The Art of Conversation


We have a crazy idea, an idea borne of traveling and research and  lurking in museum galleries oh, and the love of things and how they tend not to make sounds on their own  oh, and sounds, and how sound is transporting and imaginative and somehow freeing while curiously devoid of physicality.

We are writing a radio play that will transport characters and listeners to the far corners of the earth. Audio can do that! With audio, the earth can have corners and ends and everything can be closer together than nature dictates, like penguins and polar bears, and people can walk through walls, and sit and ponder and we don’t have to wonder what they are doing sitting and pondering, because we can’t see them, and…  I think it will feel seamless. I think we will be able to play with time and space like magicians. I think our scripted words will be guided and informed and crushed by the unscripted words.

We will interview scientists and experts on climate change, stakeholders and those affected by a changing world. We will be collectors of story, not only to archive, but to exhibit. We will tell a story about stories.

There will be spontaneity in this, and the story as we imagine it now will be thrown for loop after loop. This is good. Drama relies on broken expectations. It relies on characters (and writers) getting out of a jam. Sometimes I think if we make this more difficult for ourselves – if we show no fear before so complex a puzzle, a simple and elegant solution will be discovered to help plot the adventure. There is a great challenge here, and this is half of what I find so exciting about this project: how to meld the unscripted with the scripted, the found poetry with the metered rhyme? And the other half of what thrills me as story maker: the dream that we can create a globe-hopping narrative that is so clearly a metaphor for what a museum does well.

Polar Voices is not a museum, but we are, and Voices will work in many ways just as a museum does.

Museums are not about exhibits and galleries and buildings. No, they are about everything else. A museum is a point of collection, a point of study, a point of awareness. A museum is perhaps something like a beach, but the most orderly of beaches. Objects are numbered. Everything is arrayed artfully for the looking. Making sense of this menagerie is the work of many lives… Okay, maybe it’s not so much like a beach — but the artifacts we find here come from everywhere. Also, unlike a beach, we seek out the context that, virtually, takes the artifact back home. So, like a bottle on a beach with a note and an address inside.

The UA Museum of the North produces exhibits, print, and digital media. We are writers, engineers, and artists and we are thrilled here to be tackling a project that resides near exclusively in the audio spectrum. When we consider that exhibits, films, and games rely heavily on audible elements – a project IN AUDIO feels minimalist. With Polar Voices, it is AUDIO that will grab the audience, create the physical space and drive the plot through fantastic doorways. The format is not limiting. It is uniquely freeing.

Back at the beach, or is it a museum, or is it a soundscape — beachcombers maunder through, cameras clicking, heels clicking, tongues clicking. One museum visitor remarks with joy. Another with wonder, another with understanding. At this point walls and architecture no longer matter. They are as faint as reflections in the surface of a polished shell, and everything in the gallery is suddenly — other places. A radio play is a similar type of space, one which vanishes once the story takes hold. A museum is a jumping-off point. Polar Voices is no different. We come to the experience to find objects to connect with, and everyone finds something to connect with.

Recording ambient sound at the California Academy of Sciences

Recording ambient sound at the California Academy of Sciences.

Museum professionals travel and they travel a lot – because the surf-beaten fragments of the world do not all wash up to one doorstep. The beach is far larger than that. We travel to see and to bring back, and to pull together the objects that make up the story.  We travel to find what there is on tundra and in rain forest, glacier and back stoop, in other cities, in other museums. When we travel, we collect objects and we record – video, audio, soundscapes – conversations: the seabird rookeries of the Pribilof Islands, the streets of Boston and San Francisco, the sea ice at Barrow, a new volcano, an old seabed. Because objects are more comfortable in context. Objects sound better when they think they are home.

Polar Voices is a fictional adventure-mystery in audio form, constructed of climate change science spoken by those who study it and those who are affected by change at the poles. The voices are precious objects. The adventure is an exhibition and an experience.

Polar Voices is about how conversations possess the qualities of an engine with a head of steam, where themes build, and though the travelers think they know where they are going, they have no idea if they will end up in the station they anticipate, or curve about onto some path they do not yet know exists.

We are going to record interviews and lectures and conversations  on the street and in museums and lecture halls and labs and offices and the remote parts of the world. We are going to take this “tape” and draw it across a panoply of audible modes interwoven with a fictional script – and create voice-rich soundscapes that will move deftly through contemporary issues and environments in a way that an “expert by expert” lecture series never can. We are going to create a world. The principal trick is structuring our world to keep the science TRUE within a compelling, dynamic, and sometimes fantastic plot. Our characters are going to travel – a lot, and we are going to go with them.


Recording sound in other places.

And how is this not just like a museum, an experience in a place that, deceptive in its act of collecting, transports us all around the world? Who doesn’t look at a mounted triceratops and not think about walking with dinosaurs? Who doesn’t look at an exhibit of ice and seals and walrus and not imagine the cold of the Arctic? Who doesn’t hear the calls of whales and not imagine the dark and the fathomless deep of the oceans?

In a space of seconds, sound makes travel both abstracted and effortless. Our voices are no longer constrained by geography. The projects, the research, becomes the reality of the soundscape. It’s a thought. Let’s see what happens.

Polar Voices is conversations, and so it feels appropriate to structure this blog as a conversation and be a record of our thoughts and travels and the messy business of cleaning up after characters that get away from us. In this the post above has failed miserably, so by way of slapping a patch over the hole of a leaking airship…

ROGER: Hey Kelsey!

[Kelsey is our Digital Media Producer here at UAMN]

KELSEY: Howdy Roger!

ROGER: What do think so far?

KELSEY: Voices is this amazing project I’ve known a bit about ever since I started working earlier this summer. It was very ethereal then   it’s always had the elements I enjoy talking about, not to mention the medium, but as it’s taking shape, it’s also becoming something big and new and adventurous. How about you?

ROGER: Oh, rushing about getting ready to travel. We’re both traveling this weekend! Different cities, both geared up for sound! But more importantly, did you like how I snuck a steam engine and an airship into the above?

KELSEY: I almost didn’t notice it at first, other than thinking it an appropriate metaphor  but, there are many things you need to read through or listen through again to get all the hints.

ROGER: Hint, hint. All packed for Anchorage?

KELSEY: The gear’s getting to the point of being ready, which is most important. My personal effects — well, I have a few hours before the plane, at least. You?

ROGER: Have microphone, will travel. Oh, and a logo. We got a logo.

to be continued…

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)