Recording climate catastrophe

Louise Gray speaks to Peter Cusack about a sensory project bringing a new dimension to environmental storytelling.

In 1998, Peter Cusack, a sound artist who currently lives and works between London and Berlin, began a project called Favourite Sounds. Behind it lay a simple premise: that he would record his favourite locational sounds. The project asked for nothing spectacular, but for sounds that were defined by their very ordinariness. An album, Your Favourite London Sounds, followed three years later – it included the hubbub of various markets, the ding-ding ring of a double-decker bus, the chimes of Big Ben, a key turning in the door. Taken together, each, in its own quiet way, went to create a tapestry of life and with it a sensory immediacy that speaks to both resonance and memory. It’s what Cusack calls ‘sonic journalism’ and it is a way of working that has taken him from recording city sounds across the world to, most recently, the landscapes around the Aral Sea in central Asia.

‘Sonic journalism is the equivalent of photo-journalism,’ he comments. ‘While images give you extra information to the written text, the addition of a sonic dimension provides even more material. Sound is sensory and so it is more immediate and immersive.’

For Cusack, sonic journalism adds time, distance and emotion to any given subject. But it is also a way of mapping change, of stepping up to provide advocacy. His latest project, Aral Sea Stories and the River Naryn, is a powerful case in point. It is a series of recordings of landscapes, of rivers, of weather and animals and people, all made between 2013 and 2018 in remote areas of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

‘In 1960, the Aral Sea was the Earth’s fourth-largest lake,’ Cusack says. No longer: climate change, pollution and water politics that stretch from the Soviet period to the present day have had the effect of dramatically reducing the water mass. He explains: ‘The reason for this is that the rivers that feed the Aral Sea were diverted for major irrigation projects. The sea’s drying up is probably the largest human-centred environmental catastrophe of the last century. And because it’s in central Asia, most people don’t know about the disaster.’

Cusack’s recordings teem with gentle, elegiac sounds, testaments to a myriad of eco-systems: affect one and the others will tilt. ‘There is a bit of a turnaround now,’ he says, ‘and that’s the reason for my interest. But its future is caught between the politics of the surrounding countries. Once it became independent, Kazakhstan tried to reverse the drying-up of the sea in its area. But Uzbekistan, which shares the sea with Kazakhstan, doesn’t want to restore it. The question is: how do you restore half a sea? It can’t be done, so a dam has been built across the narrowest section in Kazakhstan. There, the water is rising, but on the other side, the sea is still abandoned.’

Cusack’s Aral Sea is not designed to be listened to as you would an ordinary album. Sound art – and sonic journalism – does not function in the way that music does; rather it is there to give a shape to the world and to ask questions of it. This is central to Cusack’s work. Produced using relatively simple equipment, his recordings and publications are meticulous artefacts, with accompanying photos and texts.

All these projects fall under the umbrella title of Cusack’s larger, long-term project entitled Sounds from Dangerous Places. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine is possibly the most dangerous place Cusack has recorded to date (pictured right). Recording in 2006 and 2007, long before Chernobyl tourism started up, he had to seek permission from Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergencies. He borrowed a Geiger counter from officials there and you can hear it ticking on some of the recordings. The tracks vibrate: you hear frogs croaking, chickens clucking and there is a sense, for a second, of something almost Edenic. And then you remember.

This additional extra is the essence of sonic journalism. We discuss recent news reports on British TV, where speeches made by prime minister Boris Johnson on the steps of Downing Street have been accompanied by nearby protesters, clearly audible, chanting ‘Liar!’ and ‘Stop the Coup!’.

Can work such as Cusack’s effect change for the good? He is, after all, an ecological activist located in an art world. However, it is an art world that is growing increasingly active in terms of social justice and ecological urgency: look, for example, at the disinvestment protests led by American artist Nan Goldin against the Sackler Trust for its links to the opioid crisis; or, in the UK, against galleries receiving BP funding. Sonic journalism is already playing its part in this, says Cusack. ‘It’s more prevalent than one might expect. I have noticed that broadcasters include a lot more background sound now. Those chants against Johnson are excellent examples of what sonic journalism is.’ The sound and fury of the anti-Johnson crowds says more about the presence of dissent than a newspaper column can. ‘And this,’ Cusack says, ‘is powerful.’