Can the Sub-Arctic Speak?

Ventriloquising James H. Wheldon’s The Diana and Chase in the Arctic (c.1857)

Martha Cattell (University of York), found sounds

Jason Edwards (University of York), text

Fergus McGlynn, audiovisual technologies

James H. Wheldon, image

In a landmark 1983 essay, influential post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak posed the question “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, seeking to develop new methodologies to enable the global academy to hear the otherwise lost voices of a range of global southern individuals either silenced by texts, or somehow inaudible within them.[1] Using James H. Wheldon’s Diana and Chase in the Arctic (1857) as a test case, this audio-visual experiment ponders whether the non-human creatures of the sub-Arctic find themselves in a similar position, silenced not only because they don’t use human language, but by the very mute practice of painting itself.

A picture may be imagined to speak a thousand words, but are canvases, and are we, equally attuned to the thousands of sounds produced by polar birds and mammals, to the sobs, hums, stutters and other vocalisations that Stephen Connor has sought to develop his readers’ ears for?[2] To explore these ideas, we offer you here the chance to experience Wheldon’s populous image in various, novel, newly acoustic ways. You can choose to give voice, individually, to the birds, polar bears, seals, walrus, and narwhals, as well as listen out for the sounds of the wind, waves, and rigging. You can create a cacophony of all of the noises together. Or you can choose to layer the audioscape as the picture is organized, into a foreground, mid-ground, and background.

Of course, the sounds we provide are not from Wheldon’s period. And, of course, these are the sounds of living animals, rather than the cries of animals being murdered by whalers and hunters. But we didn’t want more murder. We wanted an alternative. We want an alternative to a world of needless animal slaughter. We want to bring the pictures and animals to life, back to life, and to give voice to the dead animals hunted, haunting, and depicted in the picture. We wanted the sub-arctic to speak.

  1. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ (1985), in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-315.

  2. Stephen Connor, Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalisations (London: Reaktion, 2014).

Whaling Boats
Arctic water and ice 1
Arctic water and ice 2
Arctic water and ice 3

James H. Wheldon, Diana and Chase in the Arctic (c.1857), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 90.5cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM.2007:1323
Credit: Images are courtesy of the Hull Maritime Museum