Color and texture punctuate sound in Andy Thomas' mind.
Thomas, a mixed-media artist living in Melbourne, Australia, doesn't actually have synesthesia, a condition in which one sense stimulates another. "For me it's really just an overactive imagination," he says. But that doesn't dull the sensation. "I close my eyes and I see these things very vividly in my mind," he says.
For his latest video, entitled "Visual Sounds of the Amazon," Thomas translated the soundscape of the rainforest into visual form. Each recording imagines a tropical bird call as a pulsating mass floating in air. Chirps radiate vibrant flashes of light; trills snake out as twisting ropes.
With these colorful pirouetting shapes, viewers experience the rainforest in an unexpected way. Thomas hopes that in doing so they gain a greater appreciation for the plight of this spectacularly diverse environment.
The Amazon hosts the greatest number of species on the planet. But it's in trouble. "Market forces, population pressure and infrastructure advances are continuing to pry open the Amazon rainforest," according to the World Wildlife Fund website. It's a story told time and time again. And as Thomas aptly notes, people tend to stop listening at the hint of this 'save the rainforest' refrain.
"What I've realized is that people have compassion fatigue these days," says Thomas. "They hear about the destruction of rainforests and decimation of species across the world, and they become numb to it." He hopes that through his art he can revive compassion for these wild spaces.
Thomas' work takes on this task by combining two fields that are often at odds with one another: technology and nature. Though technology can be used to help the environment, its negative consequences are just as potent—from our gadget-driven energy consumption to habitat destruction as a result of industrialization. According to his website, Thomas wants his work to be “a symbolic representation of nature’s collision with technology.”
Interestingly, the 41-year-old artist found his inspiration at a party.
"I used to go to a lot of dance parties in Melbourne here in the 90s," he says. "When I first went to one outdoors, I heard electronic sounds in nature and I was quite surprised at how well they went together—these really dark electronic sounds in the beautiful gum trees."
He began to use a combination of digital technology and watercolors to create fantastical abstract images, bursting with color. These experiments eventually led him to 3D animation. "That was the perfect medium for me really," he says. With animation he can create a more immersive experience for his viewers, combining natural sounds with detailed, moving abstractions.
In 2010, Thomas visualized his first natural sounds, those of a whale and the Australian magpie, a striking black and white bird with a warbling multi-toned call. He has always paid particular attention to birds’ songs, and after animating the sounds, he was hooked.
"Birds are amazing creatures, they're so prolific and so diverse," he says, his passion evident in his words. "To think that there's so many different [varieties of] one creature is quite wonderful."
Six years later, Thomas traveled to Finland on an artist residency program where he recorded bird sounds every day, animating the calls on his laptop. Before he left for the program, he teamed up with Reynier Omena Junior, a biologist and ornithologist living in Manaus, Brazil, and the duo began plotting Thomas' project in Brazil.
"The Amazon trip was done on a shoestring budget," he says. But the pair made it work. Omena had a small speaker he used to play previously recorded bird calls to attract different species. And then Thomas would record using a hand-held microphone and a digital recorder.
"The birds were incredible," says Thomas. "Even in the streets of a small town you'd see toucans flying past and macaws." The duo tromped through the heat, humidity and clouds of mosquitoes, recording some 50 birds in just seven days.
"There are so many [bird calls] that sometimes it's hard to isolate which ones are which—even with an ornithologist to help you," says Thomas. On one occasion they trekked out to find the rare bird of paradise known as the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, a vibrantly orange masterpiece of a bird that sports a thin mohawk of feathers over its crest. "It was a real privilege to see this bird in the wild," he says.
Since his return, he has been working to process and convert the many recorded calls to imagery. Among other programs, Thomas uses the animation software Houdini to bring sounds into sight. Unlike Adobe Photoshop, which is a layer-based program (effects are applied to a background like a stack of pages), Houdini is a node-based software. This means that the final image is a product of the interaction of a network or web of effects.
Using this program, Thomas creates an abstract form for each creature and layers it with a series of effects—selected as he thinks about the birds' coloring, nests, habitat and even diet. Many of the animations focus on the male birds' coloring, since they are often the ones to sport the most outlandish tones and patterns. Then he feeds in the animal recording, which activates particular parts of this complicated framework, converting the sequence of sounds into a pulsing, writhing burst of color. Though the bird calls are clearly the featured sound, every tick and trill in the background of the recording influences the final shape.
Each clip of sound, which lasts anywhere from a few seconds to half a minute, can take days to complete. "There's no magic button that creates this stuff. I'm actually sitting there and sculpting these things bit by bit," Thomas says.
Now finally complete, "Visual Sounds of the Amazon" features abstract forms representing the call of a range of Amazonian birds and a few insects. The video opens with a call from the chestnut-bellied seedeater, a small blue-gray bird whose breast is emblazoned with a swath of burnt orange. Thomas' visual is a swath of red-orange, with each rapid twitter accompanied by a flash of white, gray or black, reminiscent of fluttering wings. The shape evolves almost faster than the eye can take it in to keep up with the quick changes of the call.
The piece ends on the song of the musician wren, a brown-orange bird speckled in black and white. Thomas' visualization seems to play off the bird’s eerie, futuristic sound. The abstract forms dance around a small glowing orb as hazy blue pulses of light intensify with the call. The video is currently screening at Render, a festival in Lima, Peru.
Thomas hopes to team up with conservation organizations and travel to other locations, so that he might bring more of nature's sounds to sight. But he’s so absorbed in the project, a lot more planning must be done to make these trips a reality.
"I have to drag myself away from my computers and get busy," he jokes.