The Permian Recordings

This project, exhibited at LAXART, is shown along side Karen Reimer’s quilted canopy of hand dyed indigo fabric. It is part of an ongoing series of work that use custom built infra-sonic subwoofers to listen to and feel seismic sound recordings of the earth.

The Permian Recordings come from the Permian Basin, a section of West Texas known for the volume and density of oil and gas extraction near the towns of Midland and Odessa. The permian layer, which gives the region its name, also demarcates the largest mass extinction in the history of the earth. Geologists have shown that at the end of the permian period, the atmosphere experienced a rapid rise in carbon dioxide, which resulted in global warming, followed by catastrophic climate change; an uncanny prehistoric echo of our present and near future.

At LAXART, a subterranean recording of the oil fields in the Permian Basin played from openning until closing each day with out repeating. It was important to me that the recordings be long, too long to listen to in a single sitting. In this way, we experience the work in human sized fragments, excerpts of a longer continuum, determined by chance and the limits of our attention span. What you hear is completely dependent on the time of day you enter the gallery. The sounds unfold in real time just as they were recorded. You may catch the room-shaking sound of a drill bit spinning up and then back down again, a truck as it grinds along a gravel road, or the distant thud and clank of pipes as they are fitted into a drill tower. In one instance there is an audible train whistle, in another the faint and muffled voices of workers, but for the most part the sounds are inscrutable, open to interpretation, speculation and imagination. It is as though we were listening to the distant machinations of the world from very deep below the ground. In reality the microphones, coupled to the earth, sit just at the surface, gathering the subterranean reverberations that amass into the droning shuddering tones of an industrialized landscape.

Infrasound and Architecture

These recordings bring into proximity two scales of time: the geologic and the biologic, expressing them not as irreconcilable scientific measures of change, but as part of a continuum. When played back into space, these ultra-low frequencies subtly (though occasionally vigorously) shake the building that contains them. In this project I imagine architecture as a bridge between the human and the geologic. I am fascinated by the point at which foundation touches earth, relating two fundamentally different concepts of time. Architecture is meant to be experienced in human time as the space we pass through and live within, and yet the ruins of ancient cultures are so often the defining ligatures that tie our lived experience to the past. The frequencies in these recordings are physical as well as aural. Their playback creates resonance that extends from ancient rocks, passing through the structures we’ve built, and on into our bodies. This linking of stone to flesh through the reverberations of architecture points to these larger terrestrial and climatic systems of which we are constituent parts spanning vast periods of time.

“Because a portion of this audio extends below the range of human hearing (the infrasonic), these recordings are felt as well as heard. When I first listened to the ground of West Texas, I could feel the reverberations of metal carbide bits grinding against 250 million year-old rock, the din of diesel generators, and trembling waves of heavy machinery moving across the landscape.“

Google Maps: Drilling fields outside
Midland, TX, 2018

Photo credit: Stone Yu, 2019

Special thanks to Cameron Hu, Marissa Benedict, David Rueter, Stone Yu, and the support of everyone at the Galveston Artist Residency for help in developing this project. 

Video shot and edited by Stone Yu, 2019
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