by Mandy-Suzanne Wong
1. The Hydrophonist
Looks barely human. Heavy boots fitted with claws. Limbs and trunk squared off by layers of thermal waterproofing. Something like a spacesuit with miles of cable hanging off it. She’s got no face. She’s all nylon. Orange helmet. Windproof goggles.
I imagine exposed skin would turn purple and fall off. Jana Winderen is trudging over sea ice just shy of the North Pole. All is white in all directions but the sky, which is like tin, and the ocean, which is mercury. In my headphones I hear wwwhhhhhhhh and underneath it the panhandling dogs of Greenland and the ravens who’ve learned to imitate their barking. As their voices fade away, I imagine Winderen leaving them behind for a slippery realm not even dogs would dare. She climbs the shining craggy hummock of a glacier.
Solitude is essential to what she must do. “I have thought that I should be afraid, without being so,” she says. “It is a lonely thing, recording, though you become more alert and sensitive.” And so she’s all alone when she comes upon a crack in the glacier. She kneels beside it. Peers into its blue lips. Beneath the blue lies the Arctic ocean’s gray surface and who knows what else.
In her backpack are hydrophones, waterproof microphones. Winderen links hydrophones to cables, cables to digital recorder, recorder to headphones. She lowers the hydrophones into the crevice. Down and down through this serendipitous fissure. Down into the ocean to the cables’ limit.
She sits on the ice, holds the cables in her hands. She listens through her headphones. And hears neither haunts of men nor mortal nothingness.
90 meters below. It is crackling with life.
2. Living secrets
Crackling, crinkling, scintillating sparkles in an expanse thrown open above my head. I’m in a chasm, a tunnel, and somewhere lurking in it is the ocean. Here and there small things leap out and gleam or swarm chattering out of the dark. This is what I feel after the dogs disappear, after a quiet scraping (cable against snow?) and a distant rush ghost through me in Winderen’s 2010 Energy Field, the marine-biologist-turned-artist-explorer’s debut album.
I hear the glacier’s slow dance. Or is it distant thunder? I hear a little water gurgling and a lot of water falling. I hear gulping, slurping, creaking, cracking. Glissando of clicks. A cry, maybe a whistle, far away and close. It’s emotional. I’d rather be alone to hear it.
You frown at so many maybes. You insist on knowing not just where Winderen recorded, not just how, but what. The liner notes say glaciers; Arctic waters; “crustaceans, fish such as cod, haddock, herring and pollock recorded as they are hunting, calling for a mate or orientating themselves in their environment.”
Perhaps you didn’t know that fishes serenade. Perhaps you had no idea, as I had no idea, what compressed oxygen inside 10,000-year-old ice sounds like. Winderen says, “What I decided I really wanted to do was…seek out the sounds that we do not notice or cannot perceive.”
So it’s from Winderen that I learn seasnails are noisy eaters; I learn the voice of the toadfish, which she recorded in Belize but also lives here in Bermuda, where I live; I’m mesmerized by dolphins’ echolocation clicks and that toadfish using his cave as an amplifier. Have you ever seen a toadfish? Toadfishes like to withdraw into stone burrows and defend them with their voices. How about a codfish? Codfish and potatoes, sure, it’s a Bermudian tradition; but did you know toadfishes and codfishes have voices like tubas murmuring in their sleep? (Best I can think of. Dreaming tubas. How anthropo-ridiculous.) Winderen records in all this planet’s oceans. She recycles her toad-and-codfishy recordings in multiple artworks because she loves these sounds.
To love a sound. Care that it happens. That it continue happening somewhere although we cannot reach it.
An album for Winderen is a sculpting and a storytelling. She weaves sounds together not like a tapestry but, I think, a novel. Listening to Energy Field, I follow her from the creche of the familiar, where dogs howl and ravens scheme, to the glacier and then into the water, where herrings cry and click-glissandos could be dolphins. I ride out a thunderstorm beside a trickling pool; then I rock with a Greenland iceberg as it breathes, whalelike, whistling almost like an orca, moaning as it melts. And it’s as if I melt too and drip into the water, where I mutate, becoming small, so the smallest sound seems huge. My density shifts so each watery vibration is electric. And I listen like a foreigner to chatting fishes. I don’t understand a word. Let go of dreaming tubas. Listen to fishy timbres. Just listen. Don’t decipher. This secret is not mine.
All Winderen asks is that we listen and wonder. Care that foreigners live beyond our notice. She gathers the ghosts of their alien voices, brings them up into the air where they can get under our skin. She says it’s “important to make people more aware, focus their listening… Through awareness of the smaller sounds around you, you gain respect for the creatures inhabiting the environment…[including] creatures we didn’t even know made any sound.”
It’s important to realize that things we’ll never meet, so different from ourselves that we’ll never understand them, are nonetheless alive. Because even though they’re distant we coincide with them. We live together with fishes in this now, here on this watery stone swimming through space.
It’s easy to forget. Because we’re primates, we must make a special effort to meet water denizens. One way or another, it requires leaving home. One way or another, this is often impossible. I can’t dive to 90 meters in freezing water. But even if I snorkeled to a reef and found a star coral, I’d never see it move. Coral time may be my time, we may be intimate in space; but its pace is not my pace, which means its time is also not my time. It lives on a different scale, too slow for us to measure.
