A winter in Estonia: sound, memory, place.

Image from my audio-visual work Eesti (image courtesy of Kristen den Exter)

In the winter of 2014 I undertook an artist residency in the small farming village of Mooste, Estonia. Images of interesting objects dotted around the village compelled me to go there. Water towers, telecommunication towers, frozen lakes, forests and farmland. All of these held huge potential for recording sounds I had no access to in Australia. I was also interested in the way that I could understand an unknown place through its auditory features.

By intensely listening to each of these areas I learnt to know the place in a way that sight doesn’t afford. Through sound I could understand the spatial dimensions of the village, the textures and weight of objects. I could realise the connection between sound, object, culture and community.

Our response to sound does not exist in isolation from external contexts. As a visitor to this part of the world I was particularly effected by the way that the objects I recorded were tightly connected to the history of place.

Estonia had been colonised by Germany, by Denmark, Sweden, and more recently by Russia. In a nearby town a KGB museum exhibited instruments of torture inside cold underground cells. There I learnt that the pine forests where I recorded snow falling  had been places of refuge where Estonian men hid for years from the Russian army. Those who weren’t able to hide were deported to Siberia.

One of my favourite objects that I repeatedly tried to record, the water tower, was a left over from the Soviet period. To the locals, it was another reminder of harsh years under occupation.

The sounds came with a heaviness that I hadn’t anticipated. I continued to record, though without any purpose in mind.

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One of the interesting aspects of field recording is the way it becomes embedded in your memory. Perhaps it’s the intensity that is required when focusing on locations, objects and sounds over an extended period of time.

Years after the Estonian residency I listened to the recordings and a flood of sensorial experiences rushed back to me. I could visualise the light, the cold, the space, and more intriguingly my emotional state, in a way that looking at photographs just doesn’t provide. It’s hard to explain but it’s almost as if listening or sound has the capacity to stimulate other sensorial memories. Perhaps it is similar to the way certain cooking smells bring back forgotten moments, and entwined within them a deluge of emotions.

It was a couple of years before I knew what I wanted to do with the recordings. In retrospect I realise that there needed to be a bit of time to listen to the recordings with a balance of objectivity while still retaining an emotional response to them. If that’s possible.

Recordings from the forest, from the lake, from the towers, and from the village were sequenced and layered into a 17-minute sound piece. After I completed the audio work, I then sorted through my photos taken during my walks around the village. It was rewarding to create something out of an experience so many years later.

The slow-moving video, at its most basic level, is not only an audio-visual portrait of the village.  I’d also like to think it’s a work relating to the interplay between sound and emotion and memory.

Eesti was shown at the Lismore Regional Gallery from 22nd June to 25 August, 2019.

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