Baikal Lenses

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Baikal Lenses is an intimate look at Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest, deepest and most voluminous lake, located in Eastern Siberia. The project places a special emphasis on the Lake’s ecological problems, including growing levels of pollution and rapid climate change. The title refers to the Latin name of many species of plants and animals that are unique to the Lake, “baikalensis,” but it also makes clear that we explore Baikal from several different vantage points. The project includes experimental photographs, multi-channel video, essays, original music, installation and performance. We focus our literal and figurative lenses on Baikal’s native landscape and its people in an effort to immerse ourselves in what noted Siberian author Vladimir Rasputin called the “eternity and perfection” of the Sacred Sea. The project draws its inspiration from Buryat myths and legends, local people’s lives and personal stories, and their powerful connections to the Lake’s past and present. In many cases, we use an abstract approach to universalize our subject matter and make clear that the problems that Baikal faces affect not only local people or even Russians, but everyone around the globe. Our goal is to significantly raise awareness of Baikal’s plight and inspire people everywhere to do more to safeguard the Lake.

The Second Fire

The Second Fire is a three channel video inspired by a Buryat origin myth about Lake Baikal. According to this legend, there was an enormous earthquake, fire came out of the earth, and native people cried “Bai, Gal!” or “Fire, stop!” in the Buryat language. The fire stopped, and water filled the crevice, creating the Sacred Sea, with its abundant, crystal clean water and uniquely diverse flora and fauna.

Now, many scientific studies demonstrate that the Baikal region is one of the areas experiencing the most rapid increases in temperature in the world. Surface water temperatures at Lake Baikal have risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1946. The warming of Baikal represents a “Second Fire” that threatens the Lake and the people who rely on it.

The video’s different screens symbolize three different periods in Baikal’s life. The left screen represents the origin of the Lake according to Buryat myth. The middle screen represents today’s Baikal, still mostly clear and pure, but facing real threats from climate change and pollution. And the right screen is a warning message about a future in which steps have not been taken to protect the Lake.

Decisions that all of us make right now will determine whether that future becomes a reality or not. If we continue to burn fossil fuels, use detergents with phosphates, allow wastewater and other pollutants to flow into the Lake, and discard trash on its shores, these choices will haunt us in the future. But we can also choose a different trajectory -- one in which the ripples of our actions combine to create a bright and pristine future for Baikal’s precious organisms -- and ourselves.

The Second Fire was created in collaboration with Russian and international scientists and artists. It includes images of solar oscillations from the observations of the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics, as shared by researcher Andrey Chelpanov. It also includes footage of underwater life captured from the live web-cams of the Baikal Museum in Listvyanka.

Original electronic music has been created from data about the impact of rising temperatures on Baikal’s amphipods collected by the Institute of Biology at Irkutsk State University, including Maxim Timofeev, Daria Bedulina, Ksenia Vereshchagina, Anton Gurkov, and others. The music was also produced in collaboration with Evgeniy Masloboev, a local experimental composer and musician.

The video includes a wide variety of natural sounds. Some sounds of ice cracking were shared by French sound artist Andre Fevre, and some bird sounds were recorded by Professor B.N. Veprintsev. The artists also wish to thank Elizaveta Kudlik and Igor Levant, whose voices reading data from the world’s longest environmental monitoring project appear in the soundtrack.

Like Water Through Plastic

Plastic pollution of our waterways is a critical issue facing the entire world. Approximately 300 million tons of plastic is produced yearly, and less than 10 percent is recycled. As many as 8 million tons per year ends in our oceans and waterways, where it entangles marine mammals, birds and fish and lodges in their stomachs, causing death. As plastic starts breaking into smaller particles, it is consumed by humans and may cause cancer and fertility problems. A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund found that most people consume the equivalent of one credit card of plastic per week. Plastic refuse is found in almost all waterways and and has formed massive floating islands in our oceans.

Siberia is no different. As more and more tourists visit Lake Baikal, the problem of plastic pollution is growing dramatically. At this point in time, there is minimal recycling and no serious plan for reducing plastic pollution.

After encountering numerous plastic and glass objects on land and in water, we chose to begin incorporating these found objects directly into our work as a sort of "supplemental lens." The distorted view of the landscape created by these objects is emblematic of the negative impact they have on the environment. At the same time, the subtle beauty of the images reminds us of the resilience of nature and the capacity of humans to solve this problem if there is enough will.

Shallow Frieze

Shallow Frieze is a collection of experimental photographs of Baikal’s landscape that were frozen in ice and then rephotographed during a melting process. These photographs directly comment on the problem of global warming, which is occurring more rapidly in Siberia than most places in the world. Research by Russian and international scientists demonstrates that Baikal’s ice cover, critical to its many endemic species, is significantly shorter and thinner than a century ago. These warming trends are already contributing to changes in the Lake’s precious ecosystem, from tiny plankton to the world’s only freshwater seal.

Baikal Voices

One of the most unexpected outcomes of our project was the emphasis on sound and music. We quickly learned that lensed devices are inadequate to the task of portraying the Lake’s magical complexity, majestic beauty, and monstrous size. Instead, Baikal speaks most emphatically and completely in sounds like its waves, wind, ice, birds, and animals. And the medium that best captures its complexity is music.