So in the twentieth century, when humans considered science nigh omnipotent, certain people having invaded outer space, it took artists to convince us that coral is alive. Rachel Carson’s oceanic books. Jacques Cousteau’s kaleidoscopic films. Artists discovered before our very eyes—corals aren’t just walls but living animals.
But seeing things isn’t enough to make humans care for them. Especially ocean life. Consider the codfish. Or tuna or catfish. To flap around in agony and terror with a nail in your mouth, vomiting blood while everybody cheers, is awful. Awful. Yet many people enjoy making it happen to others. Or at least watching it happen. TV shows like Hillbilly Handfishin’, River Monsters, Big Fish Man get terrific ratings. Sometimes even activists who agonize over elephants can’t bring themselves to feel or fight for fishes. Why? Because fishes don’t have eyelids.
It’s true. Space aliens are often depicted without eyelids. Without eyelids, fishes seem distant, “beyond the outer orbit of our circle of moral concern.” Biologist Jonathan Balcombe convinced me of this in his delightful What a Fish Knows: “I believe that the main source of our prejudices against fishes is their failure to show expressions that we associate with having feelings… In those flat, glassy eyes we struggle to see anything more than a vacant stare. We hear no screams and see no tears when their mouths are impaled and their bodies pulled from the water. Their unblinking eyes—constantly bathed in water and thus in no need of lids—amplify the illusion that they feel nothing. With a deficit of stimuli that normally trigger our sympathy, we are thus numbed to the fish’s plight.”
Their aquatic bodies are so unlike our own (more than even birds or spiders, who at least have legs and never scorn the air) that the slippery fishes easily elude the grasp of empathy. Even when we see a fish thrashing on a boat, many humans see not excruciating pain and suffocating terror but mechanical reflex. Like a ceiling fan keeps turning for a while after you turn it off.
But when a thing lifts its voice, claps its hands, or pounds the table, we know it for a living thing. It isn’t that fishes don’t scream, Balcombe says. “Many fishes do vocalize when they are hurt, but the sounds they produce evolved to pass through water”; and as we’re unequipped to live in water, “rarely do we detect them.”
Winderen wants to change this. Make us feel that fishes feel.
4. It brings you right there
“Sound is a very physical medium,” Winderen says. “It can come in very close…it brings you right there.” Right here in Energy Field, we’re steeped in alien life. Listen as it burbles into your head from mouths and claws and sheets of ice. “Hearing that ice, or hearing the crustaceans, gives you access to another dimension that you are not used to.” We’re not used to fishes who aren’t already corpses or going insane in aquariums. We’re not used to oceanic living. That’s what Winderen wants to preserve, the joy she discovers with her hydrophones.
She says, “There is an inherent rhythm in all living, a pulse. If a fish is chewing on something, there is a rhythm. When the sea urchin is filtrating the water, there is a rhythm. There is even a rhythm just in the waves lapping, the pulse of the wind. It gives me hope to listen to the animals, to listen closely and look closely at how the creatures around us put a perspective on life. And hopefully it can change the brutality with which we step around in this world, with our earmuffs and blindfolds on. We need to pay attention.”
Scooping bottom-feeders up in bulldozerish trawlers, smothering fishes’ cries in misunderstanding which reduces them to instinct-fueled machines, not knowing or caring that carbon emissions bring glaciers tumbling down on them: these are forms of consumption which in one way or another have become automatic. Winderen offers resistance. To love, to pay attention to oceanic life, is to resist ideologies that grind it into chum.
All the same, we must appreciate that although Winderen makes art for human ears—she doesn’t expect whales to listen to her albums—the animals she records never raised their voices for our sake.
The ocean’s rhythms and the fishes’ cries do not address us. They have nothing to say to us except that they’re here now, alive. And that alone, that means a relationship exists between us.
But what the codfish says isn’t for us to understand. Some scientists suppose codfishes sing for sex. But scientists aren’t codfishes; they can do no more than guess. The belief that humans can translate everything into terms that we find meaningful; this too is anthropocentric, consumptive thinking. And Winderen resists. Energy Field takes us where we’re not supposed to be, seeming to draw back the veils of distance, depth, and darkness hanging thick between us and oceanic indwellers. And yet I sense, as I listen, that other barriers aren’t drawn back. Differences in scale, for instance, between my small body and the huge cold tunnel I hear opening up around me. And from this I sense, I hear, that I was never let in on any secret. Winderen just lets me hear that the secret exists. Right now just past the beach, there’s real living going on. Real life lives a hand’s breadth from our sewer drains and yet beyond the last frontier of our understanding.
There’s a moment in Energy Field where she’s juxtaposed cod voices with a long deep polyphonic sound heavy with slow wind. This sound has been called terrifying, haunting, spine-chilling, an alien, grand, hypnotic, ominous, awesome dark power. It’s the hugeness of it. Strangeness so vast it’s humbling. And in its midst is where codfishes mutter. Right here in my headphones, I hear codfishes and trickling water sharing the strangeness of this vast other sound; I hear the vast glacier with ominous trickles sharing codfishes’ vulnerability. And together these noises, their true meanings closed to me, convey that here I have no right to omniscient delusions. I sense that I’m entangled in something responsive, to which I must respond even though I know almost nothing about it.
