Cyberian Dispatch 10: Baikal Speaks in Music

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac


The oldest, deepest and largest lake by volume cannot be fathomed easily, but one way to plumb its remote depths is to listen. And if you listen to Baikal, it quickly becomes obvious that the Lake is speaking. It is not speaking in words. Instead, the Lake expresses itself in music.

We have written before about its sloshing waters, its merciless winds, its frolicsome crows, and other inimitable Baikal sounds. But the most formidable -- and also terrifying -- sound of Baikal is the sound of its ice cracking.

It starts as a sort of science fiction-y pinging, a bit like the sounds you associate with old movies about submarines. These pings and bwowops vibrate and stretch across vast expanses, often followed by a sharp crack or two or more. Then, if you are lucky (or unlucky, if you are as fearful as us), you may hear tremendous thunder as the ice actually sunders apart somewhere nearby.

The first time we heard a large crack while walking on Baikal’s ice, it registered in our brains as an earthquake (small ones are not uncommon here), and we leapt to our feet and ran immediately toward the distant shore (as fast as one can on a spectacularly slick surface). Then we noticed the locals, who went on skating and cavorting on the ice without pause. And we stayed for more of Baikal’s pinging, gurgling and cracking -- its unsurpassable music.

Music is unquestionably among the most treasured arts in Russia. Since the moment we arrived, we have been meeting musicians, sound artists, and people who simply love to sing or dance or play. To them, Baikal is always calling, as an inspiration and a unique location to summon their artistic best. As one of them recently put it, “Baikal is a mystery, and music is a way to understand it.”

At every holiday or gathering, Russians with beaming smiles will inevitably sing favorite songs that they pass on from generation to generation. Thus we found ourselves on Olkhon Island, listening to the songs of a ceremony called “maslenitsa” that welcomes Spring. The celebrants danced energetically in a circle around a bonfire built directly on the ice, singing for a thaw and new life in the coming season.

Two days later, all ages were represented at a maslenitsa celebration at the open air architectural museum at Taltsi, between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

A small number of musicians, like Evgeny Masloboev, literally play Baikal’s ice and water. In several recent concerts in Listvyanaka, he and his fellow Irkutsk-based musicians played instruments crafted from Baikal’s ice, and dipped other instruments into Baikal’s water to create fresh sounds. An exceptionally talented and innovative artist who views every single sound in the world as potential music, Evgeny knows from experience that Baikal’s ice and water have a unique sound that can’t be found anyplace else.

Others run with Baikal’s inspirations in many different directions. At the Blue Ice Festival on Olkhon Island, a French acapella group called Soli Tutti interpreted a traditional Buryat song and the local band Etno Beat created cosmopolitan rhythms. Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova debuted an entire contemporary work based on the story of the Baikal icebreaker Angara that played an outsized role in local history and is still on display in Irkutsk. The Moscow-based artist Olessia Rostovskaya made church bells resonate across the Island in the morning, and that same evening debuted a nine-part contemporary classical composition based in part on recorded sounds of Baikal’s ice. Among many other talents, she is an expert on the theremin, an instrument invented in Russia that is played without touch, instead relying on manipulation of the electromagnetic field surrounding its antennas.

The Festival’s organizer, Natalya Bencharova, also hosted a discussion about the creation of a Baikal sound bank that will allow visitors near and far to access the sounds of the Lake. It is quite telling that she proposes a sound bank instead of a trove of videos or photographs. The sounds of the Lake are powerful and meaningful to locals...and to visitors. One of the first contributors to the sound bank is French sound artist Andre Fevre, who recently spent time camping on the ice around Olkhon Island in order to best capture the sounds of the ice talking. His efforts suggest the Lake is most vocal in mid-morning and late at night, when undergoing significant temperature changes.

As photographers and video artists, we are not immune to the call of Baikal’s sounds. We came to Siberia with a strong focus on the visual, but we immediately found our lensed devices limiting. There is no way to properly convey the enormity of Baikal, its constantly changing textures and moods, and its eternal inscrutability, with cameras alone. As a result, our project has moved emphatically in the direction of including sound and music.

From early on, we gathered local sounds to share with Baltimore-based composer and musician Maria Shesiuk, an extremely sensitive and versatile artist. Although she has never been to Siberia and we have never met her in person, she nonetheless uses her magical powers to conjure an authentic feel of Baikal in her original compositions that have debuted in this space. If you have not already, please listen to her songs titled Fog and A Walk Through Sleeping Land.

We also found that the data points in key scientific studies about the Lake’s ecological health can be plotted as musical notes, and we started to create compositions that directly reflect data on temperature changes and the impact of those changes on Lake organisms, such as the amphipods (small crustaceans) that are critical to the Lake’s cleanliness and its complex food chain. Although these electronic compositions are somewhat mechanical, we think of them as a starting point and as an innovative way to convey important scientific findings about the Lake. We are now in the process of sharing them with Maria and local musicians to see if they can help us interpret them.

