Bloomington, IN, May 2012: In a small room, a table and one chair. A video projection opposite the chair, depicts a dark mountain, snow falling. Placing your hands on the table you hear, somewhere deep in your bones, the groans, creaks, and rumblings of a glacial landscape, while elsewhere you hear voices. An overhead light over the table recalls the scene of an interrogation, but the vibrations of the table simultaneously evoke the scene of a séance, bringing back the spirits of the dead.
Trace Evidence, Rachel Lin Weaver’s MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, is not one you easily forget. The daughter of a homicide investigator, she returned to Alaska to collect the audiovisual elements of her installation, to the site of a horrible murder, one that impacted her family greatly. Against the placid scene of the snowy mountain you hear interviews with homicide investigators, courtroom recordings, readings of journal entries, while the sounds of a glacier moving are transmitted through the table itself—audible through your very bones.
I spoke with Weaver in her home in Bloomington about her past in Alaska, living with the specters of serial killers, and investigating sites of trauma through tactile sound art, installation, and video.
Rachel Lin Weaver, Trace Evidence, Interactive multimedia installation. 20-minute loop. HD video projection; Courtesy of the artist
Natalie Hegert: So what made you decide to go to Indiana University for your MFA?
Rachel Lin Weaver: It happened very serendipitously. I had initially looked at the Photo program here, and came up here on a lark because I had a friend who was visiting the Sociology PhD program. A year later, when I finished my undergrad, I went to East Africa to work on a project there, came back to the United States and just sort of tried to figure out what I was doing with my life and was experiencing reverse culture shock. I remembered how peaceful Bloomington was and I just needed a place to retreat to in a lot of ways. I also considered the MFA an opportunity to buy myself time for art-making. Because I realized, working in the real world I wasn’t allowing myself time to make room for art.
NH: You have lots of different professional interests as well in video and photography; I understand that you’ve done some work for National Geographic?
RLW: My background in professional media is fairly diverse. I started out by helping my father with homicide photography. He was a homicide investigator. I fell into filmmaking because it was the one medium, for me, that combined all the things that I cared about: image, writing, sound, story, landscape. I could talk about all those things in the context of moving-image media. I was very interested in the temporal quality of video. I also like to travel a lot and I thought working with video could allow me to travel and work on a lot of different projects. It was just one lucky thing after another that led down this path. That’s sort of been the story of my life, I think. [Laughs] One thing leads to another and you never really know how opportunities are going to present themselves to you.
NH: What other places have you traveled to?
RLW: Oh Asia, Europe, the Americas…
NH: Were these trips all on a freelance basis?
RLW: A lot of freelance and just travel opportunities that I would then turn into opportunities to work on media projects. I had to build up an international repertoire of work.
NH: That’s quite accomplished…
RLW: Well I wouldn’t necessarily say that. [Laughs] I still feel like I’m learning. Because I never had any real professional training; I’m more self-taught. One of the first true fine arts classes I ever took was my graduate seminar. But my parents were artists…
NH: Both parents?
RLW: My mother is a sculptor and a musician; my dad was a potter, a painter and a musician. And a forensic scientist. [Laughs]
NH: You also are involved in collaborative radio projects, can you tell me how you got into radio and your relationship with sound?
RLW: That all started with being a small child in really remote areas, in the 80s and early 90s, in Alaska, in these extreme landscapes where you didn’t have access to kids programming or TV in the same way. My parents were sort of eclectic people anyway; my father was very interested in radio and we had a big old Zenith 1939 Cat’s Eye shortwave radio that was like five feet tall. And especially being up so high in the cold atmosphere we could get amazing radio signals from all over the world. So I could sit in my living room in Alaska and listen to the weather in Mongolia. You could turn on the radio and listen to North Korean propaganda or news out of Egypt… Being able to listen to these far-off places made the world seem a lot smaller to me. In a way I think that’s why I fell in love with the possibility of traveling. But it also made me totally fall in love with sound as a medium, that wonderful ghostly absence and presence that sound has. Even as a kid I had a little hand-held tape-recorder; I would run around and set it on the kitchen table at family dinners and in hidden spots during discussions among adults. Now I’ve got an amazing archive of cassette tapes from my entire life and my family. I feel like those are somehow more intimate and precious to me than even the videos that I have, because people behave very strangely in front of video cameras, but they forget about the field recorder. So I’ve managed to inadvertently collect these really wonderful, quirky artifacts of my family and people who are no longer alive.