Some mistake this “long deep sound” for a synthesizer. Winderen doesn’t use synthesizers. She doesn’t distort her recordings. If she sneezed during recording, she’d edit out the sneeze; she puts her favorite sounds together with each other. But the individual sounds are otherwise just as she found them. Out there underwater. Vivacious creations of non-machine nonhumans whose faces, if they have faces, are often close secrets.
5. Wave riders
It’s a perilous voyage, listening to Winderen’s sounds. A journey you can undertake in different ways, howsoever you dare.
If you were in Vienna in 2017, you could’ve visited her installation bára at Tidalectics, an exhibition by 13 artists devoted to oceans. You would’ve heard bára over 24 loudspeakers, surrounded by other artists’ videos of underwater nuclear devastation; a place where the floor moves while a fishing net full of trash swings overhead; captive jellyfishes, seashells, images of Jamaican bioluminescent algae… Whenever high tide swept up to the nearest beach, and then once more at low tide when the ocean swept back to itself, bára filled the exhibition with ocean-life-sounds. 28 minutes later silence swept them up again.
If you were in Lopud, Croatia, on 16 September 2017, you could’ve seen Winderen play bára live by the Adriatic Sea, layering her recordings in real time. It’s a recording of this Adriatic mix which I stumble on mid-Atlantic, having missed both exhibition and performance as I often miss the waves I try to bodysurf. bára is an old Norse word meaning wave.
A wave is a displacement. A blue curl breaks into a million beads of liquid white, becomes a glossy sigh and licks the beach, carving hollows in the rocks along the shore, sometimes perfectly circular. Each wave carves a little more. A brush here, caress there. Each wave is one more stroke in this beach-sculpting work of centuries. Each wave leaves a piece of itself in the rock. The hollow in the rock is a tide pool. And in the pool are wave riders. Snails with pretty black-and-white-flecked shells, blue-legged hermit crabs, tiny fishes like the blenny who hops from pool to pool back to the open water. A circle in stone becomes a little inland sea teeming with life.
bára live is a grand sonic tide pool. Sounds swept in from open sea wash onto the shore where terrestrials can hear them. But when the ocean inhales again, as it must, it sweeps away the shrimps and fishes whence they came; so there’s no hope of getting to know them. Every sound is like a blenny or a breaching whale. Washing onto our shores within reach of our senses for a moment, but a moment—they’re gone on the next breath, leaving us never quite sure, never certain what has passed. Winderen says: “follow the sounds”; let bára carry you away from the familiar, “open to surprises.” bára live is never twice the same.
Now, in 2019, you can hear some of bára’s sounds on Winderen’s new album, Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone. But not all of bára’s sounds. And not bára’s rhythms. The Tidalectics catalog says bára is: “hydrophone recordings the artist collected during various expeditions…from the North Pole to the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans. The composition comprises diverse sounds, from waves to the distinctive clicking noises of crustaceans, from smaller fish species grunting to larger mammals like cetaceans.”
You remark that this is vague, and yes, I think so too. But I know some things I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t know them because Winderen doesn’t say them. Not to me, not in the catalog nor in her spoken introduction to bára live. Have patience and I’ll tell you how I know bára live begins out on the ice. The first sound is a bearded seal beside the Barents Sea. Then glacial meltwater gurgles. Clatter-clatter almost like radio static. Next thing I recognize is surf rushing in. It caresses the ice under an Arctic wind’s slow inhale-exhale. The waves slip out of hearing as if above my head. A deep hum slowly rocking and a strange down-sliding whistle make me hold my breath to hear codfishy grunting, whaleish screals, that strange clatter-clatter…
Suddenly a crush slices everything. Loud longdrawnout cccccrrrrruussssshh, an engine drowning everything. Fighting to outrun it is the clickclickclickclickclickclickclick of some deafened cetacean straining to hear his own efforts at echolocation. Frantic for him, I hear waves again. As though anxiety drives me to the surface. Or new waves sweep in and wash the ship away so I can hear the humpbacks.
Humpbacks! Squeaking, screaling, growling. A sirenic cry—orca? Dreamy codfishes. Crackle as of flying sparks. And it seems we take another breath: the whales are gone, I believe I hear frogs…
Do you feel bára’s rhythm? Quick inhale then a while below the surface. And up again just briefly and down into the dark. And on each dive a new mix of underwater sounds slightly different from the last. Now as surface gurgle fades, I hear, sounding deep, one of the mysterious underwater chords Winderen’s forever seeking. I love that another word for dive is sound.
From out of the dark the humpback whales return, a whole chorus. Humpbacks fanfare, humpbacks groan, humpbacks slidewhistle and chirrup. For 5 glorious minutes humpbacks dominate bára. It’s like Winderen can’t get enough of them, looping their sonic sequences. And these sequences, this particular humpback composition, which several humpbacks know and share; this is perfect for bára because it’s rife with glissandoes. Up-slides, down-slides, incoming, outgoing, staggered and simultaneous. Just like tidal rollers rise up curled and break up white, others rising at irregular distances before those ashore have lain down to recede.
But the whales vanish abruptly as if fleeing the encroaching engine, churning, crushing, clang!, and creaking as though tossed on pitching swells, dwindling at last into the final silence.
