AER 2016: Último día

Último día: 05/09/16

I spent a fortnight in the company of the Beckman family at El Cortijada de Los Gázquez, in an alpine desert, living at 1000m above sea level in the Parque Natural Sierra María – Los Vélez. In the spring of 2016, I applied to the Art for the Environment International Residency Programme (AER) run by Professor Lucy Orta at the University of the Arts London. The award was for a number of research-led artist residencies to take place across the world for existing and recently graduated UAL students. I was about half way into my first year of a PhD programme at London College of Communication, studying within Creative Research into Sound Art Practice (CRiSAP) research centre.

What struck me about the opportunity to visit Los Gázquez was the idea of spending two weeks off-grid. Two weeks without. Two weeks disconnected. What might two weeks offline do for me? To me? What did off-grid mean? What kind of systems would be in place to live an off-grid sustainable life with a family (two adults, two children in a non-native country).

I was also interested in studying the environment of Los Gázquez as an off grid site. Far from any built up metropolitan centre, far from where I tend to spend most of my life, in the anthropogenic urban wash of cars, generators, ambulance sirens and helicopters, impossible to distinguish one source of noise from the next. I wondered what a rural and open landscape might offer as an alternative field to my listening and recording practice.


My application for the residency was based around some of my PhD research questions. My research is based around what I call ‘sonospheric investigations’ into media infrastructures. That is to say, that I try and listen to a whole gamut of frequencies, using air-borne and land-borne transducers, converting vibrations into digital signals that can then be converted into sound from loudspeakers. I centre this listening practice around the internal and external architecture of media infrastructures (data centres, fibre optic cable landing sites, satellite and telecommunication receivers etc). I am interested in how the Internet and its related infrastructures vibrate across the globe as a physical material network; the ‘medianatures’ of the Internet, to paraphrase Jussi Parikka.

In Los Gázquez, I wanted to experience being disconnected from the internet but I also wanted to study the infrastructure of an off grid site. Data Centres in particular are the hub for the global Internet network and as such are huge consumers of energy. Many of the world’s biggest companies operate them (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft etc). They are a huge burden to the electrical grid of their surrounding area; it is estimated that they use an equivalent energy requirement to that of the aviation industry and as such, they are a significant site for ecological, socio-political and environmental concern, as well as a significant site of property rights, concepts of the self, the posthuman, the cyborg, the Anthropocene and of provenance and rights in the digital age.

My research led me to analyse the noise of such sites as representative of waste. The noise, generally being vibrations caused by industrial scale HVAC systems, fanning hot exhaust air into often cold climates (in the northern regions of Scandinavia for example).

Recently, I have been studying a site that Apple have been in protracted negotiations for over a year to build a data centre in. It is in the Derrydonnell forest in County Galway, Ireland, close to the small but well known medieval town of Athenry. Apple claim they will use exclusively 100% wind energy from the grid. I was confused but fascinated at such a claim given how estimates are that the data centre once fully operational is expected to require around 8% of the entire Irish grid’s energy allocation (more than the capital city Dublin).

IMG_20160831_122341~2WEBAnd so I began to wonder what exactly does sustainability mean? What does sustainable energy mean? How sustainable is the technology used that is claimed to be ‘zero carbon’? Surely it is made full of components built as a result of intensive land destruction and mining; the production of rare earth minerals and metals for example to produce microchips, lithium-ion and lead batteries.

I am not interested in becoming a Luddite and thankfully neither are the Beckman’s in Los Gázquez. They are interested in doing the best they can to maintain a good quality of life in as off-grid and sustainable way as they possibly can, investigating the possibilities of land reclamation, and returning to sustainable measures of living without burying their heads in the sand and without harking back to some kind of golden age that never existed. They are progressive and thoughtful about how they can make a positive and ecologically sensitive impact on Los Gázquez.

