As condensed moisture, rainwater and melting snow gather at Falls Creek, they track their way through the landscape, eventually converging into major streams that pick up momentum and race towards the valley below. Having encountered Falls Creek in all its glorious sunshine as well as wetness, and the sogginess of my broken sneakers being but a memory, towards the end of my stay, my host Madelynne took me to Fainters Fall a couple of kilometres north of Bogong Village. In order to reach this waterfall, you walk above the Kiewa river on a narrow path through dense forest, the explosive lushness of which is almost erotic. Aside from the unfolding forces of the water as it runs in your opposite direction, snapshots of nature’s power are scattered below and at times on the track, in the shape of fallen trees. Often entire root system has been laid bare and carry witness to the violence with which trunks must have become detached from the soil to come crashing down the hillside, occasionally decimating or blocking the track.
Hailing from the Danish Wadden Sea, one of the flattest ecosystems on earth, any natural elevation gets my excitement going, especially one that spews out enormous amounts of water every single second. Fainters Falls checks both boxes and many more, being composed of a column of rock that seems to grow out of a wall of vegetation, even though the opposite is probably the case. In defiance of the force of the water as it cascades down over the rock, one large tree fern has perched itself on a protrusion in the stone facade and is now in a constant state of irrigation, monitoring the stream below that eventually turns into Pretty Valley branch of the Kiewa river. The grandeur of the spectacle is undeniable but what is even more mindboggling is the continuum in which this ecosystem finds itself. In school, most kids lean about how water evaporates from lakes and oceans to become rain clouds that again feeds lakes and oceans. Simple as it seems, when you stop to think about it for a moment, the homeostasis required to sustain a system like this over thousands, if not millions of years is remarkable, to say the least. It isn’t that the system happens to behave like this once in a while and then at other times does something completely different. No, it has retained its basic operational structure for ages, each component having developed to sustain itself through its participation in the system while at the same time conditioning this very system to rely on the participation on numerous subsystems as the condition for its continued existence and maintenance. No wonder earlier generations and cultures have ascribed the wonder of such complexity to divine forces, but it is entirely possible to reason about the evolution of highly complex iterative systems without having to introduce magic or religion into the equation. As in all reasoning, we do need to assume certain principles such as ‘complex behaviour may arise from simple conditions’ or ‘evolution is a fact’, but I suspect both statements would seem fairly reasonable to many people.
However, having reasoned us all the way from a bolt of lightning igniting the primordial soup to beautiful waterfall in lush forest, we may still lack insight into the possible dangers posed to such systems in the shape of events that could cause it to run out of control and eventually collapse. In Journal Entry #2, I pondered over worst-case scenarios of such a collapse on a global scale, but here I would like to introduce some thoughts I have had the time and setting to develop during my residency at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture:
I believe that one of the problems facing a discussion about the environmental effects of humankind’s increasing dominance on planet earth lies in the difficulty with which we grapple with complex dynamical and nonlinear systems. Even when we believe we partly understand them, there is something counterintuitive about phenomena that reach far beyond the spatial and temporal limits of our perception, what Timothy Morton calls Hyperobjects1. Trying to understand how our impact on the global ecosystem will manifest in decades, centuries and beyond, must at times become heady even for the most informed climate scientist, in particular when this system contains local ecosystems that can influence each other over large distances. However, denying the reality of climate change by pointing to uncertainty about details or the presence of local climate divergence from the global trend in the face of an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, is wishful and irresponsible thinking.
Enter General Systems Theory. A systemic approach is valuable in identifying and analysing causes for, and solutions to global warming and its myriad of accompanying features such as loss of biodiversity, mass extinction, ocean acidification, top soil depletion, raising ocean levels, and so forth. Since Systems Theory is applicable to a large number of disciplines where organic, geological or mechanical behaviour is involved, once you become aware of certain behaviours in one discipline, you may start noticing them in another. Caution should be exerted when comparing disciplines and as we know from other research areas, it is rarely possible to deduce, say, the protein requirement of an adult human from nutrition studies of rats, leading to great confusion about how we should eat2. However, General Systems Theory observes behaviours around which any system tends to organise itself and tracks which mechanisms influence its evolution, stability and possible decline.
Returning to the ecosystem of Fainters Falls, a truly bewildering array of microsystems can be identified, each of which could (and should) be analysed independently. But viewed as a self- organising ecosystem, certain features can be identified that can help us understand the dynamics that maintain this system in a stable state. In evolutionary terms, the system has developed to successfully organise itself in a way that causes the ratio of rainfall at Falls Creek to evaporation in the water bodies fed by it, to reach the crucial balance required to sustain the forest and its wildlife. In short, each systemic component supports the entire system, that in turn facilitates the existence of the components. Again, this is what we basically learn in school, but it still gives me the shivers to think about the complexity involved. What I was never taught, is what happens if you start tweaking the parameters of such a system. Imagine raising the temperature or rainfall, push certain of its feedback loops, introduce delays that compromise its regulatory mechanisms, or play around with the features that limit its output.
Instead of considering the many possible results of such tampering, I would now like to turn my attention to something quite different yet related; namely audio feedback in the shape of the Autopoeitic Double Bass (hereafter the ADB) – an instrument partly developed during my residency3. In very general terms, this sonic system is composed of a double bass equipped with contact microphones and contact exciters4. Most people will be familiar with the phenomenon of audio feedback caused by pointing a microphone towards a speaker or even just turning up the
1 Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Universi Of Minnesota Press.
2 Osborne and Mendel’s early research on the amino-acid requirements of rats was believed to apply to humans, which has since been proven false.
