The Lights Which Can Be Heard

Project

Immediately this keyboard, streaked with gold and agate,
Turns into a curtain whose whiteness bursts,
[…]
What is this strange veil or rather this wonder?

This passage from the poem The Aurora Borealis, written in 1904 by the Canadian William Chapman, sums up the impression we have of the phenomenon quite well. Dancing lights in the sky, their enigmatic aspect fascinates, and feeds our imagination on the myths and traditions of the Northern peoples. Difficult to capture, not many of us have the opportunity to witness this spectacle, but for the few who are lucky enough, some would be able to perceive sound; is it real? Do the Northern Lights emit sound? In his project The Lights Which Can Be Heard, Sébastien Robert shares his vision and immerses us in the far reaches of the Norwegian fjords.

The idea comes from his interest in the Sami people, who live in the northern lands from Sweden to Russia and are considered by the UN to be the last indigenous and nomadic peoples in Europe. We have heard about them in the news for their sad fate in the face of industrial giants invading their territories for natural resources. Once again witnessing a history that is repeating itself, Sébastien begins researching their rituals and musical traditions, likely to be eclipsed in time. 

He begins by finding writings on Sami rituals involving minerals in the Arctic subsoil and the aurora borealis. In the Sami language, the phenomenon is called ‘guovssahas’, which literally means ‘lights that can be heard’; Sébastien will travel to the area to research the sound of the aurora borealis, and to study the local traditions related to the subject. The idea is appealing and he is selected for a STRP ACT AWARD 2022, which allows him to plan his field trip. 

Sébastien spots the space centre on the island of Andøya in Norway, and contacts their team to discuss a possible collaboration on the scientific part of his work. He then learns that the aurora borealis belong to outer space, and therefore to the military, and the data collected will not be communicated. Without giving up, Sébastien goes back to the books, but this time he focuses exclusively on the aurora borealis.

In partnership with the Royal Library in The Hague, he is given privileged access to the archives and comes across a book that will become his future bible: Northern Lights, From Mythology to Space Research. One chapter catches his eye: it reports the stories of people who hear them, and the related scientific research. The book, published in 1983, is inconclusive on the subject, but it is enough to give our artist a glimmer of hope. The further he goes, the more the accounts multiply; over the centuries and in different places on the planet, individuals have heard sounds at the sight of the aurora borealis and their descriptions are incredibly consistent. 

History tells us that it was only after the Second World War that theories formulated in the 1920s resurfaced. One of them, which Sébastien is seriously considering, is that the VLF (very low frequency) electromagnetic waves produced by the aurora could be perceived by the human ear through natural elements. 

To better understand this, let’s take a brief definition of a radio wave: it is an electromagnetic wave produced by electric charges moving through the air at very high speed. When they move, they oscillate more or less quickly in time. The frequency is defined by the number of oscillations in one second (measured in Hertz), and by the distance between them. Waves are classified according to their frequency in the “electromagnetic spectrum”. The term radio defines a category of waves in this spectrum. We tend to think that radio waves are a human invention, but they have been around since the dawn of time. Many natural phenomena (lightning, solar winds, aurora borealis) disturb the earth’s magnetic field and thus create electromagnetic waves. 

Until proven otherwise, we cannot hear radio waves directly, we need a device to translate the waves into sound. The theory reveals that certain elements in nature would be a way of doing this sound translation. But before going too far, Sébastien wants to check the first part of the theory and gets a receiver that will allow him to pick up the waves. 

Now settled on the island of Andøya for a three-week residency, Sébastien is exploring his terrain, hiking day and night. The first difficulty is to find the right place to stand and wait, he must not go far from his base in case he has to leave urgently for the field, but must be far enough away not to pick up waves created by any human activity. Because any electronic device creates VLF waves, and to avoid them one has to be 2 or 3 km away. He eventually found a spot 45 minutes walking distance. The second challenge is a natural one; we are in October 2021, an intermediate period that should allow Sébastien to do his research by day and night, only the geomagnetic forecasts are not favourable. But on the night of the 11th to the 12th, a geomagnetic storm breaks out, Sébastien prepares his equipment and spends the night in the mountains, successfully recording the aurora borealis. 

The encounter with the indigenous peoples represented an additional obstacle for the artist who, for the first time in his career, set off alone on this expedition. It is during the last week of his residency, as a guest of the Insomnia festival, that he has the opportunity to draw attention to his project and to meet some interested parties who answer his questions : Contrary to what the writings studied during the genesis of the project suggested, the term “guovssahas” is in reality only an urban legend, and the aurora borealis has only a minor symbolic place in Sami culture. But if the sound of the aurora is well known to the inhabitants of the different regions of the Arctic, and is the subject of stories told by their ancestors, Sébastien has not met anyone who has actually experienced it.

Sebastien Robert The lights which can be heard

Sebastien returns to the Netherlands, and continues his research on minerals that have the property of changing one energy into another, to make the famous translation: piezoelectric crystals, mainly quartz; they carry an electrical charge and react to mechanical pressure. This is the reason why this mineral is so sought after for the proper functioning of our electronic devices. 

