Ananda and I were introduced in Stavanger, Norway, in the fall of 2017. We became friends drinking tea and going for small hikes in the beautiful mountains surrounding the city. We have similar taste in books, and I am grateful to her for several excellent recommendations. This overlap carries over into our artistic interests, which we discussed, slowly, via email between January and October of 2021.
Ananda Serné (1988, NL) is an artist based in Stavanger, Norway. She holds an MA in Fine Arts from the Iceland University of the Arts. Through moving image, language, performance, installation and textiles, her practice explores questions that touch upon translation and (mis)communication. She is interested in the challenges that mediums like language, sound and moving image pose when trying to capture certain natural phenomena.
Upcoming solo exhibitions and performances are scheduled to take place at PuntWG in Amsterdam (NL), the Norwegian Sculptors Society in Oslo (NO) and at Konstepidemin in Gothenburg (SE).
LB: First of all, since we have such similar taste in books, I have to ask you what you’ve been reading since we last exchanged recommendations. And then, onto the real question: I just re-watched two of your recent video works, “A caterpillar is curled in a green ring” (2019) and “Echoists of the Takase River” (2017). As videos, they both have such a light touch. I find them formally subtle but also profound, which is a striking combination. In both, it seems like you are reflecting upon language as a tool that humans use to try and connect with the natural world — a complicated term, but we’ll use it for now — but which provides us with limited return. Yet that limited return may not be a bad thing. In “Echoists,” the singers call out names of different trees and plants that died during the construction of a dam in Japan in the 1970s; the mountains and valleys echo. And in “A caterpillar,” we are presented with lush macro footage and sounds of insects recorded by an Taiwanese entomologist. These sounds are contrasted with nearly-silent shots of humans signing the names of different insects, perhaps the insects that we see. In both cases, I wondered if you are suggesting that the sounds that the mountains, plants, and insects return are a kind of language… or if the works are more a meditation on the limitations of human language… or both. Could you talk about your relationship to language, and how it operates for you in your work?
AS: I love exchanging book recommendations with you, Leah! At home, I’m reading The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa. The novel describes an unknown force that causes the inhabitants of an island to collectively “forget” and lose their attachment to various objects and concepts. Among the things that disappear are for example perfume, birds and calendars. What is particularly disquieting is that the words perfume, bird and calendar also dissolve from memory. In order to make sure that even their depiction is gone for good, the Memory Police hunts down all images and text about the objects/concepts that disappear.
In my studio, I’m reading An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics by Daphne Oram. If I understand correctly, she was one of the first to create a machine that could translate graphic information (drawings in this case) into sound.
As I’m writing this message to you, the book is lying next to me on the table, and it has Oram’s wave-like drawings on the cover. It makes me think of an excerpt of your video The Elements that I watched earlier this week, the part where you ask What is it like, this world of waves, and shortly after you mention the word translatable.
Translation and miscommunication are two recurring themes in my practice. As you describe in your question, I’m specifically interested in the moments where language alone is perhaps not enough. In that sense, I would say that my work is indeed a meditation on the limitations of human language, or a meditation on the borders of language, where language stops being language and transforms into something else. Or the other way around, when sound becomes language. I’m interested in transcription, the visual representation of speech sounds, when the written description of environmental sound pulls sound into the world of text and language. This was my aim with my work Duet/Songs, where I asked two vocalists to read a text that imitates sounds based on machine-generated transcripts of insect communication.
While on a residency in Taiwan, I gathered auditory and visual impressions of the ways in which insects navigate man-made environments. During this process, I got to know entomologist Liao Yi-Chang who specialised in insect communication and I was introduced to his personal archive of insect recordings. Among the recorded sounds were calls of plant lice that without amplification would be inaudible to the human ear. I fed some of these recordings to transcription software meant to transcribe human speech. The insect recordings translated to onomatopoeic renditions such as:
Psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst, psst.
LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK AT THE PEOPLE.
This text then became Duet/Songs and was performed by vocalists Pietari Skyttä and Katriina Virta at Titanik in Turku, Finland:
But to get back to waves, there’s a sentence by linguist Andrea Moro that keeps coming back to me, in his book Impossible Languages he writes:
A human language lives in two different environments: outside our brain and within it. When it lives outside our brain it takes the form of mechanical waves of compressed and rarified air (i.e. sound); when it lives within our brain it takes the form of electric waves.
