Anthropo[s]cenic Antarctica

Gail Priest

Looking at the Google Map of Antarctica — an irregular band of white that takes up the whole bottom of the screen — it’s tempting to try to scroll down to see its true shape, but the 2D interpretation gives it a hard rectangular border beyond which there is nothing. Scrolling left or right, the land mass is continuous — no beginning or end.

At the scale of 200km there are no markings, but zooming in to 100km there are five places. One of these to the south west of Australia is Davis Station, the outpost from which most of the material for Philip Samartzis’ book and two-CD set Antarctica: An Absent Presence is gathered. Further material is sampled from Macquarie Island, the sub-Antarctic station to the south-east, below New Zealand, requiring a map scale of 20km in order to register its name. These places are some of the most remote and wild of any on the planet.

This inhospitable remoteness is well captured in Samartzis’ collection of photos, texts and audio pieces, but it is not achieved by purely concentrating on the landscape as such. Differing from the idealistic approach of capturing nature unadulterated, Samartzis is interested in recording the precarious relationship between this harsh natural environment and its human inhabitants — the human battling nature, sheltering from it, all in the quest to study it. The strength and subtlety of the work comes from the fact that he does this obliquely. While focusing on the human, the actual figure is very rarely represented in the sounds. Instead he records the artefacts, the buildings, machinery, the manufactured materials. This offers a strong sense of isolation and loneliness, the “absent presences” of the book’s title.

The journey starts on the icebreaker Aurora Australis. An opening horn blast with a noticeable lack of reverb immediately signals that we are heading into a vast unknown. Slowly, textures are added and over the 22 minutes, divided into roughly three-minute studies, we sonically explore the mechanical workings of the amazingly engineered vessel, from tiny vibrations, creakings, hissings, bubblings, wheezings to the full thrum of the powerful engine and the deep and alarming thunk of ice against hull.

Arriving at Davis Station it’s a relief to hear the shush of wave against shore — land at last — however, far from being a peaceful wilderness, this is a busy outpost. Samartzis captures this with the strong presence of engines — generators, trucks, helicopters — leavened with sounds of metal in contact with other metals, clanking in the wind, or scraping and dragging across rocky surfaces. This is the only piece in which we hear actual people, though disembodied — voices in foreign languages emerging from a static-washed radio. Non-human figures also feature for the only time with the alarming guttural burping and barking of the Weddell Seals, a recording, Samartzis says, he had to forgo his lunch to capture, the incessant industrial activity only ceasing at mealtimes.

The first CD concludes with “At the End of the Night,” offering an electronic sounding palette. High-sine tones and machine emissions from the Medium Frequency Spaced Array (MFSA) radars are mixed with the sonic secretions of the metal structures themselves as they are affected by wind and temperature variations. While knowledge of these origins is interesting, this mesmerising piece can be appreciated as a true musique concrete experience, the sounds exerting their own rich essence, despite or because of the separation from their sources.

The centrepiece of the collection is “Crush Grind,” a 43-minute exploration of the sounds in, around and under the frozen sea. While the material is taken from icy materials, the soundscape is strangely warm and comforting, full of rich mid-range resonances — gurgles, plonks, bobbing, sucking. At 16 minutes there is a chorus of bubbles that comes close to a kind of utter aural joy. Most curious of all are the rising and falling glissandi capturing the creaking stresses and movements of life under the ice.

Davis Station, Antarctica, Philip Samartzis, photo courtesy the artist

Leaving the ice behind for the still-by-no-means hospitable climes of the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, Samartzis captures the oppressive sense of the place through a claustrophobic soundscape of unabating wind and waves. There are fewer machines at work here, but still the materials of human invention are in motion — ringing, rattling, flapping — registering the ongoing battle with the elements. We depart the island with relief, listening to the unsettling squelch of the tangled kelp shoals that fill the bay.

The collection of compositions reaches a perfect conclusion with “Aurora Australis.” This piece swaps recording in the field for sonified data taken from magnetic pulsation systems used to monitor the energy emissions from the Aurora — the dancing photons buffeted by solar winds along the Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic pulsations are waveforms of great length but Samartzis has transposed this data into audible frequencies resulting in squalls of static and sheering digital winds over which flutter whistling streamers. This is a study both of nature and of the human-made interface with which we observe this natural phenomenon.

Accompanying the soundscapes and images is a series of short journal entries which, while not intimate, are personal enough for the reader to sense Samartzis’ reactions to a challenging experience. Evocative and informative, they introduce lovely, rarely read words like “moraine,” “mesosphere,” “isthmus” and “tarn.” Samartzis pays particular attention to the olfactory, documenting his struggle to deal with the pungent industrial aromas. Once again, his task is no idealised nature excursion.

My one quibble is with the placement of pull quotes following each entry. While a good tool with which to draw attention to information within large bodies of texts, the entries themselves are quite brief, so this reiteration feels redundant. It would perhaps have been better to incorporate the larger sized texts into the general flow and design of each diary entry — or to pepper the picture pages with new information.

There can be no faulting the sonic aspects of this publication. The field recordings are perfectly captured and processed to allow us to appreciate remarkable detail. Philip Samartzis’ compositions are highly nuanced, allowing them to maintain variation and momentum over long durations. Overall, Antarctica: An Absent Presence is a richly evocative publication providing a fascinating document of a journey to an extreme landscape that poses questions about human fragility and utility in the face of the awesome and awful power of nature.

Listen to an excerpt of “Davis Station” from the CD here.

Philip Samartzis, Antarctica: An Absent Presence, Thames & Hudson, 2016

Top image credit: Philip Samartzis, Antarctica, photo courtesy the artist

6 June 2017