I spent most of my days field recording and creating a library of sounds, produced according to my own initial intrigue and then later, according to the sounds that the residents here associate with living in Los Gázquez. The library comprises goats, crickets, sheep, vultures, wind turbines, water pumps, photovoltaic panels, clay fizzing with water, children playing games, people eating dinner, flip flops across the concrete floor, diesel generators, a Land Rover, the silence on top of a mountain, electromagnetic noise from battery stores, electromagnetic interference from a phone attempting to connect to a distant and patchy 4G signal, helicopters, jumbo jets and much more. The collection of recordings put the environment at the centre of my thinking but I am thinking of the environment as the things that surround us as we exist. This is not a study of nature versus culture. For me the urban dweller, Los Gázquez and the surrounding area feels remote but the family home has electricity, Wi-Fi from a satellite uplink that connects to a suborbital network and bounces back to an exchange in Italy, and the landscape surrounding la Cortijada de Los Gázquez has signs of anthropogenic activity everywhere, from the terraced abandoned farm land to the water catchment systems, to the artificial walls and tributaries built within the Barrancos (water drainage, fluvial systems drawing down from the mountainside).

OFFGRIDSONOS-ART-768I have been on many walks into the relative ‘wilderness’ of the Parque Natural Sierra María on my own, taking a bearing and just going for it. Listening carefully to changes in sound, the flies, the trees, the wind, the nothingness, the everything-ness. I have recorded infrasonic vibrations with geophones, contact transducer microphones on vibrating bodies of metal, stereo microphone recordings of my position in the landscape and electromagnetic frequencies with coil-tap transducers. I’m not sure what to do with this collection other than listen to it and think about how it might relate to my other work on the urban and black site data centre spaces of my existing research. How does a site like this challenge my conceptions of isolation, off grid? How many miles do I need to travel in Ireland to locate somewhere away from any kind of anthropogenic noise like I can here… Let alone London?

Being disconnected from the internet… How I tried… How temptation pulled me back in… How on my fourth day, whilst marching up a mountain first thing in the morning, on my own, where I managed to see a fox, two vultures and an Ibex in their natural habitats, I became more intrigued by suddenly picking up a full strength 4G signal. How whilst thinking about life in a post-apocalyptic world, where petrol had gone stale, the grid was disconnected and the internet was just a myth, my field recorder started bleeping to the interference of a roaming mobile data signal and a sudden emergence of a low flying helicopter passed over me. How, even at my most isolated, I was never far away from signs of human activity, whether it be signs from the past 30-40 years or in the past 300-400 years. The marks were everywhere.

It has been an absolutely incredible experience. I look forward to working through my recordings and thoughts, and these blog entries have helped me shape my thoughts and progress but I will continue to develop my work over the next few months. On the final day and final night, I played a mix of sounds to the family and guests that had been part of the forming of my sonospheric collections from the residency. I’ve decided to make it available free on Bandcamp as a very simple marker of the experience. It is largely an unaltered set of recordings mixed together with a few minor alterations at times. It is a marker, a log, a work in progress, a diary of thoughts, and a documentation of research activity in this dry, barren and utterly beautiful landscape.

I would like to extend my thanks to my hosts, Donna, Simon, Sessy and Solly for being so welcoming. Their life here, as English expats, who have stepped up to a fascinating and difficult challenge of living in a radical and rural setting just north of the small town of Vélez-Blanco is truly inspirational. My thanks also go to the fellow artists and guests who have been here during my stay, Anna, Dayna, Elena, Melissa, Nana, Nigel, Peter, Virginia and a special thanks to Abbie who without her… I wouldn’t have got completely lost for eight hours one day when failing to find an ancient cave painting that was allegedly in plain sight.


The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) was launched in 2015 by Professor Lucy Orta, UAL Chair of Art and the Environment. Between August and September 2016, I spent two weeks at the arts-led field research centre Joya: arte + ecología. This is my journal.


Parikka, Jussi. (2015). A Geology of Media. Minnesota University Press, Minnesota, US.


