The Second Fire

The Second Fire is an immersive 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 an indigenous Buryat legend about the origins of Lake Baikal. According to this story, 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 project includes experimental photographs, multi-channel video, essays, original music, installation and performance. It plunges us into what noted Siberian author Valentin Rasputin called the “eternity and perfection” of the Sacred Sea, capturing its vastness and majesty, the intimate moments of its resilient people and quirky sites, and the urgency of the dangers that threaten them. In many cases, it uses a semi-abstract approach to universalize the subject matter and make clear that Baikal’s problems affect not only 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 -- and combat pollution and climate change.

Dawn Day Dusk

Dawn Day Dusk is a three channel video that focuses on the most pressing threats to Lake Baikal’s ecological health. Today, the Lake’s coastal areas face immediate threats from sewage, detergents and other pollutants. And the climate crisis has already thinned Baikal’s winter ice cover and diminished its duration, with negative impacts for many Lake organisms, from tiny diatoms to the world’s only true freshwater seal, the nerpa.   

The video’s different screens symbolize three different periods in Baikal’s life. The left screen represents the origin of the precious and powerful Lake according to a Buryat myth (see above). 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.

The video features original electronic music composed from scientific data about the impact of climate change on Lake Baikal. It also includes other important contributions from Russian and international scientists and artists. For more info, please see the acknowledgements below.

Embers and Effluents

Embers and Effluents is a second three-channel video focused on emerging threats that have the capacity to create a “feedback effect,” rapidly accelerating warming and environmental damage. Scientists know that these threats are approaching a tipping point more quickly than current climate modeling anticipates.

Vast territories of previously frozen permafrost are melting, discharging enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane. Rampant summer wildfires are causing dramatic loss of forested area. Widespread legal and illegal logging is also contributing to rapid deforestation. And as temperatures increase, the flow of the Lake’s tributaries is dwindling, reducing water quality and releasing additional methane.

The impacts of these pressing threats are already visible in a natural landscape that signals distress. Buildings buckle as permafrost vanishes. People choke on smoke from uncontrolled fires in the taiga, and they die when their homes are inundated by flash floods linked to deforestation. Buryat shamans correctly insist that the Sacred Sea is powerful and resilient. But true hope will only emerge if the world is able to embrace transformational change, avoiding the feedback effect and the worst impacts of climate change and pollution.

The video features original electronic music composed from scientific data about the impact of climate change on Lake Baikal. This and other aspects of the video were realized collaboratively. Please see the credits in the acknowledgements section below.

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 up 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.

Music from Data: Voices of the Amphipods

Lensed devices are inadequate to the task of portraying Lake Baikal’s magical complexity, majestic beauty, and monstrous size. Instead, Baikal speaks most emphatically and completely in the sounds of its waves, wind, ice, birds, and animals -- and the medium that best captures its complexity is music.

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 to 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).

We used data from this study, along with related data on temperature changes at the Lake, to create a series of original compositions. 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.

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 composed several new works that are inspired by the sights and sounds of Siberia. You can listen to her composition Fog here and her piece titled A Walk Through Sleeping Land here.

Exhibit in Irkutsk: The Ripple Effect