Renewable Energy Soundscapes

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

This is an exciting time to be alive: we are living witnesses to the third energy revolution.

  1. The first energy revolution – wood to coal – was in the second half of the 18th century with the invention of the steam engine;
  2. The second energy revolution – coal to oil/gas – at the beginning of the 20th century with the invention of the internal combustion engine;
  3. The third energy revolution – oil/gas to renewables – is currently underway.

Some have described this third energy revolution as a tsunami. I would add: a tsunami that has already crested. There is no turning back. As an artivist, I am inspired by a sense of awakening, by the promise of clean abundance, of jobs, and justice. No more wars for oil.

Joan Sullivan, wind, Canada, photographer, winter, blur, renewable, energy, transition

Photo © 2017 Joan Sullivan

The dominant visuals in our collective memory of the third energy revolution to date are photos/videos of white horizontal axis wind turbines, blue rectangular photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, and large hydroelectric reservoirs. Yes, there are many other forms of renewable energy, but at this early stage of the current energy transition, our visual landscape is dominated by wind, solar, and hydro.

In contrast, the soundscape of this energy transition is not yet clearly etched into our collective memory.

A new exhibit in Venice by American composer and sound art pioneer Bill Fontana could change that. According to Fontana’s artist statement, Primal Sonic Visions “aims to awaken a sense of astonishment, wonder and curiosity in the power and beauty of wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal energy sources.”


IRENA’s Director-General, Adnan Z. Amin (left) and the artist Bill Fontana (right) at the Venice opening of Fontana’s Primal Sonic Visions exhibit on May 26, 2018. Photo downloaded from IRENA flickr stream.

Commissioned by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Fontana’s Primal Sonic Visions is an “immersive series of sonic and visual abstractions” that focuses our attention on the primal beauty of renewable energy. During the exhibit’s opening in May, the former President of Iceland, Olafur Grimsson, suggested that Fontana’s work could be the “missing link” in communicating the transformative power of renewable energy to a larger public audience.

For me, this quote says it all:

Primal Sonic Visions prompts deep reflection on the power and effectiveness of energy capable of ensuring the future of our planet and triggers an emotional response to the environment, now under violent attack from the effects of climate change and atmospheric agents. As people enter the space, they are met with an emotional experience that at first instills a sense of wonder, and later transforms into a deep reflection of the potential and power of these energy sources to be used in securing a future for our planet.
—Bill Fontana

To get a sense of the exhibit, click on each of the photos below (reprinted with permission) to view Fontana’s immersive videos of geothermal, wind, solar, and hydroelectric projects around the world.

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Bill Fontana, Fontana, Primal Sonic Visions, Venice, biennale, soundscape, sound sculpture, Austria, hydro, hydroelectric, renewabable, energy

Internationally renowned for his pioneering use of sound as a sculptural medium to transform our visual perception, Fontana has only recently begun exploring renewable energy from his unique artistic perspective. “The IRENA commission has transformed me as an artist,” he explained in a phone conversation. “It gave me the chance to experiment with moving images in ways that I had never done before. This project has helped me to invent a new visual language, one that has shifted from the literal to the abstract.”

“This whole project has been quite liberating,” he continued. “I’m 71, and have been working with sound for over 40 years. It’s really great at my age to feel like a beginner. I feel reborn!”

A blogger from Paris described Fontana’s Primal Sonic Visions as a “musical cathedral” that seduces visitors to “follow the call of the wind” and “surrender completely” to this abstract world. As a renewable energy photographer, I can’t think of a more beautiful paean to an artist whose highly technological methods stir such visceral emotions about renewable energy. To the best of my knowledge, no other renewable energy artist has accomplished this to date.

So how does he do it? Fontana’s work speaks to us at a primitive, subconscious level. Visitors are virtually bathed in the primordial ooze and steamy atmosphere of ancient Earth. This immersive experience helps us to embrace the undeniable fact that we live on a truly magnificent planet that has been generating its own carbon-free energy for millions of years. This energy is literally bubbling right below our feet and shining down upon us from above. It promises a future of limitless potential. It is free for the taking. Enough for everyone.

What the hell are we waiting for?

This must be the “missing link” that Grimsson was referring to at the exhibit’s opening. I would take it one step further and suggest that Fontana may have discovered the holy grail of climate change communication: a hypnotic combination of elemental sound and visuals that gently remind us – without politics, without environmentalism – that the solutions to climate change already exist. In fact, they have always existed, long before our species evolved. Yet somehow, wise man chose to ignore these incredible gifts of nature.

It is time to put the pedal to the metal and embrace the third energy revolution. Artists like Bill Fontana can help us get there faster.

Primal Sonic Visions continues through September 16, 2018 at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Sponsors include the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment of the United Arab Emirates and the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea. The exhibit was organized by Arthemisia in collaboration with IRENA, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and Science Gallery Venice.

For those who missed the exhibit’s inauguration in May, Mr. Fontana will return to Venice in September to direct a two-day accompanying workshop at the Ca’ Foscari entitled Acoustic Phenomenology (September13-14). I wish I could attend!

(Top image: Video still of a waste water electric turbine in Austria, downloaded with permission from Bill Fontana’s website.)


Joan Sullivan is a renewable energy photographer based in Québec, Canada. Since 2009, Joan has focused her cameras (and more recently her drones) exclusively on the energy transition. Her goal is to create positive images and stories that help us embrace the tantalizing concept that the Holy Grail is finally within reach: a 100% post-carbon economy within our lifetimes. Joan collaborates frequently with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. She is currently working on a photo book about the energy transition. Her renewable energy photos have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, Italy and the UK. You can find Joan on Twitter and Instagram. 


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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