Residues of Catastrophe Resilience, Resonance and Memory of an Earthquake's Vibrations

Vibrations are the essence of the world of sound and fundamental amplifiers of the sonority of daily life.

Tellus Totem is an installation that materialises an experience of a traumatic event: an earthquake. Enrico Ascoli designed the installation as part of a site-specific project, opened on the occasion of the thirteenth anniversary of the earthquake in Irpinia (Avellino, Italy) for the festival E-ArtQuake 2010.

The piece produces a seismic soundscape from abandoned everyday objects found in the ruins of villages around Avellino. Through their resonance, these objects are resilient – carrying the residues of a catastrophe, and sonifying articulations of human and nonhuman agencies.

The assemblage of five totems or sculptures is fixed through a 5.1 system with a subwoofer, which constantly shakes them with vibrations. This strange ensemble oscillates through a closed circuit, amplifying different timbres and frequencies. Composed of everyday objects belonging to a rural world, each totem’s agentic capacities – their forces to act – are not only heard in the installation, but also, one by one, turn into emanations of an abandoned land. Dim lighting illuminates an old wooden saw. There is a little bell, most likely from a church; an old baby rattle, probably from the 50s; and a bed frame, on which other objects are hung: an ensemble of sonic stories, conglomerated memory scores of the day of the earthquake.

Memories of the earthquake are emitted through a sequence of sounds. These acoustic narratives of the day of the earthquake – the vibration of a glass, the voice of children’s mothers, falling rubble – exceed the boundaries of the circuitry. Loaded with forgetting and memory, the memory of the earthquake is amplified through things intimately tied to human lives. And as a site-specific installation, its topography is charged with ideological, cultural and environmental forces. The seismic soundscape in Tellus Totem thus not only exceeds the traditional limits of the gallery space, but also transcends the material qualities of the objects in the circuit. Vibrations from the objects outstretch any border that comes their way.

Tellus Totem operates a movement in the absence of human actors. However, the circuitry also preserves a sort of a life through its soundscapes, which often offer multi-layered zones of contact with these objects of my analysis. From where I stand, it is specifically from the vibrations oscillating from Tellus Totem that I can touch the installation.

In this sense, I am moved. As ongoing vibrations in circuitry, Tellus Totem manifests everyday objects, forming a body-like union that makes noise and creates movements. Jean-Luc Nancy has argued that the body is the extension of the soul, and that extensions in general are not to be known, but rather to move and to be moved.1

Vibrations, as a tactile energy, are able to create movements that transcend certain borders, such as that of our own bodies.

This description of movement exceeds bodily boundaries, limitations or deadlocks. In the relational networks of this circuit, movements enable a rhythmic continuity, which results in an indispensable expansion – a ubiquitous soundscape that wanders across a dispersed zone.

What can live on from a body that is finite? Nancy has emphasised both a soul’s and a body’s materiality and how a soul can escape from bodily borders because of its difference in matter – matter that has no place, size or weight. If the circuit of Tellus Totem resembles finite bodies, then what escapes from them, in weightless folds, to the air? Or are they truly weightless? How much can they last, out there in the world, without their body or circuitry? In other words, how resilient are these emanations? How much do they survive outside the boundaries of their circuit?

Vibrations are the essence of the world of sound and fundamental amplifiers of the sonority of daily life. The vibrations generated in Tellus Totem remind me that despite the catastrophic event – the earthquake – these objects are still alive, and that I, as part of the audience, am sentient enough to experience it. They recall Brandon La Belle’s account of how, beginning with the primary sensation of being in the womb, auditory experience is first and foremost an oscillation – a tactile energy, which includes all the vibratory sensations that influence the psychic shape of individuality.2

The vibrational acts that represent the seismic waves in Tellus Totem touch upon a primary sensation that has played a crucial role in infancy, while one grows to expand out from the body. For the infant, this struggle demands a certain kind of resilience in the face of ambiguities and tensions in the outside world, outside the womb.

On the other hand, listening to a mechanically generated sound system is a fundamentally different experience than a vibration that evokes feelings of displacement and dreariness. Tellus Totem’s noise is a sort of excess, attached to a recollection of the residues of a catastrophe. It is loaded with memories, and its vibrations are not artificially generated, but rather vibrations within.

Vibrations, as a tactile energy, are able to create movements that transcend certain borders, such as that of our own bodies. They invoke a response, while creating an ongoing oscillation that makes them fundamentally different from mechanically generated sounds. The power of vibrations – so resonant in Tellus Totem – compels me to think more deeply of the meaning of audible energy sources. Vibrations, as the foundation of all sound systems, stay in between – in a liminal space, between what is finite and infinite.    

This article’s focus on vibrations and their force in transcending borders is adapted from a longer essay that dwelled on the concept of ‘resilience’, discourses around biopolitics, and the biological potential of human and nonhuman subjects.

  1. Nancy, Jean-Luc. Corpus. No. 67. Fordham Univ Press, 2008.
  2. LaBelle, Brandon. Acoustic territories: Sound culture and everyday life. A&C Black, 2010.