Rachel Lin Weaver, Remote MemoryMedia, Narrative sound art for broadcast, 15 minute loop, Audio field recordings and interviews, 20 mono channels, 20 hanging and wall-mounted speakers; Courtesy of the artist.
NH: You work not only with sound, but sound as channeled through objects. How did you start to explore that sort of physicality of sound?
RLW: Really it was born out of frustration with the problems of displaying sound in gallery spaces. I would make short sound pieces, experimental sound poems, field-recordings, music compositions, great pieces that I was really proud of, but then the question was how do I show these? It was fine in critique—I could just turn the lights off and press play and people would just sit and listen to it and then we would talk about it. But in a gallery what the hell do you do, when people are just mingling and there’s lots of echo? Galleries are never made with questions of sound in mind. I was always quite interested in the tactile, so I started making pieces for touch-screen devices that could be manipulated through swiping and touching, but the issue was you’d have to put headphones on to listen to it in a gallery space. And people do not put headphones on—they really don’t! But you don’t want speakers in big empty gallery spaces with marble floors and reflective surfaces. So I did research about other sound media and alternative ways of conveying sound, about tactile sound, and about bone conduction. As soon as I figured out what I could do with bone conduction I knew thematically, being able to work with bone as a medium was essential to me. I have all these other great ideas for projects using that. But this first piece was really a grand experiment; I had no idea how it would be received. But it worked out. I think that ghostly quality of sound and its physicality makes it a much more haunting experience. It’s exactly what I wanted.
NH: So is bone conduction just a certain frequency passed through an object? What materials are best?
RLW: In terms of a surface, hard woods are best, like oak. The technology itself was developed a long time ago. The military was doing research and developed devices for communication in loud environments—if you’re getting shot at or bombed you need to be able to communicate with people and hear what people are saying—but most notably bone conduction is used as hearing-aid implants. Through bone conduction you can still hear everything in the outside world because you’re going straight to the inner ear using these vibrations. But you also have this great ability to transmit low frequencies that you can’t hear typically through bone conduction. So I knew that I was going to be able to do a couple of things: to create a potentially very intimate experience; and work with some great low frequency content that wouldn’t be as audible through speakers, or would potentially be dangerous if I jacked the volume way up on super low-frequency sounds.
NH: So those low tones in your piece were made by a glacier in Alaska?
RLW: Yes, field recordings of Portage Glacier, which is not too far from where I grew up.
NH: The rest of the soundtrack for the piece is recordings of you talking to your mother and other interviews… The subject matter of the work is quite powerful, considering how personal it is. How do you go about engaging with such highly personal subject matter?
RLW: It’s not easy. There were definitely moments in Alaska—which was the hardest part of the entire project—where I felt like it wasn’t going to work out, and I just had this one tiny window of time. Also I think I hadn’t really had time to properly grieve for my father, so it was really a sort of emotional and tumultuous time—following his ghost around. Quite literally.
NH: When did he pass away?
RLW: October of my second year [in grad school].
Rachel Lin Weaver, Dad #439, Archival Inkjet Print, Digital photograph of lifted and cyanoacrylate fume-treated and vapor-dyed fingerprints of deceased., 18 x 24; Courtesy of the artist.
NH: Really recently. And it was in Alaska, where you experienced certain events, traumatic events, that makes that place particularly important.