In preparation for the presentation of his project at the STRP festival in Eindhoven, Sébastien is working on how to connect all these elements. We will have the opportunity to discover an immersive and interactive installation, a play of sounds, lights and perceptions, around a subject still open to debate in 2022. 

As for the testimonies of experiences, the game is perhaps only postponed; Sébastien returns to Norway to set up a permanent antenna on the site, and in parallel, launches a call for witnesses through an online exhibition at the AyarKut Foundation in Russia. 

We cannot explain everything to ourselves, and myths are born of these gaps. Sébastien Robert does not try to fill them in, he opens up an artistic path; an alternative between science and intuition, all in poetry.

Artist
Sébastien Robert

Commissioned by STRP Festival 
With the financial support of Dispositif pour la Création Artistique Multimédia et Numérique (DICRéAM), and Stroom Den Haag.  
Initiated during the Arctic Wave residency programme 
Under the artistic supervision of Jean-Emmanuel Rosnet 
With the intellectual support of The Royal Library of the Netherlands, Njål Gulbrandsen (Tromsø Geophysical Observatory), Fiona Armery (University of Cambridge), Rob Stammes (Polarlightcenter), Harald Gaski (The Arctic University of Norway), Hans Ragnar Mathisen, Matti Aikio.

Artist

photo credit : Charlotte Brand

I am not going to change the world. I am here as an artist to try to bring another perspective; such is the philosophy of Sébastien Robert, artist and researcher. Driven by his passion for music and photography, he travels the world meeting indigenous peoples and dedicating himself to the research of endangered ancestral musical rites and traditions. We can assume that devoting himself to this vast task is a long-standing vocation, or a childhood dream for the artist, but the reality is different; an event disrupts the course of his life…

Despite a natural inclination for the sound and visual arts, Sébastien had a rather classical academic career; when he reaches higher education, he leaves his native Nantes for Lyon, where he enters a business school. His studies do not thrill him very much, and he soon feels stuck in a system whose only escape is electronic music, a first turning point for him. Lyon’s nightlife is effervescent, he discovers clubs, parties, festivals, which gradually open the way to digital arts. 

In 2013, Sébastien, like many students in school, is asked to do a semester abroad and leaves for Taipei for four months, after which he does humanitarian work in an orphanage in Kathmandu for the remaining two months. 
During this second stay, he stays with a Tibetan family, part of an indigenous community from the Langtang Valley in the Himalayas that has been immigrating to Nepal for over 400 years. The family takes a liking to him, and invites him to attend a traditional festival of their unique culture whose customs are known only to a handful of people. Nestled in the village of Kyanjin Gompa, somewhere between Nepal and Tibet, Sebastien spends a week attending prayers in the monasteries, catching yaks, shooting arrows, observing songs, dances and rituals. And for the first time, he photographs what he sees, and records what he hears; this is the birthplace of his artistic practice. But at this precise moment, Sébastien does not know it yet.

photo credit : Pieter Kers

As time goes by, our artist seizes various professional opportunities, including an internship at a digital arts festival in The Hague in 2014. He is increasingly open to artistic practices related to technology, and even more broadly to science. In France as well as abroad, he familiarizes himself with the job market in this field and at the end of his studies, he gets involved with the Mirage festival in Lyon or the FIBER festival in Amsterdam. 

But on April 25, 2015, a horrifying event shakes the planet: a series of earthquakes violently hits Nepal, leaving cities in ruins and thousands dead. Sébastien learns that a glacier has collapsed in the Langtang valley, sweeping away the small village with its unique festival. There are only two survivors. 
In the blink of an eye, an entire culture disappears, and with it its dialect, its music, its traditions… At that moment, all that remains are the photographs and recordings from 2013, and the memories of a human adventure. Sébastien is in shock. 

His reflections lead him to the following observation: disasters will multiply with time, whether natural or not, cultures in the four corners of the world are disappearing. The idea of going into the field to research these endangered indigenous musical cultures was born. 

He starts to develop his artistic practice alongside his work in culture, but as time goes by, his work as an artist grows and he decides to dedicate himself entirely to it. In 2018, he joins the Master Art Science between the Royal Conservatory and the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. The choice of course is not insignificant; for Sébastien, it is not only a question of documenting musical and sound traditions of a disappearing culture, nor even of solving the related problems, the issue is much more subtle. 

photo credit : Charlotte Brand

Instead, Sébastien seeks to preserve them in an unalterable and inalienable way; he collects materials that are specific to the regions and symbolic of the cultures he visits, with a view to transforming them into a support for the recordings. To go further, the materials selected have a much longer lifespan than an audio cassette or a digital file, because Sébastien seeks to inscribe music and sounds in eternity. For him, simply taking stock of the disappearance is to minimize the complexity of the phenomenon. We must also understand the causes. 

