The soundscapes of Fukushima

Webchat: Fatos Ustek talks to artist Jacob Kirkegaard about Stigma, his audiovisual examination of the natural landscape surrounding the disabled nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan

Jacob Kirkegaard is a Berlin based artist and composer. In our fig-2 exhibition, he presents Stigma, which was recorded and filmed in four places in the natural landscape around the disabled nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. The layered sound recording of each space reveals its resonant frequencies, exploring unheard sonic phenomena through digital tools. This composition is accompanied by layered video of the same space on a vertical screen, inspired by the Japanese hanging scrolls tradition with their evocations of nature and floating landscapes.

Activating the digital side of the exhibition, he participated in an online conversation with Fatos Ustek, curator of the fig-2 programme. Streamed live at the ICA Studio on 22nd July at 3pm GMT, we now present it online and unedited.


Jacob Kirkegaard: Hello!

Fatos Ustek: Hi Jacob, thank you for coming on board without receiving questions prior, and also thank you for your contribution at POSTmatter x fig-2

JK: Thanks to you too for making this event happen

FU: I have been studying your body of work and there are various strands I would like to evoke during our conversation

JK: Great. I'm all ears

FU: perhaps better to start with the work we are showing at fig-2 this week

JK: Stigma

JK: It was commissioned by Mori Art Museum in Tokyo

FU: You have been concentrating on the sound as an entity on its own and juxtaposing the soundscapes into the landscape that you collect, resonate, re-record them

JK: Yes. I started using or developing that method when I was in Chernobyl in 2005.

JK: Where I recorded abandoned and radioactive rooms

JK: When Fukushima happened I thought it would be interesting to visit this place and use this method again as a way to portray these places - but this time outside

JK: I recorded the sound (and video) of some outside spaces which I found interesting

JK: I had looked at Japanese hanging scrolls of "idyllic landscapes" as many of them are called

JK: from the 15th - 16th century

JK: many of them were painted in fukushima

FU: Both works have different timings though, Chernobyl piece Aoin is made almost two decades after the incident, whereas Stigma is dated closer to the event

JK: Yes. But the radioactivity will exist for thousands of years

JK: and when Chernobyl happened in 1986, I was 11 years old. Too young to go to Chernobyl!

FU: true, however the trace of the nuclear explosion will be more visible within a trajectory of time. such as the trees that change forms

JK: yes and no. the abandoned civilization gradually disappears of course

FU: true- time limitations do not only apply to nature

JK: but what I found so interesting about chernobyl was to travel in the nature

JK: because there I could not see or feel any trace

FU: not at all?

JK: I only knew that something was wrong.

JK: I knew about the radiation, but I could not smell or see it

JK: this was the most haunting. because when you're in an abandoned city you see it. this can be interesting of course. but what about what you don't see? how do you grasp it?

JK: so I thought it would be more interesting this time to make four portraits of the nature in fukushima. there are many "idyllic" places

JK: the fact that it is fukushima changes your perception

JK: and your way of listening.

FU: exactly

FU: the context gets amplified in a way

JK: the context is there. the word fukushima is stigmatized.

FU: I feel you are drawn into the domain of invisible forces at play in your body of work

JK: in fact - who says that it was radioactive where I was?

FU: tracing the unseen, mapping the uncatogorisable

JK: I am interested in listening as ways to grasp the world and ourselves in it


I am interested in listening as ways to grasp the world and ourselves in it


FU: sound emerges as a body in that case --

JK: some of my works listen to places or events that are heavily loaded with something. for example that work. or chernobyl. or ice melting in greenland.

FU: but also your question of unknowing (if it was radioactive or not, if the space is charged by different forces or not)

JK: but I only try to emphasise listening.

FU: this is quite interesting, to try to attain a physical experience with something that is ephemeral to the human eye

JK: sound is kind of abstract compared to the visual. sound can literally move you, although it is invisible.

JK: yes. I really like the word, to grasp

JK: it is not necessarily to understand something

JK: as we do when we read about something. but to feel it. and just grasp. this can help us understanding.

JK: it is difficult to talk about Fukushima without discussing nuclear energy

FU: can you perhaps tell us your methods of grasping?

FU: I feel you are employing various systems of patterns in order to grasp the soundscape of the sites you are drawn to

JK: to listen to something could be a way to grasp something without trying to have an opinion.

FU: like that of Alvin Lucier's ‘I am sitting in a room’

JK: I was inspired by this work and wanted to take it further. to remove myself.

FU: perhaps I could reword in a way in which you are setting patterns in order to grasp the soundscapes?

JK: I am not sitting in a room. I left the microphone there

JK: I think that sound should be allowed just to be sound. I would like my concepts or stories or methods just to be an option for going deeper into my work. but I am glad if my works can also be experienced without knowing what it is

FU: you are overlaying the sounds you collect, in order for the sound of the room to emerge?

JK: in order for the resonant frequencies to emerge, yes.

