The Tidal Sense, 2019. Hemp canvas, wood construction, ropes, chain hoist, audio cables, transducers, vibration microphones, electronics, and audio recordings, 1102 x 236 in. at widest point. Photo: Rolf Larsen

Signe Lidén: The Sounds of Place

Last year, the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) unveiled an expanded program of four international and Norwegian artist residency projects in small villages across the stringy, mountainous northwestern archipelago of islands. With a stupendous, overpowering landscape, the Lofoten Islands evoke particular qualities of light, ambience, and atmosphere, making them a place of places and a fitting context for place-related art interventions—exactly what the LIAF sought to explore in its program. The guiding theme—the in-between qualities of time and tide anchored in the phrase “Intertidal”—spoke clearly to the particulars of place and the lure of the local.

One of the festival’s projects, The Tidal Sense, by Norwegian sound sculptor Signe Lidén—a piece created in Ramberg (the most southwesterly of LIAF’s net of villages)—demonstrates how the meaning, apprehension, and quality of art bound to place has broadened in recent years. For environmentally hued artists, deploying experience, sensitization, and closer connection of “our kind” to immediate physical and “natural” surroundings has increasingly involved a broad spectrum of media. Sound art’s reordering from eye—“the great monopolist of the senses”—to ear, from looking to listening, and from the visual to the invisible, has helped reset the parameters of the terrain. As a kind of loose and environmentally bespoke offspring of Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 formulation of “sculpture in the expanded field,” sound art has been critical to expanding the scope of place-related practice.

Tidal Sense
The Tidal Sense, 2019. Hemp canvas, wood construction, ropes, chain hoist, audio cables, transducers, vibration microphones, electronics, and audio recordings, 1102 x 236 in. at widest point. Photo: Rolf Larsen

Lidén’s The Tidal Sense offers a visceral way into place. The taut textile structure, built in collaboration with sailmakers during a residency at St John’s College in Oxford, was thrown over the rocks and seaweed running the length of Ramberg’s crescent-shaped shoreline, and held fast by bright orange mooring lines. Wired underneath and raised by simple wood trestles, the canvas became an experimental haptic instrument to record, animate, and broadcast the microcosmic details of shore life. The Tidal Sense, which, in addition to its ecological hemp membrane, consists of microphones, amplifier, and speaker, folds into an ongoing theme in Lidén’s work: listening to place across the more-than-human, so that wind, water, marine life, and geological strata blur as objective categories to become almost equal sound partners. Put your ear to the canvas and you’ll hear a tidal sound world, “a complexity of rhythms and relations between water and land life,” which Lidén likes to suggest is “about the kelp’s perspective, and what it is the coast experiences.”

The de-centering and de-anthropomorphizing of environments inform Lidén’s working approach, which is influenced by interspecies theory. The 28-meter-long membrane ensured that as much as possible of the acoustic ecology of the wrack and splash zones, the high-tide line, and the action of waves crashing against rocks was electronically caught and transmitted across the speaker. Lidén explains that the soundscape “is spread out over the whole membrane. It’s a very particular band of the body of water. In the membrane’s spine, you can listen to different phases of the water…the overwater, the underwater down at the bottom, and water responding to cyclic changes and repeated rhythms. Place is being established through the listening on the membrane.” The membrane’s expansive size enabled these layered textures, giving “a sense of this intertidal zone.”

The Tidal Sense, 2019. Hemp canvas, wood construction, ropes, chain hoist, audio cables, transducers, vibration microphones, electronics, and audio recordings, 1102 x 236 in. at widest point. Photo: Rolf Larsen

Lidén also wove culture into the sounds of the seashore broadcasting itself. Interviews with the Ramberg community and conversations with colleagues are interspersed in the soundscape. Local voices introduce time, in the guise of memory—another offshoot of recording technology. Later in the summer, the stretched textile membrane was moved and reconstructed on the top floor of a former newspaper office in Svolvær (the Lofoten’s principal town), where it transmitted its original environment. For LIAF’s lead curator, Hilde Methi, the structure felt like an instrument, but even more like a resonator object, “belonging to that tidal spot. It was so big, and really beautiful.” Both on the beach and indoors, the piece resembles an arresting, distant relation to Land Art. Lidén says, “I aim at creating forms where the materiality, shape, and technology or function are equally in dialogue with the topic/place that I am working with. In The Tidal Sense, the material was an aesthetic, functional, and aware choice.”

For the sound art networks to which Lidén belongs, opening up the transmission of place has been a key concern. Like others, she uses a repertoire of technologies from the experimental electro-acoustic and electronic music scenes: resonators, transducers, and other low- to no-tech devices. These are then fused with the new data measurement systems that have emerged over the last few decades across earth sciences, including geomorphology, meteorology, hydrology, geochemistry, and atmospheric studies. Such technologies have transformed our understanding of weather, climate, and the earth’s processes, not to mention climate change. Riding on the back of this wiring of the planet and its atmosphere with sensors, sonar, and satellites, experimental sound artists have adapted the technology for their own quasi-off-grid purposes. Without these tools to channel the biosphere, their work would not be possible. For Lidén, place is where the lines of interest converge, informing many projects: “They may not be the same, but they’re all going in the same direction.”

Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide, Altitude and History, 2016. Interactive sound performance in Nikel, Russia. Photo: Espen Sommer Eide

Recording and transmitting place have served as core building blocks in Lidén’s work. For The Cold Coast Archive (2009–12), one early project, she was part a team (along with Annesofie Norn and Steve Rowell) working on Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole that hosts the Svalbard Global Seed Bank. Together with collaborators at San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation, this team engaged in both the deep past and the deep future, which triggered Lidén’s personal interest in the long term and deep time, its ripples going on to influence The Tidal Sense, including new ways of understanding “places that related to these long time spans—not manmade or created time, but rooted in the place.”

For Urphänomene (2012), a key transition work and graduation piece for the Nordic Sound Art masters program, Lidén hung a concrete block from the Bergen Kunsthall ceiling, complete with transducers inside the block amplifying a stormy night recording. “I didn’t know how to work with what I’d uncovered. Making a composition for speakers seemed so tame in relation to the energy in the recording.”

Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide, Altitude and History, 2016. Interactive sound performance in Nikel, Russia. Photo: Michael Miller

Lidén traces her interest in sound to studies in dance and its sensory spatial dynamics while she was in Paris. Karim Sebbar, a tutor who cultivated acoustic awareness of open, public space, was influential, particularly in terms of his exercise to memorize the acoustic dimension of the daily journey from home to his workshop. Lidén recalls, “After the first walk in, I realized just how much I’d forgotten and missed. And then, the second time I did the experiment, I realized how much there was to listen to. That really had an effect. I became more of a listening being, taking in space and place. Through technology, it opened up what I listened to.”

Although she returned to a BFA in Oslo, she was increasingly drawn to sound as a medium. A subsequent spell at Weimar Art School introduced her to the city and its history, from the German Enlightenment and Bauhaus to World War II and years of Soviet GDR decline, which had turned the city into a shadowland. The charged landscape triggered exploration and experimentation, weaving together layers of aural imagery, sound memories, and histories, which have since become a core element in her palette. A 2006 workshop in low-tech sound and electronics in Munich organized by Natalia Borrisova, a Russian artist friend, further crystallized the transition. The other participants were considerably more experienced, understood the tech, and were building low-tech coils and sound devices. Lidén was “a bit jealous of their knowledge and approach to sound.” She ended up making a very simple amplifier and speaker, leaving the workshop with a clearer idea of how the low-tech ethos was underwritten by “very simple principles.”

Field Modulations, 2018. Fabric, transducers, electronics, iron ore, copper wire, tin box, magnets, and field recordings, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Much more recently, Lidén found herself working in another raw shadow landscape—the Barents border region, which Norway shares with Russia. A century of heavy mining for metal and raw minerals had decimated a once undisturbed landscape, rendering it into a grim, post-industrial moonscape. A series of exhibitions curated by Methi (and partners, the Dutch Sonic Acts Festival) borrowed its title, “Dark Ecology,” from the particularly apt imagery of Timothy Morton, philosopher of the Anthropocene (and the guest of one of the project’s participants).

In 2014, the first year of the exhibition series, Lidén decided on a performative walk close to the border, carrying an adapted bow and arrow with a microphone in its head. Each time she sent the arrow flying, its landing point became the next recording site. A water balloon, with affixed camera, recorded the journey. Two years later, Lidén and sound artist Espen Sommer Eide initiated their “Vertical Studies” series for the last “Dark Ecology” project. Altitude and History was performed in and around the small Russian mining town of Nikel (population 11,000). Applying the community approach of several earlier projects, they created the Nikel Sound History Club, recording the aural memories of the town’s older inhabitants. Many involved the almost constant presence of the wind, as well as a traumatic forest fire that turned Nikel’s high street into a wind tunnel, out of which a sound-memory collage of conversations emerged. The presence of the wind, invisible yet tangible, impressed itself on the artists, who began to make small mobile instruments “which the wind could both tune and play”; audiences could listen to them as part of performative walks out from the town to higher ground. The instruments opened up acoustic changes in the windscapes at different altitudes. Sedimented layers of sound memories and stories about the town’s old soundscapes, of mining and the vertical journeys up and down the pit face, were woven together. The piece culminated in a walk, with Sommer Eide “blowing” the sounds out of a self-built “harmonizer-like storytelling device,” as participants climbed toward a small patch of forested hillside overlooking Nikel. For Methi, it was a singular experience: “The wind was playing up and downwards, and making a form in the wind, the carrier of sound. It was the sound as you heard it, where you have to have air, but it was also carrying the sound.”

Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide, Altitude and History, 2016. Interactive sound performance in Nikel, Russia. Photo: Michael Miller

The instruments as they appear in photographs look fittingly otherworldly—half-wired sensors, half-elemental kites. The overlap with and dependency on scientific instruments was underscored by a small meteorology shed in which Lidén and Sommer Eide worked, incorporating its aerial into the project. Atmospheric change impulses were recorded at different altitudes using sonar-inspired vertical speakers. “We gathered sounds at different levels—from underground rocks to the air and atmosphere, up into the metrological bandwidths,” Lidén says of this experience, which influenced her subsequent research.

Between “Dark Ecology” in 2016 and The Tidal Sense, Lidén has pursued additional themes and a more expansive research agenda, while exploring a diverse range of sites and contexts, including working with Ellen Røed at CERN, Switzerland. She also created another intertidal project, this time across the Wadden Sea coastline of northern mainland Europe. All of these endeavors underscore the environmental sensibility threading through Lidén’s work, which continues to broaden our concept of the environmental art and place tradition. As a member of a relatively small, though growing international sound art network, Lidén is helping to recalibrate the questions that we ask of place, the senses, and the environment.