Vertigo and the Sound Portal

An invitation to explore states of sonic reorientation through the vertiginous experience of a sound portal - a project in process.

Searching for whales in the fog (unsuccessfully), Monterey Bay, July 2023

Vertigo and the Sound Portal is an invitation to explore states of sonic reorientation through the vertiginous experience of a sound portal. How do we hear displaced sounds? Or sense remote presence and connections with distant environments? The project encourages a heightened sensitivity and relational reorientation, facilitated by sound and listening, and celebrates an amorphous, fluid relationship to place and identity through the concept of vertigo. The sound portal emerged as an imaginative experience of more than one place at once, encouraging us to travel through sounds to a place as much internal as out in the world. This weaving of internal and external perceptions and attentions through sound is sensorially expanded in the installation by projected video and woven headphones. Connecting the Pacific coast of central California with the Amstelpark in Amsterdam, visitors are encouraged to consider how their fixed concept of geographical and ecological location, and the accompanying sense of identity, is extended, amplified and liquefied through sound.

Chasing fog and braiding headphones - part of the process

How do we experience an overlaying of the sound of two places at once? Presence over distance, one environment augmenting another through sound, the potential for increased connection and empathy. I have become fascinated by such an expanded perception and the idea of a ‘sound portal’. A sound portal - the transition from sensing one place to simultaneous places - encourages a heightened sensitivity and relational reorientation, facilitated by sound and listening.

A network of inter-related questions have led to the following ideas - think of them as methods. With displaced sound comes a sense of vertigo, which I define as a loss of ground, a common experience of migration and displacement. I explore varied spatial orientations and lift, through techniques of ambisonic audio and flying drone video perspectives. The relational qualities of sound can help build connection beyond the visual. Fog is interesting here. When in fog, low visibility heightens listening and sounding, like whales swimming through dark water. We can learn from the sonic migrations, orientations and communications of other species, from underwater whale communication to redwood/mycelia forests.

Our sense of vertigo slips us through a sonic portal. A presence displaced yet fully felt. A lift into a space outside of place. The sound portal may help us question the assumed solidity of the ground we stand on, opening us up to a more fluid, empathetic and relational experience.

High in the branches of a redwood forest (drone's eye view), and ground level view of the forest recovering 2 years after the CZU fire.

Polyphonic Landscapes

In the autumn of 2022 I was approached as one of four sound artists, to take part in a year long artistic research project on sound and the environment, based specifically on site of the Amstelpark in Amsterdam. Living in Santa Cruz California I have become interested in remote presence and connections to distant environments. My initial research for this project kept me at a distance and so I continued to work with ideas experienced through the pandemic shut-down and isolation. I had recently written “the pandemic-induced ‘anthropause’ in human activity, when oceans and land became suddenly and significantly quieter, offered both a window into possible sonic futures and, importantly, an opportunity to reflect back and hear ourselves more clearly.” This project further follows the opening offered to us during those times of isolation, asking how we can experience remote environments, how we can understand and increase empathy and whether sound can be the vehicle for this.

Encountering places remotely, an esoteric idea made more possible by current technological connectivity, is rife with potential misinterpretations and at worst a continuation of a colonial mindset (Ben Okri in Tiger Work). And yet, in times of climate disruption, understanding the interconnections of environments and the global impact to us all, is crucial. How do we understand the impacts of those distant from us beyond the disaster images shown by news media? How do we understand something of the environment itself, of interconnected species, and of the impact on these relationships? (thinking of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell).

This research has taken me in various directions, wondering if and how we can experience places distant from us by sharing sounds from our local place while hearing sounds from elsewhere. This work has demanded deep introspection through sounds, leading me to abstract concepts of domes of sounds, depth and lift, orientations, emigrations and belonging, all coming together under the title Vertigo and the Sound Portal. Through my artistic research process I've explored techniques of spatial audio and drone video in redwood forests, chased fog along the coast, sculpted a sound portal from branches of a fallen tree, experimented in the studio with sound and video combinations, taken a whale watching trip in dense early morning fog (no whales), taken my electro-acoustic music ensemble on a mycellium sound walk through the forest, explored installation projection techniques and surfaces, always writing words and improvising music. I understand these interconnected ideas as landscapes, and as polyphonies sounding together - as Polyphonic Landscapes.

Het Glazen Huis, Zone2Source exhibition space in the Amstelpark. The Sound Portal will be installed in the black round section at the back of the building.