6. Going visiting
Listening to you, I give you the small, close gift of my attention, which for me is a precious gift of time. Listening goes with caring. And there’s one word that means both. Attending to you, I give heed to you and tend to you, apply myself to thinking of what you say and need. I’m no longer the center of my attention.
This displacement is related to empathy. It’s the submission of polite visitors and caring hosts. (It has an opposite, disattending.) Feminist theorist Donna Haraway says listening is a way to “think-with other beings, human and not. That is a rare and precious vocation. Vocation: calling, calling with, called by, calling as if the world mattered, calling out, going too far, going visiting.”
With the whistle of the seal, bára calls on us (vocation) to pay a call (a visit) on the ocean, whose denizens we often overlook. But we can’t do more than visit. Cousteau, inventor of scuba, said he never looked at the ocean without a “sense of trespass.” And Winderen’s work reminds us. Oceans are home but not for us. We must visit politely.
Winderen says the extent to which you “car[e] for the environment [or not] is also revealed by the sound you put into it. I am amazed how parents don’t teach kids that you need to be quiet by the sea, in the forest, and around each other. Less and less respect seems to be put towards this.” Wherever humans go, we hear ourselves. Even where we don’t belong. In many of Winderen’s works, the most jarring moments are the familiar ones. She says, “There is hardly anywhere left on the planet [where] you do not hear a plane in the air or a ship underwater.”
And yet, I mean, really. Would you visit the home of a distant acquaintance, even an intimate one, and set about tearing holes in the furniture? Would you rip out all the plumbing and strew the bits around the house, leaving the owners no idea where to start looking for the bathroom?
That’s what noise pollution does to oceans’ inhabitants.
Toothed whales, dolphins, coral larvae, crustaceans, all sorts of fishes use sound to determine where they are and where they’re going. Open oceans are blue-on-blue below the surface; there are no visual landmarks. So when a sperm whale cannot hear, she’s swimming blind. When humpbacks cannot hear, they can’t answer cries for help. A toadfish underneath a pleasure boat can’t make himself heard, and so he can’t defend his home. Container ships, cruise ships, seismic testing, offshore drilling, ferries, trawlers. Submarines and warships above all! Military sonar devastates pelagic animals. In the aftermath of naval exercises, whales flee to the surface with blood pouring from their ears. Underwater sonic blasts kill blue crabs on impact. Shrimps and lobsters bombarded by engine and construction noise have trouble breathing.
For animals who live where everything is blue, nothing is solid, and the world goes back-to-front on the whims of the moon, sound is sustenance.
We don’t know what it’s like, you and I in the crossfire of the light bouncing off the walls and cacti, the landmark steeple of City Hall, the ground under our feet. We humans cannot feel what it is to depend on sound to the degree our ocean neighbors do. And so, again, empathizing with their situation can be hard.
But that’s how visiting is. It’s work. Not to be on your guard but to be open to others’ sensibilities. For Winderen, this is what listening is.
“Response-ability” (Haraway’s word) means being capable of responding and taking responsibility for what happens to each other. It’s the work of cultivating openness. The practice of curious and careful visiting. The effort not to drown out swimming animals, demolishing their response-ability as we trample our way through life. Even when those animals are quite beyond our reach.
7. Without proximity
Winderen’s 2016 release The Wanderer sweeps me through a watery realm of tiny glittering life. Pops and plops, squeaks and sparks, buggy buzz, slippery slosh. Weird humming from the deep. And did you know there were so many kinds of crackle? One’s a run of clicks. One’s a quick bunch of burps. One’s also a whistle. Whistles too come in eerie forms. Up-whistles, down-whistles, buzz-whistles, rattle-whistles. Till an engine drowns out all but the groaning of a winch.
Listening, I feel like I’m not where I am. My computer isn’t swimming with strange sparks all over its insides. But nor am I hallucinating the gurgles of water and echolocation.
You’ll say it’s only natural, “You’re just listening to recordings.” Like ubiquity makes anything unremarkable. When you hear the voice of a dead man, Lady Gaga, or a crustacean on your computer, they aren’t there, and yet you really are listening to them. You’ll never persuade me this isn’t uncanny. I don’t care how it’s achieved; I’m never with Wanderer’s high-pitched squealers, but I’m listening to them, which means I’m with them surely, attending upon them.
“Intimacy without proximity,” says Haraway: “a presence without disturbing…but with the potential for being part of work and play for confronting the exterminationist, trashy, greedy practices of global industrial economies and cultures. Intimacy without proximity is not ‘virtual’ presence; it is ‘real’ presence, but in loopy materialities…a practice of caring without the neediness of touching.”
Contradiction: I’m with you and not with you, scintillating drifters, whatever you are. Sound “brings [me] right there.” Your teeny voice may remind me of a dentist’s drill; nonetheless your sounds admit us to each other’s worlds. At the same time, you estrange me from myself, you teeny-tiny swimming thing. Your strangeness estranges me from the narrow view I took of living, assuring me that all that is familiar in my trashy greedy floundering has no business bothering you. I hear our strangeness to each other and feel its rippling resonances. Listening becomes a kind of traveling in place.
Greek for wanderer is planktos. Zooplankton (snails, insects, jellyfishes, foraminifera) and phytoplankton (diatoms, plants, cyanobacteria) spend their lives wave-riding, drifting on ocean currents.
