Film

The Eternal Snow of Frozen Tears: Saving Melting Landscapes

Zürich's Institute of Landscape Architecture explores the fragile connection between mankind and nature in a multimedia project that merges science with art, turning sounds and images of a changing alpine glacier into a moving call to action.

Melting Landscapes
Institute of Landscape Architecture

14 May 2019

"Moving water is forever in the present tense," poet Jim Harrison writes in Offside to the Side: A Memoir (reprint, Grove Press, Sep 2003), "a condition we rather achingly avoid." Merging science with art, the audio-visual project Melting Landscapes extends Harrison's thesis from the field of poetry into glaciology. Led by Christophe Girot, professor and director of the Institute of Landscape Architecture (ILA), a group of nearly 30 Institute students, staff, and faculty spent three years studying a condition that we may be achingly avoiding: global warming. However, the resulting project is far from a pundit's data-mining science trip. The researchers set out to document the changing landscape of the Morteratsch Glacier, in Switzerland's Bündner Alps, using home-made microphones and medium- and large-format analog cameras, turning their observations into experiential field recordings.

The recordings remain so otherworldly that they resemble the industrial soundscapes of filmmaker David Lynch: crackling snow evokes circuit-bent electronics; gurgling creeks sound nearly algorithmic; chunks of ice explode from a crevasse face with frightening ferocity.

Melting Landscapes is just one creative byproduct of a course series offered by the Institute's interdisciplinary MediaLab from 2015 to 2017. In addition to self-publishing Melting Landscapes as a vinyl LP of soundscapes accompanying a booklet of black-and-white photography, the course also presented its findings in the form of an exhibition. The goal is to help people think critically about how we perceive and represent landscape aesthetics. For nature lovers, science geeks, and art enthusiasts alike, Melting Landscapes promises to be the first study in a new Alpine trilogy publication series exploring mankind's relationship to several significant landscapes. The next installments will study Swiss hydropower dams and the 10.5-mile-long Gotthard Road Tunnel.

Founded in 2005 in the Department of Architecture of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich [In English: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich], the ILA was the first polytechnic in Switzerland devoted to contemporary landscape aesthetics. Its goals, as Professor Christophe Girot explains, are two-fold, "to sensitize people to the sensory dimension of landscape (sight, sound, touch, smell), and to reflect on projects that better interact with their surroundings." Balancing critical theory with the immediacy of art, we are reminded that beauty need not be a stranger to truth.

Sadly, unlike Harrison's liberated river, glaciers worldwide are now forced to move against their will, retreating from the present tense into the eternal past. Meanwhile, other perspectives about the issue range from indifference to skepticism to outright denial. Those who contest its causes and consequences sometimes refer to the condition as climate change, preferring a neutral title which avoids connotations of ecological crisis. Regardless of titling conventions, the problem, as understood by those who accept the scientific fact of global warming, is that if left unchecked, human activities—especially those involving the emissions of greenhouse gases—may be leading to irreversible consequences for the entire planet: As carbon levels continue to accumulate in Earth's atmosphere, glaciers will melt, sea levels rise, and the weather, like a two-year with a bad temper, will wreak havoc with worldwide ecosystems. (A 2018 study by Macquarie University, from Sydney, Australia, suggests that climate change may even be altering the behavior in Port Jackson sharks, possibly leading to a rightward bias in their swimming laterality!) If global warming is real, then ecosystems as beloved and diverse as tundras, coastal swamps, and coral reefs may all be facing extinction.

