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Jana Winderen, the Gallery Game Dr. Doolittle, Turns Calls of the Wild into Gorgeous Sound Art

Jana Winderen

Norwegian sound artist Jana Winderen constructs meditative pieces often played in dark rooms or austere gallery spaces — but the way she makes them is straight out of Indiana Jones.

“In the Barents Sea just looking out on this dark black ocean and it’s freezing cold,” she says, describing one of her many sound-hunting missions. “It’s, like, minus whatever [degrees], ice on deck. That feels dangerous, because you can slip and you’ll just slip off and out into the void. You’re surely dead, like ten centimeters away from yourself, you’re dead. Of course, it has felt dangerous, but I haven’t really been scared.”

Winderen travels to the farthest corners of the globe and records “unseen sound” — lowering meter upon meter of cable into fjords, glacial caverns, or to the bottom of oceans. Her gallery exhibits and albums (released on venerable sound-art label Touch) have included recordings of cod searching for a mate, noisy crustaceans in a scuttling frenzy, and crackling ice 50 meters below Greenland. Her recent exhibit at New York’s MoMA —recorded in Russia, Portugal, Istanbul, London, and New York — included the sounds of dolphins, underwater insects and the ultrasound communication of bats brought up to human hearing.

While studying math and chemistry at the University of Oslo, Winderen developed eczema in the organic chemistry lab, and dropped out. As the artist puts it, she “took some drawings under my arm and then traveled around Europe.” Winderen ended up as probably the most scientifically minded student studying art at Goldsmiths, University of London, and now turns her twin passions into a never-ending journey of discovery and beauty.

“Every time I’m out there, there is something that I am surprised by,” she says. “I was recently in Scotland to listen to the Flame Shell Reef. There were some scientists who had just done a report on it and I wanted to see what it sounded like. There was a sound that you couldn’t hear above but was really loud underneath. A seal-scaring device, this kind of howling, weird sound. I had this local guy that took me out and he said, ‘Yeah, it was this kind of audio device that the hunters have to have before they can shoot the seals [if they get too close to their salmon farms].’ It’s a horrific sound, but the seals don’t care, because they get used to it.

“It’s always something new, and that makes it exciting every time I’m out recording,” she adds. “The first time I heard a wild cod grunting, I was so happy, because I thought —brilliant! But then I realized later on, they are quite regular.”

Which isn’t to say that sometimes things don’t get a little more, well, irregular. “Once I was sitting, looking at an avalanche coming off a glacier and I was sitting too close. I wanted to have my microphone close, as close as possible. I could have got this avalanche over me and that was stupid.”