Speculative Digital Ecologies
Friday 29th July, 2022, 15:50 – 17:30
In this session, participants discuss their work at the interface of art and science, deploying speculative techniques to examine the digitisation of more-than-human worlds.
Discussant: Jonathon Turnbull
‘Following the Flight of the Monarchs’, is an interdisciplinary acoustic ecology project bringing together artists and scientists, connecting with ecosystems and communities along the migration routes of monarch butterflies as they travel the 3,000 mile journey between Mexico and Canada each year. Streamboxes are being installed along the monarch butterfly migration routes between Canada and Mexico. These livestream the soundscapes of these different ecosystems 24/7 via the Locus Sonus Soundmap (http://locusonus.org/soundmap/051/). The first of the boxes was successfully installed in the Cerro Pelón UNESCO monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico in 2018, and a subsequent one installed at Point Pelee National Park in Canada in 2019. The streams are being used for ecosystem monitoring as well as integrating into artworks which are raising awareness of the issues the monarchs face, whose numbers have declined by nearly 90% over the past two decades. ‘Following the Flight of the Monarchs’ has produced creative works that enable people to connect with places and ecosystems across the monarchs’ migration route, through immersive audiovisual technology and telematic audiovisual links, for a visceral experience. Installations include performances by Rob Mackay and collaborators in monarch habitats, interacting with nonhuman agents and hyperobjects and revealing deeper and more entangled webs of interconnectedness. This approach has been extended through live telematic performances, inviting human (musicians, poets, video artists) and nonhuman (actors within the biophony across the monarchs’ migration routes) agencies to interact in a process described by Bennett as ‘thing-power’ – an inevitable process of entanglement with environment, as that which is seemingly outside of us comes in, to act upon and be acted upon by us, and then goes out again in ongoing “waves of encounters”. Multi-species feminist theorist Haraway refers to our times as the Chthulucene rather than the Anthropocene, describing our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked. Drawing on this conceptual approach, the proposed action seeks to move away from dominant patriarchal and anthropocentric thinking over past millennia towards a more intertwined, non-anthropocentric perception of our relationship with environment. Artefacts produced so far include a touring installation (presented at the Eden Project, and various international conferences and festivals; a networked telematic performance; and a radio programme for BBC Radio 3 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000qyhz). The project website is available here: https://followingtheflightofthemonarchs.com/
Rob Mackay is an award-winning composer, sound artist and performer. His recent projects have moved towards a cross-disciplinary approach, including geology, soundscape ecology, theatre, audiovisual installation work, and human-computer interaction. He has been working along the migration routes of monarch butterflies, collaborating with partners in Mexico, the USA and Canada.
Mitchell Whitelaw, Australian National University
Skye Wassens, Charles Sturt University
Adrian Mackenzie, Australian National University
The Sound of Water (https://flow-mer.org.au/napnap) is a microsite documenting an environmental intervention at Nap Nap Swamp, a wetland in the western reaches of Australia’s Murrumbidgee River. A collaboration between a designer (Whitelaw) and an ecologist (Wassens), the project was supported by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office, one of the bodies responsible for managing environmental water flows in Australia’s Murray-Darling basin. We use audiovisual data storytelling to engage audiences with this environment. Automated audio recorders capture hourly five-minute recordings as part of ongoing scientific monitoring. We developed a novel form of interactive false-colour spectrogram to cross-modally sense the activity of wetland life. Focusing on a nine-day period in mid-2020, we combine audio and hydrological data to show the ecosystem’s response to a managed environmental flow. We narrate this change through Nap Nap’s charismatic and sonically distinctive frog species, including the threatened Southern Bell Frog. The public response to this work has demonstrated an appetite for (digital) stories of a flourishing environment, emphasising the affective qualities of the audio, in line with recent work on environmental audio and wellbeing (Smalley et al 2022). Another key concern was designing the balance between linear narrative and open-ended interaction. Our narrative seeks to engage a non-expert audience, but this story is necessarily selective and framed by what Todd and Hynes term “recognition” of a familiar animal (2017). We hope that the intimacy and inclusivity of audio also support more ecological forms of attention to the wetland. As the media generated by environmental sensing exceeds human perceptual scales, we suggest that narrative, multimodal display and interaction can be used together to scaffold rich encounters with living environments.
Mitchell Whitelaw’s research takes up data and code to seek out moments of insight and delight that intensify our engagement with a complex world. His current research investigates environmental and biodiversity visualisation, and digital design for a more-than-human world.
Skye Wassens researches the ecology and conservation of wetland dependant amphibians. She has lead a number of research projects on the relationship between flooding and amphibian dispersal, tadpole ecology, the relationship between native and introduced freshwater fish and amphibian recruitment during wetland flooding, temporal activity patterns of wetland dependant frogs and large scale drivers of amphibian habitat occupancy in regulated rivers and floodplain wetlands.