Despite the ecological urgency, Melting Landscapes bypasses fist-pumping rhetoric, engaging the issue directly through one's senses. The audio recordings were captured on site using underwater and self-made contact microphones. While minor EQing and layering were used in post-production, the recordings remain so otherworldly that they resemble the industrial soundscapes of filmmaker David Lynch: crackling snow evokes circuit-bent electronics; gurgling creeks sound nearly algorithmic; chunks of ice explode from a crevasse face with frightening ferocity. Institute research assistant and Melting Landscapes sound supervisor Ludwig Berger recalls using a microphone like a stethoscope to record vibrations within a glacier: feeling himself connected to the glacier's body, the resonance allowed for "an intimacy without proximity, which differs from problematic concepts such as "nature", which is always positioned outside of our own body. By internalizing these observations, we re-envision, as Berger suggests, our "direct entanglement and responsibility" with our surroundings.

Frontal view of the glacier tongue. A few hours later the fragile construction of ice collapsed. Photo captured in summer 2017 by Jan Westerheide.

(The large-format black and white photo appears in the 28-page photo book which accompanies the vinyl LP release of Melting Landscapes' audio recording.)

Side A of Melting Landscapes' vinyl LP audio release portrays Morteratsch Glacier during winter. "Freezing" wheezes with shortwave frequencies beneath a blanket of snow. Named after the highest glacier zone where snowfall collects, "Accumulation" sounds like a roving troop of ants; hydrophones buried in deep snow amplify the patter of snowfall overhead. "Drone" aims to outdo Lustmord, the dark lord of ambient, yet these sounds are all natural, sourced from vibrations inside a glacier from a nearby river. "Wind" crackles like embers in a fireplace, but it's actually a snowstorm as perceived from a microphone frozen inside an ice mass. On "Bubbles", the sound of trickling water could be an electronic track with kinetic drum programming. And "Milk" amplifies a passing stream, the running water refusing to freeze.

Things warm up (slightly) on the album's B-side. The roaring drone of "River" officially announces summer's return. The crystalline trickling of "Pond I" and "Pond II" turn bodies of water into limbless percussionists. On "Crevasse", piezo microphones buried inside ice buzz with chirping treble. Recorded using hydrophones wedged between rocks and a river bed, the aquatic slurping on "Sand" sounds volcanic. Lastly, "Ablation", named after the glacier zone which loses ice through melting, returns to another large pond, water hissing like a slowly zippered jacket.

The photo booklet is equally surreal: the black-and-white images transform glacier landscapes—full of creeks, crevasses, and towering blocks of ice—into brutalist architecture. Matthias Vollmer, Institute research associate and Melting Landscapes photography supervisor, describes his experience of documenting the Morteratsch Glacier with existential lucidity: "When I look at it, it calms me because it emanates stability and strength but then I also know and see that it is not so stable at all. It is an accumulation of power that reacts with no emotion to whatever happens around it. Small changes like global warming are destroying it quickly, but 150 years ago it would crush through valleys, alps and forests with what seemed to be no effort."

One doesn't need to book a flight to the Swiss Alps to feel the rugged dignity of these landscapes—a presence both menacing and angelic. Unfortunately, the immutable ice mass has now become ephemeral. Their dignity, as Professor Christophe Girot articulates, "is about an incredible sense of duration that is coming to an end."

Institute of Landscape Architecture affirms a link between all things: water and land, man and nature, past and future. On a planet ruled by water, glaciers are now melting into a silent minority. But by bearing witness through the power of art, perhaps projects like Melting Landscapes can break through the noise in our increasingly bi-partisan culture. If people can identify with the world's melting landscapes as more than symbols of party politics, relating to them as awe-inspiring ecosystems in need of help before they disappear—possibly forever—then people can learn to empathize with their decline. If we can do that, then we can begin to confront a condition that affects all living things on this planet.

The following interview was conducted by way of email throughout February 2019. Although my own beliefs about global warming are implied throughout the article, my goal was to humanize the strongly polarizing issue. The focus of the interview was to clarify the purpose of the project while engaging the experiential dimension of its creation process. In order to engage the project from an integrative perspective, and out of respect for the role of every participant, I extended an invitation to all students, staff, and faculty involved in the Melting Landscapes project. Responses were received from Christophe Girot, project supervisor; Matthias Vollmer, photography supervisor; Ludwig Berger, sound supervisor and composer; and two students, Seonju Kim and Sonja Widmer.

