Connected \\ January 25, 2022
A word with Matt Clark
Matt Clark is the Creative Director of United Visual Artists, a London-based art and design practice that he founded in 2003. He helped create The Great Animal Orchestra: Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists, an exhibition organized by PEM and the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and presented as part of PEM’s Climate + Environment Initiative. The immersive experience features the work of soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause, whose archive of animal vocalizations from habitats around the world is paired with Clark’s stunning visuals. I had the pleasure of interviewing Clark when he was here for the exhibition opening in November. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Q: How has this experience made you think differently about the natural world?
A: I'm much more aware. I live in London. I'm an urban lad. I do try to go for a walk everyday. I particularly like getting up really early. The morning call with the birds, it just takes you somewhere else before the hustle and bustle of city life starts. Bernie, he has so many words of wisdom about how we perceive the sonic world. One of my most memorable revelations was how you can learn so much more about the natural world by what you hear compared to what you see. We live in such a visual culture. We all see these pictures of rainforests and polar bears, but in fact, the sonic world tells you way more than what the visual does. That was like, "Wow." That's actually fascinating, and that's why Bernie's work is so important.
Q: How did you turn Bernie Krause’s audio archive into something visual?
A: It started with looking at Bernie's practice, how he analyzes sound, and how he uses the spectrogram to see his audio recordings. The task was to try and create a work that communicated the scientific aspect of Bernie's work. Also, create an artistic interpretation of it and to try to find that balance between information and experience. I was quite directly influenced by the spectrogram itself. It's such a beautiful composition of light and data. The idea was to create a landscape out of this information that the visitor could be in rather than just look at on a screen. The process is looking at the architectural space and thinking of how to present the work from a technical point of view.
Matt Clark and Bernie Krause being interviewed by the PEM team. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Q: What is the creative problem you were trying to solve?
A: The creative problem with this kind of work is how to create something that has integrity as an informative piece of work, something that allows the space to create discourse about the subject that it's referring to, but also, to inspire. Over the years, there's been a certain amount of apathy in relation to environmental issues. Maybe that's changed in the very recent years. The challenge is, how can we inspire people about the subject, but also inform? It's always with the viewer's experience in mind, to create something that's emotive and not just data, like you would look at a screen. The sound is so emotive and so immersive. We wanted to do the same thing, but in a visual way.
Q: Can you describe the visual part of the exhibition experience?
A: You can see what you're hearing. You can also hear what you're seeing. They work hand in hand quite naturally in that sense. When you meditate on this work and the sound and the visual combine, you start thinking about all sorts of different things, which I think probably wouldn't happen if it was just the visual on its own or just the audio on its own. They both operate as wave forms. They complement each other in a very pure sense. In computational terms, it's not super complex. It uses code which analyzes sound in real time. It's not a video. If there wasn't sound playing through the system that we designed, you wouldn't see anything in here. It will be nothing. It has this live element to it. On the left hand side of the exhibition, you see the information being processed live with these lines. On the right hand side is the historical data of that information being processed. That's what Bernie analyzes to understand the biophony of natural habitats. For me, what's super interesting as you watch it scroll by, it suggests a musical score in a way. I think that's what captivates people, is to really see these patterns unfold in front of your eyes. It's so transfixing. From a technical point of view, it's always difficult creating the seamless panoramic projection because there's lots of component parts that you have to piece together to create this kind of seamless visual. The code itself is actually very low resolution. It's not super complex, if you're a programmer that is.
Guests in the exhibition. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Q: Can you describe how the gallery experience manipulates our perception of space?
A: You get lost in this other world. You've got this strange juxtaposition of things going on between the water, the organic and the digital, between the past and the future. It's super uplifting, but very melancholic at the same time. You have all these contrasting things that on paper shouldn't work together, but somehow, it does. It does take you somewhere else. That's what I strive to do. For very selfish reasons, I want to be lost in the work and forget about the day to day for a bit. That's what this space does, why people hang out here generally for a fair bit of time.
Q: How is this exhibition a universal experience?
A: It creates this space for discussion. I'm always learning something new from Bernie about the world, how we perceive the world through sound, and how it can affect our health and well being. It's an ongoing conversation and a platform for that conversation. As Bernie says, it's a universally understood thing. It doesn't come with cultural boundaries or influences. It's quite unique in that sense. It's so multi-layered. At the same time, it's so visceral and immediate. It's not super conceptual. Anyone can get it. That's what I like about it.
Q: What do you want visitors to take away from this?
A: To create a discussion, to get people excited about the natural world and to understand it. The natural world has obviously informed how we make art and how we do all of our creative things. It's only by seeing this sort of thing that you understand how important it is just not from a natural point of view, but cultural point of view as well. To contemplate on the things that we take for granted, what we're doing to nature, how precious it is, how potentially in the future, this might be all we have left of the natural world, these recordings.
The Great Animal Orchestra is on view until July 10, 2022. To learn more, read this review in The Boston Globe, where Murray Whyte writes, “I can still hear the echo of the near-verbal cry of the Hadada ibis, seen in a flash of tremulous green in Dzanga-Sangha.”
TOP IMAGE: Matt Clark of United Visual Artists is interviewed just before the opening of The Great Animal Orchestra. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.