The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) provides UAL graduates with the exceptional opportunity to explore concerns of the 21st century. One UAL student was selected to visit one of our partnering institutions; LABVERDE.
A 10-day immersive off-grid program in the Brazilian Amazon for artists who are willing to reflect on nature and landscape, through an exploration of the connection between science, art and the natural environment. In this report, Yifeat Ziv (MA Sound Art, LCC) will share her personal experience of the program, highlighting moments that were particularly meaningful to her.
Part 1: Seven days at the Adolpho Ducke Forest Reserve
“On my second day at the reserve, a little bit after mid-day, it started to rain. The sky was pouring Amazonian rain for almost an hour, then right after it stopped, I went out for my first walk, alone, to the heart of the jungle.
What do I hear?
Inspired by Pauline Oliveros “Environmental Dialogue” (from her 1974 “Sonic Meditations”) I start by listening to the sound of my own breath. I’m listening to myself breathing the Amazonian air, the air of the world’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink that is so crucial for our planet right now, the air of a forest that is currently being burned as a result of massive deforestation actions that is taking place in the Amazon region nowadays.
I’m listening to the sound of my breath, developing a sonic perception of my own body in the soundscape. Then gradually, I’m shifting my attention to other sounds, reinforcing it with my own voice by sustaining or strengthening the sounds that I hear: a huge number of different patterns, repeated in an ungraspable shifting tempo, creating rich polyrhythms, a huge diversity of timbres and pitches. Insects, birds, a fruit is falling and hitting the ground, probably caused by a monkey walking on the top of the unseen canopy, drops of water hitting the ground, the cracking of branches. Some of the drops sound to me like the sound of crackling wood in a fire.
Can I smell traces of smoke?
The forest reverberates my voice. The density of the trees and the thick canopy reflects sound waves and creates an echo as if I was singing in a closed space. I didn’t expect it. This echo feels like a mirror, it feedbacks my vocal intervention, reflecting traces of my own sound pollution in the Amazon’s dense soundscape.”
We spent the first week of the residency at the Adolpho Ducke Forest Reserve, near the city of Manaus - a ten-thousand-hectare land of primary rainforest dedicated to scientific research. This reserve is under the administration of the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), a public educational and research institution headquartered in Manaus. Our time at the reserve was divided between lectures by INPA scientists, guided tours in the forest, meetings with local artists and free time to work on our personal projects, as well as shared meals and social activities together with the other artists from the group.
Meeting INPA’s scientists gave us a unique opportunity to learn about the Amazon region from different perspectives and areas of research. Some of them gave us lectures at the reserve’s classroom, and others took us for walks in the forest, sharing their knowledge while showing us actual examples of the incredible Amazonian ecosystem. We had a chance to meet specialists of Amazonian biodiversity conservation, insects, mushrooms and plant domestication, among others.
The meetings with scientists were an eye-opening experience for me, extending my knowledge of the abundant life of the Amazon and how it is affected by human behaviour in Brazil and around the world. One talk that was particularly staggering for us was the lecture by scientist Jochen Schöngart, a specialist in forest science. He shared with us many disturbing facts about human impacts in the rainforest, and it aroused a long group discussion about what can we do, as people and as artists, to help the Amazon.
The program also included two inspiring meetings with local artists. The first one was with visual artist and poet Roberto Evangelista, who lived with an indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest for more than 30 years and created video and performative works based on his experience. The second meeting was with sound artists Luisa Puterman and Bruno Garibaldi (Projeto Sonora), who performed for us a blind-folded listening experience titled “The Imaginary Museum of Natural History of the Amazon”. This project brings the sounds, stories and facts about the rainforest to a large and diverse audience in Brazil, stimulating what Luisa would describe as “the human’s most important technology”: the imagination. After the performance, we had a short group conversation with Luisa and Bruno, and during this talk we had a very interesting discussion about the ethics of using recordings of indigenous people’s music.