Christophe Girot, professor and supervisor of the project, discussing photos of student Benjamin Graber.

(Photo by Matthias Vollmer)

"A Vertiginous Distance": Interview with Christophe Girot, Professor and Director of the Institute of Landscape Architecture and Melting Landscapes' Project Supervisor

Firstly, please explain your role in the Melting Landscapes project and in the Institute of Landscape Architecture. How did you get involved in this kind of work?

Documenting melting glaciers started five years ago as a central theme in contemporary landscape aesthetics and theory taught at the ETH [In German: Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule: a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university in Zürich, Switzerland. In English: Swiss Federal Institute of Technology]. I took on more the role of the critical thinker in the whole process which combined research work and student work in photography, terrestrial laser scanning, and ambisonic recordings.

Can you explain the background behind the formation of the Institute of Landscape Architecture? What is "Landscape Architecture"? Why was the Institute formed and what is its mission?

The ILA was founded in 2005 in the Department of Architecture of the ETH. It was the first such institute founded in Switzerland which focused on questions pertaining to contemporary landscape aesthetics. Its mission is double, first to sensitize people to the sensory dimension of landscape (sight, sound, touch, smell), and to reflect on projects that better interact with their surroundings.

Melting Landscapes directly addresses the hot-topic issue of our generation: global warming. Despite a consensus among scientists linking carbon emissions to an increase in greenhouse gases, resulting in rising temperatures worldwide, people continue to deny the existence of a problem. What does the Institute hope to accomplish with projects like Melting Landscapes? How can these projects encourage others to care differently about such heated issues?

It would have been unthinkable three decades ago to bring students to an ice-melting site like this in Switzerland. Awareness about global warming is only 20 years old, it poses, amongst other things, serious questions about landscape aesthetics and beauty. These projects encourage younger generations to apprehend and reflect on these rapidly melting and changing landscapes.

Can you briefly summarize the challenges that the planet faces if mankind doesn't take some corrective action around global warming? I mean, what's the big deal, some might wonder, why are people moaning about the melting of glaciers? Does a change in temperature of a few degrees really matter?

I don't think that we are capable of even imagining the acute consequences of what is happening, but one thing is certain, change is occurring much faster than planned. As to how our rumbling world of engines can now stop to allow for the world to heal remains an open question.

What can we do, both collectively and individually, to correct or minimize the problem? Is there still hope for humanity?

Humanity understood as individuals and people collectively should learn more how to get in touch with their resentment and deeper feelings about the world. Only once this step is reached can one hope for a real change of attitude. For it is the vertiginous distance that separates us from the world that makes us so insensitive to reality.

Was there a moment during the three-year production of the project that continues to linger with you as especially profound? Is there a story or a realization that you can share that transpired during its development?

During the three years of study, I let my team of researchers and students go alone to the mountain, not so much by disinterest on my part, but rather for a concern I had about the actual restitution of a strong first emotion experienced on site. The studio project was literally about the photographic and aural recording of a young person apprehending, in the fullest sense of the word, a glacier melt for the first time. I did not think it useful to stand there next to them making remarks. The result is sublime and speaks for itself, this is a highly emotional piece of work, a first step towards the reconciliation of our youth with this rapidly changing world.

While documenting the Morteratsch Glacier, you must have come to identify with it as something more than just an object. Can you describe how you learned to relate to it as an ecological being with a dignified history? What sense of character does the glacier have for you now? How do you relate to it?

The glacier must be understood as an ephemeral timepiece. Nothing that was recorded then still stands today, we are really looking and listening at the specter of a fragment of the past. The dignity and respect that you invoke are about an incredible sense of duration that is coming to an end. In French what was called neiges éternelles has become ephemeral in the space of a single generation. I would like to relate to it with frozen tears.

