Project 3: Exercise 2 – Developing Your Research Skills

This exercise asks us to look at the work of Katie Paterson, particularly her piece Vatnajökull (the sound of).

We are asked how we would define this piece in terms of media, and told to make notes on the different layers of existence, the forms it has been displayed in, how it’s a genuinely site specific piece (unlike Longlayer from Project 2), and on Vatnajökull’s relationship to place, as well as Paterson’s use of text.

Firstly, I would categorise the original piece as mixed media. It is a sound installation, but there is also the neon phone number displayed at the original exhibition which is , and in later versions, photographs and a book. I’m not sure if there is such a thing, but it could be called a technological piece. Overall, I would class Katie Paterson as a conceptual artist. Her ideas seem to come first and then she find a way to bring them into being. There are some interesting documentary pieces where she has talked about her ideas on here web page here.

The original 2007 work saw Paterson and her boyfriend sleeping in a tent for the week next to Jökulsárlón lagoon in Iceland. They had submerged a microphone in the water and this was attached to an amplifier. A mobile phone was stationed next to this amplifier and it auto-answered when anybody rang the number, allowing them to hear the live crackles and gurgles of the glacier actually melting. Back at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, the phone number was displayed as a neon sign, and visitors (or anyone else around the world) were encouraged to call and listen.

Since the live degree show version, Vatnajökull has been displayed ins hows all across the world, as an archive. The neon phone number is displayed, along with photographs of the lagoon, and a book that details every call received to the phone and the amount of time the caller stayed on the line. Visitors can also listen to recordings of the melting glacier via headphones.

When we looked at Longplayer, it was clear that it was not truly site specific. The computers that play it most of the time are housed in a particular place, but if they were moved, it would still be the same music playing. The performance element of Longplayer has also been carried out in many different venues. So, although it had a home, nothing much would change if its home moved.

On the other hand, the original Vatnajökull work was site specific. It could have been recreated at some other melting glacier in some other part of the world, but it would no longer be Vatnajökull if it was moved to another site. We would hear the sound of different ice melting and, presumably, the work would have a different name. Even if the same phone number was used, it would be a different piece. We can say then, that Vatnajökull was site specific.

It’s various other incarnations are not site specific. They are the sounds of Vatnajökull, but they are recordings, not live sounds, and they can be moved/recreated, in any number of galleries around the world.

Vatnajökull is a site, of course, but Iceland had inspired more than just this piece. It is a place that Paterson lived for a while before taking up her MA place, and she has remarked that “It feels like the closest to being on another planet, but it is the Earth.” In this sense, Vatnajökull was not just a convenient place to set up this work, but it has meaning to Paterson. It has meaning in general – it is the largest glacier in Europe. It is also melting at a rate of 1 metre a year due to climate change. The Jökulsárlón Lagoon where the microphone was submerged did not even exist 60 years. This area is one of the most visually striking on earth and in the winter, the northern lights can be seen.

From everything we garnered in the opening essay of Place (Dean and Millar 2005) that we looked at in Exercise 1, I would say that Vatnajökull definitely meets all the criteria we came up with. It is a beautiful site, anyone can see that from some of the photographs that have been taken of it over the years, bit Paterson’s piece allows people to really connect with it, and with the tragedy of its shrinking, giving us an emotional response, so it becomes more to us than just a beautiful looking area, or a place on the map taht we’ll never visit.

The final question was about Paterson’s use of text. In Vatnajökull, the original text was purely just the neon phone number on the wall. It was really the only tangible thing to show people, so she had to make it stand out to encourage them to call. In later exhibitions, the phone book was added to the display, detailing every number who rang, where they were calling from, and how long they stayed on the line for.

Paterson has other pieces which are purely text based, for instance, The Dying Star Letters (2011-). Paterson is alerted every time a star dies, and wherever she is in the world, she sits down and writes a letter to a pre-determined recipient, informing them of the death. The letters are written on different stationery, and between 3 and 150 were written every week. The letters themselves are the exhibit when this work is shown in a gallery. There is a sense of irony here in that art is being made by letter writing, and letter writing itself is a dying art.

She has a piece of artwork titled Ideas (2015-) which is ongoing – a lifelong project, according to her website. The ideas are short sentences, made into a solid form of cast silver. They are described as ‘half formed notions’ and ‘works to exist in the imagination’. The sentences read things such as; ‘A wave machine hidden inside the sea’; ‘An ice rink of frozen water from every glacier’; ‘A beach made with sand from hourglasses’; and ‘A place that exists only in moonlight’. They are often displayed on the gallery walls where her other works are exhibited, presumably as thought provoking punctuations to her other pieces.

A 2019 piece of Paterson’s has a title coming directly from one of the ‘Ideas’ – A Place That Exists Only in Moonlight. This is a book that is part of Ideas, and comprises of many such poetic phrases. There are no pictures, but over 100 double spread white pages which contain short sentences concerning ‘the landscape, the universe, or an expanded sense of earthly and geological time’. Like Ideas, the phrases within the book are meant to take shape in the mind of whoever is reading them. Some examples are ‘A fountain drawing water from each ocean’s deepest point’ and ‘Objects coated in gold, extracted from shooting stars.’ The book is actually available to buy for £30, so anyone can own it, and the cover is printed from cosmic dust (a mixture of moondust, dust from Mars, shooting stars, ancient meteorites and asteroids). It was published at the same time as Paterson’s new Turner Contemprary exhibition began,a nd some of the phrases are displayed on the walls in sterling silver. There is an interesting essay by James Attlee available on the exhibition’s website and, in it, Paterson says that many of the ideas behind her artworks begin as a phrase just like those in Ideas.

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