What you’re hearing is the sound of climate change. Sort of.
It’s sound that Brian House, a new assistant professor of art and the history of art at Amherst, recorded in Amherst’s wildlife sanctuary, as part of his current sound project.
House is an acclaimed sound artist whose work has been featured in the MoMA, Los Angeles MOCA, and the New York Times.
In his current project, titled “Macrophones,” he records atmospheric infrasound and pitches it up so it’s perceptible to the human ear. The environment around us is living and breathing — wildfires, glacier calving, industrial plants, and data centers all emit sound waves — but it goes unnoticed simply because their voices fall below the audible range. By broadcasting this sound in our cities and forests, House invites us to question our complacent attitude towards our environment.
“All those sounds are entangled with the climate crisis, as I see,” explains House. “So the question is, if we can hear the sounds that are being made by these phenomena, would that change our relationship to the planet?”
“Macrophones” captures the essence of House’s work: much of his projects use sound to investigate the hidden rhythms in our environment and our lives. For instance, in “Quotidian Record” (2012), a piece he labeled a favorite of his, House created a vinyl record of one year of his life.
“I recorded my location for a year,” explains House. “Pretty early on, when GPS on phones was still kind of new, people didn’t really know the capacities of the fact that they’re being tracked. But I took that data and made music out of it. I put it on a vinyl record so that one rotation of the record is one day of live time. It goes pretty fast — that’s 1.8 seconds per day. But as the record turns, you get a sense of daily patterns of life. I was living in New York, commuting from Brooklyn to Manhattan — it made these rhythms come out.”
But House is more than just an artist. Starting this spring semester, he began teaching art at Amherst College.
House came to Amherst for many of the same reasons that students do. “I believe in the mission of liberal arts and the role that this kind of education plays in our society today,” says House. “We’re living in a time of very complex problems, and that’s not going to be solved by any one speciality. We need broad interdisciplinary thinking and having a small campus where that’s valued. I used to work in the corporate world, a career in the tech industry before going back into academia. But I just found that [the industry] wasn’t flexible enough to answer the questions that I wanted to deal with. Academia, to me, gives a context to really think about art as research, and also gives me the opportunity to teach.”
This may come off as jarring. The idea of the artist — particularly of the highly idiosyncratic, modern kind that creates sound art about climate change — appears to be at odds with the institution of academia, which is somewhat bureaucratic.
If the idea of doing “research for art” is strange to some, House argues that is too narrow a view of artistic practice. “Art is always changing,” says House. “And there are lots of different versions of what art is. I think maybe we have this stereotypical version of an artist that maybe we’re inheriting from the 50s, the idea of someone who lives downtown in New York — like the Jackson Pollock idea — and it’s like pure emotion on a canvas. I think that’s one version of an artist. But I think today, there are artists that are very much involved in the commercial art scene, where art is understood as objects of value. There are also plenty of artists who work in media industries — advertisers and graphic designers — these are all artists too.”
This semester, House is teaching two classes: Art + Code (ARHA-278) and Sound Art (ARHA-292). In these classes, he teaches the history, theory and practice of these interdisciplinary mediums of art that are very much relevant to contemporary issues. “We live in this hyper-technologically-mediated world, so it’s natural to start to use those tools to express ourselves and to explore the themes that come up with that,” says House.
House also conducts research, but it probably does not look like what first comes to mind. He describes his research as a question of aesthetics and subjectivity: “It’s like how certain things feel or act upon you,” explains House. “And that’s not necessarily reducible to what they mean, on one hand, or what they are, on the other hand, if you’re talking about humanities vs. science. In terms of sound, you might know what something is, and you might understand how sound waves interact with it, but when you actually listen, what does that do to you? It makes you feel a particular way, whether it’s music, moving to a beat, or some weird infrasound.” That is not to say his research is completely divorced from other disciplines. As an artist and researcher whose work involves technology, politics, and the environment, sciences and the humanities are certainly important.
Befitting the interdisciplinary nature of his work, he cites an eclectic range of artists and thinkers as his influences. He has a long laundry list of musicians. “The noise scene in Providence, North African guitar music, people like Fela Kuti, Electronic Bands like Autechre,” lists House. “I just always love the structures that they have emerge from musical thinking and what that can do to you.”
House cites some of his inspirations as Pauline Oliveros a pioneering sound artist who explored questions of ecology, meditation, and spirituality, and Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher and sociologist who pioneered the idea that the everyday is political.
His everyday life at Amherst is, at least on the surface, quite ordinary. “We live nearby in faculty housing. I take my kid off to his preschool. Coming on campus, I teach two days a week, and the other two days, I work on research,” House said. “I always read stuff. Right now, I’m reading a book called Mapping Mars, which is from the early 2000’s by a science journalist named Oliver Morton. And that’s just been interesting — I’ve always been interested in maps. You know, [wondering] what the process of mapping another world would be like, technological concerns. There’s aesthetic concerns, so that kind of fits with my interest.”
Much of his time is spent working on his “Macrophones” project. He’ll be continuing to work on “Macrophones,” among other things, over the summer.
“I got to Amherst in the middle of winter. So as things change and spring comes, that’s helped me develop a relationship with the place. And I kind of feel grounded here,” he said.