Puget Soundkeeper Communications Manager Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone caught up with Eirik Johnson—Soundkeeper member and Programs Chair at the Photographic Center Northwest—before he opened Leviathan Rising, his new installation at the Georgetown Steam Plant.

Johnson’s work takes viewers along and underneath the Duwamish River, using underwater hydrophone recordings, massive photographic projections, and delicate daguerreotype photograms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone: What’s the context for this installation? How does it relate to your larger body of work as a photographer and artist, and to Puget Sound?

Eirik Johnson: This installation has three chapters. The first is comprised of photos I made over the course of five years kayaking on the Duwamish River. These images are predominantly from underneath and alongside the barges that port in the river. I’m interested in the sculptural spaces of those ships, as well as their surfaces—how they’re covered in materials that show signs of their journey.

NLG: It’s such a unique experience to get a water-level view of those enormous vessels. What about the sonic element of this work?

(Below: Western Venture, Eirik Johnson)

Abstract image of a barge along the Duwamish River. From Leviathan Rising by Eirik Johnson.

EJ: As people know, the Duwamish is a busy, frenetic, loud place. I decided to put a hydrophone beneath the surface of the river, and I immediately learned that there’s a whole world of strange, mysterious noise beneath the surface. I started to make audio recordings, and then layered them to make a sound score.

NLG: And the third chapter?

EJ: I worked with artist Daniel Carrillo to create daguerreotypes, which is the oldest form of photography. The process creates this jewel-like, mirror-like small object. Specifically, we worked on making photograms of glass floats used by Japanese fisherfolk in the early 20th century.

These antique objects often wash up on Pacific Northwest shores, and we’ve been working with collectors to make the images.

A photogram is created by laying any translucent material on photographic material and capturing the outlines. As a result, you can’t identify the glass floats in the photograms. You wouldn’t know what you’re looking at except for the description, because they look more like planetary or celestial bubbles. They bring an oceanic connection to the installation.

NLG: How is this installation specific to the Georgetown Steam Plant?

EJ: The Steam Plant was built on the shores of the Duwamish River but lost that connection when the river was straightened. The installation metaphorically reunites the plant with the river, and it also reflects on the hubristic effort to control a river that we now need to clean and restore.

I connected with Mark Johnson of Signal Architecture, whose firm is working with the Steam Plant Community Development Authority. They’re thinking of the space as a historical site and as a community space for events and performances. I proposed a site-specific installation that would incorporate large-scale photo projections of my barge photos, which are quite abstract. The sound piece will be amplified within the turbine hall. As you move through the space you also move through the underwater sounds. It sounds kind of science-fictional, like laser beams or heartbeats.

I developed the idea of visual projection to create something that could be in conversation with the massive scale of the plant. The daguerreotypes are the exact opposite. They’ll be under narrow spotlights, creating a focused beam in a dark space. They’re like jewels in the belly of the beast. It’s two completely different ways of using photography.

NLG: Thinking back to your experiences paddling on the river, do you see those physical experiences showing up in this abstract installation?

EJ: The more I paddle on the river, the more I become interested in finding the unknown and the more I notice surprising compositions. In late fall, when the sun is at an oblique angle, it kind of goes beneath the river and illuminates what look like hidden “rooms” or spaces. But then, I’ll realize I’m looking at a sheen of leaking petroleum and the beige color of the river. I’m aware of these tender and cruel aspects to the work, and I think abstraction is a way to hook people. There’s a sense of wonder and magic once someone realizes what they’re looking at.

NLG: What did you learn about the river once you started using the hydrophone?

(Right: Sound test at the Georgetown Steam Plant)

EJ: Sound travels so far underwater! I would drop the hydrophone and hear, for example, a metallic clinking sound, and then realize it was coming from someone welding several yards away. I would have to paddle much closer to hear the sound above the surface of the river. It was a learning space for me to start understanding sound beneath the surface of a working river. I occasionally fish on the river and I see the Tribes fishing, and I’m very aware that it’s a living system.

NLG: What do you hope people will take away from experiencing this installation?

EJ: I certainly hope they’ll go explore the river. A lot of people pass over it, or alongside it, and don’t know it’s there. I also hope it inspires people to slow down and pay closer attention to what’s around them. A lot of my practice is about slowing down, being present, and letting things come to me. It’s not only about looking, but using all of your senses.

Leviathan Rising opens on Friday, May 13th at 6pm. Directions to the Steam Plant can be found here.

Leviathan Rising event poster. Text on the poster reads: Eirik Johnson, Georgetown Steam Plant. 6605 13th Ave S, Seattle WA 98108. The dates of the event are listed: 5.13 from 6-9pm; 5.14 from 10am-1pm; 5.15 through 5.19 from 4-8pm; and 5.20 through 5.21 from 12-4pm. End description.