Sari Carel

11.21.14

View of “Sari Carel: Semaphore Island,” 2014. Haifa Museum of Art, Israel. Photo: Lena Gomon.


Sari Carel is a New York–based artist whose work utilizes a variety of media to explore a connection between extinct species and early audiovisual technologies. Her latest solo exhibition–featuring the multimedia installation Semaphore Island, which she discusses below–will be on view at the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel from November 8, 2014 through March 7, 2015.

SEMAPHORE ISLAND is a mixed-media installation based on sound recordings of wild birds—such as the Guam flycatcher from Guam and the Kaua’i ‘O’o from Hawaii—that are extinct or nearly extinct. The series was recorded through a phonautograph, a very early and little-known machine that turns sound into image by generating drawn vibrations. I found the only one in the world that works and used it to create a series of prints and drawings based on the recordings. Prints made on glass will be exhibited on top of other sculptures of shelves. To me, they look like modern ruins. There’s also a sound track to this exhibition that I made with composer Ryan Brown, which compiles the birdcalls with found sounds and other audio. Driving this work is my interest in modernist vocabulary as it resonates with environmental collapse and my desire to discover how sound and image could talk to each other.

The phonautograph captured my imagination since it relates to two disparate interests I have: documenting something extinct in the form of sound and the relationship between sound and image. I was enamored with the phonautograph because its demise is intrinsically connected to the fact that it is somewhere between sound and image. They’re so similar, I like to think of them as placed on a loose continuum. Though this machine was pushed to the margins of history very quickly and became obsolete, it represents a paradigm shift in thinking about sound reproduction, which is essentially very modern. Instead of replicating the way we make sound—windpipe, mouth, lungs—people now tried to replicate the technique of hearing. You yell through this machine, the sound goes through an eardrum-like diaphragm, and the device's bristles vibrate against soot-covered paper, etching lines that are then fixed with alcohol. In a way, the phonautograph releases the sound of a drawing onto a piece of paper. The inventor of this technology, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, thought it was a great method for teaching the deaf to speak. He was spot-on in terms of the principle of transduction and how the ear works, but he couldn’t predict what would be really interesting about sound reproduction, which is the ability to play it back.

I am also interested in field recordings and sound biomes, how they reflect environmental health. But I am not interested in making political art about it. I don’t need to tell anyone climate change is terrible—we all know it. What I want to do is make this reality more present to a viewer, without losing an aesthetic experience.

— As told to Rotem Rozental