AER 2016: Día nueve

Día nueve: 01/09/16

All about connections Qohen. Wires, wireless, weaving a world-wide-web. Can’t get anything if you’re disconnected. (Joby, The Zero Theorem, 2013)

Today I prepared for a presentation on my work so far whilst at Joya and an introduction to my work in general.

It was quite a different kind of day where no field recording took place. I barely left the house other than to take a run first thing in the morning, knowing I wouldn’t leave again.I spent the day in front of a screen, rendering video, writing statements about my work, editing audio clips and creating the framework of a Los Gázquez sound library.The presentation was well received. I asked a question to everyone to think of their favourite or most peculiar sounds here at Los Gázquez as a challenge that would ensure material for me to seek. I received particularly strong feedback from the Beckman family, on the sounds they associate strongly with their home and there were a number of sounds I hadn’t yet recorded. Some of them more about day to day life than anything particularly unique to living in Los Gázquez itself, and some of them, quite specific. It will provide fuel for the next few days of this residency to work on.Later, we enjoyed food and talking about film… they seem to go hand in hand here, as Simon is particularly fond of film as is Solly which suits me very well as I begin to realise I have seen a good number of movies in my time but there are still plenty to learn about and bank for the future. I am particularly keen on finding a documentary about rewilding Yellowstone National Park by George Monbiot and also one about a Brazilian artist that is titled [something] Salt. The ecological concerns run deep throughout the structure of Los Gázquez and I hope that my work resonates with some it in some way although I do feel strongly that my work is currently really quite crude in terms of an investigation and politicised attempt at investigating carbon footprint, climate change and datafication however I also know that I am new to this world of art practice and I need time to develop a voice and an idea and I believe at least my critical approach offers some kind of a framework… It all comes down to the movement of air and of spinning objects that move air and the minerals and metals in the crust of the earth and our detachment from ourselves through this manufacture of minerals and metals, facilitated by such spinning wind forces… for now… although other technologies are being introduced that will challenge this notion.


The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) was launched in 2015 by Professor Lucy Orta, UAL Chair of Art and the Environment. Between August and September 2016, I spent two weeks at the arts-led field research centre Joya: arte + ecología. This is my journal.


Mandel, Emily St. John. (2015) Station Eleven. Picador Pan Macmillan, London, UK.

Nieto, Mikel, R. (2016). Dark Sound. Gruenrekorder. Gruen, Germany

The Zero Theorem, (2013). [DVD] Terry Gilliam, UK: Universal Pictures.

AER 2016: Día siete

Día siete: 30/08/16


They were told about the Internet, how it was everywhere and connected everything, how it was us. They were shown maps and globes, the lines of borders that the Internet transcended. (Mandel, 2015: 261)

The seventh day was tough to get started. I had been up late the previous night and thought I would probably spend the day going through recordings and logging metadata but soon into getting up I heard the diesel generator kick and decided that I would go out to record the vibrations with the geophone taking incremental steps away from the generator cupboard to record how the vibrations are transmitted over some distance through the hard clay surface.


I took recordings from four locations ranging from 5m, 10m, 30m, 60m. At 60m I ended up raising the gain of the signal on the mixer as I wasn’t sure if it was detectable but it was so I returned the settings back. I could have continued farther but the route I selected didn’t allow too well for it.


I came across some old constructions where at one point the site had been used for farming (I am assuming goats but need to find out more). Beyond these small constructions, were tributaries built to control the flooding in the event of heavy rain. I would dearly love to see how powerful a heavy weather event could be here, to watch the water flurry down the mountain side across the top of the dried, hard clay and shale crust and form pools in the valleys. I walk along one of these constructed routes, known as XXX for an hour and it reminds me of the Rebel Alliance’s Rogue Squadron practicing the Kessel Run in Star Wars. Small little canyons. After I begin to double back on myself I see that I have climbed up above the height of Los Gázquez across the valley and can hear the power of the wind turbine in motion quite clearly. I decide to set down and record the sound of the turbine from approximately 300m away. I am sure it is audible from even farther out too but the heat of the midday starts to catch up on me and I return back to the house.

