‘A fascinating space to explore’
As an artist, I’m always looking for unusual locations. I have not gone out to sea on such a prolonged journey before. Though, I have extended interest in the ocean. From 2008 to 2010, I had worked on Shorelines, an artistic exchange project between Ireland and Newfoundland. A group of Irish artists, that I was part of, and a group of Newfoundland artists explored notions of the shoreline at both ends of the Atlantic, and its commonalities. The two continents were connected for a long time before drifting apart and forming the Atlantic Ridge, and thus there are very similar geological structures to be found on each place. So it’s always been a fascinating space for me to explore. When Louise sent me her initial proposal to do with wireless communication, I found that very intriguing because we’d come across it in Shorelines; we had explored the first transatlantic cable that was laid [between Valentia Island and Newfoundland] and later on some of the early radio broadcasts which were also between Ireland and Newfoundland. That’s the reason why I immediately said yes, I want to do it.
As an artist working primarily with sound, I was interested in exploring the sonic world around the RV Celtic Explorer; particularly the sound of the vessel structure itself, treating it as a technological extension of the human body that enables us to safely reach and explore remote areas of our natural environment. I intended to make a series of field recordings which would form departure points for an immersive composition for radio, including recordings made on deck and in the various interior spaces, underwater recordings, and recordings of the vibrations of the ship itself, using special self-designed vibration sensors. Also, I found the geoseismic survey close to what I’m doing as an artist, working with sound waves of different kinds.
‘A daunting prospect’
When I set out on this residency I had no idea what it would be like. Being in a confined space on the vast Atlantic Ocean for nearly three weeks without the possibility of getting out, even if I had to, was a daunting prospect. Obviously, I was as well-prepared as I could be doing the various safety certificates. I was pleased and a bit relieved that the scientific team around Prof. Sergei Lebedev were very welcoming of my presence as artist-in-residence on the ship, making me an unofficial member of their team from the start. This was very helpful, especially during the first few days when I was trying to get used to ship life and started to earn my sea legs in what was moderately rough weather.
Parallels in knowledge production: scientific research and art practice
I took part in the work of the scientific team, assisting with assembling and testing the Ocean-Bottom-Seismometer units, which were to be deployed at eighteen locations across the Celtic Sea. It was fascinating from my perspective as a sound artist to learn about how these devices work and to get an introduction in seismology at the same time. Having a keen interest in acoustics and anything related to making and recording sounds, I found that the way seismologists look at waves is actually quite similar to the way I look at them; the main difference being that seismic waves are well below the spectrum of human hearing. Seismologists collect wave recordings of seismic events to interpret the movements of the earth’s structure, while I gather wave recordings in order to create compositions. When we found these parallels in knowledge production between the scientific research and my art practice, some of our conversations during the remainder of the survey centred around developing ways of making seismic events not only audible but also musical.
So through the work with the scientific team, an opportunity opened up to do a collaboration with them, that is to take the seismic data that they’re collecting over the next 15 or so months and sonify it, basically to make it into a sound installation or radio piece. Sergei Lebedev especially was very interested in that because he loves music. He had heard some attempts of people trying to make seismic waves audible but he thought the results weren’t very musical. I think they were very happy that I was there, to give my own viewpoint on what they were doing. I don’t have to prove a scientific theory by making an artwork but what I might bring to the table would be to make people look at science in a different way through a piece of art.
Life on the open ocean
The vessel is a 24-hour operation and the crew works in shifts. But we were on a more regular schedule than that, as there’d be breakfast at 7.30 in the morning and then you’d start working. Everything was kind of defined by the mealtimes, at least in the first week or so. Once we got out to the locations, to deploy the ocean-bottom seismometers, it got a little bit more mixed up because as soon as we reached a location, even though that could be 3 o’clock at night, the scientific team and the crew would have to get up and deploy the unit before going back to bed.
What I found surprising was the vastness of the ocean and that apart from a lot of seabirds, some migrating birds, a few dolphins and a couple of whales, you don’t know what’s underneath you. I think I had a much more romantic notion going out there. I thought it would be like experiencing wildlife like you would in a busy forest where the presence is life is always apparent. It’s actually quite lonely in a way: you’re out there on your own and there’s nothing else apart from water and weather.
I’m staying in contact with Sergei and we’re working on methods to converge seismic data to audible audio files and to generate material. So gathering materials is the next step now over the next few months. I’ve also started going through the recordings I made; I don’t know how many but it’s several hours of field recordings of the different parts of the ship. The nice thing about this project is that there’s a lot of time now between the first survey and the actual presentation of the work at Galway 2020. I like to be able to let the material sit for a while and then come back to it in a month or two and listen to it again with fresh ears. With Louise’s curation, things will come together as well in finding outlets for what the presentation is going to be.
Prior to the residency I was unable to fully grasp the complete loss of my balance and ‘groundedness’ that occurs when heading through a storm. When the swell of waves moves in one direction and the wind into another, the crew call it ‘confused sea’, causing erratic pitch and roll, which eventually dislodges your daily rhythms and routines. Being constantly on edge like this heightened my perception of the sounds on the ship: agitated rumbles, the cries of the aching ship body resembling whale song; wind howling and whistling through the poles and cranes; thunderous clangs of rogue waves hitting us sideways, exciting the steel vessel like a giant resonant bell; the sound of objects rattling and sliding around; moments of zero gravity before being swung forcefully into an unexpected direction. The sameness and repetitive nature of events is interrupted by the unpredictable element of surprise. This strongly resonates with some of my ideas about structuring my own sound work. Experiencing it physically with my whole body provided an unforgettable, multi-sensory perspective that is informing the works I am creating as a result of this residency.