While best known for its sleek, contemporary art galleries in Montparnasse, Paris, the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain just supported the debut of one of its commissions across the Atlantic at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (after stints in Milan, London, Shanghai and Paris). The installation, The Great Animal Orchestra, is an immersive collaboration that combines the expansive audio archive of soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause with a visualization from the tech whizzes at United Visual Artists. It’s a fitting partnership—Cartier itself has long held a close relationship with the natural world, offering bejeweled “panthères,” birds, crocodiles and assorted flora.
For nearly 50 years, Krause has ventured into wildernesses around the world to document the “biophony,” the sounds of animals in their natural environment, the calls of several species layering over one another and in some instances responding to each other—an orchestra of sorts. Using those sound files, UVA created a computer program that turns Krause’s recordings into vivid neon visualizations which inch across a large-format screen like music notes being written in real time. Whereas any of us would step into an Alaskan river delta and hear a chaos of animal noises, this installation urges us to see how those noises fit together, and to see those noises not as fleeting ephemera but as a natural permanent record. The result is spellbinding.
This is not a case of art for art’s sake, however. In the 37-minute film, Bernie Krause, A Life with The Great Animal Orchestra, which accompanies the exhibition (and is screened several times per day at the museum), Krause claims that a shocking 50 percent of his archive comes from habitats that don’t exist anymore. The work, therefore, is meant to inspire visitors to protect those animals that remain.
“Where before there was a teeming forest, today the sounds of the natural world are diminished and overshadowed,” said Krause at the opening. “This work is as much about what you hear as what you don’t hear…[and] when I create works of art, I’m able to reach people on an emotional level.”
As the installation’s sounds and visuals cycle between environments, the audience experiences a relaxing sense of losing themselves as we move from the Yukon Delta to the Central African Republic and beyond. It’s a hypnotic experience, and one that ultimately presents a harrowing vision of the future—of a time when the only place you can hear an animal sound is from an electronic speaker inside a museum.