Katie Paterson (1981) is a multimedia Scottish artist whose works are mainly concerned with cosmological, geological and ecological themes. For many of her installations, which are conceptual in nature, she does extensive research in cooperation with an extended network of scientists.
On her website I looked at the impressive number of pieces that she has produced in less than 10 years of activity and I have been astounded by her rich inspiration and the poetic strength of her work: everything she does seems simple and powerful at the same time, her ideas forceful and realized with an apparently effortless economy of means.
Vatnajökull (the sound of) was Katie Paterson’s MA graduation piece at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 2007. A white neon sign bearing the number 7757001122 hung in the gallery on a black background and whoever called it, from whichever phone wherever in the world, was put through to the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland and could listen live to the sounds made by the water melting into the Jökulsárlón lagoon.
The artist describes this piece as ‘A live phone-line to Vatnajökull glacier’ and today we can still listen to a short registration of those sounds on her website. So technically her work lives on as a sound installation with the visual aid of photos of the glacier and an image of that phone number, but I think that at the time it was something different and more intense: who called that number could listen live to the real crackles and noises made by the ice melting, so could acoustically experience what was happening in that remote glacier at that very moment and through those trickles have vivid visual images of the dying glacier.
It also seems to me that that installation needed an active intervention of the public to be fully alive, so in a sense it was a cooperative work and that neon sign was a very real call to awareness, a very physical connection with an urgent problem: who called that number could have a direct experience of what is happening to our world, could not ignore it anymore. Glaciers ARE melting and I’m listening to them.
As mentioned in Creative Arts handbook, this work is truly site-specific: a microphone is placed in that very glacier, that far off place has a very real life of its own and who listens to its sounds has a sort of double place experience, of being in a place and being at the same time in that remote place in Iceland.
www.katiepaterson.org/vatnajokull/ (Accessed 23/09/16)