Artist Tim Nohe goes beyond the science and politics of climate change by letting his audience see and hear it. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum visited with Nohe at his visual and sonic installation in Baltimore.
CURWOOD: Climate change is one of the most talked about environmental issues of our time, but it's easy to get lost in the politics and technical data. Artist Tim Nohe is trying to create a way for people to understand climate change, not only through abstract facts and figures, but through sight and sound. He's created an installation called Occidio, which is the Latin word for massacre. It's on display in Baltimore, Maryland. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum went to the exhibit and has our story.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You enter Occidio through a black velvet curtain. The only light inside comes from the video projector planted in the center of the room and aimed at a screen on the ceiling. The room is small, about 11 by 12, and on each of the four walls hangs a large, white canvas.
NOHE: On one panel there is a Baltimore oriole. On another panel there is a tiger mosquito. On another panel there are some horseshoe crabs. And on another there's a marsh plant that's found in the Chesapeake Bay littoral zone.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: All creatures, says Tim Nohe, affected by climate range in the Chesapeake Bay, the giant estuary abutting Baltimore. But the canvases are not as simple as they appear. In the center of each sits a black circle. It's a speaker. On the ceiling behind the screen are two theremins, an old and simple form of synthesizer that respond to heat, or in this case, light.
NOHE: The light of the projection going upward stimulates the two theremins. As light strikes the theremins, they produce sound, and then that sound is further modified by the computer to make something that sounds somewhat more musical to our ears.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The sound is triggered by a series of satellite images being projected onto the screen. The images track change over time.
NOHE: At the beginning of the loop we start in Baltimore, and we see things like impervious surfaces, and those impervious surfaces in some way affect heat pooling, runoff into the Chesapeake Bay system. And then we start to branch out from the United States to larger global systems.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Depending on the brightness of the image, the theremin will make a different sound. The brighter, the higher the note, darker and the note goes down. The ozone hole over Antarctica, for instance, looks from space like a blue blot. It sounds like this.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: This is pavement expanding around the city of Shenzhen, China.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Or Las Vegas sprawling into the desert.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The satellite images come from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. About ten years ago, Nohe's job was to photograph and video conferences for NASA.
NOHE: I was documenting conferences, frequently on global climate change, and I would leave those conferences so shocked by what I was hearing, and so stimulated by what I was hearing, that I always wanted to reintroduce that into my own art practice, but I wasn't really sure of how to do that.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Nohe started talking with scientists at NASA and looking at data on the Internet.
NOHE: And I had that “aha” moment that most artists hope to find, of combining my interest, first really embraced at NASA and then through this use of a theremin, to combine these two things in some way and to really bring home through sound the effect of climate change.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some images aren't documenting climate change but cycles of nature that scientists warn will be disrupted by a warming planet, like one year in North America's vegetation cycle, where you can see a flush of green pulsating up the continent. Nohe lets the year run again and again so that the chords saw.
NOHE: I was particularly interested in images like this, because they constantly cycle through, and as they cycle through they sort of perform a different sound for us. We become aware of that kind of breathing rhythm of the planet.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In another image, a bright pink cloud expands and swirls over the North Pole. It's a cloud of acid, says Nohe, that's been linked to erosion of the atmosphere. He says it's this neon cloud that shocks people most when they enter Occidio. That's partly his intention with all the images.
NOHE: They're beautiful, but frightening at the same time. And you become acutely aware that the planet breathes, and that we're part of this larger system, and our impact on this larger system really describes massive change in some ways. So as we look at this cloud of acid over the pole, we understand in a fundamental way that this just isn't simply right. The hue is wrong -- why are we seeing this big, ugly pink cloud over the Northern hemisphere? And we understand that we contribute to that in some way.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Visual and sonic artist Tim Nohe. Nohe's installation, Occidio, is at the School 33 Art Center in Baltimore, Maryland through March 7th. For Living on Earth, I’m Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.
CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Oak Foundation, supporting converge of marine issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade twelve. And Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.
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