Another sentence that struck me comes from mathematician/computer pioneer Charles Babbage. He believed that our voices are imprinted in the air:
The air itself is one vast library on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.
Actually, now that I’m reading this again, I’m wondering why the guy is speaking and the woman is whispering, but I do very much like the idea of our sentences floating around in the air.
To conclude these thoughts about language for now, I want to add that in my personal life, I navigate between four different languages on a daily basis. I’m not equally fluent in all of them, which, when I’m in an environment where I’m the only non-native speaker, can occasionally make me feel stressed or lost for words. This all might add to my fascination for (the limitations of) language.
I’m very curious to hear what you are reading at the moment!
LB: The performance of the transcribed insect sounds in “Duet/Songs” is a really effective way to encounter what you’re exploring. It’s certainly interesting and funny to read the transcription of the text as you included above, but it provides more of an intellectual experience of the sounds. Experiencing them as human-made sounds — and through the familiar tropes of “musical performance” — allows us to engage with the sounds physically and emotionally. The transparent score sheets are a very nice touch, as well! This piece very much reminds me of Nina Katchadourian’s work: in particular, “Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha” and “Natural Car Alarms.” What I love about all of these pieces is that, in reflecting upon the limits or borders of language, we are also presented with a new set of possibilities… possibilities of vocal sound, of emotion and expressive communication, and of awareness of/empathy to the creatures that make these sounds. It’s nice to think about unknown languages as a space of potential rather than a restrictive unknown. I imagine that attitude helps you navigate the four languages you regularly encounter!
Thank you for those books and the quotes from them; they are fantastic. See, I knew I should ask you what you are reading! I will sheepishly admit that having been so focused on visual perception, photography/video, and representation for the last few years, I somehow have not drawn a connection to sound waves in my work. This is almost embarrassing, since I used to work with sound quite a lot. My initial fascination with waves grew from a confluence of water waves, quantum waves, and wavelengths of light in the electromagnetic spectrum. Adding sound waves to this makes so much sense, and provides me a new bridge to thinking about sound in terms of my own work.
My reading has slowed a bit with the beginning of the teaching semester, but I am slowly picking my way through “Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind” by Lyell Watson. It was originally published in 1985 and has recently been reissued. I learned about the book after making “The Elements,” which of course is so much about the wind. I’m glad for this, as “Heaven’s Breath” is full of facts and stories about wind that might have impacted my choices for the voiceover in “The Elements” too much. Regardless, it’s dense in a way that I can only read a few pages a night — but I still fall asleep with images of isobars, sandstorms, or the jet stream blowing around the Earth at speeds over 500km/h. Last fall, I read “Flights,” by Olga Tocarczuk, on your recommendation as well. What an amazing book! I also recently finished reading William Kentridge’s “Six Drawing Lessons,” which puts into print a series of lectures Kentridge gave at Harvard a few years ago. He has many wonderful things to say, including:
“The air is thick with images—time made dense with each event and its image, a soup, a fog, as if one could take a sheet of paper and swing it through the air, catching the images as they crashed into it. A swing of the arm above our head to catch the images from us, moving outward, or a low pass to catch those images coming in. On the one, images of the studio, table, charcoal, half-finished drawings, the hand writing these notes, the ideas half formed, the clarity I had two minutes ago, now gone. On the sheet above my head, the trees outside the window, the city beyond that, the traffic, the news, yesterday’s news, the strikes, riots, distress in different corners of the world. The porous membrane.”
This reminds me a bit of Charles Babbage’s quote you mentioned. Every worldly event creating its own image, in turn making “a soup, a fog” of images. This leads me to ask you what the role is of image in your work. Obviously you choose to make videos with sound instead of sound pieces, and I recall some textile work and a publication as well? How does the visual help you in your exploration of language, translation, and their limits?
AS: Thank you for introducing me to the work of Nina Katchadourian. I’m really fascinated by how she put out a “Call for Participants” to the translators and interpreters at the United Nations to vocalize birdsong for the work Please, Please, Pleased to Meet’cha.
Do you often reach out to people working in other fields when creating your work?
