By Listening to the Ocean, Jana Winderen Exposes the Vital Role of Sound in Aquatic Life
Oceans are among the most sound-rich environments on the planet—but because the water’s surface keeps most noises from permeating out, they rarely reach human ears. That hasn’t stopped Norwegian artist Jana Winderen from bringing underwater sounds to dry land. Since 2005, she’s been listening to marine ecosystems using a hydrophone, a microphone designed to detect and record ocean noises from all directions, and shares her recordings—including the creaking of a 10,000-year-old melting glacier, the high-pitched chirps of migrating humpback whales, and the squeaks of dolphins—in audio installations around the world. (Musician and author Bernie Kraus captures nature’s soundscapes, above ground, in a similar manner, and spoke about his work on Ep. 127 of our At a Distance podcast.)
While Winderen’s compositions showcase the ocean’s diverse, often beautiful sonic landscapes, they also highlight the vital role sound plays in aquatic life. That life is now threatened by noise pollution from human interventions, including jet skis and military sonar, which impair many marine organisms’ ability to feed, hear, mate, and navigate. To underscore her message, Winderen often incorporates local, recognizable sounds into her presentations, believing that they will help listeners respond in visceral ways. “We really need to get to know our local environment to be able to understand and protect this planet,” she told BBC Radio 3. “Through sound there’s a more direct physical presence. An image of an iceberg melting, it is looking very beautiful and it will always be at a distance from you, while a sound comes very close and all around you.”
Next month, Winderen will bring a site-specific soundscape to New York. On view February 3–13 at the Lantern, a flexible top-floor space at the Lenfest Center for the Arts on Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus, “The Art of Listening: Under Water” is a 28-channel audio installation that immerses visitors in seldom-heard aquatic ecosystems. The project consists of recordings Winderen has made over the years in multiple locations—the Barents Sea, Iceland, Greenland, Thailand, the Caribbean, and Florida among them—combined with recordings made off the coast of Belmar, New Jersey. Listeners can sit, stand, or recline as they take it all in.
Winderen’s attentiveness to the ocean is informed, in part, by a lifetime of listening to it. Her grandfather, a doctor and environmentalist, gave her a rowboat as a gift when she was 10 years old. Throughout her youth, Winderen spent hours floating in her boat or sitting on the beach, enjoying the sounds of the south coast of Norway where her family lived. She went on to study mathematics, chemistry, biochemistry, and piscine ecology at the University of Oslo, and later attended Goldsmiths, University of London, where she began investigating underwater sound by recording the Thames. “I think we have kind of forgotten to listen, to see the world with sound,” Winderen says.