Between Sferics and Rust. On the Erratic State of Being Grounded and Dissolved through Listening
posted by Jacek Smolicki on 5 September 2023

I repetitively find myself awaken in the middle of the night in my bed in Stockholm while my thoughts and senses are still soundwalking in Kilpisjärvi. It’s been like this ever since my return about a week ago. Each night, I wake up convinced that I am still there—ambling through the fells, resting on the moss, listening to Golden Plovers, Buzzards, Loons and Common Redpolls.

It feels like during the daytime, my perception has no chance to resist. It is forced to surrender to the multitude of abrupt impulses and the rules of the mechanical time regime that govern life in the city and its immediate peripheries, where I happen to live. But the night is when my consciousness is suddenly released from those constraints. Freed from a leash, my mind keeps defending itself from re-adaptation. At least, from doing it too quickly. More than 24 hours spent traveling from the foot of Saana back to Stockholm are certainly not enough to adjust back to the rules of this alleged home of mine, especially after two weeks of bipedal peregrinations as the only form of movement, sometimes lasting for 10 hours per day.

After those hours, days and weeks of walking, my feet seem to no longer understand the artificial flatness of pavements they are forced to walk on upon return. My ears cannot adjust to the rhythm this monotonous flatness imposes, weirdly alien if compared to the mountainous landscape—its  ever-unfolding unevenness that can keep one’s attention heightened for hours and hours. Similarly, my eyes, still habituated to long periods of daylight, cannot accept the fact that the light waking me up every night here in my apartment is generated by technical means. Like those dancing lights on the wall, that suddenly pull me out of bed and make me stay up for a good moment, filling me with a sense of awe that eventually fades into disappointment after realizing that what I have just witnessed were not northern lights but reflections from a TV set, still on in the apartment right across the yard despite late night. At the moment, I feel strangely settled in this transitory state of mind and body. In fact, I want to cultivate it for as long as possible. The longer it lasts, however, the more unprepared I am to greet its end.

I went to Kilpisjärvi with the same intention I travel to other places as an artist and researcher: to learn about its history, presence and future from the way it sounds. From its audible and no longer audible soundscapes. And to subsequently communicate those lessons to others, through listening sessions, soundwalks and soundscape compositions.

In my work, I am particularly interested in so called eco-tones, places where several ecosystems transition, meet, collide, interact and affect each other while constituting particularly vibrant environments. Environments that are hard to grasp and hence require extra attention. Environments that in a particularly strong manner speak for more than the sum of their parts. Environments that cannot be discerned as consisting of parts but rather need to be attended as complex wholes. Environments that are never to be fully contained in our cognition, perception, and imagination. Nor within our biased sense of temporality.

Spending time with ecotones has taught me that all environments, to some extent, exhibit ecotonal characteristics in the way they consist of a multitude of spatial, temporal, and agential relations. (My apartment too, as in the earlier example, is persistently affected by human and other-than-human ecosystems from across the yard.) Some of these relations are triggered by human-generated transformations, continually blurring the boundaries between what we've been taught to perceive as organic or inorganic, cultural or natural, native or invasive.

In my work, I am intrigued by human and other-than-human signals and stories from these ecotonal fields, especially those that are challenging to perceive or have been relegated to the imperceptible past for various reasons. Similarly, I'm interested in soundscapes that have yet to emerge but whose faint signals, or pre-echoes, can already be detected and speculatively considered within present events. To achieve this, I employ a range of field recording techniques and technologies, some of which I construct myself. By engaging with hydrophones, binaural microphones, contact mics, geophones, electromagnetic detectors, very low-frequency antennas, and other devices, I expand and constrain my senses simultaneously, obtaining diverse perspectives from which to witness these fields of signals, without necessarily comprehending, deciphering, naming, or cataloguing them.

I believe that every act of recording is, in essence, a form of field recording because it takes place within existing fields of relationships among subjects, histories, worldviews, technologies, and other forces. My microphones incorporate elements from distant fields, including a constellation of diverse minerals from unknown geographies and material imprints of various temporalities that have shaped these elements into technical devices, including geological and human labour processes. My situated act of field recording is partially enabled by these distant fields and as such can be perceived as an ecotonal practice in which diverse ecosystems coexist, sometimes by force.