I like how you mention unknown languages as a space of potential rather than a restrictive unknown. For my new installation slow-wave, I’m again working with onomatopoeia and I’m thinking that, unlike languages that require us to understand a particular society or culture to speak, mimetic words, along with gestures and different sounds, might be able to mediate communication despite boundaries between different beings. This project is still in an early stage, but I might be working with words describing water sounds this time, which is fitting in relation to The Elements. I can relate to this feeling of being relieved that I haven’t read a certain book before I start working on a project. I fear that I might lose a certain playfulness when I’m too absorbed or know too much about a subject.
To answer your question about what the role of image is in my work and why I often make videos or performances with sound instead of sound pieces, I think it’s of value to say that I feel that I work more about sound, than with sound. My visual work emerges from research and conceptual interests related to sound, language and translation. The making of experiences or installations is gradually becoming more important to me than working mostly with the visual. I recently collaborated with the artists Matt Bryans and Håvard Sagen and sociologist Merete Jonvik on the site-specific project Book of Sand / Singular Hands that involved a makeover of exhibition space Studio17 in Stavanger. The voice of an opera singer reverberated against the walls of the space and this made me contemplate future possibilities of working with performances involving the acoustics in specific types of architecture.
Another example is that I work with textiles because I’m specifically interested in its sound-absorbing qualities, the way in which it muffles sound. I imagine textiles to absorb the sounds or spoken words in an environment.
Speaking of images, there’s this picture of a moth with furry wings on Wikipedia that keeps coming back to me:
Moths use acoustic camouflage to prevent bats from locating them. While hunting, bats employ echolocation: sending out clicks and following the echoes. Certain moths however carry fur on their wings that absorb these sounds in order to elude their predators. This image of the pink emperor gum moth started to signify the concept of acoustic camouflage for me. I can’t stop imagining how the echolocation signals from the bat land in the pink fluff.
LB: Wow, that moth is wonderful — what a beautiful creature! And I love the idea of acoustic camouflage and the possibilities of an artwork meant to absorb sound. I am now also imagining the echolocation signals from the bat being absorbed by that pink fluff.
To answer your question, I have gone through phases reaching out to people in other fields. One of my favorite past projects involved contacting scientists who work in labs and asking for permission to record the sounds of their equipment with my contact microphones. I’ve made some abstract pieces with those recordings, but have a bank of great sounds that really need more attention. I still sometimes contact people for dialogue, inspiration, or information — but, lately, less in a collaborative sense.
I very much relate to making research-based work but wanting to create experiences that can stand on their own. With some pieces, I will try and offer some specific information that can help ground a viewer and guide them into a piece. And then I will make other pieces that are very open. I hope that these two “categories” will inform one another, though they often end up more similar to one another than I might expect.
I still get caught in the back-and-forth between research information and artwork. Do you? There have been times that I’ve made pieces that were meant to be very specific, and then I realize that, of course, viewers will still interpret them however they like. And even when I make a work like “The Elements,” which is full of information and numbers, it still ends up feeling quite open-ended. But I like that result. In a sense, that piece seeks to make information experiential, which is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. Ultimately, I always circle back to the fact that I am more interested in making art-viewing experiences rather than communicating something specific. Plus, there are limits to what images and objects can really tell us, so letting artworks do what they are good at seems like a very reasonable approach. Among other things, they are good at making us feel things, associate, and reconsider what we know, and how we see or hear or read.
Of course, there are limits to what words and language can tell us, too. And that is one thing you are exploring. Putting those two puzzles together in artworks is exciting, and I guess that’s why we have such shared interests. I’m excited to see how your piece using onomatopoeia, mimetic language, and gesture evolves. It seems that behind this project — and maybe the videos we started our conversation with, too — is a kind of idealism.. for communication, translation, shared experience across linguistic or species “boundaries.” Would you say that’s true?
AS: I’m curious to listen to your collection of scientific equipment, sound archives are always fascinating. I’m now imagining some sort of sonic catalogue for different professions. Something like that must exist?
To be honest, I’m having a hard time answering your question if there’s a kind of idealism behind my work. I think this is somehow exactly where the line to what I can and can’t say about my work in language is drawn.
What is it about the limitations of language that you are specifically interested in?
LB: Thank you! I have a pretty messy archive on my hard drives. I made the recordings over a few years at different labs, mostly in universities in the US and one in Finland. I’ve turned the recordings into noisy and abstract sound pieces, but have never made a proper archive. I hope that I give that project the attention it deserves one day. The idea of a sonic catalog for different professions is a great idea, though. I know that the BBC has a sound library, or rather a “sound effects” library, but that’s different from what you’re describing.