What's next for the Institute of Landscape Architecture? Will there be other soundscapes dedicated to confronting other pressing global issues, such as deforestation or overfishing in oceans?

We have started doing research on Swiss dams over the past years because it is the logical pendant of the ice, where the glacier and its ice melt meets civilization. The sounds recorded there include electromagnetic signals. It is a disruptive form of research that shows the first giant step of civilization in the mountain. Soundscape research has also been pursued in the Alps above the Gotthard Pass. It is less about melting ice and more about the sounds of alpine forests and meadows intermingling with the roar of civilization. Whether the sound of trucks, planes, trains, and cars represents other pressing global issues will be up to you to decide…

Students and research assistants hiking with snow shoes to the Morteratsch glacier in the Bündner Alps in Switzerland.

(Photo by Matthias Vollmer)

"Strong but Vulnerable": Interview with Matthias Vollmer, Institute of Landscape Architecture Research Associate and Melting Landscapes' Photography Supervisor

Firstly, please explain your role in the Melting Landscapes project and in the Institute of Landscape Architecture. How did you get involved in this kind of work?

I'm an ETH-trained architect, but also a filmmaker/photographer. After my master degree at the ETH I started to work in the MediaLab of the Chair. At that time the elective course was on hold and struggling with directions. So, Professor Girot gave me the opportunity to make changes on the techniques and the content and to restart the course. When he saw me taking pictures with my analogue camera, he also gave me the hint that there was some field camera equipment around.

While the technical considerations developed, the content of the course was still open. I was looking forward to exploring more remote and "original" landscapes. I was looking for a subject that was relevant for the landscape in Switzerland, something that takes part in the definition of the "Swiss landscape" but is still relevant to contemporary landscape. After discussing water and infrastructures as a possible subject, Professor Girot encouraged me to go back even further, to the source of the water and a phenomenon that shaped most of Switzerland's topography. So, we started this glacier trilogy with field cameras (and laser scanners) in spring 2015. After the first round Ludwig joined the team and we decided to integrate the sound with the idea to create the audio/photography pieces.

The photographs on Melting Landscapes evoke the majesty of 19th century nature paintings by way of 20th century minimalism. Simply put: they're beautiful! Whether practical, conceptual, or technical, can you discuss some of the considerations behind the production of the project's photography?

One important technical aspect of the pictures is that they are all taken with analogue large- or middle-format cameras and black-and-white film. What seems to be obsolete in today's digital world was actually very important for us. We wanted the students to focus on every picture they take. It took them a lot of time to decide on the subject, prepare the equipment and finally take the photo.

Afterwards, they had to select one or two and again work with the analogue process in the photo lab: define brightness and contrast, the cropping, and so on. This stands in strong contrast to the fast Instagram culture we have today. But with this slow work process, the way the students looked at the pictures changed. They could remember precisely the moment they took it and what was necessary to get exactly this image. They would also discuss a lot in advance about whether a picture should be taken or not, which one should be developed and why. By provoking this intense interaction with the material, they discussed their own view on this landscape and what aspects were important for them.

The black-and-white film was necessary for the analogue production, but it also eliminated the colors. If you have been to a glacier, you know it's quite colorful, the blue tones, especially, are fascinating. By removing this effect, which is tempting, the students would focus on basic photography questions like the extract, light and shadow, and so on.

Over the three years we had different starting points, going from the question of the glacier in the landscape, then trying to get as close as possible, and ending with spatial questions of light and sound.

What were some of the challenges and triumphs that you faced during the process?

There were many challenges such as really bad weather and poorly prepared students, technical problems or just the question of whether there were still some students interested in the subject and the techniques. But all these challenges were forgotten when some of the students presented their outstanding work.

When we were preparing the exhibition, it was great to bring all the material from the three years together and see it side by side for the first time. It was a great moment to see the first of the pictures in their final size and quality. Realizing that the quality of the pictures was so good that we could easily scale it to this size and dive back into the moment, combined with the sound, after all these years was quite amazing.