On our sixth day, we went for a full-day trip. We left the reserve early in the morning, before sunrise, so that we arrived on time to see the sunrise from INPA ZF2 45-meter tower.
“During sunrise, from the top of the 45-meters high ZF2 tower, I had a chance to listen to the rainforest waking up. We were a group of 20 people on this tower, and once in a while, you could hear the sound of our footsteps hitting the industrial metallic staircase, mixed with a sound of an insect that sounds like a metallic synthesizer.
Once in a while, you could also hear the Screaming Piha, one of the most famous Amazonian birds. This bird is stimulated by loud sounds, and therefore in the Rio Negro area, it is called “The Thunderbird”, because during thunderstorms you can hear their screams. But they’re also stimulated by other loud noises, and once while walking in the forest I sneezed and immediately received a response from a Screaming Piha that was flying around me.
Then I’m thinking about us, humans, the sounds that stimulate us and the way we use our voice as a response to what we hear. I’m thinking about the origin of the human languages, about onomatopoeias that derive from primal listening experiences to nature sounds, words that includes a vocal imitation of the sound of what it refers to and exists in all languages.”
We finished our day-trip watching the sunset from a boat, sailing over the Balbina dam - a vast flooded area that was built during Brazil’s military regime to provide power supply for the city of Manaus. The flooding caused a huge damage to the ecosystem of this area, and while sailing over the dam it felt like being in a very sad cemetery of dead trees, popping out of the water, bare and leafless.
“At nights the howler monkeys are active. They have a whole range of frequencies of their own, lower than most of the insect and birds sounds. Their sound is one of the loudest in the forest, it can reach up to 130 dB, and it is so airy that you might confuse it with the sound of the wind. But there’s almost no wind in the rainforest. Usually, the air stands still, humid, and you barely see anything moving, also during the day time. The loudness of the howler monkeys’ sounds makes you think that they’re extremely close to where you are, but you never see them.
I’m listening to the haunting soundscape of the jungle in the middle of the night and gradually I hear a low hum, a drone, a tonality. Then a harmony evolves and small melodies follow. I’m thinking of Milton Nascimento’s 1973 “Milagre dos Peixes”, where several songs on the album were censored by the Military Regime in Brazil, but Nascimento decided to record them without the lyrics. Instead, without being able to use his own words, he decides to use field recordings from the Amazon rainforest, as well as his own vocal imitations of animal sounds.”
On our last night at the reserve, I made a special performance together with sound artist Luisa Lamgruber. We created a DIY small stage near the reserve’s outdoor dining area, with some candles at the background. As a direct continuation of the listening meditation that we held with the group the day before at the top of the ZF2 tower, our performance began and ended by listening to the soundscape of the rainforest. In between we played with found rainforest objects such as leaves, branches, nutshells and water, as well as with our own voices and breath sounds.
Another collaboration that I had during the residency was with Italian violinist and composer Sara Michieletto - the first violinist of the Venice orchestra and founder of project Emotion for Change. In the night before the residency, I joined Sara for a special concert with the Amazonas Chamber Orchestra in the city of Manaus, and then again for another concert towards the end of the residency, in the middle of the forest in front of the Tumbira indigenous community. Both concerts were curated by Sara and combined famous classical music pieces with her own contemporary compositions - all dealing with relationships between humans and nature.
Part 2: Three days on a regional boat
We spent the last three days on a regional boat, sailing over the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers. We were fortunate to have scientist Mario Cohn-Haft together with us on the boat, sharing his knowledge about the water of the rivers, as well his main speciality - the Amazonian birds.
Together with Mario and a few other artists from the group, we took small-boat tours to the tributaries of the Rio Negro - one tour was during the late afternoon and the other in the early morning - both are the times of the day when the birds are most active. We would pick a quiet spot, turn the boat’s engine off, listen together to the soundscape and then Mario would whistle or play a recording of the birdsong of a species that he recognizes in the soundscape. The birds of the Amazon are extremely territorial and therefore it usually didn’t take more than a minute for a bird to suddenly appear on a close branch, performing her birdsong as a way to show that this is her territory.