Questions from the Amstelpark


The Netherlands is a country that lies mostly at sea level, with significant inhabited areas lying below sea level. The country has grown in a delta where water from as far as the Alps meets the North Sea, a dense human population at the meeting point of forces of gravity and tides. It is an environment structured and engineered through extensive water management. With water pumped, flowing and arranged, it is inhabitable land that has been gradually created out of the sea.

As land below sea level the Amstelpark holds the potential of flooding in its identity. I think of it as a area of land in a suspended state of non-flooding! The Amstelpark lies a few meters below sea level, adjacent to the River Amstel that flows alongside, slightly higher up. Such a counter-intuitive flowing of water seems surreal. The land is able to grow and sustain terrestrial life by the cultural and physical infrastructures that continue to keep it dry. In summer, walking through the ‘indigenous species’ section of the Amstelpark, I passed by a hare and two pheasants hiding in the green. Close to the Amstelpark, I visited the Vinkeveense Plassen (Lakes of Vinkeveen), an area historically excavated for peat and now a series of lakes. Where the peat was dug for fuel, deeper lakes have formed, leaving thin long strips of land in between almost level with the surface of the water. The peaty soil itself is soft, moist and spongy, held together by roots, its edges held in shape by metal sidings.

The Amstelpark was designed, built and planted for the 1972 Floriade, one of the World Horticultural Expositions that are held in the Netherlands every ten years. The Amstelpark’s particular genesis during this Floriade, envisioned plant species to create a series of botanical references to distant places and cultures throughout the world. Through this design, visitors can have an almost virtual experience of distant environments. I am curious how this question of experiencing remote environments can be augmented through sound, expanding the original idea of the park as a place to encounter and reckon with our current era of human induced global climate disruption.

Walking on one of the paths through the Amstelpark (this is below sea-level!)

Sound Portal

How do I send my experience from here to you there, from wherever I am to wherever you are? Quite quickly I realize that the sending is the interesting part, not the fact that it is sent. It’s the experiencing of the in-between, the process, the liminal space that connects us. This is what I am trying to create with the sound portal. A place, created from environments, that you enter into and as you do so, you enter this in between state of being. So this is simultaneously distant places and no place all at once. It questions the assumed solidity of the ground we stand on and the assumed solidity of passing environments between ourselves.

Sonic thresholds are everywhere in everyday life, as we move from one room to another, from inside to outside, as the acoustics change. We might think a portal as a threshold where we leave one place and enter another, a transition space-time. The idea of a sound portal emerged initially out of ideas of connecting distant places simultaneously. Listening to sounds that have come from elsewhere, can remind us of a place by ‘transporting’ us emotionally and psychologically, away from the place we are currently in. When this is tied to a deep need for connection and identity, perhaps with people far away from us, or a culture that we’ve left or never fully known, then the sounds can carry great significance. In some circumstances of displacement and migration, the process or ritual of listening to the distance, through the distance, can become a survival strategy. In such states of longing, of need for connection, there is a quality of being in both places at once. Of being there but also being here (not there). (For more ideas see earlier work 'Listening to the Distance' and 'Listening to the Ocean in the Desert')


Stories of portals are often anecdotal, imaginative or significantly tied to spiritiual traditions. Often certain features of the environment are considered portals to other dimensions, trees, stone formations, canyons, caves, oceans and rivers. A common story of a techno-portal comes from sci-fi teleportation which imagines leaving with our body from one place and appearing in our body at another. In many indigenous traditions, spirit travel involves states where the spirit leaves the body and moves off on it’s own, to return back to the body when the journey is complete. In our more everyday lives, our imaginations (and maybe our spirits too) can transport to another place with the help of sound, while simultaneously remaining fully in the present place with our body. I find it interesting that while our technologies are making it easier to connect over a distance, our imaginations are capable of entering such a sound portal without digital connection. And so I am curious what this experience is and what it could teaching us about connectivity, sound and the imagination over distance. For people throughout the world who are at a distance from their culture, their loved ones, their environment, their climate, these questions are relevant. How do we create connection between the multiple places and identities that one person can hold within themselves? Can sound and listening help us do this?

I climb up and up and up above the ocean through yellows, golds and blues swaying with air currents I come to an outcrop of rocks behind which trees have found root and some shelter from the Pacific fog and storms. As I walk around the rocky outcrop, on the uphill side sheltered from the prevailing winds, an opening appears and I see an enormous tree. The thick trunk has bark bulging over the rocks and branches leaning over making a complete canopy. It is a sheltered space within a larger wind space. The sound changes, the temperature, the humidity is noticeably different as are the plant species growing inside. And in the shelter there’s a presence of the trees, of the space they have made, and of a kind of secret that I’ve stumbled on. It’s a moment where I catch my breath and enter slowly, small and a little timid among these giant tree and rock beings. I’m so high up in the air, I’m at the edge of the clouds and fog, higher than many of the birds soaring below me over the wildflower meadows I’ve just passed through. I’m in a different space altogether. And I’m in a kind of sound portal, feeling a little like a guest (wanted? unwanted? I can’t tell).