Adrian Mackenzie researches how contemporary cultures affect and are affected by technologies in a broad sense. His current research projects focus on platforms and platform sociology in the context of science and media, on biosensors and biosensing practices in the context of health and illness, and on data science-related transformations in knowledge in the sciences, education and government.
Richard A Carter, University of Roehampton
This paper outlines a speculative artistic research project, Orbital Reveries, which is exploring alternative representational paradigms for satellite sensing. Earth Observing satellites have been critiqued as stratifying, ocularcentric drivers of datafied, ‘transparent’ terrestrial representations—which in-turn are crucial enablers of planetary-scale resource management in the service of extractivist economics and territorial enclosure (Litfin 1997, Cosgrove 2001, Gabrys 2016). Orbital Reveries is thus seeking to resituate satellite sensing within wider, more-than-human performances of sensing and sense-making, in which other modes of knowledge-making and representation, including speculation, friction, and affect, play a critical role in mapping contemporary ecological crises. This endeavour follows Gabrys (2016) call for ‘environmental computational practices [that] open into experimentation, expanded experiences, and speculative adventures’. Concretely, Orbital Reveries uses Landsat satellite data as the basis for generating visual-poetic ‘textscapes’, using adapted computer vision algorithms to map the features detected in the captured imagery onto the lexical terrains of varied source texts of environmental writing. This paper discusses the technical and critical processes that establish these unconventional, frictional entanglements between image and text, data and its critique, which forms a nascent ‘satellite poetics’. The latter is forwarded as an instance of how digital sensory routines can be speculatively redeployed to articulate reflexively their operational assumptions, while connecting also with diverse sensory modes that can better attend to the tensions, aporia, and affective impacts of living through the epochal transformations registered by digital systems. Such endeavours, it is contended, can afford a richer account of contemporary more-than-human relations and their potentials.
Richard A Carter is an academic and digital artist who is interested in examining the more-than-human within digital activities, objects, and environments.
Lisa Schonberg, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York
This paper synthesizes theory, methodology, and audio work from the interdisciplinary research project ATTA (Amplifying the Tropical Ants) based in Manaus, Brazil. ATTA researches ant acoustic communication in tropical forests and produces knowledge in music composition, acoustic ecology, bioacoustics, and entomology. I have been working on ATTA since 2017 with entomologists Fabricio Baccaro (UFAM – Federal University of Amazonas) and Erica Valle (INPA – National Institute of Amazonian Research). We are “amplifying” the ants to bring attention to these thousands of species that play a critical role maintaining tropical ecosystem integrity. ATTA focuses on cryptic sounds that humans can hear only with the aid of technology. These include ultrasonic sounds above the frequency limit of human hearing, substrate-borne vibrations, and exceptionally quiet sounds. ATTA also features sounds of invertebrates that interact with ants, such as beetles, termites, cicadas, crickets, as well as anthrophonic and geophonic elements. Thus, this work explores not only the significance of tropical ants but the species and systems they interact with. This project interrogates our conceptions of invertebrate agency through documentary and speculative representations of acoustic interaction. I present invertebrate sounds as the focal center, and de-center human sensory perspectives in favor of an abstracted point of hearing that considers how invertebrates might hear each other. ATTA has produced audio recordings, compositions for live performance, videos, and spatialized ambisonic works. We are curious about how listening to these ‘hidden’ sounds through music and sound art can influence opinions concerning invertebrates and insect communication.
Lisa Schonberg is a composer, percussionist, and environmental sound artist with a background in entomology and ecology. She documents soundscapes, insects, and habitat through music composition, spatialized sound work, and multimedia collaboration. Since 2017 Lisa has worked with ATTA (Amplifying the Tropical Ants), a project in collaboration with Brazilian entomologists investigating ant bioacoustics in the Amazon.
Alizée Armet, independent artist and researcher
This presentation proposes the presentation of a research-creation project, subsidized by the device ”Cultures Connectées” of the region Nouvelle Aquitaine. Pyrocumulus presents an interactive device integrating collaborative augmented reality and sculptures made with photogrammetry. Pyrocumulus was born from the reflection of an ecological disaster that occurred on July 30, 2020 in the forest of Pignada in Anglet, France. Inspired by the “communications” of trees, this project questions the inspirations that we borrow from the living. The “bio-mimicry” or the art of being inspired by the living in Pyrocumulus, questions the creation of an information network after a fire. How do they transmit information? In collaboration with ESTIA, an engineering school in Bidart, Pyrocumulus is also a laboratory where arts and science are mixed to experiment scientific and artistic knowledge and techniques. By creating reconstructions of burned trees through 3D printing and by creating a collaborative augmented reality application, the project called upon tree specialists to understand the development of trees. It is by using the figure of the ”pyrocumulus”, cloud of fire, that we wish to question what is the ”cloud”, the exchange of data, but also a worrying technological context that we name the ”Pyrocene”: the age of fire or technology. Creating from collaborative augmented reality is a direction that allows to put forward the relational stakes of the human and the non-human.
Alizée Armet works on the visual repercussions of intelligent machines in artistic practice using a combination of technological art, computational art, and hacking art.
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