Wetland Project Book Review (Full Text)

From last month's issue of The Wire

Wetland Project: Explorations in Sound, Ecology and Post-Geographical ArtBrady Marks & Mark Timmings (Editors); Figure 1 Hbk 300 pp

This is the cover to the Wetland Project book

A science fiction novelist, a sound artist, and a Member of Parliament walk into a marsh — and that’s not the set-up for a joke. It’s the modus operandi of the beautifully designed multimedia book Wetland Project: Explorations in Sound, Ecology and Post-Geographical Art.

Nor is that aforementioned trio — cyberpunk legend William Gibson, World Soundscape veteran Hildegard Westerkamp and former Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May – the first to enter the marsh. The book collects their writings alongside work from poets and various scholars, all the contributors following in the figurative footsteps of its two editors, the artists Brady Marks and Mark Timmings.

In 2016 Marks and Timmings founded the Wetland Project at a bog on one of the Gulf Islands near Vancouver, British Columbia. They brought along microphones to document the place’s teeming biodiversity, thus blurring the line between sound art and acoustic ecology.

Since then, their Wetland Project has encompassed a plurality of approaches, including a 24 hour audio document from 2016 (done with Eric Lamontagne), transcriptions for musicians, an installation with Gabrielle Odowichuk that algorithmically associates sound frequencies with colours, and an annual “slow radio” broadcast in commemoration of Earth Day. This book is simply the latest way their Wetland Project has flowed.

And of course, before Marks and Timmings came, First Nations people populated the region in advance of the arrival of Western settlers. One descendant, poet Philip Kevin Paul, talks here about how a tape recorder risks severing sound from the circumstances in which it originated. Elsewhere in the book Laurie White warns the reader against listening to nature in a manner that “risks over-determining a narrative of loss.” Dylan Robinson, like Paul of First Nations ancestry, connects their concerns in an essay that takes arrival, in all its forms, as its theme. Gibson contrasts the broader Wetland Project with the techno-quixotic aspirations of virtual reality. And the late Stephen Morris, to whom the book is dedicated, maps everyday sound to formal compositions via concepts dating from the Renaissance. Over ten percent of Wetland Project’s pages contain sheet music resulting from Morris’s approach.

There’s also poetry from Susan McMaster, geochemical consciousnessraising from May, and colour – lots of colour. The book is a veritable peacock, each page a different solid hue, drawing from Odowichuk’s algorithms, expressing a sound from the marsh. The result is a sort of reverse sonification.

And there are QR codes. These appear here and there to allow the reader to click through via a phone camera and hear specific instances from the marsh. On the one hand, the sounds are central to the overall topic. On the other, the QR codes are inelegant, even intrusive; going back and forth between the book and one’s phone can break the concentration the endeavour deserves.

But the QR-triggered webpages are beautiful. They throb and glitch according to the given sounds. One for the red-winged blackbird’s chirp lights up with synchronised flashes. The longer it plays, the more you realise the colours aren’t uniformly bright or dark; between each high-pitched peak appear myriad shades, each for a quieter order of presence. You stop hearing the chirp, and listen out for what’s in the background. Nothing could be more true to the spirit of Wetland Project.

This originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 2023 edition of The Wire. More on the book at figure1publishing.com.

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