On my way, I come across an old tree house, broken but once enjoyed. I climb up into it and manage to disturb a bat the size of my hand that must have been sleeping in the shade. It falls onto the timber floor of the tree house and scurries to the edge before flying off for shade elsewhere.


In the afternoon I discover the headline news for the day is about Apple being told by the European Commission to pay 13m Euros in back taxes to Ireland as it is deemed that the level of corporate tax breaks the company had been receiving over the last 20 years was tantamount to state sponsorship. It is a huge moment in the news and relates very closelely to my project The Fields of Athenry, which will be exhibiting at the end of this week. I decide in light on this headline that it is worth me connecting to the internet properly and for the first time in a week, I connect to a WiFi network, that handshakes with a satellite terminal orbiting the planet before bouncing back to a satellite receiver somewhere in Italy before heading its way along the fibre optic cables that traverse the globe, towards the servers of various news outlets and social media sites, email servers and inevitable Microsoft and Google Android updates.

At night, we have two new visitors staying, a couple of Australia. Peter mentions that he used to work in optical networks. I don’t pry further but will plan to talk to him the following day and look forward to finding out more about his past career. They arrived and within 40 minutes they requested the WiFi password from their hosts. That’s modern life.


Those who were alive during the time before the change remember specific things about those days: the ease of electricity, the taste of an orange. What do you think you would remember most?


The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) was launched in 2015 by Professor Lucy Orta, UAL Chair of Art and the Environment. Between August and September 2016, I spent two weeks at the arts-led field research centre Joya: arte + ecología. This is my journal.


Mandel, Emily St. John . (2015) Station Eleven. Picador Pan Macmillan, London, UK.

AER 2016: Día seis

Día seis: 29/08/16

I must confess that this was somewhat of a rest day that began late and subsequently also finished late. I very much wanted to connect to the internet today and think I probably looked at phone in some kind of vague hope it might have magically found and locked in on a mobile tower signal more than ten times. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. Perhaps it was anxiety about work at home, or that one email that I’m desperate to receive but don’t know about yet.

The night sky was brighter than it had been. On the clearest night the stars were a cloud of light across the breadth of the sky, extravagant in their multitudes […] the era of light pollution had come to an end. The increasing brilliance meant the grid was failing, darkness pooling over the earth. I was here for the end of electricity. (Mandel, 2015: 251)

I spent the afternoon rearranging the blue lights in the studio to improve the illumination and situate the control box nearer where I intend to project and position myself later in the week. I notice there is something in the pulling up and burying of cables, hiding them from sight. In a cable-less environment such as Los Gazquez (referring here only to telecommunications cable) the wireless-ness of the Internet is certainly amplified but as I have been told numerous times by industry that less than 2% of the entire worlds telecommunications traffic goes over satellite. I am here accompanied by the 2%.

I have listened several times to the CD Dark Sound by Mikel R. Nieto over the past month and have been intrigued by the purpose of the recordings presented by the album.


Dark Sound

Dark Sound is a CD length single track album of field recordings taken by Mikel R. Nieto mostly in and around the Ecuadorian rainforest within areas associated with the colonisation and domination of contested areas that were found to have oil reserves. The album traces the relationships between a number of different indigenous groups who have resisted becoming associated with Western European and global models of capital, in favour of continuing the heritage and lives they had prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the late 15th Century.

