Vatnajökull in Iceland is the largest glacier in Europe. But it’s melting into a lagoon, thanks, one assumes, to climate change. For a week in June 2007, artist Katie Paterson submerged a microphone, attached to a mobile phone, into the freezing waters of the ever expanding Jökulsárlón lagoon making it possible to listen to the sound of the ice melting.
For the work Vatnajökull (the sound of), Paterson displayed the phone number – in the form of a neon sign – at the Slade School of Fine Art in London as part of her MFA degree show.
The sound is curiously fascinating. In the main this is down to knowing what one is listening to. In the absence of that knowledge I suspect it would be bafflingly abstract and rather dull. But the idea that the work allows us to listen to what amounts to the sound of global warming while simultaneously contributing to it is interesting. We’ve become horribly familiar with photographs that aim to shock us into action of climate change but listening to it happen live is somehow quite another matter.
One of the inherent difficulties in making work such as this is that the event is unique and – in practical terms – unrepeatable. Of course the same applies to many short-lived, often performative, art projects. Such works result in residual documentation that stands in for the original work in later exhibitions. The work has since been exhibited as a sound recording – a short section of which can be heard at Paterson’s own website – with the neon phone number, photographs of the glacier and a book listing the phone numbers that called the work.
I’ve seen other interesting works by Paterson since Vatnajökull (the sound of) – indeed she has an exhibition at the new Haunch of Venison space on Eastcastle Street in London which I also enjoyed and, who knows, may well post about sometime soon – but this is the work I find myself thinking about most often.