27. BJ Nilsen


This work by BJ Nilsen can be seen as an observing documentary and is related to time-lapse filmmaking. In addition, it places itself in the tradition of electro acoustic music and 'musique concrète' – a French music movement that makes use of everyday sounds that are processed with the help of electronics into compositions and sound collages.

From the 'Dark Ecology' project of Sonic Acts, Amsterdam, BJ Nilsen has visited many mines and mining areas over time. As a sound artist he realised how much sound there is in the mining industry and began to think in sonic terms about its impact and meaning. What is the relationship between the sounds of mining and the community that surrounds them? Where does mining stop? How much influence does it have on a community? Over the years he has built up an extensive sound archive around this subject. Both in active mines and in the abandoned mines and buildings surrounding areas and logistics locations in Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Russia and elsewhere. In it he found the fragility of mining processes and the impact that mining activities have on the population and their biotope. He also expanded his archive with all related logistic processes. In the final processing of the sound, he uses the facets of mining as different sound tracks.

The composition follows a more or less linear path, starting with 'deep' time. This line is interrupted a few times and the different time periods work together and overlap. It is a mix of sound recordings made at different times. Sometimes recordings from four years ago are combined with more recent recordings. Thus, different layers of time are presented, from slowly unfolding sounds that represent a deep geological time, to sounds of transport, to the kind of sounds that we recognise as science fiction to indicate the future. For example, mining is in the arctic zone, and an asteroid mining law was adopted in Luxembourg in 2017 that gives companies ownership of what they extract from celestial bodies. The idea is that you find an asteroid that is really rich in some rare metal that we really need and that one can claim. Of course, it only becomes interesting when the resources on earth are exhausted.

For example, in the composition radio broadcasts from space are used as well as a recoding of the probe that has ended up on an asteroid. In this way, the work creates a third space that belongs to the individual listener and that arises from the interaction between the original space and the imaginary space, created by the composition, the sound processing and the perception of the listener. There is a small tribute to Groupe de recherches Musicales (GRM) in Paris and Pierre Henry, which is directly related to iron ore. The musique concrète, as developed by Henry at GRM, was made by magnetic tape. Some of the recordings were finally mixed in the studios of GRM. Magnetic tape was the medium of BJ Nilsen's youth. He had hundreds of cassette tapes, like many at the time. It made him realise how closely he was actually involved in the process of iron ore, and how his development as an artist was shaped thanks to iron ore.



'In ore different layers of time are overlapping, from the deep time of geology to the superfast time of our current economy and the future. For the record I used recordings from the iron ore processing plant in Kirkenes, both with the plant working and not working. When it was empty, I mapped out the building by recording it. You hear the room tones, pigeons flying around, doors flapping and the sound of the town blending in. I used recordings from Pasvik, south of Kirkenes, where the rock is at least 2.9 billion years old. The north of Norway is one of the oldest rock formations in the world. It doesn't relate directly to mining, but it extends the project to include geology, deep time and stone. Those recordings symbolise the stasis of time. The mountain just sits there. The sounds are environmental. I made field recordings in the winter; you hear ice crystals cracking because there was a layer of ice on the snow. I also went to Näätämö/Neiden and just over the border to Finland because its land of the Sámi, and I wanted to have that in. The Sámi have a lot of respect for nature. Throughout the landscape there are sacred stones that are very important to them. I also worked with stone as an instrument, striking and recording it. I did the same with coal. I made recordings of the sound of striking coal at the house of Hilde Methi, a curator who lives in Kirkenes. She still stores coal there in a small outhouse (called 'kullbingen'). There are recordings from the harbour of Murmansk with the coal trains coming in from Kuzbass in southwestern Siberia. The next phase in the processing of iron is represented by recordings from inside the Tata Steel factories in Wijk aan Zee, 30 kilometers from Amsterdam. I also visited Most in the Czech Republic because there is a huge operational open pit mine. It's not iron ore but lignite, 'braunkohle'. It is a vast scar in the landscape, and really an incredible place. The recordings I did in the former mining region of the Netherlands are again more environmental: The mine near Heerlen has been developed into a park and nature area. I'm very interested in the hidden layers and history the landscape. That's why I wanted to have a thread about the regeneration of mining areas. I think it is important to explore the changes that the surrounding landscape and the mining site itself are undergoing, from active to closed, from contaminated landscape to re-vegetation. The future is represented through using radio emissions from space and a recoding from the probe that landed on the comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko. And then there are sounds used for seismic interferometry: The decoding of ambient seismic noise, micro earthquakes and also surface bound sounds. What I like about these recordings is that they already have been processed through the rock and soil and transposed into human hearing range... This mining work is tied directly to the computer age, itself an alchemic expression of man's ingenious use of the earth. Modernity is made by the manipulation and transmutation of organic and synthetic materials through design and research. Without tantalum and niobium, there are no micro-capacitors; without gallium, no photovoltaics.'
Source: http://www.newcriticals.com/deep-mining-deep-time/page-3