For example, the following work in progress draws directly on findings from compelling new studies by scientists at the Biological Institute at Irkutsk State University (ISU), led by Director Maxim Timofeyev. In the composition, a “shimmering flute” represents data about temperature at four different depths in Baikal in Summer 2016 (Physiological and Biochemical Markers of Stress Response of Endemic Amphipods from Lake Baikal: Current State and Perspectives).

Separately, Russian scientists gathered evidence showing that the average summer surface water temperature at Lake Baikal has increased by 2 degrees Celsius since 1977, among the sharpest rises in the world. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists in Timofeyev’s department are researching what those changes will mean for amphipods. “Reflective strings,” “deep round synth bass,” and “grand piano” represent crustaceans that live at different depths in the Lake. 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 (Preference Ranges Correlate with Stable Signals of Universal Stress Markers in Lake Baikal Endemic and Holarctic Amphipods). In this composition, higher notes represent increased stress response among these exceptionally beautiful creatures, which are critical to the Lake’s future.  

You can see what some of Lake Baikal’s spectacular amphipods (also known as “gammarids”) look like here, in a video created by Russian diver Kiril Ivanov.

We also continue to gather local sounds. The unique voices of the people, whether Russian or Buryat or Evenk. Their own compositions, from folk songs to classical music to church bells to throat singing to popular music. But most of all, the sounds of the Lake itself...the ice that speaks so emphatically...the many voices of the Lake and the more than 300 rivers that feed it...the multitude of bird calls...the harsh and implacable winds...the murmuring sighs of moody spirits from high and low.

Baikal is a mystery that is endlessly intriguing and incomprehensible. We continue to capture its pixels, but when we wave our cameras at the Sacred Sea, sound waves back.

Cyberian Dispatch 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

There are more than 330 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, filling the cavernous Lake with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. But there is only one mighty river that flows out: the Angara.

In Irkutsk, the largest city on the Angara, the River is half a block from our apartment, so we have almost daily encounters with its intensely different moods, striking range of colors, and its habit of hiding from local residents.

There is a longtime legend in Siberia that Angara was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Old Man Baikal, and he was filled with love and admiration for her. But one day, while Baikal was sleeping, Angara slipped away to try and meet the young Yenisei. Grandfather Baikal was furious, and ripping a cliff from a nearby mountain, flung it at Angara, who was pinned at her throat. Angara begged her father to give her water, since she was parched, but her father refused, saying she was condemned to nothing but her own tears. And since that time, it is her tears that flow from Baikal to the Yenisei River, far to the north and west. Today, the cliff that Grandfather Baikal threw at Angara, called Shaman Rock, is visible at the Angara’s outlet from the Lake.

But the Angara itself is not always visible. Especially in winter, the warmer water flowing from Lake Baikal meets a shockingly cold Siberian air mass, and the result is tuman (туман), the Russian word for fog. In Irkutsk, it might start with a little steam rising off the river. A few hours later, the fishermen in the middle of the River are visible one minute and lost the next. Soon, the three main bridges fade away. The sun is faint, then fainter, then slips completely from view. And finally, there is nothing, only a wall of light gray that obscures everything but the wonderland of icy frosting deliciously decorating the trees along the banks. It is a fog to end all fogs, an ethereal display that lends the entire city an unearthly glamour.

It is also rich with human activity and sound. Near the statue of Tsar Alexander III at the foot of Karl Marx Street, Russian radio is broadcast from loudspeakers, often featuring English language pop songs or Christmas music. On Ostrov Konnyy (literally, Coney Island), near a towering ferris wheel, children gleefully exclaim as they sled from ice sculptures, ice skate, or play hockey. On the frozen shores, fisherman cut holes in the ice with enormous drill bits and wait for hours in the numbing cold to extract a meal. Listen carefully and you will hear lapping waves against the ice, the murmur of ducks foraging, and the sound of a muskrat surfacing and then diving. And most prominent of all, the reverberating announcements of departures from the main railway station, which echo across the invisible water, coupled with the rattling of invisible trains en route to remote destinations.

The alluring tuman is a signature feature of Irkutsk and the Angara, but unfortunately, beneath this exquisite veil some disturbing secrets are hiding. Each major city along the Angara, including Irkutsk, is a site where significant amounts of pollution enter the river, including industrial wastes that seriously threaten the river’s health. Also, the Angara has been dammed four times since the 1950s. The dams chop the river into pieces, blocking any navigation and impeding the transit of fish and other native species. And the creation of numerous reservoirs has radically altered the ecology of the waterway, harming endemic species and increasing the amounts of algae that deprive the River of oxygen.