Recognizing the historical participation of recording devices in modernist pursuits and colonizing projects, my work aims to critically engage with the motivations and gestures that have historically informed the practice of field recording. Therefore, instead of seeking the unique, pristine, untouched, or exotic in the places I work with, I focus on the complex relationships they embody—relationships marked by disturbance and contamination. In this sense, I'm not interested in the clarity of the environment I work with, but rather its messiness. I seek to work with those messy relations by challenging the prescribed methods of using technology and acknowledging that these technologies always actively shape the experience of the places they are deployed to capture, regardless of our attempts to remove them from the field, from the picture, from the recording.

To me, listening and recording are about perceiving the surrounding environment as a field or relations in which one is inherently implicated. It is about oscillating between a state of groundedness and dissolution. Between deep awareness of one’s specific often troubling position within it and selflessness.

The longer I stay with a place and its diverse sounds, the more I feel dissolved into the vastness of its perceptual registers. It feels like during extended acts of situated listening, my sense of hearing gradually loses its initial directionality. The stage on which I stand undergoes a radical reconfiguration. What remains on it is no longer a single human being and their technology engaged in listening to the environment. Instead, it is the planet listening to itself. In other words, the site hosts and enables a specific constellation of geological elements (myself as a human being) that, in tandem with another cluster of organized minerals (audio recording equipment), serve as witnesses to processes guided by a multitude of other geological, mineral, and elemental compounds, and events in the broader environment. As the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky once asserted, "we are walking talking minerals," but we are also listening minerals.

This reconfiguration of the subject-object relationship in a listening situation, as well as a renewed understanding of the mediator's role in that event—how listening is actualized through technical means—was further illuminated during an experiment with a Very Low-Frequency antenna (VLF) I conducted at the shore of Kilpisjärvi lake. I constructed an antenna using found wood as a frame for a spool of copper wire, which I connected to an audio cable and plugged into my audio recorder. Almost immediately, I began to hear what are known as 'sferics,' electromagnetic impulses caused by lightning strikes occurring within a distance of even several thousand kilometres.

Sferics take place within a frequency range between 3kHZ and 30kHZ, well below the spectrum of human-generated radio frequencies. As I sat there listening to this audible manifestation of electromagnetic variations animating the atmosphere, both far above and right next to me, it felt like I was tuned into the most extraordinary radio program—completely unscripted, free of agendas, ideologies, or logos. It felt like I was witnessing a pure emanation of environmental forces. This exercise reminded me of the fundamentally environmental and relational nature of listening, not only through technological devices and infrastructures but also through our naked sense of hearing. After all, our hearing organs, like technologies, are forms of ecologies, specifically organized matter and minerals immersed in chemicals such as glutamate that cover our hair cells, or otolith, a calcium carbonate structure in our inner ear responsible for our sense of gravity, orientation, and memory. The listening experience I engaged in was akin to the kind described by Patrick Farmer, a sound thinker and poet, for whom listening is "the world drawn into the body that is in the world, an undulating flow of temporal dissipation wherein listening is both expulsion of energy and return of matter."

These encounters with sferics not only underscored the inherently environmental nature of listening but also led me into the realm of existential contemplation, a dimension often overlooked in modern societies in favor of more utilitarian approaches to listening, which primarily focus on extracting information and knowledge from the environment. However, in my listening experiences, this existential layer has not been separate from the environmental one. Instead, I perceive it as an integral stratum that provides an additional viewpoint (or, rather, an angle of hearing) onto the environment and our interconnectedness with it. This layer exists fleetingly, can only be encountered fragmentarily, and often elicits a sense of awe.

As psychologists Dacher Keltner and Johnathan Haidt remind us, awe “is a challenge to or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast.” It is a feeling of perceived vastness or, in my view, an inability to fully grasp vastness when we encounter it. The absence of any narrative or logic in what I was listening to—the vast territory of incidentally arriving pieces of evidence that the atmosphere exists, regardless of our understanding—spoke most clearly to my ears and mind about the agency of climate, something that we may never fully comprehend. It felt as though what I was experiencing was not intended to reach and engage my cognitive faculties but rather to bypass them and connect directly to the elemental foundation of perception. Reduced to the function of an intermediary, the self began to dissolve, leading me to contemplate a selfless form of listening—one that transcends the intricacies of subjective experience. Again, can this kind of listening be described as the planet listening to itself through us? Can we perceive ourselves as instruments of the Earth through which it listens to its own condition?

