Audio Project "Winters Past" combines narratives and Soundwalks To consider the changing winter seasons
By Nekoro Gomes
The advent of technology and urbanization has relegated the winter season to white noise in our collective experience. Polar vortexes and arctic jet streams notwithstanding, most urban dwellers are generally able to file the four-month period away as an inconvenience to soldier through. With layers of clothing we venture outside equipped with a myriad of electronic distractions to battle the bitter cold.
For audio producers Josie Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum, the tactility of winter and the rituals of experiencing its simple pleasures lent themselves uniquely to audio, particularly through the medium of the guided soundwalk. The two combined their respective backgrounds in sound art and oral history to produce Winters Past, an audio project pondering how winter has changed through time. The project was conceived in 2012 and produced over the course of two years through a grant from the environment small grants program Invoking the Pause.
Winters Past features the oral histories of indigenous Yupik and Inupiaq elders from the small towns of Bethel and Kotzebue in southwestern Alaska. On February 7th, several dozen Brooklynites donned opaque sunglasses and huddled into the cozy Liminal Projects pop-up space for a special Winters Past installation to hear folktales, recollections and myths from this Alaskan population who intimately know winter as part of their lived experience for thousands of years. Through the mechanism of the soundwalk, the installation at Liminal Projects provoked a number of audio elements that invited users to consider such topics as climate change, culture, conservation and simultaneity.
Through Holtzman’s voice as a narrative guide, visitors experienced the sound of stabbing ice picks to check fish traps through frozen ice, hearing the sizzle of traditional Yupik dishes made of dried salmon and moose meat, or running races with sled dogs as you watched the Northern Lights above you.
“When we're gathering stories in the field, we're usually thinking first about how they'll work in audio,” the two explained in an e-mailed statement. “In Alaska, we were seeing things that a lot of people in the lower 48 might not experience, such as ice fishing on the Kuskokwim River, riding in bush planes and watching traditional dancing, all things that we thought could be captured in more than just audio,” making the conceit of the soundwalk especially effective.
Rich anecdotes about traveling among fishing villages on the Kuskokwim river, digging out of your home through the roof and building snow steps to get to the door of your house, and seeing by the light of a kerosene lamp are all valuable details augmented by Holtzman and Kestenbaum’s production. Hearing a traditional Yupik elder’s memories translated to relay the fact that one day, the winters they experience will make their way south, is an ominous auditory triumph when you cannot tell whether or not the howling wind you hear is coming from the installation, or the weather outside.
Comparing our current winter moments with past generations is something that the two say informed their approach to developing Winters Past. “It's one thing to accept climate change on an intellectual level,” Holtzman and Kestenbaum explained, “but it's another thing entirely to actually feel that change in your own life.”
You can visit the Winter’s Past website to view accompanying photos from the project, as well as subscribe to their podcast on iTunes, and listen to their Soundcloud page.