One of the most important historical voices against dam-building and the diversion of rivers is the late Russian author Valentin Rasputin, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast. Rasputin’s views on this subject were heavily influenced by the fact that his own childhood village along the Angara was destroyed to create a massive hydroelectric plant. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is focused on a fictional village that suffers a similar fate, and a later non-fiction work, Siberia, Siberia also dwells on this theme. Although some consider his work “anti-modern,” and his conservative politics were controversial, his influence on environmentalism in this region -- including the fight to save Lake Baikal -- looms large. (Those who are interested in a film treatment of his work can search for the 2008 Russian film, Live and Remember, in which the Angara plays a starring role.)

Dam-building continues to be an issue that is central to the future of the entire region. Among the threats to Lake Baikal’s health are proposals to build several dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries that flow from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. The plans threaten to disrupt the ecology of the Selenga River delta, the largest source of Baikal’s water and a major habitat for Baikal’s endemic species. They will also affect the water level, water quality, and ecosystem throughout the Lake. In 2017, activists achieved a small victory when the World Bank froze its support for the planned projects, but efforts by Mongolia to become energy independent, together with lavish Chinese financing, mean the fight is by no means over.

Here in Irkutsk, we play hide and seek with the Angara and its veil of tuman almost every day. We hide ourselves in its blanket of white, embracing the ghostly nothingness for as long as our arctic mittens and winter boots will permit. We take endless photos of its spare visual delights. But we also seek the truth about the environmental health of the Angara and of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk’s homegrown environmental leader, Valentin Rasputin, was one of the first to understand that there is “damming” evidence of harm. All those concerned about the future of our waterways must join together to respond.

Cyberian Dispatch 8: A Blazing Welcome in a Frozen Baikal Village

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The indigenous, traditionally semi-nomadic Buryat people of Eastern Siberia used to live separately from one another until the Soviet Union forced them into collectives where their language and customs were suppressed. Now, in post-Soviet times, many still live side by side with Russians in villages like Bugul’deyka, a tiny hamlet of traditional wooden homes on the Western shore of Lake Baikal. There, Buryat families endeavor simultaneously to preserve important customs and traditions from the past while entering the modern economy.

Thus we came to stay with the Boldakov family in one of the only Airbnb rentals available near Lake Baikal. Run from Italy by multilingual Ilja, a classical Spanish guitarist, the Boldakov family farm, named “Eastories,” welcomes visitors seeking an off-the-beaten-track encounter with the natural beauty of Lake Baikal, the surrounding hills, and the nearby Bugul’deyka River. A visitor might find the path to the outhouse blocked by cows on this working farm, then return to the house to post on social media. But more importantly, the hosts are focused on doing everything in their power to support responsible tourism that preserves the health of the Lake.

Fingering through the guest book, it was apparent that most visitors come in the summer, with a sprinkling in spring and fall. We came amply prepared for a bitter Siberian winter, wearing as many as six layers on our body, three layers of gloves and mittens, four layers of hats, Arctic boots, and balaclavas to protect our faces. But with temperatures plummeting to -40 Celsius (that’s the same in Fahrenheit!) in the night, and a howling wind relentlessly sweeping through the village and onto the Lake, our preparations were put to the test. We ventured out for at least several hours every day to the Lake, where fog steadily formed over the wind-driven waves and shaped icy sculptures on the banks. We climbed the monochromatic hills and struggled to operate our cameras with brittle, aching fingers until the final day, when we lost our courage and huddled inside, staring through glazed windows at spectacular cloud formations and listening in awe to the wailing blasts of attacking wind.

We survived, but we now know that the best preparations can fall a tiny bit short. Mark had his second experience with “frostnip,” a mild form of frostbite, and Gabriela’s eyes and toes throbbed in the relentless cold. So it was wonderful to return to the Boldakov homestead, where an inviting wooden banya restored full circulation and thawed shivering body parts.

It was also satisfying to sit in front of the traditional Russian “petchka,” or wood-burning stove, where Ilja’s Uncle Volodya, an extremely kind-hearted man with an infectious laugh, shared astonishing tales of the Buryat past and present. In our experience, many Russians began a reminiscence with the phrase, “In Soviet times,” and Volodya was no exception. Like many others, he divided his memories into two categories -- the repressive and cruel actions of Soviet authorities, together with the kinder, gentler economy and humane conditions for workers.

Under the Soviet Union, instruction in the Buryat language was forbidden in schools, and Buryats weren’t educated about their own culture and history. Worse still, their land was appropriated and their lives were threatened if they failed to conform to Soviet ideals. One of Volodya’s grandfathers was taken from his birthplace on Olkhon Island, charged with “pan-Mongolism” and summarily shot. He could have fled in advance, as others did, but he chose to stand his ground and suffer the consequences.

His other grandfather, who lived on the mainland, had his considerable property confiscated and was sent to a prison in the north. The grandfather’s sister, unwilling to tolerate these conditions, fled across the ice of Lake Baikal in the middle of the winter, leaving a one-year old behind because she didn’t dare risk his life in the cold. She escaped to China, then Japan, and she ended up in Australia. But her son who was left behind became a Communist, and when his mother’s letters arrived from abroad, he refused to open them, perhaps because of his beliefs, or perhaps because it could threaten his safety.