The same sense of dissolution accompanied me when listening to profound silence on the southern slope of Saana and the northern slope of Pikku Malla, two of the quietest places I encountered during my soundwalking through the fells. Silence has the curious effect of making your brain long for noise. When you experience it, your mind immediately embarks on a journey to detect the faintest sonic events in the distance. Simultaneously, your own noises become amplified, pulling your attention away from wherever it was headed. You become disoriented. Your awareness undergoes a radical expansion and contraction as it oscillates between your intimate body, firmly grounded in the moment, and the distant events reverberating, in case of my listening, through the ringing of reindeer bells and their hooves hitting the asphalt, the screeches of a hawk circling imperceptibly in the sky, and the barking of dogs that are nowhere to be seen.

In addition to these expansive forms of listening in Kilpisjärvi and its surroundings, I also engaged in a series of much more grounded (and grounding) exercises, at least in a spatial and material sense. While ecotones are usually understood in geographical terms, I believe it's crucial to acknowledge their temporal dimension. What we hear today is not isolated from the past, nor is it disconnected from the future. The events of the past continually influence our present auditory experiences. Recognizing this can help us understand that the events and practices we engage in today will reverberate into the future, shaping the soundscapes yet to be conceived. In this context, ecotonal listening involves expanding our temporal frame of reference, recognizing the past as an ecosystem that encroaches upon the ecosystems of today, and, by extension, those of the future.

During my walks across the fells, I stumbled upon numerous remnants from World War II, including rusty pieces of barbed wire, empty cans, shovel blades, bottles, and other debris that persistently evoke the events of the past, reminding attentive hikers of the historical significance of this site. Most of the debris originates from military infrastructure, such as dugouts, trenches, bunkers, and field prisons established by Nazi German troops who, along with the Finns, fought the Soviet Union 80 years ago. By merely looking at these remnants, one can already imagine the soundscapes that once filled the fells. But to immerse myself more deeply in that historical context, I attached contact microphones to these remnants. Animated by the persistent winds, the debris spoke of the tumultuous soundscapes of the past, raising questions about whether the present tranquillity is merely a temporary facade.

One particular spot I revisited was the remnants of Junkers 88, a German airplane that crashed here during the war. While most of its rusty pieces have been taken by tourists or dispersed across the fells, some have remained. I returned to this spot multiple times, recording its sounds from various angles. On one occasion, I attached my microphones to the surface of an iron pipe and inserted a couple of hydrophones into its narrow interior. As I turned on my recorder and listened, my ears were immediately enveloped by a sustained, deep, and resonant sound caused by the wind passing through the pipe. It inevitably triggered associations with the sound of a flying airplane. However, unexpectedly, I began to hear something more—a rhythmic and somewhat mournful chirping of the Golden Plover, a bird species common in this environment. This bird's calls added to the ambiance within the pipe, and these sounds, captured by my hydrophones and transmitted through my headphones, transported me through multiple temporalities simultaneously. On one side, I witnessed the end of the war, while on the other, I was firmly grounded in the present moment, with imaginary traces of the future also coming into focus. In some places, although I can't confirm if it's the case in Kilpisjärvi, Golden Plovers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This vulnerability arises due to changes in insect populations and their larvae, which are a primary food source for the birds and their chicks in the spring. The declining insect numbers are attributed to rising temperatures. The mournful chirping of the Golden Plover, combined with the haunting resonance of the pipe's interior, conveyed to me the idea that the fells represent a realm where certain worlds and their visions have ended, while others persist or are yet to emerge.

During my stay at the biological station, I frequently revisited these ruins of bygone worlds. These ruins included not only old military installations and sites of explosions, such as the location of a 'big blast' resulting from a sabotage action targeting a Russian arsenal in 1917, but also old and decommissioned scientific infrastructures. I employed various techniques to record winds that persistently animate them at different times of the day and under different weather conditions.