Music from Data: Voices of the Amphipods

As we read the many scientific studies by Russian and international scientists about climate change and other anthropogenic changes to its ecosystem, we became aware that these data points can be plotted as musical notes. We honed in on studies by Irkutsk State University about the effect of temperature changes on the amphipods, little crustaceans that are critical the Lake’s health. The scientists’ work shows that amphipods unique to Baikal are comfortable at specific depths and temperatures, and may face danger or death if forced into different zones (see Preference Ranges Correlate with Stable Signals of Universal Stress Markers in Lake Baikal Endemic and Holarctic Amphipods).

The resulting original compositions have all been created from this study and related data about temperature changes in Lake Baikal. Different electronic instruments represent the stress response of several endemic and holarctic (non-endemic) species of amphipods as they are subjected to gradually increased temperatures. Higher notes represent increased stress response that may lead to a lethargic state or even death. In this way, the compositions provide a soundtrack for the growing body of scientific research — and a voice for underwater creatures whose plight might otherwise go unnoticed.

Is it a coincidence? Our two collaborative musical projects, with composers on opposite sides of the planet, both have the Slavic word “maslo,” or “butter” in their names.

Collaboration with Masloboev

Talented and innovative Siberian composer Evgeny Masloboev is someone who can coax exceptional music out of almost anything…from Baikal’s ice and water to plastic bags, coat hangers and found objects. We have been very privileged to watch him repeatedly place electrodes on living plants and elicit ethereal sounds from them by stroking their leaves. And he usually plays improvisationally, working in the moment with a variety of intriguing collaborators. After we completed the compositions above, based on Irkutsk State University’s data on the stress levels of amphipods, Evgeny took several of the compositions and added his own improvisational sounds, intended to emphasize the urgency of the problems facing Baikal. Here is one example.

Collaboration with MASLO

MASLO is the name of an electronic music project of Baltimore-based composer and musician Maria Shesiuk. We were first introduced to her from afar, in Siberia, and we quickly found many things in common and a great synergy between our efforts, including a strong focus on the power of the natural world and the importance of ecology. We quickly began sharing images, videos, and most importantly, recorded sounds with her. She is in the process of composing a series of new works that are inspired by the sights and sounds of Siberia, including a soundtrack for our experimental multi-channel video. You can read more about Fog here and more about A Walk Through Sleeping Land here. Please enjoy these compositions, and we’ll be adding more of her original music as it becomes available.

For more on how Baikal speaks in unique and musical sounds — and how Russian folk and experimental musicians like Evgeny Masloboev respond to its call — please read Cyberian Dispatch 10.

Exhibit in Irkutsk: The Ripple Effect

From July 26 to September 22, 2019, an exhibition of our experimental photographs and video, along with related sculptures created by Russian artists, was on display at the leading contemporary art gallery in Irkutsk, the Bronshteyn Gallery.

Our selected artwork investigated the vast and precious Lake’s small details as seen through the eyes of local residents whose relationship to the Lake is profound and intimate. It relied heavily on the power of indigenous myths, and it drew a parallel between those legends and the challenges the Lake faces today. 

It was easy to create a meaningful dialogue between the sculptures, all concerned with Baikal’s life-giving waters, and our own work. Native people in the Baikal region believe that all elements of the natural world are alive, interconnected, and must be respected. Consistent with our approach, many of the sculptures reference the modern impact of humans on the environment, noting the potential for harm when we do not value our surroundings. 

This dialogue was the inspiration for the exhibit’s title. The Dalai Lama has said, “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped in the water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” This phenomenon is known as “the ripple effect.” Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the importance of Lake Baikal’s precious water and its surrounding habitat. As we face the twin threats of climate change and anthropogenic pollution, we must all ask ourselves, “What kind of ripple will I create?

Cyberian Dispatches

Our year-long sojourn in Siberia offered many chances to experience Baikal’s splendor and mystical beauty in every season. It also offered ample opportunities to interact with Russian scientists, artists, ecologists, native Buryats and Evenks, and others who have an intimate and profound relationship with what is likely the most important Lake in the world. All along the way, we were recording the most salient events in our ongoing blog, Cyberian Dispatch.



In addition to those mentioned above, many organizations and individuals went out of their way to welcome us and to support our project.

We would like to pay special tribute to the Fulbright Program, especially Fulbright Russia’s extraordinary Director, Joel Ericson, and Program Officer Marina Bezrukova.

We would also like to express our gratitude to Irkutsk National Research Technical University, the Baikal Museum, Irkutsk State University, and the Bronshteyn Gallery. We are grateful to the uniquely creative and innovative urban renewal and event planning team known as Pertzel, including Yulia Kolomina and Ekaterina Timokova.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Vitaly Baltaev, Natalya Bencharova, Todd Forsgren, Ilya Ipatov, Valery Kondakov, Assia Kontrimovich, Elizaveta Kudlik, Igor Levant, Evgeny Mariasov, Roman Mikhailov, Marianne Moore, Vladimir Munkhanov, Anya Ogorodnikova, Tatiana Platitsina, Marina Rikhvanova, Mikhail Rybalko, Vitaly Ryabtsev, Anna Sirina, Jennie Sutton, Maxim Vorontsev, and many others who helped us encounter Baikal and rise to its creative challenge.

Finally, we pay our sincere respects to the local spirits of the Baikal region.