We found this trellised growing dome in the Amstelpark, and wove a small one in California out of the branches of a fallen tree. How do we experience the difference when listening from inside? Could this be a form of a sound portal?

Land Acknowledgements for Displaced Sounds

"A land acknowledgment is a statement that recognizes the history and presence of Indigenous peoples and their enduring relationship to their traditional homelands. Land acknowledgments help create awareness of the cultural erasure of Indigenous peoples and the processes of colonization and subjugation that have contributed to that erasure." Here are two current land acknowledgements developed with Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman Valentin Lopez

Univeristy of California Santa Cruz land acknowledgement:

“The land on which we gather is the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, comprised of the descendants of indigenous people taken to missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast, is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands and heal from historical trauma.”


Monarch Community Elementary School land acknowledgement:
"We would like to acknowledge that we are gathering on the traditional land of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the people who are the living descendants of Mutsun and Awaswas-speaking peoples who have continually occupied the greater Monterey Bay Region, thriving for thousands of years and countless generations prior to European contact.
We would like to acknowledge all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities, past and present, and honor with gratitude the land itself and the people who have stewarded it throughout the generations. This calls us to commit to continuing to learn how to be better stewards of the land we inhabit."

Displaced Sound (questioning sonic colonialism as a sound artist)

What are the implications of taking sound from one place and listening in another?
I make a sound recording of a place that I visit (how did I get here? why am I here?).
I listen with my ears open and microphone ready (ready? why now?).
I choose my sounds carefully and gather what I think is relevant (to what? to who?)
What my ears and experience tell me is interesting (how broad, how narrow, is my experience?)
And then I bring these sounds somewhere else (where? why? for who?).
I edit them into something new and different (how? why?).
I play them as they are to others to hear (is this the way?)
What will I tell about this place?
Will I need to explain the sounds?
How will listeners interpret the sounds?
What images will come into their minds?

When I make something with sound I set multiple interconnected questions in motion. Sound is made in place by the relationships in that place, by motions and materials, interactions and growth and decay. As a sound artist I can take sound, transport it and turn it into something else. I can displace it and replace it and explore the dynamics of the sounds migration. I may record in the hope that we can learn something concrete from the sounds of a distant place, that I might understand it better, create connection, even empathy with a distant place on the basis of the removed, transported and displaced sound. Yet taking a sound from one place, taking it out of its context and playing it in another, can reveal a colonial kind of mindset. If sounds and their meaning are tied to the circumstances that produce them, then it follows that I cannot hear the ‘truth’ of a distant place only from the displaced sounds, nor can I make viable assumptions or decisions about that place. In many cases the sound of for example, ocean waves or a fast flowing river or city traffic, can sound very similar falling easily into a generic soundscape rather than a specific location.

So if I set up my recorder and listen, what I am going to focus on? A microphone is a technology that removes only the audio from a place-time situation thus isolating the sense of hearing. In visually dominant culture the camera isolates the image and the visual sense is privilged. I am uncomfortable with this technological convention of isolating the senses when recording, it seems like a strange way to go about exploring our relationship to the environment in its extended sensory and cultural experience. So to recognize the potential violence of a colonial mindset, to re-orient myself, I try to consider sounds as animate, as being, so that I might not so easily remove them, collect or even own them. Instead I will have to work with them, collaborate with them, listen to what they have to say and how I influence and interact with them through my actions.

And what if I bring with me sounds from wherever I come from, sounds that ground me to my origin or help fix my fluid and floating identity?

How do these sounds relate to the place I’ve arrived in?

Do they keep me strange, or help me integrate?

Are there invasive species in sounds?

Might I inadvertently set off an irreversible invasion?

Do these ideas have serious implications?

Coastal fog rises from the ocean to the redwood forests where the trees 'harvest' the moisture through their leaves, they need fog to survive.

Human Vertigo

A sense of being unbound to the earth
of floating, of falling
of walking a few inches above the ground
at risk of tumbling around me through
the cultures I don’t know and am not from
nothing to bond or anchor me to here

And so I float to the other side of the world
to ground myself, imagining my feet
on the earth, with others close
sensing knowing a stable something
an exchange

Can I get this grounding without going back
experience it here to root
in a place I don’t belong
with others who don’t belong
or perhaps we can belong?

