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Meet Kat Austen: The environmental artist using science equipment to make music


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We spoke with Kat Austen – chemistry academic, artist and environmentalist – about the new music she has created from audio clips recorded on an expedition to the Arctic. 

Kat Austen seems to be a creative chameleon, ever-adapting to new roles, from scientific labwork to environmental writing to the creation of music. Her early academic career was grounded in chemistry however, after realising that this was not the ideal path for her, she retrained in sculptural work. Her PhD in chemistry and subsequent artistic training now influence her work in tandem. Chemistry remains “ever present” in Austen’s life, contributing to the messages she transmits through her performances and installations.

Austen's current work is the result of an expedition to the Canadian High Arctic, supported by Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, One Ocean Expeditions, and Bonhams, and is a feature of the Artist Arctic programme. In addition to this impressive role as an Artist in the Arctic, Austen is also the artist in residence at the Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences, University College London. 

The title of her recent musical piece, “The Matter of the Soul”, plays on a variety of concepts. Firstly, Austen says that the word “soul” indicates the emotional depth of this work. Secondly, the piece considers both metaphorical and physical forms of “matter”. She explains, “the whole piece is about the way that a meta-structure changes when the individuals that comprise the meta-structure change”. The progression of the music shows the various phase transitions taking place in the artic, considering the movements of individuals in and out of cultures, and of water molecules moving in and out of ice and seawater. 

By examining these phase transitions, Austen is interrogating the very notion of changing identity and fluctuating culture. She calls this work her “most synthesised” and highlights that it is heavily influenced by her work as a chemistry research associate at Cambridge. For the new musical piece, Austen gathered audio from interviews with visitors and residents of the Nunavut region. This work is therefore informed by a variety of perspectives on climate change in the arctic, providing insight into changing identity and culture resulting from global processes.

Austen weaves these clips into a narrative which spans three movements in the musical work, as she explained to us: “In the first movement, you have two entities which co-exist in the same space but don’t interact. In the second phase, there is partial mixing – the identity beginning to morph and change. The third phase is an exploration of potential and tipping points, and the ambivalence of what can be created that is new, but without giving value judgements to it.”

concentration | The Matter of the Soul from Kat Austen on Vimeo

Austen hacked scientific instruments to produce the sounds accompanying the interview clips. For instance, she experimented with a conductivity meter which measures salinity (how much dissolved salt there is in a water sample) and was struggling to find a way to produce sound from the instrument. However, after taking water samples at different coordinates, Austen noticed that removing the probe from the water created a subtle change in pitch. “I heard a die-off. The numbers being measured descend as you take the probe out – it scrolls through the other numbers. It felt like I was listening to the dying of the ice. It was very moving – it took me a half-day to recover.”

We asked Austen about the message she hopes viewers will take away from this work and she replied, “it’s up to them. It probably says different things to different people. It’s honestly not a message that can be expressed in words. It’s a feeling, it’s not a cognitive thing, it’s an experiential thing.”

Austen’s work is “partially an interrogation of [her]self” but also questions “what more do we need to know”, and how do we need to learn, about climate change. We are bombarded with high levels of factual information about our environmental crises yet we still fail to act accordingly. Austen is questioning the ways in which this information is communicated, creating powerful art pieces to connect with audiences emotionally.

Austen is due to perform at more events next year. The sculptural work and installation will be on display at Cambridge soon, and in Berlin next year at two different galleries. For more information, and to hear these pieces of music, visit her website here

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