Climate change is existentially terrifying and also frustratingly abstract—a combination that makes it really hard for many people to connect with in a personal way, as one does with say, a work of art.
Enter the Chicago-based duo Luftwerk—Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero—who have bridged that disconnect with their latest public art installation, White Wanderer, currently on view in Chicago’s Riverside Plaza through October 1st. Bachmaier and Gallero are known for their luminous light-based installations in public spaces and architecture, and their latest effort is their first attempt to incorporate climate change messaging into their work.
“In urban life we get lost in our daily activities and don’t look at the larger picture of what’s happening to our planet and how it will impact our lives in the city,” said Bachmaier. She wants White Wanderer to get pedestrians to stop, listen, look, and get curious about the faraway places that affect us all.
White Wanderer joins a growing number of dance and theater performances, installations, sculptures, musical compositions and other artistic endeavors that have attempted to bring climate change directly to the people, including the string quartet piece made from 133 years of climate data; the sculptural arms reaching from the sea in during this year’s Venice Biennale; pianist Ludovico Einaudi’s haunting performance from atop an iceberg, and Issaac Cordal’s “drowning” sculptures.
Luftwerk used the worldwide attention paid to the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica—which broke off into the Weddell Sea in July 2017—as a starting point for their project. Although experts aren’t sure what role climate change played in the ice sheet’s demise, they see it as an opportunity to improve our understanding of how glaciers will disintegrate as the planet warms.
“Antarctica is such a far, remote place that most of us won’t ever put a foot on it,” said Bachmaier. “How do we connect the natural majestic structure of the Larson crack to the cityscape?”
The final product answers that question elegantly, in part because the artists invested time to learn about the science of climate change and how it’s impacting Antarctica. To that end, Petra and her partner met with Doug MacAyeal, a geophysical sciences professor at the University of Chicago.
MacAyeal first traveled to Antarctica in 1977 and has returned for 13 summer field seasons since. He takes seismic readings to “measure fracture, ice quakes and harmonic tremor,” which help him understand what meltwaters do to the ice shelf and how surface temperatures impact the ice. “The work bounces between the mundane measurements to get data and the broad philosophical questions of how it affects humanity,” said MacAyeal.
MacAyeal has collected gigabytes of data from the seismic recordings over the years—tens of thousand of data points that he plots and crunches in different ways to answer questions about what’s happening under the surface of the ice. In 2006, he used a computer program to turn that data into sound. At first he couldn’t hear anything. Then he sped it up to get it into the audible range for humans, realizing that nature operates at a different pace than us. And voila: It produced “groans and pops and fingernail scraping sounds,” said MacAyeal. After he shared these unusual snippets during his conversations with Luftwerk, White Wanderer was born. (The iceberg that broke off from the Larsen ice shelf will wander the sea for decades to come, hence the name.)
The sounds taken from MacAyeal’s data, remixed by Luftwerk into a sometimes layered composition, are played over four giant speakers to the 30,000 daily commuters and passersby in Chicago’s Riverside Plaza.
“This is the sound of climate change,” said Elizabeth Corr, the manager of art partnerships at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which brought Luftwerk and MacAyeal together and is one of the partners in the exhibit. They’ve also provided signage to explain the mysterious sounds that people hear as they make their way across the plaza. While the exhibit was at least partially inspired by the U.S. pulling out of the Paris climate accord, it’s not a direct political statement.
“We don’t want to be didactic, to tell people how to react or feel in reaction to this project,” Corr said. “But how can we make visible the effects of climate change in our urban centers?”
In this case, playing with time works as a translator of sorts: Thirty seconds in the exhibit is probably equivalent to three hours of seismic data, according to MacAyeal, so some of what we hear is the tide moving in and out, while other sounds are cracks and creaks and mysterious bangs and echoes—all sped up for human ears and crafted into a composition by Luftwerk. In this way, White Wanderer makes the public plaza the nexus of the conversation between the city and the ice.
The aural experience is paired with a giant visual: A replica of the 120-mile-long Larson C crack at a 1:9,000 scale. “We took the exact shape and made it into a graphic representation and applied it to the building facade,” said Bachmaier.
While some traversing the plaza have headphones in and heads down, plenty are taking notice of the haunting sounds intermixing with the familiar sounds of the city. MacAyeal is also running his own impromptu outreach by setting up a seismometer on the public plaza to show people how he gathered his data.
“I was very moved by the exhibit,” said MacAyeal. “I thought the iceberg sounds were like a call: ‘Come to attention, I have something to say, think about this.’ It’s not a scream or a mono drone or a cute ad jingle, it’s more like call to prayer, though I don’t want to invoke religion.”
As a kid, Starre Vartan argued with her teachers that both science and art were creative endeavors; after 15 years as a science and environment reporter and creative writer, she still thinks that’s true.