Many of these stories came out into the open only recently, because family members were deeply traumatized and didn’t want to talk about them. But recollections of intolerable injustices coexist with positive memories of a time when education was essentially free, there was a very strong forestry and fishing industry, salaries and pensions were high, and living conditions for workers were generous.

Following perestroika, the Buryat language was recognized again, and a revival of Buryat customs is taking place, but Volodya’s generation is considered expendable. Like elsewhere in Russia, the collective farm in Bugul’deyka lies in ruins. There is little investment in the village, jobs are scarce, many houses are crumbling, and electric poles are patched precariously instead of being replaced.

Moreover, Volodya insisted that environmental protections for Lake Baikal and its surroundings were stronger under the Soviet Union than they are now. Officials at the nearby national park aren’t focused on the most important tasks and fail to understand and work with local people, whose respect for the Earth is deeply ingrained in their history.

Despite concern over poor stewardship practices, Volodya has a lot of faith in Baikal’s future. “Baikal is a living, breathing organism,” he asserted. “It is always moving. This is where my ancestors came from, and I’m a little piece of the lake.” While he knows that certain locations are affected by pollution, including chemicals from factories and sewage from increasing tourism, he considers the Lake to be “self-cleaning” and has strong confidence that Bugul’deyka and most of the Lake remains unaffected by these problems.

One of Volodya’s biggest worries is that traditional Buryat customs and beliefs are slipping away, including purification and healing techniques such as pressure points that prevent illness. Following a concussion, modern doctors could find no way to treat his continued dizziness, and it was only a female Shaman who restored his health. And at the age of 16, he participated in a ritual in which his uncle killed a ram without spilling any blood, then lay all the ram’s organs on top of his own. After lying underneath, Volodya “became a human being again,” in his own words.

As the fire continued to roar in the background, Volodya performed some simple Buryat rituals. He burned sacred herbs that are reputed to cleanse and purify, walking to the corners of each room to spread their scent. Then he blessed us and our work in Siberia, sharing a shot glass of vodka with us. We each moved our feet in circles three times in opposite directions, then spilled a small amount of vodka onto the hearth, where it hissed and evaporated instantly. Fire is considered an incredible force, helping or destroying depending on how you treat it, and it must be respected. Here, in remote Siberia, we spent our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day huddling around the fire and respecting its warmth and its power.  

A Buryat legend says that Bugul’deyka was created when a member of a Buryat clan found a place where grass was wildly abundant and a bucket dipped in the river came out full of fish. Now, life in Bugul’deyka is much more difficult and uncertain, and local people struggle to find the right balance between the ancient and the modern, but faith in Baikal’s future still runs strong. This powerful belief is understandable in a people so deeply connected to the land, who embraced sustainable practices long before the term “ecology” was invented. But if we hope that modern stewards of the Lake and its surroundings will learn from Buryats and find ways to purify and heal the Lake, rather than destroying it in a mad rush to profit, we will all have to play a role.


Cyberian Dispatch 3: A Sacred Island Reveals Itself

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Olkhon Island, situated about midway in Lake Baikal’s long crescent, is more than 70 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide. It has about 1500 permanent residents, most of them indigenous Buryat people, and the bulk of these live in the one small town, Khuzir. During the warmer months, a ferry transports cars and people back and forth to the mainland. When the lake is freezing or melting, the island is accessible only by air, but when it’s totally frozen, you can drive there across the meter-thick ice.

There are five Rules of Conduct for visitors. The first, in keeping with the ecological sensitivity of the indigenous Buryat people, reads, “Live in harmony with Mother Nature, protect her, because this is the Great Power, which allows existence of you and your descendants.”  

There is an abundance of Mother Nature to protect. Created by tectonic forces, the Island contains extremely disparate landscapes: taiga, steppe and desert. It has exceptional sand beaches that would be at home in the Caribbean if you replaced its pines with palms. Its dunes are constantly reshaped by emphatic winds, stripping tree roots into naked sculptures. Its perilous cliffs of limestone and marble are crowned with wooden totems adorned with thousands of ritualistic ribbons in the rainbow colors favored by Buryat shamans.

Black ravens, reputed to be spirits, called out to us in voices that could only be understood as human emotions. At the top of a cliff lay a small snake in waiting, somehow conveying the significance of the location. Not far away, at a picnic spot where hungry tourists ate fish soup and cheese sandwiches, a dazzlingly beauteous fox crept out of the woods, intensely locking its eyes on ours, then darted to the side and sunk its teeth into two sausages left by local guides. In the capes and bays surrounding the Island are the fish that provide sustenance for the local people -- and the unique species of sponges and amphipods that make Lake Baikal a precious Galapagos of the East.

