Listening to the Heart: Jacob Kirkegaard Interviewed by Julie Martin

Recordings of endless border walls, vast piles of garbage, and organs in the human body.

A landscape shot of a landfill in Nairobi, Kenya, engulfed in flames and smoke.

Still from Jacob Kirkegaard, Testimonium, 2019, Dandora landfill in Nairobi, Kenya. Courtesy of the artist and Fridman Gallery, New York.

I met Jacob Kirkegaard in Stockholm in 2013 when he presented his work based on recordings of otoacoustic emissions, which are tones generated by the human inner ear. Since then, I have seen a lot of his work and interviewed him about it over the years. Currently he and I are collaborating on a project using archival sound material to create audio documentaries on the history of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), the nonprofit organization cofounded in 1966 in New York City by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman with engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer to encourage collaborations between artists and engineers.

Kirkegaard is both a visual artist and a composer who works with recordings of sounds that we rarely hear in our daily lives, taken from spaces loaded with meaning and tied to the conversations about our world today. His recorded sonic environments range between subterranean geyser vibrations, empty rooms in Chernobyl, melting ice in Greenland, endless border walls, vast piles of garbage, and organs in the human body. He presents these sounds in a variety of ways: as pure musical compositions, which he performs or crafts into multi-speaker immersive sound environments, or sound and visual installations incorporating video footage and photographs from his recording sites. The work reminds me of a phrase from the Roman playwright Terence: “nothing human is alien to me.” Nothing the human ear can hear is alien to Kirkegaard, and through his recordings he confronts and captures the sounds that echo through the universe, and by making them audible renders them less forbidding.

—Julie Martin

Julie MartinRight now, you have a solo exhibition titled Testimonium at Fridman Gallery in New York City showing works that deal with waste. Tell me about these works.

Jacob Kirkegaard The works being exhibited, Testimonium I, II, and III (2019)present three different portraits of waste: large-scale photographs, a video and sound installation, and a third sound piece which is a listening space where you can get really close to waste. To record these sounds, I buried vibration sensors in the piles of waste at a dumping site in Kenya and lowered my hydrophone into pools of wastewater from a processing plant in Denmark. It is an eight-channel composition that immerses the listener in very detailed and rich recordings of waste. You really hear the metal, the plastic, and the glass moving in the polluted water.

Headshot portrait of Jacob Kirkegaard sitting against a wall in low lighting.

Jacob Kirkegaard in Valparaíso, Chile, 2019. Photo by Raquel Castro.

JM You also have an ongoing project about border walls. You have recorded a number of them over the years. Tell me about them.

JKThe first border wall I approached was in Palestine, on the West Bank. This huge, intimidating concrete wall generates so much controversy and frustration, so I was curious to listen to what the border wall itself had to “say.” But as I placed my sensors on it, I discovered that the wall had almost no sound of its own. I realized that, of course, a border wall is not resonant with its surroundings. It’s supposed to stop movement across it, standing there firmly and being stubborn. But then I heard sounds coming from both sides of the wall, so I started using acoustic microphones to record them. I called the piece Through the Wall (2013), because while the wall does divide people, the sounds people make were flying freely from one side to the other.

JMThen, about a year ago, just before all travel shut down, you went to record the long border fence along the US border with Mexico. You found it sounded quite different.

JKYes, it’s made from many kinds of metals and construction techniques, and it certainly vibrates a lot. I traveled along the border fence from El Paso to Tijuana. When I placed my sensors on the fence, I could hear how the sounds of the surroundings were making it resonate and generate tones, almost as if it were a harp. I used the border fence’s sounds and the video footage I shot alongside it to make a piece called Membrane (2020), a landscape portrait along the wall. I love that word, because a membrane is like a skin. It divides two zones, but it is also an energy field between them, vibrating from side to side, back and forth, like breathing. Border fences seem solid, but fragility happens over time. We can see in history that all walls disappear at some point. They are punctured, and they break. Borders open, and people move more freely. But of course, just as old walls crumble new ones appear. So my project is an ongoing one.

Jacob Kirkegaard, excerpt from Membrane, 2020.

JMYou compare the border fence to a harp. Do you see it as a musical instrument?

JKDefinitely. In fact, the composer and cellist Mariel Roberts traveled with me along the fence. Wherever we stopped and placed my sensors on it, we would discover a new range of tones, and we’re now using those in a collaborative piece for cello and fence.

JM Your other recent project, Opus Mors (2019), is strangely prescient. You finished it just before the pandemic made death so prominent in our experience. What led you to this subject of death? 

JKDeath is perhaps the most taboo or most difficult thing we have to face, but it’s what we have most in common with each other across borders of the world. So often death is reported as sensational news, or gruesomely portrayed in horror films, or framed in religious terms. I decided to record the sounds of four processes or procedures that the body undergoes after death, and to create some contemplative space in sound. Opus Mors is a work in four parts. I recorded a hospital morgue, a cremation, the decomposition of bodies at a forensic “body farm,” and an autopsy. I reached out to these places, and everyone I contacted about recording in their facilities was very supportive and allowed me access.