Tree Vertigo

When a tree leaves
and finds themself in another place
half way around the world
can they ground, root?
or do they experience vertigo
can they overcome the floating falling sensation
how does the tree connect then?
how do they return home or understand their culture
do they just grow, reconnect, renew
grow into something else?

Whale Vertigo

And what about a whale?
perhaps it is less vertigo
than compression
a pressing on all sides of a sound not their own
a crowding in a canyon underwater
a distortion of scale and place
to something unrecognizable
their connections at great distances
derailed, a swim
a swim like floating, like falling
no ground of culture, destroyed
from the roots

Experimenting in the studio in California with displaced images and sounds to share in Amsterdam.

Vertigo as loss of ground (migration and displacement)

I am questioning the assumed solidity of the ground we stand on.The ground in California moves, it lies on geological fault lines, the ground can shake with earthquakes. The ground in the Netherlands is reclaimed from the sea, the water managed to keep it dry enough for habitation, buildings anchored in deep piles into sand below, ready at all times for floods. Neither of these lands are solid, there is only motion.


Recently I was walking through the urban campus of San Jose State University where I hold one of my teaching positions, and I felt the lightheadedness of vertigo, as if I was floating through the crowds of students, unable to ground myself and my identity in this place, a kind of dislocation or shifting of my viewpoint to outside of myself. It’s the sort of state that can induce panic. As I was walking in this state a large dog came close alongside me, panting loudly, keeping absolutely in step with me. I noticed their presence by my side and anchored my floating vertiginous sense to this grounded being. I was intensely grateful to it and moved on through my day having felt the presence of a guide. Stories of animal guides are woven into our cultures, but in academic culture I have found these stories dismissed as superstitious, illogical, unfounded. But I find they happen with some regularity and I won't miss the opportunity to engage directly with them in the moment. I feel that would be a closing down of interspecies recognition. The presence of another being, whether in human or non-human form, influences our own presence, if we can only give it attention.


I am thinking about the long ongoing work of locating oneself in a new environment, shifting ones identity as it aligns with a new culture and I can only do this from places that I have personal experience with. I have lived a nomadic existence through making, exhibiting and teaching sound, music and art, and am often referred to as an 'international artist' which generally means an artist with displaced roots. My profession takes me into cultures, languages and environments that I am not originally from and I accept living in the economic margins. As an artist, a woman and a single mother, I have had to recognize that I live and work within systems that marginalize the arts and life circumstances. I emigrated from the UK to Spain at 22, to the Netherlands when I was 28 and to the US at 37, and as the only one of my family in any of these countries, I habitually experienced a sense of difference. This individual context and perspective is my starting point, my enquiry. My approach is to try to find ways that my skills and experiences can open up the imagination, through my artistic research, teaching and parenting. Given this context it makes sense that I focus on the two most significant places that I have emigrated to and tried to call ‘home’, the Netherlands and California. Placing these two alongside they seem strangely complementary, one lying at sea-level, the other an earthquake zone.

But what to do with this sense of vertigo, of not belonging, not recognizing oneself, having no anchor, floating from the ground? How many others are there who have left their place of origin, or lost their grounding people, who everyday face a strangeness that they cannot quite fit within? How easy is it for those without these experiences to have no comprehension of what this means? It’s as if cultures are based on unspoken traditions of either belonging or otherness. But if large proportions of populations experience this dislocation and vertigo how can we embrace it as a significant factor or experience, a connective, collective experience of movement? Remember, I am asking, how we can question the assumed solidity of the ground we stand on, opening us up to a more fluid, empathetic and relational experience.

Orientations, lift and depth (phenomenological, psychological and navigational)

How we orient ourselves in the world, in our social, political, environmental situations, can shift and change, especially if our sense of home and stability is precarious. In this situation of vertigo there is an opportunity for reorientation. The vertigo stems from a displaced feeling, an uprootedness and a expectation or desire for stability and groundedness from which to move out into the world. This constant striving for ground only makes sense, not as a binary opposition, but as the balanced pole of vertigo. So vertigo is not going to be removed, but rather balanced by the pull of ground. This requires a shift in orientation. And for those who are grounded in a place, to open to the possibility of the vertigo of others and themselves.