Not all are microscopic. But Wanderer’s obsession with supertiny sounds tells me Winderen wants me dreaming on a supertiny scale. In the cover illustration, which Winderen made herself, an underwater insect drifts in the dark. Its antennae are fey curlicues, its glow wraith-ish.
How fragile it is, half-transparent. As though a too-warm breath could incinerate it. The picture reminds me of images I’ve seen online: planktonic snails, ghost-white, translucent, physically dissolving as global warming turns oceans to acid. Can it be that this see-through bug with overabundant appendages is of this world? It looks like something in a UFO movie. Earthling alien. Earthling extraterrestrial.
Yet a small block of text beside Winderen’s bizarre bug tells us how important the supertinies are: “Mammals, fish and crustaceans feed on zooplankton and they in turn feed on phytoplankton.” And it isn’t just the oceans. Every Earthling lives under the influence of plankton as “half of the world’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton photosynthesis.”
We’re absolutely intimate with these absolute aliens. We breathe because of them. Our most basic fumbling physically affects them (flip a switch, encourage global warming…). And yet, do you ever think of them?
The Wanderer is a tribute to plankton. The album cover says it’s “a sound composition created from hydrophone recordings from the realm of these creatures in the Atlantic Ocean, made by Jana on her travels from the North Pole to the Equator.”
“These creatures? Which creatures?” Gracious host, you are impatient. You’re surrounded by noises and don’t know what’s noising them. Although they’re very small, they sound like equipment failures. Cracklecrackle bree-eep? And you doubt they come from plankton. The echolocation clicks. The toadfish. Squeaky whistles could be from pilot whales or killer whales. And the cover doesn’t say recordings of plankton; it draws attention to plankton but offers sounds from the realm of plankton.
It’s as though we’re being asked to intuit plankton. As though we’re meant to feel them without hearing them in larger animals’ voices. To hear, perhaps, in big voices’ tiny sounds, tributes to the tiny beings that give big voices breath and life. Think for a moment of plankton. When are thoughts of plankton not mediated by thoughts of something bigger—except in Wanderer’s image of a zooplankton all alone?
8. A story about thinking about plankton
Once upon a time, an anthropologist called Helmreich came to Bermuda to study scientists. The scientists were marine biologists from the University of Georgia and MIT. They were studying oceanic cyanobacteria. Helmreich lived with the scientists on their ship. He helped to filter microbes out of seawater, freezing the tiny subjects “for cryogenic transport” back to the US. Few Bermudians, if any, had any idea when the ship landed and slipped away, having taken what it wanted.
Helmreich discovered that most scientists thought about plankton in three ways, and how they thought about plankton reflected how they thought about the ocean. First, they realized marine microbes are physiologically essential to every other animal. These microbes make oxygen and are good to eat. The scientist who gave them their Greek epithet, plankton, called them “the blood of the sea,” envisioning the ocean as a living body vulnerable to wounding. A correlated point of view sees microbes as our long-lost bloody relatives: their genes are our genes. All life on Earth evolved from their ancestors. So meeting living plankton can feel like a séance even though they’re still alive. Their presence intensified the unsteady, uncanny sensation Helmreich felt in the Bermuda Triangle; as if there were “a time anomaly in this area, as if time could fold into itself, fusing and confusing past, present, and future—just like alien genes that crosswire marine lineages and warp evolutionary chronologies.”
According to a third perspective, plankton are ingredients for consumer products. Cosmetics, nutraceuticals, medications. Plankton are “wet wealth,” “biovalue,” or “biocapital.” As though they never live. All that matters is their “useful[ness] for human projects”—moneymaking ones especially—where in fact plankton themselves are secondary. We’re after their genes. What on Earth for? Mapping the human genome. Mapping the “ocean genome.” Hoping to reduce the myriad strangers in the ocean to one basic genetic sequence which will answer the question of our history as if with a simple integer.
The scientists on Helmreich’s ship weren’t interested in plankton. They were interested in what plankton’s genomic data could tell them about “the blue-green globe.” Teensy half-transparent animals (can you imagine anything more vulnerable?), asked to pronounce something about the whole planet, couldn’t pronounce a thing, frozen in liquid nitrogen. But what did it matter? The animals amounted to quantitative thoughts; suggestions which were fed to electronic minds in hope some dream of theirs would mean something to the scientists, sating their “curiosity about environmental presents and futures.”
It was about finding meaning, Helmreich wrote, “making meaning” out of kidnapped animals “at local and global scales. Collecting, filtering, scanning, preserving, and distributing water samples represent techniques that ready the sea to be uploaded, abducted—to databases, to future theories—broken down to be built up again.”
And whether the final products are ideas or antibiotics, they’re not about plankton. They’re certainly not about the individuals who get ground up as their ingredients. They’re about humans and where in spacetime humans live. “The plankton he studied winked out of sight into worlds scaling down to the microscopic and molecular,” recalled one of Helmreich’s scientists. “We are losing sight of the organism,” said another. “People today are more interested in gene libraries…because of their potency as biomedia, organic stuff that can be reformatted into novel configurations.”
So it’s not that we overlook marine microbes because they’re too small for empathy. Our attention sails through plankton because they’re not small enough. Helmreich saw this.
And so another way of thinking about plankton. The perspective Helmreich developed for himself under the influence of an uncanny place, “a site famous in modernfolk lore for its association with alien abduction: the Bermuda Triangle.”
