Let’s ACT – Sébastien Robert

6 min read
13 Jan 2022

With ‘The Lights Which Can Be Heard’, ACT Award 2022 winner Sébastien Robert conducted a research project on the sounds of the aurora borealis, long witnessed by various Indigenous communities living in the Arctic. Despite the many accounts of aurora sounds, there is a lot of debate about whether the sounds exist. Some believe that the natural VLF (Very Low Frequency) radio waves the auroras produce can be perceived in the witnesser’s surroundings. In this case, natural elements would act as receivers and translate the radio waves to the audible spectrum, from electromagnetic to acoustic waves.

Without rejecting any other hypothesis, it is that one that caught Sébastien’s attention. For STRP Festival 2022, he is therefore developing an installation that will allow the audience to perceive the aurora sounds through various crystals found in the Arctic, while preserving them into light. The Lights Which Can Be Heard is part of a larger research cycle ‘You’re no Bird of Paradise’, about disappearing Indigenous sonic ritual and cosmologies. Since these types of projects are ambitious and require a lot of research and experimentation, they are difficult to fit within the framework of a residency or a commission. Yet this external push with a deadline is often necessary to move a work forward that would otherwise remain at the mere conceptual level.
In that regard, winning the STRP ACT Award 2022 came at a perfect time for Sébastien: “It provided me with the means to initiate this research project with the freedom to design my own path towards the presentation in April 2022. For me, the most important thing was to go into the field as soon as possible, to confront my ideas with the reality of the ground. As such, I spent three weeks exploring the topography of the island of Andøya in Norway equipped with a VLF (Very Low Frequency) radio wave receiver to find the best place to listen to the sound of the aurora borealis and record them.”
The Lights Which Can Be Heard
The Lights Which Can be Heard is one of Sébastien’s most challenging projects to date. The main challenge was obviously to record the northern lights: “The first step was to find a spot on the island where I could receive a clear radio signal. The problem with VLF is that most of the man-made electronics are emitting VLF, so I had to find a spot as remote as possible from any human activity, yet not too far from the residency that I could reach quickly in case the lights were suddenly dancing above my head. After a few days I found an ideal location: 45 minutes walking distance, on top of a mountain with almost a 360-degree view on the island and not too much wind. At some point I was hiking almost every night up there, again and again without any result. It was quite frustrating. Until the geomagnetic storm of the 11 and 12 October 2021, where I spent the entire night out there, listening, watching and recording them.”
Although he had enriching conversations with various Sámi researchers and artists, most of Sébastien’s work so far has been science driven. Partly for that reason, he looks forward to presenting his work during STRP Festival 2022: “To meet, exchange, and get feedback from an audience is an important part of such a long-term research project and due to this never-ending pandemic, the opportunities are more and more rare. I really miss this. Now I am spending most of my weeks alone in my studio, which sometimes can be slightly alienating.”
“If the opportunity arises, I would like to invite a few key people who helped me through that research project to continue our wonderful conversations in the format of a conference or lecture. There is so much more to be said on this topic. People like Fiona Armery (PhD student University of Cambridge) who wrote a fascinating paper on the disputed sounds of northern lights, Sámi visual artist Matti Aikio, for his more sensitive approach to the debate or Rob Stammes, a Dutch radio enthusiast living since 15 years in Norway and studying all sort of data related to them.”
For Sébastien, winning the ACT Award made it possible to conduct his research project and get in touch with various people who helped to orientate his initial technological research and invited him to present his project in other locations as well. Are you an artist and do you want to be supported in developing new work too? You have until February 4, 2022 to apply your idea for the ACT Award 2023!
In our series Let’s ACT, we introduce our ACT (Award for Creative Technology) 2022 winners and follow them in the stages to their final work at STRP Festival 2022.