Eco-Acoustics and the Digital
Tuesday 30 March, 16:00 – 17:30
This session groups together various understandings of digital acoustic archives.
Discussant: Dr Olga Petri, University of Cambridge
Alex Smalley, University of Exeter:
Substantial research across a range of disciplines suggests that contact with the natural world can be important for multiple mental health outcomes. Among these, nature’s potential to aid recovery from stress and cognitive fatigue has received significant attention. However, many people face restricted access to outdoor natural environments and significant barriers to drawing on this potential. Evidence suggests that digital experiences of nature can confer similar wellbeing benefits to the ‘real’ thing, and this virtual contact could offer an important therapeutic tool for those confined indoors because of hospitalisation, long term illness or enforced COVID-19 isolation. Yet there is a paucity of work focusing on the components of a ‘virtual nature’ encounter that might contribute to, for example, the recovery of depleted cognitive resources or positive emotional states. Specifically, little quantitative work has examined the importance of sound, memories, and music in these interactions. This presentation will provide an overview of ongoing PhD research probing these factors. It will describe three interdisciplinary studies from the arts, media, and science that explore heterogeneity in the restorative potential of:
- Recorded natural soundscapes (bbc.co.uk/forest, n = 7,596)
- Fleeting changes within a digital landscape (bit.ly/ephemeral-phenomena, n = 2,867)
- Nature-based programmes featuring music (bbc.co.uk/soundscapes, n = 6,700)
The challenges and opportunities posed by transdisciplinary alliances will also be discussed, alongside the benefits of stimulating both public engagement in, and discourse surrounding, the links between natural environments and human health.
Alex is a second year PhD student researching the links between natural environments and health at the University of Exeter. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, he is applying approaches from environmental psychology to explore the therapeutic potential of digital nature experiences. Alex has a background in the physical sciences and has spent the last 15 years translating and communicating science through roles in the public sector, media, and academia.
Hannah Hunter, Queen’s University:
What (and to whom) am I listening to when I listen to an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker on my laptop? The Macaulay Library is a collaborative digital archive of natural sounds, including the sounds of over 10,000 species of birds recorded since 1929. Though many of its entries are now recorded on handheld recorders or phones, it also holds thousands of analog historical recordings that have been digitised for use in science, art, and education. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker series, recorded in Louisiana in 1935, is particularly notable as these are the only reputable sound recordings of US Ivory-Bills- owing to the bird’s now ‘probably extinct’ status. As well as affording opportunities for humans’ virtual encounters with these birds, these recordings have been utilised in attempts to relocate this ‘lost’ species by transmitting their sounds from speakers hung in trees in the hope that surviving Ivory-Bills will respond (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2006). In contrast to much other literature regarding digital animals (Davies, 2000; Chambers, 2007; Turnbull, Searle & Adams, 2020), this case offers new temporal and sensory considerations, and also asks what happens, and what it means, when digital animals encounter their own beastly cousins (or great-great grandparents). These recordings- brought to life in new places and to new ears with every press of the play button- are not mere representations of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers (Adams, 2020). They are wild-lives in and of themselves, with immense power to influence human understandings of and relations with Ivory-Bills, and to impact the behaviour of birds today. Through extended archival research and my own bird sound recording practice, I ask what these digital sonic animals mean for both human and avian experiences of extinction.
Hannah Hunter (she/ her) is a field recordist and PhD Candidate in Geography at Queen’s University, Canada. Her research, supervised by Dr Laura Jean Cameron, explores human-animal relationships through sound. In particular, she is interested in the more-than-human histories of bird sound recording, and how these recordings can be re-imagined and re-purposed towards abundant multispecies futures.
Jonathan Prior, Cardiff University:
Out of the more than 6.5 million sound recordings archived at the British Library, some 220,000 constitute the Library’s Wildlife & Environmental Sounds collection (WES), though it is estimated that there are many hundreds of thousands of wildlife and environmental recordings still to be processed, and new recordings are being deposited within the Library all the time. In the summer of 2017 the British Library, in partnership with ten other institutions from across the UK, embarked on a 5-year project entitled ‘The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project’, with the aim of digitally preserving ‘almost half a million rare and unique recordings that are threatened by physical degradation or stored on formats that can no longer be played’, many of which are held in the WES collection. In this presentation, I aim to interrogate the ‘unlocking’ of the WES collection as it rapidly moves toward a digitised future. Here, I will focus on the democratising potential of digitising thousands of sound recordings of animals and landscapes to a variety of publics, as well as the knotty ethical issues this digitisation process raises for human/nonhuman relations. Along the way, I will reflect on how curatorship of the collection has shifted with digitisation, particularly in regard to the facilitation of access to recordings; the auditioning of recordings as they become untethered from the physical space of the Library; and the uneasy relationship between recordings and the species and spaces they claim to represent.
Dr Jonathan Prior is a lecturer in Human Geography at Cardiff University. His research and publications take an interdisciplinary approach, spanning environmental philosophy, sound studies, and landscape research. His first book, Between Nature and Culture: The Aesthetics of Modified Environments, co-authored with Emily Brady and Isis Brook, was published in 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield.
Max Ritts, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Karen Bakker, University of British Columbia:
For many scientists around the world today, digitally recorded sounds can not only enhance the detection of environmental disasters, they can also identify novel mechanisms for environmental improvement and even ecological restoration. In this talk, we report on how two proponents of this idea, eco-acoustics and bioacoustics, are driving significant developments in environmental conservation theory and practice. If bioacoustics is behavior-centric and focuses on the acoustic signals of individuals and distinctive species, ecoacoustics is concerned with broader ecological processes and scales; it is predicated on the idea that entire landscapes have distinct acoustic “signatures.” These projects propose a set of onto-epistemic “breaches” with regard to questions of how nature is measured and maintained. At the same time, we contend that the socio-technical and economic mechanisms underpinning eco- and bioacoustics are coming to enact digital recorded sound as inexpensive source of energy/work, one that can be effectively tapped for purposes of profit-fueled algorithmic governance. Empirical materials, supportive of these claims, include scientific publications, grey literatures, and 17 in-depth interviews with scientists, technologists, and conservation authorities in Europe and North America. Theoretical materials are drawn from political ecology, media and communication, and sound studies. While primarily concerned with its new modalities of capture, containment and control, we close by considering digital sound’s potential to contribute to “modes of stewardship based on diverse, reflexive awareness of the always-entangled nature of humans and their environments” (Lorimer 2015: 2); a conservation rooted in cosmopolitics, witnessing, and what Isabelle Stengers (2018) calls “slow science.”
Max Ritts is a geographer currently based in Sweden. His research combines political ecology, sound studies, and Critical Indigenous studies perspectives to investigate environmental governance politics in diverse forms. His book project, A Resonant Ecology, is under contract with Duke University Press.
Professor Karen Bakker works at the intersection of environmental and economic geography. My primary research interests span political economy, political ecology, environmental studies, STS, and digital geographies. She is currently focusing on a new research project on the implications of digital technologies for environmental governance. She is also the Co-Director of UBC’s Program on Water Governance, where she us leading an international comparative study of the water-energy nexus. She is also working on a SSHRC-funded partnership grant on Sustainable Water Governance and Indigenous Law.
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