high and low, representing ice levels a century apart. A sweeping tone between the two at a user-defined interval emphasizes the difference. The simplicity of these models honors a fundamental principle of sonification.

From Elizabeth Nyman and Jeff Leer, Gágiwduł.àt: Brought Forth to Reconfirm. The Legacy of a Taku River Tlingit Clan.

With large-scale research projects, you often find yourself taking unforeseen detours. I was drawn to a consideration of adaptation from the perspective of indigenous communities living in and around the Arctic rim. With advice from anthropologists and climate scientists at the University of Aberdeen I learned that many such communities, though at great risk, are arguably better prepared, culturally and historically, than urban Europeans to adapt to and survive the effects of climate change. This led me to examine indigenous knowledge systems, myths, and stories of communities living in the North American and Siberian arctic regions. I provided a colleague specializing in these indigenous languages with specific “semantic fields” – key words and concepts around environment, weather, migration, and so forth. He in turn provided me with native language texts, pronunciation notes, and translations. I spent several weeks learning details of pronunciation and intonation, then read and recorded both originals and translation. My recorded voice was synthesized and transformed using customized software. Next, I looked at the United Nations literature for what I’d call “authoritative texts” related to the themes of the indigenous texts. These procedures led me to the largely ethnographic problem of the incommensurability of worldviews, or the porosity of knowledge, for example the differences between Western science and myth in defining and explaining the universe. I took the view that indigenous environmental knowledge, often inscrutable, irrational or non-rational, is itself a form of data (data = something given). A short excerpt of this model, using two bodies of text, can be auditioned here. 2019 will see a longer four-channel immersive work based on four bodies of text.

My fourth model takes me to (near) real-time data sonification. Where I live in the semi-rural Scottish Borders, the air is assumed to be relatively clean. I’m currently looking at ways of gathering, contrasting, and sonifying air pollution data from both rural and urban monitoring sites. To complicate matters, an environmental agency engineer pointed out that the Scottish rural air is often heavily polluted due to the proximity of methane sources (cattle) and drifting pollutants from continental Europe. My hope is that this localized model will ground the debate, drawing in people and communities, fostering discussion around local transport, food production, housing, land use, sustainability, and adaptation. I’m also investigating river level monitoring and the idea of creating sonic warning mechanisms to alert people to possible flood conditions, an undertaking that includes gathering stories from land and river workers around ad hoc adaptations to local effects of climate change.

Listening pavilion, proposed design. Old School Fabrications, East Lothian, Scotland.

All four models will be presented in the first instance as sound installations, with textual and other support. As part of the funding from Creative Scotland, and bearing in mind the importance of public engagement in the project, I had a pavilion designed to house the work. Finally, an open forum has been arranged in Dumfries in February 2018 to design and plan a series of future symposiums on eco-art, the aesthetics of sustainability, resilience, and emergence.

2018 is production year, during which I’ll be seeking partnerships with venues, curators and funders. I welcome any contact and will be happy to provide further details.


James Wyness works across experimental music, radio art and eco-art. Developed in collaboration with partners from the creative, scientific, academic, engineering and civic communities, his current projects include the sonification of climate change data, and radiophonic investigations into language, the voice and listening. As an eco-artist, his interests converge on future sustainable ecologies, incommensurate epistemologies and conflicting understandings of the environment. His musical practice spans the improvisational, electroacoustic and electronic traditions. He works from a definition of music as an investigation of complexity and instability, a phenomenology of emerging forms manifesting deep-seated anthropological functionality, sound-as-sound over sound-as-sign.

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