JM How did you record a morgue?

JKThe first part in the series is called Opus Morturarium. In the morgue, bodies are lying there underneath white sheets on these rolling tables. I placed the omnidirectional microphone in the room and left, because my physical presence would disturb the recording. The first thing you hear is the ventilation system, this sort of dominant, airy sound hiss; but then you also have tones of the machinery that creates the ventilation sound, and then you have a room that has a certain size, with tiles on the walls that add to the coldness of the sound. Opus Morturarium is recreating the morgue in sound. If you play these recordings out into your room or experience them in a gallery or performance, you’re in a morgue.

An empty morgue with yellow tile walls and a heavy metal door opening from the left wall.

Jacob Kirkegaard, Morgue, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

JMYou also recorded the sound of a cremation, but in a different way.

JK For Opus Crematio, I was curious what it would sound like if we could hear ourselves being cremated. So I attached vibration sensors directly on the surfaces of the oven to hear what was going on inside. Opus Crematio takes you through the whole cremation process; toward the end, you hear the bone crusher, and at the very end, you hear the sound of ashes being poured into the urn. The process is complete. When you hear that piece, you are surrounded by the sound. Although I had found airy overtones within the noise from the oven, the sound in the final composition is very loud and very heavy, very powerful. It literally shakes you.

JM The next places you recorded in offer a much more intimate engagement with the bodies themselves. Tell me about the “body farm” and the sounds you gathered there for the piece you call Opus Putesco.

JK A “body farm” is a forensic facility where dead bodies lie in an enclosed outdoor area and are allowed to decompose over time so that the various stages of decomposition can be studied. I was given permission to place my sensors as close to the corpses as I wanted, and I was even able to place a sensor inside a cavity in one corpse. The major sound you hear is the maggots. People will probably have a lot of associations with rotting corpses, but to me it is totally neutral sound. That kind of positive conflict between all your associations or fears around death and then hearing something concrete, unfamiliar, even beautiful, in the decomposition of a corpse eases your mind, or certainly changes your relationship to that process. It is nature itself doing its job. 

JM The fourth work that makes up Opus Mors is Opus Autopsia, where you record the sounds of an autopsy. You treated the sounds you recorded from the autopsy differently from the other sounds you recorded, didn’t you?

JK For the work Opus Autopsia, I recorded the full progress of an autopsy up close, from opening the corpse, removing the organs one by one, then examining them by slicing them open, and finally returning all the organs, and closing and washing the corpse. You can really hear the organs being handled. You can hear the heart, which has a sound in itself. When the pathologist puts the heart on a scale, you can hear the weight of it and the texture of it, very different from the brain. The brain is porous. When you put it on a scale, it plops down and almost falls apart. The heart dances when you put it on the scale. It sounds very elastic; it’s a muscle. As the autopsy progresses, you hear the sound of each organ being sliced open; and each organ has its own sound. You can hear the texture of the heart, the timbre, which is more like a musical sound. Opus Mors works as a sound installation, but I also found it suitable for the vinyl medium. Death has been a recurring theme in a lot of music. Take requiems, for example. In creating a vinyl album of this work, I wanted to indicate that these recordings can be heard like music. It’s on a vinyl record that you can take home and listen to.

JM Language was also an important part of your working closely with the autopsy and decomposition processes.

JK Yes, I found myself thinking about language and metaphors that tend to surround our conversations about the body. At the body farm I thought about how when someone dies we tend to say that they “become one with nature.” In the same way, the language surrounding the organs of our body was very present in my mind in making Opus Autopsia. Organs are often invoked as metaphors when we talk about our feelings, especially the heart. We say, “I’m heartbroken,” or “open your heart,” or “learn to listen to your heart.” Opus Autopsia listens to these metaphors in a very concrete way. In my piece you hear the actual sound of the heart being opened. You hear the brain being literally freed (from the skull). Instead of formulated words, you hear the sound of the tongue and throat themselves, their respective textures and timbres. To me, a good project branches out in a lot of different directions. It’s not just about metaphors; it’s more that listening is a concrete way to access and to get more familiar with our organs. They’re right there under the skin.

JM So the Opus Mors works taken together are not only about death, but give us a way to deal with death.

JKI use sound and the art of sound as a way to approach and understand things I don’t understand or feel alienated from. That’s why art is so important right now, during the pandemic; there’s a spiritual dimension that art can give us. We often say we should listen to our heart, listen to our feelings. What I offer are sound works that invite you to listen to waste, to border fences, to your heart, to your brain. With my still-intact brain and heart, I believe that through listening we are a step closer to embracing the complex challenge of being human in this world.

Jacob Kirkegaard’s Testimonium will be on view at Fridman Gallery in New York City February 27–March 27, 2021.

Julie Martin is director of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), the nonprofit organization cofounded in 1966 in New York City by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and engineers Billy Klüver (Martin’s late husband) and Fred Waldhauer to encourage and facilitate collaborations between artists and engineers.

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