I was fascinated by the information that Mario shared with us about birds’ vocalization and communication behaviours and I was also very much excited about the opportunity to meet a specialist from outside of the sound/music fields that listening is so central in his practice. During our days on the boat, I shared some very interesting conversations with Mario about his work and listening practices.
The Rio Negro (meaning “The Black River” in Portuguese) has dark water, an outcome of the massive amount of leaves dissolved in it. It has a brown colour, or as Mario described it - “like the colour of a black tea”. The Rio Negro water has a unique reflection effect what made us spend a long time staring at the water, mesmerised by the incredible reflections of different nature surrounding.
The last day of the residency was dedicated to artists’ presentations. Each one of us shared her/his personal experience as well as ideas for artistic responses to the residency themes. It was extremely interesting and inspiring to witness those presentations - coming from different practices and backgrounds, each one of us was influenced by different moments and aspects of the program. This was also a great opportunity for us to receive feedback and answer some questions that other group members had raised during the Q&A after each presentation.
While we were all locked up in a room on the upper level of the boat listening to all artists’ presentations, the boat crew were slowly taking us back to the city of Manaus. By the time we have finished, in late afternoon, we found ourselves near the coast. This was the time to say goodbye. Those ten immersive days were also an intensive social experience - beginning the program as a group of strangers and gradually getting to know each other better and better, sharing this incredible experience together, exchanging thoughts and references from each one’s background and building strong connections between us. It was really hard to separate, and hard to believe that we knew each other for only ten days.
After the Residency
I left Manaus in the following morning, had a long journey back to the city of London that was a great opportunity for me to think, write and start digesting this entire experience. I arrived in London after almost 24 hours, on August 19th, and this was exactly when the news about the Amazon fires started to hit all the main media channels.
During the summer of 2019, deforestation actions in Brazil (as well as in other countries in the world) were massively increased, causing fires all around the Amazon region, vanishing ecosystems - homes for plants, animals and people - and extremely affecting the carbon cycle of our planet and increasing the climate crisis.
Shocked by the latest news, and still extremely moved by the powerful experience that I had at LABVERDE, I feel the urge to share the story of the Amazon through my art, raising awareness to the disturbing environmental issues that are currently happening there and affecting the whole world.
Nowadays I’m working with the knowledge, recordings and experiments that I had during the residency towards my final MA Sound Arts project, that will be presented at the beginning of December 2019 at the London College of Communication (LCC). Working with the recording of the rainforest’s reverberation, I’m developing a sound installation based on my listening experiences in the Amazon and the traces of my sonoric existence in it, reflecting on human-nature relationships and the implications of human actions on our planet.
Recently I also created a live sound piece that combines captured field recordings from the residency together with my own live vocal experiments and text. This piece was performed as part of the “OTHER CREATURES, ENTITIES AND FAINT BEINGS” event at Cafe OTO London, curated by CRiSAP Prof. David Toop (August 28th, 2019). All of the italic-font quotes in this blog are part of the text that I wrote and read during this performance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the LABVERDE program and would like to thank Lucy Orta, Camilla Palestra, Fiona McKay, UAL Post-Grad Community, Lilian Fraiji, Rafael Estrela, Talyta Souza and the rest of the LABVERDE 2019 team, scientists and group of artists.
Recommended links for further readings of recent news from the Amazon and what we can do in order to help:
- The Guardian article explains about the massive fires in the Amazon during the summer of 2019
- Extinction Rebellion- information about current activities in London
Open to UAL postgraduate students and recent graduates (within 12 months), applicants can choose from a 2 to 4 week period at one of the hosting institutions, to explore concerns that define the twenty-first century - biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, human rights - and through their artistic practice, envision a world of tomorrow.