Not all of the fauna are wild. “Beware of domesticated animals,” read the signs along many of the main roads, a reference to the many cows and horses that don’t hesitate to wander in front of moving vehicles. And for one day-long hike, we were adopted by a midnight-black dog with a delightful disposition who bounded ahead, leading us on the proper paths.

The roads are all of dirt, rutted, often filled with mud, and otherwise kicking up sensational amounts of dust with each passing vehicle. But the roads north of Khuzir are not roads at all but a series of deep crevices that are traversed exclusively by “Uaziki,” plural for a brand of military vehicle created under Stalin that continues to produce today. Each Uazik, the size of a very large minivan, is tightly packed with tourists -- mainly from China, Western Europe, and less so, Russia -- before shaking them up and down thousands of times and depositing them in the far reaches of the Island for a series of landscapes and selfies. They are then fed a quick lunch on the run and deposited back at their guest houses.

We resisted this type of excursion for several days, but finally relented since the Uaziki are the only means of encountering most of the island. Then, on the day of our tourist trip, a clammy fog permeated the entire island, obscuring almost all sights, and forcing visitors to snap photos of an obfuscated “nothing,” as one Chinese tourist put it.

Of course, the fog was ethereal, abstract and suggestive as well. Standing at the top of one of the northernmost cliffs, tourists cried out boorishly to each other in the emptiness, stripping the moment of its eloquence. But despite these violations of propriety, we could easily imagine the monumental boulders hangings over the cliffs, and we could hear the waves repetitively attacking the shore dozens of meters below. Then, in a mirage-like instant, the fog lifted, permitting a glimpse into the expanse of the Lake, the sublime mountain peaks on its far shores, and the twinkling sunlight on its surface, before filling again with an opaque gray-white.

Away from its most populated sites, the overwhelming allure of Olkhon Island is inescapable. Along the Western coast, we wandered for hours in contemplation before black ravens and a black dog led us to a stone labyrinth that pays homage to the ancestral people of the Island, whose rules for Proper Conduct can be read as a guide for life itself. “Just try to radiate love, joy, and gratitude, or be peaceful,” reads rule number four. “Remember -- in places of great natural forces everything that a person carries becomes stronger.” As we walked the labyrinth, trying to bring our thoughts into this very moment, Lake Baikal’s splendor and gravity was revealed.

Sacred? Undeniably. Endangered? Increasingly. In need of protection? Unquestionably.  

Cyberian Dispatch 2: Russia's Vast Galapagos

By Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

How to comprehend -- and then convey -- the enormity of Siberia and the incalculable volume of the world’s deepest and oldest lake? These are early problems for our project on Lake Baikal.

Russia is the world’s largest nation in terms of area, with more than 17 million square kilometers. But more than 77 percent of Russia is Siberia, still larger than any other nation on earth. In fact, Siberia alone is larger than all of the United States and Europe combined.

Lake Baikal is the deepest, and by volume of water, the largest lake in the world. All of the Great Lakes could be drained into Lake Baikal, and it contains more than 20 percent of all the freshwater in the world. It is also the oldest lake in the world, formed 25-30 million years ago.

Standing on the Western shore on the Great Baikal Trail, we can easily spot the sprays of snow on the peaks of the storybook mountain range on the Eastern side, in the Republic of Buryatia. Our eyes are rewarded by the endless dancing reflections of light on the Lake’s surface. But we cannot see 1,642 meters into its depths, to its murky bottom carved by a geological trauma. And we cannot see to the northern reaches of its crescent shape, beyond the villages that draw most of its tourists.

Around us are thousands of aspens and birch trees, decorated in gold, shivering in the emphatic wind, shedding leaves rapidly. But we cannot count the thousands of species of plants and animals that live in and around Lake Baikal, 60 percent of which are unique, causing it to be labelled “Russia’s Galapagos.”

On the shores, we can easily locate small sponges that have washed up on the pebbles and bleached white. But we cannot see the vast colonies of living sponges beneath the waves or the 350 different species of indigenous amphipods, crustaceans essential to the Lake’s health that find their home under rocks on its bottom.

Indeed, one of our most compelling findings thus far is that our lensed devices fail to do justice to the physical vastness of Siberia or Lake Baikal. Over and over, we remarked on and lamented this failure and worried about what it might mean for our project. But now we are mapping an alternate voyage. Instead of capsizing on the Lake’s biggest waves, we are drifting on its tender swells. We hope these modest crests will aptly communicate, not the enormity of Baikal’s size, but its immeasurable importance.

Willow Paule Photography Interview with Altantika Members

Untitled, from the series “Who Speaks for Me,” by Gabriela Bulisova, Mark Isaac and Taylar Nuevelle, 2017.

Untitled, from the series “Who Speaks for Me,” by Gabriela Bulisova, Mark Isaac and Taylar Nuevelle, 2017.

Willow Paule Photography is featuring an interview with two of Atlantika’s founding members, Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac. Please check out this article and its insights into their collaborative process.