RLW: The landscape up there is really extreme, so I have all these surreal childhood memories: of the aurora; of earthquakes, seeing a street move like waves on the surface of the sea; and volcano eruptions, three feet of ash in my yard from Mount Redoubt; and wolves, moose, bears… The sense of smallness in that landscape. And then on top of it my father was working with this really dark subject matter. I grew up around it so I figured it was natural and normal. My father had an at-home forensics studio in our garage—it was his forensics studio / art studio—and we would have thirteen or fourteen human skulls, Jane and John Doe’s, just in our house at any time. A lot of those people had died terrible deaths. And just knowing that was a…it was a strange childhood. But my father was also traumatized by a lot of the work that he did; he was not able to separate himself emotionally in the way that many of his colleagues were. And what was great about that is he went above and beyond all the time to get work done and to get cases solved, to catch the “bad guys,” as my dad liked to say. But he brought a lot of his trauma home with him, and I think being around such terror, seeing him be so afraid so often was really unsettling. We had direct threats made by associates of serial killers and murderers, strange phone calls in the middle of the night. A lot of people who work in that field face these really terrible realities, because you have to testify in court and in small communities you can be easily found. Associates of murderers are often unsavory characters, and even if you jail “Bad Guy #1” it doesn’t mean that all his buddies aren’t out there as well with a lot of things to be angry and upset about.
NH: Did that kind of experience go with your family outside of Alaska, or was it particular to that area?
RLW: The trauma of being exposed to terrible events exists anywhere when you’re working with death in the way that homicide investigators are. But Alaska at that time had a series of really terrible crimes. Serial killers, Satanic groups cutting people’s hearts out, lots of murdered children… And it still has a very high crime rate as compared to the rest of the country. Alaska is one of those places where people go to disappear. In that place of emotional and traumatic impact Alaska looms large in my past.
NH: Do you think you’ll continue to work with that?
RLW: Possibly, I think what I am most interested in is this question of landscape and memoriam, and the question of what memory we bring to places. The psychic weight that is the result of that memory, the way that it changes the landscape and sleeps in a landscape. I could never look at that glacier the same way.
Rachel Lin Weaver, Trace Evidence, Interactive multimedia installation, 20-minute loop, HD video projection, Bone conductors embedded in oak table, Audio field recordings, interviews, courtroom recordings, journal entries; Courtesy of the artist.
NH: It’s very effective, the way that you’ve presented this communication of memory. Something that’s so highly personal to you, but as the viewer entering this room, I could really feel it. It forces the viewer to engage with it not only visually or intellectually, but on that physical level. There’s different levels of sound, which somehow seem to correspond to different levels of memory, and the video, while it shows these rather peaceful, static scenes of snow falling in the mountains, with all the other elements it’s invested with this rather sinister, haunting quality.
RLW: I had gone through this phase where I had really mixed feelings about the project and I think part of that was just the emotional push to get the project done, but the content itself had made me very vulnerable. I remember the first day that my thesis show was up, I was doing some documentation, and these sort of burly looking construction workers who were doing some building maintenance were strolling through the gallery on their lunch break. They wandered back into the [installation] room for a second and one of them sort of scoffed, “Oh this is some video about snow falling, that’s nice.” They started to walk out, but then one of the interviews came on, an interview with one of the homicide investigators talking about the landscape, and then they stopped, went back in and they stayed there for like forty-five minutes.
NH: Oh my God!
RLW: I thought, [claps] yes!
NH: Absolutely, that’s a great success! If you’re able to engage people who are not normally inclined to look at art…
RLW: And that’s why emotional content is a key element in all of my work. I want my work to be enjoyed by people who would not go into a gallery normally. I want my work to be accessible. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; it can be just as theoretically rich and still remain accessible. So that’s my goal.
NH: Do you have any plans of exhibiting your thesis work anywhere else?
RLW: I want to take it to Alaska, definitely. To show it to the many wonderful supportive people who helped me. I would love to show the results of all that hard work. So that they know it actually happened.
NH: What other projects do you have planned? I hear you’re curating a digital art show in Berlin?
RLW: I’ve been talking for years about putting something together with a friend there and it seems like it’s finally happening. So hopefully this coming winter, or spring the following year. I really enjoy curating, a lot more that I thought that I would. I fell in love with it after working on a big sound art symposium here at the university last year. I also have plans to work on a film in a year or two, but it will just be a question of scraping together the money to do so. Which is always the big thing when it comes to doing film projects. Knowing people who are out doing it makes it seem a lot less like a dream and more like a possibility. I also know getting everything together is a really stressful thing and that really limits the sort of risks they can take. But I’ve always been a big risk taker.