Douglas Quin is renowned for his groundbreaking work with Antarctica – but it’s a mere component of a much larger, more diverse career. Matt O’Neill speaks to the American iconoclast about the thread between contemporary dance and video game design.
For many, Douglas Quin is defined through a very specific series of recordings. In the late-'90s and early-'00s, Quin travelled to Antarctica to explore and document its varied, alien sonic environments – from seals communicating beneath sheets of ice to the shifting and cracking noise of the ice itself. The series of recordings that emerged from those expeditions effectively built his reputation in the international sound community.
“It's interesting. Antarctica has been a huge part of my creative life but I have done a lot of other stuff,” Quin muses, the sound artist actually performing as part of sound art festival Liquid Architecture's Antarctic-focussed line-up in Brisbane this week. “I've had a keen interest and passion around Antarctica since I was a child, though, so if that's what people gravitate to and are most interested in, I fully understand. I don't feel typecast.
“I think, with Antarctica, it represents one of the last frontiers of human exploration,” Quin reflects. “I mean, there are still obviously territories like deep oceans that we know nothing about, but, in the mythic sense, I think Antarctica is very much remote to most people. I think of my time there as the gift that keeps on giving. I have hundreds of hours of recordings and they continually resurface in new and interesting ways.”
Nevertheless, such recordings represent but a fraction of Quin's accomplishments. The scope of his career is staggering. As a sound designer, his work can be heard throughout major media properties like boundary-busting video game Spore and movie blockbuster Jurassic Park III. He holds a PhD in acoustic ecology, has collaborated with Werner Herzog and the Kronos Quartet and has also studied sculpture and dabbled in contemporary dance.
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Somewhat surprisingly, he doesn't appear to see anything particularly unusual about his diverse interests. From academic obligations and commercial sound design through to modern composition and environmental science, Quin's career traverses several boundaries many artists and academics would consider unalienable – but, much like his Antarctica work, each exploration is a component of a broader mission statement.
“There's a holistic aspect to my endeavour. You know, I think it's a singular expression of my own passions and interests,” Quin responds. “I think there's an unfortunate drift away from a more classical idea of knowledge embracing science and art as part of a continuum – and likewise what we consider 'fine art' or 'art music' and more commercial-oriented design and sound design endeavours.
“I think, the greater extent to which I can bridge these things within my own work and give them a public face where people can appreciate that they are intrinsically connected, the better. We've drifted into an area where music is viewed in a very narrow sense – you know, concert hall or entertainment or art music – and science has its own role and is very compartmentalised – even within one discipline, you'll have subsets.”
“I think, the extent to which we can, we need to think holistically – particularly with the larger issues at stake; issues like our relationship to the natural world,” Quin explains. “It brings up very important points about the nature of knowledge. When we look at environmental crises, it isn't so much a crisis of resource management and allocation and consumption as it is a crisis of culture and perception.
“You know, to the extent to which I can, I can effectively try and weave together disciplines that have been artificially divided,” he sums up. “And then we can, ideally, re-enter the conversation about what matters to us and why.”