Altered Vision/Altered Sound, exhibited at ARTSPLACE, Annapolis Royal, through December, is a scientific exploration and a rich sensual experience compelling viewers to consider sight and sound, rural and urban, the hand-made and the technological. The groundbreaking, interactive, audio-visual show by Nova Scotia artist Susan Tooke is full of paradox and play, tranquility and anxiety. Tooke pairs soundscapes of her “field recordings” from both city and country – sounds that have been altered and abstracted through computer software – with abstract paintings bursting with life and energy in a dance of tiny organisms. These abstract biomorphic shapes are “life forms that don’t exist but represent life,” says Tooke, who moved from the city of Halifax to 140 acres of pastoral land near Annapolis Royal in 2018.
The creatures are angular and rounded, connected and disconnected; they may depict water under a microscope or primeval mud, a medieval tapestry or tense, urban energy. Sound is often forgotten in installations, says Tooke, an award-winning, multi-media artist who collaborated on this project with Granville Ferry sound engineer, composer, musician and technologist Dillon Tonkin. “Very much of our environment – how we respond to it – is affected by sound. I wanted sounds to be abstracted so they would flow in and out of reality. It might not be recognizable for what it is, but it might have the same rhythms or the emotional feeling as the original sound.”
Viewers stand in front of five sets of two paintings; each set has a tablet with three short soundscapes to play as people tease out the abstract imagery. Because the sound and imagery are both abstracted from reality, the experience is an associational, poetic quest for meaning. What is that sound? One of Tooke’s clucking chickens? A cow mooing? Traffic? Hammering? A mosquito?
Tooke loves the sound of a cow milking machine because, when processed, it is akin to blood pumping through a human heart. In running the sound of a brook through the software, “it created a whisper. It’s really eerie; you can almost hear words.”
Her paintings are inspired by forms derived from her own experiences – the brook on her property; the climate crisis in a landscape full of red; the chaos of the Halifax Shopping Centre’s food court with lanes bustling in black, viral-looking shapes that represent people. Once on her daily walk she saw a torn white piece of plastic from a hay bale lying on the earth in the shape of an angel. It became the starting form for the white vortex of figures in The Messenger.
Tooke has left paper and pen at each listening station and people are reacting in a storm of comment. A lot of them say the sound makes the paintings – already full of kinetic energy – move even more and they detect the intersection of the rural and the urban. They are finding the chickens, Pacman, a dead deer, spiritual awakening, city streets. Whatever they find they are clearly emotionally moved by this journey into an otherworld.
Tooke pushes the twinning of sound and vision further in Spectrograms and in Gridblocked!, a highly engineered, complex, sound puzzle built by Tonkin. People pick up cute chunky blocks, each depicting an abstracted life form, and place them on a game board to hear a sound – 32 units of sound in all. They can choose bird song over machinery in an exploration with the possibility of over 60,000 combinations of sound.
The Spectrograms are kinetic, mysterious visualizations of sound in pulsating, orange lines, both horizontal and vertical. They include the sound of a wood thrush Tooke heard one night in her woods; a recording of chickens reconfigured to sound like a conversation, and a recording at a crosswalk near her former city home. Now she wants to go even further. “I want to develop a visual alphabet so I can draw sound,” she says.
Altered Vision/Altered Sound, is about the nature of perception itself. It is about an ever-increasing disconnection from the natural world as more and people move to cities to live lives tied to virtual reality. “Studies have shown people who live in a greener environment are perhaps healthier at the cellular level,” Tooke says, “If this is true then what are we doing, what is happening to humanity as it becomes increasingly urbanized?”