Listening to the Ocean in the Desert

Research —

‘Listening to the Ocean in the Desert’, Balance-Unbalance 2015 International Conference: Water, Climate and Place, Re-imagining Environments, March 2015

Abstract: My paper examines how we relate to distant locations through listening. In particular, it explores the insights that can be gained by re-contextualizing sounds from the ocean within a desert environment. Building on Acoustic Ecology and environmental art practice and theory (Kahn, Dunn, Lippard, Harrison and Harrison, CLUI), I propose that expanded forms of awareness can emerge through technological media and critical listening techniques. My artistic practice and theoretical proposals on techno-intuition and sonic consciousness further claim that increasing auditory awareness of one’s environment promotes a sense of belonging, environmental stewardship, and engagement.

Recent developments in oceanographic technology enable unprecedented access to sounds, video, and other data from the deep ocean. I am developing artistic and theoretical approaches to interpreting and communicating this information, based on current research by oceanographers at the University of Washington. My artwork Listening to the Distance (2015) is a two-part project consisting of an audio-visual installation – Eagle – and sound walk – Whale – that explore how we can experience and share distant environments, through animal visions, remote presence, and underwater sound. In Eagle, I re-contextualize ocean hydrophone recordings collected from an autonomous vehicle, called a “sea glider”, as it tracks through the ocean recording its environment. In Whale different voices of marine mammals speak from the ocean into your ear, acting as a remote guide through the desert environment. Juxtaposing these oceanic voices, both technological and animal, with the desert asks us to imagine connections to environments that are remote but nevertheless essentially connected via global climate systems and ancient imaginings.

My work makes explicit the dependence on technological instruments to access these distant environments and it critically examines the layers of mediation and interpretation involved in both artistic and scientific investigations. By bringing underwater sound to individual listeners in the desert, these disparate environments are connected in a direct, embodied artistic experience that parallels their interdependence as part of global climate systems. By provoking an underlying empathy through a sense of remote presence, I argue that Listening to the Distance personalizes the extreme diversity, systemic interconnection, and planetary scale of oceans and deserts.