Was there a moment during the three-year production of the project that continues to linger with you as especially profound? Is there a story or a realization that you can share that transpired during its development?

There was a student, that would take a thesis elective after the first semester that she visited the glacier. She went back to the same place in the summer and made two photography series. First, she slowly approached the glacier and took pictures on her way towards the ice. Then she focused on the huge stones that have been laid out from retreating ice.

She well explained how she felt uncomfortable when getting closer, threatened by the falling stones. Still, she went until the very edge of the glacier to take her last images. Together with her images of the huge individually laid down rocks, I realized how this place and this phenomenon had enormous power and an indescribable attraction that -- although it was sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes dangerous -- would pull us toward this ice wall again and again.

While documenting the Morteratsch Glacier, you must have come to identify with it as something more than just an object. Can you describe how you learned to relate to it as an ecological being with a dignified history? What sense of character does the glacier have for you now? How do you relate to it?

Yes, the glacier is far away from being a simple object. And still I find it difficult to describe what it is for me. One of the first reactions is usually that we feel sad when we realize that this organism is going to disappear. But I don't think that this is the right reaction to describe my relations to it.

I see it much more as an organism that interacts a lot with its surroundings, with the ground, the air, the snow but also with the animals, humans, bacteria. You wouldn't ascribe it a will, but it has a specific behavior that is defined by the impacts of its surrounding and on the other hand strongly influences its surroundings. When I look at it, it calms me because it emanates stability and strength but then I also know and see that it is not so stable at all. It is an accumulation of power that reacts with no emotion to whatever happens around it. Small changes like global warming are destroying it quickly, but 150 years ago it would crush through valleys, alps and forests with what seemed to be no effort.

It's a very strong but also very vulnerable body of ice.

Research associate Ludwig Berger listening for the first time to the Morteratsch glacier using a hydrophone frozen into the glacier tongue.

(Photo by Johannes Rebsamen)

"On Unstable Ground": Interview with Ludwig Berger, Institute of Landscape Architecture Research Associate and Melting Landscapes' Sound Supervisor and Composer.

Firstly, please explain your role in the Melting Landscapes project and in the Institute of Landscape Architecture. How did you get involved in this kind of work?

I joined the Institute of Landscape Architecture in 2015, just after finishing my studies in electroacoustic composition. My predecessor Nadine Schütz was looking for someone to continue her role at the institute: a sound specialist who sensitizes students to the acoustic dimension of landscape and carries out experimental audiovisual projects. My own sound works deal a lot with landscapes, and I had a big interest in architecture, so it was a perfect match.

What I do mainly at the Institute is researching about sound and landscape, lead courses, supervise student projects, and realizing projects in our AudioVisual Lab—a wave field synthesis soundproof studio with multichannel video, where we model and re-compose landscapes but also do listening sessions of field recordings and soundscape pieces.

When I arrived at the institute, my colleagues Matthias, Johannes and Dennis had already done a first course with the students at the glacier, working with analogue photography and 3D-laser-scanning. When I joined the team, I wondered how the glacier would sound. After reaching out to other sound artists who have worked with glaciers like Olga Kokcharova and Jez Riley French and making some tests with different recording techniques on site, we decided to use mainly the JrF hydrophones.

I also helped construct the students' self-made waterproof piezo microphones, which have their own aesthetic quality. For several weekends in winter and summer, we went to the glacier with the students, where I assisted them with the recordings in and around the ice. Back in our AudioVisual Lab, I supervised the editing and composition process of the students.

What is Melting Landscapes? Is it an art project or an audio-visual science project? Was it a one-off project or is it still ongoing?

Melting Landscapes is a collegiate audiovisual research project, which ran over the course of three university courses from 2015-2017. After the course series, the team of assistants edited a selection of student works for the audiovisual publication. The works were also presented in an exhibition. The research project is now completed, but we are still working on exhibitions and performances with our material.

