Artsdesk: Sound Out – Chris Steenson

Posted December 14, 2020 in Arts and Culture

Sound artist Chris Steenson set about recording the sounds of nature during lockdown. ‘On Chorus’ is his response and attempt to connect people through the power of listening. 

Christopher Steenson is a sound artist who moves between Dublin, Belfast and Kerry. His new project ‘On Chorus’ is a striking work of public art that used Dublin’s transport infrastructure to convey the sound of birdsong. Throughout the month of November, Steenson’s piece was played every morning through PA systems for an hour. The chorus reverberated around quiet railway stations and winter-chilled platforms, transfixing commuters and workers alike. 

In response to the restrictions of the second lockdown, Steenson and Ian Maleney collaborated on a website so that the piece could play alongside its live installation. Though the installation has come to a close, the website still produces an hour’s worth of natural song every morning which everyone can access and soundtrack their own ramblings  to.

“I’ve always been interested in sound,” says Steenson. “I even started a PhD at one point, which was to do with auditory perception and movement control – how people use sound to guide and manage their orientation in space. Why is it natural to dance to music? How is a blind person able to walk down a street? I was researching those kinds of questions.” 

“During that time, I learned how to record sound in different environments, some computer programming, and a lot about auditory perception. I became more and more involved in experimental sound events. There’s a really nice community in Belfast for that – there’s the Sonic Arts Research Centre, which is a fantastic hub. I had a number of friends who were studying there, so I ended up doing a lot of events with them.”

“I’m grateful for the time I spent in academia. I did the PhD for a few years, but ultimately I realised it wasn’t for me.” 

Steenson’s art is characterised by an interest in surplus and environmental sound. He completed a residency in Greece last year, where he spent time recording noise pollution underwater using hydrophones. “The ocean is full of manmade sounds, which makes sense as water is a better conductor for sound to travel through than air.” He has also been researching how to use sound as a device for the detection of pollution. “Sound isn’t just a by-product; it can be used to reveal what’s around us. 5G conspiracies to one side, electromagnetic pollution has increased dramatically in the last decade because of WiFi and cellular masts. You can use magnetic pick-ups to demodulate the electromagnetic frequency into sound.”

“My partner and I live in Dublin 1, right beside Connolly Station, and it was very weird to hear no traffic in the house. I noticed the sound of birds immediately.”

The artist had been working on a piece utilising birdsong for a show that was cancelled in Belfast. Returning to Dublin from New York at the beginning of lockdown in April, he found his interest in the material was renewed. “My partner and I live in Dublin 1, right beside Connolly Station, and it was very weird to hear no traffic in the house. I noticed the sound of birds immediately. You could hear them so clearly, which I think was an experience shared by many. And because it was spring, the dawn chorus was much more pronounced,” says Steenson, referring to the fact that birds enter their mating season and find new territories to live in during this period.

“For a few mornings, in March or April, I got up at 4am and went for a walk down the Royal Canal. There’s a nice stretch nearby where we live that’s like a meadow. The canal recedes very quickly from the concrete into grass and field, and there are plenty of birds nesting there. So I walked there and recorded those sounds.”

Awarded the Covid-19 Crisis Response grant, Steenson began to weigh his options. “The idea of documenting work and exhibiting on a webpage didn’t appeal to me really. After talking to my partner Laura Fitzgerald, who is also an artist, I knew that I had to exhibit the recordings in a public space, located somewhere others could experience them.”

“The constraint, of course, was cost. How could I produce the sound in a viable setting for the money I had? That was when I thought about speakers used for public address, in areas like bus stations or at Luas stops. Luckily, I had a friend who works in Irish Rail and I sent him a message. He passed it along to the communications department and she spoke to her bosses, and it moved quite quickly from there.” 

“I also contacted Bird Watch Ireland, a charity dedicated to bird biodiversity and wildlife, and after consulting with them I decided to stage the exhibition in November. If I had broadcast the piece during the spring, with loudspeakers situated outdoors, it could have been very disruptive. It may sound beautiful to us, but it’s not the same for birds. If you broadcast birdsong through every railway PA system across the country in the middle of spring, you could cause some kind of ecological catastrophe! That wasn’t my intention.” 

Nonetheless, Steenson decided to present his work virtually as so few people were allowed to travel to work. “A friend put me in touch with Ian Maleney, an author and journalist who runs the alternative publishing site Fallow Media. He was the perfect person to collaborate with – he understood the project right away, and he developed the website.”

Although he appreciates their usefulness, Steenson is cautious about online exhibitions. His concerns are thoughtful and reflect the hesitation felt by many in the art world. They are also substantiated by an extensive knowledge of sound artworks. 

“What I like about a lot of sound work is that it intervenes in a specific context; it interacts with the other objects in the environment. One of my favourite pieces is Max Neuhaus’ ‘Times Square’. It’s a sound that emanates from underneath the subway grating, on permanent display in Times Square in New York. It’s a beautiful piece because it transforms the aural palette of the location – it takes a cacophony of noise and random sound and orchestrates it, creating something unified and coherent from all these fragments. The installation holds all the sonic elements of the space together. It becomes meditative.”

Steenson speaks compellingly about the specificity of art. He worries “that sound has become a little undervalued” in the digital age: “whatever your streaming platform, whether its Spotify or YouTube, you can access anything, at any time.” 

His sensitivity to this issue motivated his decision to restrict the accessibility of his piece online. 

“To go back to the time-based nature of the work, the other thing that I think is very important is the listening aspect. If you can only listen to something at a particular point in time, and other people are listening at the exact same moment, some form of connection happens. Even though you may be separated, physically or geographically, the object of your concentration is the same; you’re sharing an experience. I wanted to explore this idea because we are living through a time when we do feel separate from one another, and we can’t interact or see each other.” 

“Besides highlighting the absence of noise pollution and the sound of nature, I wanted to draw attention to this. I think the idea that everyone listening is connected, whether standing on station platforms around the county or self-isolating at home, is beautiful.”

words: Tom Lordan

photos: Louis Haugh


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