9. Alien invasions
“Indeed, our work [Helmreich means the scientists’] might be seen as one style of alien abduction, a venture in which humans, as strangers to the sea, employ a mixture of logic and last-ditch hope to make sense of something unfamiliar. With alien and viral genes in the mix, the aliens in this brand of alien abduction might be both agents and objects of such investigation.”
Investigators (humans) and investigated (plankton). Both are resident aliens. Strangers, weird foreigners. Baffling because we can’t understand each other. Their perspective is far to the outside, distant and askew from our experience of reality. At best this makes them vulnerable to apathy, at worst to hatred. Humans often despise aliens even when we share their genes. Their very existence is a crack in reality as we want reality to be. For if their genes are our genes, their blood our blood—then we ourselves are aliens through and through.
We’re never just ourselves, you know. Humans are never fully human. We wouldn’t be human at all if we weren’t also swarms of particular microbes. But we’re also not microbes. We’re not plankton either although their genes are our genes. Although their genes are our genes, we’ll never understand them even if we’re scientists. Why? Because scientists aren’t plankton. So we’ll never really know our evolutionary history. And therefore never know all that we really are. We’re aliens to ourselves. This “last-ditch hope” of “making sense” of the oceans in order to begin to make sense of ourselves…well, this is not to be.
No one knows this better than Winderen. See her see-through fairie-bug? Hear Wanderer sound out the waters and the fishes who carry plankton inside them? This is the sound of evolutionary biology, which claims plankton are nothing more than what they do for the food chain, their life is their contribution to survival-of-the-fittest. It’s also the sound of molecular biology claiming genes are where our bodies intertwine with planktons’; their history is where all bodies penetrate each other. But when we listen for plankton in cetacean and crustacean voices, we hear that nobody’s a final product; every body is composed and decomposed by others. Interweaving and crossfading multitudinous animal sounds, Winderen sounds out their nourishing each other as they dissolve in each other. The fluidity with which toadfish-mumble becomes maybe-whale-whistle or unidentified crackle sounds the ocean’s fluidity and every body’s porosity. It means the answer to What are you? and Who are you? is a wash of noise, the sound of toomanysounds that defies intelligibility.
This is coexistence. It’s contradictory. An existential paradox. Even though we all dissolve into each other, every single bug has its own private life which no one but that bug can fathom. Every body has its own integrity. Winderen draws just one zooplankton to remind us of this. She edits her recordings so every Wanderer voice pays tribute to supertiny individuality; every fish, dolphin, and droplet sounds out discrete fragility with discrete discreet sounds.
Except of course the behemoth that drowns them all. We imagine spaceships blotting out the sun, sending armored trucks and sidewalks scattering like so much litter before mammoth exhaust pipes. In Wanderer it’s just the same when the engine comes. Its growling blots out everything. All swimmers great and small must scatter or go deaf.
And for what? Knowledge? Whose knowledge? “We humans act as if we understand and can measure everything,” Winderen grumbles. But we can’t. Especially in the oceans, where all humans are foreigners. We ought rather to be “pessimistic about whether scientific knowledge alone about the ocean is enough for making sense of it (let alone protecting it),” Helmreich wrote, “insist[ing] that all accounts of the sea are partial and that therefore there can be no such self-evident category as ‘our oceans.’”
Winderen’s hydrophones let us in on a secret: oceans teem with alien sounds. But if knowledge is power, we’re more powerless than a lonely zooplankton who bares its insides to the light. Winderen shreds all illusions to the contrary by inundating us with sounds we can’t identify. Look at her descriptions of her artworks. She never says at such-and-such a moment you hear so-and-so. She never identifies all the animals we’re hearing. Those mentioned are not named: which snails? Which kind of cod? Mammals, fishes, and crustaceans? Which?
There’s no sample-gathering on Winderen’s listening journeys. No shooting things with tags or GPS locators. Listening is a voyage of discovery that offers not one byte of unquestionable knowledge. She calls on us (vocation) to listen without laying claim to anything (visiting), realizing we’ve no right to expect oceans’ animals to mean anything whatsoever in our terms.
Except one thing. Life that’s not our own.
10. Blind listening
She asks nothing less from herself. Most of the time, Winderen has no idea what her hydrophones are picking up. With 90 meters of water between hydrophones and headphones, how could she?
She calls it “blind field recording.” When she “cannot see the origin of the sound…unless the fish come up to the surface to look at [her], which happened once!” Dipping mikes in mysteries. Who wields those tiny castanets? What’s behind that shadow of dreaming tuba? “I cannot be certain what is making the sounds I hear,” she says. And she records because of this uncertainty, not despite it. She finds in blind recording “an endless source of wonder and questioning” and “a very concentrated listening process…like a search through sound and not through looking at and then listening to. Close your eyes while recording, then follow the sound.”
Sound scholars don’t like blind listening because it looks like praying. It’s a popular view; it rails against the equally popular misconception of artsy artworks as experiences of higher truths. That couldn’t be farther from what Winderen is after when she listens blind. She wants to discount any suggestion, visual or otherwise, that could risk masquerading as the truth about what she’s hearing. Because no such suggestion could truthfully sum up the nonhuman aliens she’s hearing. That’s the truth she’s after.
