“hover” at Experimental Sound Studio
Steve Peters and Christine Wallers present a multimedia installation inspired by the Northern Lights.
Some people who observe the northern lights say the atmospheric phenomenon makes a sound, though what earwitnesses hear ranges from “cellophane” to “100 pencils dropping,” artist Christine Wallers tells me during my recent visit to ESS.
Such claims, which scientists have never proved or disproved, inspire this subtle multimedia collaboration between Wallers, who lives and works in Chicago, and Seattle-based composer and sound artist Steve Peters.
Auroras—most notably, the northern lights—occur when a cloud of gas from the sun strikes Earth’s magnetic field, sending charged particles toward the polar regions. When the particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they generate shafts of colored light.
No one understood what caused the aurora borealis until scientists such as Kristian Birkeland made dangerous expeditions to the North Pole, Wallers explains. Birkeland’s turn-of-the-20th-century experiments studying the role of magnetic forces loosely inspire her component of the installation: The artist extends bands of monofilament and copper wire across the gallery, anchoring them with magnets. The arrangement of taut transparent and metallic strands resembles streaks of light as it catches the sun.
To make his accompanying eight-channel audio work, Peters recorded an hour of “sky” at midnight during an aurora expected near Seattle—which he was unable to see. He added natural and manmade sounds derived from the testimony of northern-lights observers. The audio is soft and intermittent, requiring visitors to concentrate to catch its buzzing, crackling and eerie voicelike tones. Like Wallers’s installation, which almost disappears when it’s not hit by sunlight, Peters’s composition is elusive, capturing some of the mystery of the aurora borealis itself.