Mineral commodities used in mobile devices:
Gallium (from bauxite),
Germanium (from sphalerite)
Indium (from sphalerite)
Lithium (from amblygonite, petalite, lepidolite and spodumene)
Potassium (from langbeinite, sylvite and sylvinite)
Rare-earth elements (like bastnäsite, loparite, monazite and xenotime)
Silicon (from quartz)
Silver (from argentite and tetrahedrite)
Tantalum (from columbite and tantalite)
Tin (from cassiterite)
Tungsten (from scheelite and wolframite)
Source: https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/0167/gip167.pdf

Chemical structure of the products of Sydvaranger mine, Kirkenes:
S – 0.08

Size of the product:
Over 0.15mmless than 0.2%
0.053mm0.15mmless than 20%
Under 0.053mmup to 80%

Source: http://sydvarangergruve.no/produkt

'In mining there are two types of waste. One is the waste you make to get to the ore. If you have a gold mine and the gold layer sits fifty metres below surface, you have to remove fifty metres of waste. The ore layer contains only a certain amount of the mineral that will bring you revenue. The ore goes to a processing plant and there you take out the tailings and the rest is the waste of your process. It can be a slurry, it may contain chemicals or poisonous materials so you have to contain it and treat and store it properly. Sometimes this can go horribly wrong. It is important for companies to manage this. More waste means more costs.’
From an interview with Marco Keersemaker, CITG, Technical University Delft, by Benny Nilsen, 2018.

'The composition follows a more or less linear pathstarting with deep time. It just turned out that way, perhaps because that's how we generally tend to structure material. But the chronology is interrupted a couple of times, and the different time planes are cut-up; they interact and overlap, because I mix sound recordings that were done at different times. In that way I present different layers of time, from slowly unfolding sounds that represent deep geological time, to sounds of transport, to the sort of sounds we recognise as science fiction to denote the future. The work creates a third space that belongs to the individual listener and which arises from the interaction between the original space and imaginary space, created through the composition and sound processingWe dig deep into the earth to get to layers of deep time, extract it and use the ancient material, in the case of coal, for electricity, for heating the house, commodities, to type a message on a phone. It's absurd when you start to think about it. So much time is compressed in this material and it's burned up in minutes. It's not like wind or the sun, which give you immediate energy. Its millions of years compressed into hard materials that are burned up, like coal, or painstakingly refined to yield useful metal. This ungraspable void of deep time fascinates me: The time compressed in iron ore, the coal that started billions of years ago as organic material, the gold flecked asteroid far away in space, or the more recent 'slambanken' in Kirkenesa manmade landscape of unusable slag that might be mined in the future . . . We trace out all the veins of the earth, and yet, living upon it, undermined as it is beneath our feet, are astonished that it should occasionally cleave asunder or tremble: As though, forsooth, these signs could be any other than expressions of the indignation felt by our sacred parent!' Pliny the Elder, 'Naturalis Historia, book XXXIII', p. 77, data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0978.phi001.perseus-eng1:33.1

'If, as Novalis and many of his friends believed, stones, metals and rock strata amount to transcriptions of the earth's history, what better place to study that history than in the mines and caverns of the earth, where the entire record is preserved and exposed? At this point the ancient conception of mines and mountain caverns as places of lapidary activity encounters a second folkoristic notionthat in the interior of mountains time stands still.'
Theodore Ziolkowski, 'German Romanticism and Its Institutions', Princeton University Press, 1990, p.34.

'The slambanken is a totally artificial, man-made landscape that has formed because the waste of the iron ore processing was flushed into the fjord. It is a base of hard rock under the water with different layers of material. It is a playground for sedimentologists because you can see how land and deltas form. We did a study and tried to identify how thick the layer was in different areas. We took samples and ran them through the laboratory in order to identify how many tons of final concentrate we would be able to get out of the slambanken. When they were cleaning the old silos they flushed everything out into the slambanken. This was part of a test production of around 30,000 tons. We can see layers of hematite. It is not enough to make a mine plan, but enough to get a small cash flow. You have to take a boat to get there. We have a tunnel that leads there.'
Interview with Ylva Ståhl and Kristoffer Johansson from the Sydvaranger mine in Kirkenes, by Benny Nilsen, Hilde Methi and Annette Wolfsberger, conducted in March 2018.