The photographer Steve Baker says in his marvelous book Artist|Animal that in thinking about nonhumans, an “openness to not-knowing” is critical. Because the fact is when it comes to nonhumans—shrimps, let’s say—there’s always more that we don’t know. And especially since we’re boiling their habitat, we must find it in ourselves to care about these animals not in spite of the fact that we can’t get to know them but because we cannot ask them or fully understand how our shenanigans affect them.
Care without proximity. Concern from miles away.
Blind listening is creative “openness to not-knowing.” In listening, really listening, not talking over someone inside your head, nodding while your preconceptions drown out their subtle timbres; openness to not-knowing is vital. It’s quietly disrupting every urge to mentally coerce the alien into filling in checkboxes that correspond to categories you’re comfortable with. Because shoving things in boxes you’re comfortable with is just an egocentric effort to cancel out their alienness.
Winderen wants oceans’ resident aliens to stay alien. Even at the risk of her own disquiet. She’s more interested in questions than answers. She prefers recording blind because it prevents preconceptions from blinding her to what nonhumans are actually doing. “When you see a thing in front of you, you kind of expect a sound to come at you, you kind of get overpowered by what you are looking at,” she says. Once our eyes seem to tell us what we’re hearing or our cultural training tells us what it “sounds like,” we categorize accordingly and find it traumatic to change our minds.
11. A story about thinking about crustaceans
Cracklecrackle everywhere. All over Winderen’s artworks. But to this day, she wonders—“who are they?”
Once upon a time in WWII, a hydrophone aboard a submarine full of paranoid Americans said, Crackle crackle.
“Weird crackling noise, Commander.” Frantic guessing ensued. “Static crashes”? Radio interference? Sounds like “coal rolling down a metal chute.” Like “dragging a blackberry vine.” Or a “continuous fusillade.” “No explanation…”
At last Lt. Cmdr. W.D. Wilkins had an idea. He said, “The Japs may have some newfangled gadget.”
This is how we humans treat what we don’t know. We take it for the enemy.
To make a long story short, the cracklers turned out to be shrimps. Synalpheus gambarelloides. They have ten legs. They’re very tiny. They clack their claws together to communicate with one another or, like tiny sound cannons, send shockwaves through the water. The sounds either paralyze supertiny prey or shatter none-too-nearby bubbles, the blast from which is loud enough to maim or kill the supertiny.
Till 1947, snapping shrimps were the US Navy’s best-kept secret, their identity stamped CLASSIFIED in hope that foreign hydrophonists would be equally bamboozled. Besides, snapping shrimps themselves weren’t ordinary foreigners. They were riotous subversives disrupting national security. And on top of that, shrimp cultures looked suspiciously like communism. They were the perfect enemy for McCarthy-era America.
When the Scripps Institute of Oceanography closed the Case of the Underwater Handsfree Castanets, the official attitude on the ocean as a “realm of silence” had to change. And it did. Around 2008, Winderen heard crackles while recording blind near Lindåspollen, Norway, and recognized Synalpheus. But like the crest of a tidal wave, mystery reared its head once more.
Snapping shrimps aren’t supposed to be in Norway. The US Navy heard them off of Borneo and California. So Winderen thought she recognized Synalpheus. But did she?
“These shrimp do not exist as far north as Lindåspollen,” Winderen says. “I asked a marine biologist in Tromsø who then checked through his network what could have caused this sound. As far as I know, they believe that the sound probably stems from wrasse eating seashells.” Other biologists disagreed. After hearing her recording, they wondered if global warming had driven snapping shrimps into the north. This turned out to be true, but uncertainty had the better of Winderen by then. She couldn’t rule out Synalpheus, but by 2017 she’d added snails and “all sorts of animals” to her list of clattering suspects.
And she says, “I still don’t know for sure.”
She released her recordings of these who-knows-whats on her 2009 album, The Noisiest Guys on the Planet. She grew used to not knowing what the album was. Were these sounds the ghosts of shrimps, snails, wrasses, all, or none? Winderen decided it didn’t matter much.
Nearly all her albums ask that we listen without necessarily knowing what we’re hearing. And care for what we’re hearing without needing to know it. She invites us to wonder, not just wonder what. But wait. Listen even though we don’t know what it is? No. Listen to them because we don’t know them. That’s what makes them precious. You might call this attentiveness to biodiversity. Call it listening beyond ourselves. Rebellion against xenophobia. Listening blind, we come into these animals’ sounding presence while their bodies remain beyond our reach where they belong.
Intimacy without intimacy. Coexistence in a weird and indispensable mode. It means living with uncertainty and disquiet.
You ask, “But can you protect something without knowing what it is?”
Well, if you think about it, “knowing what things are” just means boxing them into familiar categories. Determining a thing’s “properties” or “meaning” just means calculating its usefulness in one way or another. Reducing things to their usefulness is consumption. Consumption is abduction.
Oceanic animals just need us to refrain. As you’d refrain from filling your pockets with someone else’s cutlery.
12. Consumptive stories about thinking about sounds
But maybe you think it’s impossible. You wouldn’t be alone.
Once upon another time, the British artist Cathy Lane mistook the shrimpy voices in Winderen’s 2008 project, Heated, for “the crackling embers of a fire as it began to die down in the grate.”
