P8 The Invisible Sounds Residency: Quantum Needle

In the fall of 2021, I participated in Plan8t's fall residency, which focused on how an emphasis on sounds might inspire empathic connections to the environment. My work during this period focused on highlighting bird song and bird sensitivities to sounds that are imperceptible to human ears. Because of the remote nature of the residency, I built a speculative visual-soundscape in Three.js using samples of birds I recorded from Marine Park, NY and recordings of Changsha's subways stations, which were provided by P8. Documentation and full description of the work are as follows and a demo of the environment can be found here.

Imperceptible to human ears, the signals detected from mobile networks and satellite messaging sound eerily like birds migrating above. While we become aware of overhead species through more overt signs of habitation (evidence occasionally perceived as bordering on intrusion), the invisibility of network and wireless infrastructure belies the existence of unfamiliar interference.

Radio waves tell the story of insistent connectivity and cybernetic triumph, but also the status of the planet’s layers of land, water, and sky. While we use the electromagnetic spectrum to broadcast public programming, heat food, provide cell service, and transmit data, we are also able to use signals as a way to sense changes in the environment and its inhabitants.

Birds in particular are sensitive to these movements in the electromagnetic spectrum. Already capable of detecting the Earth’s magnetic fields through magneto-receptors in their retinas and beaks, birds rely on this internal compass to migrate home. Intrigued by this sense, scientists have tested the effects of various electromagnetic fields on different species of birds. While still inconclusive, it is evident that certain migratory birds experience magnetic disorientation depending on the types of anthropogenic electromagnetic noise. By becoming more familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum through radio waves and other ways of listening, we may be able to pivot our senses to those of nonhuman kin.

This speculative, audio-visual landscape contrasts invisible signal sound to bird song, framing the rare perspective of distinct bird species. Bridging the two geographical inspirations for the piece, sounds from field recordings of Monk Parakeets and Pigeons in New York City are paired with recordings of Lesser Coucals and Little Greebes in Changsha, China. The base layer of the world is composed of satellite imagery from NOAA-18 and textures of the dancing infrastructures build upon waterfall captures of recorded signals. These invisible wires are represented by recordings of electromagnetic energy throughout NYC as well as signals from sources that include 850 mHZ (3G) and 147 mHZ (used by US military). The movement and composition of both anthropogenic structures and birds-in-flight interact with one another, at times converging and other times clashing.

Through this generative landscape-soundscape, viewers and listeners are invited to forge a new appreciation and connection with species in ways that counter their human-depicted narratives. In these spaces, participants listen to both the sounds that permeate the ether and the sounds of bird song. This conversation, one normally inaudible to the human listener, establishes an intimacy that is uniquely accomplished through a narration of sound. By hearing the chaotic mesh of advancing technology that non-human species physically endure, we can more regularly use signals as a way to become more attuned to the environment and to more critically understand the reality and future of invisible infrastructures.

*Recordings of bird species taken from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
*Select waterfall imagery used from SigidWiki
*Additional field recordings of Changsha’s environment provided by P8