'You cannot talk about mining in the North without getting into the question of what it means for the landscape, for the people and the animals living there, for the communities and the relations between all these. In a sense, you cannot not bring out those relations: How a society depends on mining and how it affects it . . . The sound of the mine was always present. It created a vacuum after it closed. When the mill was in full operation the only time when we woke up in the night was when the train was not going. We were living quite close to the railway, so when the train did not run we knew instantaneously that something had happened, either in the mine or in the mill.'
Interview with Ylva Ståhl and Kristoffer Johansson from the Sydvaranger mine in Kirkenes, by Benny Nilsen, Hilde Methi and Annette Wolfsberger, conducted in March 2018.

'I am drawn to the Arctic as a sound person because of its relative remoteness. The landscape is fairly untouched, it is scarcely populated, it's desolate. The sounds of nature are not often interrupted by other sounds. Except for the mining, but that then is also why I find mining in the Arctic especially interesting. The relentless nature in the Arctic constantly reminds you that you are a human being and that you are not really supposed to be there because the harshness of the environment might kill you. It's good for the human psyche to be reminded of that. You can only survive there if you work with nature. If you work against it, it will kill you. The people in the Arctic have a lot of respect for nature, it forms them . . . The Arctic is changing quickly. If it goes on like it goes now, the ice will open up and it will not be so desolate anymore. That is quite scary. Will it mean that other places will become desolate instead, uninhabitable? What shifts will we see? What shifts happened in the past? Why did people in the past settle in an environment like this? Were they forced up North by circumstances? These questions are really haunting me . . . Far down in the Earth the rock is actually moving. Workers hear the rock talk, it crackles, it makes sounds, spits slivers. These can be an indicator that something is about to happen, the sounds tell something about the stability of the rock. Listening underground is like reading the environment. Geologists read the stone, but they also listen to it. By physically interacting with the stone you can determine what material it is. Different types of stone give different frequency readings. Geologists use seismic soundings to map out the resources in the earth. They put geophones in an array, and record the blast of a detonation underground. It gives them an image, a bit similar to sonar. Its mostly really low sounds that you have to transpose up three times to get within human hearing range. In practice it's quite mathematical, but it still it is part of the sound world too. Through soundwaves geologists are able to map what is underground.'

'There is a little homage to GRM and Pierre Schaeffer on the record. For me it relates directly to iron ore in so far that the type of musique concrète and tape music developed at GRM was made possible by magnetic tape. I mixed part of the recording in the GRM studios in Paris where I was working on another acousmatic piece. Magnetic tape was the medium of my youth. I had hundreds of cassette tapes, mostly TDK. It made me recognise again how close we are to the source of ore, and how my development as an artist was shaped by iron ore.'

'The iron ore is refined and filtered, making sure the pure magnetite comes out. Only a small percentage of the ore is iron, the rest is slag and waste. It is a process that somehow relates to my own artistic process. I'm always processing and refining my field recordings. I apply filters, use electronics. Its a kind of sound alchemy. All to get to the desired result: The gold!'


Benny Nilsen approached us with his project 'ORE'. We thought he would fit very well in the 'E-ARTHHA' event with Douglas Kahn that we were already busy with planning.

Douglas Kahn is Professor of Media and Innovation at the National Institute of Experimental Arts (NIEA), University of New South Wales, Sydney, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, where he was the Founding Director of Technocultural Studies. He is known primarily for his writings on the use of sound in the avant-garde and experimental arts and music, and history and theory of the media arts. His writings have also been influential in the scholarly area of sound studies and the practical area of sound art. His best known book, 'Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts', was published by MIT Press in 1999. Currently, Kahn is researching new interfaces and possibilities of sound composition, image and performance. He discards old categories of sound and performance and replaces them with a new category of 'energy' in the bigger narrative of ecology and other sensitivities.

For this event, Kahn did some kind of improvisation session on the works of the three invited artists. 'Mining' by BJ Nilsen, 'Jazz' by Max Franklin and 'Earthquake' by Aurelie Lierman.

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