And I understand that my question about idealism is difficult to answer. Perhaps I should rephrase it: am I right in suggesting that you are probing the possibilities of language, rather than hoping for a particular outcome? Those are very different things, of course.
I’m interested in the limits of language because language so often functions as the “great explainer” of things that are, at their core, non-linguistic… images, dance, feelings, animals, insects, plants, water, mountains, etc. This relates very much to the limits of description. I think humans are pretty obsessed with making descriptions of the world. But where are the limits of what we can describe or explain?
Anyway, to change the subject a bit: I remember when I met you, that you were working on a novel — is that correct? If I recall correctly, you were writing it in Dutch, your native language. What happened to that project? And does this type of writing continue to factor into your current work?
AS: You’re right in saying that I’m more probing the possibilities of language rather than hoping for a particular outcome. Language being “the great explainer” is challenged for example by sound poetry in which the phonetic aspects of speech are foregrounded instead of the meaning of words. I recently started to look into the work of Dada sound poets, and the writings of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in particular. As with other art forms, female voices are barely represented in the history of sound poetry, so I was excited to stumble upon her writings as well as to encounter the work of Greta Monach, a sound poet from the Netherlands who studied both music and language.
Perhaps I’m drawn to phonetics and onomatopoeia because they seem to be able to transcend national boundaries. Alongside my studio practice, I write fiction in Dutch. During the lockdown, when Norwegian borders were closed, I sometimes wondered if it isn’t too much of an isolating experience to write in Dutch while I’m trying to establish a life in Norway. (I do envy people who have English as their native language.) At the same time, I find it incredibly rewarding to work together with editors on a piece of writing for a longer period of time, to be able to discuss doubts and tiny details with people who know your work well. In that sense writing is a very social activity, and probably even more so when the novel is published and out there interacting with readers.
These longer periods of discussing a work with someone is something my visual practice would benefit from as well. I don’t have a gallerist, but I imagine that could be a similar relationship as that of the editor and the writer? But luckily there are colleagues like you, Leah, to have lengthy conversations with!
I also realized that I get a lot of energy from collaborations with others, and I plan to work more often with vocalists and graphic designers, for example in future projects that bridge literary and musical notation.
LB: I think it’s invaluable and such a privilege to discuss one’s work with someone over time. Having these conversations with artist-curator-colleague friends, like you, is one of my favorite things about being an artist.
Your connection to Dada sound poetry makes so much sense. I like the idea that you are carrying on that tradition and taking it in new directions by listening to other forms of “speech” sounds by other living creatures. The female sound poets you mention seem like very exciting discoveries. I hadn’t heard of them either, I guess unsurprisingly.
I am curious if you see your process as similar to or different from sound poetry. I don’t know too much about the processes different sound poets use, and I’m sure there is quite a range. Your projects are performative, but that the sounds you use, and how you order them for the performers, are based on preexisting structures — for example, the recordings of plant lice that you fed into transcription software. I am guessing that at least some sound poetry would be composed more intuitively. But like I said, I imagine these poets had all forms of composition systems resulting in both structured and intuitive work. Sorry, that’s a mouthful, but hopefully you know what I mean?
I’m sure you’ve looked into experimental scores for music and sound art more broadly, but of course there are some amazing ones out there. Finally, being in a collaborative space is exciting. The way sound, form, and structure can bounce between art, music, language, and design sounds very generative.
AS: I’m not an expert on sound poetry, but you’re right that sound poets worked in a variety of ways, some structured, but the bulk of them seemed to have worked quite intuitively. I’m probably somewhere in between on the structured-intuitive scale. Although Duet/Songs was pretty structured, there’s often a fair amount of fiction in my work. Narrative is more important to me than following certain rules that I set myself all the way through.
Another difference is that, unlike many sound poets, I never perform the texts myself. I always collaborate with vocalists or performers. I also prefer to explore “dialogues” or polyphonic readings instead of a single voice.
I just got back from a trip to Oslo where I was introduced to the work of choreographer/theorist Noa Eshkol. Our conversation reminds me of her studies into the notation of movement. She tried to achieve this with the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation system that she made in collaboration with the architect Avraham Wachman. In a way, the system resembles music notation, but rather than tone and rhythm, it represents physical movement.