A reorientation in place can be guided through sound and listening. It is a phenomenological, psychological and navigational process all at once. The aim is to accept but balance the vertigo, with an acceptance of the fluidity and transformation of identity, to find ways to relate to environments around us and at a distance, at the same time.

Can you experience the sense of lift? Look at the branches and leaves of trees lift with wind - can you lift with them? It’s like floating in water. You are not physically flying, rather your imagination is allowing you to be buoyant. The sound of the leaves moving together is how we hear the wind. We can hear it move through one area on to another, a spatial orientation guided by listening.

Watch a bird flying - any bird. Can you throw your imagination out with it as it takes off and rides the wind currents with it’s whole body? You experience this lift in yourself and with practice, the more birds you watch, you notice the difference in their behaviors, their flight, their physiology, by joining them with your imagination. We cannot all experience the lift of paragliding, or sailing, but we can do this. This is a way of learning.

Listen to music. Where does it lift you in the same way as the bird, or leaves, or wind? What combinations of timbre, melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation, lyrics, shift you into a floating essence? You’ll recognize this feeling, when we listen to music we are being moved in a multitude of ways.

So once we’ve practiced these things, come back to sound. Listen to a car passing, a plane overhead, a fridge rumble, a conversation through the wall next door. Listen to anything and consider - how does this shift in my attention also shift my perception? Do I fly with it, or recoil from it? What does my body do, where does my spirit go? How do these parts of me react? Just noticing at first, and then perhaps asking, why? Where do these patterns and reactions of mine come from? And how can I observe them better?

Navigation is a form of orientation, a way of being in and moving through the world. There are different techniques of navigation requiring differing amounts of attention. One way to think of navigation is getting from A to B in the most efficient way possible. GPS satellite navigation has become so efficient at this that we need barely any awareness of our environment to move from one place to another. So perhaps the term orientation is more useful than navigation, or perhaps we can put the two together - “orientational navigation” - to signify mental and physiological techniques of awareness towards the places we move through. Such orientational navigation might provide a way to balance the vertigo with ground.

Relational qualities of sound and environment - beyond the visual

We increasingly try to relate to environments through their images, stock imagery, shared photos and videos, documentaries. This is also the predominant way to engage with climate change - news images of devastation of communities around the world after extreme weather, fire, flood. Is there a way to complement and expand this mediated flow with a more directly relational understanding? Through listening instead of viewing?


“Let the trees teach you”. Sitting at ground level in the redwood forest I’m at the height of the thickest part of the trunk. I can look up but can’t sit myself in a high branch, the tops of these very high trees still catching the sunlight and swaying far with the wind. And neither can I see or hear what is happening below ground, where the rest of the tree is. I really have a very small slice of perception afforded me as a human! Knowing that these trees are connected below ground through their root systems and mycelial networks, helps me to imagine their connectedness and ‘social’ structures.


A chipmunk just ran up a redwood tree next to me making very loud repeated noises, over and over, in full sight. An aerial predator? Not one I can detect, but hearing the chipmunks call, both my dog and I are now alert, as, it seems, is every other being in the vicinity. They’ve stopped calling now, maybe the threat has past.

Now a little later, I hear a chipmunk making the same alarm call further away in the forest. The sound carries far, and it makes me pay attention, but still do not see anything (of course a predator would be hard for me to see). But I’m aware of different dynamics in the forest now. I’m more aware of how others are paying attention and signaling. I hear a person working with an electric drill down the valley. I hear a woodpecker up higher in the trees on the hillside. A jay alarm call while flying. A truck winding it’s way up the valley. Small bird calls that I cannot distinguish yet.

And all the while, the leaves are moving with the wind in waves of sound.


And now I hear a short burst of a siren, there is a fire station nearby, perhaps that’s it? The siren alarm call doesn’t tell me what is happening, but that something is. And brings up associations of fire and forest. And the alarm sets me alert and on edge. Like the chipmunk.

And now I see them! My eyes are caught by a shadow moving over the trees, a vulture just above the tree-tops overhead. Although a large presence from the air, a vulture isn’t a predator but feeds on carion, suggesting another happening in the forest that I didn't notice. And then I see another as it moves to the branches above me, and another over there, and then three more, at least six in total, in the trees very close to me, I hear only the air moving with their wings as they land on the ground of the steep hillside. They are very large birds, a big change of presence in the forest here, and I may have missed them entirely if I hadn’t been alerted by the first chipmunk call.

These relationships are unfolding around me all the time and its the sounds that give them presence. The sounds draw me towards the visual in a different way. This is not a picture I’m looking at but an active space of continually unfolding relations between beings.