As a research project, what is its purpose? What would you like people to learn or appreciate about this project?

In our courses, we wanted the students to witness climate change with their own eyes and ears. We wanted the students to experience the physical power of the landscape and reflect on it through the production of their own work. We wanted to refresh their senses by letting them perceive the landscape in a more attentive, patient and differentiated way. On a more technical level, they also learned for the first time how to take and develop analog middle- and large-format photographs, how to construct underwater microphones, how to record sounds in the field and how to edit sounds.

As we saw and heard the quality of the student work, we agreed that it deserved to reach a larger public audience. The photographic work offers an unsentimental and differentiated view on the glacier that does not come from the viewpoint of a single "genius" photographer, but from multiple viewpoints of students with different backgrounds. We had a lot of students from India, and also from Japan, China, Greece, Spain, Scandinavia, etc.

At the same time, it is a very local project. We did not try to conquer the last so-called "wilderness" of the polar regions, but investigated what was basically before our front door. Also, in the sound recordings, global warming becomes audible in a local, very personal acoustic perspective. When the audience listens to the recordings, the vibrating body of the glacier resonates within their own body. It allows an intimacy without proximity, which differs from problematic concepts such as "nature", which is always positioned outside of our own body and therefore allows us to suppress our direct entanglement and responsibility.


Are there any other audio or visual projects like Melting Landscapes which the Institute has created? Will there be others?

The Melting Landscapes LP will be the first of a new publication series in the format of photo booklet and vinyl LP. We are currently working on a publication of alpine hydropower dams and a "transect" walk above the new Gotthard tunnel. Together with "Melting Landscapes", these three projects will conclude an Alpine trilogy.

Afterwards we will publish a photo LP about our audiovisual research at Japanese Gardens in Kyoto. There was already a small publication with texts and audiovisual samples about this work.

There has also been an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, where we showed an experimental alpine model based on point cloud technology.

What is the Institute of Landscape Architecture? In the realm of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics university, it appears to be unique. In non-academic language, what is its purpose? And what is its relationship with ETH?

The Institute of Landscape Architecture researches and teaches the history and theory, design, and medial presentation of landscape for students in architecture. For the latter part, the team of the MediaLab (with a background in film, photography, electroacoustic composition and sound engineering) offers elective courses, which we call "audiovisual fieldwork". At the core of our work is always a specific place, which we encounter with our own senses, but also with a variety of devices for an extended perception.

We use laser scanning, photogrammetry, analog photography and sound recorders with surround, electromagnetic, contact and underwater microphones etc. Afterwards, we go back into our AudioVisual Lab, where we have a surround sound system with 24 speakers and four video screens. There, we mentor the students in combining the images/videos/models with sound in space and compose small audiovisual pieces.

The goal is to open up new approaches to landscape perception and representation, providing different ways of seeing, hearing and experiencing via extended eyes and ears. We want the students to experience landscapes holistically, and formulate a critical position through the realisation of their own work.

The sound recordings on Melting Landscapes document various audible movement within the Morteratsch Glacier. Interestingly, instead of leaving the source materials untouched, some creative liberties were taken with the layering and treatment of the tracks. Whether practical, conceptual, or technical, can you discuss some of the considerations behind the production of the sound recordings?

In winter, it is very, very silent inside the glacier, except for the sound of the glacial stream, and wind and snow hitting the glacier. On-site, sometimes one only hears noise through the headphones. Only through amplification, filtering and de-noising in the post-production, one is able to hear an actual signal like the deep drone of the underground water stream.

In the summer, there is another problem: the dynamic contrast between the subtle microsounds of the melting ice and the loud outbursts through falling rocks or shifts of ice is extremely high. Here, dynamic processing helps to even these extremes and make all sonic scales of the audible simultaneously.