Winderen loved this. She told Lane it was “sound’s openness and associativity that made me want to work with it in the first place.” She rarely shares her field notes because “I want to encourage the listener to use their imagination…I don’t wish to tell them what to do.”
This is why I don’t ask her to tell me what’s happening, sound by sound, in every moment of every artwork. If I did that, I’d miss the point. Reading Winderen’s published field notes, brief and scattered as they are, and learning to identify a couple of marine voices—maybe I’ve already missed the point.
The point is wondering wandering. Forming ideas about sounds only to discard them and form new ones or just listen. Only then, perhaps, can I really hear the animals. Because only then will I hear that they exceed me. I can’t consume that which exceeds me.
But maybe that’s impossible. Some might say all Lane heard was what her cold-weather culture trained her to hear. Many sound scholars think all we ever hear is what we’re trained to hear by the “auditory cultures” in which we regularly participate.
“Trained?” I’m afraid so. Brian Kane, a music theorist, defines auditory culture “in terms of the shared likenesses heard in sounds among a community of listeners.” He says humans “hear in sound analogies to other practices and predicates in their culture… [T]hese likenesses are formed in the context of (and recursively constitute) auditory cultures. They are woven together into a mesh or network of practices that communities of listeners participate in when they hear relevant features of the auditory world, communicate them to others, and pass them on through training.”
By living with other humans, we learn to analogize what we hear to other goings-on in human communities. Just living in a “culture” “trains” us to hear that culture “in” everything we hear. We hear its categories, its value systems, regardless of where the sound actually comes from.
And we can’t help it. We can’t help living with other humans. So regardless of what we hear, we hear ourselves. It’s how we’re trained. Because we’re ourselves. And so when I hear recordings of snapping shrimps, I hear “analogies to other practices and predicates in my human culture.” This is consumption; for what I do not hear are snapping shrimps. Because shrimps don’t belong to the “communities of listeners” that train me to make sense of what I hear. If I think I’m hearing shrimps—or worse, encountering a sonic thing that occurs outside myself and outside the shrimps—I’m imagining it. I’m imagining away the human cultural relations that produce what I hear, imagining independent nonhuman vivaciousness instead. Life that’s not our own.
The idea that a “community” determines what I hear implies that those who don’t belong to that community can’t affect me with their voices. This is an anthropocentric, xenophobic ideology. What’s more, in Western consumerism, anthropocentrism is a central cultural value; anthropocentrism weighs on all our cultural training. So if listening is subordinate to cultural training, every sound we hear is some kind of “analogy” to anthropocentric “practices and predicates,” and all listening is consumption.
Your impatience cedes to alarm. “So—we hear anthropocentrism everywhere? And what if I don’t want to?”
13. Wild interference
Training in auditory cultures isn’t just involuntary. It can’t be. It isn’t possible that when Lane listens to Heated, she’ll never hear, never could hear, overheated shrimps driven to Norway by global warming instead of a homey hearth. We can choose to learn to listen differently. Even nonjudgmentally. Even the US Navy eventually chose not to “hear in” chattering crustaceans “the enemy’s” newfangled threat to democracy.
For Baker, thinking creatively about nonhuman animals involves a “delicate balance—of disattending-from rules in order to attend-to what those particular rules render illegitimate or irrelevant.” Anthropocentrism rules that everything exists so that humans can exist. Suggestions that nonhumans have lives of their own is illegitimate according to the rule.
If Winderen’s art attends to nonhuman animals whose vivacity is irrelevant to anthropocentrism, then this “thoroughgoing attention to endangered creatures and habitats is a committed disattending from Western culture’s broadly anthropocentric and inward-looking value system.” Not attending to anthropocentrism means refusing to let it drown out everything in cries of For Humanity Today And Tomorrow! (or me me me!). It means listening instead for our “thoroughgoing connectedness” to nonhumans in alien currents that run through ourselves too vividly for us to grasp. If consumerism trains us to think there’s nothing worth knowing about nonhumans except how we can use or destroy them, then listening to nonhumans is a kind of deafness too; a “creative attending-while-disattending…[that] puts into place a creative interruption of the ways in which humans habitually look at animals.”
When you’re meant to await the pleasure of some authority, whether it’s culture, king, or capital, your disattending interrupts that authority’s smooth running. Humans are called subversive when they disrupt established ideas and “civilized” social structures like anthropocentrism.
When nonhumans disrupt or exceed civilization, what do we call them?
I love The Noisiest Guys on the Planet. 40 minutes of impure crackle threatened everywhere by engines. The affectionate title chuckles at the tiny decapods who baffled scientists, intimidated a naval “superpower,” and drowned out Manifest Destiny. Winderen’s drawing of a single shrimp, transparent and fragile, its little legs high-stepping, slips through bars and boxes on the cover.
When nonhumans slip through our fingers, iron bars, electric fences…we humans call them wild.
“For those of us settled in down-to-earth common sense and facts-on-the-ground science, the ocean symbolizes the wildest kind of nature there is,” says Helmreich. “It represents a contrast to the cultivated land and even, sometimes, to the solid order of culture itself.”
Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019)—a finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, the Eyelands International Book Award, and the Permafrost Book Prize as well as a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, SFWP Literary Award shortlistee, and PEN Open Book Award nominee. She’s also the author of Kiskadee, a monthly celebration of nonhuman vitalities at Manqué Magazine, and the essay collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster, 2020).