JK: things resonate. not only a wine glass. but also a room for example, because sounds bounce

JK: so the sounds / frequencies are already there, we just don't hear them

JK: I also liked to work with layering of sound there as means to layer time


things resonate. not only a wine glass. but also a room for example, because sounds bounce. so the sounds / frequencies are already there, we just don't hear them


FU: in a way this is an amplification process, in order to allow the sound to emerge as a body of its own

JK: the radioactive time is so immense. i cannot understand it. so by layering time I thought it to be a way for me to listen to more time at once. to go beyond time in a way. and in this way I could listen beyond and hear resonant tones of those places

JK: true, as a body of its own. I am very interested in drawing back my own ego. to think of myself as a mediator or a curator of sound. It is an interplay. with respect for the sounds I find. how do I collect them, what context do I replace them into. etc.

JK: maybe this conversation also resonates

FU: that is a beautiful thought

FU: and you are not only interested in collecting sounds from sites of deprived civilisation

FU: but also sounds from deserts from forests charged by beliefs of deceased inhabiting them

JK: true. but what interests me a lot is the tones that the ears can produce

JK: I have created some works on that and am currently developing this further. to listen to our ears

JK: and hear what our ears have to tell us. many ears emit faint tones by themselves.

FU: this produces a self-reflexive relationship to our ears.

JK: yes. we tend to know a lot about what is good to feed to our ears.

JK: what we call harmony and such

JK: or noise

FU: through following your train of thoughts, and positioning ourselves in the midst of resonant fields, it feels we do not only hear through our ears but through our whole body.

JK: but I've listened to our ears and they tell their own story.

JK: that's true

FU: How was the experience of listening to the ear?

JK: at first it felt very paradoxical!

JK: because, if you think about it: if you hear your ear, what do you then hear with?

FU: indeed - hearing what you hear

JK: basically you hear hearing

JK: it tells me that everything really goes two ways

FU: but is it not an impossibility?

JK: the ear is not a one-way system

FU: how can you differentiate hearing what you hear from how you are hearing what you are hearing

JK: no, that's the interesting aspect of it. it is possible to listen to your ears.

FU: do you mean the sounds generated by the three minuscule bones and the resonances on the ear drum

FU: rather the tension amidst the three bones and the reverberations on the ear drum

JK: you can differentiate it if I evoke certain tones in your ears using loudspeakers that are placed away from your ears. in that way you can hear what comes from the speakers outside your head and what comes inside. but it takes a bit of a longer explanation which I am not sure we have time for here. but I'll be happy to demonstrate it for you one day.

JK: the tones are generated by the hair cells in the cochlea

FU: I would love to see this

FU: or experience this

JK: it is possible to generate tones in ears of all ears who can hear. but some people have ears that produces tones constantly. most of them aren't aware of it.

FU: hearing outside the body experience sounds utterly moving ground

FU: ah yes I heard of this latter case

JK: I think it is essentially interesting because your ears become the instrument

JK: it is however not tinnitus

JK: tinnitus is a phantom sound, it cannot be recorded

JK: but sometimes people think that it is tinnitus they have but then it is really an emission

JK: I've recorded some people's ears who thought that the tones they heard was tinnitues

JK: but it wasn't.

FU: how can you differentiate?

FU: due to the frequencies of the sounds? or the different wavelenghts?

JK: I spot the tone in the ear and record it. and before playing it to the person I ask them to sing their tinnitus. simple.

FU: hmm

JK: does it sound dodgy?

JK: the thing is that you can't record tinnitus but only ask people to explain what they hear (the phantom sound)

JK: and a friend of mine has this strong (what she thought was) tinnitus in one of her ears

FU: so the phantom sound is not actually a phantom?

JK: she is a trained musician and she sang it for me

JK: I mean, she hummed it

JK: it is a phantom in that way that you hear something that only exists for you. it can't be picked up by a microphone because it happens in your brain

JK: but you have the sensation that you hear it.

FU: brilliant

FU: is this then a new body of work that you are concentrating at the moment?

FU: focussing on the body than the landscape?

JK: I've created some works relating to this phenomenon. the first work I created was called Labyrinthitis. And this year I created a new work called Earside Out, you can see them all on my website

FU: yes, I saw the prints you made as well

JK: Right now I am writing on a piece for these ear tones and the old interesting instrument called ones Martenot

JK: It will be premiered live at the Gothenburg Biennial that I'm part of, this will be in September

FU: ones Martenot looks intriguing

FU: We have way exceeded our time allocation. I am afraid we need to stop here

JK: we could talk more for sure

FU: Thank you very much for your time and sharing your thought, informing on your practice and set of interests

JK: but if someone is interested in reading more about these works feel welcome to my website

JK: Labyrinthitis Earside Out. indeed lets talk more soon and please keep me informed on your upcoming projects.

FU: great

JK: Thanks so much to you and your staff and to everyone who read with us

JK: Good luck with all the shows there!

FU: Thank you too and to Louise for putting this project together

FU: until soon

JK: Ciao

FU: ciao ciao


Fatos Ustek is an Independent curator and writer based in London and the Art Fund Curator at fig-2. Stigma by Jacob Kirkegaard is presented as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at ICA Studio, London, until 26th July 2015.

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