This is also why I layered some of the sounds—all pieces have the character of "phonographies", they don't develop horizontally, but can be explored by the listeners in their vertical layers. I also took creative liberty in the treatment of the sounds—in the process of mixing, I approached the field recordings of the students musically, equalizing frequencies and dynamics. But I also emphasized the transients and the distortion of the piezo microphones, aiming not only for a sonic richness but for a certain harshness, edginess, recalcitrance, which characterizes the glacier on the one hand, and on the other hand does not hide the DIY-aesthetics of the instruments we used.

I wanted the glacier as well as the recording instruments to become audible with their thing-power. This is especially the case for the first and last track of the album. They refute the idea of the glacier as an innocent, ethereal phenomena of "nature", like it was portrayed in Krenek's opera Jonny Plays from the 1920s. We live in quite a different epoch now, and I believe that we have to acknowledge the animate, vital and affective power of things and our entanglement within them, instead of projecting ideas of "virginity" or "pristineness" on them. We have to remember that the romanticizing framing of the so-called "nature" and the exploitation of the same go hand by hand.

Do I go too far when I say that the idea of an "untouched" recording follows a similar romantic idea of innocence and/or savagery? I think such ideas about recording are quite illusionary. Field recording is a certain way of intra-acting within the world, a phenomenon that is created between the recorder, the life on site, the microphone, the recordist, a conceptual framework, the politics and practices of music, art, ecology, etc., etc. We can't play the role of a passive and uninvolved observer. Or, as Donna Haraway would say, we cannot do the "God trick", but try to be responsible—practicing the ability to respond.

What were some of the challenges and triumphs that you faced during the process?

The first challenge was to actually hear a sound inside the glacier in winter. The very first time I put a hydrophone into the glacier, I was pretty disappointed in how silent it was. Then, finally after about an hour, the ice froze completely and I started hearing the deep resonant drone of the glacier milk. After another half an hour, a big chunk of ice crashed off far away up in the glacier, which sounded frighteningly close on my headphones. In that moment I realized that the hydrophone inside the ice is connected to the whole body of the glacier, just like a stethoscope.

Was there a moment during the three-year production of the project that continues to linger with you as especially profound? Is there a story or a realization that you can share that transpired during its development?

During one summer, I was standing on a stony ground close to a glacier, a little bit up the mountain. I could not see or feel neither ice nor movement of the earth, so I thought that the ground on which I was standing was solid, not really part of the glacier. Then I put a hydrophone under a large rock, connecting it to the earth below. The humming, squeaking and cracking on my headphones revealed what our eyes or feet could not sense: that I was actually just standing on a thin layer of earth, above the dissolving and shifting ice. What visually seemed like a stable, secure and reliable constant, turned out to be a very fragile state.

This moment of realization had a larger meaning for me, and a global reality: we are standing on unstable ground… it is something quite different to look at a melting landscape than to be in a melting landscape.

While documenting the Morteratsch Glacier, you must have come to identify with it as something more than just an object. Can you describe how you learned to relate to it as an ecological being with a dignified history? What sense of character does the glacier have for you now? How do you relate to it?

Before our project, I did not think a lot about Alpine glaciers before. I saw them diffusely as a phenomenon of ice accumulation, as a resource in the mountains. When I now see an image of a glacier, I imagine how it sounds inside, I imagine how it changes from season to season, from its crystal-blue silence in the winter to its overwhelming power and mesmerizing trickles, fizzles and cracklings in the summer.

A glacier has not a face, not a voice, but a sheer endless reservoir of shapes, sounds and movements. A glacier is pretty hard to anthropomorphize, and this is something I like about it. It is complex, unpredictable, vital, and resists all attempts to be put into a raster. When I put a hydrophone into one part of the glacier, I still have no idea what it will sound like. When I visit the glacier again after a few months, I have no idea what it will look like. The only thing I know is that it will be smaller than last time.