Ukraine Sketchbook: Photo Workshop in Antonivka

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Since we’ve been in Ukraine, we’ve met some incredibly warm and giving people, who have been kind enough to let us into their lives. One of those individuals is Dmytro Say, who is involved in so many projects locally that it’s impossible to know when he sleeps.

One of Dmytro’s most important efforts is on behalf of an orphanage in a small village north of Mykolaiv called Antonivka. Dmytro taught there for several years and now he returns to assist them with a variety of programs. He asked us to come with him to the orphanage and conduct a photo workshop for the kids there, who range in age from about 5 to 16.

Dmytro used an older car for the drive, which he warned is on one of the worst roads in Ukraine. After some truly outsized bumps along the way, we arrived in Antonivka and were warmly welcomed by the staff, who took us on a tour of the facility, which includes a museum of Antonivka’s history, first as a place dominated by a wealthy landowner, then as a very productive collective farm, and now as a place where many have volunteered to fight in the East.

But the most important part of the visit was the kids, of course. We met them first in a classroom, offering some pointers on photo taking strategies that would move them beyond the selfie. Then we all walked out on the steppe, known for its constantly blowing winds, sharing cell phones to take some experimental portraits and landscapes. When we were safely back in the classroom, we downloaded the photos, projected them on a wall, and discussed the results. The kids participated enthusiastically, showing a surprisingly advanced intuitive command of composition.

We don’t know if any of them will go on to become professional photographers, but we do know that Dmytro has forged a wonderful bond with some very loving and talented young people, and we were glad to become a small part of their lives.


Mykolaiv Sketchbook: Roma Remembrance

By Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

We were exceptionally honored and pleased to be welcomed yesterday on a bus by members of the Romani Bacht ensemble to travel more than 200 kilometers northwest of Mykolaiv to a site that is very important to Roma history and remembrance. We joined local Romas and their friends in commemorating a massacre of 5,000 Romas, many of them women and children, that occurred in World War II during German occupation of this territory. A wreath was laid, songs were sung, and poems were recited near the village of Krivoe Ozero (Crooked Lake) where  a monument marks this terrible event. After solemnly remembering this tragedy, local residents also embraced their heritage with a celebration in song and dance -- and a meal -- before the long ride back to Mykolaiv. By the time we returned, late in the evening, we felt we had made a lasting link to new friends -- and we certainly honor and respect their outstanding contributions to local culture and their history. We are sharing a small number of photos that document the proceedings, but we also made connections that will further our project on ethnic identity and the reasons why so many peoples of different backgrounds have been able to live together peacefully in Southern Ukraine.

Mykolaiv Sketchbook: Druzhba Festival

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Following a whirlwind of activity in Kyiv, we took the night train to our new home in Southern Ukraine: Mykolaiv. Mykolaiv was named by its founder, Prince Grigory Potemkin, in honor of St. Nicholas, on whose day he won a significant military victory. The city is at the confluence of two major rivers, the Southern Bug and the Ingul. After they join, they flow to an estuary where they meet the Dnieper and then the Black Sea. For years, Mykolaiv was one of the most significant shipbuilding cities in the entire region, and because of its contributions to the military might of the Tsars and the Soviet Union, it was a closed, secret city. People from other parts of the Soviet Union were not permitted to visit the city, and if people from Mykolaiv wanted to visit relatives from other places, they needed to leave the city and meet them somewhere else. In the post-Soviet era, the three major shipbuilding centers in Mykolaiv are all closed, and the city is now open to all, though few tourists venture here.

Here in Mykolaiv, we are working closely with our affiliate institution, Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, including the Dean of the Philology Department, Professor Oleksandr Pronkevych, a noted Cervantes scholar, and other faculty and students to create two projects. First, we are focusing on the reasons why people of so many ethnic backgrounds have been able to live together peacefully in Mykolayiv for many generations. Second, we are creating a documentary on the relationship of the people of Mykolaiv and the surrounding region to the water that is such an important part of their lives.

On the first full weekend we spent in Mykolayiv, a new friend alerted us to the planned Druzhba, or Friendship, Festival. We packed our cameras and started walking to the location to check it out. As we turned onto the main pedestrian street, formerly Sovietskaya and now Soborna Street, we were surprised to see a colorful parade of diverse nationalities marching together. We followed them to the Cultural Palace, where a program of dancing, singing, and ethnic food unfolded. Although the city is dominated by people of Ukrainian and Russian heritage, there are dozens of different ethnic groups living here, and many of them participated in the Festival. In our first sketchbook from Ukraine, here are some very colorful and proud moments from this demonstration of cultural friendship.

RED AND BLUE DAYS (Experiments on the Banks of the Danube)

Greetings from Central Europe, where we’ve begun a year-long adventure  that will have multiple components, including a photo/video Fulbright project, learning about and reporting on contemporary life in Central and Eastern Europe, reconnecting with family, and exploring family origins.

