Currents Submission Project


Currents 2018
New Media Installation Submission

Project Leader: Joel Ong
Project Title: Aeolian Traces
Project Date: 2016


Air does not show itself. As such, it escapes appearing as a being. It allows itself to be forgotten . . . except in cases where human activity has fabricated the air to begin with.

-Luce Irigaray



Aeolian Traces has been presented at the Seattle Art Museum, and the Gladstone Hotel gallery as part of Nuit Blanche 2017 in Toronto. For the submission to the Currents New Media Festival, the artist proposes a slight change in configuration of the space to include a projection table to showcase the information visualization of the piece. The project table will be appoximately 5 feet in diameter. This will be positioned a slight distance away from the Ambisonic setup and can be separated by optional partitions that can be built by the artist on site. The Ambisonic setup is optimally installed at a diameter of 13 feet, but can be adapted to suit the requirements of the space.

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Aeolian Traces involves the imagination of global human migration as particles freely floating in space. Its gestalt experience fuses wind, sound and image proposes a symbolic connection between the movements of peoples around the globe and the flow of aeolian, natural currents in order to envision, perhaps even to propose a world where transnational movement is seen as a naturalized rather than politicized activity.

Through its setup of ambisonic sound, whispers and narratives break up and join back together in a polyglottic amalgam, hinting at shifting demographics created through globalization. In the visualization, its inspiration is that of connective thread that proposes the migrant as a universal, interwoven identity. The project’s emphasis on collected, real data through UN’s migrant stock figures allows us to enter these abstractions, knowing that we were contributors to the data in our seasonal travels, and allowing our memories and stories become part of our intersubjective experience of the piece.

Aeolian Traces began initially in response to ongoing political discourse around topics of human migration and mobility, the treatment of undocumented migrants and an emerging form of nationalism and border-centrism despite the rising numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers that enter our shores. Especially since 2015, around the time of this project’s first conception, the start of the European Migration Crisis led to rising xenophobia in the United State and has made migration and human movement an inevitable topic of discussion.



Visuals only (no sound)




 Aeolian Traces develops a visual and sonic experience that contributes to an emotive experience of human migration in the installation space.   The project works directly with data from the UN Migration Stock 2015[1] that presents estimates of international migrant by age, sex and origin for all countries and areas of the world. According to the documentation available with the database, the estimates are based on official population census statistics from each country on the foreign-born or the foreign population present in the country for the year in question.

To classify the ‘international migrant’, the dataset referred to the“foreign-born population”. Where country of birth was not available, the dataset defaulted to the individual’s country of citizenship. Also, the dataset accounted for the number of refugees by referencing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). The project also made use of figures from the Visa Restriction Index (VRI) of 2015[2] compiled by Henly and Partners. This dataset was instrumental in determining the extent of mobility an average citizen would have entering another country of her destination.



The fans were part of an 8-channel system that was triggered by the incoming data. They were triggered primarily with directional data corresponding to instances of sonified breezes. Since each of the breezes was a direct mapping of an instance of human movement across the globe, they have a GPS vector for both origin and destination countries. By assuming latitude to be the x-axis, and longitude to be y-axis, the movement was calculated by first drawing a circle with 8 nodes equally spaced along the curve in Rhino[3]. These 8 nodes were given vectors in an array : [[1.0,0.5],[0.854,0.854],[0.5,1.0],[0.146,0.854],[0.0,0.5],[0.146,0.146],[0.5,0.0],[0.854,0.146]].

By calculating the radial distance of each of these points from the GPS coordinates (scaled) of the origin country, a cascade of values between 4000 (max speed of fan) and 800 (minimum speed of fan) could be determined where the closest fan would run at a speed of 4000.




The sounds in Aeolian Traces emphasized the layering of multiple textures. Audio narratives were taken from online sources in multiple languages corresponding to the project’s database of origin and destination countries. Initial composition methods were focused on the synthesis of a believable ‘wind’ that could be moved around in space simply. Subsequently, diegetic transformations of whispers to voices and breath to wind became the main focus of the composition process. To create whispers, an FFT filter was used to accentuate certain frequency bands of the incoming audio tracks, A pre-recorded whisper track was also added. At the base of the soundscape is a texture that resembles a Helmholtz resonator, imagining what the wind might sound like blowing through resonant tubes.

In setting up the Ambisonic system, the audio shifting was done by mapping the geographical coordinates of each selected country to the First Order Ambisonic polar array. In this way, the movements of people from one country to the next could directly create a gust of wind in the corresponding direction. Each installation has featured a different audio setup based on what was practically feasible at the gallery space and will be described in greater detail in the following subchapter.

Sound and image were choreographed together to promote haptic/sonic feedback for the visual elements. In testing the project’s setup in a controlled environment, a delay was added to the sound to compensate for the time it took the physical wind to arrive at the idea listening position. This was calculated by mapping the polar coordinates of selected countries to the physical distance between the fans and the center of the listening sphere. The visuals also featured fading that corresponded to the sounds fading away, aiming at an experience of quiet and fragile traces of sound and movement.



Joel Ong is Assistant Professor in Information Design and Creative Data Visualization at the Department of Computational Arts at York University. His research and pedagogy explore critical perspectives of digital culture at the intersection of art and science through practice led studio work in physical computing, environmental sensing and data aesthetics. His work also emphasizes community and collaboration through accessible workshops, community art programs and citizen science.  

Ong attained his PhD in Digital Art and Experimental Media from the University of Washington, and is an alumni of SymbioticA, the Center of Excellence in Biological Arts at the University of Western Australia, and the National University of Singapore where he majored in Life Sciences and Sonic Arts. He is a visiting artist and instructor at the UCLA Art Science Center. Ong has an international record of artistic activity and conference presentations. View a non-exhaustive portfolio of his work at






[1] “United Nations International Migrant Stock 2015” Online at Accesssed 14 Nov 2016

[2]“Visa Restriction Index 2015. Henley and Partners. Online at Accessed 10 Nov 2016

[3] Rhinoceros 3D. Online software website:

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