As one walks up the valley to the Morteratsch Glacier, this becomes especially apparent: the starting point is where the glacier was at the end of the 19th century, then one walks about 45-minutes up until the point where it is today. And the distance becomes exponentially larger from year to year. The mind of a "climate change sceptic" could deny this fact, but the body could not: climate change becomes a physical experience in this walk. It makes me deeply sad that one day within the next 100 years, the glacier, together with all its fascinating sounds, will be gone completely.

Students arriving for the first time at the Morteratsch glacier tongue.

(Photo by Ludwig Berger)

"A Fading Divinity": Interview with Two Students of the Institute of Landscape Architecture

Firstly, please explain your role in the Melting Landscapes project and in the Institute of Landscape Architecture. How did you get involved in this kind of work?

Seonju Kim: As an architecture student, I was interested in using various mediums for the representation of architecture and landscape. I participated in the course and visited the Morteratsch Glacier to take analog photographs and sound recordings together with other students. In the later phase, I developed my project in the frame of an elective course.

For about seven months I was a participating student in the elective course that comprised the glacier project. Also, after my part of the active documentation, I followed the ongoing project and its final exhibition with great interest.

Sonja Widmer: I journeyed up to the Morteratsch Glacier on two occasions. The first of the weekends, the snow surrounding the glacier was knee deep and visibility was limited due to dense snowfall. Only the very tip of the ice wasn't covered in snow. Only on the second occasion, on a summer day and after strolling up the path through the glacier-formed valley, could the extent of the ice mass be somewhat estimated under a layer of stones and gravel. Exploring the surface on foot, carrying a camera and a tripod, we sought to discover the underlying structure.

What were some of the challenges and triumphs that you faced during the process?

Kim: Like most people in my field, I am very familiar with visual representation. But dealing with sound was a great challenge as it is not graspable and working with something that has a temporal dimension was new to me. But as the project developed, I could observe how static black-and-white photography and sound installation create a complementary dynamic.

I particularly enjoyed the slow and elaborate process of the project and how the field work and the post-production came together as a whole experience of appreciating the landscape; including walking in a snowstorm for an hour observing how the glacier has retreated in the last years, looking at the glacier through the viewfinder of an analog camera, listening to a little sparkling sound from recordings of hydro microphones and watching the images emerge on a paper in the dim light of the dark room.

Widmer: In contrast to the initial visual impression, recording with contact microphones opened up a word beyond the visible surface. All sorts of sounds from deep within the body of ice exemplified the vast concealed dimensions and demonstrated the fact that the glacier is no rigid object.

Was there a moment during the three-year production of the project that continues to linger with you as especially profound? Is there a story or a realization that you can share that transpired during its development?

Kim: The glacier inspired me to see the landscape in a much broader sense. The dry and desert-like landscape of the glacier reminded me of some pictures of other planets which made me think of the unique condition that shaped this landscape. The glacier reveals the changes in the state of matter which form and figure the landscape that we know.

In my project 'Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground', which I titled after the famous Blind Willie Johnson song, I focused on capturing the difference and similarity of various materialities and the transition between them: resemblance of ice and rocks, glacier melting into streams and the erosion of rocks into dry soils.

While documenting the Morteratsch Glacier, you must have come to identify with it as something more than just an object. Can you describe how you learned to relate to it as an ecological being with a dignified history? What sense of character does the glacier have for you now? How do you relate to it?

Widmer: I am quite intrigued by the fact that the glaciers have formed the landscape we live in. Being in close proximity to one of the few remaining glaciers, one experiences the power of the ice mass and the feeling intensifies the more you get into contact with the mass of flowing ice. The experience evokes the feeling that much more is connected than initially meets the senses.

With the melting of the ice in recent decades, the meaning of mountains has changed. The traditional image of the harsh and menacing massives, a form of impervious divinity, that can't be threatened by humans, has faded.

The melting of the ice is a sign that the mountain landscape isn't as unscathed as was believed. The human impact on global warming can be tracked on the melting of the ice. That we lack the power to control the self-made climate change feels as threatening as the nature forces might have been to other generations.

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