Our first stop is Chl’aba, Slovakia, the hometown of Gabriela’s mother, and the site of a joint project we’ve pursued for almost a decade. Called “Returns,” it’s a very intimate account of village life along the Danube, with chapters that dwell on different generations and try to come to terms with the tragic and unexpected loss of Gabriela’s father and other family members in recent years. We’ve collected a voluminous amount of photographic and video documentation of Chl’aba over ten years, so much that it’s hard to fit on a burgeoning array of hard drives. One key goal is to turn this material into a book, and we hope to make progress on that this month. It’s also likely that Returns will never come to a complete close as we continue to visit, document, and improvise.

In terms of the latter, Chl’aba has become ground zero for experiments on our documentary approach and our aesthetics. On the one hand, when we get here, we’re usually ripe for relaxation on the pebble beaches that line the Danube River. On the other, we quickly get itchy about image-making. While sitting on the banks of the river the last several years, we’ve explored a plethora of new approaches to image capture, many of them centering around alternative (and sometimes found) lenses and alternative surfaces. That process is continuing this year, with a burst of new images that we hope are pushing the boundaries in terms of what one expects to see in a photograph or a video. We’re living in a world that gives birth to more than a trillion photographs per year, so when planning to gestate new ones, it’s a good idea to make sure they have something new or special to say.

We’re sharing a few of the latest experiments today, in keeping with the spirit of Atlantika, which embraces transparency on process, and also in the hope of getting some feedback. We’ll share more as the summer continues, and it will be interesting to see if they influence our approach to the Fulbright in Ukraine (which will begin in mid-September) and our work more generally. We invite you to react, reply and become a part of an “Open Circle” of collaborators who are informing our work in the coming year and beyond.


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New Video: Songs in the Key of Free

Previously, we've shared some still images from a project called “Songs in the Key of Free.” Now we're sharing the main product of our work -- a video that showcases the extraordinary songwriting and performing talents of incarcerated men in a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania.

The program, which is the brainchild of August Tarrier and Miles Butler, ended a period of about two decades in which music programs were unavailable at State Correctional Institute – Graterford, which is about 45 minutes northwest of Philadelphia. After repeated visits to document these exceptional individuals, many of whom are serving long sentences or even life without parole, we became very attached to their passion, their humanity, and their commitment to do everything possible to make the most of their situation. In fact, our work on Songs engendered some of the strongest emotions of any of our experiences working on incarceration issues. That’s because the many men who we met inside were so warm and giving — and so grateful for the opportunity to express themselves through music.

Fortunately, their talents were highlighted at a concert inside the prison, which is available to view on Facebook Live, and subsequently in an outside concert in Philadelphia at the Painted Bride. In the future, the men’s original songs will be available in an album. Moreover, the Songs in the Key of Free will begin serving women in a downtown Philadelphia prison in Fall 2017.

Please check out our video — as well as the still images available here — and let us know your reactions. (Please note that prison regulations in Pennsylvania forbid us from showing the faces of those who are incarcerated.) And also please consider supporting Songs in the Key of Free in their work, which relies mostly on the help of volunteers to date. There is no question that this program is embracing and preserving the humanity of those involved — something that is sorely lacking in most prison environments in the United States.

The Faces of Music on the Inside

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

“We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome, some day….” This song always tears on the heartstrings, no matter who is singing it. But when it’s sung by musicians inside a maximum security prison, desperate for a taste of freedom and a link to the outside world, it becomes plaintive beyond words.

We’ve both spent many years working on issues related to mass incarceration. But recently, we worked for only the second time inside a prison. We were invited to join a program called Songs in the Key of Free, which is conducting a series of workshops at State Correctional Institute-Graterford, about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia. Philadelphia-based musicians, some from the Curtis Institute, are working with musicians at Graterford on improvisational songwriting and musical performances inside the prison. Later, the songs will also be performed in a public concert in Philadelphia, and our job will be to represent the men on the inside through a multimedia presentation.

One of the imperatives in working on incarceration is to represent the humanity of those who are incarcerated, since the criminal justice system does so much to deny them their dignity and individuality. But this is made more difficult by prison regulations that forbid showing the men’s faces. Our task becomes that much harder, and we have to use a variety of unusual techniques to capture their warmth, humanity, and encompassing love of music.

Songs in the Key of Free is focused in part on the healing power of telling stories in song. As visual storytellers, we are honored to be a part of the team that is helping participants use the power of their stories to transform and heal their lives. We’ve witnessed firsthand the enormous potential of those who have made mistakes to make a fresh start and bring talent, skill, and passion to helping others.

Here is a first glimpse at some still images from our work with Songs in the Key of Free, which will also rely heavily on video. We’ll have more work to share soon, since we travel to Graterford again in early March. We welcome your feedback.