The single track CD contains a wide number of field recordings from across various situations that the recordist encountered whilst investigating the noise and culture of Ecuadorian oil mining operations and the impact it has had on the biophonic soundscape and ecology of non-native human, native human, and nonhuman populations. The album comes with an accompanying black paged book with black glossy lettering throughout which makes it impossible to read other than in bright sunlight; a statement upon the darkest of dark geological substrates; crude oil, as well as a comment on the practices of obfuscation that have continued in pursuit of capital gain through oil drilling by corporations. This has led to a number of significant historical, political events including the death of Alejandro Lebaka, a Basque man who in the 1980s took it upon himself as a missionary to position himself as “the voice of the voiceless” (Lebaka in Nieto, 2016: 53) but in his attempted defence and support for a number of native groups, specifically the Huaorani (literally meaning those who speak our language”) which is to say, the native people of the Ecuadorian rainforests, was killed by spears from a group of Huaorani referred to as Tagaeri who no longer wished to partake in the violent systems of control forced upon the Huaorani.

The book provides a significant overview to the political history and issues encountered as a result of the colonisation, and pacification of the indigenous people of Ecuador in pursuit for oil whilst also raising a broad ranging investigation into acoustic research and/or phenomena that are a consequence of the oil operations and their effect directly and indirectly on the Ecuadorian ecology.

The album itself, contains a number of ethnographical and environmental field recordings that include weather events, insects, birds, fish and small mammals and security guards, diesel turbines and high security perimeter fencing. The recordings range from acoustic captures to hydrophones to ultrasound and contact microphones in an attempt to reflect the wide range of acoustic, para-acoustic infra and ultrasonic phenomena that are comprised, altered and ruptured in the pursuit of capital.

The book is highly politicised and the recordings only further emphasise the massive transitions from small tribe to mass industrial practice and the absolute refusal for some to be forced to be adapted and co-opted into a military industrial complex and capital based system of goods exchange and parasitic raping of newly discovered lands.

Back to Los Gázquez

The wind is very high today. I hear the whistling through the window in my bedroom and think to record it. I’ve begun to feel quite paranoid that my equipment isn’t working properly, it is creating too much noise/hiss given how sensitive the DPA 4060 microphones are meant to be in particular. I spend some time trouble shooting in my bathroom whilst recording the wind whistle and try various configurations between mixer, recorder, cable, gain, fade and decide I can’t seem to find any difference no matter which thing I remove and even the MKH416 microphone has a similar level of noise… They can’t all be broken (I think)… So I guess everything is just really quiet here and I am trying to learn to be more conservative with my gain staging as I record and just allow the subtlety of the ambient biophonic and geophonic environmental sounds to pass into the circuity of the microphones and not push them too much. I feel it must be a consequence of so much recording in the aggressively loud conditions of data centres.

I play and lose badly at table tennis to both Simon and Solly.

After dinner, I head down into the bottom of the valley, just below the tree line with only a small head torch and my recording equipment for company. I am less than 200 metres away from the house but in that short distance, with the house obscured from view, in the total darkness of the night, I become intensely paranoid that there might be mammals or other species interested in my presence and I find it difficult to sit still. I set up my microphones to record the symphony of creatures in the night. Cicadas, birds, the occasional rustle from the ground ahead. The amplified sound of everything through my headphones only heightens my paranoia and so I lay back and stare into the stars, and their accompaniment of late night haulage flights passing overhead.

On my way back I carry the microphone in my hand and use it to aim for particular strong areas of noise activity, struggling to walk through the fields and up the various inclines back to the house with nothing but the red light working on the headlamp. I am almost blind, and it heightens my aural senses which are further heightened by the technological appendage of the microphone and amplifier.

I make it back to the house and sit in the studio, awash with blue and contemplate what just happened outside before going to bed.


The Art for the Environment International Artist Residency Programme (AER) was launched in 2015 by Professor Lucy Orta, UAL Chair of Art and the Environment. Between August and September 2016, I spent two weeks at the arts-led field research centre Joya: arte + ecología. This is my journal.


Mandel, Emily St. John . (2015) Station Eleven. Picador Pan Macmillan, London, UK.

Nieto, Mikel, R. (2016). Dark Sound. Gruenrekorder. Gruen, Germany