Interview | Peter Shenai

Hurricane Bells

We talk to artist Peter Shenai about his current project, Hurricane Bells, in which he will be casting 6 bronze bells based on the structure of Hurricane Katrina. The bells will be used as musical instruments as well as an interactive exhibit for the public. Peter is currently raising funds for his project via Kickstarter.

What is “Hurricane Bells”?

For this project, I am going to cast 6 bells, whose shapes will be modelled on the structure of Hurricane Katrina — the storm that devastated New Orleans in 2005. Hung in a line and struck in order these cyclonic, irregularly shaped bells will produce a series of rising tones, indicating the changing intensity of the hurricane across its 5-day lifespan.

A graphic showing the destructive path of Hurricane Katrina. The bells tones’ will reflect the changing intensity of the storm across a 50 hour lifespan

Once cast, what will you do with these bells?

Though 2018 and 2019, I’ll take the bells to the public, running a series of workshops in London secondary schools, and hosting performances of new music. I’ll also tour the project to exhibitions and festivals, giving the public a chance to play the bells and improvise their own music. The project is being documented by Overtone productions, and in September/October 2018, Radio 4 will broadcast a 30 minute documentary, focusing on my creative process, the reactions to the project, and the resulting music and performances.

Images taken from Peter’s previous project, Change Ringing, where bells were cast in the shape of climate graphs. 

Why bring together bells and Hurricane Katrina?

Bells occupy this very unique position in culture, history, and society: when they are played, they have this strange power to broadcast information and emotion all at once. For instance, they toll slowly to bear grief at funerals, memorialising people and events; or they’re rung enthusiastically in celebration at festivals and weddings, indicating that people are married; or they are “alarm bells”, telling us to panic about something!

My hope is that the bells I cast will do more than just indicate how the storm developed: they’ll produce a “tone-row” of sounds, which will bring with them an emotional force: a sense of grief and memorial for those who lost their lives to the storm; a sense of anger over the “man-made disaster – a failure of government to look out for its citizen” (Obama); and perhaps a sense of urgency, a need to do something different – an alarm bell for the effects of climate change.

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 7.47.41 PM
This is a model Peter is currently working on. It represents Hurricane Katrina at its peak, shortly before it made landfall at New Orleans

What music will be played on the bells?

New Orleans is a city that has music in its veins. For this project I’ll be collaborating with internationally-acclaimed composer Byron Wallen, who has this amazing capacity to blend jazz sounds with the musical language of other cultures, especially the gong-based music of Gamelan. For this project, he’ll compose music that blends the folk traditions of New Orleans with the resonant sounds of the hurricane bells.

As part of the radio documentary, the bells will travel to New Orleans, and I’ll hear how people who survived the storm would like to have them used and played. Right now, I’m also starting conversations with composers, curators, meditation specialists – anyone who may have an interesting angle on how to use these bells in a meaningful way.

In your previous project, Change Ringing, you cast a set of bells based on climate change graphs. What made you first decide to explore climate change through art?

It all happened by accident. I was thinking about bells one day, mulling over the word “bell”, and I remembered suddenly something: the “bell curve” – the nickname associated with normally distributed data, which tends to produce a bell-shaped graphs. I realised that it could be possible to take bell-curves and turn these into real bells.

This led me to think about bells, what they connote – epochal time, a sense of alarm, a sense of the past dying out, a sense of death – and what subject matter might suit them. I realised that climate change and the environment was the answer. So I chose to represent anthropogenic climate change in bell-form.

bells in row1
Change Ringing: a previous project, involving bells cast in the shape of climate graphs

Why do you think that this is an important thing to do?

As messages about the climate become more ubiquitous, it feels to me like they have this tendency to lose much of their original emotional impact. I genuinely believe the answer is to rethink our modes of communication and to embrace new ways of telling that actually stir us, affect us, stick with us, surprise us – as much as they inform us. As I collaborate more with scientists, theorists, researchers, my confidence in this idea grows. They share the belief that one way to inspire a generation to think and act differently is to develop approaches to public communication that are more interdisciplinary, experimental, and poetically savvy.

Our 21st century lives are busy, focused on the present and often leave very little time to think meaningfully about the distant past or the future. And yet many bells, whether they are rung in cities, bell towers, temples, churches, or political buildings have often been ringing for hundreds of years, like an ongoing performance of music spanning multiple generations of players and listeners. This multi-generational sense of time is what we have to consider if we are going to begin to come to terms with climate change and environmental issues.

Change Ringing: bell no. 6, which represents temperatures for the period 1997 – 2013

What will the process behind designing and casting the bells be?

I am working with a climate physicist, Carlo Corsaro, at Imperial, who specializes in modelling hurricanes using the latest in climate science and technology. He has produced a series of 3D models, which represent the structure of Hurricane Katrina at different stages of development. I will select six of these 3D models and produce 3D prints, and cast each in bell bronze, resulting in the set of Hurricane Bells.

Peter will select 6 key moments from Hurricane Katrina to use as his final designs

What would funding mean for the project?

Funding is key! These bells can’t be cast or played without it. I’m reaching out to anyone who is interested in supporting the project and asking for their help. I’m close to my target, so every little helps, and is greatly appreciated.

Peter is fundraising for the last £3500 of his budget, and has until 16th March to do so! You can support him and the project by heading to his Kickstarter page.


Peter Shenai is an artist based in London. His work seeks to develop new ways of communicating data through physical artworks, enabling audiences to perceive information through tangible, interactive and multisensory experiences. Peter received his BA in Fine Art from Oxford University, and his MA from the Royal College of Art, London.

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