The Watershed Project: Testing the Installation

Mark Isaac

Part of what makes Atlantika different as a collective is transparency. As our inaugural blog post made clear, “We’ll offer a more public view of our creative process than is typical, to provide some insights into our methods for shepherding work from idea to completion.”

That’s not always so easy to do. It offers a peek behind the curtain to moments of uncertainty, chaotic experimentation, and even outright failure. It risks having the veneer of a poised, highly skilled, confident artist stripped away and replaced with something a lot more fallible and human.

So in the interests of taking this goal seriously, here’s a rare glimpse behind the scenes to the very first test of the collaborative installation I’m creating with Gabriela Bulisova. In this video -- that somehow managed to become partially corrupted, adding to its charm -- you’ll see us testing our first concept of the installation using, what else? A baby pool, a mirror purchased at Target, and droppers left over from Trader Joe’s liquid stevia drops! If that doesn’t lead to great art, I don’t know what will!

If you come out to the opening at Boyden Gallery of St. Mary’s College of MD on October 21st, you can gauge whether we managed something a little more polished and sophisticated…and better yet, see how the early test informed the final vision.

Importantly, the final work calls attention to the way in which the entire Chesapeake Bay Watershed, comprised of 150 major rivers and streams, is interconnected. And as an interactive installation, it offers you a way to personally participate and demonstrate that anything that happens to part of the watershed has ripple effects throughout the entire ecosystem.

We’re hoping it’s a lot of fun to play with the water. But we’re also hoping the installation will convey that the Watershed, which supports innumerable life forms, including 17 million humans, is severely threatened and now relies on us for essential interventions that will restore and preserve its vibrancy for the future.


Life Support, an interactive installation by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac, includes an IV bag, drip pan, beakers, droppers, projectors, water from the Chesapeake Watershed, and sound. It is on view at Boyden Gallery from October 18 to November 22.


It's a Robot, Baby

Joe Lucchesi

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been thinking about love in the time of robots lately. A recent viral video of a smiling electronic baby happily squirming in its UCSD Machine Perception crib really sent me over the edge, plunging into the uncanny valley. Looking at something close - its nubby teeth and charmingly squinty expressions, but not close enough - its rubbery skin jaggedly meeting its acrylic blue skull, produced a visceral sense of existential angst that took me by surprise.

Could this almost-baby potentially be my technological successor, my reaction already intuiting my own technological insufficiency? Maybe. Could it also be that the video is yet another irresistible metaphor of machinery mediating any and all intimate relationships? But this is a social media fact that projected our love lives into the digital realm back in the internet equivalent of the stone age.

Or perhaps my response was a jarring realization that our robot overlords have arrived, and unlike what pop culture has led us to believe, it wasn’t in the form of an inexorable army of powerful replicants, or deceptively charming and attractive lackeys lulling us into a false sense of pampered security, or even the friendly neighborhood drone delivering my mail. It arrived in the form of a gurgling, happy baby making cute for my benefit. Some aspect of all these notions fed my momentary vertigo on the edge of the technological ravine, but mostly I think I reacted from a sense of self-betrayal - the robot baby caught me off guard because this already exists. It might be too late, and I hadn’t even noticed.

Programmed using newly-available big data drawn from studies of infant responses by developmental psychologists, one of my more sobering thoughts in staring down that video was that our physiological human reactions had been recorded, translated, crunched, freely exchanged and turned into a simulated replica of ourselves, programmed into a silicone equivalent whose goal is then to teach us about developing human interactivity and emotion. The breathtakingly efficient inversion of that exchange is what worries me now, as though we’ve already ceded the territory of invisible human connection to its quantified doppelganger. This feels like one more step to making technological conquest both plausible and palatable.

Human relationships mediated by technology are nothing new, only taking new forms appropriate to the age. The camera, the telegraph, and the telephone all opened up new possibilities for connectivity across time and space even as they subtly initiated an easily-ignored gap in which we’re dealing with disembodied versions of each other, negotiated across this divide. And that’s only in recent history. As that video suggests, some folks think of the uncanny valley as only a warning of an unsolved problem. But others see this sense of uneasiness when confronted with our almost-selves differently, as a prompt to think about the human within that gap. 

So maybe I should thank the robot baby for its charming and off-putting chubby grins, its inability to perfectly simulate human behavior and - in turn apparently - teach us about our own development.

Our human relationship to the natural world can’t be far behind in all this unsettled estrangement, and of course is already here. Server farms succeed the agri-business conglomerate that itself replaced the family farm in the vast plains of American productivity, producing a new crop we increasingly rely on for sustenance.

The question then becomes: can we live on data alone across the rolling hills of the fertile uncanny valley? We can’t, but robot babies do.

The Geography of Genius

Hotbeds of genius and innovation depend on these key ingredients

"People were living out of each other’s intellectual pockets. They were sharing ideas. There was enough trust to share your ideas, but enough tension to create some sparks."

"Genius is not really about individuals. It’s really about a collective. It’s about a community of practice."