The original paper is here:
One refutation is here:
3 The critical reader will eventually object that this is in fact not a strictly autopoietic system, as defined by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, since it does not maintain and reproduce itself (no new double bass is produced by the system). However, on a sonic level, if observed as a closed system bounded by its environment, the ADB is self- perpetuating and self-organising.
4 Contact exciters are basically speaker cones without a membrane. When is attached to a surface, such as the double bass, the surface becomes the membrane that transmits the sound sent to the speaker.
volume of a PA system too high. The result is a dominant screeching or howling sound but is also the principle behind the ADB, albeit in a controlled version. When you send an input to an output and connect that output back to the input (as is the case with the speaker output feeding into the microphone input), a nonlinear exponential growth of the amplitude is the result. In the case of the ADB, the double bass is amplified through itself, very quickly reaching an upper amplitude limit defined by the maximum physical carrying capacity of the instrument body and the exciters. In order to prevent the instrument or exciters from breaking, a limiter has been introduced to stabilise the feedback while still allowing it to manifest in the form of one or sustained pitches. Although feedback may seem chaotic and random, it is a determinist phenomenon, with the pitch arising from the ADB settling at a resonant frequency determined by the shape of the bass, the density of its wood as well as the placement of pickups and exciters. By placing pressure on the instrument, its resonant properties will change and with them, the pitch of the feedback. Without going into much further detail regarding the technical nature of this system, it should be mentioned that a sound processing algorithm allows for the introduction of precise frequency cancellation, panning, delays and compression of the feedback signal. Eventually, most of these parameters will be adjusted by control signals generated by machine listening, that is, the implementation of a variety of audio analysis tools that listen to the feedback and adjusts the state of the system accordingly. The ADB is an attempt to create a self-organising audio system with a high degree of autonomy and is just one in a long tradition of feedback systems5.
Spending two weeks in Bogong Village, conceptualising and programming this system, mainly interrupted by treks in an ecosystem that functions along similar principles, has led me to reflect on the possibility of accessing the discussion on climate change through the lens of sonic systems such as the ADB. A variety of different creative outputs from most creative disciplines could be eligible for such consideration, but I will constrain myself to the discipline of sound: If, as I believe, the discussion on climate change is partially being obscured by spatial and especially temporal perceptual barriers, then maybe the artist, through the creation of sonic systems that exhibit behaviour similar to ecological or even societal systems, has, at their access, a unique tool that can bring systemic long-term behaviours into a time-domain accessible to human perception. When discussing the viability of continuous economic growth, we may look to other domains such as that of audio, in order to witness an example of the swift collapse of a system defined by exponential growth rates. Or we may want to limit the impact of certain actors in an ecosystem by regulating their influence through the implementation of negative feedback, a concept familiar to composers who design self-regulatory systems. Delays in systems can both reinforce or counteract unwanted destructive behavior, but due to the temporal and possibly geographical complexity of their effects, they can be unpredictable. In an interactive feedback sound installation with a lifecycle of two hours or less, delays become perceptible. As members of the audience move about in space, they will experience how the delayed playback of environmental sound shapes the development on the system to sometimes unexpected degrees. In the ecological and societal domain, experimentation is expensive and downright dangerous, with the effects of any change only happening years after its implementation. In the domain of the arts, the cost of composing and building systems are comparatively low, the effects of change are often instant, and the highest risks are burned circuits or smoking speakers, which is bad enough, but cannot be compared to the collapse of a ecosystems or societies.
5 Nicholas Collins, Agostino Di Scipio, Till Bovermann and Halldór Ulfarsson have all created unique instruments and audio systems based around feedback.
I am not saying that the arts can bring about revolutionary new knowledge that will save the planet, that knowledge is already largely present. 97 % of climate scientists agree that global warming is caused by humans and we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do in order to avoid catastrophe. But the political and public discussion rarely reflects the scientific consensus with some people even getting turned off by what they perceive to be an elitist doomsday prophecy that in a specialist lingo invokes the behavior of incomprehensible large systems. I wonder if the arts can help in demystifying the discussion to the point where a common understanding of fundamental principles can raise the bar for our conversation, allowing us to focus on solutions. Is there a way of using our creative output to illustrate the concepts behind complex behavior in a way that is not patronising or biased, but instead bluntly states facts about the evolution of dynamical systems? Additionally, it may be useful for certain researchers to witness familiar concepts reflected in other disciplines. Maybe the sonification of systemic principles can inspire scientists, engineers, activists and policy makers to explore new ways of thinking that can influence sustainable technology as well as societal and communal change.
Artists should not lose sight of their project, namely the arts. But we also need to engage with the world and recognize our impact as semi-public figures. No matter how little an audience an artist has, they still have access to a larger crowd than most other people and if these people find their work honest, they will be prepared to pay attention. Art does not exist in a vacuum excluded from the sphere of everyday life, - it happens right here in the midst of the world and as such, is not a static thing. It will evolve, some works will become redundant while others will prevail, and new and unforeseen approaches will appear. Creativity engages perception and materiality and as these evolve, so will art. While retaining former masterpieces, we should be open to the fact that events, systems and behavior can carry their own aesthetic value when perceived by a conscious mind. John Cage said: “The function of Art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.”6 He was wrong; there is no such thing as an art excluded from nature, or society for that matter. The idea that we are somehow not in there with everything else, has contributed greatly to the mess we find ourselves in. Until we realise that the unique position of human beings lies in the way we, as animals have developed certain cognitive skills, behaviours and tools that can drastically change the nature we are a part of, without ever excluding us or anything we could create from that nature, we won’t be fully able to assume our responsibility towards stabilising the planetary ecosystem.
6 John Cage: A year from Monday