DJ Spooky on Land Art, “Data Aesthetics,” and the Sinking Maldives

The infamous Paul D. Miller—aka DJ Spooky—is a multimedia visual artist, an author, a turntablist, a composer, and the founding editor of ORIGIN Magazine, who somehow has also found time to be the first artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a participant in the Maldives’ inaugural national pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Given a curatorial prompt addressing the islands’ impending disappearance—expected by many to sink beneath the sea by 2080—Miller studied the ocean currents surrounding the Maldives archipelago to produce data sonification of the tides and explore the relationship between data and sound—both areas well within his expertise.

Artsy: You have spent a lot of time on islands—Nauru in Oceana for “Nauru Elegies”, exploring an island dangerously close to environmental catastrophe, or Elephant Island off of Antarctica. What is it that draws you to these environments? 

Paul D. Miller: I’m currently artist in residence at The Metropolitan Museum where I'm exploring these ideas as compositional form—music versus abstraction, art versus immaterial form. Islands are a kind of poetry of networks; they are enmeshed in the ebb and flow of physical ocean currents plus the human concept of  “spokes and hubs” so they’re perfect for my kind of situation of data aesthetics.

Art and music are always in dialog. If I could show you how many composers have done compositions about landscape versus how many painters and others have done artwork about landscape I’d be hard pressed to see which would be more overwhelming. I’m a big fan of artists like Andy Goldsworthy, and works like Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field at Marfa, Texas, or Dennis Oppenheim’s Identity Stretch, and of course Edward Burtynsky’s material. I tend to think that we look far too much at the things that are close at hand, and I am drawn to the places you mention by way of trying to understand some of the big picture issues facing us urban dwellers. It’s that simple. By going to remote places, I understand what it means when humans have radically altered the world. Music is a mirror you hold up to society. I think that my residency at The Metropolitan Museum was about looking at a landscape of artifacts. Some of my favorite pieces about water: John Cage’s 1952 “Water Music”, and of course [Claude] Debussy’s “La Mer”, or [Maurice] Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau”.

Artsy: Like your commission for the Venice Biennale, your project The Book of Ice involved research and sound recording in Antarctica and also dealt with climate change and man’s relationship with the world. How did you get started with this topic?

PM: So much of my work is about the concept of studio aesthetics. People tend to forget that the root of the word “studio” derives from “to study”, so if you look at some of the works that influenced my Antarctica project—the photography of Herbert Ponting, the journals of Captain Cook and Roald Amundsen—I always pay homage to the people who inspire me. They are my record collection. For the Venice Biennale I looked at stuff like compositions that involved data sonification like the composer John Eacott's piece Flood Tide (a sonic map of the Thames River) and even government maps of flood zones to look at how flooding affects familiar places like NY (which is also an archipelago), and National Geographic’s photo essays of floods in Venice — this one is particularly amusing: Venice Flood Makes a Swimming Pool of St. Mark’s.

I got started basically as a response to the idea that art is a reflection site—most of my art projects are research-based, and it all just went from there.

Artsy: What drew you to study the tides and currents around the Maldives? Can you tell us a little bit about the environmental catastrophes taking place?

PM: They contacted me because they had heard of my “Nauru Elegies” project. The Nauru project has been presented in a whole bunch of contexts, and has been widely well received, so that’s what started the conversation. I wrote a group of string quartet works based on NASA GPS coordinates of the thermal dynamics of the water around the islands, and transcribed that into music notation and prints.

Artsy: Can you talk a little bit about the process you used to collect your data of tides and ocean currents, and how you transformed your findings into what you call “data aesthetics”?

PM: Once something is digital, you can take it in any direction. For example, the Nauru project was based loosely on economic data of visual effects based on financial transactions. My Antarctic material was based on climate change data, and the rest is now the Maldives ocean currents. I looked at direct relationships between data and sound, but wanted to be a bit more lyrical. You can easily take a look at my compositions in The Book of Ice, and download the pdf of the data.

Artsy: What are you most looking forward to seeing on the island of Venice?

PM: The sunlight!

Portrait of Paul by Richard Avedon, 2003, courtesy of the artist. All images courtesy of the artist, Paul D. Miller. Animation stills courtesy of Robert Alexander.