Artists Munkhdorj Batdelger, Ariuntuya Jambaldorj, and Diana Chester

Listening and speaking to earth with artists in Mongolia

18 August 2023
Artist, scholar, and Sydney Environment Institute collaborative fellow Diana Chester discusses the month they spent in Mongolia listening to the environment.

Dr Diana Chester, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication, travelled to Mongolia in June 2023 to be Artist in Residence at Red Corner International Residency. They worked closely with Mongolian artists, musicians, and scholars while living in traditional gers and cooking traditional food.

What was the inspiration behind your project in Mongolia?

I did this artist residency because I was interested in taking my research around understanding environmental change through listening practices and exploring that in Mongolia. Part of the motivation is tied to my family roots which go back to Mongolia. It's a distant part of my father's side of the family that I know very little about.

The goal of my project, Listening to Earth, is to engage with environmental concerns by listening to and recording the environment. Within this process, the earth and recording instruments are recognised as collaborators.

I was interested in listening practices in very loosely inhabited spaces. Mongolia's population is about 3.3 million people. About half of those people live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. Mongolia’s quite large, so the rest of the country is sparsely populated. A lot of it is a more nomadic presence around sheep herding and horse farming and raising. So, you'll pass one ger [a Mongolian traditional dwelling], two gers, and a bunch of animals, and then you'll go a very, very long way, and then you'll find another.

I was really interested in, what is that landscape like? What happens when I apply the principles around listening practices to the environment there? What does that reveal?

I partnered with Mongolian artists Ariuntuya (Ariuka) Jambaldorj and Munkhdorj (Bugu) Batdelger on a trip across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, covering over 1000 kilometres, to document sounds of the environment. At one point on this weeklong trip, the driver stopped in the middle of nowhere, seemingly. There were a few women with their children, and they were selling things.

We were talking to them about what they were selling. Essentially, their husbands and family members were out in this part of the Gobi with metal detectors scanning the land and finding all these old arrowheads and old coins, and things that had been scattered and lost in the land from arguably hundreds and hundreds of years ago, because there aren't a lot of people who come through there. This land has been around for a long time, and it hasn't been very heavily traversed. There's a lot of memory that's built into that. What happens if you sit with that? What is that experience like?

What impact did the Residency have on you?

The experience of being in Mongolia was wildly different in the different places that I spent time in.

In Ulaanbaatar, I think it was very much about being in a city and learning what a former Soviet-occupied area is like – what Mongolian culture is like in its more rooted and fixed incarnation now, and how everybody still has these summer homes and these semi-nomadic experiences that are a part of their daily life and becoming familiar with those things through the lens of the art scene.

When we were outside of the city it was very different, and I think the experience of the Residency for me feels more connected to that. People in Mongolia talk a lot about the winter because it's quite long and harsh. A lot of energy is put into surviving the winter. There's this real orientation to the environment in that way, and that extended into being in the desert, and everything being established and set up to be able to survive in these different environments.

My research expanded in many ways. I was conducting field recordings of the Khongor Dunes, which revealed deep melodious rumbles with unexpected high-end overtones. Analysing these recordings alongside those of throat singers made clear an undeniable connection between the two. This connection was confirmed during interviews with throat singers who explained they imitate sounds of nature, namely birds and wind, producing a melody traditionally used to seek guidance from the spiritual world. 

While I was coming from a listening orientation, they were coming from an orientation of speaking to the earth. I thought that was cool because it's something I had never thought of. It's something that I hadn't understood how to relate to.

Through this Residency and through my time with different musicians, throat singers, artists, and spending time in the Gobi, there was this recognition of why you would try and communicate with the environment, and how you might do that. For my work that is big.

What impact do you hope your project will have?

We used the recordings from the Gobi to hold an exhibition called ZAAG, which means a boundary or a border. It opened at the Funkhaus in Ulaanbaatar on 4 July. The hope was that it would engage people around water scarcity in the desert, a topic of great importance in Mongolia. This year more than 350 rivers have significantly narrowed or disappeared in the country. We used the relationship of the visual terrain and the sonic terrain to establish an investigation that brought people into this experience of exploring the dried-up land, the empty riverbeds.

The work explores the loss of water – paths and tracks in the land and in people’s faith and connection. The lost rivers are not limited to Mongolia. People around the world are worried about lost rivers and environmental change. We're hoping to bring that conversation out of Mongolia and into other contexts. Ariuka and I have just submitted ZAAG to a gallery in Perth for 2024.

I'm now expanding my research to explore how we can bring more focus to speaking as well as listening to earth through an ongoing collaboration with Ariuka, Bugu, and other folks at the Mongolian National University of Arts and Culture, the American Center for Mongolian Studies, and the University of Sydney.

ZAAG was developed as part of the Lost Rivers 10-Day Lab, curated by Gantuya Badamgarav, founder of 976 Art Gallery and the Mongolian Contemporary Art Support Association. Lost Rivers 10-Day Lab was an international program that brought together artists from Australia, Germany, Mongolia, and Austria to develop work focussed on Mongolia’s Lost Rivers. The program was supported by the US Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Goethe Institute, and the Taipei Trade and Economic Representative Office in Ulaanbaatar. Participation in the residency was supported by a SACE Mobility and Engagement Grant and through a Public Diplomacy Grant from the US Embassy in Mongolia.

Dr Diana Chester is an artist and sound studies scholar whose work produces critically influential studies, methods, and outputs that use sound to traverse disciplinary boundaries and explore sonic capacities core to the human condition. In 2023, Chester was awarded a Sydney Environment Institute Collaborative Fellowship with Associate Professor Damien Ricketson for their ‘Listening to the Earth’ research project exploring the development of listening instruments to record memories stored inside Earth. Chester’s other current projects include ‘Harmonising with Mountains,’ an exploration of Mongolian traditional musical practices for communicating with the environment, and ‘Sounding the Ice,’ a partnership with the Australia Antarctic Division that uses data sonification to express changes to sea-ice in Antarctica. Chester in Senior Lecturer in Media and Communication at the University of Sydney, editor of Interference Journal, and vice president of the World Listening Project.

Header image: Artists Munkhdorj Batdelger, Ariuntuya Jambaldorj, and Diana Chester in Mongolia.

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