We often tend to perceive debris and ruins as ultimately mute and voiceless. However, with a closer look, we realize that they continually convey messages and sometimes serve as warnings, suggesting that dreams we endeavour to realize one day might, the next day, become ruins that haunt us rather than nourish us. Allowing these remnants to speak, often by amplifying their micro-resonances and responses to changing weather patters, is not about resurrecting or sentimentalizing the past but rather about creating and temporarily sustaining reference points for the future. As I listened to, observed, and explored the remnants of military installations, I couldn't help but contemplate the geopolitical tensions currently affecting this part of the world due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting redrawing of NATO borders. What future soundscapes will populate the fells? Simultaneously, I was imagining the extent to which German military operations here, but also earlier tensions caused by the violent instalment of nation state logic and imperialist visions here in Sápmi, affected the way the place resounds (or not) today.

Similarly, when visiting Three-Country Cairn, the place we are made to believe is a convergence point of the international borders of Sweden, Norway, and Finland, I pondered the arbitrariness of borders when viewed and listened to from the perspective of the other-than-human worlds. As I dipped my hydrophones into the water at that very spot, I wondered about the absence of any sonic imprint of this peculiar artefact on the realms beyond the human. Was there something I wasn't perceiving? Did this massive concrete structure, partly submerged in the lake to mark the exact meeting point of the borders, divide and disrupt other-than-human realms and their temporalities in a manner entirely imperceptible to us? What ecotones did it disturb, and what new ones has it generated?

As I conclude this text, several days after I began it, the boundaries between my dreams of Kilpisjärvi and the reality of being back in my apartment have inevitably and sadly returned. Each of us carries a metaphorical cairn—a bordering artefact, habit, or thought—that structures how we interact with each other and the world around us. Some of these bordering practices are forcibly imposed upon us, others are inherited or adopted involuntarily, and some we consciously acquire or meticulously construct to discipline ourselves, navigate in a particular manner, and progress as we anticipate. In my exploration of listening, I have repeatedly learned that sound cannot be disciplined, or confined within borders. Instead, it persistently transcends them. Sounds and the realms they create are inherently ecotonal. To witness them involves becoming lost within the multitude of relationships they form.


Currently,  I am working on a soundwalk composition to be premiered in October in Helsinki. The piece will interweave selected field recordings from Kilpisjärvi area with a creative narrative focused on past, present and future soundscapes of that region. Participants of the soundwalk will be invited to walk with me in Helsinki, listening to a slowly evolving, hybrid composition built on the go out of immediate sounds of the city and the recordings done during my residency, including voices of the local community.


Jacek Smolicki is a cross-disciplinary artist, designer, researcher and educator. His work explores temporal, existential and technological dimensions of listening, recording and archiving practices in human and more-than-human realms. Besides working with historical archives, media, and heritage, Smolicki develops other modes of sensing, recording, and mediating stories and signals from specific sites, scales, and temporalities. His work is manifested through soundwalks, soundscape compositions, diverse forms of writing, site-responsive performances, experimental para-archives, and audio-visual installations. He has performed, published, and exhibited internationally (e.g. In-Sonora Madrid, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Florida, Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, AudioArt Kraków, Ars Electronica, Linz, and Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo). Smolicki holds a PhD in Media and Communications from Malmö University and is currently a researcher at Informatics and Media Department of Uppsala University. In 2023, he has been a Fulbright scholar at Harvard. He is a co-founder and curator of Walking Festival of Sound. His edited book 'Soundwalking. Through Time, Space and Technologies' was published by Routledge in 2023. More on:


I would like to thank Hannu Autto, the staff at the Biological Station, the Bioart Society crew, Piritta Puhto, Milla Millasnoore, Yvonne Billimore, Lisa Kalkowski, Leena Valkeapää and her partner Oula for facilitating my stay at Kilpisjärvi Biological Station between July 31 and August 13, 2023. Many thanks to Emil Kastehelmi, Aleksi Rikkinen, Onna and Rasmus, and all other human and other-than-human entities and energies who I encountered there and who enriched my work and experience of the fells at the foot of Saana.