He begins a cycle of research that he names You’re No Bird Of Paradise in homage to the composer Terry Riley; during his first trip, he goes to meet the Pleng Arak musicians in Cambodia, who practice a shamanic ritual of healing through music. The music should only be heard in this particular context, so Sébastien codes the recordings and has them engraved on sandstone tablets. For the next project, he flies to Chile in the Araucanìa region, where he lives with the Mapuche people. Hit hard by global warming and government expropriation of land, Sébastien manages to inscribe ancestral drumming rhythms into the sap of a sacred tree through a sensitive crystallization process. Finally, in his latest project, which we know about, he shows us that the more we develop our communication channels, the more we disrupt the natural radio waves produced by the aurora borealis, which in turn risk becoming extinct. And the visualisation should be done in light! 

His works are usually presented as immersive installations, they are the result of the collection of information, on the one hand his own research, and on the other hand the human experience on the ground. So far, everything seems simple, but his way of working is particular; the preliminary research remains minimal in order not to bias his experience. The central part are the encounters on the spot, and he allows himself the freedom to deviate from the initial subject. When he returns from his expeditions, Sébastien resumes his research to find the appropriate scientific process(es) to transform his recordings into an artistic medium. And each time, the result is surprising. 

Each time he travels, Sébastien returns with a different way of seeing things, learned from his hosts. As an artist, he is constantly questioning himself, trying to find the right balance between indigenous knowledge and Western Cartesian methods, and putting them into perspective through his work. 

All these experiences had a strong impact on Sébastien, but that’s without taking into account the freedom he allowed himself in his life choices; business school taught him how to manage complex projects, and a natural disaster on the other side of the world pushed him to rethink his career. The village has since been rebuilt and the younger generation has taken over.

photo credit : Charlotte Brand

Above all, his journey shows us how a tragic event can ultimately become the motor of positive change. As Walter Benjamin would say, pessimism must be organised

Sébastien Robert does not think he will change the world. Yet he brings another perspective and inspires those who discover it. That’s the first step. 
But at this precise moment, he does not know it yet.

Insights

On the eve of the Great War, Norway was given very little consideration in international relations. The country even acquired a neutral status, like Switzerland, after long negotiations with the great European powers. The latter, in a colonialist logic, dominate the whole world and control all fields of knowledge, from science to art. 
Certain works were therefore not considered to have their true value, and so-called Western science, based on Cartesian methods, prevailed over all other forms of knowledge, including indigenous ones.

Kristian Birkeland, a renowned Norwegian physicist, succeeded in explaining the phenomenon of the aurora borealis in 1897, and in reproducing it, and then spent the rest of his life studying atmospheric electric fields. However, his work was not recognised by the international scientific community until 1957, when space exploration increased and the observation of auroral phenomena increased. It was also during this period that forgotten theories about the sound emitted by the aurora borealis resurfaced; prior to this, the idea of hearing a sound from 100 km above fell into denial. 

Sébastien Robert retains three theories, and bases his artistic work on the last one: 

  • Some people are synesthetes: able to associate several senses, they hear what they see and vice versa. 
  • When the aurora borealis is powerful, it creates an electric discharge at a height of 80 m, causing a heavy noise, like a flash of lightning. 
  • The Northern Lights are natural radios, with the sound coming to us through natural elements. 
photo credit : Charlotte Brand

Through his projects, Sébastien brings together different visions with different knowledge. In The Lights Which Can Be Heard, we are confronted with several levels of reading; between myths and stories of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, the revival of a little researched scientific theory, and the human impact on natural phenomena. The project is situated in a grey area, an ideal situation for the artist. 

Each people has their own way of seeing the world; myths, legends and other stories bear witness to this. Sébastien observes other ways of seeing the world, and puts them into perspective with the Western view. First of all, he teaches us that we need to be open-minded in trying to understand others, and that the way we look at science and knowledge may be fundamentally different elsewhere. While we think we acquire knowledge through reading or human interaction, some cultures consider that Knowledge is already within us, passed down from generation to generation, and we trigger parts of it through our experiences. This explains the ceremonies and rites of passage to new phases of life. 

The relationship with nature is also different; when we say we live on Earth, and think we dominate nature, others speak of being part of it. Hence Sébastien’s wish to add a dimension related to the impact of humans on nature in his work. In the case of the aurora borealis, the radio waves are becoming less and less legible, as they are jammed by communication lines, particularly naval lines in the region. They are likely to disappear over time, and although Sébastien is not the only one who seeks to record them, he is keen to emphasise this aspect in his work. 

In some cases, like Sebastian’s, we see the limits of scientific research; theories persist but research does not go further. Today we are talking about a debate about radio waves that is still open, although we have the resources to answer the questions posed. Again, history teaches us that military and economic needs go hand in hand with research funding.

Our society is still based on the need to control our environment. Thanks to artist-researchers, we have access to alternative knowledge. 

Through his projects, Sébastien Robert not only takes us on a journey, but also guides us along the path of otherness and encourages us to open up to ourselves.