by Kari McQueen
March 2010

As I listen to Open Tuning for the first time, I am reminded of a land with an oceanic tide of grass waving with the rhythms of the wind. Born in Calgary, I intimately know the “dry grass smell”, hours of sun and a wind rivalling deserts in dryness. I recently travelled to Vancouver and the first thing I noticed was the briny smell of the ocean. The second, the constant water in the air. I also learned about the degrees of ʻgreyʼ and ʻwetʼ. The ocean was ever-present in the background, like an oversized postcard. Despite my nearness, I never touched it once. I did not hear it, feel it, or know it. Instead, the bustle of the city surrounded me.

The second time I played Open Tuning, I was on the other side of the continent from where Stephen Kelly experienced a similar gulf between ocean and urban landscape. Open Tuning responds to ongoing web-updates provided by one of several buoys maintained by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They collect real-time ocean wave data such as height, period (space between swells), steepness, and direction. Custom software analyzes the data live and generates sounds in response to the characteristics of the ocean swells.

Sound and water parallel each other in their behavior as waves, constantly evolving and migrating; meeting one another until they expend all energy and fade away. Kelly sees the relationships of waves symbolically reflected in global interconnectedness. Like the proverbial pebble in the pond, influence is felt from ground zero, on down the line. As such, Open Tuning utilizes motion with sound to merge the inter-connectedness of distant and dis-similar environments that are difficult to access.

The mechanical and electrical systems required to bring Open Tuning to life appear as a paragon of urban structure; hard-angled objects with purpose. The difference is that these rock and turn like ships at the mercy of distant ocean surfaces, sending out frequencies of sound that are resonant, overlapping and almost musically fluent. Kellyʼs selection of lower frequency sound is intended to provide the viewer (listener?) with an aural immersion involving the body and the ears, not unlike the omnipresence of the water signified.

I am back in Calgary now, completing this essay while again playing a loop of Open Tuning. This time I am not thinking of prairie analogies. In the sounds I now hear movement that carries its own momentum and I recall Vancouverʼs North Shore with its buildings overflowing to the shoreline. They stop, hard and fast. Despite this artificial negation of the waterʼs edge, they are carried into the straight on its wet shoulders as reflections follow the waves relentlessly. I cannot help but think about natureʼs virtual hand drawing these two worlds together, and of our attempts to fence nature in. Open Tuning unveils this irony when urbanity becomes the place where water and land meets: immutability gives way to fluidity and the distant and dis-similar remain interconnected despite our controls. It is this place of transition that Open Tuning asks us to consider as its ocean sound waves press into our personal auditory space.

Exhibiting in our landlocked location increases the poignancy of Open Tuning by the simple fact that Kelly harnesses the Internetʼs success to generate a sense of closeness between two geographically distant and isolated areas. As we listen, we are made aware of the buoy sending the data that is continually transformed by Kellyʼs creation, ignoring the layers of technology that move us towards immediacy. This could be thought of as a successful working model that transcends distance, uniting place through sensory experience. It is the artistic voice of the waves in actuality and of our idea of the waves in our absence.

No matter where Open Tuning is located, it successfully interconnects spaces real and virtual; intellectual and sensual, inviting us to imagine a welcoming of the oceans into urban and philosophical spaces. With the physicality of this work, Kelly attempts to step around societal barriers that exacerbate the realities of distance, disconnection and dissimilarity. Rather, he focuses on the importance of the state of flow, of its example in our oceans, in our sounds – and when attained – in our lives. The physicality of the ocean overwhelms us with its sheer scale, and challenges the notion of borders and separation.

I love water and swim or play in it every chance I get. My annual spring ritual is to be outside specifically to get wet in the first real rainfall of the season. I also remember the first time I saw the ocean in my mid 20ʼs: I was so daunted by water with no land on the other side that only my hands got wet. I have since fallen in love with the scale and life of the ocean, and miss its smells, tastes and sounds. I put my headphones on, immersing myself in the stereophonic environment of Open Tuning. As the sounds wash over me, I experience the rhythm and rolling of ocean swells, not the raw data that informs me. I close my eyes seeking the state of flow, moving ever on and in it I forget how far away I really am.

Kari McQueen is a media artist based in Calgary, Alberta. She is currently completing Tekhne, a six-part video project and contracting services to various arts non-profits and artists.